Authors: Michael Reynolds
Chlora's chocolate eyes shined
brightly with anticipation. She clapped her delicate hands with giddy girlish
"There is but one small, almost
too insignificant to mention, problem. As master story-smiths go, I am nearly
without rival in the vast reaches of the world. And while I do greatly
appreciate your thoughtfulness in forci... er ... allowing we three to lounge
so leisurely here in the gentle embrace of the trees while you, our gracious
benefactor, are forced to stand, without rest, there in the coldness of the
unforgiving snow, I feel that perhaps I could lend a greater energy to my
story. That is, if I were able to move?"
Chlora nodded her agreement
enthusiastically. The entwining vegetation lowered him slowly and, almost,
kindly, to the not-so-distant ground and slithered away, just into the edge of
the darkened forest. Tolian bowed deeply, first to the vines, then to his
overeager audience and emphatically cleared his throat.
"Ahem! I, my dear lady, am
Tolian Toorselth, master of stories and musician extraordinaire," Tolian
began. "Our fantastic journey begins seven long, long years ago in a
bloody land far and away to the south of this fabulous forest of yours, called
"Paradisia is a ravenous beast
set upon devouring all of her neighbors. She hunts, with her keen eyes, each
and every political and social weakness that she can use to her hungering
advantage. Her instincts, her drive to chew at the throat of everyone that
stands in her way comes from but a single man, Tullus.
"Lord Tullus, as the
insufferable heathen prefers to be called, conquered his numerous enemies, and
few unlucky friends, quickly and proceeded to celebrate his conquests slowly
and with much showcasing. He was so verily fond of revelation that he would,
occasionally, monumentalize his celebrating. Regardless of what he
memorialized, wine and song flowed in Paradisia like blood spurting forcefully
from the split artery of a sacrificial ram. It was, all in all, an excellent
locale in which to be a bard, especially the world's most renowned and loved
bard. Unfortunately for Paradisia's neighbors, when the various qualities of
wine stopped freely flowing, more warm blood would need to spill to satisfy the
insatiable hunger of the Lord Tullus, and another anxious nation would fall to
the ravening beast.
"In Paradisia, that
gods-forsaken land far to the south of this little paradise, the sweltering
heat blisters the skin and cracks the earth. I was there, in my early years, as
a simple traveling minstrel, seeking my fortune entertaining the wealthy and
the powerful. Little did I know, but the moneyed and influential had but scant
taste for any story or song, fabulous or horrific, unless it glorified them
personally over each of their bitterest rivals. Now that was a most dangerous
game. For the man you insult so wickedly today may well be your next
"I turned, like far too many of
my fellow wordsmiths, to working the meanest taverns and swill-holes of the
common areas of the towns. I traveled, never lingering long, from village to
town to hamlet to city until I finally ventured to the city of all cities,
highest of the high, belly of the beast, Purwynn, capital of Paradisia."
"Are you sure?" Chlora
interrupted, eying Tolian suspiciously. "I think what really happened is
you grew up in that nasty Purwynn and you're just too ashamed to want to admit
"Umm ... well ..." Tolian
hesitated. "I suppose that is the way it was. Yes, yes. I quite remember
now. I was in the most terrible yet unfailingly beautiful city of my mostly
misspent youth, Purwynn. Working the bawdiest of taverns, I heard about this
amazing warrior. It was said, over pints of the best ale and worst wine, that
his battles rattled the glorious gold and ivory walls of the heavens and split
the earth from crust to the very core. That the gods themselves came down from
their burnished thrones to watch this one man. This half-elf gladiator who
decimated all mere mortal men who dared pit themselves against his prowess. I,
of course, had to see this legend for myself. I had taken it upon myself, as
the only man of all men able to accomplish so grand a venture, to compose an
epic ballad in this man's honor. This, of course, had the
not-altogether-unlooked for benefit of allowing me ascend to, shall we say,
grander venues for my craft as well."
Tolian, lost in his recounting of
this exaggerated tale, continued, his gestures growing more and more excited,
"One Sarnday, I visited the arena. You see, I had to experience a contest
in order to accurately capture the mood, the spirit, and the passion of it all
for my epic. The excitement of the day mounted higher and higher with each passing
match. Now, I have never been overly fond of the various sports of blood, but
this day, on this day I was simply overcome. The built-up tension, the
heartbreak of a trial well and truly fought but, ultimately, lost, and the
overwhelming, sometimes crushing, finality of the judgment. That day, I was
taken by the quiet honor and evident pride in every fighting man.
"Almost the entirety of the day
had passed in these tumultuous contests; then it happened. The blazing sphere
of the blinding sun had just slipped to its nightly rest. Torches blazed
suddenly along the cooling sandstone walls of the arena and one brazen bugle
blast silenced the restless crowd.
"'On this night,' the announcer
called, 'Harol of Dantus has requested but one fight. With one man. He understands
fully the price that he may ultimately pay. He wants claim to fame, riches, and
honor! This night," Tolian's voice rose, echoing the time lost arena
herald. "Harol has chosen to face the undefeated Champion of
"Wait just a moment there,"
Chlora interrupted again, foot tapping with impatience. Or maybe irritation.
"I thought in your human arenas all the contestants were slaves? Are you
sure you really know what you are talking about?"
"Yes. In this fact, if in no
other, I am acutely accurate," Tolian explained. "Some men, if they
so happen to be desperate enough, or mayhap hungry enough, may choose, as free
men, to willingly enter the gladiatorial arena. It must have taken Harol quite
a substantial bribe to gain a place in the final match."
Tolian continued, "Then I saw
the challenger. Harol of Dantus stepped boldly out from the pit gate carrying a
chakram, the sharpened, circular throwing blade favored in the forests of
Chanua, and a viciously hooked sword. I had seen enough of the world to realize
that, because of his choice of these two complicated weapons, Harol must have
trained for quite some time in distant Chanua. Harol's taut, oiled muscles
glistened and gleamed in the flickering torchlight. The massive animal skull
helm doubled Harol's already impressive size. He flexed several times, showing
off his compact frame to the waiting crowd. Finally, he performed three rapid,
spinning kicks to round out his splendid entrance.
"The crowd cheered,
unenthusiastically, almost absently. I mean, don't get me wrong. He was quite
remarkable, and so very fast. But the mob had but one fighter they clamored to
see that night. Men, women and children alike tensed in agonizing anticipation,
coiled like a serpent about to strike.
"The announcer stood, ready to
call the people's champion, and the arena shook to its very foundations. The
multitudes completely drowned out the overmatched herald's booming voice. If
one didn't know the champion's name by that time, one likely never would. The
pedestal gate slowly, ponderously slid open, and out stepped this man,"
Tolian pointed dramatically to Jaxius. "He wore an arm guard of linked
black metal plates, called a manica, on his left arm. He wielded his tremendous
curved blade in the other. His long raven hair flowed in the scant breeze like
a flag unfurled. His bared chest showed the myriad scars of far too many
battles fought and won in the towering stone walls of this unforgiving arena.
He carried himself with a natural noble bearing that made him seem as one of the
aristocracy, a king, perhaps, viewing and addressing his loyal subjects. He
slowly, proudly, raised his
above his regal head and froze, a
statue for all to marvel.
"The crowd exploded with cheers!
It was truly amazing. The fight began quickly after the gladiators' entrance,
and I stood and watched for the very first time, one of the great mysteries of
life: how one solitary man could be so incredibly endowed by the gods that he
could captivate the hearts and minds of thousands. This man," Tolian
gestured again, "at severe risk of a lightning bolt for blasphemy, is the
god of battle incarnate."
"That good, huh?" Chlora
asked, grinning her toothy grin. "Looks to me like he would be free right
now, if he was that good."
"Oh, he is very much that good,"
Tolian continued, unabated.
"Harol of Dantus came rushing at
our hero with blinding speed. His hooked sword spun decisively and grabbed at
in the champion's hand, only to find there was nothing but
air. Harol had recklessly wasted his one chance to gain the upper hand.
"The champion came overhead with
his wicked curved blade. Harol valiantly attempted to parry the blow.
"The sword smashed through
Harol's defenses with so much force, it launched Harol backward and down,
across the sand-strewn arena. The champion twirled his heavy blade around to
the ready and calmly watched Harol stagger to his feet.
"The crowd hushed, knowing, much
as our champion did, that the battle was all but finished.
"Harol, again on his feet,
brought his sword up to attack. He quickly closed the distance between them and
began his ardent assault on the champion's defenses. His hooked sword darted in
and out, right and left. Each frantic thrust was met by an impenetrable wall of
parries. Harol found no breach. For quite some time Harol maintained his
attack. He advanced time and again until his arms hung heavy with the effort.
"Knowing Harol could not fight
further, the champion struck. His sword suddenly arced up from a parry. It
connected decidedly with Harol's heaving chest and ripped up, into his drooping
chin. The champion immediately followed with a powerful roundhouse kick to the
"Again, Harol of Dantus flew.
This time, however, Harol stayed where he landed. He lay there, a crumpled,
beaten mess. He had unwisely dared to challenge the god of the arena and failed
miserably, as so many before him.
"The crowd exploded in wild,
undulating cheers for the champion. He smiled and raised his bloodied
Turning a grand circle to face all of his adoring, cheering fans, the champion
smiled yet again.
"At first, it must have been the
gasp or slight murmur from the crowd that alerted him to his danger. Then, I am
certain his half-elven heritage tipped him to the piercing whistle of the round
blade of the chakram, slicing through the night air toward his exposed back.
"He spun about with barely a
sound. His curved sword whipped through the air, lightning fast, to split the
speeding projectile in two. Each piece deflected harmlessly to the side as the champion
leaped the distance between the two men. He moved impossibly, unimaginably
fast. His sword's tip bit hard into Harol's throat, letting loose a bare
trickle of ruby.
"The champion looked to the
"The announcer glanced at a
rotund man sitting in an ornate high-backed wooden chair, Lord Tullus. The Lord
'"Betrayal is beneath us. I
would gladly have called you brother. Now, I shall be forced to call you
memory.' These were the first words that I heard the champion of Purwynn utter.
They were the last that foolish Harol of Dantus ever heard."
Chlora's eyes twitched, "He did
that? And you heard those words? Hrmph, I don't believe you. He probably cried
or something else equally as weak. Anyway, that doesn't explain why you all are
here. Nor does it have anything at all to do with any kind of dragon, much less
one with a frog's body. You told me a silly story about an almost elf. I think
I will eat you now."
"Hold on there," Tolian
hastily interrupted Chlora as she moved toward them. "That is only the
story of how I first came to meet my companion. Let me tell you now of his
virtue and why I have continued to follow him the world over. I promise, this
story is well worth the build up. And there is a dragon, a mighty dragon, one
with a frog body, just like you said you wanted to hear. But perhaps, you
didn't really want to hear a story about a frog bodied dragon anyway. Oh
"Now, you hold on," Chlora
said. "You didn't say that your story wasn't over. You should definitely
finish it. Don't give up on yourself that easily in the future. One day you
might not have someone like me to save your life eighty-three times."
Tolian smirked. His ability to play
this game had saved his life on more than one occasion in chance encounters in
back alleys. He realized, however, that his opportunity to win their freedom
was fading fast.
"Very well," he said.
"Now where was I? Oh, yes.
"The next day I paid a cordial
visit to our friend here. He and I walked through his master's terraced
courtyard, discussing trivial matters, such as his life. I wanted to get every
detail correct. For my grand masterpiece, of course. His master must have
wearied of our utterly fascinating dialog, however, as he soon dismissed
"From seemingly nowhere the most
immense dragon landed heavily right in front of Jaxius' master. It sat hunched
grotesquely on its bulging belly. Its hind legs curled like a bloated toad's.
Oddly, the monstrosity had inordinately small wings. I assumed that it traveled
primarily by extremely long jumps. It bellowed its thunderous croak. Our
friend's master bolted, looking back over his quaking shoulder.
"The beast croaked again and
shot out its hideous long tongue. The slimy rope of an appendage wrapped once,
twice, three times about the slave owner's lower body.
"The master was caught. At first
he whimpered helplessly; then he screamed as the great froggy dragon dragged
him ever so steadily to its gaping maw. The shrieking cries for help reached an
ear-shattering pitch before they were abruptly cut off as the enormous dragon
gulped down Jaxius' master.
"The monster turned to face us.
The behemoth took one long, piercing look at my companion and bowed. At least,
I assume that's what it was. It certainly looked like a genuflection. Perhaps
merely a nod? Well, either way. Then the gigantic beast turned. Looking back at
us, it croaked once again and flattened out its toad-like body.