Written by Ian Livingstone, Artwork by Martin McKenna
Sometimes, they come back.
It was 1992, ten years after The Warlock Of Firetop Mountain was published. The Fighting Fantasy series had been a big hit, a huge hit. By this stage there were 49 books in the main series, not counting all of the side series and spin-off items. For the fiftieth book, Ian Livingstone wrote Return To Firetop Mountain, a book which boasts its pedigree right on the cover.
And that's a lovely cover, showing a veritable army of monsters, with the imposing mountain itself looming in the background, atop which stands the haunting visage of the now-undead warlock Zagor himself. The cover also features the letter '50' in huge, powerful lettering, making damn sure you know what number in the series you're holding. I've a sneaking suspicion that this may have been intended to be the last in the series, because of the strong theme of returning to where it all began.
Funny thing, for the 30th anniversary of FF, I was in London to get a copy of Blood of the Zombies. In 1992 on the tenth anniversary of FF, I bought a copy of Return to Firetop Mountain in London. Specifically one of the airports, while waiting for a flight back home from a peculiar adventure involving the BBC which we won't get into at this point. I hadn't even realised at the time that FF books had been out for 10 years, all I knew was that this was the fiftieth and Zagor needed to be taught a lesson.
Eager to go and pick on the poor old man again, my adventurer has grabbed the quest to head into the mountain, where Zagor is imprisoning local villagers and using their body parts to create a whole new body for himself.... ick. I'll try not to think about that too much. Anyway, as I set out on the journey to the mountain, only to be stopped by the tavern keeper from the local town, who tells me that a pair of scouts are on their way ahead to alert Zagor's forces to my arrival. Together we duck into the undergrowth, where I find a rather nice polished shield just laying in the dirt.
|Geek references FTW
The scouts were also carrying a scroll which puts a curse on me when I look at it, lowering my skill to a 9. Why would they even have this kind of thing? And why would they be carrying a cursed scroll around in their smelly boots? I'm sure it's some kind of evil plan of some sort. I opt to press on towards Yaztromo's Tower, which along with Port Blacksand is one of the most important (and often-visited) locations in the whole of the FF universe. I'm pretty certain that Ol' Yaz will be keen to help me. We're friends, see, from way back in the Forest of Doom days.
The dwarves are taking a break from drinking ale and singing about gold. In fact, they have discovered a new hobby - sailing. They tell me that my buddy Yaz isn't in the tower, but has gone off on a little holiday to the village of Kaad, which needs to be said in a William Shatner voice from now on. They invite me to sail with them down the river to get to KAAAD!! so I pack my things up and go along with them.
To be fair, it could have ended worse. The sky could have spat fire at me. So I guess we got out of it alright in the end.
Dragging myself along the bank of the river, I realise that I'm probably not going to live to see Firetop Mountain. It all seems so far away. As I lay there trying to recover, I renew my determination to succeed. I refuse to just lay down and give up, even when a poisonous snake decides to crawl over me. I get up and march on towards KAAAD!!
I arrive in KAAAD!! to find that it's a plague site. It seems that Yaz's holiday out here wasn't just sight-seeing after all. I'm eventually able to track him down, or at least someone who looks just like him. I'm rather suspicious of the kindly old man I meet who claims to be Yaztromo, as I've never known him to be particularly friendly in any of the previous books. Turned out that this is indeed something of a beginner's trap, because this man is an imposter. It's a changeling monster posing as Yaz, and he proceeds to kick me around the whole town before I'm able to land a lucky blow and kill it.
I have already used up all of my Star Trek Deep Space Nine jokes about Changelings, so let's just move on.
When I find the real Yaz, he grumbles and moans about everything, so I know it's the real him. He then gives you the means to kill Zagor - finding the gold dragon teeth that are hidden around Firetop Mountain, and also figuring out the right magic words to use them. He gives me some gold coins to buy some items, and... does not heal my hunchback-ery status ailment. Oh gee, thanks sooo much Yaz.
So after a quick bit of shopping (wherein I gather the usual dungeoneering supplies of rope, leather gloves, garlic, silver knives and the like), a friendly local elf gives me a ride on the back of a giant eagle to the base of Firetop Mountain, and we are finally ready to begin the adventure proper. With my both my skill, stamina and luck now just a mere 7 apiece. Gosh, I'm doing well at this!
I venture into the entrance tunnel of the mountain, and am confronted with the first choice from the very first Fighting Fantasy adventure - turn left or right. In Warlock, turning right leads to a pit trap, so I decide to see what new twist this book has put on this. The door into the room is boarded up, but I find a bottle on the floor that contains a small brass egg. No idea what that's doing there, or how someone managed to fit an egg into a bottle. Oh well, let's get exploring!
|Eggs, eggs everywhere! Eggs!
I find a chain on the wall and, hoping it's not an alarm bell, give it a good yank. It opens a secret chamber. I can't quite resist the urge to stick my hand into secret chambers, so I grope around inside it until I find a sealed container inside the chamber, immersed in enough acidic goo that is sure to ruin those nice leather gloves I'd bought. Inside the container I find a gold dragon's tooth. Not too bad, not too bad!
Then I notice something odd. Yaz told me that the dragon's teeth had numbers printed on them. This one has an icon, a little heart surrounded by a ring of fire. No idea why this is. Could be that it's a code of some sort, which I'll decipher later in the adventure. This reminds me of an curious thing that happened a few weeks ago. I bought some incense for my flat, to create a relaxing zen atmosphere. I read the label on the dragon's blood incense, and I'm guessing that the company must have had complaints from customers because the box included a large section which read "Dragon's blood is a type of plant. This product does not contain real blood from any dragons." My mind boggles sometimes, it really does.
I notice that the trap was set by a goblin, and I lose my patience. I charge after the little bugger, my low stamina score be damned, I'm not going to be caught by a damn goblin. I follow him into a tunnel, where I find the ancient sword of the first Chaos Warrior... wait, what? I... don't even... huh? I genuinely don't know what this is doing here, but eh, I take it with me planning to sink it into the goblin's head. I charge after him, scrambling through tunnels (and falling over) and leaping over piles of skulls, until I eventually admit to myself that he's escaped and I've lost him. Pah. Pah, I say. Pah, pah, and pah again.
I try to figure out where I am, and find that I've wound up somewhere completely off the map of the original game. Again, the way that the dungeon here is structured to be built 'on top' of the old one from the first book, it's very impressive! So instead of trying to figure out where the heck I've got to, I go into a nearby room and find that it's full of statues. Each of the statues look like a warrior, except with an expression of horror on their faces. Then the door behind me slams shut, and a wall on the room starts to lift up, revealing something snake-like beneath. Oh joy. I employ my amazing special technique for how to deal with horrifying medusa-type monsters - I try to run away.
Instead I have the option of using garlic, a mirror, or a tin whistle. I don't have a mirror, and garlic is for use on vampires, which leaves me the whistle. Hey, maybe medusas are allergic to loud noises? Let's try it.
No. No, they are not allergic to loud noises. I'm turned to stone on the spot. On the plus side, I like to think that I strike a stunning pose, in order to make sure that I leave a damn beautiful corpse.
The atmosphere feels rich, and the writing is very strong with Livingstone's style. It feels that there are traps and dangers around every turn, and I strongly feel that I only got as far as I did on this playthrough by luck. The artwork is among the best in the series, fully detailed and utterly vibrant. It's a real shame that this book is overlooked so often, because if the series had gone through with concluding with this book as was initially planned, it would have been a damn good send-off.
Out of all of the Fighting Fantasy books, I consider this to be an under-rated gem, and definitely suggest that you give it another playthrough today. Go on, do it. It's raining outside, you may as well put your feet up and play this for a few hours. You'll enjoy it!