Caverns of the Snow Witch

“Why is a bird-man as tough as a dragon?!”

Caverns of the Snow Witch by Ian Livingstone

So this is apparently a prequel to Forest of Doom. This is news to me because I never got remotely near the end of this book when I read it all those many years ago… and I wasn’t even doing the combat. It is very difficult.

It’s also the first time a Fighting Fantasy book has a female villain. Unfortunately she’s a rubbish villain who doesn’t have a name (Titan: The Fighting Fantasy World gave her the name Shareella after the fact) and doesn’t have Skill and Stamina scores – Though I suppose Zanbar Bone doesn’t have stats either, and he’s cool, right? Oh and the original cover barely features her:

Evil sorceress in crystal ball magically choking Orc servant to show how evil she is

Getting trapped in a crystal ball was all part of her plan. Her plan is stupid.

That is her big evil villain moment and she spends it in a crystal ball. Overall this is a book that should be super awesome but really is a let-down because the villain doesn’t do much and is foiled easily provided you’ve grabbed three items. I like villains, so I was a tad disappointed.

I suppose it’s obligatory to note that the book is an expanded version of a mini-adventure that was published in Warlock magazine. Also deserving of mention is that some of the interior illustrations ended up looking like wood cuts, which feel right for the setting. This book has a lot of style, even if it’s basically an exercise in dying over and over.

It’s no secret that the Snow Witch part is actually only about two-fifths of the book, the book as a whole consisting of finding the mission to kill the Snow Witch, finding and killing her, getting out of the caves, and then being cured of the Death Spell while going on a walking tour of northern Allansia. It’s kind of neat to get a prolonged trip that passes by or mentions so many locations. I suppose this is the first book in the series to conceptualise the world as a coherent whole.

Statistics

Skill: 11
Stamina: 22
Luck: 10

Equipment: Standard gear. Sword, leather armour, backpack, 10 provisions, potion of… um… Fortune.

Onward to Adventure!

I’m a caravan guard. Not the most glamorous of jobs, but it’s the closest thing to honest work for an adventurer. Unfortunately, this caravan has found the trade outpost in the Icefinger Mountains to be wrecked by some horrible monster. Ever the brave (foolhardy), enterprising (money-grubbing) and noble (callously mercenary) swordswoman, I refuse to hunt down the monster for anything less than 50 gold. After returning to the ruined outpost, I set off into the mountains. The snow is knee-deep, and I’m starting to think that I should have charged more for this monster hunt when I find a crevasse. There’s a bridge of ice over it. Going around would involve a lot more trudging through snow, so I cross the bridge… and promptly slip off and am saved only by landing on a ledge. I clamber out and consider that maybe being lazy is dangerous in these cold and treacherous lands.

I continue to climb up the mountain, only to be attacked by some wolves. Not just any wolves, but white ones with mad red eyes. I’m starting to think this is a bad mountain to be stranded in a snowstorm on. A good thing, then, that it’s not… oh damn. I make an igloo and wait out the storm. Afterwards I trek further up the mountain and find a hut, which I promptly loot of all stew, warhammers, and spears, and then leave. There’s some footprints leading up the trail, so I follow. What I find at the end of them is the owner of the hut, being mauled by a yeti. Like an idiot, I charge on in and somehow don’t get killed.

The trapper is dying, but he tells me that there’s this evil Snow Witch who wants to start a new ice age, and her caverns are totally full of precious stones. Then he dies. So at the foot of this mountain is a sure-fire 50 gold waiting for me. Further up the mountain is a cave network full of evil minions of evil and maybe some gems. I don’t know what an “ice age” is, but it sounds like it might be cold and right now I’m sick of the cold and don’t want it following me back to warmer climes. Plus, untold riches!

When it comes down to it, any excuse to run through a network of passages and kill everyone I meet will do.

I clamber up the mountain and find the glacier the Snow Witch has made her home in, and walk into the illusionary wall. Or try to. I just bounce off the ice. A few tries later I find my way in. You know, it’s one thing for the evil sorceress intent on freezing the world to hide the secret entrance like this, but for the local do-gooder to not properly mark the entrance for their own amusement? That’s just not okay.

For some reason that shall forever go unexplained by the ages, just inside is a T-junction. I turn right, and find a cavern with a bowl full of yellow liquid, sitting on a plinth. There’s a ladle nearby. I’m feeling kind of thirsty, so I gulp down a spoonful and am healed by it. I return to the main passage and come across an Elf. “Hi there, I’m here to join the Snow Witch’s minions,” I say, hoping to get past. The Elf looks at me incredulously and explains that no-one willingly does this, and the magical choke-the-disobedient-til-they-become-necromancy-fodder collar is the only reason he hasn’t run off down the mountain. I decide to start again.

“Right, did I say join? Totally not what I meant. I’m here to kill the Snow Witch and then steal all her stuff.”

“Good to hear, have my cloak for a disguise.”

It’s not usual for honesty to be the best policy when invading a tunnel network owned by an evil practitioner of magic. I continue onwards and come across a kitchen, where a Neanderthal is skinning a moose under the instructions of a Gnome. I should stealthily creepy by, but I hate Gnomes. I step in to tell the wicked servant of evil and also head chef to stop abrading the help, but before I can get a word out the Gnome starts shouting at me and then says I can have a stale cake. This is rather insulting (only the finest of cakes and pastries for me!), so I spring to the attack. The Neanderthal, unable to comprehend that I am his saviour against the oppressive forces of Gnomery, attacks me. Ungrateful lunk. I kill him, but the Gnome flees, calling for help. I decide that the prudent course of action is to hang around and search the kitchen which will soon be swarming with guards. It’s a well stocked kitchen. There’s a magic flute, a stick with indecipherable runes – nothing says important like a stick with strange scratchings on it – and a book called The Secrets of Toads. I try to open it and get stabbed by a poisoned needle on the clasp. Not one to be put off by a poisoned book, I open it and find it’s hollowed out and inside is a frog amulet. It looks kind of stylish so I put it on and find it’s an amulet of courage.

I continue onwards and find a cave full of robed worshippers in front of an impressive ice carving of a demon. I suppose this would be a bad place to start a fight, so I use my cloak to sneak through. Once I get past the temple I hear someone calling for help. I suppose I should check and see if that’s legit. It turns out to be a Dwarf trapped in a pit and trying to escape from people throwing boulders at him from somewhere above. I help him out and then he scarpers, but not before giving me a sling and some shot in exchange for a warhammer, and warning me about a rat. I guess if a rat is the best minion the Snow Witch has got then I’m not in too much trouble.

As I walk deeper into the mountain I find a large skull with a passage through its gaping mouth. This is kind of corny, to be honest, so I am standing there staring at it wondering why the hell anyone would do that when a man in robes that can only be wizardly comes out. He’s holding a crystal, which probably means he’s dangerous. He orders me to turn back. I figure, I’m an adventurer… he’s probably an evil wizard… time for some good, old-fashioned wizard-killing. He promptly turns into three. An Illusionist! The most annoying of all wizards! I suppose it could be worse though… He could be a Gnome as well.

I stab at the illusionary Illusionists until I get the right one but he isn’t affected. I then opt for the more direct course of action and smash the crystal. The annoying bastard runs off screaming, and a Genie appears.

“Infinite wishes,” I say.

“What? No, not that sort of Genie,” replies the figure floating in mid-air. “You have won: A one-time invisibility spell! Prize is non-transferable and not refundable for gold piece equivalent.” and with that, he vanishes. Oh well, it’ll do.

I pass through the skull mouth, deciding that the other two passages onward are probably boring. I continue onward until I come to a room with a Frost Giant inside, carrying a wooden chest. Now if I were, say, a barbarian, I’d charge in and attack the giant and win. But I’m an adventurer. It might seem like a semantic point, but the fact is I’m not a bloodthirsty combat specialist. I’m more an all-rounder with a propensity for violence. But I do have a sling and some shot, so I have a go at taking him down the old-fashioned way. Amazingly this works, and he goes down like a giant who just got killed by an iron ball smashing his temple in. The chest shatters, and there’s three rings inside. I try on the gold one, and find it protects me from the cold. The copper one will summon a warrior to aid me, and the silver one is evil and tries to kill me.

I walk further into the mountain and get the Genie to help me slip past a golem made out of quartz. That there was the first precious stone I have seen in the entire dungeon, and it was going to kill me. Further on I find a zombie quartermaster, and after killing… re-killing… un-undeadening… making it not stand up and walk around any more, I steal some stuff. There’s some garlic. Every adventurer knows that if you see garlic, you take it, because you’re going to need it. It’s a law of the universe. See garlic, meet vampire. I also grab some powdered Minotaur horn and some dragon eggs. I return to the last T-junction and go the other way, coming to a door, beyond which is a sarcophagus – See? – and a white rat. The rat starts to change shape, so I throw that powdered Minotaur horn over it to stop it, somehow knowing that this would work. Now, what could possibly be in that sarcophagus?

Well, it’s actually the Snow Witch. She has fangs.

Woman with fangs and bird hat. Looks angry. Possibly because someone made fun of her hat

Caverns of the Snow Vampire Sorceress Witch wouldn’t have been as catchy

Normally I’d be worried, but the fearsome magical might of the Snow Witch is not really concerning me. Who in the hell would let themselves be turned into a vampire knowing full well that it causes garlic and stakes to appear everywhere they go? I wave the garlic I found earlier at her, pull out the runed stake I got from the kitchen, and make a quip about vampires as I stake her.

This turned out to be an easy adventure. I head over to the chest of gold frozen into the wall and hack it out. Then it turns out the expensive looking statue on top of the coins is actually a trap, and it turns into a full-sized guardian thing and tries to kill me. This is slightly unfair, but I get a shitload of gold for my trouble. Then a couple of people run in. They are a Dwarf and an Elf. Oh, this should be good.

It turns out they’re really pleased I killed the Snow Witch, and want to help me escape – there’s a horde of Goblins outside wanting to kill me. Fortunately they know about a secret passage masked by an illusion. The Elf finds it by walking into walls repeatedly.

“I thought your people could detect fake walls, and other such feats of underground lore?” I ask the Dwarf.

“Oh, aye, but it’s funnier watching him walk into the walls.”

Eventually the Elf finds the illusionary wall and we leave, and they introduce themselves as Redswift and Stubb. After the inevitable T-junction we all come across two sets of footprints painted on the ground. I have a sneaking suspicion this is a dirty trap, and so tell everyone to walk between them. Further on we find a casket set into the wall. It’s probably also trapped, so I let someone else open it, and then score the magic boots of quiet walking inside. And so they naturally run away and leave me to fight the caveman who attacks us. But the joke is on them. They were caught by the BRAIN SLAYER. Which is a humanoid figure with an octopus for a head.

This is certainly not a mind flayer

Actually, I think this is a whole lot more disturbing than the D&D squidheads

“Say,” I ask it, “do you happen to have any cousins who… ah…”

“No, I am absolutely not related to anyone who might be sometimes called a ‘mind flayer’ and object strongly to such vile accusations.”

“Right, sorry,” I say. “So you can’t actually psionic blast me?”

“What is a psionic?”

“You have no idea how glad I am to hear that,” I reply, and proceed to whack the brain slayer with my sword until it dies. I then steal all its stuff. After the others have recovered we set off through some more tunnels, and eventually find a door with some parchment on it. I can’t read it, so I ask the Elf. Redswift reads it, then shreds the parchment, refusing to tell me what it said. Further on we come to a cavern which contains a crystal orb on a plinth of ice. The Snow Witch is inside it. Or at least, her head is. She cackles a bit, then decides she will think up some kind of stupid game to play against me. After I fight some zombies.

Zombies are a bit dull and stupid, so it’s not too much trouble. She then demands that we play a game involving me hiding one of the tiny metal discs I’ve found and her guessing the shape. Somehow I get lucky and she is blasted from existence, which just goes to show that making up silly deals is always a bad idea when you’re a powerful sorceress. A cave-in occurs, but I manage to escape from the Crystal Caverns, sidekicks in tow. Okay, this is looking good, right?

Since the trade caravan is probably long gone, we all decide to head south towards Stonebridge. We make good time, getting ferried over the River Kok, walking past Firetop Mountain, and getting attacked by a flock of Bird-men. For some reason, Bird-men are as hard to kill as dragons, so I die.

Wrapup

So on my first try, I died to a Goblin – the SHAME – and on my second I died to a mammoth in the second paragraph I reached. Third try the yeti got me. Then everything was going just fine until a Bird-man with a Skill of 12 turned up. This book is ridiculously difficult.

I cheated and gave away the warhammer before it got me stuck into a combat where I have to fight a ridiculous opponent – the Crystal Warrior – and you can only use the more effective Genie option if you don’t have it. After dying three times I figured the book owed me one.

So, how is it a prequel to Forest of Doom? When you reach Stonebridge, Stubb heads off to the forest with someone called Bigleg to recover the warhammer. The main character of that book is obviously not the main character of this one, but together Caverns of the Snow Witch, Forest of Doom, and Temple of Terror make up a loose trilogy.

Suspension of Disbelief Shattered: Why would anyone willingly turn themselves into a vampire? Why? I mean, sure, vampires are powerful in these books, but they also generate a magical vortex that draws in garlic and sharpened stakes.

Ridiculous Battle: The White Dragon, which is Skill 12 Stamina 14 and every round it gets a 1 in 3 chance of hitting your with its icy breath for 2 damage. That’s what the gold ring was for. The copper ring does let you call up a warrior, but considering the best random summon is Skill 9 Stamina 10 (surprisingly for an Ian Livingstone book, the barbarian is not the toughest), it’s not worth the trouble.

Victory: You watch the sun come up from the summit of Firetop Mountain and then set off to Stonebridge, to see how the quest for the warhammer went. We all know how well that turns out, don’t we?

What Was I Thinking? Trying this book with a Skill of 8 the first time. I got killed. A double digit skill score is required to actually win the book.

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