Return to Firetop Mountain

“Can I have some salt with my plate of eyeballs?”

Return to Firetop Mountain by Ian Livingstone

Covers: Les Edwards, Martin McKenna

Illustrations: Martin McKenna

I like McKenna’s new cover the most:

Zagor has opted for heterchromia, which is a stylish choice of eye colour.

“Come on you fuckers! Come and try again!”

That was actually tweaked for the cover. The original version is even better. You can find it on his website.

So this was the 50th Fighting Fantasy book, and also came out ten years after the original Warlock of Firetop Mountain. So it was a big celebratory party, and also the planned end to the series. Of course by writing a sequel to the original book everyone went bonkers for it, and so the series stumbled on to the eventual end nine books later.

I’m sure you can vaguely guess the plot. The thing is, the plot is a retcon. Zagor, previously seen as a reclusive Warlock living in solitude and being harassed by bloodthirsty women with swords who were after his treasure, is now a crazed wizard who knows all manner of evil magic and was stopped from being an evil bastard by a bold adventurer (i.e. me). History is written by the victors, I suppose.

Statistics

Skill: 8 (WHAT?)
Stamina: 23 (Phew)
Luck: 9 (Argh!)

Equipment: Sword, backpack, lantern. No armour, provisions, nor a potion. So this is going to be one of those books, then.

Onward to Adventure!

I’ve been on one of those treks through the wilderness that adventurers sometimes feel compelled to do. I’ve trekked far and wide and have come to the village of Anvil, which is two days from Firetop Mountain. Well, it was Firetop Mountain, but the strange red plants on the summit have all turned black. When I inform the local innkeeper that I seek a new and profitable quest, he eyes me warily and says, “Does the name Zagor mean anything to you?”

“Wasn’t he killed by some madwoman with a sword ten years ago?”

“Yes but it didn’t stick, and now he’s having people abducted from our village to provide parts to make a new body!”

“Right, has he still got a big chest full of gold?”

“Probably. I mean, they just spontaneously appear around wizards, right?”

“Okay then, I’m the woman for this job. I’ll kill him and take his stuff.”

That sorted, I get a free room for the night and the next day I set out. However, since Zagor has likely upped his game since the last time some woman trekked into his mountain and killed him, I decide to follow the advice of the innkeeper and go visit Yaztromo down by Darkwood Forest.

I barely get a hundred yards from Anvil when the innkeeper, who is named Moose for reasons unknown to any but the bizarre minds of peasants, comes running after me. Apparently a couple of villainous fiends called “trackers” overheard us planning to do Zagor in a second time and have made off to let him know I’m coming. Naturally I don’t want an angry warlock waiting for me when I get to the mountain, so I follow the innkeeper into the undergrowth, stopping to grab a shield someone left lying about. It turns out to be useful, because on of the bastard monsters throws a dagger at me. I proceed to kill one, while Moose takes out the other. Some quick looting later and I have some gold and some daggers.

I part ways with the innkeeper and proceed along the trail, being given a mushroom by the local rhyming mushroom grower, and then turn south towards Darkwood Forest. On the way I rescue someone staked out for the ants and get a ring of invisibility for my troubles. This is turning out to be a rather profitable side quest. Except then it gets dark and I have to go to sleep, the only place that seems safe happening to be the cellar of a burned out hut. It’s full of insects, which I spend some time killing. I also turn up some wooden blocks and a numbered key, so that’s probably useful.

The next day I head on down to Stonebridge, and find the Dwarves expecting me. Someone thoughtfully sent a carrier pigeon to left them know I was coming, so they have arranged a boat to Kaad for me.

“Kaad?” I ask.

“Yes, Yaztromo has gone there to help fight a plague.”

“No, why is it called Kaad?”

“How the hell would I know? Our town is called Stonebridge because we have a stone bridge. Whatever the hell a kaad is, that’s why the town is called that.”

I suppose he has a point. I board the boat and it sails down the river, the only excitement being an Orc killing one of the crew with a throwing axe, and a carrier pigeon somehow knowing how to find me. It has a message from that innkeeper. Apparently Zagor, who has better spies than any government, has sent a Doppelgänger to Kaad, where it will pretend to be Yaztromo and try to kill me.

The innkeeper from Anvil apparently has better spies than Zagor.

When I get to Kaad the fake Yaztromo meets me at the gates. I immediately run it through, banishing this evil spirit from the world, and avoiding an unnecessarily long duel. In the city, the real Yaztromo (you can tell because he swears a lot) tells me that I need to find some gold dragon’s teeth inscribed with numbers of mystical importance, because they’re the only way to kill Zagor now. Of course, the usual deal with darkness clause applies and Zagor has to keep them in his mountain. Yaztromo then tells me to go and buy the usual adventuring supplies because he’s too busy trying to cure the plague to come and help out.

I wander off to find a store where I can buy some equipment. The local adventuring supply store has a range of items, and I promptly purchase garlic, mirror, gloves, and some other stuff. See garlic, grab garlic. I then catch the local Giant Eagle Airlines flight to Firetop Mountain and head inside. I arrive at a T-junction. I turn right and find a boarded up door. What mysteries must lie behind this portal! If only I had a crowbar, I could pry the boards off and then enter. No, wait! I could charge in boldly, breaking the door down! Surely that would be the best plan. Oh well, that isn’t going to happen. But I’ll take this brass egg in a bottle instead.

Onward! Past locked and sealed rooms that no doubt held riches and peril, and then I find a bunch of Orc skeletons, which I re-deadificate. All that is in the old kitchen they were residing inside is a case that has “the giver of sleep to those who never can” inscribed inside the lid. That’s a bit rubbish. I continue, finding a torture chamber that happens to contain a corpse which has a ring that is probably handy for seeing through illusions. The torture chamber also contains a net that just missed me. The Goblin responsible needs to be taught a lesson, so I clamber up the rope to the secret room above the ceiling. Inside I find the sword of a legendary Chaos Champion. Okay whatever, the fancy sword is mine now. I pursue the horrid little shit down a tunnel that ends in a pit – which I discover without falling down it – and then on my way back I get trapdoored into a prison cell. I set the straw on fire to make the Goblin come running in, and I kill the bastard. Easy peasy.

I continue deeper into the mountain, finding several tunnels have caved in. Eventually I wind up with a third sword, and an increasing number of daggers. At least if there’s no treasure I have a lot of junk to sell. Finally, I reach the famous river. Thankfully I have a couple of Zagor coins from the body of the Tracker I killed to pay the ferryman. Unfortunately I am attacked by Lizard People on the other side and have to dive into the water and swim downstream. Eventually I find myself in another cavern, with two exits. One labelled PITS and the other PUZZLES. Presently puzzles are particularly preferable.

Down the Puzzle Tunnel I find a room lined with books and also home to someone calling himself The Inquisitor.

It's another Ian Lvingstone cameo!

Inquisitor Livingstone, I presume?

He gives me some trivial number puzzles to do and then lets me read his books. Unfortunately the one on elementals is written in tiny text I can’t read. Oh well, I’m sure it won’t be that important. I continue into the dungeon, and pass a door with raucous laughter behind it. I knock, and am asked for a password, which I happen to guess because I found a word on someone’s corpse. For my trouble I’m entered in a sheep’s eye eating contest.

Oh good.

My fellow contestants are a Barbarian, a Caveman, and a Troglodyte. The Barbarian insists on a side bet, which I agree to. Then the judge tells me the rules: I have to eat as many of these things as possible in five minutes. They are uncooked, cold, slimy, and they’re eyeballs. I contemplate the pile of eyes, and realise that when you gaze long into a pile of sheep’s eyeballs, the pile of sheep’s eyeballs also gazes into you. Then the competition starts. I lose by a single, solitary eyeball, but beat the Barbarian. He refuses to hand over my winnings, so I kill him and take it – a gold tooth with a number stamped into it.

Well, that’s good. I carry on until I hear the sound of someone chopping wood from behind a door. How difficult can a woodcutter be to deal with? The answer will never be known, because the occupant of the room is actually a Chaos Warrior. You can always tell you’ve met one of these bastards because they never, ever take off their armour, which is covered in spikes and evil runes, which is a useful visual aid if your nose isn’t working. They also love ridiculously huge swords, which this particular Chaos Warrior is using to wallop a wooden practice dummy. I am left without any option but to fight the Chaos Warrior, because the usual trick of pretending to be selling single-use magic items won’t work. These idiots just attack anyone they meet on sight.

Yes, I know, just like adventurers. But I’m wholesome and good because I don’t do the whole spikes and runes thing. Unfortunately, I’m also not as good at this whole combat deal and so I die, and Zagor will reign terror and chaos down on Allansia.

Who needs two hands when one will do?

“Not so easy this time around is it, you fuckers!”

Wrapup

Chaos Warrior: Skill 10, Stamina 10. I might have been able to win, but the Skill 10, Stamina 10 Barbarian whittled me down to 4 Stamina previously. Drat. I checked afterwards and found it’s also an essential encounter, so there’s no getting around that one.

It’s a pretty good book, though appallingly hard near the end, with multiple required items to even get to Zagor and then you need all four dragon’s teeth. Did you notice how I got no provisions or potion at the start? There’s so few ways to recover Stamina that it’s positively unreal. But it’s still enjoyable. The first third of the book is a tour of some famous parts of Allansia, which was probably an extra Ten Years of Fighting Fantasy bonus. The middle third is the first half of the Warlock’s dungeon, which was surprisingly similar to the first book, with some of the descriptions being the same and even some items turning up. Marvellous fun.

I can only assume that Zagor, having settled down to a quiet life of card tricks after his time spent in Evil Wizard School, has lost the plot after being killed because he didn’t seem the evil wizard sort in the first book other than his penchant for hiring monsters to guard his dungeon. But I think this is really a side effect of Titan: The Fighting Fantasy World turning him into a full-blown evil wizard who took over a Dwarf stronghold.

Of course his devotion to Chaos (Team Chaos is the overarching evil force of the universe based around Titan in the later books) gives a good reason why these people working for him are so willing to be bought off, let people wander through to the inner sanctums of the mountain, and generally just not do their job of protecting their boss.

Suspension of Disbelief Shattered: “One of them calls out and they all throw their razor sharp spheres at you.” – Razor sharp spheres. Riiiiiight.

Ridiculous Battle: So many to choose from, but Zagor, Skill 11 Stamina 18, is a mandatory fight. There’s also a Skill 12, Stamina 12 Chaos Slime Beast you can avoid, and, oh no not again, six mummies, Skill 9 Stamina 12… one at a time. Sound familiar? You can kill a die roll’s worth with your lantern, but then it’s back to the mummy horde grindstone. Well, okay, this book came first, but it’s still like that bit in Curse of the Mummy. Joy.

But the real prize goes to the – thankfully avoidable – Chaos Beast Man: Skill 12, Stamina 13. But that’s not all! If you lose more than one attack round it immediately turns into a Mutant Beast Lord, Sk 14, St 14. Bloody hell.

Victory: You get to pry as many gems as you can carry out of the solid gold throne Zagor has had made for himself and cart them off to Anvil. Everyone then expects you to take them back into the mountain to see Zagor’s dead body. It’s right there where you left it… But missing the skeletal left arm that was the only part of the original body left – can he be reborn again?

What Was I Thinking? Not jumping down that dirty great hole. That is, in fact, the way to win the book.

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8 Responses to Return to Firetop Mountain

  1. Graham Hart says:

    It’s odd how, throughout the recorded history of civilisation, no one ever seems to have considered that the best way to protect their stronghold would be to place it in the middle of a “dungeon” full of T-junctions, very short corridors, and choices of doors.

    Then again, such dungeons tend somehow to accumulate objects that are required to vanquish the owner, so perhaps that explains it.

    • I think we’re supposed to assume the corridors are longer than they seem. The objects thing is the standard deal with darkness clause. The T-junctions are presumably so the servants don’t get lost in a Maze of Zagor. It can’t be because all the sword wielding maniacs complain…

      • Graham Hart says:

        Yes, I know really… The genre comes with certain idioms that simply have to be accepted if you’re going to enjoy it. Still, I can’t help wondering whether anything that even vaguely resembles a fantasy dungeon (i.e., with traps and wandering denizens, though not actual slime beasts) has ever existed in the real world.

  2. Shane says:

    And of course, it’s the one sure fire way of attracting the crazies.

  3. Esper says:

    Return to Firetop Mountain would be a much better gamebook if there weren’t so scant few chances to heal your Stamina, especially considering how many high Skill enemies there are. As it is, it’s a real pain to play.

    • I wonder how it reads if you give yourself ten provisions. I suppose it might be reasonable to fix some of the more unreasonably harsh books. After all, the community has had to do so with Blood of the Zombies.

  4. Pingback: The Warlock of Firetop Mountain | Seven Fourteen Seven

  5. Rob Lee says:

    You knew there’d be mummies waiting for you later if you happen to find a lantern/lighter/fire-related object at some point in your quest, just like garlic / belladonna means you’re bound to encounter vampires/werewolves much later !!!!

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