The Dangers of Success
Travel was easy until the second day, when the road snaked up the rugged foothills of a mountain range. The forest grew thicker, encroaching upon a cobblestone road that no longer saw much traffic. That night was ominously still as the four travelers camped in a clearing beside a churning stream.
Chef Duchet took the second watch and kept a fire burning. As often happened in the early morning hours his thoughts turned to confections. It felt as though he was on the verge of something great, something fresh, a desert that would perhaps melt the heart of a certain female warrior? Then he heard a noise.
"Awaken my comrades!" Chef Duchet raised the alarm. "There is something amiss!"
There were footsteps, many footsteps in the dark.
"Hold!" a stranger shouted. Then a big man with a shaved scalp stepped into the flickering light. "Put away your blades, as you can see, me boys have you surrounded."
"Bandits!" Swore Darylius as a dozen men emerged from the forest.
"Aye," spoke a bandit with a deep scar across his right cheek. "Now just settle down and let's talk, reasonable like."
The big one pointed his sword at Darylius. "Half your gold or your life!"
"Half?" Darylius repeated. "Say, what kind of bandits are you?"
"Aye... well," the scarred one reconsidered. "I suppose that be a bit more'n we really be needing... a third should be plenty."
"Cravis," another bandit interrupted, "these people have expenses too. A fourth of their gold be more reasonable... and I don't think we need to kill them all..."
"Uh... well yes..." The bald one waved his sword around dramatically and started anew. "Um... how about this: You there! Give us a quarter of your gold or we'll kill… some of you!"
"See now don't that feel better?" the scarred bandit said. "More rational like... but I'm still not liking this killing business... I mean it's gonna have long-term negative consequences if'n we kill off our targets; barely anyone travels this road as it is. We got our futures to think about, you know."
"Yes, yes..." The bald one reluctantly agreed. "You're right, of course."
He started again: "You there, we have you surrounded! Hand over one quarter of your gold or we'll... give you a sound thrashing!" He looked apprehensively at his partner, who apparently, still didn't like the terms.
It was nearing sunrise by the time Sir Darylius finished negotiating with the bandits. He finally agreed to pay fifty coppers to avoid what was described as a 'rather unpleasant lecture'. In a way, it was a fortunate turn of events since the bandits knew the mountains well, and so they gave what turned out to be excellent directions for the next day's travel.
Sir Darylius led the expedition north and followed a stream bed up into the mountain pass. The floor of the u-shaped valley was dotted with a few conifers. The slope steepened to either side, becoming bare of trees with remnant snow pack clinging to rocky slopes.
In the middle of the valley they found something most unusual. There was a flat-topped terraced hill, nearly covered in thick spongy moss and vines.
Sir Darylius raked away soil from its base and discovered marble building stone. The travelers hurried to the top. There were weathered statues and swampy fountains lined with ferns, but what drew their attention was the white marble building at the exact center.
The building was little more than a pedestal of marble with a protective slate roof overhead. The pedestal was ten paces across at the base; a flat-topped pyramid that stood twice the height of a man. Four bronze oil lamps hung over the pedestal; suspended by chains anchored to the ceiling beams. And on top of that pedestal was something else: a pure white blocky object.
Sir Darylius hacked his way toward the structure, and then, as he got closer to the pedestal, he realized that it was engraved and each side told a story. Much like the Emperor's tale, there was a scene of warfare, a scene of carnage, a scene of the miraculous, and finally on the south face there was an engraving of the temple itself.
There were no stairs or footholds so Little Jack lashed a couple broken timbers together to form a makeshift ladder. Loola and Chef Duchet held it steady while Darylius and Little Jack climbed.
Sir Darylius took a sharp breath; right in front of him was what must be the Idol of Moderation but it was not what he expected at all.
A powerful artifact should be grander but the Idol stood not quite waist-high. Its form was almost a cube, but slightly higher than wide, the corners were not exactly square either but close enough as to not be noticeable. Simple geometric patterns covered its plain surface.
Little Jack touched the white stone. "No dust... does someone clean the Idol?"
Darylius pointed out footprints. "Aha, someone has been up here!"
"Those are yours."
"Magic then..." Little Jack gestured overhead. "Hmm... Perchance we can use the chains, blocks and tackle of those oil lamps to hoist the Idol and set it upon the floor?"
"Say, you're pretty insightful for a cabin boy."
"Aww shucks sir," Little Jack smiled sheepishly, "I tries me best."
Transporting the Idol was hard work. They took turns, two at a time, dragging the Idol behind them on a litter made of two long poles, cross-ties and leather lashings. Sir Darylius figured it would take about three days to drag the Idol back to the ship.
It was late in the day when they reached their old camp by the stream. Darylius settled down in front of the campfire while Little Jack started boiling some water.
That evening Darylius noticed something odd: Loola and Chef Duchet were acting so strangely. They took a long walk together just after sunset. Why they needed additional exercise after a full day's march was baffling to Sir Darylius, though he was so tired that he gave it little thought.
On the second night, they set up camp within sight of the city. Little Jack tended the fire while Darylius knelt beside the Idol, reverently running his fingertips along its grooves and corners.
Little Jack had to repeat himself when the food was ready. As they ate supper by themselves, Darylius remarked to Little Jack how peculiar it was that Loola and Chef Duchet had taken an even longer walk into the woods. Little Jack just sighed and avoided eye contact.
On the third morning the travelers decided that it would be easier to take a road that skirted the main city. And soon they discovered that the empire wasn't as empty as they thought.
They met farmers tilling the earth with teams of oxen. They saw herdsmen tending goats and sheep in distant pastures. They passed several homes where mothers sat spinning wool or doing laundry while several children played an orderly game with a ball and sticks.
At one point they passed the group of invaders that the Emperor had mentioned. These were, Loola noted, the most polite and considerate group of invaders she had ever met; it had been almost impossible to get away from them when they offered to help.
Captain Halfbeard had several of the crew place the Idol onto a barge for transport to the ship. On such a momentous occasion, Sir Darylius felt he should say something.
"We have the Idol, my friends! We succeeded where most would have failed. Soon we can return home in the most glorious fashion! We will have fame, fortune and maybe even cookies and a parade!"
Loola and Chef Duchet came forward, holding hands. Loola glanced adoringly at Chef Duchet. "We wish you luck, Sir Darylius, but we're staying."
Darylius was shocked, absolutely shocked. "Staying? But why?"
The chef spoke with conviction: "I came on this voyage to carve out a new life. I thought I would find wondrous things," Chef Duchet pulled Loola close, "But never figured I would find love."
Darylius was still shocked. "But… didn't you hear the part about the parade?"
"This is the place for us. The city's almost empty now," Loola noted. "But perhaps if there was a good tavern with a talented cook?"
"I still don't get it."
Alas, it was Captain Halfbeard who had to sit down with Darylius and heroically explain the situation in a clear and patient manner.
After the talk, the knight had much to think about. Though he would certainly miss them, Sir Darylius knew in his heart that the happy couple belonged together in the strange broken empire. Life would be a struggle but there would also be purpose and passion brought back to the city. And so it was that the travelers parted ways.
Sir Darylius couldn't help but smile big as the sailors stowed the Idol of Moderation aboard the Zaroo Tareze. This would be his greatest moment, a quest that would place his name amongst with the knights of old.
The hardest part was surely over; all they needed to do was to sail to the Isle of Murder to take on fresh water and then they would return to the kingdom for a hero's welcome- simple as that.
Watching darkly from across the deck, Little Jack also grinned.