A sleek hull cut a white line toward the neck of the harbor. The crew turned their eyes back toward shore. It was, perhaps, their last view of home.
They sought an artifact so strange that most learned men doubted the thing even existed but the king believed in Sir Darylius's idea. It was a grand quest that might place King Rudyard's name amid the legendary rulers of old.
The expedition's leadership was entrusted to the king's most favored knight.
Sir Darylius personally picked the crew; they were a most interesting lot:
Captain Halfbeard Grubub led the crew; this gallant one-legged sea captain admittedly over-pronounced his R's but he knew the sea lanes like the back of his hook. He had showed no fear at all when Darylius told him of the quest. Other captains swore the voyage was a death wish; they had laughed and turned away, refusing to even discuss it. But Captain Halfbeard had reacted so strangely. There was a flash of sadness in Halfbeard's expression... a faraway look, a memory perhaps... of something long ago. What did he hope to find on this voyage, what could be worth the risk?
A troop of brave warriors came along, led by a dashing cape-wearing woman mercenary known only as Loola. She was famed throughout the realms for both her bravery and her public campaign demanding better armor for women. Female warriors, she argued, shouldn't have to march into battle wearing skimpy metal bikinis whilst their male counterparts were covered head to toe in iron plate and chainmail. The armorers, all male by profession, didn't share her concerns but they had reluctantly agreed to form a committee to investigate the metal bikini problem. Two years later they were yet to release any findings to the public. Loola had become impatient, being a woman of action, she saw Darylius's voyage as an opportunity to set things right, this quest was a natural extension of her favorite cause.
A great and daring cook traveled with them, the famed Chef Laurence Duchet. He stood tall and confident, a black pointy mustache and goatee framed his sharp features, his brilliant white chef's hat set proud atop his head. He was a man of great culinary skill, driven by an insatiable pursuit of new ingredients and dangerous recipes no other chef would dare. His obsessions had sent him far and wide. Chef Duchet had stirred up the most perilous puddings using the highly unstable milk of the glowing bovines of Grut. He alone distilled the perfect fruit aperitif amid the exploding ice lizards of the Koolarai Glacier. And he was whispered to be the creator of the enigmatic Shadow Sausages of Shamannii, processed meats so mysterious they were rumored to be cased in pure otherworldly essence. What strange ingredients did he pursue on this voyage, what forbidden recipes did he seek? Would he rise to new heights of culinary excellence? Or would the soufflé of his hubris collapse and destroy them all?
A redheaded scamp of a cabin boy came along. Well liked amongst the crew and known for his lucky nature, Little Jack was always ready with a joke. Still, there was something... not so innocent about the boy that Darylius couldn't quite identify. Did Little Jack know more than he let on, what dark secrets lurked beneath that cheerful countenance, that lucky hat?
As the ship approached the neck of the harbor, Sir Darylius thought he would mark the occasion with a speech.
"If I may have your attention..." The crew and passengers quieted down and all eyes turned to the leader of the expedition, standing dramatically in polished armor with his white cape billowing in the sea breeze.
"Thank you. Thank you. Friends, I am truly honored that you have chosen to take part in this daring voyage, to risk all manner death and misfortune in the selfless pursuit of destiny. However vanishingly small the chance that you will avoid a horrific and painful demise, you brave few have chosen to give your lives for a noble cause.
Look around... most of you will probably not survive this voyage. Some may be drowned or shipwrecked, cooked and eaten by cannibals, or perhaps swallowed whole by some horrible giant fish from the depths of the sea..."
Several of the crew turned to look longingly at the shore.
"Friends, as we undertake this epic quest, aboard the proud ship known as the Zaroo` Tareze I am reminded of a..."
Sir Darylius paused, and then sought out Halfbeard. "Say... good captain, what exactly does Zaroo` Tareze mean anyway?"
"In the language of the south islanderrrrs," The Captain growled. "It be meaning 'The Committed'."
"Hmm... The Committed. Why... why Captain, that's perfect! For as I look out on this fine and upstanding crew I can see your bravery, your strength, your considerable skill... but know this; it will not be enough... for none of us can make it alone, to survive the dangers and challenges ahead we must be fully committed to both the quest and each other!"
"Therefore friends, the name of this ship is a fitting one," Sir Darylius pointed upward dramatically. "For if ever there was a crew that needed to be committed IT IS THIS ONE!"
"Woo- Hoooo!" Go the sailors.
"HUURRRAAAA" Go Loola and her warriors.
"RRRRRRRRRRR!" Growls Halfbeard.
"Magnifique! Sir Darylius, a first rate speech!" The cook twisted his pointy mustache and then clapped politely.
The cabin boy whooped and threw his lucky hat up into the air, and sadly, it blew overboard.
A week on the open ocean lead Sir Darylius toward the first destination: a narrow and treacherous waterway plagued by fierce storms, unpredictable currents, and if sailors' tales be true, a great and terrible beast lurked beyond.
But the winds were favorable, the skies fair, and the crew was in good spirits. On the morning of the 10th day, a sight that they had been both looking forward to and dreading was spotted on the northern horizon.
Like great teeth of stone, three spires rose sheer and tall out of the deep blue. As the ship sailed closer Darylius stood at the prow and determined that what had looked like three individual islands was actually one isle with three mountainous pinnacles rising from each corner, casting strange shadows on the water.
Sir Darylius approached Halfbeard. "Captain... is it safe?"
"Such an ominous name... The Isle of Murder, I hope that's an exaggeration!"
"The name be true, but there be no choice but to go ashore for fresh water." The captain scratched the bearded side of his chin. " Th' crows be thick, must watch your every step."
While the sailors stowed water barrels, Sir Darylius decided to spend a few hours exploring the strange isle. Loola and Little Jack came along.
They climbed to the center of the isle, where there was a forested hill with a sandy clearing at the top. From this vantage point Darylius could see the three steep rock spires rise on three corners of the triangular isle. Little Jack was the first to notice unexpected human sized footprints in the sand. Faint and narrow foot trails led eastward toward one of the spires.
Caught up in the mystery, they traveled far, eager to discover who lived amidst the desolate landscape. The trail wound through a maze of boulders and thickets of scrubby briarwood trees.
The explorers were tired and thirsty and nearly ready to turn back when they came upon an oasis. Green palms shaded supple grass soft underfoot, and a spring of cool clear water gushed from the white stone cliff and cascaded into a pool so bright, so clean and inviting.
For the three hot and weary explorers it was all too wonderful to pass up; they drank their fill from the spring and thought that perhaps a quick dip wouldn't hurt.
They had barely begun to take off their shoes when an urgent voice called out. Loola drew her blade and dropped into a fighting stance. Sir Darylius climbed atop a boulder to look for the speaker. Soon he spotted a lone man dressed in the gray robes of a priest.
The man walked quickly with a staff clutched in his right hand. He was almost too out of breath to speak, but Darylius could see what he had to say was most urgent.
The priest pointed to the water. "You… you did not drink from the spring?"
Darylius glanced at the pool. "We… uh… we all had a drink... it looked so clear and clean... uh... is there something wrong?"
"Oh... this is terrible news!" The distraught priest looked to the heavens. "We had just met... but alas, these fine young people, so full of life, will soon perish!" Tears filled the kindly old priest's eyes. "Oh... how cruel this world is sometimes."
"Uh..." Loola gulped. "Perish... did you say perish?"
"Poor souls, you could not have known, I wish I had gotten here earlier."
Sir Darylius sat heavily. "What... um... you don't mean to say the water was poisoned?"
"Sadly... that is true."
"But I feel great!" Little Jack exclaimed. "Never felt better!"
"Oh no!" The priest exclaimed. "The toxins are already having their effect... that sense of well-being is but the first symptom." The priest clutched a hand over his mouth for a time, overcome with emotion. "I'm afraid you don't have much time."
"By the gods!" Darylius exclaimed. "But... but you're a priest; you must heal us!"
"Would that I could… if this were a normal illness, with the god's blessing I would heal you. But this isle is not what it seems; it is ruled by an ancient and vengeful spirit. Its dark power has poisoned you and only that great and terrible spirit can cure you."
"But… but," Darylius pleaded. "There must be some way… This spirit, if we were to confront it. Might we convince it to cure us?"
"I'm afraid such a spirit is completely without mercy...Wait!" The priest spoke urgently. "The cave! Of course, I had forgotten but... there is a small chance but you must hurry. The evil you seek lives in a cave near the top of the highest peak. Inside the cavern you will find an alter to place your sacrifice... go to your ship and gather a tribute and hurry back. "
"What should we bring, what does it want?"
"This is a spirit of greed and debauchery," the priest explained, "a terrible unholy thing. It desires gold... and rum if you have it."
"May the gods bless you sir," Sir Darylius said. "We will leave immediately!"
High atop the tallest spire, Darylius, Loola, and Little Jack followed the priest to the cavern's entrance, a high narrow crack in a sheer cliff set on a small ledge towering above the sea. The priest went inside first; chanting prayers and burning incense. Moments later he emerged and bade them to follow.
Their torches burned low by the time they reached the back of the cavern. Then they saw it; standing twice the height of a man, billowing white like a sail in a crosswind, it had several human-like arms sticking out to either side. Atop was a head resembling the skull of a horse with antlers poking out the top, it bellowed and moaned and staggered forward.
"Hurry," the priest urged, "bring the tribute, place it on the floor!"
"Oh Great Spirit..." The priest said. "We pay this tribute in gold and rum... Now I beseech you to cure these poor travelers of the terrible curse you placed upon them!"
The beast shook, making a noise not unlike several people laughing, but then one of the arms withdrew into its ghostly form and reemerged holding a large wooden cup. The priest grasped the container and bid his companions to withdraw.
Outside, the priest had all three drink from the cup. The dark liquid tasted strangely similar to cheap wine. After they drank, the priest put his hand on each traveler's forehead and let his holy power confirm that the affliction had passed. Darylius, Loola and Little Jack rejoiced.
It was long walk back to the ship, a journey that gave the three travelers much to consider. They had survived a brush with death, thanks to a chance meeting with a kind old priest. It had been difficult to leave him behind, but he was steadfast in his duty to both mankind and the gods. Selflessly, the priest would stay on this cursed isle, protecting travelers from the dark power that ruled the Isle of Murder.