My first try at the book didn't last long, as I made the mistake of acting like a sensible person rather than an Ian Livingstone hero, and thus failed to acquire an essential item. A while later I had another go at it, possibly when I was looking for something to say about the adventure for my column in Fighting Fantazine, and while I got a good deal further second time around, I eventually fell victim to a different inventory failure. This will be my third attempt.
In an alternate timeline where my character didn't get an Orc Warlord's axe in the face at the climax of The Demon Spider, I continue to impersonate the poisoned Prince Goldhawk, who's not going to be coming out of his coma any time soon. The lack of change to the Prince's condition may well be in part because court wizard Marris is spending all his time teaching me about the land of which I am the stand-in King and playing Dragon Chess with me rather than researching possible cures. A suspicious-minded reader might even start to wonder if Marris has some nefarious reason for wanting me on the throne rather than the real heir.
That's probably not the case, though, especially given that Marris proves willing to take a bullet for me when evil wizard-turned-mouse (and part-time ghost, for reasons which may make sense to Ian Livingstone, but not to anyone else) Darkmoon tries to get me killed again. Well, not so much a bullet as a bite from a bat-like creature with venom that will prove lethal within a few days unless the only known antidote can be administered in time, but the point remains that he endangers himself in order to save me. It's a bit convenient that the cure for this toxin is known, but unless my irritating friend Orlando the timorous Tin Pig is in on the scheme, that's just Marris' good fortune. Well, good-ish. There are no supplies of the antidote to hand, and the only source is an anthropophagous monstrosity native to the eponymous swamp, so his only chance of survival is if someone is prepared to risk their life in a quest to track down the Giant Slime Beast and extract the required substance from it. Naturally, I decide that since he was prepared to sacrifice himself to save me, I should risk the life he was willing to die to protect in a probably doomed attempt at helping him.
In the morning Orlando and I set off, accompanied (as usual) by my pig-provoking, fight-loving, talking sword Edge. Those of us who have limbs are walking, and I comment that it's a pity horses don't exist in this world. It's also a pity that nobody told Russ Nicholson that when he was drawing a battle scene for the previous book, as one of the knights in that is atop a decidedly equine-looking steed.
While I'm trying to explain horses to Orlando, a man emerges from the long grass, introduces himself as Hyde, and offers to hire out his Galomper to me. A Galomper turns out to be something like a bactrian camel with the head of a warthog. Hyde waits until I've handed over my money before warning me that the Galomper loves to sit on fish, so I must make sure not to ride it across any rivers. If this were the sort of blog to intersperse animations between paragraphs, I'd be using that Nathan Fillion .gif round about here.
We ride along at considerable speed for an hour, and then the track along which we're travelling passes through an orchard. Without warning, the Galomper sits down and refuses to budge, so I trek back to Hyde and make a complaint. He apologises for neglecting to follow the word 'fish' with 'and apples', but says he can't refund my money. He does offer me compensation, though - in the form of a silver arrowhead with the letters 'B.R.' marked on it.
The reason I originally lamented the lack of horses was because we don't have a great deal of time in which to complete this quest. Even if I were able to travel on foot as quickly as by Galomper, returning to Hyde will have taken an hour, and it'll be another hour before I get back to that orchard again, but I must now proceed by turning to the same paragraph as I would have if I'd not hired the Galomper, or decided to cut my losses when the stupid beast stopped moving. So this is a race against time in which wasting two hours or more makes no difference to how things turn out.
After a while Orlando starts complaining about how tired his tin trotters are getting (must be metal fatigue), and then he spots a Magic Gate which he somehow knows can transport us straight to the swamp. How very convenient. You know, if not for the lethality of this adventure, I would be suspecting that this is all a scheme by Marris (in cahoots with Orlando) to convince me that he is actually a good guy.
The Gate is guarded by an Ogre-like creature that demands 5 Gold Pieces to let me past. On my first try at the book, I tried fighting the Guardian instead of paying. It was not a standard fight, and while the cost of failure didn't contribute to my eventual defeat, it makes me wary of attempting the same approach. Paying up will take almost all my money, though, so I hope I won't need to spend much more over the course of the adventure. If it turns out that winning the fight is the only way of getting all the resources necessary for completing the adventure, I will not be happy.
I pay up, the Guardian steps out of the way, and Orlando becomes irritatingly exuberantly enthusiastic about travelling through it. That'll DO, pig!! He does also imply that the Gate transports its users to the location of which they are thinking, so that business with it being able to take us straight to the swamp isn't as implausible as it seemed.
I grab hold of Orlando as he starts to think about the Great Nose Stone, and we pass through the Gate. After a few seconds in what's either a magical vortex or the interior of a washing machine full of Hawaiian shirts, we find ourselves next to something like a Moai statue with a massive nose, which stands at the edge of a swamp.
I don't often get excuses to use my picture of a Moai-headed pianist with his arms fused to the piano.
Orlando complains about the smell of the swamp, Edge insults him, and the text asks if I want to climb the Great Stone Nose, contradicting what Orlando called the statue last section. I climb up in order to get a better view of the swamp, and do not fall foul of the 1 in 6 chance of losing my grip and tumbling to the ground. From the top of the Inconsistently Named Nasal Rock I can see a hill in the north-east and a monster in the north-west. I also spot a bird's nest in the statue's ear, and have a quick rummage around in it because essential tat keeps turning up in arbitrary locations in Ian Livingstone books.
In the nest I find a bronze frog and a gold key. And a venomous snake, which bites me for a point of Skill damage. This book pre-dates Bart the Mother, so that can't be a taxonomically sloppy in-joke, much as I would like it to be.
Back at ground level I resolve to head north-west. My companions bicker, and I am also annoyed by biting insects. Then a humanoid with toad-like characteristics emerges from the mire, and offers to help me through the swamp - for a price. He'll act as my guide in return for my last Gold Piece, or if I can give him one of the Treasures of the Toads, he'll give me some helpful items.
The bronze frog I found in the nest turns out to be a Treasure of the Toads (now that is taxonomically sloppy), and Toady (that, alas, being the batrachian anthropomorph's name) allows me to take three of his four best treasures for it. As I recall, the Buzz Balm and the Zanti Horn are both essential, but I don't know whether I'm more likely to need Flashbang Powder or a Tombstone Bell. I remember a bell being one of the more incomprehensibly important items in one of Ian's earlier books, but I'm going with the powder anyway.
Toady guides us around patches of Suckermud, which is apparently a local phenomenon more dangerous than quicksand (well, that or the swamp dwellers' name for innocuous geographical features which can be made to seem threatening to gullible outsiders to make it seem as if they need a guide), and warns us to tread particularly carefully as we circumvent a large black pool that stinks of sulphur, as it may house a monster.
So this is where Orlando trips over and falls flat on his face. Randomness determines what happens next, and if the pool does have any denizens, they don't react. However, the vibrations caused by Orlando's clumsy stumble do cause a skeletal arm to emerge from the pool, holding aloft
We resume our slog through the swamp until we reach a point at which Toady says we will no longer require his services, so we go our separate ways. Soon afterwards it starts raining, and just to accentuate the misery, my companions start squabbling again. Then a buzzing noise alerts us to the approach of a giant insect, ridden by a man who carries a small umbrella and looks a bit like Richard Attenborough circa Jurassic Park (at least, judging by the illustration, which rather carelessly shows no rain).
The man tells me that he's lost his Zanti Horn, and asks if I can sell him a replacement. Suppressing the urge to ask him what kind of misfit requires such an item, I produce the Horn, and he offers me a couple of Gold Pieces and some advice in return for it. Maybe if I had the faintest idea what a Zanti Horn does, I'd have some idea of whether or not that's a good deal, but I don't, so I just accept.
Once he has the Horn, the man explains that it will enable him to control his Hoverbug, so he can finally get out of the swamp. He mentions having seen a pack of Swamp Riders, and recommends that if I should encounter them, I claim to be on a scouting mission for Baron Ranzig, as the Baron is a friend of their leader. After that, he blows the horn, and the Hoverbug flies off at great speed.
We continue to trudge through the swamp, and the miserable weather reminds me of home, prompting me to bore Orlando and Edge by waffling on at length about Great British institutions such as tea, the lunchtime broadcast of Neighbours, and losing at sport. Or something like that. Then we encounter a dubiously stereotypical Rain Dancer with a snake tattooed on his chest. He reveals himself to be an ally of Darkmoon, and demonstrates his power by causing lightning to strike the ground just in front of me, gloating that the next bolt will be on target.
This is obviously a situation in which one of the bits of clutter I've picked up on my way here will save the day. In view of the Rain Dancer's tattoo, the crystal snake from that box is either going to be the best item for the situation or the absolute worst one, and since the only other object I have the option of using is one I don't possess, that's what I'm going to have to go with.
The Rain Dancer would make a rubbish poker player. The moment he sees the crystal snake, he starts pleading and grovelling. Intuition tells me to touch his tattoo with the snake, and when I do, the rain stops and the clouds disperse. The improved visibility enables me to spot three mounted figures on the horizon. These are probably the Swamp Riders mentioned by the man on the Hoverbug, and the fact that I've been told what to say if I should encounter them suggests that such an encounter may be necessary, so I head in their direction.
The Riders turn out to be serpent-headed humanoids riding creatures like lizards (though they can't actually be lizards, because they're sweating), and armed with spears. One of them asks who I am, so I tell him that I'm one of Baron Ranzig's men on a scouting mission. He demands proof, so I show him that silver arrowhead and hope that the initials inscribed on it do relate to the Baron. The Rider is satisfied, and tells me that it is his people's custom to exchange gifts with allies. He gives me some Bogtree Bark to chew on, claiming that it may save my life. I doubt that I'll need the crystal snake again, so I hand it to him in return.
He then asks me where I am headed, and I tell him that I'm going to Doom, which is not a fourth wall-breaking observation on the slim likelihood of my surviving this adventure, but an incredibly lucky guess (unless there was a passing mention earlier in the book that I failed to notice, and I have absolutely no desire to reread the text I've waded through up until now to check) as to the name of a nearby place I might be expected to visit. The Rider asks what I plan to do there, and after Orlando attempts to join in with fabricating a cover story and proves utterly inept at it, I interject that we're getting some gold for the Baron. I ask if it's far away, and the Rider tells me it's just beyond Black River. That would be helpful if I had the faintest idea where Black River is.
Okay, I had planned to ignore the quibble in the sentence following this one, because it seemed a bit too picky, but it's starting to look symptomatic of a problem with this part of the book. The Swamp Rider leader was initially referred to as 'The Swamp Rider with the two daggers' in spite of the fact that no mention of the daggers had been made in the preceding description. What with that, the out-of-nowhere mention of Doom, and now my being given a direction relative to a place that could be anywhere, it seems as if Ian wrote this sub-section without distinguishing between details that only existed in his head and what he'd actually included in the text. If 'Black River' is supposed to be a clue that can change an arbitrary choice of direction into an informed one, omitting the information that makes it possible to act on that clue is seriously shoddy gamebook design.
Night is falling, so I seek shelter, managing to find a hut on a boulder before it gets too dark to see anything. Orlando, in one of his occasional bouts of usefulness, has a candle with him, enabling us to illuminate the hut. As I'm preparing to bolt the door, Darkmoon's ghost manifests inside the hut and gloats that he won't be a ghost much longer. He then causes all the stones inside the hut to rise up and fly at me, but the shield I took from the wooden box attracts them to itself and shatters them all.
Orlando mocks Darkmoon, who states that he will have all his powers back a week from now, and invites us back to his home for a rematch. The ghost then disappears, and we settle down for the night. Morning arrives, and I must choose which way to head next. There's no mention of a river in either of the directions mentioned (and while the morning mist is a valid reason for not seeing one, it could still be possible to hear running water), so the Swamp Rider's information about Doom's location appears to have been a complete waste of ink.
I head north, which can't have been the way I went on my previous attempt, as my gamebook manager doesn't yet contain details of what happens. Which turns out to be an encounter with a couple of Marsh Zombies. Orlando warns me that a single touch from one could turn me into a Zombie, and advises me to flee. I do, but this time I'm the clodhopping klutz who trips over. The Zombies approach, and I discover that I chose poorly when picking the third of Toady's treasures, as that Tombstone Bell would come in handy here. Lacking it, I have to fight, and as I'm getting back up and outnumbered, the Zombies get first strike.
The first Zombie manages to get its hands on me, and it's game over. This failure does at least leave me a little better informed for future attempts at the book, which is an improvement on the 'hope to roll better next time' that's all I got out of my defeats in the preceding Adventures of Goldhawk.