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05/20/01: Memo from Firetop Mountain: What IS Firetop Mountain?
by Pieter van Hiel

18 years ago, I first set foot on the slopes of Firetop Mountain.

I'd arrived there via the medium of Fighting Fantasy #1: Warlock of Firetop Mountain, a book I'd borrowed from the school's library. These books are essentially solo RPG adventures. You roll up a character and explore a dungeon, spaceship, what have you. As you go along, you meet enemies whom you must fight, and riddles you must solve.

I was there to challenge the might of the titular Evil Warlock who had claimed the mountain and the caves below it as his personal headquarters. It was a base from which his vile magics were free to infect the countryside for miles around. A pretty tall task for a 3rd grader, you might think.

You'd be right. I was not prepared, mentally or physically, for the task.

Oh, I got in okay. I defeated the lone dozing orc who guarded the entrance, and skulked, shadow-like, down twisting corridors. Unfortunately, I didn't have the gumption to face down any of the more intimidating monsters. Sleepy orcs were about my speed. I fled several combats as soon as the tide of battle began to turn.

I never did find the exit to Firetop Mountain. The book was due back at the Memorial School Library. Soon after, it disappeared from the shelves, likely removed at the behest of a concerned parent's group, or possibly stolen by the agents of chaos.  For years, I remained trapped at an otherwise nondescript intersection of corridors, wounded, hungry, and alone. Finally, after about five years, I was able to find another copy of the book at the Kenilworth branch of the Hamilton Public Library. In the interim, I'd discovered "real" RPGs.

This time I was a seasoned Dungeoneer. I made a map, and found my way as far as an underground river before giving up. The elderly riverboat pilot wanted two gold to ferry me across. At that point, I called it quits. He wanted me to PAY to travel into some unknown place and endanger my life? Not likely!

A part of me remains there to this day, subsisting on pale cavefish, fungus, and the occasional kobold flank steak. While my physical body and the vast majority of my mind carries on with the hurly burly of daily life, some shady spiritual approximation of myself pokes around in the semi-darkness. This portion of myself will occasionally awaken and draw up a really wicked dungeon for my player group - and will probably be writing some of my columns in the future. In fact, let's hear from him/me now. What is it like to live in a dungeon for more than a decade?

Well, for one thing, I'm not lonely or afraid. Once you get used to living in the vaults of a mad wizard, you can make quite a go of it. Really! I sleep under an upturned treasure chest on the banks of that underground river, and I've got a fair collection of books I pilfered from the Warlock's library. Mostly trashy SF and fantasy, (How many Gor books can one person possibly want?) but who am I to complain? I don't live entirely in solitude, either.

Remember that orc who guarded the entrance to Firetop Mountain? Bugnose is his name. Well, he was pretty much ostracized by the other dark vassals after he was defeated by a 9 year old with a short-sword. He decided to leave orc society, and now he lives in an empty apple barrel two chambers over. We kinda hang out on some days, fishing for piranhas, playing checkers, and racing cave roaches. Seems he never really wanted to be a thrall of evil anyway. He wants to be a heavy metal drummer, and go on tour with RATT.

Bugnose is not the greatest of companions, admittedly. Of late he's been on this "dignity of orcish nature" kick, telling me how orcs are really just a misunderstood nomad people, the victims of urban racism. Yeah, but so were the Mongols. That didn't stop them from gouging out your eyes with their grubby horseman thumbs, and pouring molten silver in the sockets, if you looked at them funny.

Anyway, Bugnose was the one who told me that this underground river comes up in a surface village a few miles away. Apparently, vault denizens can communicate with the outside world by dropping message bottles into the river.  I've made some serviceable scrolls from Kobold skin, and ink from beetle guts, with which to write these regular missives to the outside world. One day I hope to find some real parchment. One day I also hope to summon up the courage to journey onward, and challenge the Warlock. Till then, I remain faithfully yours... in limbo.

Pieter van Hiel, Treader in the Underdark. (Age 13 [and a half])

That's just weird. I wrote it, and I still think it's weird.