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The Three Companioneers
by Archone

It was a lovely day at Castle Britannia. The sun was shining brightly over the battlements. The birds were singing a lovely counterpoint to the strumming of a bard’s lute. And an enormous man in full plated was chasing a jester with an enormous two handed sword. "Get back here, Chuckles!" Dupre cried, "I want my glass sword! I’ve had it since the quest to defeat Blackthorn. I’ve been waiting for an enemy worth breaking it over, and that’s going to be YOU if you don’t give it back!"

The mustachioed court jester scampered nimbly ahead of him, snickering as he called back, "You want it back, fine! Just answer my riddle, in the nick of time!" Dupre roared and charged the royal fool with new vigor. Chuckles rounded the next corner-and bounced off a slender man in soft green leathers, with a cloak of light brown cloth flung over his shoulders. Landing with an audible, "whoof!" the jester gazed up helplessly as Dupre raised his sword for a killing blow. "Give it back!"

"Very well, I’ll give it back," and Chuckles rolled away and hid behind Shamino, "If you can answer riddle with fact!"

Dupre purpled with rage, but Shamino quietly said, "wait." He turned and looked at Chuckles expectantly.

The Jester brightened considerably at the voluntary participation. "Pompous men are oft-" he trailed off as Shamino turned and raced away at top speed-which for a Ranger accustomed, as per the name, to roaming the open ranges of the wilds for days at top speed, was quite fast. Finally, he returned with a gleaming blade of polished glass, glowing softly with a blue light.
"How-why-where?" stuttered Chuckles, his tasseled hood seeming to droop further with his dejection.

Shamino smiled, then plucked a long hair from Chuckle’s shirt, then sniffed. "As if the horse hair wasn’t clue enough, you smell like you’ve just been in the stables, too." Dupre took his glass sword back, the 2-handed blade held in his mighty left hand, then grinned at the jester, who quickly fled.

Dupre slung his two hander through a loop hanging from his back, then shifted the glass sword to clasp Shamino’s right hand with his own. "What are you DOING here, friend?" asked Dupre.
"I escorted Iolo here. He came with some new invention of his, a new kind of crossbow I think." Shamino turned, and they both walked down the corridor to one of the guest rooms reserved specifically for the Companions of the Avatar.

Iolo waited within, strumming a lute with callused, skilled fingers. "I always love coming back to play this lute," he murmured in tune to the rhythmic playing. "But it’s far too delicate to take on the road." Putting the instrument down on a table, he rose. "It’s good to see you again, Dupre." He extended his hand, which was promptly engulfed by Dupre’s own.

"So what’s this new invention I hear about?" asked Dupre. Iolo grinned slyly.

"It’s a new device specially designed for top marksmen. The elite guards of Castle Britannia beat Zellivan’s Stalwarts at the last competition-no small feat, since all of Jhelom trains for fighting with missiles and nasty up close weapons for naval combat." He opened up a wooden chest, exposing a padded lining and an unusually configured crossbow, with not one, but three staves, side by side, with several strange additions to the standard design. "You pull this single piece here," Iolo explained, fitting his foot through the loop on the end with one hand and pulling on the part with his hands, "which draws the bow and locks it into position. Next, you place up to three bolts, one on each staff, the drawpiece aligning them properly. Next, you twist this knob here," and as he did so, the smaller side mounted staves twisted at the joint to the handle, spreading the angle of the bolts, "to determine whether you want a concentrated burst on a single target-like a dragon-or a wide shot to intimidate a number of enemies on all sides."

"I can understand wanting to fire three bolts at once when shooting a dragon," Dupre frowned, "but for handling most enemies, isn’t a single well placed shot better than many bolts fired at random?" Iolo grimaced in uncomfortable agreement.

"That’s why the thing’s only for experts. Even I have difficulty making all three hit the targets when I use it." Iolo shrugged, then put the crossbow back in the padded chest. "Still, three times the number of bolts could be the same as tripling the number of archers, if they’re good enough." Dupre looked at him a moment, then laughed heartily.

"Enough of such nonsense, Iolo! Come, let’s go to the kitchen. Maldric’s always got some leftovers ready for when I get the munchies. And there’s always fresh ale on tap, as well!" Dupre led the way, as Shamino and Iolo followed with an amused glance.

"Is that why you’ve spent the past year here at the castle," murmured Shamino. Dupre almost, but not quite, managed to achieve a mortally wounded expression.

"I’ll have you know I remain here that I might be at our Lord’s beck and call. Should he ever need my services, I remain but a stone’s throw away." Dupre’s armor tightened, as he puffed up his chest with pride. Then he exhaled audibly, with a self deprecating grin. "Besides, I get to train in the royal parade grounds. Got to keep in top condition, you know. The Avatar could show up at any time to drag us off on another quest!"

"Somehow, I think if the Avatar shows up, we’ll already be in the thick of things," Iolo pointed out.

Dupre considered that. "True, every time the Avatar showed up before, we were already in dark days. Best to keep on our toes anyway, though!" And they entered the kitchen, where Dupre immediately grabbed up a cold haunch of roast beef from the tray where it sat, along with half a cake and a pile of rolls. As Dupre tore the flesh from the bone with a savage jerk and masticated it with a contented sigh, Shamino nibbled daintily at a roll and Iolo sliced off a piece of cake to munch on. Dupre grabbed up a round of cheese and they left to seat themselves in the main hall, where they washed the meat, dairy, and grains with ale so fresh it still foamed, and sweet honey mead. "So where have your travels taken you recently, friend Shamino?" Dupre asked as he wiped crumbs from his mustache.

Shamino took a long sip of mead and smiled. "I spent some time traveling the mountain pass leading to the Shrine of Sacrifice. There were rumors of bandits there."

Dupre snorted. "Find any?"

Shamino nodded. "Fortunately, I had the aid of several young adventurers, who traveled with me for the educational benefits. A good thing, too. That hedge wizard had a nasty assortment of spells." Dupre’s eyebrow raised. "Simple, destructive spells, the sort a bandit would value. Trap and untrap spells, conjuration of beasts, a few missile spells, even a charm spell. Thankfully, our own wizard, a student of some great mage named Xiao, had the abilities to counter his bag of tricks. Quite a help, that Mariah. The spells she ripped from his book were the first combative magics she’d ever learned. Up till that point she mainly relied on daggers for fighting."

"Then what did she do?" Asked Iolo, to whom the tale was new.

"She knew a great many utilitarian spells. Counters for charms, repulsion of undead, spells of scrying that let us find them, spells of healing for afterward. Even the spell for summoning emergency rations that we found so handy during the Resistance. When it came to combat, though, we mostly relied on this large nasty man named Hughe, and a fighter named Gorn."

"Hmmm. You should have sent for me," grunted Dupre, then drained his flagon. "How about you, Iolo?"

"I spent most of my time this past year designing the new bow at my hut. Gwenno was there to keep me company, so it wasn’t too lonely. Smith was there too, of course."

"That talking horse again? Will you never cease with that tale?"

"I assure you, Smith is quite real-and quite well fed, on my hay."

"Care to take a small wager on it, then?"
After the three heroes had finished a keg of ale and a bottle of mead, a five pound haunch of meat, a round of cheese, half a cake, and a dozen rolls between them, even Shamino was behaving far livelier, while Dupre was a bit more sedated, sated with good food and drink. Suddenly, a muscular man came running out of the kitchen. "Stop, thief!"

Dupre lurched to his feet, crying, "no Maldric! It’s just us!" Maldric pressed a hand to his forehead wearily.

"Not you, you damnable glutton! Someone’s stolen Lord British’ favorite grail!" Dupre stared, shocked, at the cook, then at the bare place setting at the table. The heroes rushed out, where they immediately confronted Chuckles.

"It wasn’t me this time," moaned the jester, removing his hood to reveal a nasty lump. "Someone stole our Lord’s grail. He headed towards the east parapet!" The jester sank down slowly, crying in pain and remorse as he gingerly felt at the swelling.

Dupre had certainly been practicing during his stay, for even in his paladin’s plate armor he maintained a narrow lead. They reached the battlements in time to see a hooded man dressed all in black, with a small shield of blackened leather on his left wrist, secure one end of a rope to the crenellations. Giving the companions a contemptuous wave of one hand, he slid a club of smoothly polished hickory over the rope. Swinging his legs up, he slid down the rope to a rooftop below.

Dupre lunged up to the battlement. He drew his massive sword and placed the blunt forte on the rope. "Hold on to me!" he cried, then as the Bard and Ranger both clung to his mighty legs, he slid down the rope himself, landing on the roof not far behind the fleeing thief. "Come back here, you coward!" cried the knight, as he raced after the figure.

The thief raced to the edge of the rooftop, then leapt off with a dizzying leap, landing on another rooftop several feet away. Shamino and Iolo deftly reproduced the feat, then stopped to help up Dupre, who’d fallen a little short. "Little difficult in this metal shell," he grunted. "Don’t stop for me again. Just catch him! I’ll manage." He angled his route to the highest point on the new rooftop, then leapt again, landing on yet another rooftop. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the one the thief was on. He continued to make his way as best he could, trying to both keep up with the thief and head the criminal off.

Iolo and Shamino maintained a hot pursuit of the criminal, leaping high over the roofs of Britain. Finally, the thief landed on the roof of the famous Wayfarer’s inn. He moved towards an open window, then dove out of the way as Dupre landed next to him with his heavy blade swinging in a blindingly fast arc. The thief came to his feet and pulled forth a slender spell book. With his other hand he raised up a vial containing blood moss, spider silk, and sulfurous ash . Dupre’s eyes widened in apprehension, knowing full well the import of the post sulfur powder in lending combustive energy to spells, then shut against the stings, as the thief conjured forth a wave of stinging, biting insects. As Dupre fell back, swinging wildly in a desperate attempt to foil the cloud of pestilent vermin, the thief turned and hurled a dagger, forcing Iolo to halt his charging leap to avoid it. Shamino landed, his slender blade and thick main gauche held at the ready, the sword held before him in a high guard, his dagger high above his head, tip pointing downward, as he moved in to engage the culprit.

The thief drew his rod of hard hickory with one hand, holding it in a rear guard, cocked behind his head, while covering his front with the shield. Shamino glided in with small mincing steps, then thrust the tip of his blade at the hooded face. The thief blocked with the shield, then swung his club in a tight arc. Shamino aborted his shift to dagger hand lead and strike to parry with the hilt of the heavy knife. Planting his left leg behind the leg of the thief, Shamino performed an unexpected leg throw, dumping the masked figure on the ground. The criminal slapped the ground with his shield hand to break his fall, then swept Shamino’s legs with the club. As Shamino tucked and rolled, the criminal rolled to his feet and dove through the window.
After Iolo finally made it to the inn’s roof, and he and Shamino had helped Dupre swat the insects, they leapt through the window after the thief-and were promptly assaulted by a barrage of pillows. "Eeeek! More mashers!" cried the buxom woman, who would have been quite attractive in her undress, had her face not been contorted with fright and fury. As Dupre tried to explain while ducking the seemingly unending supply of flying articles that the woman hurled, the innkeeper came running in with his own sword drawn.

Explanations and apologies followed.

"The thief went down into the sewers," Peyton said, an apologetic expression suffusing his bland, mild features. "That’s not a place I go down voluntarily." Dupre cursed, then they turned to leave. "Um, why don’t you use the front door this time," suggested the innkeeper.
Maldric was utterly distraught, completely inconsolable. "The king! The king will kill me!"
"Lord British would never execute a man for such a-"
"No, he’ll do it himself! He loves his grails! The last time we had a guest try to steal one, the king smote him with his scepter! And half the reason Blackthorn was banished was because he pillaged the royal crockery for his own use!" Maldric grabbed a cleaver and began chopping at a large percentage of a dead sheep in an attempt to calm down. "We’ve got to get it back, we’ve just got to get it back! Pass me the salt, please." He mixed the chunks of flesh with the extra coarse grains, then tossed them into a boiling pot. "What will I ever do?"

Dupre tried to reassure him. "We will not rest until the vile fiend is apprehended and the grail returned to His Majesty." Maldric moaned and began hacking at an onion.

"And what will I do in the meantime? Wait, let me think. Yes, I can have all the grails, the whole lot of them, taken out to be cleaned. That should give us... three days. Can you find the thief in three days, Dupre? And while you’re at it, the pepper, if you please?"

Dupre handed him the pepper mill. "For you, Maldric, not demon nor maiden will stop me. I-aye-aye-ah-choo! ‘Scuse me..."
A scant hour later, Sir Dupre, massive sword in hand, Shamino, sword in one hand and torch in the other, and Iolo, his new contraption locked and loaded, with a quiver filled to the brim with heavy bolts slung at his side, entered the sewers underneath the castle. Tracing the path to the entrance to the inn, Shamino paused to observe the area. He finally pointed at where a smudge remained, from where the dirt of the rooftops mixed with the damp of the sewers to become a footprint. Moving along quietly, he led the party, pausing every few minutes to check around, finding a fresh footprint here and again, or an occasional bloodied rat corpse. More often, however, the clues were less obvious, often 50 feet or more passing between sight of a few fallen drops of blood from a weapon recently used, and a crushed insect corpse not yet snapped up by other crawling creatures.

Finally, the path led to a ladder leading down... further? Shamino and Iolo traded glances, then shrugged, and Dupre took point going down the ladder. The glimmer of torchlight revealed an underground cavern, formed through a combination of earthquake and water erosion. "This reminds me of the complex between the Hero’s Hole, the Mines at Jhelom, and the Dungeon Destard," whispered Shamino. "If it’s anywhere near as big, there could be entire societies of monsters living here, with their own cultures and politics."

They followed the winding path as best they could. Soon, they became quite lost. "We should have brought some gems," muttered Iolo, as he kept his triple crossbow at hand, his other hand holding aloft a fresh torch to replace the first. Shamino simply shook his head, disgusted with himself, unable to find a single trace of their quarry in the dim light.

After they’d gone on a while longer, the rats finally attacked. A very good many rats, each at least 2 feet long, with glowing red eyes and razor edged incisors. "Now we see why it’s been impossible to exterminate all the rats in the sewers," muttered Dupre as he began to swing his sword, cutting at the rats as they attacked with a suicidal frenzy, eager to dine on the flesh within his metal shell. Shamino drew his blades and assumed a low guard, his slender blades with their lightning thrusts a far better weapon for dealing with many small opponents. The rats died in hordes, their bloodied bodies collapsing in heaps. Still the rats continued to attack, driven on by insatiable hunger, knowing the survivors would feast on their comrades as well as the humans.

Finally, a path of rats died all at once, as Iolo finally placed the torch in a safe location and unlimbered his crossbow. The three bolts shot forth in a tight grouping, each propelled with such force that they penetrated multiple bodies without slowing down noticeably. Iolo grunted with effort as he reloaded, bending the bow and locking it, then placing three fresh bolts within. Again he fired, the same missiles designed to puncture plate armor penetrating the flesh and fur with ease.

And again, he fired.

And again...

Eventually, the rats finally turned and fled, leaving piles of bodies strewn throughout the dungeon floor. Dupre and Shamino wiped their blades, exhausted by the effort and the beginnings of post adrenaline rush. Iolo fingered his quiver mournfully. "Ran out of bolts," he sighed. "This thing eats up bolts thrice as fast as a normal bow." He shrugged philosophically and holstered the triple crossbow, pulling out a dagger for defense. The heroes resumed their hapless wanderings.

Soon, they found themselves in front of an enormous subterranean lake. "What do you want to bet this is a breeding ground for sea serpents?" asked Dupre. Neither of his companions deigned to accept the wager, and so they moved along, keeping the shoreline to their left flanks. Eventually, they found a bridge, leading to an island in the middle of the lake, with a stairway built out of the same limestone as formed the caves.

"Further up and further in," murmured Shamino, as the heroes went up the stairs, finding themselves in another cavern, this one with signs of recent habitation-a fireplace, and a dropped vial of used reagents. "It seems we’re back on the right track," Shamino smiled. "By luck, anyway, if not by skill," Iolo rejoined. Shamino shot him a dirty look and moved to take lead. Iolo drew a new torch to replace the almost extinguished one already in hand, his fifth thus far. The increased light revealed a passage leading out one end of the cave. This light proved a lure for the local residents-all of them, replete with claws, teeth, and insatiable hunger. "Gremlins," Iolo cursed, as he assumed a knife fighter’s stance, his other hand holding the torch ready to burn any who came too close. And come they did, as the three foot tall creatures charged, their uncontrollable appetite and lack of intelligence resulting in a remake of the previous battle scene. "Rats 2, Bipedal Vermin." Only in this sequel, the heroes did not have superior firepower. They fought on anyway, with naked steel and burning tar coated wood. Fortunately, the gremlins were even stupider than the rats. Every time one of them died, the others would stop for cannibal chops, with the result that one dead meant at least three incapacitated, at least temporarily. After a great many minutes, the gremlins finally stopped attacking-because they were all dead. Iolo drew forth his own traveling spell book, a slender square containing only a few essential spells, and vials of ginseng and spidersilk, with which he performed heal spells upon their many cuts and scratches, none of them serious, but all prone to infection given their source.

They moved on. The passage eventually gave way to a larger cavern, containing three large tree shapes, each possessed of large tentacles which writhed angrily. "So, more humans come to relieve our boredom," growled one of the Reapers, from the face on the trunk, contorted with a host of nasty expressions in rapid fire. The others began to wriggle their tentacles, preparing to perform magic both powerful and destructive.

"We’d be glad to entertain," Iolo quickly responded, and pulled out a set of pipes. Putting them to his lips, he began to play his masterpiece, "Stones." The mournful tune from the wooden tubes echoed off the cavern walls, resonating to give a performance far superior to even Iolo’s standard pipings. The reapers stopped, transfixed. Dupre and Shamino froze as well, jaws agape as they listened to the sweet, sorrowful song, mentally reciting the lyrics rather than spoil the tune with their own voices:

Long ago ran the sun on a folk who had a dream
And the heart and the will and the power:
They moved the earth; they carved the stone; moulded hill and channeled stream
That we might stand on the wide plains of Wiltshire.
Now men asked who they were, how they built and wondered why
That they wrought standing stones of such size
What was done ‘neath our shade? What was pray’ed ‘neath our skies
As we stood on the wyrd plains of Wiltshire.
Oh what secrets we could tell if you’d listen and be still
Rid the stink and the noise from our skirts
But you haven’t got the clue and perhaps you never will
Mute we stand on the cold plains of Wiltshire.
Still we loom as the ages roll away
And we say of our folk, "they are here!"
That they built us and they died and you’ll not be knowing why
Save we stand on the plains of Wiltshire.

The Reapers continued to stare at Iolo, as the echoes died down in the distance. "That... was worth more than a meal." One of the Reapers finally spoke.

"Even with three servings," added another, it‘s face twisted into an expression never before painted on it‘s trunk, one of contentment. "Go in peace." Iolo nodded.

"We’re looking for a thief, dressed in black. Have you seen him?" asked Shamino.

The Reapers laughed. "Aye, we have. But that information costs extra."

Dupre stepped forth. "I presume you know of the Avatar?" Roars and terrifying screams. "I’ll take that as a yes. Have you heard of the man who taught the Avatar humility?" Puzzled grunts. "’Twas in the reign of Blackthorn. The Avatar met with Resistance members on New Magincia, seeking knowledge to defeat the Blackthorn. Whilst there, the Avatar was told of a farmer, an old man who could teach humility to anyone. The Avatar sought him out."

Dupre paused. "The old man began to ask the Avatar questions, simple, leading questions. ‘Do you hate Blackthorn?’

‘Would you die to destroy him?’

‘Do you understand everything about him?’

‘Then how can you judge him?’

‘Does your hatred make you any better than him? How can you condemn when you are imperfect yourself?’

"The Avatar pondered this for a moment, then knelt in the dirt of the old farmer’s field, and said, "Thank you for teaching me wisdom, Goodman. If you will excuse me, I must go and find a rock to crawl under."

The Reapers laughed at the punch line and the jibe at their hated foe. "The human in black headed above, to the altar below Buccaneers Den." The three humans traded shocked glances. "We’ve traveled under the sea itself. A network of caves connecting Britain and the Den." Iolo swore in a hushed voice. The Reapers chuckled, pointing the way with their tentacles.

"Tell us another, and we’ll tell you her identity."

"Her?" Dupre’s eyes widened in shock.

Shamino stepped forward. "There was a dragon of Destard, who once spared the life of a human who crossed it’s path. The man was small, plump, and not overly handsome, so the dragon felt he would be tasty enough to dine on. ‘What is your name, little man?’ asked the dragon, as he prepared to roast his meal. ‘I am called Shubin, my lord reptile,’ answered the poor man," here Shamino assumed a high pitched voice in imitation of the little man. "‘And what is your profession, little Shubin,’ taunted the dragon, ‘how would Britannia be deprived if you were to die?’ Shubin began to cry, but he managed to speak. ‘I am a cook, lord dragon,’ he responded. The dragon thought for a moment, then had the cook prepare a roast cow for him and let him go with his thanks. ‘I prefer my meals medium rare,’ the dragon explained, ‘but when I do the cooking, they always come out well done...’" The Reapers laughed at the macabre humor.

"Her name is Shade," explained the head Reaper. "She is a member of the Guild, and a rogue mage to boot." A rogue mage, unlike a student from Moonglow or one of the Druidic sect in Yew, was self taught, with only what spells they managed to uncover in the course of their travels. Most of them were in league with pirates and bandits, men who enjoyed magical assistance but cared nothing for credentials. "She is powerful." From a Reaper, which compensated for it’s lifelong immobility by exuding magical strength from every pore, needing no book or reagents to cast, and indeed, whose sap could be used for magic potions, this was saying a great deal.

"She desires the Grail for a ceremony, a ritual of summoning a Daemonlord, and binding it to her control."

"I’ve heard of the summoning ritual," queried Iolo, "but how will she bind it to her will?"

The Reapers laughed evily, crudely even. "By seducing it." The humans groaned in disgust, at the thought.

"Go, humans. Stop her, if you dare."

They went.
Buccaneer’s Den was an island beautiful in direct proportion to the villainy and perversions that dwelt within. The heroes exited the entrance to the caverns, and headed into town, heading straight for the nearest inn. The King’s Ransom was the largest building on the island. It was also the only building untainted by graffiti or vandalism. "Last time we were here, this place seemed a bit rowdier..." noted Dupre, eyeing the astonishing lack of cutthroats swaggering in broad daylight or demons feasting on the weak.

"It’s the age of the place," Shamino explained. "As the Den grew and prospered, it evolved customs, traditions, rules, laws. It’s still a center of piracy, though-for now, at least. It’s not going to be able to hold off respectability for much longer, though." They went into the tavern, which was floored with delicate tiles, the walls covered with many beautiful paintings, tables of smooth polished hardwoods. The spoils of centuries of theft and piracy.

Iolo went up to the tavern bard, a blond haired man with a mustache. "Hello Johann," he greeted him quietly.

The bard looked up from his lute with a smile. "Hello, Master Iolo! What brings you to a place like this?" He fingered the lute, strumming the beginnings of a quiet background song.

"We’re looking for Shade." Twang! A string snapped as Johann stared up at Iolo in horror. He shook his head in disbelieving terror.

"No, Master! Shade is dangerous even by the standards of the Den! She is a powerful mage, a dangerous fighter-"

"We’re aware of that," Iolo explained. "We’ve already fought. She got away, and we need to bring her back, or at least, what she stole."

"Whatever it is, Shade’s too dangerous in her lair! Whatever she stole forget-"

"It was one of Lord British’ grails."

Johann stared at Iolo for a while. "Ask at the Captain’s table. Good luck Master. Virtue be with you."

The Captain’s table was the largest, and most attractive of all the tables, made from polished ebony, topped with a sheet of glass. Almost a dozen people sat at the table, and as many chairs stood empty. On the back of each chair was a fitting for a name plate, signifying that each chair belonged to a single captain alone, and that the captaincy tended to change fairly often. Dupre spoke up first. "Excuse me, Captain-"

All of the captains at the table immediately turned to look at him. "We’re looking for Shade. I don’t suppose you could tell us where to find her?" The captains stared at him a moment, then they all burst into laughter.

"Looking for Shade, are you?" laughed a man in a purple woolen cloak and blue cap. "Have a taste for dangerous women, I see."

A blond woman with delicate hands and attractively sea worn features smirked and quirked an eyebrow. "You don’t have to look that far, if you’re looking for dangerous women."

Dupre smiled charmingly in return. "You are quite certainly dangerous, Captain, and definitely a beautiful woman." The captain smirk turned to a gracious smile. "But I’m looking for the dangerous woman who stole Lord British’ grail."

The smile disappeared, to be replaced by an astonished glare, echoed by every other captain at the table. A man dressed in immaculate dark embroidery softly uttered, "Shade dares to steal from our King? Steal his GRAIL?" The captains immediately began to mutter dark discussions of vengeance.

"What about her powers?" asked a captain with clear blue eyes and wildly tousled blond hair. The discussion of vengeance immediately stifled.

"We can stop her," said Dupre. "Just tell us where to find her."

The well dressed man raised one delicate eyebrow. "And which one of you would be the Avatar?"

"None. But we did travel with the Avatar, on a number of occasions." Dupre smiled. "Name’s Dupre, by the way. You might have heard of me." The companions were slightly less famous than the Avatar, but still in high renown, even humble Katrina, whose response to the adulations was to give up shepherding to raise wheat.

"Dupre, the Paladin..." the well dressed captain murmured. "Your friends, Iolo and Shamino, then?"

Dupre nodded. "Could you stand together for a moment?" The man pulled out a sketchbook. "My name's Fox. Most of the paintings on these walls are mine. Let me sketch your group portrait, then we’ll tell you where to find Shade."
And back into the cave... Iolo, carrying his triple crossbow ready with plenty of fresh bolts purchased from the local armorer, with several vials of sulfurous ash and a loaned spell book with a light spell tucked into his garb. Shamino, his long slender sword and short thin parrying dagger cleaned and honed. Dupre, his two handed sword leading the way, his armor scoured of the worst of the grime and muck of their previous expedition.

They made their way through the caverns, following the directions laid out for them by the captains. It was only a short walk, now that they knew which way to go. They made their way through the caverns, undisturbed by the creatures that roamed the dungeons. Assuming that anyone headed down the path to Shade’s lair must have been invited, the gazers and reapers left them alone rather than risk her wrath.

Even the gremlins dared not arouse her ire despite their perpetual hunger.

The lair was easy enough to recognize, given that it’s entrance was framed by the vertebrae of a sea serpent, a sign of status among the denizens among the underworld. The number of vertebrae further distinguished her as a figure of some repute among the monsters.

The inside of the lair was formed of stone, naturally enough. Smaller caverns off to the side revealed the glint of bottles and equipment for alchemy, food preparation, while a curtain obscured what was most likely her private bedchamber. The center of the lair, of course, was dominated by a disgusting altar, with a stone table covered in the reddish brown of dried blood in the center. Skeletons stamped about the lair, performing their duties. At the sight of the humans, the skeletons’ commands to prepare food and clean the lair were overrided by the command to defend the lair. They grabbed up spears and swords and moved in to battle.

Dupre took the lead, charging in with his heavy blade, far better suited for smashing bones than Shamino’s slender thrusting blades or Iolo’s crossbows. He grinned fiercely as he ducked underneath a sword swing and hacked off both legs, then followed up with an upward rising slash that destroyed the rib cage and collarbones of a second skeleton, thereby ruining it’s ability to strike with the arms. With it’s purpose defeated, the enchantment failed, and the bones collapsed next to that of it’s companion.

Dupre twisted his hips as the next skeleton thrust it’s spear at him, the head glancing off his armored torso as he took it’s head off with his blade and knocked the rest aside with his shoulder. As he continued to hack up the skeletons, he breathed a mental sigh of relief that conjurers no longer used zombies for servants, the increased durability not being considered worth the increased smell. At any rate, enemies that moved so slowly and awkwardly were little more than target pells to him.

Shamino moved towards the curtained alcove stealthily as Dupre kept the skeletons busy. He reached out with his sword and touched the curtains-which were abruptly flung aside as Shade leapt out, bludgeon ready in her hand, while her left hand held a magic wand. Her face was exposed, her skin shockingly pale from avoidance of the sunlight, in extreme contrast to her black hair and dark eyes. She would have been quite beautiful, were it not for the cruel expression etched into her features. Without a word, she drove Shamino back with a blinding series of strikes, his parrying dagger beaten aside by the dense hickory club.

"I suppose you’re not going to give back the grail, then?" asked the Ranger, as he flicked his rapier towards her face. Shade responded by flipping backwards, landing with her left hand extended-wand spitting lightning. Shamino dove to the side before the beam could kill him, rolling to his feet in a defensive crouch, blades ready to parry. Shade turned to aim her wand at him again- then dove out of the way herself as Iolo fired off the triple crossbow in a tight cluster. She came to her feet to find Shamino’s blade at her throat, Iolo aimed at her heart, and Dupre, having finished with the skeletons, moved behind her to cut off any chance to escape.

"The grail," Shamino demanded.

Shade’s eyes flicked towards the altar, where the King’s own cup rested on top. "So what will you do with me now?" She asked. "Kill me?" Dupre’s eyes clouded, as Iolo and Shamino grew equally uncertain. "Hmph. As I thought. You can’t bring yourselves to hurt a woman in cold blood, can you?" She slowly rose to her feet, then her hands came up-and Dupre caught both hands at the wrists.

"We might not be able to kill you, but we can stop you from killing us," he growled. A muffled cry came from within the bedchamber. "Someone check on that," Dupre suggested, as he continued to squeeze Shade’s wrists until her hands were forced open and the wand and club dropped from numbed fingers. Shamino went in-and came out a minute later, with a young woman in a gown of white, her hands holding a set of ropes and gag. "Well, looks like we have the means to keep you out of our hair for a while," Dupre smirked.

Shade just glared.
That night, everyone at the King’s Ransom celebrated the recovery of the Grail. "Amazing how these outlaws are so reverent of the King," noted Dupre, as he refilled his mug again. Next to him, the damsel rescued from distress, a bewitching young thing named Damson, took great pains to ensure that as much of her body was in contact with his at any given time, even as she smiled up at him with innocent blue eyes, her black hair cascading down around a face framed with a mouth that kept switching between an infectious grin and an adorable pout.

"The Den’s been getting more and more civilized as the centuries roll by," Damson explained. "Before, all the pirates were murderous remnants of Mondain’s henchmen. Now, they’re mostly just men and women with a taste for adventure. They even have a code they live by. In return for the privileges of the Guild and the Den, the outlet for purloined goods, the tables for the captains, mates, and crew, they agree not to kill or torture captured prisoners, burn ships that have surrendered, or prey on ships flying the King’s banner." She shifted her body again, to Dupre’s great delight. "The code started as an unwritten agreement with the King. The pirates stay in line, the King overlooks the occasional theft of a cargo. Now, the pirates get to pretend they’re as virtuous as anyone, and the King’s people can access the Den’s resources anytime they want-it’s not like Lord British doesn’t know where we are, anyway." Damson grinned, then shifted back to her pout. "Dupre, could I have an apple, please?" Dupre picked up an apple and began cutting slices, feeding her by hand. Shamino and Iolo looked at each other, then shook their heads and paid attention to their own meals.

As the party wound on, soon everyone save Damson, Iolo, and Shamino, who had drunk sparingly, and Dupre, whose capacity for liquor was as much a part of the legend as his strength and honor, was roaringly drunk.

"Three cheers for the three Companions!" cried Captain Elad.

"Let’s make them honorary Pirates!" agreed Fox, raising his glass with the rest of them.

"You mean Privateers, don’t you?" snickered Leodon, as she gripped his knee and squeezed it crudely. "They’re sworn to the King!"

"Aye," cried Elad, having drained his glass again, "Les makes um the Priva...the Compan... the Companioneers!" Leodon laughed and doubled over, agreeing.

"The Companioneers!" Fox raised his mug in accompaniment, as his other hand snaked around Leodon’s waist and pulled her in.

"Three cheers for the Three Companioneers!"
The next day at sunrise, they made ready to set sail for Britain. Dupre worked helping to load the Theodosia Marie, the ship of Captain Elad, who had agreed to provide them with free passage back to Britain. "I was headed there anyway," he whispered, holding his head delicately. "I’m looking for a hidden treasure, and I’m told I can get some information from someone in Britain."

"Thank you anyway," Shamino said in his customary quiet voice.

"Please don’t shout," Elad winced.

After the ship was loaded for voyage-no great feat for a pirate vessel, the bulk of the cargo hold being left open for captured booty, the remainder being given over to cannonballs, powder, arrows and bolts, and edibles-they boarded to leave. Dupre embraced Damson on the pier, Shamino standing by a short distance away. Damson had traded in her white cotton gown for a skirt and bodice of black leather over blue silk, lending her a somewhat less innocent air than before. "Well, then, my lady," Dupre smiled at her, "let me take you away from all this."

Damson looked confused. "Why would I want to leave?" Dupre’s expression became equally confused. "Well... we have to return you to your home from wherever Shade kidnapped you." Damson stared at the Paladin for a moment, incredulously.

Shamino shook his head. "Perhaps you should explain what is abundantly obvious to everyone but Dupre, Damson," he suggested.

Damson wrapped her arms around Dupre’s neck and stared up at his eyes with her grin. "Dupre, darling, the reason Shade chose me as her sacrifice, is because I’m her chief rival in the rogue mage business. I’ve lived here all my life." Dupre stared at her in shock. "Did you think some innocent maiden from Cove would do what we did last night?" Dupre’s stare was accentuated by a fierce blush. "Anyhow, I can’t go with you this time. Elad didn’t hire me for the voyage. Sets a bad precedent if I give a freebee." The stare and blush were matched with a crestfallen expression.

"Oh, don’t look at me like that," Damson complained, her pout appearing, "here, let me make it up to you." She kissed him again, quite thoroughly. "Next time you’re in town, look me up, Paladin," she smiled, as she sauntered off, hips swaying. Dupre stared after her as she walked away.

Shamino came up behind him and put one hand on his shoulder to comfort him. Dupre stood there a moment, lost in thought. Finally he turned to Shamino. "Oh, well, it was fun while it lasted. Let’s go." As Shamino stared at Dupre, jaws agape, Dupre mounted the gangplank, wistfully saying to no one in particular, "maybe I’ll come back here after we return the grail and see about finding another adventure. I’m sure the Avatar won’t show up without something noticeable happening beforehand, anyway..."

The ship sailed with the morning tide, headed for Britain with all the speed of a lightly laden pirate vessel, built for speed, maneuverability, and firepower, at the expense of seaworthiness stability or armor. The pirates prided themselves on being able to handle difficult vessels, taking the tendency of their vessels to tip over or sink without expert handling as a challenge to be met, rather than otherwise.

The sun was low in the sky with the wind favorable to their course, when the lookout sighted another ship in the distance. "Ship off the Port bow!" called the lookout, as Captain Elad and Shamino both leapt to the rail, staring out at the ship.

"Hmmm," Elad’s eyes narrowed speculatively.

"Never mind," Shamino told him firmly, "we need to get to Britain post haste, not hijack cargoes."

"Oh, it’s not that," Elad explained. "That looks like the Jolly Roger on the flag she’s flying, and that looks like the ship of Captain Trenchard, a longtime friend of Shade’s. And she’s coming for us, no less. ALL HANDS, PREPARE FOR BATTLE!" Elad roared, as the pirates all moved into position, securing vulnerable parts, manning cannon and the castles, grabbing weapons, etc. The Companioneers readied themselves as well, Iolo moving into the forecastle with the other archers and loading his triple crossbow.

The Ravenous Shark moved in ominously, her sails raised to provide maximum thrust. The Theodosia Marie swerved to meet the shark broadside, all her cannon and archers awaiting the command to fire. All this took place in a nerve wrackingly leisurely pace, the ships taking seemingly forever to travel the lengthy distances on the open sea. Finally, the Marie was in position. "Cannons, fire!" cried Elad, and all cannon gave off deafening booms as they launched their chunks of heavy metal through the air, heading towards the Shark. One ball took a chunk of railing off the far side, the others missed narrowly. The cannon were frantically reloaded, as the Shark moved in closer, a fireball flying forth from a mage‘s hand, to hit the main sail with a whoosh of exploding flame. The pirates quickly cut the sail away and let it fall away into the breeze, lest it take the rest of the ship away with it. "All hands, prepare for boarding!" cried the Captain. "Archers, fire at will!" And as the Shark moved in closer, pirates throwing grappling hooks onto the Marie’s railing and pulling her alongside, Iolo and the bow and crossbow wielding pirates repeatedly fired their deadly volley into the other ship’s deck, whittling away at the enemy, starting with the opposing archers. Dupre and Shamino both stood alongside the pirates armed with swords, axes, spears, and maces, ready to repel boarders as they leaped across.

Dupre cut a wide swath for himself, his enormous blade occupying enough room that he was able to keep the enemy at bay, any who came too close risking their hands or legs. Shamino busied himself with his own style of swordplay, his rapier and main gauche piercing hearts, bowels, and lungs with efficient thrusts as he nimbly dodged and swerved to avoid the counter strikes of the raiders. Finally, a voice cried out, "He’s mine!" Shamino glanced at the speaker, then raised his sword in salute.

The other pirates moved away, as Shade, in full regalia of black leather, advanced on Shamino, her club raised in return of his salute. Her shield raised at the ready, at her left side, as she swung her club into guard, Shamino doing the same, his sword pointed down towards the ground, his dagger at his side and pointed towards her mask. Shade moved in, club aimed at his head. Shamino blocked with the main gauche, countered with a sword thrust. Shade blocked with the shield, struck at the other side of his head. Shamino ducked and stabbed at the belly. Shade twisted, the rapier slicing a thin furrow along her stomach and sticking into the thick leather of her tunic. She slammed her club down on the rapier, jarring it loose from Shamino’s hand. Shamino countered by charging full tilt, his knife aimed at her chest, his right hand grabbing her club hand by the wrist as he bore in. Shade backed away hastily, trying to evade the parrying dagger. Shamino finally got a heel hooked behind her own, and down they both went. They both rolled on the ground for a few moments, then Shamino got to his feet and grabbed his sword, Shade lying lifelessly on the deck with his dagger plunged into her chest, the wound increased by his twisting of the knife within her.

Soon, it was all over. With their fiercest combatant dead, and Captain Trenchard dead from early in the exchange, at the withering hail of bolts and arrows fired by the defenders, the pirates of the Ravenous Shark had no more taste for combat, leaping back to their ship and cutting the hooks away. The Marie took a terrible toll on the Shark as she sailed off, her cannon firing at point blank range, slamming into the Shark slightly above the water line. The Shark foundered, starting to sink beneath the waves. Again the Marie fired, and this time, the Shark keeled over, the men on board leaping off to fall into the waves below, as she sunk to the bottom of the sea, followed in short order by the pirates, unskilled in swimming in rough seas.

"Well, that was a rum go," chuckled Elad tiredly, as he sank back against the deck, and let Shamino tend to his wounds. "You Companioneers certainly make excellent marines." His eyes closing, he gave instructions to the first mate to set up the spare sail from the hold and continue on to Britain immediately, before passing out.
The Theodosia Marie made it to Britain without further mishap. Captain Elad bade the Companioneers a fond goodbye, as they headed towards the Castle and he headed towards the Blue Boar tavern, his crew heading out in pairs or groups to sample the delights of the capitol city, grown in the last few decades to become a combination of the original Britain, and the three Brittanys that had sprouted around the Castle to provide for it’s needs.

They rushed into the castle, thence to the banquet hall. Within, Lord British was glaring at Maldric ominously. "Wherein doth lie my Grail?" demanded the King, "my favorite one with all the rubies and-"

"Right here, your Majesty," Dupre cried, holding the grail aloft. "Maldric, um, sent us to fetch it for him. It needed cleaning." Well, it HAD required cleaning, after being carried through the sewers and caves. The King brightened.

"Very good, very good! Come, my friends, sit with me. Thank you, Maldric, send in the soup now, if you please." Maldric bowed clumsily, shooting Dupre a thankful glance before heading to the kitchen to supervise the serving of the soup, a creamy chowder from the local shellfish. Dupre, Iolo, and Shamino sat down next to the King, and joined him in a toast. "Now then, tell me, Iolo. What is this I hear about a new crossbow?" asked Lord British, smiling as he finished sipping from his grail.

Iolo grimaced, and began telling of his invention, both the salient features, and the results of the field testing.
That night, the Companioneers met in the kitchen, where Maldric thanked them profusely. "It’s no problem," disagreed Dupre, "It’s nothing for a friend like you." Maldric blushed.

"Be that as it may, you’ll always be well fed when you come to the castle, Sir Dupre," he said, smiling, as he toasted him with mead from one of the grails. The other three also bore grails, as the servants were wont to do when Lord British was asleep or absent. "Thank you, again."

"So what’s happening with the triple crossbow?" asked Shamino, glancing at Iolo.

"I fear it’s disadvantages outweigh the benefits," mourned Iolo. "It devours ammunition at a startling rate, and has poor accuracy besides. Outside of pitched battles, there is no need for such an expensive weapon. Lord British has ordered a few, one for each ship of the line, three for the castle, and a few for Serpent’s Hold. Besides that, nothing. I shall have to modify it further, before it becomes truly effective for the adventurer’s combat that is the most common sort of conflict these days."

"And a good thing, that," agreed Dupre, refilling his grail.

"So, where do you head now, my friends," asked Maldric.

"I head to the Conservatory, to aid in the teaching of the next class of Bards," said Iolo.

"Their archery can always be improved."

"I head to the Spiritwood," said Shamino. "A friend named Starhelm has asked for my aid in seeking out the Cyclops tribe that lives there, raiding travelers."

"Shall I accompany you, then?" asked Dupre. Shamino shook his head.

"No need, my friend."

Dupre nodded. "Then I shall be heading back to the Den. Lord British wants the underlying caverns mapped out as thoroughly as possible, and I’m sure someone at the Den already has maps ready." He coughed. "Maybe while I’m there, I’ll, uh, see Damson."

His friends stared at him a moment, then burst out laughing, clapping him on the back and ribbing him good naturedly, as they toasted him success in his romantic endeavors, into the long night.

As they drank and talked, no one noticed an adorable little mouse slip past into the dairy larder, seeking out a bit of cheese, mumbling to herself, "those big men are sure funny when they start drinking..."

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