From the historical writings of Bostonius the Scribbler, events having taken place one thousand years ago. Or so. Probably.
And so it is that Strom Coalbeard, the dreaded Archmage of the Black Tower of Athar, is coming home. His villainous days are long past. His life has been unnaturally extended by a carefully balanced diet of coffee, alcohol and magic brownies. He’d been traveling the lands for a thousand years with his friend Ash Brightspark, the Red Dragon of Death. Ash carried the two from adventure to adventure, flying in his natural form or using his immense magical skills to transform into an old elf – a form that made it much easier to deal with normal humans and their buildings.
Yet earlier this year, their carefree traveling days came to an end. A surprise visit from a good paladin named Sir Bertholomen (Sir Bert to his friends) and Misker, his talking horse, put the two on the path back to their home – the Black Tower of Athar. Lands and borders change over the centuries, though. Maps and signposts disappear. Local legends fade. And old mages and ancient dragons forget. In this case, they’d forgotten how to get home. And no one else seemed to know where it was, either.
After consulting a mapmaker, a wandering minstrel and a pirate queen, the two had managed to get close to their lost home. Sir Bert and Misker had been dutifully pursuing Strom and Ash, though more and more it seemed the four were frenemies. We now pick up the story at the point where the four are nearly at the supposed site of the Tower. Let’s see how this goes…
Strom turned and waved goodbye to Gilda as Ash gained altitude and flew inland. The dragon flew relatively low and at a very slow speed. Below Strom and Ash, Sir Bert rode Misker along an ancient roadway. In theory, Ash flew low because he was guiding Bert and Misker. In reality, if he flew any higher his nearsighted old eyes wouldn’t have been able to see them. It had been decided that the four would travel together for a while, and the paladin would put his quest to bring Strom and Ash to justice on hold.
That quest, of course, involved collecting payment on behalf of an orcish exotic dance bar that no longer existed. Apparently, Bert’s family had been hired generations before to bring the two to justice, and the quest had been passed down from father to son. Bert, however, was quite disgusted by this, as he was intent on pursuing the extreme wealth and fame that came with being a semi-professional fantasy author. Paladins, it seems, were supposed to give away all their worldly possessions and money, and most likely die tragically in the pursuit of Good. Bert claimed that didn’t fit well in his worldview. For months, Strom and Ash had been badgering him to leave them alone about the bounty, especially since there was no one alive to pay it to anymore. Misker, never afraid to voice his opinion, agreed (let’s face it, talking horses are rarely shy). The horse was much more inclined to party with the mage and dragon rather than roam the lands on a pointless quest.
“See anything up there, Ash?” hollered Misker. Strom jumped – he still wasn’t used to the idea of a horse that talked. And talked a lot.
“Nope. Gilda assures us that the tower she saw was up this valley though.”
“What did he say?” Strom asked Ash, who ignored him.
“Does it look familiar?” Bert called.
“Was that Bert talking?” Strom said. “That boy never speaks up.”
Ash ignored him again and answered Bert. “Yes, I recognize this valley and the road. I think we’re headed in the right direction.”
“I hope so. My hooves are tired.”
“What? I can’t hear any of you!” yelled Strom.
“Cast your damn hearing spell already!” grouched Ash back at him.
“Get some glasses,” responded Strom before settling back in his dragonsaddle in a huff.
Strom woke after a brief nap to notice a cart on the road ahead of Bert and Misker. The cart was coming toward them, but the paladin and horse wouldn’t see it around the corner until it was much closer. Apparently, the man driving the cart hadn’t noticed the dragon overhead.
“Hey, drop down to the guys – there is someone on the road,” he instructed Ash.
Ash squinted. “I don’t see anything.”
“You wouldn’t see a giant eagle if it was trying to pick your nose.”
Ash snorted but began to descend toward the road. Misker stopped and Bert dismounted, awaiting the dragon’s arrival. After Strom dismounted, Ash muttered a few words, and with a golden flash of light, transformed himself into his more convenient elven form. He looked like a skinny old elf with long hair and fangs. His eyes were a disturbing shade of red.
“Lunch break?” asked Misker hopefully, eying the grass along the side of the road.
“Go ahead. But actually, there’s a cart approaching along the road. I thought we’d talk to the man and get the lay of the land. I’m sure the peasants will be thrilled that their master has returned.”
“Umm,” said Bert. “I’m guessing you’re a barely remembered legend around here and that someone else now runs these lands.”
“In general, peasants are pretty happy about it when their masters leave them unattended,” agreed Misker. “Kind of like horses, actually. It’s nice to be left alone and not carrying someone else on your back.”
“Well, I’ll have you know my peasants were well treated. I turned less than half of them into ghouls during the Goblin-Troll Wars, only taxed them half their produce and made a sincere effort to dance with every one of their daughters at the festivals.”
“Pfft,” snorted Ash. “You tried to do a lot more than dance with every one of their daughters at the festivals, you dirty old man.”
Luckily the cart came in to view right at that time and the peasant pulled the reins up in surprise at encountering anyone on the road.
“Ho, serf! I am Strom Coalbeard, Archmage of the Black Tower of Athar and master of these lands!”
The peasant blinked slowly, looking the old mage up and down.
“I don’t think so,” he finally replied.
“Didn’t you hear my name? I’m Strom Coalbeard.”
Misker nodded in the background, confirming the mage’s claim.
The peasant was silent, a dubious look on his face.
“All right, well we’ll dispense with the formalities for now. No need to bow or offer immediate tribute,” said the mage graciously. “Tell me about my lands.”
“Well, first of all, they ain’t your lands. We’re a democracy here.”
“You watch your mouth around me, boy!” snapped Strom. “I don’t want to hear any more foul words like that out of your mouth.”
“What’s a democracy?” asked Sir Bert.
“Don’t you dare corrupt his mind, peasant!” warned Strom.
The hitherto untalkative peasant quickly warmed to his subject. “Each adult in our city-state has the right to serve in our government, helping to write and enforce the laws we all agree on. Each citizen has the right to vote on all major decisions. Each person’s voice is heard equally, regardless of their position in society or their wealth.”
Strom had turned pale, horrified by such a description of chaos and lack of social organization.
“I think I just threw up a little in my mouth,” gasped Ash.
“That sounds amazing!” gushed Bert. “A working democracy. I have never heard of such a thing.”
“You’ll have to meet our President, then. He’s in charge and loves to discuss political theory.”
“Let’s see if he’s still in charge when I hang his bloody body from the top of the Tower,” growled Strom. “Uppity peasants, Ash! I’m so glad we’ve come home. They need us here.”
When the four finally arrived at the town of Athar, located a mile or so away from Strom’s Tower, the mage discovered things were even worse than he’d imagined. There was no parade, no sacrificing of slaves, no bonfire parties to welcome him home. He nearly told Ash to take dragon form and burn some buildings just to liven things up a bit.
“Why is everyone staring at us?” asked Misker.
“Well, first of all, I’m guessing it has something to do with you being a talking horse,” said Bert.
“We don’t much like strangers here. We keep to ourselves and we like it that way,” said the peasant, whose name was Egalitan. He’d traveled back to the city with them to help them find an inn and get settled.
“How come they aren’t bowing?” grumped Strom.
“We don’t bow to nobody, wizard,” Egalitan declared. “Why should we? We’re all equals here.”
“Well some of us are a little more equal than others!” Strom said piggishly.
“No.” Egalitan paused. “I think you better meet with the President right away. Let him tell you how things are.”
After the meeting with the President of Athar, Strom was in an even fouler mood. He’d been informed, in no uncertain terms, that he wasn’t in charge. In fact, he’d been subjected to several comparisons from museum statues and paintings to even establish his identity as the former lord of these lands. After that, the President had simply said that “times change” and told Strom and Ash that they were welcome to stay in the city as long as they didn’t cause any trouble.
“The bastard also had the nerve to tell me I could run in the upcoming Presidential election if I wanted to be in charge! And that being in charge really meant responding to the whims and fancies of the “voice of the people.” The only words I want to hear from the people are “Yes, my Lord.””
“There’s an election soon?” Bert perked up. “Who can enter?”
“Anyone. Do you believe that crap? Any adult. Male or female. Rich or poor. Smart or dumb. What a crock of sh—”
“So I could run?” interrupted the paladin. Everyone turned to him in surprise.
“Why the hell would you do that?” growled Ash. “Didn’t you hear Strom? You’d have to actually listen to people. Pay attention to them. Give a damn about their problems.”
“It’s public service, Ash,” said Bert reasonably. “The ability to improve the lives of so many people. It’s a wonderful opportunity.”
Strom slowly began beating his head on the table.
“I can’t believe that silly paladin got himself elected President!” said Ash. He was sprawled in the sun at the top of the Black Tower of Athar. Strom sat nearby, munching on a bowl of trail mix.
“Who votes for a guy wearing white who randomly wanders into the city three months before an election? And did you see him shaking all those hands and kissing all those babies? Brrrrr.” Strom shivered in disgust.
The day after Bert announced his intention to run for President, Strom and Ash had flown to the Black Tower. What followed was a three-hour argument about who had the keys to the front doors. The scene nearly dissolved into a magical duel when Ash said that Strom was less responsible than a three-year-old and Strom responded that Ash only had one place he could hang such a small keychain.
The Tower had apparently rested undisturbed for the thousand or so years they’d been gone. The President said various mobs had tried to break in, but the Tower’s defenses thwarted them.
The arguing ceased when the ghost of the Captain of the Guard came to investigate the noise. The Captain recognized both of them and let them in. They’d been interested to learn that over the centuries all the guards and castle servants had slowly died off, but the magic of the Tower kept them employed as ghosts. This worked out great for Strom and Ash, but the ghosts really didn’t seem very impressed by the arrangement.
Now the two sat basking in the sun on the Tower’s rooftop, enjoying a well-deserved rest after their centuries-long vacation. A ghostly butler popped into view between the two of them. Both jumped.
“Don’t do that!” shrieked Strom. “I just about peed myself.”
Ash had instinctively drawn in a deep breath in order to breath fire to protect himself. Now he was all puffed up with a belly full of dragon fire. He looked frantically around for a place to exhale the inferno. Smoke literally rose from his ears. He also felt an uncomfortable rumbling in his lower belly. If gas came out that end, it would be a disaster. Finally, he blew a vast fireball down on the unfortunate specter of the butler. The immense pillar of flame engulfed the ghost, hiding him from sight for several seconds. When the flames and the smoke cleared, the ghost simply stood there, looking annoyed.
“I guess he’s still an outdoor pet, isn’t he, sir?” the butler said to Strom.
The ghostly staff had become a great deal more mouthy once they’d discovered that neither Strom nor Ash could touch or affect them in any way. They’d also become more unruly once they heard about the city’s democracy.
“You have a reason for interrupting us?” asked Strom.
“There is a messenger at the front door, sir.”
“Send him up then. I don’t feel like going downstairs.”
“He, uh, can’t come upstairs. He’s a horse. And he asked for both of you.” The butler seemed a little put out that the horse was talking, as if such a thing was inconvenient. Apparently, the feat was lost on the butler.
With a poof, both Strom and Ash disappeared from the roof.
“No, no, my Lords, it was no trouble at all to bring you this message. I’m so very pleased to have been a wonderful servant, and thank you for taking the time to notice me.” With a curse, the ghost dissolved and returned to his quarters deeper in the tower.
The teleportation spells Strom and Ash had cast put them down just outside the Tower doors, where Misker was busy eating the butler’s roses.
“Hey fellas!” said the horse cheerily. “This is quite the tower.”
“That’s right, you haven’t been out here yet to visit us.”
“Nope, been busy with the election.” The horse craned his neck, peering upward at the tall Tower. “Wow, that tower is huge. Whatcha compensating for, Strom?”
“The butler said you had a message?” noted the mage, ignoring Misker’s jibe.
“Bert won the election!”
“So we heard,” said Ash without any enthusiasm. “I guess that means he’ll be staying around these parts?”
“Actually, we both will. President Bert has appointed me as his Chief of Staff,” the horse said proudly.
“There goes the neighborhood,” muttered Strom.
“I’m also here to discuss your back taxes.”
“Back taxes. The city of Athar was formed about 200 years ago. Based on back taxes, penalties, and administrative fees, you fellas owe quite a bit.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“This sounds strangely familiar. Like when we all first met, Misker,” said Ash thoughtfully. “You two were trying to soak us for money then, too. From an old bar tab. And now you’re suddenly coming along and claiming we owe the city a bunch of money.”
“The city that just so happens to be run by Bert,” Strom stroked his beard thoughtfully. “How convenient.”
Misker started shuffling around nervously.
“I wonder,” continued Ash. “If we went to the Guild of Wondrous Paladins, would we find Bert’s name on its roster?”
“I bet we wouldn’t,” said Strom.
“And I wonder if we checked that “receipt” from the Lewd Orcette Lounge, would it actually be as old as it appears?”
“I bet it isn’t,” said Strom.
“Or if we checked in with a few kingdoms, would we find warrants for the arrest of a pair of con artists matching your descriptions?”
“I bet we would,” chimed in Strom.
“Now guys, you know you don’t want to go to that much work,” cajoled the horse. “You just got home to your fine Tower. You deserve to relax. Let Bert and I manage the city for you. There’s no need for that kind of investigation.”
“Well, there’s an easy solution to the tax problem,” Ash suggested, a long tendril of smoke emerging from his mouth.
“Indeed there is,” agreed Strom, casually tossing a fireball from hand to hand.
“Whoa whoa, gentlemen! We’re all friends here!”
“Are we? How good of friends are we, Misker?” Ash asked casually.
“Umm, we can reduce your back taxes by, err, one third.”
“Ash, do you feel the need to clear your throat? You sound like you have some flame built up in there.”
“Why yes. Yes, I do, Strom.” Ash glared at Misker.
“Wait wait! In the interest of our friendship, we can reduce the back tax by half.”
“Half?” laughed Strom. Now a small lightning storm swirled around his pointy hat.
“Um, well what do you have in mind?” asked Misker.
“We want in on the deal,” said Ash immediately. “The four of us split the take four ways, equal shares. We can also skim from the collected taxes, the retirement funds, the orphanages.”
“We should be able to replace all the museum artifacts with replicas and sell off the originals. We can get a lot more fields into production, too. That means more taxes,” Strom suggested.
“Every few months Strom and I can threaten an attack, giving President Bert the ability to raise taxes to fund a larger army.”
Misker looked impressed. “Those are great ideas. We think we can keep Bert in office for about fifteen years before the city catches on. That’s when we’ll have to move on.”
“Or we can all hang out here in the Tower for a few generations,” offered Strom. “There’s no way those peasants can get in here.”
“And don’t worry about aging,” Ash assured the horse. “Strom’s got these wonderful potions that will extend your life for centuries or more.”
“I’ll have to run all this by Bert to make sure he agrees,” Misker pointed out.
“Of course. But I’m sure he’ll recognize a great partnership opportunity when he sees one.”
“I can’t believe you guys,” sighed Daraga the cartologist, pushing back her chair from the feast. “Those poor people! You’ve been skimming money off them for years now.”
Daraga, as well as Selena the half-orc minstrel and Gilda the pirate, were on a girl’s trip. They’d decided to swing by and see how Strom and Ash were doing. They were quite surprised at the situation they found.
“I thought there was something fishy about that paladin,” chimed in Gilda. “He seemed just a little too goody-goody to me. And the story about his family following you two for centuries always felt a little thin.”
“Yeah, I’m surprised you fell for that,” agreed Selena. “It’s a fun story, but a little too strange.”
Strom shrugged, wiping some of dinner off his beard. “The original scenario is certainly plausible.”
“It is,” said Ash. “We skipped out on quite a few tabs, I’m sure.”
“I think the party is about to come to an end, though,” Selena warned. “The people are getting restless under Bert’s Presidency. I hear a lot in the taverns when I play. The phrase “term limit” seems to be bandied about quite a bit. So is “tar and feather,” actually.”
Ash snorted. “It would serve him right.”
“Still,” Strom said thoughtfully. “We’ve all made a lot of money in this caper. I’d hate for those two to get hurt too much.”
Somewhere down the hall from the dining room a gong sounded.
“Oh, may I please rush to get that for you, great human?” grumbled the ghostly butler. “I’d be so pleased to have more of your friends to serve. I do so enjoy listening to the problems of the living.” The ghost disappeared through the wall toward the front doors.
“That’s probably Bert and Misker now,” Ash said. “Just in time for drinks.”
“Imagine that,” muttered Strom.
The butler popped into view right next to Strom, scaring the mage so bad he dumped his wine down the front of him. Daraga giggled.
“How many times do I have to tell you? Don’t do that!” screeched the wizard.
“At least once more,” stated the ghost. “And may I present President Bert and his pet Misker. I’ll point out the pet is inside the dining room. Had I realized we’d be hosting an animal show this evening, I’d have lined the floor for easier cleaning.”
“I am perfectly housebroken, thank you very much. Don’t you have a grave to go play in or something?” said Misker angrily. “And I’m not his pet! I’m his Chief of Staff!”
The butler smirked as he disappeared.
“Hello ladies!” said Bert. “Welcome to my little corner of the world.”
“Our little corner of the world,” corrected Strom. “Don’t get too big for your britches.”
“Speaking of which,” Gilda pointed at Bert’s presidential robes. “Someone isn’t missing many meals.”
“Nope!” agreed Bert. “Life’s been good lately.”
“That’s what we hear,” laughed Gilda.
“Might be trouble coming your way, Mr. President,” said Selena. “I was just telling Ash and Strom that there’s unrest in the streets. Discussions of term limits and special elections.”
Bert paled. Misker’s eyes got round.
“Yep. And that’s not all. Apparently, there is going to be a special investigation.”
“Hey Bert,” interrupted Strom. “I’ve always wondered something about politics.”
“What?” grouched the paladin-turned-President.
“What does “impeach” mean, exactly?”
Ash and ladies laughed.
“What are you boys planning to do about this?” asked Daraga. “It sounds serious.”
“We knew it wouldn’t last,” Misker replied. “We’ve been investing our – uh – contributions and it sounds like it’s about time to move on.”
“What about you two?” Bert asked Strom and Ash.
“Well, those silly peasants couldn’t get in this Tower if they tried,” chuckled Strom.
“But it might be boring to be besieged, so I suppose we’d hit the road again,” Ash finished. Strom nodded in agreement.
“Well fellas, you know where to find us,” Gilda said. “You guys turned out to be pretty useful.”
“That’s for sure,” winked Daraga at Strom.
“Ew,” said Ash.
“What’s with you and older men?” Selena laughed.
When the ladies were gone and it was just the four of them, they talked deep into the night about their past adventures. Bert and Misker headed home to pack. Strom and Ash began looking at maps to see where they hadn’t been before.
“Still stuck in this Tower,” sighed the butler. “Son of a…”
And so their adventures come to an end, for now. Perhaps I, Bostonius the Wordsmith, will uncover more legends of this mighty pair and their adventures. It has been my privilege to provide you with these scrolls. Please don’t forget to leave a review as you exit the Archives.
Damon Garn lives in Colorado Springs, CO with his wife and two children. He enjoys hiking, writing and annoying his neighbors with mediocre guitar playing. He writes in the fantasy/sci-fi realm experimenting in flash fiction, short stories and a novel. Follow on Twitter: dmgwrites or at dmgwrites.wordpress.com
Artwork provided by Amanda Bergloff (@AmandaBergloff)