In the previous entry I mentioned having looked through some of the Golden Dragon gamebooks in the shop where I bought Scorpion Swamp. Oliver Johnson's The Lord of Shadow Keep was one of them, and I remember the sequences involving Ghouls making quite an impression. Nevertheless, it was a while before I got a copy of the book. When I did decide to collect the series, the WHSmith in the precinct was selling a package of books 3-6 (possibly a box set, though if so, I have no idea what became of the box), so I bought that.
There's a fair bit of backstory to this one (in the real world, too, as there was a time when it could have wound up a Fighting Fantasy book co-authored by Dave Morris). To cut a long story short, while King Not-Richard has been away on a crusade, his brother Not-John has been left in charge of the realm, and has become a reclusive tyrant, leaving the kingdom in a sorry state. I'm one of the King's Imperial Guard, and after learning that the crusade went badly, I decide to quit the day job and find something more worthwhile to do. I then discover that the King is less dead than rumour has it, but in bad shape. When he returned to his kingdom and found out what had become of it, he stayed incognito to investigate, coming to the conclusion that Arkayn Darkrobe was to blame. Given the name, you can probably guess Darkrobe's profession (hint: he's not a quantity surveyor). Anyway, the King's brother has been Darkrobe's undead puppet for some time, and when the King tried to do something about this, he wound up prematurely aged by a sorcerous blast. So now he'd like me to try and do a better job of killing Darkrobe. To aid me in this quest, I can use the King's sword. And an old woman gives me a ring, though this one doesn't double as a compass or detect evil. Or make me invisible.
How does the would-be saviour of the realm look?
Not catastrophic. It's especially good to see a decent Psi, as I can remember two instances where failing a Psi roll guarantees ignominious death. At least one of them is on the optimal path, too.
I ride off towards Shadow Keep, Darkrobe's home, and soon become aware that someone is pursuing me on horseback. Halting to confront him, I discover that he's disconcertingly skeletal in appearance, and a lot like the figure in the British cover illustration, except for the colour of his cape and the fact that the one in the book isn't showing off by wielding a scythe two-handed as he rides his horse. An instinctive stab with the King's sword causes rider and steed to collapse into a heap of bones, and a quick search of the remains turns up a parchment bearing a rune that can unlock gates and portals.
Further on, I reach a river. There's a shadowy ferryman on the far side, and a bridge a short distance to the right. I choose the bridge, which bears a crudely written and misspelled sign demanding all my money as a toll. Knowing that the outcome will be the same whatever I do, I pay nothing. As I step onto the bridge, Trolls emerge from hiding at either end, the one behind me killing my horse. I kill them in return, and help myself to their money and bowling ball.
Up ahead is a swamp, spanned by a narrow causeway. As I make my way across, I see an old man with a staff heading towards me. Some might be so terrified at this that they run and hide in the swamp (well, the option to do so is provided), but I am made of sterner stuff, and keep going. When I get closer, he says he is blind, and tells me to get out of the way. A polite request would have been better, but I step into the mud anyway, finding the ground to be a lot firmer underfoot than it looks. The man rewards me for my kindness with a bag of fast-growing acorns, a slightly morbid but informative rhyme, and his staff, which he says will turn one of Darkrobe's minions into an ally. He doesn't make clear that it only works on one specific minion, but these days I know better than to follow the path that circumvents the relevant encounter.
Beyond the swamp is an inn with the punful name 'The Knight's Rest'. There is a Knight in there, in rusted armour. Also present are a group of gambling Ruffians, and the Innkeeper is washing up glasses. I speak to the Knight, who reveals that he has a silly name and has been immobilised for a year by his rusted armour. The Innkeeper feeds him and sees to his other needs (don't think about it) because it amuses him to see the noble Stentorian of Snout so humiliated.
The Knight asks me to oil his armour, and I do so, as this is not a situation that should be allowed to continue. He then seizes a halberd, and the Ruffians draw swords. Three against one seems a little unfair, so I join the Knight. Together we prevail, and he buys me a meal and lets me know which is the most dangerous entrance to Shadow Keep. He then sets off back to Snout, and I take the Ruffians' money and a locket I shouldn't need.
At last I reach Shadow Keep itself. The parchment I found earlier saves me having to disturb the gatekeeper, and once inside the courtyard I head straight for the Keep. A Zombie Hawk swoops to the attack, but the blind man's staff transforms it into a gleaming golden bird, and I get a Psi boost that allows me to exceed my starting score. The Hawk flies away, but I sense that I've probably not seen the last of it.
Three doors lead into the Keep, the first one made of iron, the second of gold, and the third of wood. The rhyme spoke favourably of the substance associated with 'the box in which you'll one day lie', and my tastes aren't so extravagant as to run to some fancy sarcophagus once I'm dead. Behind the door I open is a corridor, lined with halberd-bearing suits of armour. Suspicious, I roll the Trolls' bowling ball ahead of me, and it triggers the trap that brings the halberds crashing down. Strike! I hurry past in case the trap automatically resets after a short time.
A chasm lies between me and the Inner Keep. Two staircases lead down, and I can see what's at the bottom of each one and make a semi-informed decision. Left is the graveyard where one of those Psi checks occurs, as well as a fight against an opponent that inflicts Instant Death on a double 1. Right is a terrace providing access to a massive tree that could theoretically be climbed down. I go right but, not trusting Darkrobe's tree, drop one of those fast-growing acorns into the chasm, and descend the oak that springs up. As I do, the older tree shrivels into a woodworm-riddled deathtrap (though, oddly, the threat faced by anyone who climbs down it has nothing to do with rapid rot).
Close by, a drainage tunnel leads into the Inner Keep. I climb up it, and suddenly get kitchen slops in the face. Failing the subsequent Agility roll, I fall back down the chute and take a little damage. I try again, reaching the top just as another bucket is about to be emptied, and while this time I retain my grip, another failed Agility roll leaves me temporarily blinded by a lettuce leaf, allowing the kitchen Orc to get in a free strike with his cleaver. He only manages to get in one more blow after that.
Moving on, I reach a room with two exits. There's a window leading onto a ledge, but it's just started snowing outside. And there's a door, but when I peek through the keyhole, an eye looks back at me(!), and a dog starts barking and howling. I've won every fight I've been in this book, and failed every Agility roll, so I choose to face the dog. Which wags its tail, does not attack, and draws my attention to a seemingly unremarkable wall.
Cautiously I check out the wall. If the dog has scented bones, they may not be inanimate. No, nothing skeletal. Just a secret door to a chamber with a fountain and another exit. I take a closer look at the fountain, and find that there's not just water in it. In many places, people throw coins into fountains. Here, it's footwear. Those boots may confer an Agility bonus, so I shall risk wading in to get them. The water animates and attacks me, but is easily defeated, and I was right about the boots. Agility rises to 9.
Beyond a pair of double doors carved with Minotaurs, I find a passage running to east and west, and section number recognition kicks in, so I go the way I remember to be fun. Just past an abandoned banqueting hall I encounter a rapier-wielding Lizard Man wearing a white ruff and purple pantaloons. Lisping outrageously, he demands to know the password. With all the conviction I can muster, I tell him it's 'Sesquicentennial'. Startled, he mutters that he thought it was 'Thadowth', but is convinced by my bluff.
Further on, I am addressed from an alcove by someone who has mistaken me for the Lizard Man (whose name turns out to be Spitter, poor chap). Doing my betht to imperthonate the thaurian'th idiothyncratic manner of thpeech, I creep up on the man, but at the latht minute he thpotth that I'm not Spitter, and lunges at a lever. I'm not quite quick enough to prevent him from pulling it, and a trapdoor drops me to my death.
A disappointing ending there, but on the whole I enjoyed that. While there are occasions in the book on which the correct item to use is preposterously arbitrary (that locket kills a Weretiger because, um... it does), the right choices are pretty logical on the path I followed (at least as far as I got), and there's a quirkiness to some of the encounters that makes the adventure more than just the generic 'kill the evil wizard' quest it could have been.