Talisman of Death

“Oh come on, that has to be a real fireball.”

Talisman of Death by Jamie Thomson and Mark Smith

This one is quite good. It’s the first fantasy setting that expressly isn’t Titan. The world is Orb, invented by Mark Smith for his D&D game in the 70’s. Orb is incredibly well fleshed out from the start of the story, which means that there’s a rich background and generally it feels complete – the other early books in this line featured an evolving process of world creation, which is interesting enough but always references backwards.

Plotwise, the protagonist is abducted from present-day Earth and magically given weapons training and their gear. A conceit that is kind of okay, I suppose. It would have been frustrating if it happened every time. There’s also a clearly defined quest: There’s a talisman, of death, and you have to get it the hell off Orb – because every two-bit villain wants it, evil beings are after it, and what a surprise, they’re happy to kill to get it. It’s not the Talisman of Calmly Asking For Stuff and Accepting a Firm No. The best part is, since I’m apparently me, from the real world, I can be as cynically genre savvy as I like in this one.

Statistics

Skill: 10
Stamina: 20
Luck: 9

Equipment: Sword, leather armour, backpack, provisions, potion of fortune. Standard gear.

Onward to Adventure!

I awake in a dreamscape, lying on a chaise lounge in the turret of a beautiful castle. I’m wearing a lot of leather, green armour and red boots. Oh no, I’ve been kidnapped by Santa Claus to slave in the harsh and cruel conditions of the toy mines! Wait, I have a sword, so probably not. I also know how to use it, which means someone’s been implanting knowledge in my head. The bird tweeting on the windowsill tells me I’m in the Garden of the Gods – looks like a turret to me – on Orb. A world filled with stereotypical monsters as well as sorcerers and wizards. I’m here to complete some great task which, going on my knowledge of abducted-to-fantasy-world-for-quest scenarios, probably means killing a wizard. Downstairs, a bald woman in a technicolour robe projects visions of my possible future, and some old man keeps morphing into a baby and back. I take a wild guess that one is Fate and the other Time, and wonder if there’s any bingo cards lying around. Then I notice the floor is an impressively detailed map, which appears to be zooming towards me. Or I’m falling… Into that bloody great chasm some idiot god left lying around.

I wake up. I appear to be in some kind of huge pillared hall full of torches, and someone is running towards me. It turns out to be a party of adventurers, who no doubt did something stupid, something foolhardy, a few more stupid things, and wound up here. A woman with crossbow and chainmail is in charge, and the others I identify as a generic knight, a generic cleric, and a wizard with a funny taste in masks. Telling them I’m from another world requires magical proof, which means this magical kidnapping routine hasn’t been tried before.

It turns out that the crux of this whole business is that there’s a Talisman – of Death – which can summon the aforementioned god into the world. Apparently this will cause the annihilation of all life, and that’s probably a bit bad. Since these evil cultists are really smart, the talisman is indestructible so there’s no way to destroy it by, say, chucking it in a volcano. I’m amazed that the suicide mission these adventurers were sent on didn’t have a clear goal, but now they want me to take this rather over-the-top gothic jewellery back to my world,where in theory no-one can ever get it again. Okay. Only one person can be teleported out, and that person is going to be me. I have to go to the city of Greyguilds, and find some wizard who can get me home, and if the forces of evil catch me, every living thing will die.

No pressure.

As the hordes of evil start mauling everyone, I am warped to the surface. It’d a nice, sunny day, so I set off, opting for the cover of the nearby forest. I immediately blunder into a clearing where a wolf is feeding her cubs. Now, me, I have a pathological need to feed cute animals, so I throw it the meat from a portion of my provisions (apparently the gods of outsourcing didn’t realise I’m vegetarian, but I suppose I have to make do). Like all acts of kindness to animals in fantasy worlds, this causes a druid to appear. I am rewarded with an apple. I suppose that’s about even. I continue onward, cursing at my own foolishness for picking the heavily overgrown forest with no nice, handy trails, I run into an eight-legged lizard dozing in the sun, and sneak by. I could just avoid it by taking the long way around, but I’m not keen on spending the night in a dirty forest, which is next to a giant rift full of evil creatures that want to kill me, on an alien world which apparently has maps that are just pieces of paper with HERE BE DRAGONS written all over them.

However, my better nature prevents me from hurrying past the old woman struggling in a pond, and naturally she turns out to be a hideous monster that just looks like an old woman struggling in a pond. The thing – apparently a “grendel” which I know because I’ve also had an entire bestiary dumped in my head – has tentacles. They are not sexy tentacles. I defeat the slimy thing, and eventually find a desolate moor. As I cross it, I contemplate that all moors across the mutliverse can probably be summed up with some combination of the terms “blasted”, “desolate”, or “lonely”. Then I run into a band of armed women on horses. Things are looking up. I make up a story about an ambushed trade caravan, and then smile enthusiastically when asked if I’m from the Spires of Foreshadowing. Ooops. Promptly arrested, I’m made to share a horse with someone called Elvira on the way to the city. On the upside, my colossal blunder got me a free trip to the city. On the downside, Elvira doesn’t respond to my efforts to make small talk.

At Greyguilds, I’m dragged off to see someone called Hawkana. I’m too busy playing tourist, gaping at the buildings, the people, the abject squalor and filth, to even think about what’s going on. Eventually we get to the watch house, where the Marshall of the Watch also turns out to be the high priestess of a goddess with an evil sounding name. I’m thrown out into the street, without the magical item that will destroy the world, and without a sword to boot. I wander back to the shopping district, and am immediately hit on by another woman. I should get teleported to alien worlds more often. She turns out to be yet another priestess, and invites me to her nature goddess temple Now, I’m an atheist, but, since I’ve been transported to a magical fantasy world by a couple of gods, dropped down a chasm of indescribable evils, and teleported back out again, I’m getting to think that maybe hanging out at a cute woman’s nature worshipping church might be more productive than in the real world. It is, indeed. I get a suit of fabulous magical chainmail, apparently on the advice of the goddess. I wonder why this goddess didn’t notice I need a new sword. My scorn for religion is only being further intensified by deities actually being real.

Further down the road a horse-drawn hearse turns up. I glance in the back and groan, because the coffin in the back has my name on it. The undertaker turns into a skeleton and menaces me with a rapier while demanding the talisman. I figure he’s not going to be willing to go and look up the High Priestess of Evil, so I hope that those gods also kitted me out with the ability to do martial arts, and punch him square in the bonebox. Somehow, my ability to beat the marrow out of a skeleton armed with a magic rapier that drains my fighting skill whilst I’m wearing a suit of holes for a pointy needle to jab through is up to task. I wander off to the local library, and waste the afternoon reading about the religious conflicts of Orb, which are myriad, and like the ones in the real world, all stupid. But at least these religions have an excuse, right? Then I go to look for an inn, and get caught in a bear trap that was lying in the road. What a cunning plan the Minions of Death came up with. Like the Undertaker of Death they don’t buy that I don’t have the talisman, but are scared off by the watch. Who mock me some more and ride off. The bitches.

I am rescued by a wandering scholar called Apothecus, who presses the release catch on the trap which I somehow missed in my blind panic about the fact that I had some dirty great metal spikes jammed through my leg. Since he doesn’t turn into a skeleton, I figure he’s not going to try and kill me, and I accept his offer of a spare room. In the morning I tell him all about the idiotic quest I’m on. He’s a bit concerned at the destruction of all life scenario, and thinks sorting this business out might be a good idea. His suggestion for help is to give me a magic ring that increases my fighting prowess – I grit my teeth and refrain from asking if he’s got a spare sword – and send me to the local thieves guild, who hang out at an inn on the Street of Seven Sins.

The inn turns out to be dingy and not nearly as exciting as I thought. I chat to the barkeep, who tells me a tale of a lunatic warrior called Tyutchev and his knife-wielding maniac friend Cassandra, who tore this place up a while back. They sound like adventurers to me. I then befriend the local thieves guild representatives, who tell me to come along to their guildhouse tomorrow. Then that same maniac from the bartender’s story comes in, along with Cassandra. She does like to throw daggers around a bit too much. Too much in this case into the table next to my hand. I make some excuses and get out of there before the clichéd bar fight breaks out.

At dinner some other sage tells me that there’s a portal on top of the highest mountain on the continent. I’m also told an incantation that might, maybe, get that nature goddess to help me. I decline to mention what happened last time that particular deity tried to help me out. Oh, and I can also leave by the postern gate in the cemetery. You know, the place that’s full of dead bodies that any self-respecting god of death can animate at will.

This planet is insane.

The next day I go and find the secret entrance to the thieves guild, pausing to watch that psycho from the Red Dragon Inn fleece some people with the help of an illusionist. The secret entrance is a coal chute. I slide down the dusty coal chute, wander through the dusty coal cellar, and then wander through a dusty, cobweb-filled passageway under the city, before arriving at the opulent and suspiciously clean thieves guild. I notice no-one else is covered in coal dust.

“So,” I say in a cheery voice, “who wants to help me steal the Talisman of Death?”

This doesn’t immediately prompt cynical laughter. In fact, they think it’s a good idea. I’m a bit surprised, because I thought it was the stupidest thing anyone could say, and I’m the one who said it. What follows is a brief preparation montage involving rounding up specialists, leaning over maps, and grabbing equipment. Grappling iron, rope, provisions, all sorts of things… except not a sword. No, of course not. The heist itself involves running over rooftops, climbing hand over hand along a tightrope, disarming traps, and not stopping at a shop selling weapons. Inside the temple of Fell-Kyrinla I decide enough is enough and steal a sword from one of the many guards we callously murder. Fuck it, I’m done with this nice hero routine. Clearly being ruthless gets things done. My band of cut-throats kick in the door to the inner sanctum, and on seeing Hawkana is there, run for the hills. Bastards.

Hawkana, looking fetching in a chainmail dress, calls down a column of flame which scorches me good and proper. She draws her sword, and I brandish my blade, shouting “Let’s get it on!” which leaves her staring at me in confusion. “Get what on?” she asks incredulously. I sweep my sword around, slicing the air in an impressive flourish and say, “Shit just got real!” which prompts her to check the floor in case she stepped in something. “Yippee ki-yay, motherfucker?” I ask hopefully, which just prompts a confused, “What does that even mean?”

Feeling slightly put out by all this, I glumly lower my blade and sigh. “I propose to duel you, with swords, to the death. For the Talisman. Of Death.”

She lunges at me, and our blades clash together in classic clichéd dialogue shot fashion. “Why didn’t you just say ‘en garde’?” Hawkana hisses at me. I snarl back, “Because I didn’t know you had French in this world!” and we spring apart and the battle begins in earnest. There is much clashing of blades and cunning dodging but mostly just me getting cut up a whole lot.

Eventually by some miracle I win, and I grab the Talisman of Death from the altar, and turn around to find Hawakana trying to get back up. I grab the magic ring off her finger while she curses at me, and she goes back down. Outside the inner sanctum the daring and courageous thieves make some excuses, but there’s no time for my sarcastic response. Alarm bells ringing, running for our lives, me nearly getting stabbed by one of the thieves who cops a load of crossbow bolts, and then having to jump off the temple onto a nearby roof. Just like the movies…

…except those idiot gods forgot to give me the ability to make acrobatic leaps between buildings. I come down like Wile E Coyote after an overdose of Acme, surviving only because a pile of rotting garbage breaks my fall. I drag myself out and walk away muttering to myself. Further along the streets I run into the foxy woman from the inn, along with her psycho friend, and her other psycho friend, who is definitely an illusionist. This is apparent because he changes from a squiddy thing to a human. “Hey dipshit,” I shout as his troll ally takes a swing at me, “it only works if you don’t let people know you’re an illusionist first!” The troll disappears. The wizard follows up with what looks like a fireball. Looks like? I’m in a fantasy world, facing a wizard. I’m not taking that bet. I dodge and charge. I get in a single blow on Tyutchev before they start ganging up on me and using invisibility. I decide to call on the nature goddess for aid, and a convenient magical eagle picks me up. I refrain from commenting on the contrived solution to that life-threatening situation. Don’t look a gift deus ex machina in the mouth.

The Eagle dumps me in Store street, where there are plenty of shops selling weapons which are now completely useless to me, so I lay low until evening when the followers of the All-Mother will be guarding the gates. I’m completely certain that the graveyard is going to be one giant re-enactment of Thriller. On the way to the gate, I am attacked by a dark elf, but he’s only got one sword so I refrain from making any condescending jokes. I get well away from the city, sleep in a haystack, and then decide to follow the trade road because that’s so blindingly stupid no-one would ever think I’m dumb enough to go that way.

Naturally Orb has other plans, and instead I get to fight Hawkana’s spirit in my sleep. Then I get dive bombed by a giant bird, because that’s how things go out here, and then I get to climb a huge staircase up the side of a massive plateau. This is not my idea of a good time. I decide to explore a waterfall cave for the sheer amusement of the experience. Well, plus I’m hoping there’s a magical lift inside. Instead I find some cryptic inscriptions, and then a big statue of some… thing… called Damolh, Son of the God Nil, Mouth of the Void. This sounds bad. Really bad. So I leave via the door indicated by the various scratchings I saw earlier. I find a tomb. In the tomb, is a spear and a sword. Right, now I have one there’s swords everywhere. I take the spear, since a pointy thing with the word “dragonslayer” etched in it is probably useful, kill the inevitable risen dead, and find a way out.

Eventually I reach the top of the plateau, and find myself surrounded by some boar/human hybrids. They haul me off to their village, and I go, hoping that this time no-one will confiscate my weapons. The leader of the Hogmen is quite civil about this whole deal, and is happy to send me to the portal, since there’s a bloody great dragon there and I’ll have to kill it to get off the planet. He gives me some magical glue to make a shield of dragon scales. “Like in the film Dragonslayer,” I say, nodding. “Like in the what?” comes the reply. I resolve to get off this planet as soon as possible.

I trek to the mountain, past skeletons with swords stuck through the ribcage, and shrubs with swords hanging from their branches. Eventually, I come to the mountain and go looking through the caves. I find the dragon, asleep on a huge pile of gold. I grab some scales and get out of there, assembling a shield on the way to the summit. I am clearly also an expert armourer. On the summit of the mountain I find a glowing rectangle floating in the air, and then the dragon turns up. It turns out that this scaly bastard is a god-appointed glorified doorkeeper. Naturally the gods didn’t think to give him the day off or even just mention that a woman with a deadly artefact would need to pop through the portal. “Look, dragon,” I explain patiently, “if I don’t get this gaudy talisman off this planet, everyone will die.”

Yes, I’m asking a dragon – a red dragon – to show empathy. That doesn’t work so well. I respond to its apathy with, “Okay, then let’s cut to the epic battle.”

“Actually,” says the dragon, “You need a bard or minstrel or storyteller here to record the battle to make it part of an epi-” I stab it with the spear. “Shut up, you literal thinking, not-knowing-pop-culture lizard!”

An epic battle does ensue, with my getting torn to pieces by the dragon and me stabbing it a few more times with the magic spear. After a few blows it turns into an old man who claims to have been cursed to turn into a dragon, but now I have freed him. I think for a moment, then remember that dragons are always pulling shape-changing stunts, and skewer him. Thankfully I got it right, and the dragon turns back into its huge and ungainly form… and slumps down in front of the portal, blocking my escape from Orb. I stare at this ridiculous scene for a moment, and then sigh, draw my sword, and start slicing pieces off the dragon.

Wrapup

Well all right, it didn’t end like that, but I thought it would have been far more amusing. This is one of the best Fighting Fantasy books, with lovely writing, a complex plot, loads of interesting characters, plenty of women being badasses (usually in real armour, women in proper armour fans).

Oddly enough I managed to get through a significant portion of the book without ever getting to replace my missing sword, yet In the middle of the heist I got the option to knock someone out with the pommel of my sword, or run them through – Er, how? I went back and read through the path I took, and there’s no indication a replacement weapon is on offer. So I just assumed I grabbed one off a guard.

Some of the opponents are super tough. Two of the minions of Death can drain skill. Hawkana has a skill of 12 the first time round, and her spirit has a skill of 10. The dragon is also a skill 12 opponent. I was incredibly, ridiculously lucky with the dice.

Suspension of Disbelief Shattered: The suddenly appearing sword.

Ridiculous Battle: Hawkana, who you can go up to three rounds with if you’re not careful. But a skill of 12 about halfway through the book? That is cruel.

Victory: Escape form Orb, but with the annoying deities telling you they might abduct you for assistance again.

What Was I Thinking? Going to Temple Street instead of Store Street after having my sword stolen, on the assumption that no writer would be cruel enough not to offer up swords in all options.

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