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 Quilled, events having taken place one thousand years ago. Or so. Probably.
Strom Coalbeard, the Archmage of the Black Tower of Athar, was legendary among mages for his malice. His dragon partner, Ash Brightspark, was known as the Red Dragon of Death. In their earlier adventures they decided to return home to the Black Tower of Athar to check on things. Unfortunately they’ve both been gone so long, they’ve forgotten where home is. In the Icecrystal Mountains they met Daraga the map maker, who gave them a small map fragment that showed Athar located near a sea. Daraga suggested they find a minstrel friend of hers named Salena who had traveled extensively and might be able to give them some additional insight as to where Athar might be.
They are being pursued, however, by Sir Bertholomen (aka Sir Bert) and Misker, his talking horse. The paladin is bent on fulfilling his life’s quest to bring Strom and Ash to justice for a bar tab they skipped out on a couple of centuries earlier. Once free of his family’s life quest obligation, Bert can pursue his dream of being a wealthy author of fantasy and sci-fi books.
We rejoin Strom and Ash on their adventures as they descend out of the Icecrystal Mountains and toward a small town where they hope to find the minstrel. Or at least some decent grub…
Strom Coalbeard breathed deep. Ah, the wind rushing against his face! Dragonflight was so invigorating. He opened his mouth wide to inhale again, instead receiving a mouthful of his own considerable mustache. Choking and cursing, he spat out the offending hair.
“Problems?” asked a deep voice tinged with sarcasm.
“No,” spluttered Strom, the Archmage of the Black Tower of Athar, still choking. “Just flossing the bugs out of my teeth.”
“Uh-huh. With your beard?” rumbled his companion with a chuckle. This was, of course, Ash Brightspark, the Red Dragon of Death.
“Oh shut up!” cried Strom to his flying mount. The two had been serious evil-doers some one thousand years ago. Now they both suffered various ailments brought about by old age and too many victory parties. They had been vacationing for so long they’d both long forgotten how to get home so now they were searching for clues about their country of Athar. Strom rode Ash as they traveled and they frequently bickered like an old married couple.
The two were also keeping an eye out for their arch enemy, Bert the Paladin.
But for today, they weren’t worried about any of that. They were just cruising through the clear skies and enjoying life.
“Are we there yet?” Strom asked moments later. “I’m hungry.”
“Since neither of us knows where we’re going, I suppose we could be there,” said the old dragon reasonably. “What shall we get to eat?”
“There used to be the Chartreuse Camel tavern down by the Windy River,” suggested Strom. “Maybe they’ve heard of that minstrel Daraga told us about. It’s your basic squat-and-gobble, but I’m game if you are.”
“Sounds good to me. I’ll head that way.”
“There it is!” called Strom an hour later, pointing with his staff, whacking Ash in the jaw in the process.
“Hey, quit swinging that thing and get serious!” shouted the dragon angrily.
“Yeah, that’s what she told me, too!” giggled Strom.
Neither traveler paid any attention to the obvious panic of the small town sprawled about the inn. Mothers fled with children, men cowered, dogs whined in fear.
“I’ll go get us a menu,” Strom said as Ash landed outside the Chartreuse Camel tavern. “Be right back.”
Strom strode through the tavern door.
“G-good afternoon, s-sir!” said the terrified innkeeper, cowering behind the counter. “C-can I h-h-help you?”
“I’ll have an ale, and for the dragon – .” Strom paused.
“The same for me, of course,” said Ash, poking his great snout through the tavern doors. “Actually, I guess I’ll need a keg.” He thought a moment. “Maybe two.”
The owner’s mouth hung open, his arms hung slack. He blinked twice. He was obviously totally overwhelmed by encountering a dragon in his dining room.
“I think we’ll take our meal outside, if you don’t mind,” said Strom, taking a menu from the counter and heading for the door.
“Uh, yes sir,” the owner said. He watched Strom leave the building. “I’m getting too old for this stuff.”
“I’ll have the chili with meat,” said Strom to the waiter.
Ash groaned. “You’re not sleeping anywhere near me tonight!”
“Oh shut up!” cried the archmage. “Also another ale.”
“And for you, s-sir dragon?” asked the waiter, whose name was Bob.
“I’ll have two sides of beef and a sheep,” replied the dragon.
“Uh, two entire sides of beef?” asked Bob.
“And an entire sheep?”
“And how would you like those cooked?”
“Wouldn’t like those cooked.”
“Two sides of beef and a sheep. Rare,” clarified Bob.
“Not rare. Raw.”
“Raw. Uncooked. Still mooing. Fresh killed. Raw.” He looked at the shuddering waiter. “Got it?”
“Would you like something to drink?”
“Another ale, please.”
“No, a keg.”
“Okay.” Bob wrote furiously on his pad.
While they waited for Bob to return with their food a young boy walked nearer, trying to get a closer look at Ash.
“Maybe he knows the minstrel,” Strom said.
“Come on over here, young man,” called Ash.
The boy looked uncertain. “Mommy says not to talk to strangers.”
“Well, there’s no one stranger than him,” Ash pointed at Strom.
“We just want to ask you about someone,” continued Ash to the boy.
“Okay,” said the child.
“We’re searching for a minstrel,” Strom said.
“A menstrual? My sister has those.”
Strom’s mouth hung open. He was utterly unprepared to deal with this highly classified information.
“No, no,” said Ash. “Like a singer, a storyteller. They sit in the tavern all day.”
“Oh, like my daddy!”
“With a lyre or a guitar.”
“Yep, Daddy sits in the tavern all day with a liar.”
“Your daddy is a storyteller?”
“He sure is. Mommy says he has real whoppers.”
“What tavern is this?”
“The Crass Bass. It’s next to the temple.”
Strom snorted. “That makes for a short walk from Saturday night to Sunday morning.”
Bob returned with their food. He frowned at the little boy talking to the wizard and dragon.
“Go on inside, young one,” instructed Strom. “Have them give you some sweet cream and put it on our tab.”
“Okay mister! Thanks!” the boy disappeared inside.
Once they’d finished eating, Strom and Ash decided to visit the Crass Bass to search for the minstrel. They found the dubious establishment deeper in the town, surrounded by run down buildings and houses of ill repute. With a temple next door.
“Daraga said the minstrel’s name was Selena, right?” Ash said, looking around. He’d taken on his preferred disguise when dealing with humans, that of an old, long-haired elven man.
Stepping into the tavern, they were surprised to find a reasonably clean and well-maintained common room. A few patrons occupied tables. Behind the bar a dwarf polished the counter and stacked tankards. He eyed them but didn’t say anything.
In the far corner a figure leaned back in a chair, a broad brimmed hat covering head and face, with a long jacket hanging to the floor. A pair of well-worn leather boots were propped up on a chair opposite the one the figure tilted back in. A tall lute leaned against the wall nearby. No details of the figure were readily visible from beneath the coverings.
Ash and Strom sat down at an empty table. The dwarf walked over to them, hobbling on a long wooden peg.
“What’ll ye have?”
“Ales,” Strom replied. “Is that Selena the minstrel over there?”
“Uh, I am. You just heard me and saw my lips move,” Strom grouched.
“Ye know what I mean, old man. Why should I tell ye anything? Ye’re a stranger in these parts.”
“My name is Ash. My friend here is Strom. We’re looking for Selena for information about her travels. We’re hoping she might know of a tower we’re looking for.”
The dwarf looked the dragon-in-elf-form up and down for a long moment, as if he didn’t quite believe his eyes.
“Yeah, that be Selena.” He pointed at the figure learning back in the chair. “She’s restin’ right now. Ye’ll leave her alone. Want to talk to her? Come on back here tonight and pay the cover charge, like everyone else.”
“It’s alright, Crag. I’ll talk to them.” The minstrel had walked over. Crag grunted and stumped away as the woman sat.
Taking off her hat, she revealed her face.
Strom and Ash gazed at her in surprise for a long moment.
“What the matter, boys, never seen a half-orc before?” Selena smiled, revealing long incisors behind her red lips. Her skin was a pale jade, while her eyes were emerald green and full of mirth.
“Well, you’ve got to admit, half-orcs aren’t common in these parts,” Ash responded. “You must get a lot of surprised looks.”
“I do, actually.” Her arms were well muscled and she was clearly very strong. “I’m Selena. I didn’t catch your names?”
“Strom Coalbeard, the Archmage of the Black Tower of Athar,” Strom bowed slightly from his chair.
“I’m Ash Brightspark.”
Selena squinted at Ash. “You’re a bit odd looking for an elf.”
He grinned at her, revealing his own fangs. “Appearances can be deceiving.”
“Hmmm. Well, I’ve heard those names before. Long ago there was supposedly an evil duo – a mage and a red dragon – who conquered a great many lands and defeated several attempts to wrest control of their country of Athar. Their names are still spoken in fear, though their fate has been lost to time.”
Strom beamed as he and Ash fist-bumped. “I’m so glad you know about us!”
“We’re historical figures. And still feared!” Ash paused. “Would you like an autograph?”
“Uh no that’s okay.” She looked doubtful. “It’s said they suddenly disappeared. Just left behind their tower and hoard, and went journeying through the lands, to be lost in the mists of legend.”
“And now we’re ready to return home,” agreed Ash.
“We were told by Daraga the map maker – “
“Ahem,” interjected Ash.
“- Uh, the cartologist – that you might be able to help us find the country we’re from.”
Selena arched an eyebrow. “You can’t find Athar?”
“Why does everyone always seem so surprised by that?” Strom asked. Ash shrugged.
“It was called Athar about one thousand years ago,” Strom continued.
“A thousand years ago?”
“We’ve aged gracefully.”
“So what’s the problem?”
“Um, well it’s kind of embarrassing,” said Strom.
“More embarrassing than that hat?” Selena pointed to the mass on top of his head while Ash giggled.
“We can’t remember how to get to Athar. And in all this time, the country itself seems to have disappeared.”
“Daraga had a map fragment that showed Athar along a coastline, but the map didn’t show what sea it was near,” Ash continued. “She recommended we find you.”
Selena looked thoughtful. “Well I’ve traveled for many decades all through the lands. I do remember seeing a lot of dead old ruins and towers.”
“Oh no,” said Strom. “The Black Tower would not look look dead. It would look the same as the day we left.” Ash nodded agreement.
“Well, it could also be overgrown. Or even submerged by this time.” Selena thought again for a long moment. “I wonder… Do you have a map on you?”
“Several, actually. Strom charmed them out of Daraga before we left.”
Selena eyed the mage. “Well, she’s always had a thing for older men.”
Strom rolled his eyes at the same time he unrolled the maps. Selena leaned over the table, tracing a few coastlines.
“There,” she said, pointing to a long coastline bordering the Skull Sea. “It was somewhere along here I remember seeing a tall black tower with nothing else around it. It seemed odd to me at the time for such an immense tower to be so far from civilization.”
“There was once a whole city there,” said Strom a little sadly.
“What were you doing in that area?” Ash asked Selena.
“A friend of mine runs a shipping company near there.”
“A shipping company?” asked Ash. “I thought you said the area was uncivilized.”
“She deals in a variety of goods. Some not always acquired legally.”
“She’s a pirate?”
“Yes,” Selena said. “And she knows those coasts like the back of her hand. She’d know right where that tower is. When I saw it, many years ago, it was completely covered by vines and the surrounding jungle. I think it would be very tough to see from the air.” She glanced at Ash.
“What’s her name?”
After their meeting with Selena, the two went exploring.
Two hours later they were sprawled underneath the trees of an immense cherry orchard they had happened upon. Clearly cherries were a major export for the town. They’d been sampling the fruit all afternoon and now a large pile of pits lay next to each of them.
“Hey, it’s nap time,” Ash said.
“Yeah, you’re right,” replied Strom. Red cherry juice streaked his grey beard. He suspected his mustaches would smell of cherries for some time.
“Should one of us keep watch?” asked the dragon.
“I guess so. We’re in enemy territory, after all,” said Strom. They pointed at each other.
“You do it!”
Then they both promptly rolled over and went to sleep.
Misker and Sir Bert trotted up the lane that ran through the center of town. The townsfolk appeared to be just settling down from some sort of a recent uproar. Several people crowded around the doorway of a tavern labeled “The Chartreuse Camel,” where the proprietor was gesturing wildly.
“Excuse me, good folk,” interrupted Bert. “Is there a problem here?”
“We just had a dragon come through these parts!” exclaimed one of the men.
“Is that so?”
“Yes it is!” The man seemed personally affronted that Bert might not believe him. “I saw it with my own eyes.”
“And there’s tracks over in the yard.”
“We may be on to something here, Misker,” said Bert. Misker simply bobbed his head in agreement.
“Which way did the dragon go? And was he alone?” Bert asked the townspeople.
“He had an old man walking with him. They went toward the orchards.” Several of the townsfolk pointed the way.
“Who are you?” asked the tavern owner suspiciously.
“I am Sir Bartholomen, a paladin. And this is my faithful mount, Misker.”
Misker looked up guiltily with one of the flowers from the tavern’s flowerbeds hanging out of one side of his mouth. Bert sighed.
“We’ve been hunting these two for a very long time. We will rid your town of their evil.”
“Um,” said the tavern owner. “Is that really necessary? They haven’t hurt nobody. The dragon was actually very polite.”
There was some grumbling among the rest of the townspeople, too. Apparently having a famous but harmless dragon as the town mascot seemed like a pretty good idea to them.
“Maybe you strangers had best be on your way,” suggested one woman.
“Yeah, I think you’ll have time to move on to the next village before sundown. If you leave now, of course.”
With that the crowd began to hustle Bert and Misker out of the village, deliberately pushing them in the opposite direction from the orchards where the dragon apparently was. The good paladin had no choice but to leave. He could not force his way through these folk without harming them, nor could he really go against their wishes.
Soon Misker was plodding down the village road, away from the settlement, with a forlorn Bert on his back. After a few minutes, Misker, turned off the road, jumped a small ditch and began to trot across an empty pasture.
“What are you doing?” asked Bert.
“Just because we can’t go through the town doesn’t mean we can’t go around it.”
A couple of hours later, just as the sun was nearing the horizon, the horse and the paladin crept stealthily through the cherry tree orchard. The leaves were thick and the branches hung low with heavy ripening bunches of cherries. Ahead they could see Ash stretched out among the trees. Two heroic sets of snores rumbled from the area, so they knew Strom was also nearby.
Misker had strongly voiced his opinion against this plan. Sneaking up on a nearsighted dragon and a sleeping wizard, Misker assured Bert, was not found anywhere in the Paladin Survival Manual. Sir Bert overruled him, saying this was their only chance to get near the pair. They had been struggling to arrest Strom and Ash for some months now, having followed them through the Icecrystal Mountains. The map maker there had given them such convoluted directions that it had taken them weeks of extra time to finally catch up to their quarry.
Misker’s job was to pin the mage to the ground and keep him from casting spells, while Bert would threaten the dragon with his magical sword. The sword had already proven it could protect them from the dragon’s fiery breath.
The stalking of their prey had gone perfectly. Misker stood near the snoring Strom, ready to pounce and silence him. Bert was preparing to lay his sword across the immense throat of Ash, when suddenly the entire area erupted chaos.
Ash’s first clue something was wrong was a series of stinging hits across his flank. Opening one eye, he could see red stains blossoming across his side. It looked suspiciously like blood. The dragon freaked out. He immediately leapt straight up into the air and managed to entangle himself in the overhead canopy of strong cherry tree branches. He then plummeted back to the ground, landing heavily. His collision with the tree branches shook loose several hundred cherries, which pelted down on the stunned horse, mage and paladin.
A chorus of giggles rang out from the trees around the four.
“Unit one, FIRE!” came a shouted command.
Immediately from the south came a strong aerial barrage of cherries. The missiles had been aimed with deadly precision, causing Strom and Misker to yelp and dance around attempting to dodge the cherries. Bert cowered behind his shield while cherries binged off it in rapid succession. Ash lay in the grass, moaning piteously.
The barrage lightened for a moment, but the voice quickly rang out again.
“Unit two, FIRE!”
“Son of a —” the paladin swore sourly as a he found himself on the wrong side of his shield with this new attack. Cherries were splattering across his white tunic, staining it with long rivulets of cherry juice.
“What?” Strom shouted. “What’s goi — ARGH!” A flying choke cherry sailed gracefully into his mouth, jamming his throat. Something nearby giggled hysterically.
“We’re under attack! Sound the alarm!” trumpeted Ash.
“Arrgh!” replied Strom.
“Quick, scout the enemy positions! Prepare to return fire!” shouted Misker. “It’s a bunch of kids with slingshots!”
“Arg! Ahh, ugh!” replied Strom heartily.
“Gather ammunition! Take cover!” ordered Bert. “Get — what are you doing, Coalbeard?”
“Meh? Arg! Ah! Ah!” answered Strom, pointing at his throat and turning slightly blue.
“What? You’re choking on a cherry? You old trickster! This is no time to indulge in personal problems. We’re under attack!”
The dragon thumped Strom soundly on his back with his tail. The cherry sailed out of the mage’s mouth.
Another barrage of cherries was launched from nearby bushes and sailed toward them.
“Hit the deck!” Strom threw himself to the ground, where most of the cherries slammed into his posterior.
A chorus of giggles echoed like the roar of attacking savages.
“We’re surrounded!” Ash cried as another cherry bombardment bounced and splattered off his scaly hide. “Ho! What have we here? I’ve captured one of the enemy.”
Snugly wrapped in the immense coils of Ash Brightspark’s tail was a four year old human boy. Clutched in his chubby hand was a small slingshot.
“Bring him to headquarters,” Strom ordered crisply. “I’ll conduct the interrogation.”
The little boy stood staring uncertainly at the four figures. He seemed to be too young to be afraid. The cherry bombardment from the surrounding trees stopped, as though the enemy didn’t want to attack while their comrade was in the line of fire.
“What are you doing here?” Strom demanded tartly as he sat down near the child.
“My friends and I are cherry bombing you,” the child replied saucily.
“You are intentionally inflicting acts of war against myself and the dragon?”
“And us!” cried Sir Bert, brushing helplessly at his once-white tunic.
“Uh-huh,” nodded the boy with a giggle.
“How many of you are there?” Strom asked.
The child held up four fingers. “Thirty,” he said.
“This is very serious, young man. You are now a prisoner of war, and under the articles of — what are you laughing at?”
“You sat on a pile of cherries, O Great and Mighty Conquerer,” replied Ash with a grin.
“I what?” Strom jumped up, spinning around to look. A mashed goo occupied the spot he had just occupied himself. Ash and the “prisoner” burst into deeper laughter as they saw the red stain on the mighty archmage’s backside.
Sighing, the mage tried to regain his dignity while wiping the mess off his robes. He wasn’t particularly successful with either attempt.
“Now listen here, young man,” Strom grouched at the little boy. “We are on an Important Mission.”
The tiny warrior’s eyes got very round at this information.
Strom launched into an account of the search for the Tower, but the child quickly interrupted.
“Can I go now? I want to cherry bomb you again.”
“You need to sign a treaty of nonaggression before we can release you,” began Strom.
At that moment the child’s compatriots decided to cover his escape with a particularly heavy artillery barrage. In the resulting confusion, the young soldier escaped.
As their defenses crumbled the four decided they were getting the short end of the fight.
“This battle is the pits!” exclaimed Strom as one of those very items bounced off his prominent olfactory facility.
“We must fight back,” said Bert. “They appear to only be children. Lots and lots of children.”
“Temporary allies?” proposed Misker, looking from face to face.
“Agreed!” Ash said. “Let’s get them!”
Strom levitated the entire pyramid of cherry pits he’d stacked that afternoon as he plundered the orchard and used his magic to hurl them at his foes, who began to return fire even more enthusiastically. Meanwhile, Ash used his tail to protect their position from incoming missiles. Bert wielded his sword and shield to great effect, splitting cherries midair and protecting the wizard’s flank. Misker stood in the middle of the huddle, issuing orders as the direction of the attacks changed. The tide of the battle began to turn over.
The air was filled with flying cherries and the delighted cries of young and old as for a moment a truly vast generation gap was bridged.
Soon, however, mothers began to call their children home for dinner. Not so soon, however, children began to actually hear their mothers call them home for dinner. And even later children began to actually go home to their mothers for dinner.
This had little effect on the Great Cherry Battle, as Strom kept magicking cherries into the air, Ash kept splattering cherries, Bert continued slicing cherries out of the air and Misker kept the four of them rotating. Liquid cherries continued to rain down, bringing forth delighted cries.
Eventually they realized they were just defending against themselves (and this with only marginal success) and they stepped slowly from their battle frenzy.
“A glorious day!” panted Strom.
“A glorious victory!” agreed Ash.
“The enemy lives in terror of our wrath!” exulted Bert.
“The enemy probably lives in amusement of our wrath,” corrected Misker reluctantly.
“Yeah, I suppose so,” sighed the archmage. “What’s for dinner?”
They all groaned.
The four combatants slept in the orchard that night. They’d maintained their uncomfortable alliance and decided to trust each other for the time being. There was no doubt, however, that one pair would betray the other as soon as possible.
When the sun rose, the four found themselves surrounded by a squad of troopers who had come to the village to investigate rumors of a friendly dragon and a hostile paladin, as well as the complaints of several parents that said their kids had been ambushed by adults in the orchards. Several troopers remained on their horses, while others stood over the four companions with blades drawn. A grouchy sergeant bawled at them to wake up.
“Get yer scrawny asses off the ground and fall in!”
Bert popped to his feet, years of military training kicking in immediately. Strom grumbled and slowly stood up, looking blearily around. Ash didn’t move – a dozen human troopers weren’t worth waking up for. Misker simply played the dumb horse.
“Report!” the sergeant roared in Bert’s face.
“I’ve captured wanted criminals and am returning them for justice.” He pointed at the mage and the dragon. “My horse and I have been searching for them for years.”
“And what do you have to say for yourself?” the sergeant turned to Strom.
“We came across these two attacking innocent children in this orchard. They were bullying them with cherries. I stepped in, attempting to protect the young ones, like any poor grandfather would. My pet dragon helped.”
Misker and Bert gaped at the mage as he blatantly lied to the sergeant.
“I believe we were knocked out by these two,” continued Strom. “I am frankly shocked they didn’t slit our throats last night in our sleep. Thank goodness you came along, troopers!”
The sergeant drew his short sword and held it to Bert’s throat. “Is this true?”
“Uh, er, well we were pelting the children with cherries. But they started it.”
“You, sir, should be ashamed of yourself. A paladin is meant to be the very paragon of kindness and justice.”
“No it’s not like that at all!” sputtered Bert. “The children attacked us. And these two helped.”
“You will be silent.” The sergeant turned to Strom. “Thank you for your assistance with this matter, elder. You are free to go with our thanks.”
“But, but…” Bert said. “Wait. He’s the evil one.”
Strom just grinned at him. “Watch the horse, too, sergeant. He’s more devious than you might expect. And I’d recommend a strip search for the paladin.” Misker just glared at him while Bert turned pale.
With that, the mage and the dragon walked away from the troopers and their prisoners.
A couple of hours later they were airborne again and headed for the coastline that Selena had recommended. It was time to continue their search for Athar, and that meant tracking down the minstrel’s pirate friend.
“Was the strip search suggestion too much?” asked Strom.
“Nah. It’ll do that uptight paladin good to get humbled a bit.”
“Think they’ll follow us again?”
“I’m sure of it. I wonder how the paladin will get along with the pirate we’re searching for.”
“Only one way to find out!”
Strom and Ash continued toward the coast. The skies were clear and the flight was easy. Far behind them Sir Bert cursed them, and Misker huddled miserably in a small stable. Both were plotting revenge.
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 created by Amanda Bergloff (@AmandaBergloff).