Welcome to the Flaming Faggot

Callovia is called "the boundless empire" yet you have managed to find its northern border - a notorious roadhouse deep within the Madrasan Marches on the edge of the wilds of Llanvirnesse. The sign above the door reads "Flaming Faggot," which would suggest a cozy, homey inn with fresh biscuits served at teatime if not for the severed troll heads mounted on pikes at the gate.

As you cross the threshold the raucous din quiets momentarily as all eyes dart to the door and calloused hands drop instinctively to well-worn sword hilts. The threat, instantly assessed, is dismissed and roadhouse patrons go about their business hardly missing a beat.

Grim, hard-eyed men huddle around tables in close conversation thick with conspiracy; caravan guards gamble away their earnings; Caemric rangers sit close to the fireplace cooking the damp of the Black Annis from their clothes as they warm their innards with Red Dragon Ale; minstrels play and buxom wenches dance for the pleasure of men who pay them little attention - until they need a companion to warm their bed.

As you approach the bar, a huge, bald barman with a greatsword slung across his back slides a mug of freshly-pulled ale towards you, its frothy head dripping over the rim.

"Pull up a seat, lad," he says, "and let me tell you a tale of high adventure."

Friday, August 17, 2012

City of the Beast - Against the Giants

Among the trove of Planet Stories books that I recently purchased was Michael Moorcock's City of the Beast.  Originally published in 1965 as Warriors of Mars, under the pen name Edward P. Bradbury, City of the Beast is a tribute to Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom stories.

The premise of the story will be familiar to anyone who has read the adventures of John Carter: the protagonist Michael Kane, physicist, champion fencer, and Viet Nam veteran, tests an experimental matter transporter on himself and finds that instead of being transmitted to a receiver on the other side of his lab, he is sent through time and space to Mars in the distant past.  Almost immediately after his arrival, Kane espies the incomparable Dej... I mean the exquisite Shizala, princess of Varnala, who is clad in nothing but a wispy cloak and a broad leather belt around her waist and, of course, falls instantly in love with her.

Kane accompanies Shizala back to the city of Varnala where he receives a Matrix-style native language upload along with a healthy dose of exposition, including the backstory of how Shizala's father, the leader of Varnala disappeared while chasing off  an invading war band of blue-skinned giants called the Argzoon.

Later, while out riding alone, Kane spies an enormous horde of Argzoon headed toward the city, and he rushes back to warn the Varnalans so that they might prepare for the impending seige.  The city manages to hold off the first wave of attackers - just barely.  The discipline and tactics demonstrated by the Argzoon is uncharacteristic of the normally dim-witted and savage giants and it becomes apparent that they are being directed by some unknown leader.

Does any of this sound vaguely familiar to a D&D adventure you might once have played?

Kane proposes to assassinate this leader, assuming that the Argzoon horde will melt away without this great leader to drive them, and so Shizala pilots an aircraft over the Argzoon command tent and deposits Kane, who slays the war captain within, but disregards any complicity of a beautiful dark-haired woman named Horguhl who was also in the tent.  Because every one knows that beautiful women can't possibly be evil, or lead savage warbands in bids for global conquest.

Somehow, in all the confusion, Kane gets knocked unconcious and Shizala is taken captive and absconded with when the defeated Argzoon army retreats.  So Kane, along with Shizala's brother, Darnad, embark upon a rescue mission, ultimately tracking Shizala to the lair of the Argzoon, a subterranean mountain complex known as The Caves of Darkness.

Kane then sends Darnad for help and proceeds alone into the dungeons of the Argzoon.  Of course he is captured and taken before Horguhl who, unsurprisingly, is revealed to be the unknown mastermind.  It turns out that she is a former slave of the Argzoon who used her latent powers of compulsion to tame the dreaded N'aal Beast that dwelt within the Caves of Darkness, and intimidate the giants into following her.  She also professes to love Kane, and offers herself and kingship to him if he will join her, spiking the offer with some of those gnarly compulsion powers of hers.  Of course Kane, hero that he is, shrugs off the compulsion and spurns Horguhl's offer.  Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, and so Horguhl has Kane tossed into the pit as a sacrifice for the N'aal Beast.  Kane slays the beast, whom the Argzoon believed was an avatar of their god, and when they see it die by his hands many of them question Horguhl's leadership.  Kane, meanwhile incites a revolt of the slaves who are led by none other than Shizala's missing father Carnak.  Horguhl's whole conquest plot starts to fall apart and she takes advantage of the confusion to get while the getting is good.

The maiden is rescued, Varnala is saved and Kane and Shizala are to become betrothed.  Just as Kane is about to live happily ever after, his lab assistants figure out how to get him back and he is suddenly whisked back to twentieth century Earth.

While City of the Beast covers no new ground, it is a fun and fast-paced action story that will appeal to fans of Burroughs as a sort extension of the John Carter stories.  What I found most intriguing was the notion of bands of giants harassing the land, led by a sinister overlord, which is much the same premise as we see in the popular G-series of AD&D modules, Against The Giants.

As Warriors of Mars was published in 1965, Gary may very well have read it and might have been influenced by it when writing the Giants adventures.  I also can't help but think that his imagination might have been peaked by the Argzoon's subterranean city in The Caves of Darkness.  It might also be a coincidence, but given Gary's voracious reading habits I find it entirely possible that he read this book and was, at least unconsciously, inspired by it.

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