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Issue Twenty-six, Bits and Pieces

While doing on overflight on Lake Godluch, Ka-Sador saw something that picqued his interest. There was activity on the shore, and upon reflection he realized it was near the point where the escape pod had sank after he and Shockwave had destroyed the Krai ship in orbit.

Ka-sador circled overhead to get a closer look. The furor rose again within his breast at the thought of Krai threatening this planet he called home, poor Mike he thought, as he peered to the shoreline wondering what was going on.

He began to pick out details, it looked like a team of about a dozen men were winching something up out of the lake. As he watched, the top of the escape pod broke the surface.

Distraught, Ka-sador looked for some identifying marks on the men or the truck. Were these authorities? hunters? how did they know to look in the lake?

A faint tang of something came to him on the wind - Krai!

Burning with rage, Ka-sador flew closer and the stench grew stronger. There may be too many for him to take, he surmised, Ka-sador eyed the truck hoisting the pod from the lake -- and picked up speed toward it.

Ka-sador circled around and aimed for the cable which was slowly hoisting the pod out of the lake. He dropped out of the sky and focussed all his force into a chop into and hopefully through the cable. His blow was true and the cable snapped, one end whipping back into the winch and the other snapping back toward the pod and then lying still. The pod itself settled a foot or so back onto the beach, ending with its top protruding above the water by a couple of feet.

One of the Krai who was knee deep in the water pointed at him and cried, "The orionid!"

"What luck," said another, "Slay him!" Suiting word to action, she raised a blaster and fired. Ka-Sador rolled with the blow and was only slightly scorched.

Focusing his battle instincts forged in the arena of these very same Krai, Ka-sador could see that the numbers were hopelessly against him. He uprighted himself, hurled a Krai warning to return with destruction as a companion and jetted off toward the treeline to call the Protectors.

The Krai who had fired was clearly the leader and she quickly organized her troops in a firing line as they drew weapons of their own. A few orders were whispered to the four who were still in the water and they nodded and splashed out to the pod.

With evasive aerial maneuvers the alien streaked to the cover of the trees reaching for his communicator.

He ducked down out of range and called the Protectors on his communicator. The Krai firing line did not advance, although the leader called out taunts, "We shall find you and M'Krell and you will suffer. This entire planet shall suffer beneath the heel of the Krai empire." The four krai in the water busied themselves doing something with the pod.

PC replied to Ka-Sador's call and the alert went out to the Protectors. Ka-Sador continued to observe the Krai. After a few minutes, three of the ones in the water got out and reported to the captain. She nodded and one pressed a button on his belt and vanished - the Krai had a working transmat!

A few moments later, the captain shouted a muffled order to the Krai in the water, who dove under the surface. The pod vanished. Another order and the firing line turned and opened fire on the truck, which was almost instantly reduced to slag. A final order and the Krai all pressed their transmat retrieval buttons.

When Sting, Defender and the Wanderer arrived, they found Ka-Sador standing on the shore by the remains of a truck, hooting in frustration.

[KRAI!] he cried out. [KRAI HERE, ALL IN DAYNGER.] Ka-sador spent the next few minutes telling the Protectors of what he observed. The location of the escape pod he had arrive in and how roughly fifteen Krai had been retrieving it. He pointed to the pile of melted metal indicating that it had been a truck before succumbing to the Krai blasters. Ka-sador became more agitated at the threats made to M'Krell and earth itself, [PROMISE SEEGE OF EARTH] he warned ominously. As the heroes looked around at the Krai boot prints Ka-sador told them of the transmat and how they disappeared, presumably taking the pod with them.

With hatred in his eyes, Ka-sador looked upon Defender and croaked one word, [RAGNAR].

Defender swallowed hard, seeing the evil intent in his friend's eyes. "Hang on. He might have nothing to do with this. But if they are threatening an invasion of Earth, then we'd better get on this right now. Ka-sador, we should get M'Krell to the Fortress."

Defender thought about it for a moment then realized how close to home this was hitting. With some reluctance, he added, "Mara too. Gentlemen, I'm about to trust you with my dearest secret. Wanderer, can you get in touch with the Mystic? Talk to Ragnar and see what he knows. Sting, you should go with him in case Ka-sador's suspicions are true. He and I will meet you back at the base shortly. PC, can you see if you can get us any pictures of the heavens. Maybe we can back door into Space Command. Oh, and sent our new British friends a quick note that we might have a situation and that we will advise when we learn more."

As the groups began to break up, Defender spoke softly to the Wanderer. "I think you will agree with me that letting Ragnar and Ka-sador near each other is a bad idea. Best not to bring him back to base right now."

"Right-o," agreed the Wanderer. "Besides, I just vacuumed the Fortress," he said with a grin. "Sting, we are off to see the wizard!"

Ka-sador went airborne heading to M'Krell.

		*		*		*		*
At the Mystic's Sanctum, the door was opened by Ragnar, "Welcome honoured guests! Enter, please enter. This way." He lead them into the sitting room, "Please make yourself comfortable. How may I serve you?"

"We need to speak to the Mystic," answered the Wanderer adding, "and you."

"I shall inform the Master. And make tea." Ragnar departed.

A few moments later, the Mystic entered, "Ragnar said you appeared distressed, I see that is true. What may I do to help? Ragnar will join us in a moment, he is seeing to the tea."

"There's no easy way to approach this, so I'll get right to the point." Sting began. "There is evidence that the Krai Empire have found their way to earth. We found some random destruction that Ka-Sador recognized as their handiwork. And although both you and Ragnar have been a great help to us as of late, you must understand that as of right now our sole lead to the Krai is Ragnar. Ka-Sador feels that Ragnar may have brought them here...I'm not saying that's true...but we do need to investigate. Is there anything you might know about this that could help us?"

"I don't believe Ragnar would have anything to do with such a plot," said the Mystic. "And from a purely pratical standpoint, I don't think he could communicate with the Krai homeworld even if he wanted to.

"However, I can not say the same for his former crewmates who were also stranded here. They certainly would have the desire and might have the ability."

"There was mention of something called a 'transmat,' some traveling device," mentioned the Wanderer. "Perhaps Ragnar knows something about this, how it functions, how we can trace it."

"We can certainly ask him. Ah, here he is now. Thank you, Ragnar. Please remain, the Protectors wish to confer with you."

Ragnar served the tea then took a seat, waiting politely for the questions.

The Wanderer sipped his tea, "Ragnar, the Krai have been sighted here in Port Alexander. They retrieved the escape pod and used something called a 'transmat.' Does any of this mean anything to you?"

Ragnar's poise slipped and was then recovered, "Krai here? A new invasion? This bodes very ill. But why would a new force need the escape pod?" He shook his head, "Transmat? I don't know that word. Perhaps it is a translation of the Krai term? Can you describe what it looked like? If they used it to retreive the escape pod it is a vehicle of some kind?"

The Wanderer scratched his head at the language barrier and then came up with an idea to express Ka-sador's explanation. In a blink of an eye the Wanderer was standing next to Ragnar, "Something like that."

"Yes! 'Transmat?'" Ragnar spoke the new word carefully. "They retrieved the pod using the transmat? That would mean they have a base station somewhere and sufficient retrieval belts to make the recovery. If they got the pod, they have access to enough resources to make more since that would take a special unit."

The gravity of the situation struck the Wanderer, "These transmat devices, do you know how they work?"

"I can operate them, but I could not construct one," said Ragnar. "And I doubt anyone on the planet could construct a base station. The retrieval belts are much simpler - they are essentially a homing device for the base station to lock onto to transmat the target back."

The Wanderer paced a bit, "I don't suppose you have one of these belts?"

Ragnar shook his head, "No. When I fled my, my, countrymen? I had no the liesure to take such things. Nor the desire. Had I one, they could track me. The penalty for desertion is the ," the harsh sounds coming from the man's throat suddenly reminded everyone that the "man" seated before them was an illusionary spell cast by an ursoid alien. "The is a particularly unpleasant form of execution, which depends in no small part on the fact that Krai have two hearts. Although they lack the technology to prolong the agony for months as in a proper , they would do their best. Our commander," he remarked drily, "has a certain genius for improvisation."

The Wanderer sympathetically rubbed his chest, "If they could track you, they could also be tracked. Do you happen to know anything about the signature or frequency of these transmat devices? Perhaps something we could look for?"

"I would think that the transmat beam would only be detectable while it was in actual operation," said Ragnar. "The belts ... when activated send a signal. A specific belt can be activated remotely by broadcast from the base station, so if that signal could be duplicated, it might be possible to track the belts. But such things are beyond my meager skill."

"What range would a portable transmat have? or specifically the one on the ship you came on."

"The unit on the ship was capable of functioning from orbit. The base unit would have a range of perhaps an hundred miles."

"Is there any particular thing your people need, like could we stakeout a hot fudge factory to catch the Krai trying to refill their sundae bowls?" as the Wanderer tried to strike his best Sherlock Holmes pose.

"Sadly no, as is fortunate in my own case. Why would they want the pod, though? Was the distress beacon on the pod disabled?"

"Goodness, I would certainly hope so," offered the Wanderer. "What about repairing the distress beacon or communications, could they find such equipment here?"

"It would depend on how thoroughly it was destroyed," said Ragnar. "What else could they use it for? I spoke to one of the drones who came down in it before I fled. He said the landing was relatively soft. So the pod might be intact. But what use is a spacecraft with no propulsion system? With the life support intact, you could use it as an underwater habitat, a submarine? or a," Ragnar made a kind of sphere with his hands, "a sinking pod?"

The Wanderer listened to the words and the thought of the Krai invading the Fortress was chilling, "interesting," was all his could say to the helpful alien. The Wanderer looked to Sting for any further questions.

Sting shook his head, and goodbyes were made all around.

		*		*		*		*
At this time of day, M'Krell would be at work with the holo-imager, so Ka-Sador had time to consider his approach as he flew across town.

Ka-sador knew the rules they had adopted about secrecy and keeping a low profile but there was danger in the air and this was an emergency. He circled the area once to survey and danger and landed out front.

The sidewalk crowds parted, some running, others who presumably recognized him standing and staring. The picture window of the bookstore at which M'Krell worked under the name Mary Krell refelected his image back to himself and Ka-sador turned carefully surveying the crowd for any trace of Krai.

There was no sign of Krai detectable by any of his senses. After a moment, a bold young women approached, "Ka-Sador? Can I have your autograph?" She offered a pad and pen.

The hardened warrior glanced down at the autograph seeker. Without thinking he scribbed his name in the strange letters of this world and approached the bookstore window, looking in.

M'Krell was working at the register and packing a customer's bag when she looked up and saw Ka-Sador at the window. A flash of alarm crossed her holographic features, and then she turned back to finish dealing with her customer.

Sensing the register of emergency behind the computer generated visage, Ka-sador extended his wings nodded and turned to look upon the gathered crowd. He took to the air with a flap of his wings and rocketed up and over swooping around the block behind a line of buildings out of sight. As he streaked across the cityscape Ka-sador backtracked through some deserted alleys and made his way to the rear of the bookstore where he awaited M'Krell near the delivery door in a shadow.

After a few moments that seemed like an eternity, the door opened and M'Krell cautiously stepped out and looked around. Not seeing anything, she turned back to the door.

A hissing whisper caught her attention, the words in her native tongue sounded strange on this planet. The lyrical timbre bringing back memories of a better past, as she turned she saw Ka-sador step partially into the daylight.

"What is the problem?" asked M'Krell slipping into High Illani. "We were not to meet."

Ka-sador lowered his head slightly, more out of habit than reverence. Since becoming acculturated to this planet, he grew further and further from the ways of his captivity. "The Krai have returned, or rather never left. I saw them, they found the pod. Communication with the Empire is not far away," he replied in High Illani.

Ka-sador craned his head to the side trying to catch a scent on the breeze, "We are in danger. You must leave at once for safety."

"Safety? Where shall I go? Where is safe, if the Krai find this planet again?"

"With the Protectors," he answered, "it is the only place."

"At the Fortress?" M'Krell turned thoughtful. "Aye. There is much to consider." She burst suddenly into a rage, "Damn me for a fool!" Mastering herself, "Will you take me there now? First, I must inform my employer." Without waiting for an answer - for who would deny a Princess? - she re-entered the bookstore. A few moments later she returned. "Many thanks, Ka-Sador. You been a faithful friend and ally, and served me better than I perhaps deserve. Let us go."

Ka-sador took to the air, with M'Krell in his arms, and shot out into the sky taking her to the Fortress.

		*		*		*		*
Defender had come to his own conclusions about the danger involved and decided that his wife was not safe at home. While Ka-Sador fetched M'Krell, Defender raced home to find Mara.

Trying to remain as calm as possible, Alden forced himself to walk to the refrigerator and pour himself a glass of orange juice. He took a couple of sips, all the while Mara was looking expectantly at him. He swallowed the last sip hard. "We have a slight problem. Ka-sador has found evidence of increased activity with the Krai. He thinks M'Krell is in danger now. So, he's gone to take her to the Fortress."

Mara gave a little start of horror. "That seems like a good idea, I guess. She should be safe there. I'll miss having her around the house, though."

"That might not be an issue," Alden said, trying to be a gentle with the next bit as possible. He knelt before Mara and took her hand in his. "I'm worried that the Krai might trace her back here. Sweetheart, you aren't safe here either."

Mara laughed then cut it short, "You mean that? What are we to do then?"

Alden wished he had a solid answer. "Until I know the Krai are dealt with, you will have to go someplace safe. You could go to Falcon's Bluff to live with your sister for a while. But there's a chance that wouldn't be safe. Or... or we trust my secret identity to the other Protectors and you take up residence at the Fortress too." "Well," Max started. "These are aliens with the ability to travel the reaches of space. A simple trip across country is not out of the question. I'd say your risks are lower with your sister, but there are still risks. But we knew that when we took M'Krell and Ka-sador in. Besides, if something did happen, I would be hours away at best."

Mara stopped, then reached out to touch Defender's face. "What do you want me to do?"

"Short of writing the Krai out of the book..." Alden said, trailing off. "Do we trust the Krai won't try to come after you or do we trust other people with our secret? Sweetheart, I don't know. If you come to the Fortress, you'd effectively be a prisoner. But you'd be safe. If you go to Falcon's Bluff, you'll be beyond my protection. I knew I'd have to make decisions like this, but I never suspected that it would be you in the line of fire."

"Honey, if you're fighting this, you need to be as focussed as possible. What will free your mind the most?"

"For you to be safe," Defender said. Realizing that he was being selfish and probably overly paranoid, he made a decision. "I'll call everyday, when I'm able. As soon as this is taken care of, I'll come out to Falcon's Bluff and we can have that vacation I've been promising for the last three years."

"Be safe, love," she said. "Now take me to the Fortress."

"Okay... wait. Is this one of those strange reverse psychology things were I say you should go to your sister's and you say to take you to the Fortress?"

"No, that's where you think I'd be safest, I can see it in your eyes. And that means you'll be free to concentrate. Besides," she added impishly, "I can talk to the rest of the heroes. I've got an idea for a book."

"You are too good for me," Alden said. "Let's go get your stuff packed."

A few hours later, Alden pulled his car into the building that served as the secret entrance to the Fortress. He led his wife through the security features, explaining how each worked in enough detail for her to learn the procedure. He let her know that she would be added to the entrance database shortly. He then told her to take a deep breath and get mentally ready to be whisked away to another world.

		*		*		*		*
Maximillian was holding court at Castle Immergrün and receiving reports from the various Barons on the activities in their areas when one report caught his attention. A pack of feral dogs had somehow gotten into one of the subterranean areas where a number of his people lived and were threatening the inhabitants, but a knight was able to subdue the creatures.

Max was very curious about these animals. Being underground dwellers, the people of the Duchy had to deal with wild city animals all the time. But it had never taken a knight to deal with them. Something was afoot.

"Subdue? Are any of these animals in captivity?" Max asked, the question aimed equally at Baron Downstreet and Sir Gawain, the leader of the Knights. Both men shrugged and Gawain told Max which knight had been involved.

The Beggar King decided the dog attack would bear further scrutiny and when the meeting was over he went off to find the knight who dealt with the incursion. He found him sitting in a park, bundled up against the cold, reading yesterday's Port Alexander Times.

"Sir Marcus. Do you have a moment?"

"My liege, of course," the man leapt up and sketched a bow. "How may I serve?"

"Please, sit." Max took a place on the ground next to him. "Baron Downstreet told me that there were some troubles with wild animals in his Barony that you helped with. Aside from taking a moment to personally thank you for dealing with the problem, I was concerned about it. What can you tell me of your encounter?"

"Little, Your Grace. You know we have an enclave near here in the old tunnel," he said.

Max recalled the place, an early attempt at a tunnel beneath the river, it had hit rock and been abandoned and forgotten. "I know it."

"The security is good there, usually. Anyway, a pack of feral dogs, got through the gates. Eleven of them, mostly pit bulls and dobermans. Fighting dogs someone abandoned after training them to be vicious. They caught a couple of kids who were on their way out. Once the dogs were dealt with I tried to figure out how they got in. I think it was a storm drain that rusted out and collapsed, maybe during the snowstorm," concluded Marcus.

"Could you show me, please," Max requested.

"Certainly," said Marcus. He led Max to a back street near the river and pointed to a storm drain, "I've already repaired it, but you can see where the gap was." The cover was made of heavy iron and the bolts had rusted out on one side. A couple of fresh bolts were in place and the bars which had given way had been bent back into place and some fresh supports had been put in place.

Max examined the cover. "It seems strange to me that a pack of dogs would squeeze through such a small hole. I think we should look around for anything out of the ordinary."

"The hole was pretty large," said Marcus. "And it was cold, you recall, that freak snowstorm. But as you wish."

A thorough examination of the area revealed nothing too unusual, so Max grabbed Marcus and phased through the grate into the tunnel. Marcus shook his head upon returning to solidity, "A very strange experience, my liege."

"Took me a while to become accustomed to it as well," Max replied. "Now, walk me through the events of that evening, please. Where were our people? How far back into the tunnel did the animals reach? Did anything stand out in your mind as unusual?"

"Well, this tunnel is usually used for access to the surface through a door down that way," Marcus pointed. "The dogs had been in for a little while at least. Long enough to make a little mess, I found some dog poop, but not long to starve. There's another door here, which leads back into the dwelling places. Three kids from the village came through that door into here, to play they said and I believe them. The dogs were hungry and attacked. The kids screamed for help. I was nearby and came to their aid. The kids were mostly ok, although one little girl was badly bitten and needed some stitches. Thankfully none of the animals were diseased."

"Yes. The last thing we need is an outbreak of some vile affliction," Max said as he looked around the tunnel.

Satisfied with his search efforts, Max turned once again to Sir Marcus. "I think we should pay a follow-up visit to the young children you saved. Before that, wait here for a few minutes. I think a quick jaunt to the storehouse is necessary."

Max took Marcus's hand and the two passed through the ceiling of the tunnel. Leaving the knight where he stood, Max made his best time back to one of the small storerooms the Beggar Nation maintained. There, he quickly found a few toys for the children. A couple of candy bars followed into his pouch. Finally, he found some boxes of instant soup. For them to have suffered such a fright, Max felt they deserved a small treat. He returned to the tunnel opening.

"Shall we pay a visit to our young yeomen?" Max asked.

"By all means." Marcus led Max down the tunnel to the interior door and then through into the shanty town into the tunnel. Soon they were outside a small shack built against the wall. "Jimmy lives here. His sister Rose was the one who was bitten the worst."

Max smiled to the young knight then knocked gently on the door of the shack. "Hello in there. Is there a Jimmy there?"

A head poked shyly out, "I'm Jimmy. Holy spit! It's the Duke! Rose, the Duke's here. Come in, sir." Jimmy opened the door. He was a likely looking lad, thin as most of the Kingdrom were, with perhaps ten years of age. The interior of the shack was clean but sparsely furnished. On a pallet in the corner lay a girl of the same age, or maybe a bit older. She had a bandage covering her left cheek and another around her right arm.

"I've heard tales of a young group of children who bravely helped one of my knights. Are you those children?" Max said as he knelt next to the pallet. "How are you feeling, little one?"

"We're two of them. Mary was another, she lives down the street," said Rose.

"Jimmy, do you think you could act as my page for the moment and go get young Mary for me? If her parents are home, could you ask them to come down her as well?"

"Sure!" Jimmy ran off and retunred a few minutes later with a very young girl, perhaps seven, and a haggard looking man who introduced himself as Ron.

"A pleasure to meet you, sir." Max shock the man's hand. He turned his attentions back to the three children before him. "So, Sir Marcus here tells me that you three bravely aided him in turning away a pack of wild beasts. Such brave acts cannot go overlooked."

Max handed the pouch to Marcus. "Sir Knight, would you be so kind as to present these young Squires-to-be with the booty they have earned."

Marcus handed out the toys and soup with a good deal of gravity and the children accepted them the same way - then broke into giggles.

Max smirked. He left the children in the capable hands of Marcus and turned toward Ron. "You have my sincerest apologies that your daughter was in danger from those dogs. Tell me, have you noticed anything like this happening in this area before?"

"No," said the man. "This is one of the safest places I know. Marcus said that a drain grate gave way and the dogs came in to get out of the cold. Makes sense to me." His voice dropped, "Marcus is a good man. Rose could have been seriously hurt. She's a good girl. Mary tells me that she told Jimmy to get her out and then tried to scare the dogs away. That's why she got hurt."

"Rose sounds like a very brave girl, indeed," Max said as he looked back at the child. "I will see that she is taken care of as best we can. I'll also see that we do our best to see that nothing like this happens again."

Ron shrugged fatalistically, "We cannot make the world a safe place. Life is dangerous. We take all the precautions we can and still bad things happen. C'est la vie."

"That's as may be, but doesn't mean we shouldn't try anyway." Max gave the man a pat on the back.

"True enough," said the man. "We do what we can to protect those we love, even though we cannot blunt all the sharp edges of the world."

Max nodded, "If anything else like this happens, I'll see that it is dealt with."

Max let the children play and turned back to Marcus. "Things seem well in hand here. You are a good man, Marcus. I see the people in this barony have an able knight watching for them."

"Thank you my liege," said Marcus.

Max had a sudden thought that concerned him. What if the dogs were rabid? Even more frightening, what if these trained fighting dogs had not acted on their own accord. "Marcus. Where did the dogs go after they were chased off?"

"My lord, the dogs did not survive. I felt that not only were they a continuing risk, but that the carcasses would be needed to determine if they were diseased. As I said, they were not, thank heavens," said Marcus.

"Can I assume they have been tested then?" Max asked, only half his paranoia assuaged at the moment.

"Yes, my liege, they have."

"How well do you know the baronial lands in the context of Port Alexander?" Max asked Marcus.

"Moderately, I think," said Marcus. "I am most familiar with those near my own home here."

"Do you think we might be able to narrow down who the breeder was?" Max followed up. "On the one hand, he might have negligantly released the dogs. On the other, something more foul might have happened."

Marcus shook his head, "It was a mixed pack, and they'd gone feral. People just drop the dogs off in the park near here when they don't want them anymore. The dogs come down to the shore where the pickings are better. Sometimes they get out of hand."

"Perhaps we can head off a repeat of this incident if we start doing something about these strays. Hrm. Something to think about. Marcus, thanks for the tour of your neighborhood. I'm going to poke around this area a little more, but I think I've taken enough of your time." Max shook hands with the knight and said his good-byes to the families.

"Goodbye for now little Mary. Take care of your father here. Goodbye little Jimmy and Rose. Wait. Where are your parents? I should like to tell them how brave their little kinder have been."

"Mommy's out raising money," said Jimmy. "She begs," he added matter-of- factly.

Max simply nodded.

After the goodbyes have been made, Max and Marcus returned to the surface.

Max paced around in a quiet portion of the park near where he had first found Marcus. He spoke softly to himself. He often did this in public and found he was never bothered. "I think I'm missing something. Let me see. A pack of dogs got into one of the tunnels. Some kids were attacked by the dogs. The did their best to try and shoo the dogs away when Marcus came by and took care of the situation. The dogs were strays. I assume they attacked out of hunger. They were killed and tested for diseases. No evidence points that it was anything more than a random encounter."

He paused and looked around. "If it's so cut and dry, why does it still bug me? What am I missing? Aside from how impressive it is that Marcus fought off nine dogs practically by himself. It must be a full moon, cause I'm going loony."

Max looked up to see Marcus watching him. "Sorry. I'm still working my mind around this thing."

"What became of the bodies?" Max asked himself, then remembered that Marcus had taken them to be tested. Max thrust his hands into his pockets as he began to walk away. Brushing up against something warm and furry, he realized that not all the presents had been handed out. He shock his head, disgusted with his faulty memory and went back to the tunnel. He drifted back toward the small shack that served as home to the young children. He knocked again on the door.

As before the door was opened by the boy, "Wow, it's ummm, what do I call you, sir?"

"'Sir' is nice and respectful and a good way to impress people," Max said with a smile. "Traditionally, I'd be called 'Your Grace' or 'Duke Maximillian.' But, I think in this situation, it would be okay if you called me Max. I forgot something important. May I come in again?"

Of course, 'Your Grace,'" said the boy opening the door wide. "Rose, Your Grace is back!"

Max shook his head and ruffled the boy's hair. He walked over to Rose's pallet and motioned for Jimmy to join him. Once the two children were before him, he started. "There is an award that I give occassionally to those who are very brave or do something to help out the Duchy which they didn't have to. It's called the Duke's Favor. Rose, I think that you qualify. First though, I need to hear what happened from the two of you. What can you tell me about the dogs and what happened."

"Well," said Rose. "We went to play, me and Jimmy and Mary, where we play a lot. It's neat in the tunnel. Spooky but not in a scary way. This time there were dogs. They ran at us, we shouted, but they kept coming so we ran away. I made Jimmy and Mary run first. I was the oldest, you know," she said confidentially. "They got out and, and ... the dogs got me. Then Marcus came and made the dogs go away. They really weren't good dogs. Not nice."

"Made them go away?" Max asked. "How did he make them go away?"

"He grabbed them and threw them and punched them and stuff. He stood over me and tossed them around like Dux Brittanicus! He was terrific," she gushed. "He's should be in shining armour," she stated.

"And he did it all by himself? All the dogs?"

"Yep," she nodded firmly. "Sometimes two at a time, one in each hand. Biff!" She mimed smacking a pair of dogs together.

"He was that good? Like my old friend, Dux Brittanicus? Wow." Max stuck his hand back in his pocket. "But it sounds like he had help."

"No!" Rose was insistent. "All by himself. It was cool." Her tone changed. "You know Dux Brittanicus? He's the best."

"Yes. I met him a long time ago," Max rubbed his eyes, thinking about that strange adventure. "When you are well again, have your parents bring you by Castle Immergrun and I'll show you the dagger I got when I met him. But that's another subject. You see, I don't want to correct someone when they are ill, but there was someone else who helped Marcus. Someone who put herself into danger to protect her little brother and her friend. Someone who freed Sir Marcus to do what he needed to do. That person is you, little Rose."

Max pulled the stuffed wolf cub from his pocket and handed it to her. "You faced down a pack of wild dogs with the bravery of a little wolf. For that, I induct you into the Order of the Wolf, Junior Branch. Congratulations, Lady Rose. When you come by the Castle, I'll have a proper scroll drawn up for you."

"Wow!" Rose took the wolf and then tried to make a salute. "Thank you, Your Grace. Cool."

Max stayed a little while to speak with the children about things that were important only in the eyes of a child. It was moments like these that the man treasured. Still, the thing that had tickled the back of his mind about the incident was answered. He left it to simmer while he attended to other duties.

Over the next few days, Max sent about subtlely learning of Sir Marcus. How long had he been a part of the nation? Who trained him? When had he been gifted his knighthood? What sort of man his Baron thought him? When he had this information, he sent a summons for Marcus to attend him for a private court.

Marcus had been a part of the nation nearly from the beginning. The Baron had knighted him as part of an expasion in the early years, when various "tribes" of street people were united under Max'es rule. Marcus had been caring for a a group of teenage runaways who were living on the street. The Baron had knighted Marcus and absorbed the group into the Beggar Kingdom. He had never regretted that decision. Marcus had proved himself time and again and grown into a man of character.

A man of promptness, too. He arrived a few minutes before his appointment and waited patiently in the anteroom. Upon being admitted to the court room, he knelt and awaited Max'es words.

"Marcus, you have been a very important man in the Duchy for a very long time. Since the beginning, really. I have never had any reason to doubt your loyalty or that you would do the right thing for those in your charge. The most recent event is a perfect example, as you put yourself in danger to help three children."

Max motioned for him to rise and take a seat. "But, I'm curious. Have you always been gifted with such prowess, or is this a recent development? No normal man could have dealt with that many dogs single-handed and come out without injury."

Suddenly Marcus, was on both knees, head on the floor. "Forgive me, my liege. I should have informed you. At first, I wasn't sure I could make it work, and then, and then I enjoyed it so much." He babbled on for another few moments, until Max calmed him and got the story.

"I was walking along the river when I saw that looked like a man down in the water. It wasn't, though. What it was, was an exoskeleton." Marcus opened his coat, "You see? It looked like it might fit so I took it back to my home. I tweaked it a little and got it working. It makes me very strong and I thought that I could use it to be even more helpful to the Kingdom. It helped me deal with the dogs, and then I could just shove the bars back into place." His face fell. "I should have turned it in to you." He began to take off his coat and started on the exoskeleton.

Max stopped him, then chuckled. "You've forgotten one of the oldest laws of the Kingdom: Finder's Keepers. Marcus, you have been one of my most respected and effective knights. Frankly, I would have assigned the gizmo to you if someone else had brought it in. As long as it is used for the betterment of the kingdom, does it matter who uses it?"

Motioning once again for him to take a seat. "I'm only concerned for your own safety at this time. I'd like to arrange for one of the Protectors to take a look at the suit. To make sure that it's not malfunctioning or that it doesn't have anything dangerous in it. Will you agree to that?"

"Of course, although, I've checked it out pretty thoroughly," he said.

"Good. That's dealt with. I'll make arrangements for the suit to be checked out. Oh, and I'll need you suggestions for a replacement knight to take over your parcel of land." Before Marcus could get the wrong idea, Max held up a hand to stay him. "After all, you can better serve the Duchy if I elevate you to the roll of Marquis. Although, we may have to give you another title. I don't know if I'll be able to announce the new Marquis Marcus with a straight face."

Max struck a posse pose before breaking down in laughter.

Marcus laughed, then became serious. "Must you, my liege? I can serve just as well as a knight, perhaps better. The Marquis have other duties and I'm not sure I have the skills to do the job."

"With your new found abilities, I do not want you tied to a specific Barony or Parcel of land. If you are concerned with the extra responsibilities of a Marquis I suggest who create an entirely new office for you." Max hopped to his feet, paced around for a moment then hit upon the solution. "If it worked for Charlemagne, it will work for me. Marcus, come with me."

Max headed for the door. With one hand, he grabbed his trademark leather coat. With the other, he pulled his ceremonial sword from the wall. He passed through the door, waited for a moment, then remembered Marcus could not follow so easily. Opening the door, he looked sheepishly at the confused knight striding to keep up. He lead Marcus to the Marketplace.

"Oyay... Oyay... All present please attend! Would all those of the rank of Baron, Marquis, Knight or Squire who are present please come to the dais." Once a number of men and women had come forward, Max continued. "Be it known to all present and to all those whom cannot be here at this moment that the Duchy of Immergrun as been loyally and ably served by Sir Marcus Blake. He has gone above and beyond the call of his office and has proven that he has wit and ability which far exceeds what is expected of a knight of the realm. That is why I, Duke Maximillian Immergrun, have decided to follow the lead of Charlemagne, Charles the Great, ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, and establish a new office for Sir Marcus. From this day forth, Sir Marcus shall be my Paladin and Champion of the Duchy of Immergrun. In that office, he is answerable directly to me and serve as advisor to Sir Gawain and the rest of the Knights of Immergrun. Sir Marcus, please kneel."

Max held the sword aloft, voicing a brief prayer in Latin, then laid the sword upon the shoulders of his new Paladin.

Marcus bowed his head, then looked up, "I renew my oath to serve the Beggar Kingdom and her leader. Long live Duke Maximillian Immergrun."

The square resounded to the cheers of the assembled. Marcus rose, face shining. He said, for Max'es ears alone, "And the Duchy's foes will face the Tatterknight."

Max nodded then lead the crowd in a round of cheers. He arranged a modest feast be prepared for all the Kingdom for the next night and declared it a holiday for all.

		*		*		*		*
A few days later, after he had been briefed by the Wanderer, Defender called Ragnar. "I've a few questions for you, Ragnar. How many Krai do you suspect are still on this planet, assuming no reinforcements have arrived? What would be their main mission now that they are cut off from their home? How much power would be involved in running this transmat and would they need to tap an outside source? If they do get a signal out, how long do you estimate before a force of Krai could arrive here?"

"When I fled, there were two officers, five drones and the marine troop of fifteen on the planet. Their primary mission would be to regain contact with the Empire to tell them of the Princess'es presence and of the existence of a planet ripe for conquest. If possible, of course, they would like to capture her themselves and conquer the planet."

Ragnar considered, "The transmat requires quite a bit of power, but we had a portable fusion source to power it. So there would be no need to tap an outside source. As for the last question, it would take years. Communication is limited to the speed of light, so it would take years before the signal was detected and then only a few weeks to respond. That is unless they can find or repair the signal drone, which is in reality a small faster than light ship. Then the delay would drop to a few months."

		*		*		*		*
Defender was surprised one afternoon as he stood looking at the as yet unrenovated lab area by Max drifting through the door. (And with Max, when we say "through the door" we mean "through the door.") After the greetings were finished, Max motioned another man through the door and Defender nearly hit him out of reflex - the man looked like PowerFist at first glance. On second glance, however, it became clear that he was not although he was wearing an Exoskeleton of similar if not identical design.

Max introduced the man as Tatterknight and the man explained how he had found the suit and tweaked it up a bit, but that Max wanted it checked out by an expert. Defender agreed and began to put the suit through a series of checks and tests.

The tests all came out the right way. The exoskeleton was in perfect working order, and Defender was impressed with the skills of the Tatterknight. Furthermore, there seemed to be no homing devices or anything of that sort. Defender gave the suit a clean bill of health, much to the relief of both Max and the Tatterknight.

Ka-sador looked curiously and asked [YOO MADE?] with a sense of awe.

"No, I found it by the river," said the man. "I fixed it up a bit, though."

Audible sniffs by the alien seemed to verify the story, [ARMOR HELP FYTE KRAI] Ka-sador commented to Max and Defender.

Tatterknight looked confused. As did Max.

Ka-sador looked equally confused, here was an impressive suit of battle armor and no one seemed to notice its destructive potential for defending the earth. The black bird alien sighed, how did this planet survive. [MANY KRAI BE KILLED BY ARMY OF MEN LYKE TATTRNYTE!]

"I'm sorry, what's a 'krai'?" asked Tatterknight.

Ka-Sador realized that neither Max nor Tatterknight knew of the Krai menance. He filled them in briefly.

"I wish I could help," said Tatterknight, "but there's no way I could build one of these from scratch."

Ka-sador sighed in disappointment, and went back to looking over the city map.

"So, if he's got a clean bill of health, Doc, I think we'll head back home for now." Max said.

"Just one more thing," Defender said. "Here. This is our associate communicator. If you are going to be using that suit to help others, then we'd like the ability to keep in touch." Defender spent a few minutes going over the basics of the comm unit with the Tatterknight, impressed with how quickly the man picked up on the details.

"Thank you, I hope I'll never need it," said the Tatterknight. "It's nice and compact. I'll bet I can fit it in the helmet here, next to the radar unit."

"You've got a radar unit? Man, the bad guys got all the good stuff." Defender geeked. "I'd recommend putting it elsewhere, though. Just so you don't get your signals crossed. But, we can give it a try just to be sure."

"I've taken enough of your time, and I think I can probably get it done," said the Tatterknight.

"It's no problem. Glad to have you aboard," Defender said, looking around the mess that was the labs. "For what 'aboard' is worth right now."

Ka-sador perked up, [MAYBE RADAR HELP US FIND KRAI?] The alien came over and asked Defender if he could use the armor's technology to perhaps enhance the Fortress' capabilities conceding [TECKNOLOGY ALWAYS CAN BE IMPROOVED]

"Well, technically we've been trying something like that with what sensors are available to us. But, if we used a similar passive sensor like what his radar set uses to pick up the radio waves..." Defender trailed off into a low mumble. He drew some circuit diagrams on his whiteboard to keep from forgetting them. Halfway through the first one, he looked back over his shoulder to the heroes assembled. "We might be able to add a simple mode to your radar to pick up the specific energy emissions of the Krai. But that will take some time. More importantly, it would but you in danger in something that might not be your fight."

Seeing Ka-sador's reaction, Defender hastily explained. "If this Krai situation is the original group then we should be able to handle it. If it is something more, everyone will have to get into the action I'm afraid. If if it is only a defensive stand."

[SAYME ONES] Ka-sador assured Defender with a sniff to punctuate his certainty. [EECH DAY CLOSER TO BRINGIN ALL KRAI FORE INVAYSHUN] he said matter-of-factly.

Issue 27: Weirdness at the Wander-No-More House
Interlude 26.1: The Wanderer Dials 411

Last Updated 11 October 2002