Episode 1 – THE ABSURD ADVENTURES OF STROM AND ASH – A SHORT STORY SERIES CHRONICLING THE ANTICS OF A WACKY MAGE AND A DAFT DRAGON
From the historical writings of Bostonius the Literate, events having taken place one thousand years ago. Or so. Probably.
Strom Coalbeard, the dreaded Archmage of the Black Tower of Athar. A villain that needs no introduction, but is going to get one here anyway. For centuries he extended his life with dark magics and experimental tonics. His fellow wizards either bent to his will or woke up dead. Queens sent him tribute. Princes sent him treasure. Khalifs sent him fine silks. His closest friends sent him sweet rolls.
Until one morning when he woke up fed up with it all. Tired of treasure. Weary of war. Morose about magic. Disenchanted with enchanting. Cheerless about conquest.
You get the idea.
So he picked up his crystal ball and called his oldest companion, his most feared partner in crime, Ash Brightspark, the Red Dragon of Death. They decided to retire from it all.
Old age was finally catching up with our villains and they were having trouble remembering why they wanted to conquer everything or why they should care that they did. It was time to cast off their cares and enjoy life. They no longer bothered with killing enemies or destroying towns. They were both a little crazed in a goofy kind of way.
With nothing but the contents of three bottomless bags over his shoulder, the two set off to explore the world in relative anonymity. They journeyed through elven kingdoms, took year-long luxury cruises on orcish pleasure ships, stayed for decades at extravagant dwarven resorts, and basically pumped enough gold into the liquor economy to shift the wealth of a few small nations.
On a warm summer day many centuries later, with Ash sprawled on the warm beach sands and Strom sipping a cold drink out of a coconut, their centuries-long vacation ended…
“Mr. Coalbeard!” Mrs. Strickta called. Her shrill voice cut through Strom’s reverie and Ash’s mid-morning nap. “Mr. Coalbeard I’d like a word with you.”
“Infernal woman,” muttered Strom Coalbeard, the Archmage of the Black Tower of Athar.
“Your turn to deal with her,” Ash Brightspark, the Red Dragon of Death, said. He was sprawled on his back across the beach, all four legs sticking straight up in the air and his wings spread across the warm sand. “Last time I talked to Mrs. Strickta, I scared her poodle so bad he wet all over her.”
Ash chuckled at the memory, startling several gulls that had perched on his expansive belly. An interested observer would note that not one of those birds left a white stain behind on the dragon. They’d seen the fate of one of their flock. Who says you can’t train gulls?
Sighing, Strom stood up and went to meet the proprietor of the inn they were residing at. Mrs. Strickta strode briskly through the beach sands, kicking up a small trail of dust behind her.
“Mr. Coalbeard, do you know what this is?” she marched up to him, wildly brandishing a parchment under his prominent nose.
“Uh, no. You have it rolled up.”
“Do not mouth off to me, young man!”
Strom didn’t point out that he was somewhere in the neighborhood of twelve hundred years old. He’d learned long ago not to discuss age with women. “Is it a new recipe for pastries?” asked Ash hopefully.
“It is not,” she glared at Ash, not at all fazed by the fact that she was talking to a dragon. Strom secretly wondered if she was part dragon herself. “It is a wanted poster.”
“A wanted poster?” Strom said.
“A wanted poster,” she solemnly confirmed. “And it has your faces on it.”
She snapped the document open at Strom.
“The artist is really very good,” Ash said, looking over Strom’s shoulder. “That looks just like you.”
“It does not!” argued Strom.
“And that’s your name under the sketch, too.”
“You’re not helping here, Ash.”
Mrs. Strickta pulled out a second sheet, depicting the dragon from several angles, including some distinctive markings and scars along his flank.
“You said that dragonsaddle didn’t make my butt look big,” Ash accused. “I look ridiculous.”
“Can’t help genetics,” shrugged the mage.
“I will not have known criminals under my roof, Mr. Coalbeard.”
“We’re not criminals.”
“Well, not known criminals, anyway. At least not in this province.”
“Um, well not in this town.”
“I am terminating our arrangement, Mr. Coalbeard, effective immediately.”
“You heard me. Settle your bill at the front desk and be out of my inn by midday.”
“Wait, Mrs. Strickta. Who gave you those posters?”
“A very nice young man named Bertholomen. He stopped by earlier today. He said he was distributing these posters all over town. I didn’t open the poster until some time after he had already left or I would have reported you to the authorities.”
Strom sighed again, missing the days when he would have charred her with a lightning bolt. Now he simply didn’t have the energy for the paperwork that would involve with the local law enforcement.
“Bartholomen? We don’t know anyone named Bartholomen, do we?” asked Ash.
“No I’m sure we’d remember if we did. We’d be making fun of that name, if nothing else.”
“Do not forget to settle your bill, Mr. Coalbeard. Including the damages from last week’s party and subsequent brawl.”
With that, Mrs. Strickta stalked away.
With the sound of crying liquor vendors filling their ears, Strom climbed into the dragonsaddle on Ash’s back. The two took flight, gliding out over the clear bay and quickly gaining altitude. It had been some time since they’d taken a long journey, so both were excited by the prospect.
“All right, buddy, which way?” Ash asked.
“What was that? I didn’t hear you.”
“East or west?”
“Let’s see here…”
“Circle around one more time, Ash. Let me get my bearings.”
The dragon groaned and cruised the perimeter of the bay while the mage sat on his back looking thoughtful.
“You have no idea, do you?” the dragon finally said.
“Nope. Not a clue,” Strom admitted.
“Are we going to stop and ask for directions?”
“Of course not!” the mage turned red. “We’ll figure it out. It’s got to be around here somewhere.”
“The last time you refused to ask for directions we ended up in that dwarven mine.”
“And we found gold, remember? That wasn’t so bad.”
“We both got a case of darkworm rash, too.”
They groaned and briefly clutched their nether regions at the memory.
“Well, cruise inland for a while. We’ll recognize something soon and be home before dark.”
“We’ve been gone nearly seven hundred years,” the dragon said. “And neither of us remembers how to get there any more.”
“There’s nothing to worry about. What could possibly go wrong?”
That statement, of course, made Ash more nervous than anything else the mage could have said.
Three days later they were still trying to find a familiar landmark. When they saw a lone traveler on the road far below them, Ash decided enough was enough and began to descend. The man gleamed in shining armor and a cloak white enough to hurt the eyes. An ornate helm covered his face and he sat astride a huge warhorse. The horse stopped short at the sight of the immense red dragon landing on the road in front of them.
“Excuse me,” Strom hollered, scrambling down Ash’s side to the ground. “Are you from around here?”
“Uh, no,” came the reply. “Where are you trying to go?”
“The Black Tower of Athar,” Strom replied. “It’s got to be nearby.”
“I have no idea where it is.”
The horse turned his head to peer up at the human on his back. “How about you, Sir Bert? Have you got any idea where Athar is?”
The mage and the dragon stared at the horse with their jaws hanging open.
“Um, do you know your horse talks?” Ash asked the knight.
“Do you know your mage talks, dragon?” retorted the horse, glaring at Ash.
“All too well,” responded the dragon, shaking his head and wincing.
“Got a map? We’re lost. Well, the dragon’s lost. I’m just along for the ride.”
“Hey!” Ash protested. “You’re the one who forgot where we live.”
“Transportation is your responsibility,” Strom said reasonably. “We’ve discussed this before.”
“We haven’t cared where we were going for more than two hundred years. Why should transportation be my problem?”
“You’re the one with wings,” Strom pointed out.
The knight and his horse had been looking back and forth between Strom and Ash through this entire conversation.
“Let’s start with introductions,” suggested the horse. “I am Nehemiah-Argonistal-Misker.”
Strom spent the next several moments trying to get his lips working well enough to deliver that mouthful.
“Seriously?” Ash asked. “Isn’t that a bit much for a horse?”
“I’m a very special horse, if you haven’t noticed! And you can call me Misker if that’s easier for you.”
“And who are you?” Strom asked the armored man.
The knight removed his helm and spoke with a high voice better suited to a young girl. “I am Sir Bert.”
“Sherbert? Like the ice cream?” giggled Strom.
“No,” the knight sighed. Clearly that wasn’t the first time he’d heard that joke. “Sir. Bert. Short for Bertholomen. I am a paladin.”
“I see.” Strom’s voice grew a bit colder. They’d had a lot of run ins with do-gooder paladins over the centuries. “You’re the paladin that spread the wanted posters all over town and got us kicked out.”
“Yes, and I have heard of the Black Tower of Athar,” Sir Bert said. “What did you boys say your names were?”
“Strom Coalbeard, The Archmage of the Black Tower of Athar,” Ash rumbled dramatically, pointing at the mage.
“Ash Brightspark, The Red Dragon of Death,” returned Strom, gesturing with a flourish toward the dragon.
Clearly, this was a well-rehearsed introductory act.
Neither Strom nor Ash was prepared for the reaction they got. The horse reared, punching the air in front of him while the armored figure drew a shining longsword.
“We found them, Sir Bert!” Misker neighed.
“Charge them! I shall smite them with this holy blade!”
Startled, Ash responded the way any reasonable dragon would. He blew a ball of fire out of his mouth. Being near-sighted, he really only had a general idea where the paladin and horse were located, so he ended up cooking the road directly in front of them. Misker stopped short of the flames, nearly pitching Sir Bert into the fire.
“What’s wrong with you, Misker? Get them!” he ordered.
“Um, I didn’t know the dragon breathed fire.”
The supposedly terrifying dragon in question was busy blinking the smoke out of his eyes from his own fireball.
“This is what we do, Misker. You knew that when you signed up.”
“Well, I didn’t think we’d actually find them.”
The flames on the road, being dragon ignited, showed no signs of declining. Bert lifted his sword and pointed it at the conflagration.
“Begone, evil fire!”
To the surprise of everyone, particularly Bert, the flames were immediately extinguished.
“That sword has never followed your commands before,” Misker commented.
“It recognizes evil.”
Misker took a careful step forward, but the baked surface of the road wasn’t even warm.
“Misker! Prepare another cha—!” began the paladin.
“Wait wait wait!” called Strom. “Let’s talk about this a moment.”
“Charge!” Sir Bert finished. Misker leaped forward, quickly closing the distance to Strom. Bert raised his glowing sword high over his head.
“Stop!” Strom commanded, his eyes flashing angrily.
The charging horse froze in mid-stride, body held in place by the force of Strom’s magic. Bert, too, was locked in place, his eyes wide in surprise.
“I said we would talk about this,” Strom reminded them sternly. “And that’s what I meant.”
The magicked horse and paladin remained still.
“That’s better,” muttered Strom. “Now, let’s try this again. What’s with the wanted posters? No one around here knows what we’ve done wrong.”
The frozen pair made no response.
“Um, how about you unmagic their mouths?” Ash suggested.
Strom sighed. “Details.” He waved his staff in the paladin and horse’s general direction, completely unfreezing them. Both of them gasped desperately for air and made no more threatening moves.
“So? How about it?” prompted Strom. “What’s the problem here?”
“I’m on a life-quest to kill you both,” said Bert. “It’s been a family quest for many generations.”
“Paladins.” Strom shook his head. “It’s always the pallys on silly quests.”
“It is NOT a silly quest,” Bert protested. “It is my life’s work. It was the life’s work of my father and his father before him. To find you two and bring you to justice. It is the prophesy.”
“Prophesy?” laughed Ash. “There are no prophesies about us. Some noise complaints, probably.” Strom nodded vigorously at that comment. “Maybe something about that panty raid on the Shah’s harem…” Strom giggled.
Sir Bert dug through a pouch on his belt.
“Here!” he thrust a yellowed paper at Strom. Strom levitated the document into his hand.
“What’s it say?” Ash asked.
“It’s a bill.”
“It’s a prophesy,” insisted the paladin.
“It’s an unpaid bill,” sighed Strom. “From the Lewd Orcette Lounge.”
“What? That was nearly two hundred years ago!” sputtered Ash.
“Your family has been pursuing us for two hundred years over an unpaid bar tab?”
“We take our job very seriously in my family,” huffed Bert.
“You realize this bill is for three gold pieces?” Strom asked.
“And a bit of silver.” Ash pointed out.
“That’s not the point,” said the paladin. “You failed to pay and that’s not okay. Plus there’s interest.”
“The total bill,” interjected Misker helpfully. “With penalties and interest, plus court fees, paperwork, and living expenses for the paladins that have been on this quest over the centuries, comes to just over 200,000 gold pieces. And a bit of silver.”
Strom had been looking thoughtful.
“Ash, do you know what this means?”
“That you were hanging out with orcish strippers again?”
“No. Well, yes, but that’s not what’s important. It means that two hundred years ago we were at that place. It could be our clue to finding home.”
“Good point!” Ash turned toward Sir Bert. “You, pally. Where is this lounge? The address on the receipt is faded.”
“It’s not a receipt, it’s a prophesy,” corrected Bert. “And the lounge is long gone. In fact the city was destroyed in an invasion over one hundred years ago.”
“So, hypothetically speaking, of course, if we paid you, what are you going to do with the 200,000 gold pieces?”
“And a bit of silver,” Strom interjected.
“Um,” Bert looked uncomfortable.
“We were going to invest it on behalf of the original owners in case they ever returned to claim it,” answered Misker.
“Uh-huh, sure you were,” Ash said.
“Honestly, I just wanted this life quest to be over. I never wanted to do this in the first place. It’s been expected that the eldest male of each generation take up the family quest.”
“So you don’t even want to be pursuing us? How about you just leave off?”
“I can’t do that it! It would dishonor my ancestors and all they stood for.”
“Believe me, they no longer care about that,” Strom replied.
“You should be your own man,” Ash encouraged. “Tell me, if you weren’t pursuing a career in the paladin arts, what would you be doing instead?”
“I want to be a writer.”
Ash and Strom stared dumbfounded at the paladin for a long moment.
“A writer? Is that a real thing?”
“He wants to write fiction,” Misker put in helpfully.
“What the hell is fiction?” Strom asked.
“It’s made up stories,” Bert began excitedly. “You can think up whatever worlds you want, then write about them. And about the people in those worlds.”
“So people pay you to make up lies?”
“That’s the lamest thing I’ve ever heard,” Ash grumbled.
“He’s quite good,” Misker said. “He’s got this one he’s been working on with these little devices that connect everyone in the world to each other, as well as to all the accumulated knowledge of humanity.”
“Sounds like a great opportunity for unwelcome marketing, know-it-alls and people to hide behind a fake identity to criticize others.”
“Like trolls do,” Ash agreed. “Can’t stand those bastards.”
“Leaving all that aside for a moment,” Strom said, returning to the real topic at hand. “Where were you searching for us?”
“What does it matter?” returned Bert. “We found you! Are you prepared to die now, evil ones? It’s you or us!” The paladin was clearly working up his righteous anger for another charge.
“Actually, they found us,” Misker corrected. “And I’m not particularly prepared to die. There’s a couple of cute little mares back at home I’ve had my eye on.”
“Back to the question,” Ash prompted. “Where were you going?”
“It’s a secret,” Misker said.
“To the Icecrystal Mountains,” Bert said at the same time.
The horse rolled his eyes in exasperation.
“There is rumored to be a excellent map maker up there with a great collection of ancient maps. We were hoping she would be able to figure out where Athar used to be so we could search your homeland,” Sir Bert continued. He waved his sword threateningly. “But now there’s no need. Let’s charge them, Misker!”
“Oh not this again,” muttered Strom.
“Paladins,” Ash shook his head sadly. “All the same. One track minds.”
Bert pointed his sword at Strom, and a beam of white light flashed out. Centuries of reflexes allowed the mage to block the holy spell, but just barely. Strom stumbled back.
“Hey! That would have hurt!”
Ash rumbled deep in this throat, black smoke pouring from his nostrils. “We’ve tried to be nice about this, fellas.”
Misker leaped forward, crossing the distance to the dragon quickly. Bert’s sword flashed, the flat of the blade slapping the side of the dragon’s snout. “Come peacefully, evil-doers!”
Ash breathed a huge gust of fire at the paladin, engulfing the pair in an inferno so hot ignited the trees around the area.
Strom stood tapping his foot, clearly believing the encounter was over. Very little in the world could withstand Ash’s fire when he was angry.
Apparently, however, this paladin could.
When the flames disappeared, the figures of the horse and rider still stood. Both had their eyes squeezed tightly shut. They were completely covered in black soot, except for Bert’s sword. It still glowed brightly.
Bert and Misker opened their eyes, then both turned to stare at the sword that had preserved them.
“Wow,” was all Misker had to say.
“We’ll be going now,” noted Strom. “Leave us alone from now on.”
“I will follow you to the end the world, evil mage.”
Strom casually waved his staff at Sir Bert before climbing on Ash’s back.
The paladin froze, a horrified look coming over his face. He scrambled down from Misker’s back and frantically began tearing off the armor around his crotch. The horse looked at him in astonishment (and a bit of relief for not having to charge the mage and dragon).
“I’ll get you for this!” the paladin cried, still tearing off pieces of armor.
“Whatever, paladin,” Strom laughed darkly. “I suggest you not pursue us any further. Reconsider your life choices.”
Ash winked at the horse and took off, quickly soaring into the air. He circled once above the paladin and his talking horse before moving off in the direction of the Icecrystal Mountains.
“What did you do to him?” Ash asked curiously as they flew away.
“I chilled his armor.”
“Well… I might have teleported his underwear away at the same time,” giggled the mage. “I hope he doesn’t mind shrinkage.”
They laughed for a few minutes before Strom said, “Okay, let’s go find this map maker in the Icecrystal Mountains.”
“Hey,” Ash said. “It’s been a great day. We have our first quest in nearly one hundred years!”
“Kind of exciting, isn’t it?”
“And we even have a nemesis again!” exclaimed Ash.
“Do I need to see a doctor about that?” asked Strom confusedly.
“No no. I mean an enemy. Someone to match wits with.”
“Ah. To be honest I’m more concerned about the horse than the paladin.”
And so their adventures began anew. Questing to find their forgotten home and avoid their paladin nemesis gave them a renewed purpose in life. It also gave them the opportunity to see how their reputations had held up since the good old days of blasting their enemies. And to find out how the micro-brew industry had evolved in the last century.