Rich in Spirit
Two men guarded a wooden crate. They stood in a clearing that was nearly a perfect circle of white sand. Three stone spires towered above them; two black forms against the sky and one western spire catching the first light of dawn. The two men cautiously watched the dark thickets of briarwood trees for any hint of danger.
Captain Grubub and Little Jack drew swords as they heard a twig break and then relaxed as Sinestria's cursing followed.
Little Jack complained: "Well, I sure hope you don't want anything else moved... I'd wager that damned thing weighs a ton and why'd we have to move the box all the way up here?"
"Oh, why do I even bother to explain magic to fools?" Sinestria rolled her eyes but went ahead with the obligatory explanation. "The spires on this island interfere with black magic. But the Idols have their own sort of power, and so, I had you bring the Idol where the interference is least, but…"
There was a sound of footfalls and then the famed knight Sir Darylius walked into the clearing. "I didn't want to believe it," he said, "but somehow I knew I'd find you three up here."
Sinestria bristled at the sight of him. "Sir Darylius! I wish I had my magic so I could roast you alive!" She drew two finely crafted throwing knives that dripped with deadly spider venom. "I do hate to dirty my hands with violence, but in your case…"
Little Jack had his blades out already. The strange dark metal repelled the light, casting a dark halo about him. "Now you've done it sis, I think you've gone and hurt his feelings."
"I intend to hurt more than his feelings." Sinestria fumed.
Darylius looked to Sinestria and her brother. "I have to honestly say that I am disappointed in you both. Little Jack, we were comrades aboard the ship... we lived and fought together. And Sinestria, I gave you a second chance and you promised to renounce your evil ways. You lied to me."
"How is it that knights make it through the day being so gullible?" The sorceress scoffed. "You were foolish to not kill the spider when you had the chance... and now that I've caught you in my web I won't make the same mistake. Little Jack, Captain, let's cut up this self-righteous knight and feed him to the crows!"
"What you don't realize Sinestria," Sir Darylius drew his cutlass. "Is that I knew about your treachery all along, you and your brother Little... or should I say Lucky Jack."
"You knew?" She spit out the words. "How? Tell me!"
"Aye witch, he knew," Captain Grubub drew his own cutlass. "It was I who told him. I've had it with your filthy magic! Better to be beardless than to be stuck in your web of evil. This be a trap from the start, but it is you who be trapped... your witchcraft will not be saving you, not on this isle."
There was another surprise as the elder sorceress, Luna Bloodhex, glided elegantly into the clearing. "Oh captain, my captain, if only you weren't so pathetically predictable. I knew you would betray us from the start and planned accordingly." She snapped her fingers. "Gruk, would you bring out our special package?"
The hulking ogre carried a crate on his massive shoulder; he growled and set it down in the sand.
"I'm afraid you do-gooders have already lost." Luna smoothed back silvery locks and laughed mockingly. "This quest was doomed from the start. You see, for every great force in the universe there must be an opposite. The Idol of Moderation was not created alone. Though it cost a fortune, I hired an old sage to acquire its evil twin for me. Stand back fools and behold: The Idol of Debauchery!"
The ogre ripped the side off of the wooden box revealing nothing but sand.
"What! It cannot be!" Luna howled. "Where is it?"
"Perhaps you should ask your wayward son, mother," Sinestria mocked. "It was his idea to betray you. And even though it cost me half the tower's jewels to convince your new ally to double-cross you; I think it was worth it just to see the look on your face. Both Idols are now safely under our control. Jack will soon be King and I will be the pre-eminent sorceress of the realms... feared by all!" Sinestria cackled wickedly. "Oh, and by the way... your warriors serve me now. Gruk call the army!"
Gruk Blacktongue put both hands to his mouth and issued an earsplitting yell. Everyone turned toward the forest and waited and waited.
"I... I don't understand," Sinestria stammered in a panic. "They were here yesterday!"
Another surprise visitor emerged into the clearing. "Mercenaries are about as loyal as they are courteous." King Rudyard himself stepped out with his sword drawn; the captain of his guard closely followed.
"One of your mercenaries came to us yesterday; he offered to leave for a price. The cost was enormous but I paid it just to spite you Sinestria!" He turned to the loyal soldier. "Captain, summon the Royal Guard!"
The captain blew a silver signal horn and the assembled group waited and waited but nothing happened.
"That's it!" Little Jack growled. "We don't need an army to tip the odds in our favor. Sinestria... cast your spell, use the Idols... make them pay!" He reached into the brush and removed a magic cloak that concealed another wooden crate.
"With pleasure, brother. Let us dispose of these fools. Gruk open the crates!"
The ogre used his enormous strength to splinter the wood and smash the crates, yet to Sinestria's surprise both boxes were also full of sand. Everyone looked at everyone else suspiciously.
"The Idols were here!" Sinestria cried. "I saw them with my own eyes!"
The King scoffed: "The Idol of Moderation couldn't have been there. I had it loaded aboard my ship that's docked off the other side of this island. We sneaked across the isle and switched the crates while you tended to your mercenaries. There was a kind old hermit who showed us the way. You've failed again Sinestria!"
"Uh... wait," Darylius interrupted. "Was it an oak crate with an X on the top? If it was, then that's not the real Idol. I mistrusted Little Jack so I had it switched in the middle of the night. The real Idol is in steerage aboard the Zaroo` Tareze."
"So," the King asked, "what was in that box that was loaded aboard my ship?"
"Ballast stones." Said Sir Darylius.
"It wasn't," the captain of the King's guard interjected. "Forgive me, Your Highness but I was just so curious... I pried the lid off and looked inside and... and inside was a block of white carved stone... with uh... well it had... uh..."
"Yes?" asked two witches, one knight, and one king.
The soldier's face reddened. "It had dirty pictures carved on the outside of it... really filthy stuff. It made me feel so strange..."
Little Jack and Darylius looked at one another as they shared the same disturbing thought. "Uh..." Darylius began. "Your Highness said something about a... a uh... hermit?"
Little Jack could barely make himself say the words. "This hermit wasn't perchance wearing a... a gray priest's robe?"
Out in the harbor, sailors prepared the Zaroo` Tareze to sail. They were ready as soon as the five new passengers and their cargo had been safely hauled aboard.
Four youths struggled to pull the Idol of Moderation out of its crate, and then, at the priest's urging, they dragged it to the edge of the deck.
Silas traced some of the carvings with his fingertips. "I wish we could destroy it father, surely its influence will still corrupt even from the bottom of the sea?"
"Lick it." The priest said.
"Go ahead, lick the Idol."
Silas bent down and touched his tongue to the carved white stone. "Why... it's made of salt!"
"Yes, my son. Let us cast this abomination into the waters... let its evil dissolve into the vastness of the ocean where it can do no further harm." The old priest nodded and they shoved the Idol overboard, it sank quickly, the waters cleared, and it was as if the Idol of Moderation never existed.
"We're ready to cast off when you give the word." Zaren couldn't hold back a laugh: "You should see the pile of jewels those witches brought with them and the strongbox the King sent was a real load. Even after the crew's paid off tenfold what they usually earn, we'll be gloriously rich... in spirit, I mean."
The old priest sipped a cup of the ship's finest wine. "Yes my child, we are blessed with abundance, but we must always keep in mind that doing the will of the gods is its own reward."
Once the sails were raised and the Zaroo` Tareze was under way, the priest and his four acolytes gathered together on deck. All five raised their cups in salute as they sailed past The Queen's Grace, a proud three-masted sailing ship.
The King's personal ship listed badly to one side; the sails were unfurled but the anchors were out. A wild time was taking place aboard the ship. The smell of rum was overpowering. The crew ran about naked. They fought and climbed and danced and drank and smoked and whooped it up even as the ship's hull ground against the rocks.
"Hmm hmm hmm..." The old priest shook his head. "Such a sad thing to see youths waste their lives with such debauchery... when will people learn that the only true happiness comes through service to your fellow man."
"Aye," Lynn lifted a hand to admire her new ruby ring in the brilliant morning sunlight. "It truly is the little things that make life worthwhile; you've taught us that father."
"And all the gold in the world won't buy happiness, or love, or compassion." Lars smiled warmly at his three companions and his mentor the priest. "To friendship... that's where true wealth lies." He raised his jewel-encrusted goblet in salute.
Silas raked a bag of gold out of the way and joined his comrades. "To think, the witches, the King and all the rest traveled so far in search of treasure but they didn't appreciate all the good things they already had in their lives. I pray that they will repent and atone for their sinful ways."
Zaran raised his cup as well. "The gods have truly worked a miracle here today as they once worked a miracle in my life. Once, I was listless, inconsequential as this emerald pendant or that bag of gold; but now I have purpose in my life." Zaren's eyes filled with tears as he was overcome with emotion. "I… I pray that the people we left on the island will find their purpose as well."
The priest looked proudly upon his four disciples; such fine young people, so eager to learn, so compassionate, so dedicated to spiritual matters. "Patience, my son; the work of the gods is often subtle, especially when it comes to guiding those who have gone astray. Consider the group we left on the island. Do you suppose they would have ever changed their sinful ways, unless they were forced?"
"No father," Silas admitted. "It was clear that they were obsessed with their passions, afflicted with greed, hungry for power, and full of hatred. I don't think they would have ever changed on their own."
The old priest reassured his followers. "In time they will come to appreciate the wisdom of the gods. In order to survive, the selfish will be forced to compromise, the greedy will learn to share, the proud will find humility, and the suspicious will open their hearts to their fellow man."
"Father," Lynn looked thoughtfully at the receding isle. "Still... it's sad that they must endure such hardships."
"Yes, my child." The old priest nodded. "It is unfortunate that sometimes people have to learn their lessons the hard way... but the road back from evil is always a difficult one."
Silas opened another bottle of wine. "Here, let me refill your cup father... a bottle of Vinoloo'78 I believe..." Silas shrugged apologetically. "I'm afraid it's the best they had."
"My son," the old priest counseled, "to walk the path of the gods is to suffer... but it's a burden we must bear gladly."
Note: And so ended the quest for the Idol of Moderation, but what became of all those people? Well, it just so happens that I ran into Uncle Darylius's scribe the other day (at the tavern of course). Listed below is a brief account of what I learned from that conversation.
I suppose I should start out by saying that no news of the voyagers came for two years; the kingdom mourned the loss of the King and the heroes. Queen Zinnia remarried and life in the kingdom went on, until no one much thought about the lost voyage, that is, until one day a ship arrived in the harbor.
What happened was that a storm ravaged merchant vessel had had to make an emergency landing on the Isle of Murder. The crew was surprised to see that the island was already inhabited by five men, two women and an ogre. Shockingly, the group hadn't even killed each other!
But never mind that… I'll just get to the point:
Sir Darylius returned to great fanfare and put enormous energy into publicizing his adventures. He is, I believe, on the fifteenth year of his book tour.
The King regained his throne and even got a brand new queen!
Sinestria Bloodhex's current location is unknown but if you happen to run into her I wouldn't mention anything about the spanking… I understand she's still pretty touchy about that.
The elder sorceress Luna Bloodhex returned to her haunted castle vowing revenge… so watch out.
Gruk Blacktongue is busy writing the second edition of his latest cookbook as well as running a catering business for a certain 'dark lord.'
Captain Grubub broke his deal with the witches and is beardless once again. But double-crossing the Bloodhex sorceresses did gain him the respect that his beard never did; I mean, who else would dare that?
Little Jack suffered a bizarre string of misfortunes upon his return. To this day he searches for his lucky hat.
Loola and Chef Duchet have not been heard from, though a few years back, a half-mad dying sailor was rescued from the northern sea bearing strange tales of a lost continent. He spoke of a 'croissant of unparalleled radiance' and then died.
And finally, there is the kindly old priest. If you see that guy let me know. I think he stole my sausages!
-Ed the Village Rat Killer