City of Thieves

“It’s not a real fight with a lich without some Skeletons!”

City of Thieves by Ian Livingstone

This was the first one I actually read. I was nine years old, and this was the only Fighting Fantasy book in the school library – a Catholic school, no less. I suspect they didn’t read it first. The cover is splendid, cleverly juxtaposing the city with the reason for going there: Zanbar Bone.

The most badass skeleton ever, with a scythe.

Zanbar Bone is clearly a badass.

Zanbar Bone! What a cool villain! A skeleton with proper eyes, who carries a scythe around! Okay so he doesn’t have a scythe in the book, but that’s okay, I understood that covers were usually symbolic and not necessarily representative of the contents of a book. Zanbar Bone, aka The Night Prince, who has an evil tower and Moon Dogs, whatever they are, and also wants to abduct the mayor’s daughter for reasons unknown (and unstated). Zanbar Bone is a badass motherfucker, as will be revealed in due time. But the most important part is that there’s no good reason given for any of this – he’s just a skeleton with some cool powers. Who knows how he got them? He’s an enigma, which makes any villain 531% cooler.

The plot is something about going to a city full of thieves to find some wizard, who will sort out Zanbar Bone for the mayor of Silverton and end the reign of terror, which mainly involves Moon Dogs turning up at night and killing anyone in the streets. The wizard is Nicodemus, who turns up in a few books and gets name dropped in others. The titular city is Port Blacksand, which is probably the most-referenced location in all of the Fighting Fantasy books. Most of the important points surface here: Lord Azzur (another enigma), the Black Lobster inn, and the criminal nature of the city.

The city itself is a host of bizarre and strange urban encounters. However, since there’s plenty of shops, a few houses to intrude in (standard stuff in this city), and some suitably fitting locations like the sewers and the port, it feels like a bunch of related locations rather than a single place with a bunch of weird stuff crammed into it. That may be the nostalgia talking. I suppose we shall see.

This one goes out to my friend Kelly, who fixed me up with a copy of the book complete with cool original artwork.

Statistics

Skill: 8 (shiiiit)
Stamina: 21 (okay)
Luck: 10 (I suppose)

Equipment: Sword, backpack, leather armour, 30 gold, 10 Provisions, Potion of Fortune.

Onward to Adventure!

So, I’m a complete badass. I am officially a dragon slayer who lets nothing stand in her way, and everyone knows my name. This is good, because it means free rooms in inns and all the wenches I can eat. Life as a super famous adventurer is pretty great, except you have to watch out for wells. I’ve just had a nasty run-in with one, so it’s time to head back to what passes for civilization and rest up before my next daring quest. I come into Silverton and am rather put out to find everyone is not amazed to see me trek into town. In fact, everyone looks kind of dejected about life in general. I head towards the local inn. Before I get there there’s a flurried panic because the sun is setting.

The innkeeper makes a big show of ignoring me and bolting the door, and then opening it to the frantic cries of someone outside. I think this would be quite an impressive performance for tourists if this were All Hallow’s Eve, but it’s not. The latecomer introduces himself to me as Owen Carralif, buys me a huge dinner, and at this point I realise I’m probably going to get asked to do something ridiculously dangerous. But okay, first things first: Free food. After I’m done, he starts to provide the exposition. I mean, tell me what’s going on.

“So, stranger, our town is being attacked by Zanbar Bone-”

“Zanbar motherfucking Bone?”

Zanbar Bone appears out of nowhere to scythe you up!

Muahahahahahaha!

“Yes, so I was wondering if…”

“No, no fucking way,” I say. There’s some things even I won’t do. “I’m not going after him. He’s got Moon Dogs, whatever the hell they are, and also Spirit Stalkers, whatever the hell they are.”

“Well of course, it’s a bit difficult. I was actually going to ask you to go and find my old friend Nicodemus. He lives in Port Blacksand.”

“Port fucking Blacksand?!” I cry with dismay. Everyone knows that Port Blacksand is what happens when cities grow up on the wrong side of the tracks, fall in with a bad crowd, and then take up serial killing.

“It’s not that bad!” protests Carralif. “My second wife and I went there for our honeymoon.”

“Is she fucking dead? Or did you sell her into slavery?”

“Well okay she did get killed, yes.” Owen Carralif has the decency to look embarrassed for a moment. “But YOU are a bold adventurer, and according to what everyone says, ‘success is always assured on your quests’ so I think you’ll have no trouble.”

I hesitate to take this quest, since Port Blacksand is the only place on the planet where people are imprisoned for not being vicious murdering thieves. On the other hand, I’m an adventurer, which means by the standards of civilized society my skillset will fit right in there… so I might be okay. The mayor sees my hesitation and gives me an incredibly fancy sword as incentive. I give in and accept the mission.

“What does Zanbar Bone want, anyway?” I ask.

“My daughter.”

I am slightly confused by this. “What the hell does Zanbar Bone, a skeleton, want with your daughter?”

“No idea, but I’d really not rather hand her over.”

He has a point. I go to bed, and sleep poorly, because the moon dogs outside are making a racket. In the morning I set off, and tell myself every hour or so that Port Blacksand won’t be that bad. Fifty miles later, I arrive at Allansia’s second biggest tourist destination (“Visit Port Blacksand! See The Sights! Get Robbed Blind!”) and bluff my way past the guard on the gate by pretending I have some valuables to fence. That doesn’t really sound too different to most trips to a city after a jaunt in a dungeon, so it’s a lie that comes easily. Once inside, I notice that it’s a very quaint town, what with the piles of rotting garbage, ramshackle houses that loom over the streets, and also the fact that there’s a thousand ways to die horribly.

I set off down Market Street. After caves, tombs, dungeons, and sewers there’s nothing that attracts an adventurer like a marketplace. One of the first things that catches my eye is a tavern. I enter, and see a display of surly humanoids engaged in stereotypical tavern scene activity. You know, goblins arguing, dwarves playing dice, and some idiots sticking a knife between their splayed fingers as fast as possible. They challenge me to do it, and I manage with ease and get a magic bracelet that is supposed to kill insects. Okay, insects are annoying so that’s good. Further up the street some thieves try to rob me, and I kill them. It turns out they had more gold than I did, which makes me wonder if Port Blacksand is more a place where the criminally insane move to, rather than a city full of people in desperate poverty. Of course it doesn’t matter either way, because there’s no-one to implement any positive social changes and from what I’ve seen so far, progressive social policy here would be locking the gates and setting the whole damn city on fire.

At the entrance to the market people are pelting someone in a pillory with rotten fruit and eggs. According to the notice pinned up, he is apparently guilty of the crime of being a goody-two shoes. What a sucker, the one city in the world where it’s okay to rob and kill, and he doesn’t. Probably a tourist. Unlike me: I am actually there to conduct business and keep the local economy moving. I roam the market, buying important adventuring supplies like lanterns, meat hooks, and rope, and then head over to the Singing Bridge. This poetically named structure is called that because the wind whistles through all the skulls tied to it. I do not know whether to be appalled by the barbaric display, or cheered by seeing the local customs. There are some steps. I go down under the bridge and find a hut. A quick knock on the door produces someone who… well… I’m fairly certain he’s Nicodemus.

Look, I'll level with you: He looks like Gandalf, right down to making pictures with the smoke from his pipe.

“Hey Nicodemus, can I come in and take a load off my feet?” “You shall not pass!” “Jeez, okay, no need to be so dramatic.”

After the “who dares disturb Nicodemus” ranting subsides I lay out the situation for him. I tell him about how the Night Prince wants to have Owen Carralif’s daughter shipped off to his evil tower of evil, and how Moon Dogs are tearing up anyone who is outside after dark, and how Nicodemus’ help is required.

“Zanbar motherfucking Bone?!”

Zanbar Bone appears out of nowhere to scythe you up!

Muahahahahahaha!

“Yes, are you going to kill him or not?”

“Not, but here’s a shopping list of stuff you need to get to kill him yourself.”

With that Nicodemus slams his door in my face. I am left there holding a shopping list that flutters in the breeze, thinking, Oh great… now I have to kill Zanbar Bone.

Zanbar Bone appears out of nowhere to scythe you up!

Muahahahahahaha!

I head down Candle Street, and see a mysterious door at the end of the alleyway with skulls painted on it. Nothing says adventure like doors with skulls, so I barge on in. The occupant says he will let me take one of six pills, and if I die he gets all my stuff. If I live, he gives me 20 gold. Only one of the pills is lethal. Now, I know what you’re thinking, and you’d be right. I definitely tried this game out. I won, and walked away all the richer, and wondering why he didn’t make the odds a little more even. Candle Street comes to a dead end, and I climb over the wall, where I find some little creatures called Bay’s. Who are playing their favourite game. Bay’s Ball.

I ask to join in, and they happily let me try to hit a little ball with a stick. I manage to do it, winning the game for them. I am giving a whole host of gifts from the adoring fans, including magic items, bananas, and an eye patch. This isn’t bad for hitting a ball with a stick, but I decide to get back to shopping for ridiculous magic items, and head for Harbour Street. The harbour is a sight, with an honest-to-goodness pirate ship moored there. I clamber up a rope ladder and sneak below decks. I make off with some black pearls, ticking off one of the items on my shopping list, and then I get out of there. I wander the streets a bit further, finding a silversmith. My shopping list says I need a silver arrow, so I step inside. A silver arrow turns out to cost a whopping ten gold, which I suspect means there’s the equivalent of a hundred silver pieces in it. Though of course I don’t actually know what a silver coin looks like. I’ve just heard other adventurers talk about them. I take my arrow and head off outside, turning into Stable Street and finding a manhole. Manhole… sewer… tunnels underground… that means… a dungeon! I nip down there to explore right away. It’s dark. And smells bad. But there’s going to be things to kill and treasure to steal.

Instead there are rats, and also a hag. Thankfully one of the prizes won at Bay’s Ball is a potion that protects me from her vile sorcery, so I simply just hack some of her hair off, tick another item off my shopping list, and kick her into the sewage. I decide to get out of the sewer while the getting is good and proceed along the streets of Port Blacksand. At one point I catch someone manacled to an iron ball and turn him over to the guards. Apparently murder is a crime here, which means I’ve broken the law frequently. Never mind, what the guards don’t know won’t end up with me being hanged.

Further on I find the Public Gardens of Thieves, which somehow managed to turn a profit from an honesty box. Whatever, I go inside and find in the centre a plinth, holding a bowl, holding lotus flowers. Lotus flowers are one of the last items on my shopping list. There’s a sign saying “Do not pick the flowers” but there’s no-one watching besides some topiary, so I grab one… and the fucking shrubs attack me!

They were probably enchanted by a hedge wizard.

I prune the shrubbery and get out of there, and make my way along Mill Street. The guard are on patrol and I have no desire to meet them, so I duck down a lane and find a tattooist’s shop. I sigh and step inside to get the last item on the list.

“Greetings,” I say, trying to put a brave face on. “I would like a unicorn, surrounded by a yellow sun, tattooed on my forehead.”

The shop owner, one Jimmy Quicktint, bursts into laughter. “The old Zanbar Bone special, eh? You know why no-one has ever killed him yet?”

“Because no-one is stupid enough to get the tattoo.” I reply. “Can you make it temporary?”

I step out of the shop a little while later and walk back to Mill Street. I feel rather self conscious. In fact, with all the pointing and staring I quickly attract the attention of a couple of city guards. They are Trolls, and shake me down for all my gold and throw me out of the city. Well, at least I have everything I need, and look like an idiot. I can set off to battle Zanbar Bone. Along the way I make a bow, and it’s while I’m testing it I get a message from Nicodemus. Apparently I only need two of the three ingredients. I am not very happy about this, but I pick the hag hair and lotus flower, hoping I’m right.

I set of towards the tower of the Night Prince, passing through an ever more wasted and decayed landscape. His powers are so vile that the very land itself is sick. Eventually I reach the hill on which the tower stands. It is night, which means it’s time to try and break in. But first, I have to fight a couple of Moon Dogs. Moon Dogs are quite tough. I am forced to eat half my compliment of cheese sandwiches after killing them. I decide to be devious, and ring the doorbell. The servant who opens it is clearly undead, so I nail him to the wall with the silver arrow, and he disintegrates while screaming. I pry the arrow out and explore the entryway. There’s a couple of fine-looking shields hanging up, so I grab the one with a unicorn on it, and proceed up the tower.

I accidentally barge into a room with an attractive young woman who is also a vampire. Isn’t it always the way? I produce the garlic I picked up in the city, duck out the door and lock her in. Further up the tower I come across a white door, and a black door. I try the white door first and inside is a plain stone room with a Djartan sarcophagus inside. I figure I should check this out, and incinerate the inevitable Mummy with my lantern. In the bottom of the sarcophagus is a magic ring which lets me see through illusions. Gosh, it’s awfully lucky I came in here. It’s almost like I knew what I was looking for, isn’t it? I step outside and open the black door.

Inside is a nicely laid out room, which contains a black cat, and an open chest on a table. In the chest is a golden skull. But my newly found Ring of the Golden Eye tells me it’s all an illusion! Not only is the golden skull not there, the black cat is really a black-robed skeleton, wearing a golden skull. Zanbar Bone! Before I can grab my bow he plucks three teeth from his grinning visage and throws them down, and out of the ensuing cloud of smoke step…

Skeletons always appear holding swords.

FUCK YEAH SKELETONS!

“I thought they’d never turn up,” I say, and get down to the real business of adventuring: Making things dead. Again. They skeletons advance, in that strange, jerky motion that somehow seems more real than everything else around them while also being not quite as fluid as the movement of real people. I duel them one at a time, and finally when they’re done I have to deal with…

At this point it's a Luck test to nail him with the silver arrow. That's why I took that potion at the start.

Like I said: Legit gangster necromancer.

He walks forward, trying to touch me. I drop my sword, notch my arrow, and in an incredible display of luck over skill, shoot him through the heart. Right, it all comes down to this… I grind the compound of lotus petals and hag hair into his eyes… and he crumbled into dust. Victory! I grab my sword, pluck my silver arrow from the pile of Bone dust, and flee the tower, setting it on fire. I make my way to Silverton, where everyone is quite pleased that I succeeded in the quest to save the town. A huge feast is laid on, and I proceed to try and chat up the comely daughter of the mayor. Who just laughs at my ridiculous tattoo.

Possibly this quest was not, in fact, worth all that effort.

Wrapup

I got a Skill of 7 on my first try that got cut down to 6, and was blazing through the city until the Hag got me. Losing a single point of Skill can make things difficult. Yes, in the second playthrough I cheated with the bloody Moon Dogs, they’re ridiculous.

If Dungeons and Dragons standards are applied, Zanbar Bone is clearly a lich, since D&D says the arrogant bastards wear crowns and give themselves ridiculous titles. On top of that, he has almost every kind of classic undead in his tower (he’s missing some ghouls). However it doesn’t say he’s one in the book, so officially he’s just a unique undead wizard thing.

Suspension of Disbelief Shattered: The intro described me as a “swordsman” which I think is the only blatant slip-up I’ve found so far.

The best one is probably ringing the bell-pull at Zanbar Bone’s tower, pretending to be a lost traveller, and then you get the option to… simply go to sleep in the guest room! I find it hard to believe that after all that anyone would think spending the night is an option. Even worse, if you break or fight your way in, this is still an option.

Ridiculous Battle: The Moon Dogs. Skill 9, Stamina 10; then Skill 11, Stamina 9. Not actually winnable for an average character without loads of Luck being thrown away in the battle.

Victory: A huge feast, piles of unnamed gifts, a golden orb worth hundreds of gold pieces… and a lifetime of being laughed at for that ridiculous tattoo.

What Was I Thinking? I read this book about twenty times when I was nine. Subsequently I had a lot of trouble making mistakes, but the first time I went down a street where some dirty thieves peppered with arrows as I tried to escape, lost my sword, and subsequently was set up for inevitable failure…

Zanbar Bone appears out of nowhere to scythe you up!

Muahahahahahaha!

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4 Responses to City of Thieves

  1. lpearce says:

    “What the hell does Zanbar Bone, a skeleton, want with your daughter?”
    I don’t know. Maybe he wants to bone her.

  2. Rob Lee says:

    You killed Zanbar, by rubbing that lotion on his bone!!! :P (innuendo intended)

  3. I just finished CoT tonight. Loved it.

    But I loved your conversation with the mayor of Silverton, even more. Freakin’ hilarious. “Your wife? Is she dead, or did you sell her into slavery?” “Well she did die…”

  4. I just played CoT tonight, and loved it.

    I loved even more, your description of the conversation with the mayor. That was hilarious.

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