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Friday 15 December 2023

Old liches never die

It's traditional around here to offer a Christmas freebie, and if Tim's magical adventure last time wasn't enough, here's another bauble for you. When Jamie and I revised our Fighting Fantasy gamebook The Keep of the Lich Lord to make it part of the Fabled Lands universe, I had to write a new way into the adventure that connected to FL Book 3, Over the Blood-Dark Sea. If you have the original FF edition, here's your chance to compare them.

One Way To Volunteer

Curious how events can acquire their own momentum. Drinking sherry with some of the scholars of Choronzon College, you happened to refer, with no more than the usual exaggeration, to some of your exploits in uncivilized parts of the world. In a company of explorers or soldiers your remarks would have gathered no special interest. Among scholars whose greatest adventures have been to the height of a rickety ladder in search of an old book, they created quite a stir. As word got around the college, students pressed into the door of the Warden’s study and climbed the ivied walls to listen at the window.

Realizing then the impression you had inadvertently given, you tried to backtrack: ‘I’m no legendary hero. There are many others with far greater experience of these things.’

Too late. The Warden of the college drew you to one side and asked you to attend a meeting the following morning. ‘You may be exactly the one we’re looking for,’ he said. Which are ominous words to take off to bed with you in Dweomer.

And so here you are in the Examination Hall, sitting at a long table made sticky with centuries of wax, in a room whose bluewood panels, dark as a beetle’s back, are feebly aglow in the sunlight that penetrates the high, dusty windows. Along the table with you sit city councillors of the great merchant ports of the mainland, nobles and army officers from Golnir and Sokara, the most venerable scholars of Dweomer, and even a masked ambassador from the secrecy-shrouded land of Uttaku.

And they are looking at you. You return a puzzled frown. ‘Can you repeat the question?’

‘I asked,’ says Admiral Lord Aspenor, who is chairing the meeting, ‘how much you knew of the naval defences of our lands.’

‘Ah.’ You pocket the knife you’ve been using to carve your initials in the side of the table. ‘No more than the average person. That’s not – ’

‘Not your area of expertise,’ puts in your patron, the Warden of Choronzon, who having brought you to the meeting cannot allow himself to lose face now. ‘Quite. An adventurer, you. An explorer. Risk taking. Bold action. Not sitting and talking…’

‘Yes, yes.’ Admiral Lord Aspenor raises a leathery hand. ‘Bold action is what we want, all right. Well, you will certainly know about the Reavers of the Unnumbered Isles. A law unto themselves, those pirates. Almost a rogue state. They even have their own “king”. There’s no formal alliance, but our fleets have always cooperated to hold them off the mainland. Yet each year they grow bolder. Coastal villages are raided for slaves. Merchant cogs are plundered and sunk within sight of port. For centuries Sokara, as the bulwark of civilization —’

A disgruntled murmur flits around the table. Aspenor looks ready to speak sharply, but a wild-haired figure in wizard’s robes leans forward. His quiet voice carries in the high-ceiling room. ‘Sokara’s fleet has often borne the brunt of Reaver attacks. We of Golnir acknowledge that.’

‘With ample contributions from the guilds of Metriciens and Ringhorn,’ puts in a velvet-coated merchant. But the others, having made a token expression of indignation, fall silent. And it’s now that you realize how serious this business must be.

‘Our main fortification to the east is Bloodrise Keep, on Stayng Island,’ says Aspenor. ‘It’s part of the Arrowhead archipelago on the western edge of the Unnumbered Isles. That archipelago is the first line of defence against any massed attack by the Reavers. But we’ve lost contact with the outlying villages and there has been no word from the castellan of the keep in several weeks. After his last report, we’re not exactly surprised.’

You take the scrap of parchment and glance at it:

Bloodrise Keep will shortly fall. The troops I sent to investigate the strange lights in the sky above the village of Menela have now returned. They have marched back to within sight of the walls but refuse to answer signals. A runner sent out came back shivering with dread. He got close enough to see that the men have bloodless faces and that their eyes are staring and blank. In place of their Sokaran battle-standards they now carry ragged black and yellow pennants – the symbol of plague. Even as I write, it is close to dusk and the enemy camp is astir. Troops are massing and people from the villages are also milling about the camp as though hypnotized. I can see a man in tarnished silver armour who appears to be in command. Now he has given the order for his troops to advance, There are too many, and with the small garrison I have left I cannot hope to hold them off for more than a few hours. I will send this report by messenger pigeon and hope it will not be shot down by the enemy’s archers. Now it only remains for me to take up my sword and go out onto the battlements for the last stand. I regret having failed in your service, my lords. I am your dutiful vassal, Braxis, Castellan of Bloodrise Keep.

‘A brave man,’ you say grimly as you hand the report back along the table to Aspenor. ‘Do you have any idea who the silver-armoured warlord might be, and how he took control of Braxis’s troops?’

‘It is all too clear,’ says Aspenor grimly. ‘Plague-standards and tarnished silver armour are the hallmarks of Lord Mortis of Balthor. He was formerly the tyrant of Stayng Island and tried to conquer the southern provinces of our nations. It took the combined strength of Golnir and Sokara to defeat him, for he was a necromancer as well as a warlord, and it is said that he reinforced his army each night with the bodies of fallen foes.’

‘When was this? I’ve never heard of such a war.’

‘Ancient history, that’s why. It all happened two hundred years ago. Mortis died in battle and was buried near the village of Menela, Now it seems that he has returned from the grave to try again.’

You nod. ‘It’s a good thing you’re all here to assemble an expeditionary force. I’ll be very happy to advise.’

‘It’s not so simple,’ says the Admiral. ‘Resources and manpower cannot be summoned out of thin air.’

‘Actually – ’ begins the wild-haired wizard.

Aspenor holds up his hand. ‘Thank you, Doctor Estragon, but I think we’d rather not be beholden to demons, devils or otherworld spirits. Not as long as there are other options.’ He fixes you with a smouldering stare. ‘Here’s where we stand. These wise gentlemen of Dweomer advise me that assassinating Mortis would immediately neutralize his army of undead. Cut off the head, you see. Our combined naval forces are tied up fighting the Reavers. My own country is also having to deal with rebel forces in the north. So, rather than spend weeks mustering and arranging transport for a large body of troops, it makes sense to send one capable individual. Of course, you’ll be on your own.’

‘Yes, right. The thing is, reports of my death-wish may have been exaggerated…’

‘Cold feet?’ mutters the Warden beside you, frowning. ‘Too late for that.’

The others agree. ‘Mortis is even now turning the people of Stayng into undead,’ says one of the guild-masters. ‘Unless it is excised, his evil will eat into our good rich lands like mould in a healthy apple. We have need of a sharp knife.’

‘What if I’m more the blunt instrument type?’ You’re wondering if it would be better just to walk out. To think that an idle boast at a sherry party could get you into something like this.

‘Telling means nothing,’ says the wild-haired Doctor Estragon. ‘You need to see.’

He taps his fingertips together. The slightest of gestures, but a sudden shift in pressure or light tells you that a spell has been cast. The motes of dust, hanging finely in wine-coloured sunbeams, seem to thicken and glow. Is that an image of castle turrets glimmering in the air? The edge of a coastline traced against the rafters? A ripple like the surface of the sea swims dizzyingly across a wall lined with books, making you sway in your chair as you try to focus on things that aren’t there.

‘Close your eyes,’ says Estragon. ‘The dust and sunlight merely comprise a matrix for the illusion. You will see more clearly with the mind.’

Yes. Against your eyelids: a V-shaped line of verdant islands set in an azure sea. You recognize the Arrowhead archipelago. The perspective drops towards the tip of the archipelago, the largest island, which points east to the Unnumbered Isles. In the north-east of the island, a fortress stands on a hillside overlooking Port Borgos. In the conjured light of Estragon’s illusion, the sun streaks across the heavens, falls like a crimson meteor, and thick shadows leap across the walls of Bloodrise Keep like the unfolding legs of a spider. Your view is carried in, closer, closer. A figure stands waiting on the battlements. Under his tarnished silver visor the face is dead white. The eyes –

You sit up with a gasp. The room is empty now apart from you, Aspenor and Estragon. ‘What was that? A dream?’

‘This is now the dream,’ says Estragon. ‘An illusion of your past, before you accepted the mission.’

You start to laugh before you realize that there’s nothing funny. You’d like to get up and leave. Maybe in a moment more.

‘This will help us keep in touch.’ Admiral Lord Aspenor flicks something and it rolls along the table. A silver ring. It comes to rest in front of you, spinning on its edge. The noise irritates you and you snatch up the still-spinning ring and put it on your finger.

‘So you think I’m going,’ you say to him. ‘Just because of a conjuring trick.’

He doesn’t blink. ‘You already have a map of Stayng Island. Also a purse of gold coins, in case you encounter any spies or agents who need paying.’

‘An illusion of the future. And that’s supposed to convince me?’

Estragon shakes his head. ‘What you saw in your head is the reality. This is the illusion now.’

‘What are you talking about?’

‘You’re there. You’ll wake up in a moment and see that you’re on Stayng Island. This conversation is a memory, that’s all.’

‘Really? What if I got up, walked out? Went south to Ankon-Konu and never saw either of you again?’

‘But you didn’t,’ says Aspenor. ‘You undertook the mission. You’re going to assassinate Mortis before he can join forces with the Reavers.’

‘Oh yes? And when did I make that choice?’

Estragon makes a gesture and the sunlight deepens to amber. The room is dissolving. ‘There was never a choice,’ he says. ‘Free will, that is the illusion.’

Aspenor rises from the table. ‘Don’t fail,’ are the last words you remember.

Now turn to 1.

Keep of the Lich Lord is now on sale from Amazon US and Amazon UK, or order it at your local bookstore.

Other gifts you might be interested in are high quality Giclée art prints of Leo Hartas's charmingly spooky paintings for his classic book Haunted Castle. They have a Tim Burton vibe with a dash of Michael Bentine. They're not free, but Leo is offering 30% off for Christmas. No horror fan's cave is complete without one. (Also check out his gorgeous maps.) 

Or, if you prefer a sweet, gentle and non-scary treat, try the bestselling book Slow Down with illustrations by Leo's equally talented daughter Freya.


  1. Nice little piece, Dave! Thanks for sharing. I trust that in keeping with that often unutterable truth with which Estragon closes, the rest of the sections in the book all end with just one 'option' "Now turn to 2"; "Now turn to 3"; "Now turn to 4"...etc.
    Merry Christmas!

    1. Well, it was a Fighting Fantasy book, John, so very nearly that. Have a great Christmas!

  2. Note to self, must get around to reading the Fabled Lands books next year (and the rest of Vulcanverse).

    Freya's artwork looks incredibly good, Dave. I never knew it existed up to now. To use one of your favourite lines, a chip off the old block!

    Merry Christmas and thanks for all the great posts again this year.

    p.s. I've just binge watched the first series of Succession. One of the rare instances of living up to the hype.

    1. Succession just got better and better, Andy. You're in for a treat.

      They're a talented family, those Hartas-Lords. As well as Freya and Leo, there's grandpa John Lord, Finn who's a movie production designer and Inigo who is doing a fabulous job of illustrating my Jewelspider RPG.

  3. Dear Jamie, I wanted to leave a comment to say thank you for creating the Fabled Lands series. I recently got into them and I absolutely ADORE them! Im amazed by what you guys were able to make in a book!