"Master!" Pickle suddenly blurts out, his voice full of apprehension and distress. "I know this place. It was part of Fetlock Forest. There isn't much left of it now, of course."
Treguard attempts to look on the bright side: "Well at least you can tell us what to expect."
"I wish I could. Now that my people have scattered, there's no telling who or what might be hiding out here," replies Pickle. He crouches behind the advisors once more. "Toby will be safe as long as he sticks to the elf path... but I can't guarantee where it'll lead him."
"Alright, can you sidestep left until you see the clue objects?" says Bronwen.
Toby moves over to the tree stump. "Right, we've got a scroll, a spyglass, a bar of gold, a red key, a cauliflower, and a potion labelled 'WRAITH'."
"Put the cauliflower in your knapsack. And read the scroll."
He laughs sardonically as he opens it up: "It's just a string of ones and zeroes!" Sure enough, the team can read it on their screen: 1-0-0-1-0-1-0. They aren't sure whether to laugh or groan. "Nice and cryptic once again..." murmurs Megan, as they copy it down carefully.
"Shall I look through the spyglass?" asks Toby.
Bronwen stops him. "No, wait! Shall we decide which objects to take, first? In case the, uh... 'Fire Wall' comes after us again."
"Yes, good idea," agrees Megan. "What do we think? I'd say we should take the magic potion, definitely."
"Yep, I don't think it would be there if we weren't supposed to use it," says Louis. The decision is unanimous.
"So, do we want the gold or the key?" says Megan. "Gold could be useful for bribing someone, or if we have to pay for anything. But then we don't know what the key could be for."
"It could either be a door, or a locked chest or something," Bronwen speculates. "OR we might need it to free someone, like a prisoner."
"Or it could be useless," Louis points out.
They all have a quick think about it. "Shall we take the gold?" suggests Bronwen. "The key might be a red herring. We probably want something we can trade."
"Yeaahh..." says Megan, knowing they will just have to take a gamble and hope for the best. "Happy with that, guys? The potion and the gold?" Louis and Toby both indicate their assent. "OK, now pick up the spyglass."
"Wait - let's get him lined up with the exit first, so he can get out quickly," says Louis.
Megan nods. "Good thinking. Toby, can you move round to the side of the tree stump? OK, there's a rectangular portal directly in front of you. So when we tell you to drop the spyglass, just grab the objects and run."
"Gotcha," says Toby. "I'm looking through the spyglass now...."
"So, Skarkill," Lord Fear is saying. "What brings you sniffing around here for employment? I thought you were rather enjoying the easy life."
"I was, Your Fearship, er-- Lordship," replies Skarkill in his gruff cockney accent. "I been getting this incapacity money -- laaavely! -- once a fortnight, what takes care of all me expenses, like. I 'aven't 'ardly 'ad to lift a finger. Only, the Powers That Be 'ave got this new initiative -- gettin' the long-term sick back into work, like -- and now they've stopped me money 'cos they says I'm fit for work." There's a distinct lack of enthusiasm as he adds "Laavely," with what looks more like a grimace than a smile.
"Oh joy," says Lord Fear, dryly. "What an invaluable contribution to the talent pool." (The advisors can't help but giggle.)
"An' I heard you 'ad a vacancy for a goblin master," Skarkill continues. "Which seemed a bit like fate if you knows what I mean. So I thought I'd see about gettin' me old job back. That way, as I sees it, we'd both be doin' each other a favour."
"Ha! Well if this is fate, the universe must really have it in for me. It's true, I need a new goblin master now that Raptor's left me high and dry - gone off in search of some mythical treasure or whatever it is these pirates do, I dunno. And I'll admit there's been a disappointing shortage of applicants. But honestly Skarkill, do you really think you're up to it? How are you gonna go chasing after dungeoneers with your two gammy legs, not to mention your numerous other shortcomings?"
"Oh, they're much better than they was, Your Fearship-- Lordship. An' I'll put in double the effort. Besides, it's Grippa and Rhark that do most o' the legwork - I just needs to give 'em the orders, an' of course they knows me, so we'll have no trouble workin' together."
"Why do I get the feeling I'm going to regret this?" Lord Fear sighs, more to himself than anyone else. "Very well. But only 'cos I'm desperate! And if you botch this up, don't expect any second chances."
Skarkill clinks his manacles together with excitement: "Laaavely!" Then after a short pause, "Er... about me wages...."
"What about them?" growls Lord Fear.
"Well -- it's just that the cost o' livin' has gone up so much in the last couple o' years--"
Lord Fear cuts him off. "Don't push your luck! We'll talk about this later. Dismiss." With a wave of his arm, the screen clears and leaves only a window with a view of the mountains beyond.
It's at this moment that the team hear his security alarm going off. "Drop it!" shout the three advisors, as Lord Fear glances suspiciously in their direction. Toby hastily puts down the spyglass and is already leaving via the elf portal by the time the deadly inferno creeps into view.
When he emerges from the other side, the wooded strip is behind him, and a vast treeless estate stretches before him. Visible in the distance is an imposing mansion.
Treguard is clearly intrigued. "Caution, team. This must be Journey's End - Lord Fear's second home. Well, actually it's more like his fifth, when you think about it..." He realises he has begun to digress, and shakes himself out of it. "In any case, little is known about this place, so proceed with great care. If I know Lord Fear, there may well be a few nasty surprises."
"OK, you're at the edge of Lord Fear's territory, so mind how you go," Louis warns the dungeoneer. "We're looking through the Eyeshield at the moment - you're walking through the grounds. We can see various outbuildings. There are huge log piles on either side of the path."
A look of anguish spreads across Pickle's face. "See what he's done? He just barges in and starts tearing down people's homes, all in the name of expanding his empire--"
Treguard interrupts this rant before he gets himself too worked up. "Calm down, Pickle. They need to concentrate, and you're not helping." The elf obediently bites his lip, quietly simmering with rage.
"You're just passing a big statue... looks like some sort of gargoyle," says Louis. "Quite creepy," adds Bronwen, noting the way it seems to stare down at them, and hoping it won't somehow come to life. Stranger things have happened in the dungeon.
Toby comes to a halt at the outer wall of the palace, standing beside a moat. The water has a yellowish hue and is slightly luminescent. A raised drawbridge can be seen on the left-hand side. Louis describes the scene for Toby, telling him to stay where he is for the time being.
"A very strange discovery," Pickle says curiously. "This is no natural stream. I'm quite sure there were no lakes or rivers in this part of the forest."
"Yes, it's undoubtedly some form of technosorcery," Treguard concurs. "If I were you, team, I would avoid contact with the water at all costs - if you can even call it water. The only problem is, how are you going to get across? You don't have a boat, and I think it's unlikely they're going to lower the drawbridge for you."
Bronwen whispers something to the other two, pointing at the screen with her pencil. They nod in agreement. "Toby?" says Louis. "In the moat, there are five submerged tree stumps, which I think you're gonna have to use as stepping stones. They're quite far apart, so you might have to jump, but be very very careful not to touch the water."
"Right..." says Toby with the hint of a nervous laugh. "Tell me where to go, then."
"Alright. Shuffle forward until I say stop.... stop!" Toby is now standing at the water's edge, with the first stump directly ahead of him. "Can you see the stepping stones?" asks Louis.
"No, I can't," he replies, much to their disappointment.
"OK. You need to keep facing straight ahead, and take one fairly big step forward. But not too big." (Rather insensitively, Treguard appears to find this instruction amusing.)
Toby isn't sure what to make of it either, but bites the bullet and steps forward. "Here goes, then!"
There is a sharp intake of breath and all three advisors grip their clipboards with alarm. Toby makes it safely onto the first stepping stone, but his stride was a little longer than required, and his shoes are overhanging the edge. They're not sure what would happen if he were to accidentally dip a toe in that water, but for some reason the prospect is terrifying. "Shuffle back slightly!" Louis manages to say, once he's remembered how to breathe again.
The stumps are arranged in a rough zigzag, with varying distances between them. "Turn 45 degrees to your left," says Louis, aiming Toby at the next one. "It's about the same size gap as before. Don't overdo it this time!"
"Oh, judged to perfection," Pickle says admiringly as Toby gets it right on target.
"That's good. Now turn 90 degrees to the right... and do exactly the same step again." A moment later they have successfully made it halfway across, and Megan celebrates with a subtle shake of her fist.
"So, we've got to get the angle right for this next one," Louis tells Toby. "Turn to about 11 o'clock... no, OK, back to the right just a tiny bit. That's it. Now, this one is closer, so just take a small step forward."
"How small is small?" Toby wants to know.
"Well... there's still a gap, but not like before. Imagine you're stepping over a cat," suggests Louis, prompting a ripple of laughter from everyone else. Strangely enough the description works, and Toby once again lands firmly on the next stepping stone.
"You're doing really well!" Louis assures him. "One more to go now. Turn 90 degrees to your... left."
They all take a deep breath, seeing how far Toby will have to travel this time. "He's gonna have to jump it," murmurs Bronwen.
"No," says Megan, worriedly. "If he takes a flying leap he's just going to overbalance and fall in."
Louis sighs heavily. "Alright Toby, we need you to take a really, really big stride this time. Like, as far as you can manage."
"OK. Before I do it, are we all happy with the angle?"
The girls nod. "Yep, that looks OK," Louis confirms. "Go for it."
They all hold their breath as Toby takes a giant step forward. He just barely makes it onto the final stump, and Megan involuntarily makes a strangled yelp, grabbing Louis' arm so hard that he winces in pain. "Ooooh - very close!" remarks Treguard with a wry smile.
"Am I OK?" enquires Toby, hearing their reaction.
"Yes, just... move forward a bit!" replies Louis. "That's better. Now if you turn to about 2 o'clock... take one more biggish step and you'll be on the other side." There are jubilant celebrations as Toby reaches the opposite bank, and Treguard laughs heartily. "Well done Tobes," grins Megan.
Once he is safely across, the Eyeshield guides Toby along a narrow strip of grass between the moat and the outer wall. After turning a corner, it leads him to a postern door which seems to be unlocked, and pushes open to reveal a short flight of stone steps. They can hear the scrape of his footsteps as he begins to ascend.
"Oh, I know what they are," Pickle says unhappily. "Those are Frightknights! They aren't human - in fact they aren't really living, in the truest sense of the word. He designed them for one purpose, and one purpose only: seek and destroy."
Treguard hastily reassures the team: "Fortunately for you, they have no real intelligence and limited patterns of behaviour. As long as they stay up there, they should pose no threat to Toby." He pauses before adding: "I'd be more concerned with the immediate problem of how you're going to open that portcullis."
The advisors look at one another. Nobody dares to say out loud what they know they're all thinking.... should they have taken the key from the clue table? Have they come all this way, only to find they can't get in?
Megan glances at her notes to remind herself what they did pick up - a bar of gold and a vial labelled WRAITH. "What about trying the magic potion? Do you think that would do anything?"
They aren't sure what else they can try, so Megan advises Toby to give it a go. "I'm drinking it now," he tells them... and immediately begins to fade away before their eyes, until he is merely a semi-transparent silhouette.
"Ahaa!" says Megan. "You seem to have turned into a sort of ghost."
"Does that mean I can walk through things?" asks Toby.
"I'm wondering that! Turn to your right, and then try walking forward, carefully." As instructed, Toby walks toward the lowered portcullis - and passes straight through it! The team congratulate themselves once more, as they finally gain entry to the inner ward of Journey's End.
Toby enters a wide courtyard. The effects of the potion have evidently worn off, as his body has now returned to its normal solid state. But their attention is immediately drawn to a less pleasing sight, which sends Pickle scrambling to his feet in a nervous panic: "Root and fen, tree and glen!"
Bronwen takes a moment to assess the danger, before describing it to the dungeoneer. "OK, Toby... you're in a courtyard, with one exit at the far end. But there are two Frightknights moving from side to side across your path, so you're gonna have to get past them somehow."
The team can now see the reason for the eerie gliding movement of the Frightknights they had glimpsed on the battlements. They appear to be armoured mechanoids, each fitted with a single giant castor wheel instead of feet, allowing them to zip smoothly along the ground. At first glance they resemble human warriors draped in ragged metallic cloaks, each of them wielding a broadsword - but closer inspection reveals the absence of a body underneath, only a rigid steel spine, and presumably some dark magic to create the illusion of a physical form. Their sugarloaf great helms have a single triangular eye-slit, though it seems there is nothing but a blank void behind it.
"Hmmm - what's required here is careful timing, I think," says Treguard. "Remember, these 'creatures' are programmed to follow a set routine, unless they detect anything unusual. If Toby can slip past them without being seen, there's a chance they won't attack."
"I hope you're right about that," says Pickle with a shudder.
The advisors quickly agree upon a strategy. The two sentries are moving back and forth across the courtyard in opposite directions, passing each other in the middle. "We've got to time it really precisely," warns Louis. "The moment they pass one another, he's got to run. Otherwise if we leave it too late - or he's too slow - they're gonna see him on the way back."
"Did you hear that, Toby? You're gonna have to sneak in between them while they're not looking," Bronwen explains.
"OK - tell me when it's safe to go."
"Right, you've to be really quick, so the moment we tell you, run forward and just keep going. OK? Don't stop, whatever you do!"
"Got it." Toby assumes the stance of an athlete poised at the starting line.
There is a pause while the Frightknights once again zoom apart, turn on a sixpence and return for another pass, their wheels rumbling along with a harsh grating noise. "NOW!!" they all yell as the pair briefly come together. Toby dashes forward as if his life depends on it (which of course it does). By the time they reach the walls and turn back towards the centre, the dungeoneer has made it across their path completely unnoticed, and is vanishing through the exit.
"What in the underworld?" Pickle wonders aloud. "It almost sounds like somebody snoring."
"Yes, it does," Treguard replies warily. "Now, the only thing I know that can snore like that, is a dragon. And he has a red one - by far the most dangerous kind. Frankly I'm amazed he bought it in the first place... let's just say he doesn't have a great track record with red dragons." (Pickle shakes his head in bemused agreement.)
"Alright, turn to 3 o'clock," Louis instructs the dungeoneer. "Can you walk forward slowly - you're very close to the edge, we don't want you to fall in."
Toby moves gingerly along the ledge, pausing to examine an object at his feet. "There's some cheese on the floor here."
"Oh right, pick it up then," says Louis. Toby does so, tucking it with some difficulty into his knapsack.
Suddenly, a low groan emerges from the depths of the pit, followed by a prolonged growl. "Ohhhh, get a move on, team!" urges Treguard.
Louis hurries his friend: "Go, Toby, quickly. Careful! Just keep shuffling!" They stop him when he reaches the corner. "Turn left. OK, now feel your way along the wall - you'll come to a doorway." By now his voice is almost drowned out by a dreadful screeching and hissing noise.
"Stop - sidestep right!" Just as Toby leaves this place, a crested reptilian head can be seen rising out of the pit, and its fearsome roar seems to shake the very foundations of the palace.
Megan takes a deep breath. "Toby, you're in a narrow corridor with a door at the far end. We're looking down on you, and along the corridor is a series of spikes, which are popping up and down through the floor - there are five of them. It looks pretty scary."
Her final remark is an understatement. Each of the metal spikes is almost twice Toby's height, piercingly sharp, and shoots up from its individual paving slab with a sickening thud. The floor squares are white, with the exception of the third one, which is black and produces a particularly large black spike. Whenever one spike disappears, another one (and occasionally two) pops up elsewhere, seemingly at random. In between each of these shifts, the team can hear the rhythmic grinding of a mechanism hidden somewhere beneath the floor, almost like the ticking of a clock.
"Oh, this is completely unfair!" exclaims Pickle, horrified. "How is Toby supposed to make it safely along the corridor? He could get a spike through him at any moment! It's impossibly dangerous."
"Dangerous, yes," replies Treguard. "But I doubt that it's impossible. He knows the rules - he has to give them a chance, at least. So there's bound to be some sort of pattern. And I suspect there's something tricksy about that black spike in the middle."
The advisors spend a short while observing the movement of the spikes, whispering numbers to themselves or (in Megan's case) scribbling them down on paper. "The silver ones follow a cycle - 1, 4, 2, 5," she concludes. "And the last one stays up twice as long as the others. But I'm not sure about the black one, I think it's doing something different."
"I was looking at that one," says Bronwen. "It comes up once every third shift."
"Ahh, OK." Megan thinks for a moment. "What I think we should do is, one of us keeps an eye on the black one, and the other two keep track of the main pattern. Then hopefully we won't get confused."
"I'll watch the black one," Bronwen volunteers.
"Right. Toby, we think we've figured out the sequence, so we're gonna tell you when it's safe to move forward - and you've got to go straight away. We'll go one square at a time. Louis, make sure you know which number's coming next. Bronwen, you shout if it's not safe to cross the middle one." Outwardly she appears organised and confident, but in truth every one of them is sweating with fear. This is a fiendishly difficult floor puzzle, and nobody wants to see Toby get skewered.
As he waits at the start for their instructions, the atmosphere could be cut with a knife. The first spike comes up just in front of him. "Get ready," says Megan.
THUNK! As they predicted, the fourth spike rises simultaneously as the first disappears into the floor. "Walk forward," Megan says through gritted teeth, glancing at her clipboard - spike number 2 should be coming up next. "Stop!! Go back a bit!" she yelps, noticing that Toby has overshot the first square. He shuffles backwards just in time.
THUNK! The second spike shoots up, barely missing him. Pickle can hardly bear to watch and has one hand across his face, peeping out between his fingers. Bronwen silently notes that the central black spike has also come up this time.
"Wait there a moment," says Megan.
THUNK! The fifth spike comes up on its own, leaving Toby with an otherwise clear path ahead of him. "Step forward." He shuffles onto the second square.
As Megan had previously observed, spike 5 stays up for a second shift - they hear the usual clunking sound effect as the gears turn, but all the other spikes remain down. Megan opens her mouth to send Toby forward another square, but Bronwen speaks up first with a warning: "Stay there! The middle one's due to come up next."
Toby obediently waits in his current position. THUNK! Sure enough, spikes 1 and 3 shoot up on either side of him, sending a chill through Megan as she pictures what would have happened if he'd proceeded. It's safe to say this is not her favourite obstacle.
THUNK! The spikes surrounding Toby disappear, with number 4 coming up instead. "Forward, quick," Louis pipes up, realising the next spike to appear will be the one he's currently stood on.
Toby shuffles forward onto the black square. THUNK! As expected, number 2 springs up where he's just been standing - but there is no time to relax. "Carry on! Hurry, keep going!" shouts Bronwen, knowing he'll be impaled on the huge black spike if he lingers here. Pickle squeezes his eyes shut; the tension is all too much for him.
Slightly flustered, Toby rushes onto the fourth square and almost goes too far, prompting Megan to cry "Stop!" once again. THUNK! He skids to a halt just as spikes 3 and 5 come up on either side, with an audible gasp from everyone in the antechamber. Luckily they have time to catch their breath, as Toby must wait before he can proceed onto the final square. THUNK! The black spike disappears, but the last one still bars his escape.
THUNK! All spikes except the first one are now down. "OK, go go go!" Megan shouts urgently, remembering that number 4 is next in the sequence. At last Toby makes it onto the fifth square, as - THUNK! - the two spikes immediately behind him come up. "And just carry on forward," sighs Megan, her nerves shot to pieces by this point. Toby continues through the exit while his three advisors collapse into a sort of group hug, overjoyed to see him escape the corridor in one piece - literally!
"You're in a room with a door on either side, and a fireplace in front of you," answers Bronwen. She leans across for a whispered discussion of which exit he should take, but before they can reach a decision, the familiar sound of a goblin hunting horn greets their ears. They freeze with apprehension as a pair of goblins dash into the room and surround the dungeoneer, circling him in a threatening manner. One of them bears a round shield and both are wielding clubs. They are small but ferocious creatures - and they are not alone.
"Right! Gotcha!" comes a gleeful rasping voice, as a man hobbles into the room behind them, leaning on a cane. "Heheheh... laavelyy!"
"Ohh, Toby... it's the goblin master!" Bronwen says anxiously.
"Leave it, you 'orrible little vermin! Go ornn, get back!" Skarkill barks at the two goblins, shooing them away from Toby. He is carrying a pair of manacles in his free hand, and despite the obvious limp, he seems altogether more intimidating than the rather pathetic, servile figure they saw talking to Lord Fear in the spyglass. "Well, look what we've got 'ere," he says with a leer, turning his attention towards the hapless adventurer. "This will be a pleasant surprise for Lord F."
Toby says nothing; he's got a feeling he should probably keep his mouth shut for the time being.
"Hopin' to get to Marble'ead, are ya?" Skarkill continues in his quietly menacing tone. "You are in luck... 'cos it just so 'appens I'm goin' that way meself. So I can escort ya! Heheheheh. Now stand still while I gets the irons on ya. Oh, I must say I've missed this! Heheheh! Laaavely!" He begins to fiddle with the manacles.
"Offer him the gold, Toby," says Megan.
"I don't suppose you'd be interested in this bar of gold, in exchange for letting me go?" Toby asks him, waving the treasure under his nose.
"Gold, you say?" Skarkill replies, his eyes immediately drawn to it. "Ahaha. I'm always interested in gold. But I'm afraid His Lordship doesn't look too kindly on me takin' bribes. Nah... you might've made it through the Corridor o' Spikes, but you won't get past me that easily. Now 'old still, else I'll give that 'elmet a clobber and see how well it works! Heheh."
"Keep trying!" insists Megan.
Toby goes for the soft-sell approach. "Are you sure about that? I'm talking easy money here - this whole bar of gold just for turning a blind eye. I bet it's not every day you get an offer like that."
"Oh, it's awfully temptin', I must admit." Skarkill is beginning to look hesitant about employing the manacles, as much as he is relishing the opportunity to use them again.
Recalling his earlier comments to Lord Fear, Toby gets a flash of inspiration. "And I'd imagine you need all the gold you can get - what with the cost of living these days..." The team chortle with delight at their dungeoneer's brilliance, knowing he has once again pitched it perfectly.
"Yeah, well... that's true enough," replies Skarkill, aware that his chances of securing a pay rise anytime soon are slim at best, even with a captured dungeoneer under his belt. "Come on then, 'and it over. Gimme it. He-hey, look at that! Laaavelyy!" He holds it up to the light and marvels at the way it glitters. "I do like gold; I likes it very much."
In the antechamber, Megan and Bronwen share a high five. Everyone in the room is grinning.
"On yer way, then," Skarkill tells Toby. "I might as well let ya through - you've got no 'ope of gettin' into Level 3 anyway! Hahahaha! Lord Fear 'as all the entrances covered, so there's no way you can sneak past, oh no. He's got every descender guarded, every stairway monitored, an' every trapdoor locked! You'da been better off comin' with me!" He laughs wickedly. "Grippa! Rhark! Out you go, you little bleeders." The goblins obediently scuttle away, with Skarkill limping after them, still admiring the gold bar and sniggering to himself.
"Master! D'you think Skarkill was telling the truth?" asks Pickle with great concern.
"In this case, I fear he probably was," says Treguard. "This is worrying news indeed - it seems the Opposition is becoming more vigilant than ever. Still, we must cross that bridge when we come to it. The first thing to worry about is getting out of Journey's End."
"Toby, turn to your right and walk forward," says Bronwen. As he heads for the exit, the Eyeshield leads the way out and along a corridor, with Toby's footsteps echoing on the wooden floor. He approaches a heavy oaken double door, which swings open as if by magic to let him through.
"OK, we've got another large pit that we need to get across," explains Louis. "There isn't a path or anything, so I think it's going to involve these levers in front of you."
"I can't see them at the moment," says Toby.
"Take a couple of strides forward - there we go. There are three more to your left, and three to your right."
"Try pulling it towards you," Bronwen suggests, but Louis hastily stops him. "Hang on a minute! That looks like a trapdoor underneath him - there's one by every lever. I think we've got to figure out which one to pull."
"Mmm... you'll need to find the right combination, team," agrees Pickle. "Or I think we can guess what will happen."
Megan is already flipping through her notes. "Aha! Look - seven numbers on the clue scroll. One for each lever." The others glance down at the pad where she's written 1-0-0-1-0-1-0.
"Ahhh, I think you might be onto something, Megan!" says Pickle.
"So he just needs to pull the levers wherever it says '1'," says Bronwen. "Or is it wherever there's a zero?"
There's a brief silence. "Errr..." Megan looks to Louis for advice.
"I would guess it's the 1's," he says, then grins nervously. If Toby ends up falling to his death here, he'd rather it wasn't all his fault.
Megan makes the same expression; they have no choice but to take a risk. "Alright, go for it."
Louis clears his throat. "OK Toby, take sidesteps to your left." He waits until the dungeoneer reaches the first lever in the row. "Stop. Now try pulling the lever."
Toby takes hold of the handle, just above his waist height, and pulls it towards him. The suspense is unbearable, but a few seconds later when Toby is still standing there, it appears safe to assume they have cracked the combination. Louis exhales loudly, while Megan uncrosses her fingers.
"What's the next one?" asks Louis, referring back to Megan's notepad. "Right Toby, you want the fourth lever now."
As Toby begins to sidestep right, something unexpected occurs. The team hear a sudden rumbling, clanking noise, and barely have time to wonder where it's coming from, before a skeletal arm rises up through the floorboards just to the left of Toby. It is swiftly followed by a skull and then the entire skeleton, its bones emitting a blueish neon glow, its vacant eye sockets shining like a pair of headlamps. It grasps a sword in its left hand.
"Oh, hurry, team - that's a Skeletron, one of Lord Fear's creations!" warns Treguard. Ordinarily he might explain that these lethal beings were constructed from the bones of ancient warriors using his favourite nefarious blend of magic and technology. But there really isn't time for an anatomy lesson right now.
"This one, yes?" calls Toby, having reached the fourth lever.
"Yes! Quickly, there's a skeleton thing coming after you," says Louis. The Skeletron is now marching towards the dungeoneer, with a loud rattle of bones not unlike Jacob Marley dragging his chains.
Toby pulls the lever. "Now where?"
"Right!" "Sidestep right!" The added pressure is beginning to take its toll, as the advisors are suddenly all shouting at once, making it harder for Toby to understand what they're saying. As he comes to the next lever, he hears one of them cry "Hurry!", and reaches out to pull it.
"NOOO!!!" comes a veritable scream of horror from at least two of his teammates - he can't even tell who the voices belong to. It's enough to make him jump back in fright, mercifully before he has activated the wrong lever. "Keep going right!!" shrieks Bronwen. Toby quickly moves along to the next one, at which point Louis shouts "Now, pull it!"
As he hauls this final lever into position, there is a grinding noise and a narrow wooden bridge slides out on the far right-hand side, spanning the pit within a few seconds. "Yes! There's a walkway now," says Louis. "Sidestep right. And again! Keep going!" The Skeletron is uncomfortably close behind him and shows no sign of slowing down. Even worse, Toby goes straight past the bridge before they can stop him, and must then sidestep back towards his pursuer.
At last, they guide him onto the precarious gangway and out of the Skeletron's path. A careless step here could easily send him plunging into the bottomless void below, but he reaches the other side without further incident. The Skeletron remains harmlessly pacing back and forth as Toby makes his way to the exit.
"You're back outside now, Toby," says Megan. "There are tree stumps all over the place, so mind you don't trip over them."
"Yeah, I can see them," replies Toby.
"I think there's some food on the ground, if you want to walk forward."
"Wait," Bronwen interrupts with a hand on Megan's forearm. "What is that underneath it?"
They all squint at the viewscreen. The ground is carpeted with fallen leaves, but the loaf of bread seems to be resting on a large circular grate which is partly exposed. "It looks a bit rusty," says Bronwen. "It could be a trap."
"I don't like the look of it," agrees Louis.
Megan bites the end of her pencil. "Yeah, you might be right. OK, leave it, Toby."
"He does need the food..." Treguard points out. "And who knows when you might find more."
Perhaps they are being too paranoid. "Shall we risk it, then?" Megan asks her teammates on either side. They both shrug and nod. "Alright Toby, pick up the bread."
Picking his way around the tree stumps, the dungeoneer walks forward and steps onto the iron grate. Thankfully, nothing happens. He stops in the middle to collect the food item.
All of a sudden, there is a creak and a groan, followed by an almighty crash as the metal gives way and Toby falls. A collective gasp, then stunned silence fills the antechamber. Bronwen and Louis stare ruefully at one another, and Pickle's mouth hangs open in shock.
Megan buries her face in her hands. "I think we're dead," is her muffled conclusion.
"Thank goodness - he survived the fall!" exclaims Pickle. "But... where is he?"
Toby has landed in a rocky underground cavern. The slabs at the back appear to form a crude doorway, the only visible means of escape - although what may lie in the darkness beyond is anyone's guess.
Treguard, however, has a funny feeling he's been here before. "Surely it can't be..." he murmurs, gazing at the screen with a mixture of curiosity and fascination.
Pickle shoots him a questioning look. "Master?"
"I recognise this cavern," says Treguard, certain now of what he is seeing. "It lies within the oldest part of the dungeon. As far as I, or anyone else knew, these chambers ceased to exist when the dungeon reformed for the next age. But it seems they were here all along - merely sealed off from the outside world. And Toby has stumbled across a way in."
"Much of the forest here was dense and overgrown. The entrance must have been concealed," Pickle realises. "Even my people knew nothing about it. But now that the trees are all gone..."
"You know, this discovery might just give us an advantage over the Opposition," the Dungeon Master says thoughtfully. "I'm willing to bet he's equally unaware of its existence - otherwise, he surely would've had it guarded. And he can't interfere with Toby's quest if he doesn't know where he is."
Pickle laughs with delight at the thought of getting one up on Lord Fear. "What a stroke of luck!"
Treguard suddenly adopts a more serious tone. "Let's just hope Toby can find a way out of here. And that nothing... unpleasant happens to him while he's down here."
A palpable sense of unease settles upon the team. This place seems lifeless and deserted, yet some primal instinct warns them that unknown dangers still lurk within these gloomy catacombs; malevolent spirits that have lain dormant for any number of years, which may be all too easily awakened. Pickle too is unnerved by the eerie atmosphere, and once again creeps in close behind the team - for their comfort or his own, he isn't entirely sure.
"Are you alright, Tobes?" asks Megan.
"Just about," replies Toby.
"OK, turn to your left. And a bit more. Walk forward." None of the advisors have any wish to be in Toby's shoes as he steps through the doorway. There was once a time when many a young dungeoneer braved the hazards of this shadowy underworld... and few survived to tell the tale.
"You're on a narrow rocky ledge with a sheer drop to your right," says Bronwen. "It's very dark, so I can't tell how far down it goes. Just keep walking forward."
Their view changes as Toby comes to the next section of this path, which curves around the edge of a huge black pit. Treguard recalls that it was once the home of a Giant, and later a mass of writhing maggots. But nothing stirs there now; the familiar old dungeon is quite devoid of life, and has been for some time. While this is undoubtedly good news for Toby, something about it gives Treguard a strange pang of sadness.
Bronwen guides Toby through a dark opening in the cave wall.
But before Toby can head towards the exit, the team are suddenly startled by an urgent interruption from Treguard. The Dungeon Master has much experience with supernatural phenomena, and has developed a kind of sixth sense when it comes to such things - it has often proved useful as a built-in early warning system. "Stand quite still, Toby!" he commands. "Manifestation occurring..."
Moments later, the blank wall transforms into a large rugged face, with soulless black eyes and a cruel mouth that resemble fissures in the stone itself. "Intruder! Who disturbs my long slumber?" it demands in a booming voice.
"I thought as much," says Treguard. "It's a wall monster. Several are known to dwell in these parts, and they all look pretty similar, so I wouldn't like to guess which one this is. Treat him with caution, team - these dull creatures are notoriously ill-humoured, and will feed on Toby's life force, given half a chance. Defeat him with wit, on the other hand, and you may gain some useful knowledge."
"I am Granitas of legend!" declares the wall monster. "Face me or perish. Please me, or depart in ignorance."
"Turn to your left and face him, Toby," says Louis. He quickly does so.
Granitas speaks again. "Three riddles have I, and truth I seek. One truth will pass you on. Two may aid you. Three commands me. Fail all three, and I... feed... on... YOU!"
"Listen carefully, team..." advises Treguard.
"Here is my first. Robin Hood was the archer of Sherwood Forest. Cupid was the archer of love. But who is the archer of the heavens?"
A brief silence follows as they rack their brains for a mythological character - but Bronwen is quick to realise that "the heavens" is a reference to the sky. "Oh, it's a constellation," she says out loud. Suddenly remembering her mother's zodiac sign is represented by an archer, she provides the answer with an accomplished smile: "Sagittarius!"
"Ah, yes!" says Megan.
"Sagittarius," Toby calls out.
"Truth accepted," replies the monster. (Megan gives Bronwen a thumbs-up.) "Here is my second:
This, too, has the team scratching their heads a little. "Could you ask him to repeat it?" asks Megan.
"Can you repeat it, please?" says Toby.
Granitas sounds annoyed by this request. "Once, and once only!" He delivers the riddle again.
"So it's a type of rock," says Megan. "Any ideas?"
"I'm not sure... I think it might be limestone," replies Louis. "I've got a feeling that's made up of shells and things. But I could be completely wrong."
Megan likes the sound of that. After checking that nobody has any better suggestions, she tells Toby to go ahead with this guess.
"Limestone," he answers.
"Falsehood!" cries Granitas. "Marble was the truth I sought." The team groan with disappointment; they all had a feeling they'd got it right. And now the pressure is on to answer the final riddle correctly, if they're to have any hope of earning some information. "Here is my third. Ten plus six is four. Eight plus five is one. What is eleven plus ten?"
Megan scribbles the sums down on her notepad as they are given. Then they all stare blankly at them. "Should it be minus, not plus? No, that doesn't work," Bronwen mutters. Louis tries playing around with the figures on his own notepad, but finds himself getting nowhere. Megan feels like tearing her hair out; she's normally good at maths, but it's hard to think straight when your little brother's life may depend on it.
Granitas becomes impatient. "One riddle, one answer. Name it now!"
"Arrgghh," Megan growls frustratedly. Louis is still writing down numbers and then crossing them out again.
"Think, team!" says Treguard. "Can you find the solution in time?"
It takes a moment for Megan to realise that he isn't goading them, but giving them a hint. Time! She quickly does some mental calculations. "Got it! Ten o'clock plus six hours is four o'clock. Eight plus five hours is one o'clock. So eleven plus ten would be... nine o'clock?"
"Oh, well done!" says Bronwen, highly impressed; she hadn't thought of anything like that.
"I think the answer is nine," Megan tells Toby.
"Truth accepted." (Louis and Bronwen give Megan a slap on the back, while Pickle grins proudly.) "Two is the score; you may know more. The darkest hour is just before the cockerel crows. Beware the one who does not rest. Enough... Granitas must return to his sleep. Rock I was, and rock I now become." The stony face disappears, leaving only a wall once more.
"Onward now, team, and hurry," says Treguard. "I fear there may be nastier things than Granitas still lurking down here, so I shouldn't delay too long in any one place."
Louis picks up where he left off. "The wall monster's gone, Toby. Turn to your right. Now walk forward."
"Oh dear... choices, choices, team," says Treguard. "Granitas might have told you which door was safe, if you'd got all three riddles correct. As it is, you'll just have to take your chances."
The advisors exchange sober glances, knowing a wrong decision could spell the end of their quest. There is nothing to indicate which door they should take. Under the circumstances, it seems best to heed the Adventurer's Code, which notes that good is often defined as the right-hand path. They are all agreed upon this course of action.
"Alright, walk forward, Toby," says Megan. "Stop. Turn to your right. Walk forward."
Bronwen takes her turn at describing what they can see. "Toby, you're in a rather dark room, and there's a very large metal ball hanging on a chain. It looks like a... bomb."
These faltering words are followed by a moment of silence - which is promptly broken by the unmistakable sound of a match being struck.
"Uh-oh," says Bronwen.
The next thing they know, the fuse has lit of its own accord. "Warning, this chamber is booby-trapped!" cries Treguard. Pickle's eyes widen in fear, and he instinctively hides behind Bronwen's left shoulder.
For an agonising couple of seconds, the team appear to be frozen with terror. Then Bronwen comes to her senses: "Toby, walk forward quickly!" She stops him at the doorway and, without thinking, says "Turn right!"
Toby turns his back on the door; she had momentarily forgotten he was facing towards them, and the exit was therefore on his left. Of all the times to get their directions mixed up! Unfortunately, this is just the start of their problems.
"LEFT!" shouts Megan, but Toby misunderstands her correction and takes a sidestep to his left. "No - go back!" splutters Bronwen. This time he steps backwards. Blind panic ensues.
"Turn around!" yells Megan.
"Which way?" asks Toby, not sure what the hell is going on.
All three advisors reply at once, with three different answers: "Right!" says Louis. "Left!" says Bronwen. "All the way round!" says Megan. The fuse is burning down rapidly. Bronwen feels sick; she realises she's making things worse every time she opens her mouth, and decides to shut up and let Megan handle this.
"180 degree turn!" Megan reiterates, when a bewildered Toby fails to respond. At last he is pointing in the right direction. "Sidestep left," she adds, just as Louis says "Forward". Megan shushes him fiercely - the last thing Toby needs is multiple voices contradicting one another! "One sidestep left," she repeats, hoping to goodness there's enough time left to get out. "Now FORWARD! RUN!!!"
Just as he races through the exit, there's a blinding white flash as the bomb explodes. Toby hears the loud blast reverberate through the chamber behind him, and he can feel the heat on the back of his neck. But apart from a few singed hairs, he makes it out unscathed.
Everyone else is mightily relieved to see him running out the other side; they were all scared witless that he'd just been blown apart. "Talk about escaping by the skin of your teeth!" says Pickle, who's starting to remember a few more reasons why he just couldn't hack this job any more. "Yes; that was nearly an explosive finale to your quest!" quips Treguard, with what could almost be mistaken for a trace of sadistic glee.
Bronwen offers her teammates an apologetic look, but nobody is blaming her for what was ultimately a group failure, and one that they cannot afford to repeat. Blundering into a bomb room could have been a costly error indeed, and they almost went to pieces in more ways than one. They know they've been lucky to get away with it.
The entrance and exit are located at either end of the same wall, and between them, a great serpent's head has been carved into the rock. Its eyes have a fiery glow, and jets of flame shoot from its nostrils at intervals of roughly two seconds, illuminating the rectangular pit. Alternating with this, the entire cave is lit up by spouts of fire that erupt through a crack on both sides of the perimeter walkway.
"Can you take three paces forward," says Louis. "And one more tiny step."
This brings Toby to the first cleft in the rock. "Are the flames in front of me now?" he asks. He would prefer to avoid getting scorched twice in one day.
"Yep. They're coming up every couple of seconds. When I say go, run straight across. ...Go!"
Toby easily makes it past the crack of doom before it flares up again. After foiling Frightknights and dodging deadly spikes, these straightforward timing exercises are starting to feel like a piece of cake.
Perhaps the dungeon can somehow sense their confidence in this task. As if to present them with more of a challenge, a pale, floating skull suddenly materialises, hovering above some old bones on the connecting path in the foreground. "Look out, team - something haunts this cavern," Treguard observes. "One of Toby's less fortunate predecessors, perhaps."
The spectre begins to drift around as they guide Toby along the pathway. There is no doubt it is potentially harmful, and they have no intention of outstaying their welcome in this chamber, but luckily it appears to be more curious than hostile, and does not come too close. Being careful not to tread on the bones (for fear of offending their previous owner), Toby makes his way to the right-hand path, and is expertly guided by Louis past the second wall of flame. A few more steps bring him safely to the exit.
"Elf boots! What is this hideous contraption?" asks Pickle. Like most faerie creatures, he has never been too fond of anything technical.
"These are the Mills of Doom, and as you can see they're in perpetual motion," replies Treguard. "Toby must time his crossing with care, or he'll fall to a crushing defeat."
"It's unnatural, if you ask me," Pickle mutters with a wary frown. But Treguard finds it oddly reassuring that the old machinery is still chugging away after all this time, regardless of whether anyone has been there to acknowledge it. Even in the fickle world of the dungeon, it appears that some things never change.
"You're on a giant cog, Toby," says Megan. "The outside of it is rotating in a clockwise direction, and there's another one beside it which is rotating anticlockwise. You need to get onto the next one. But you can only walk across when the teeth come together, and you've got to do it quickly. Alright?"
"OK... can you speak up when you're directing me, please? It's really noisy in here." The cranking sound of the mechanism is loud even to the advisors' ears, so they feel quite sorry for Toby stuck in the middle of it.
"Sure. I'll just guide you to the edge first..." She points him towards the second cog and gets him to shuffle forward until he reaches the boundary of the fixed area. "Now when I tell you, take about three really quick steps forward." Megan waits until the teeth of the two cogs meet, briefly creating a safe path to walk across. "Now!"
Toby makes it look easy, striding onto the central cog and even coming to a halt slap-bang in the middle of it. "Rather him than me," says Pickle, who can't wait to see the back of this particular room.
"Turn to 3 o'clock now," says Megan, and repeats the same process, guiding Toby onto the third and final cog without any problems. From there, it's just a matter of facing towards the doorway and walking through it.
"Toby, you're in a red brick room with two archways at the far end," says Bronwen. "The archway on the left has collapsed and it's blocked with rubble, so we'll take you through the right-hand door." It is the only remaining exit, as a tall archway in the left-hand wall has been bricked up, as indeed has a high window in the far wall. To the right is a fireplace. A shield and crossed spears hang above the mantlepiece, like a souvenir from the distant past, but this hall has long since fallen into disrepair - there's a gaping hole where the hearth should be, and a T-shaped section of the floor has caved in with it.
Before Bronwen has a chance to give Toby any directions, an unusual sound reaches their ears. It reminds them of a wind-up toy - a clicking, whirring noise, that seems to be getting closer by the second. The girls and Pickle glance quizzically at one another, wide-eyed and nervous. Only Treguard knows exactly what it is: "Beware the mindless threat of the mechanical warrior!"
The words have barely left his lips when a figure looms up behind the dungeoneer, armed with a military flail which is raised above his head and just about ready to strike. It's all Bronwen can do not to swear. "Oh-- Toby-- go forward!!" she manages to yelp. He steps out of the way just in time to thwart the attack. "Keep going," urges Megan.
As this warrior follows Toby across the room, they begin to perceive the nature of their foe. Clad in a black and white quartered surcoat with a blackened mail coif, sabatons and gauntlets, it may be humanoid in appearance, but humanity is one thing it clearly lacks. It moves jerkily, its entire body leaning backwards with every step as it raises one rigid leg at a time. Despite this, its pace is certainly sufficient to keep up with a blindfolded youngster, and it seems absolutely single-minded in this goal. It carries its weapon in both hands, the metal weight swinging freely on a chain at one end. Trying to reason with it, one suspects, is probably not an option worth investigating.
Bronwen has now regained the power of coherent speech, and realises she'd better direct Toby towards the right exit, instead of the debris-filled one he's currently heading for. "Stop - sidestep to your right!" The sudden change of direction buys him some time, as the robotic soldier must pause and swivel on one leg, its arms flung wide apart. Bronwen hastily stops him again before he reaches the hole in the floor, and sends him forward through the archway.
"It's called the Automatum," replies Treguard. "Its sole purpose is to rid the dungeon of intruders. I don't suppose it's had much to keep it occupied in recent years - but it has no capacity for boredom, or any other emotion, for that matter."
The advisors study the current surroundings. They are looking through an elaborate carved stone archway into a wide hall, with one exit directly opposite. Above the doorway is a sculpted lion's head with a mane of serpents. There is extensive damage to the floor in this room - in fact there are more tiles missing than there are remaining. Fortunately there is still a solid path to the exit, but it is both narrow and meandering, with a perilous drop on either side. Getting Toby from one end to the other is not going to be straightforward, in any sense of the word.
After briefly describing the problem to him, Louis gets Toby to walk slowly forward. Halfway across the room, he reaches a large gap and must sidestep to the left before he can proceed. It is at this point that they hear the ominous creaking of wheels and springs. "Oh no!" whimpers Bronwen, speaking for the entire group.
Sure enough, the Automatum lumbers into view once more, apparently determined to chase after Toby until it catches him. Speed is now of the essence, yet they must be careful not to panic and send him tottering over the edge. To make things worse, a particularly tricky section of the broken path is coming up.
Louis tries to remain calm. "Take small steps forward until I say stop. OK, stop. Now, the floor squares to the side and in front of you are both missing, so you're gonna have to step diagonally here." He gets Toby to shuffle forward and then left, so he standing right on the corner where it touches the next tile.
"How close is that thing behind me?!" asks Toby, freaked out by the noise it's making. He has proven himself to be an intrepid adventurer, but this monster has understandably got him terrified.
"It's alright, it's not too close," Louis lies. "Now take a big step forward and left." Toby plants his left foot firmly on the next piece of floor. "Good - now bring your other foot across to meet it!" The Automatum is just swinging round to face the spot where he'd been standing a moment before.
Louis again recommends the use of quick, small steps, to avoid rushing headlong into a gap just before the doorway. He then gets Toby to sidestep right, navigating around this hole before proceeding to the exit. The Automatum, meanwhile, seems to be having some difficulty lining itself up for the diagonal step, and is still pivoting awkwardly on the spot as Toby leaves.
"Is that thing gone?" enquires Toby.
As if to answer his question, the tell-tale clattering of the Automatum suddenly resounds throughout the vale. "Hurry, we can hear it coming!" replies Megan. Its relentless pursuit of Toby is truly worrying, and with only one route through the various chambers, they are beginning to feel they have no chance of eluding it.
Toby shuffles over the bridge as quickly as he dares. The fragmented floor in the previous chamber must have delayed his stalker considerably, as it still has not appeared on the bridge by the time he enters a cave on the other side.
"Ooh... good question," says Bronwen. "You are standing in a pitch black room - we can't see anything except you, and part of the entrance." On the positive side, at least they seem to have shaken off the Automatum at last.
"Oh dear," says Treguard. "It seems the last person to leave the old dungeon must have turned out the light! And Toby won't last long in a place like this, if he tries to go stumbling around in the dark."
"What did the wall monster say about the dark?" Bronwen murmurs to her teammates. Louis is the first to find his notes from that encounter: "The darkest hour is just before the cockerel crows."
They wait a few seconds to see if anything is going to happen. "Toby... try saying 'cock-a-doodle-doo'," suggests Megan.
"What... seriously?" he splutters, half-laughing.
"Unless you've got a better idea," she replies.
He hasn't, so he gamely agrees to make a fool of himself, and does a very convincing impression of a cockerel. To everyone's amazement it works, and within an instant the room is magically illuminated! "Yeeesss, you've done it!" smiles Bronwen. They can now see the entire rocky cavern, with Toby stood before the doorway in a grey stone wall that makes up one side of it. There are no other visible exits, apart from a well that stands in the corner.
Pickle is astonished by what has just been revealed. "Is that what I think it is, master?"
"Yes - it's a wellway between the levels," says Treguard, equally surprised.
Though once used regularly by the teams they aided, neither of them has seen such a thing in almost five years now. "I thought all the wellways had been blocked up by the Opposition!" says Pickle. "I suppose they didn't know about this one, did they?"
"No... they didn't," Treguard replies thoughtfully, an idea forming in his mind. A cautious smile creeps onto his face. "I do believe Toby has discovered a way of bypassing the usual entrances into Level 3. Rather like sneaking in the back door."
Pickle grins wildly; but an unwelcome noise interrupts before he can say anything in response. It would appear their clockwork friend is approaching once again.
"Walk forward, Toby!" shouts Bronwen. "Can you see the well?"
As he reaches it, the Automatum comes goose-stepping through the doorway, only a few paces away. "Climb into the well!" cries Bronwen. Toby hurriedly walks up the two steps surrounding it, sits on the edge and swings his legs over. The Automatum raises its flail to deal him a fatal blow - but the dungeoneer has already slipped down the wellway, finally escaping it once and for all.