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Issue Thirty-two, The Floating Island

With her father safely back, Lorelei felt she had the liesure to follow up a couple of lines of investigation she had been pursuing. She logged a flight plan into the computer and checked out the EagleJet.

A few moments later the ship broke free of the ocean surface and gained altitude. She oriented herself and began to follow the last known course of the EagleWing sub, albeit at an altitude of several thousand feet rather than a depth of several hundred.

She enjoyed the chance to work on her piloting skills as she took the jet up to just over Mach 1.

She followed the track out, over deep ocean. She was in the middle of the Atlantic somewhere east of Newfoundland when she saw something on her radar screen that made her drop subsonic. There was a largish mass of something floating on the surface of the ocean ahead of her. Radar gave her a rough size, maybe a quarter-mile square, but irregularly shaped. It was still ten miles ahead, only a minute or two away at her current speed.

PC slowed the plane down to only a few hundred miles per hour and made a fast fly-by. Five or ten miles past, she put the plane into a bank to come around and considered what she had seen. The object seemed to be some kind of strange flotilla, what looked like a bunch of independant craft somehow lashed together. She had identified on the first pass at least one largeish cruise ship, as well as a large variety of smaller craft.

PC swung back around and brought the jet back toward the floating island. She manouvred to a point a short distance away, switched to VTOL and brought the Jet down to the surface of the water for a landing.

PC spent a moment or two examining the hodge-podge with the Jets wing cameras. Her arrival had caused some kind of a stir, she could see people clustering along the sides of the craft on her side and pointing at her.

PC logged a message with her position back at the base, then walked to the the cargo hatch of the jet, popped it open and shouted out for a tow. There was a bustle of activity and then a zodiac launched from the cruise ship, dragging a tow rope behind it. Two men were on board, one dressed in something like Russian fisherman's clothing and the other in a jumpsuit. The jumpsuited one called out, "Where should we attach the tow line?"

Looking rather sheepish, PC mind raced for an ideal place to hook up so she didn't look like a complete idiot...then she remembered the catapult hook. It was just barely above surface, but the two men seemed professional. Soon they had her hooked up, and were zooming back to the ship as the winch at that end began to pull her in.

Once the ship was drawn close enough, PC gathered her coat and prepared to disembark. She considered taking a Krai blaster along...but determined that she really didn't know how to shoot them yet and it might only make them suspicious. Choosing to go in unarmed, PC went topside again and shouted to the man in the jumpsuit. "Permission to come aboard?" she said, smiling.

"Absolutely," said the man. "Welcome aboard, I'm Roger Wilkes."

"Hi, I'm Lorelei Crosby." PC said as she came aboard. She thought about using an assumed name but thought lying might complicate things more than the truth would. Once the ship was secure, Lorelei was helped aboard by Roger, and once inside, she started looking around in wonder.

"Come this way, the queen would like to meet you," said Roger. He led her up the stairs on the side of the cruise ship, and then across the main deck. Lorelei could see now that there were a great many ships in the structure, lashed or welded together, with stairs and gangplanks connecting them. Only a few craft seemed capable of detaching from the general mass. There was no consistency in style or nationality among the ships, and many had been adapted to new uses from their original purpose. Those in from the edge now served as things like kitchens or workshops, while some of those on the edges functioned as fisheries and so forth.

Toward the center of the island she saw the strangest structure yet, looking like a large upside wicker bowl with a trickle of smoke coming out of the top. She decided it must be a dwelling, several of the ships now sprouted shacks on their decks, and she also decided that it was their ultimate destination.

As she walked, Lorelei looked for signs of the Eaglesub...she had surmised that it must have been incorporated as part of the structure at some point. She mused on this as they continued their journey to the Queen...whomever she may be.

She saw no sign of the EagleWing in her walk, only a large variety of surface craft and people of all nations going about their business. Soon Roger brought her to the door of the large wicker-looking hut, "One moment, please." He stepped through the door. After a moment her returned, "The Queen will see you." He held open the door.

The interior of the hut was lit by what seemed to be oil lamps. It was filled with an esoteric clutter of odd looking tools, bones of sea creatures, chairs, rugs, furs and bric-a-brac. A smiling woman of mature years, stepped forward to greet Lorelei. "Welcome, welcome. We don't often get visitors, my dear. Would you like some tea?"

"Yes, please." Lorelei said, eyes obviously in wonder at her surroundings.

The women stepped over to stove where a kettle was resting and poured out two cups. She brought one to Lorelei and indicated a chair behind her, then sat in one facing it. "Thank you Roger," she said, "that will be all. For now." Turning back to Lorelei, she continued, "What brings you to us, my dear ... Lorelei did you say?"

"Yes, Lorelei." Lorelei said. "I guess what actually brought me here is...curiosity more than anything else. How did this place come to be? This is amazing."

The woman smiled a warm smile, "It just sort of ... accumulated one ship at a time. Or sometimes a few ships at a time." She sipped her tea. "Are you one of the Protectors?"

For some reason this statement gave Lorelei goose bumps...perhaps they recognized the ship? "An associate, at best." Lorelei replied. "What would lead you to that conclusion, if I may ask?"

"The logo on your ship," she said, confirming Lorelei's guess. "Why did you come looking for us?"

"Well, I didn't come looking for you, per se...although I did find you. I was actually looking for a craft that had been taken from our headquarters some time ago before we had moved in. My calculations of it's trajectory based on archives has it being somewhere in this general vicinity. I just happened to find you when I got here."

Lorelei took a sip of tea before continuing. "So, where is here? And how did you and your...subjects come to be here?"

"Here is ... well, here," she said. "People just seem to come here, I guess, driven by the winds or something." She paused to think for a moment. "I'm glad you came, though. You see, there is a problem. A monster."

PC was starting to become a bit confused. Her mannerisms were not unlike some of the people of Max's kingdom that she met...she wasn't really saying anything that told her of import, only some overly simplistic things. Still, she decided that listening for now might glean her more information. "Tell me more." PC said.

"There's a monster, it lives beneath us. I think," said the woman suddenly, "that it may attact the people here. In any case, it has a hold over us. We cannot leave till the monster is destroyed. The Protectors, might they, well, Protect us, do you think?"

"Well, that's what they're in the business of doing," PC said, "but having some more information would help. Have you seen this monster? If not, what makes you ''think'' one exists?" PC then smiled. "I mean no disrespect, I just want to find out more before I contact my associates."

"Oh, I've seen it," said the woman leaning in close, and PC felt the force of her personality. "It is there, beneath the waves, guarding ... whatever it is that it guards. I've seen," she added almost casually, "the wreckage of some ships down there. Perhaps the craft you seek is sunk here as well."

PC took this in. "I'm relatively certain that they'd be willing to investigate," she began, "but they would have no way out here without my return. Would you be willing to return with me in order to better explain to them the threat that we face?"

"Oh no, I can't leave my people," she said with an expression of concern etched on her face. "But I trust you, my dear. You can fetch them yourself, doubtless."

PC smiled in return. "I'd like to find out more before I leave, if I could...perhaps talk to a couple of your subjects to find out what their reasons are for being here. Get to know some of you more, if I may. This will help the Protectors in their investigation."

"Of course, my dear. Roger will show you around and find you a place to spend the night," she said. "Roger!" The man stepped back into the room, "Show young Lorelei around, won't you?"

Lorelei left the room with Roger and kept pace as they explored the construct.

He pointed out some of the features of the place; how some deck space had been converted to gardens, how others were used as fishing docks, where a smokehouse had been constructed. He mentioned the multi-ethnic nature of the inhabitants.

Lorelei, after listening intently for awhile, finally spoke. "Your Queen mentioned something about a monster. Can you tell me more?"

"Ah, yes, the monster," he said. "A giant creature, I saw it once myself, on the sonar. We have a fishing sonar on one of the ships. A few men were going down in a sub, to try to explore some of the wrecks below us. As they dropped, a huge ... something came up from the bottom and surrounded the sub. A few minutes later, a big bubble popped on the surface and then some bits of wreckage and a body. Just one, out of a crew of five."

Lorelei grimaced. "Monster" or not, there seemed to definitely be an issue there. "If the danger is there, why do all of you stay here? While I'm thinking about it, how did you come to be here?"

"I was on the cruise ship," he said. "A storm blew us off course, and we ended up here. The ship was damaged, so we stayed."

"Define 'damaged'" Lorelei said. "Were you unable to call for help, or send for help? Has anyone ever attempted to leave here?" Lorelei's voice became slightly animated, as the general vagueness of the answers was beginning to frustrate her.

"Well, the radio works, but the screws are damaged. We can't move. As for the rest ... we don't need help, so why send for it? We have everything we need here. Well, almost. When we do need something, someone goes and gets it. So, yes, people leave all the time. It's not a prison," he laughed. "But we're happy here, and no one bothers us, why draw attention to ourselves."

"Don't need help? Then why are you so worried about this monster?" PC said.

He nodded, "It's not an active threat, really. It doesn't seem to want to bother us on the surface. And, really, who would we call for that?" he laughed again. "Somone like your group is the only force that could really handle it, I think, and what do we do, call you up and say, Hey, we've got a monster here we'd like you to slay? We like it out here quiet and all. Since you found us anyway, we'd love to get your help with the monster, but if you hadn't," he shrugged. "We'd get by."

PC took it all in. "I think we can help, but as I explained to your queen, I think I would need someone to come back with me to explain it to my team so that they can decide from there. She can't leave...maybe you could?"

"That's possible, I suppose." He thought, "I'd have to check with the Queen, of course, but I don't think there would be a problem."

"Lets look into it, then." PC said. "I can't stay overnight, the team will wonder what happened to me. We need to take off as soon as possible."

"Right," Roger led her back to the Queen's home and dissappeared inside. A moment or two later, he reappeared. "Allright, then. Let's go."

PC led Roger back to the EagleJet, releasing it from the structure. Once Roger was strapped in for takeoff, PC showed him a blindfold. "No offense meant, but we have our secrets to protect."

"Ah, yes," he looked a bit leary but submitted.

Once the blindfold was secured and PC was satisfied (through a couple of quick tests) that he could not see anything, she secured herself and took off with the craft.

Once in the air, she contacted headquarters first to see if anyone there would answer.

	*		*		*		*
The Fortress. It had been a while since Alden had been back. With the lull after Ka-sador's departure and all the personal life issues that had sprung up, he had had little time to spare the Protectors' base of operations. He was looking over the mess of the labs, wondering where to start; even if he wanted to bother. He was really the only one that used the space at all and he was not feeling a need to clean at the moment. He wondered how his new personal assistant would react to being tasked with the area. He chuckled and imagined the look on her face.

"Boss, it's PC," PC said.

Alden was startled as the intercom system piped to life. He wiped his dusty hands on his jeans and walked over to the console. "What's up?"

PC took a breath before replying. "It's a little hard to explain...but the 25 words or less version is that I took the Jet out looking for the lost Eaglesub and basically found...something very interesting. Anyways, I have a representative with me and we're coming back to base. They apparently have a problem that's up the teams ally, so we may want to assemble. Or you can listen to him yourself first, your call. But I think this is legit. Oh and before you ask, yes, he's blindfolded."

"That's a few more than twenty-five words. I meet you in the vehicle dome."

Making a quick detour by the living quarters, he grabbed a spare mask. His image in T-shirt, blue jeans, and Defender's mask was comical. He rubbed his hand over the rough stubble that adorned his chin. He needed a shave. He hoped this representative was not someone who would be easily put off by appearances. He had had enough of that in the recent bout of business meetings he had endured in Falcon's Bluff. "Time enough for business," he thought to himself as he punched the button on the vehicle dome entrance. The turn table was coming to rest, bringing the jet into it's storage position.

"Time enough for a lot of things, soon."

PC disembarked and had to stifle a giggle when she saw Defender. "Didn't know it was casual Friday at the office, chief."

"I'm trying out a urban camouflage," Defender said.

"Anyhow," she said, "This is Roger. I met him and several other of his compatriots out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean." She waited for a look of surprise, an arched eyebrow, anything from Defender. After a few seconds, she said "Nothing throws you, does it? In any event, I think the situation here is best explained by him."

Roger was a personable young man, dressed in something that looked vaguely like a pursers uniform from a cruise ship. "Nice to meet you, Defender," he said. "I'm not sure what Lorelei wants me to tell you, but the long and short of it is that we've got a monster and we'd love to have you get rid of it for us."

"A monster," Defender said incredulously. "Could you be a little more specific? Perhaps we should take this to the conference room. PC, buzz the rest of the team, including Beggar King and the Mystic. Let them know we have a civilian aboard. If you would come with me, please Roger. Would you like some coffee or something else to drink while we wait?"

"Coffee would be great, thanks," said Roger. He followed Defender, properly interested in all that he saw, gratefully accepted a cup coffee and prepared to wait.

	*		*		*		*
Alex Crosby sat at his desk, looking over reports from the NFL Scouting Combine that were coming in. He paused as he felt a hum in his pocket...the cell phone that was his private line to the Protectors when he was in his civvies.

"I'm on my way." Alex said. He grabbed his coat and left his office. He turned to Cory, his new secretary, and said "I'll be out of the office for the rest of the day. Please take messages."

"Yes sir." Kory responded. Alex smiled...sometimes he really missed having Lorelei at the office, but Kory tries her best...not many people are as efficient as his daughter. As he descended into his basement office, he thought through his calendar for the evening...Marie had a dinner date with a few of her girlfriends so he was clear there, and there wasn't much else on his calendar other than a mental note to get a hold of Jack...he promised after the Ripper affair to get in touch with him to "catch up" a bit...perhaps in April when he was in NYC for the NFL draft.

As he finished dressing, he noted that he felt more comfortable as Sting than he ever felt as Aftershock. And he smiled as he took off for the Fortress.

	*		*		*		*
Simmon Marious folded his napkin precisely and set it next to his plate. The boredom of his monthly late lunch with Port Alexander President Gordon Lee weighed on him more than usual for some reason. "Simmon, what do you think?" asked Lee jarring him back to attention. "Uh," he hesitated, "I don't see any reason why not."

"Are you feeling ok?" the kind friend of years asked. Marious replied with the obligatory "Oh I'm fine," and smiled shyly.

The server appeared to clear the dishes as both men gave their approval of the sumptuous meal and contemplate on the selection of desserts. A hum emanated from Marious' pocket as he pulled out a pager and looked into the LED field. A wash of excitement came across his face as he rose and immediately looked distraught.

"I, I really must be going," he offered.

"Is something wrong? asked the graying President.

"Oh no, well yes, sort of," he stammered. "I have an appointment later and realized that I do not feel very well."

"Would you like me to call a doctor?"

"No, I'll be fine." Marious quickly put on his coat and said "Give my apologies to Chef Maurice, and I will call you later about that proposed faculty lounge."

Before Gordon Lee could respond, Simmon Marious was outside and in a blink of an eye he was gone.

	*		*		*		*
Duke Maximillian Immergrun blocked the punch with force. He wrapped the attacker's arm immediately with his blocking arm. The second attacker sprung at that instant and caught a foot to the mid-section. With the first attacker still restrained, Max spun around to the third man has he prepared to attack. With a preternatural grace, the man called Beggar King twisted at the waist and sent the first attacker into the third. The two men tumbled into a pile. Just as attacker number two was set to pounce again, the Protectors cell phone Max carried let out a series of chirps.

Max held up a hand and the second attacker stopped in his tracks. Max pulled the phone. "Beatdown Central. Hi-mushi-mushi." PC's voice on the other end was all he needed to hear. "Gentlemen. A higher duty calls. Shall we pick up here later?"

The assembled knights nodded to their liege. Marcus, watching the training session from the wings, approached. "Shall I go as well?"

Max smiled in his fatherly way. "I think it best for you to stay here for now. These young knights are quite adept at what they do, but even they know that some things are best left to the Tatterknight. If I need your assistance, I will be quick with the call. For now, please keep our subjects safe."

With a thought, Max shifted himself to ghostly form and rose into the afternoon sky.

	*		*		*		*
"Master," said Ragnar, "There is a call."

The Mystic opened his eyes. He was sitting in the lotus position on a cushion. He aimed an inquisitive look at his apprentice.

"The Protectors," said Ragnar.

The eyebrow raised, and the Mystic sprang lightly to his feet. He listened for a few moments, then said, "I'll be there shortly." Turning to Ragnar he added, "This could be interesting. A monster they say. I'll return when I may." He wrapped the Cloak of Vieltoor around himself, stepped into its folds and vanished.

	*		*		*		*
The protectors, with several associates, gathered in the residential dome of the Fortress and regarded their guest.

The Wanderer fell back into a leather chair and leaned back. "So Captain," eyeing the stranger, "tell us about this monster."

"Not Captain, just Roger," said Roger. He looked a bit uneasy at the array of powers before him. "Well, Lorelei knows the whole story. There's a monster, it lives underneath us. It doesn't seem to be directly threatening us, but it's very unnerving, and anytime we try to go past it, it attacks."

"Roger, please understand how... extraordinary... this tale is. We are going to need the long version. Let's begin with the basics, like who you are and who are you a representative of?" Defender looked from Roger to PC with a questioning gaze.

"Ah, yes, of course. Sorry." He looked at Lorelei, "Would you like to go first?"

"Actually," PC said, "what you've said so far is pretty much all I know. I thought you might have an easier time explaining things to the whole group. So please, feel free to start from the top."

"Well," said Roger, "perhaps the best way to explain is by starting with myself. I was an officer on a cruise ship. The ship was blown off-course and damaged by a severe storm, damaged to the point where we couldn't really move, although the craft was still structurally sound. When the storm lifted, we found ourselves lost on the open sea. Nearby, however, was the oddest craft I had ever seen. It looked like three or four smaller craft, lashed together in no particular order to make a kind of floating island. The people there helped us get our ship over to where they were and we tied up next to them. We found that they considered themselves a kingdom or sorts, floating there on the high seas, and that their ruler was a Queen.

"The fishing was good, the climate nice and the long and the short of it is that most of us decided to stay and contribute what we could to the kingdom. Life was good and free from a lot of the problems of the modern world. We lived simply and well.

"That's mostly it. Every year a few more craft joined us; some sought us out, others were blown to us or carried to us by the currents - the kingdom sits at a place where wind and current have a confluence. Which is incidentally, where we get a lot of raw materials - the flotsam and jetsam which comes to us.

"Beneath us lie a number of wrecks on the ocean floor. We have sometimes tried to reach them, but have been turned back each time by a monster which rises from the floor and destroys any craft which ventures too near. The monster has not bothered us on the surface, but living above such a creature is nerve-wracking and is the one thing which makes our happiness incomplete." Roger ran down. "The Lorelei came and we thought perhaps you could help us with our problem."

The Wanderer whistled in amazement and pushed his floppy hat back on his head. "That's quite a tale, matey." He curiously glanced over to the Mystic and others wondering if he should humour the obviously deluded man who had spent too many a night hugging a cask of rum.

"I'm intrigued," Defender said with his trademarked hand-through-hair gesture. To Wanderer's surprise, Defender seemed to be buying the story without question. "We might be able to help, although some of us are not exactly adept at underwater operations. Could you show us the location of the kingdom on the most recent ocean charts?"

"Lorelei has been there," he said. "The location should be in her logs."

"In fact," PC chimed in, "Part of my post-flight checkdown is to upload the travel logs, so I should be able to get us a location here in a few seconds. They gave me a tour of this place, it really is amazing to see." PC started to work, fingers flying.

The Wanderer eyed the man suspiciously, "Tell me Jolly Roger, what was your ship's registry. Since you, and others, were lost at sea the authorities will have to be notified."

"Frankly, we'd rather not," said Roger. "Some of the ships are ''lost at sea,'' and we'd like to keep it that way. We are just trying to live our lives, peacefully and quietly, free from exactly the kind of thinking that says that ''authorities'' must be ''notified.''"

A retort was stopped in midstream as the Wanderer sat back in his chair. He wasn't used to someone asking for help, yet dictating the rules; the analogy of 'beggers not being choosers' came to mind but then he remembered Max's presence and thought better of it. This insistence on privacy did strike him as odd, since there were families who thought their loved ones lost and yet were now found -- surely they wouldn't deny them the relief and joy that they could be re-united. The Wanderer sat silently, making a note to ask PC how she came across this unusual man. He suspected that there was more than was being shared, ships were lost at sea either by natural disasters or through nefarious means. Maybe his calling the man Jolly Roger wasn't too far off base?

PC frowned as she finally looked up from her PC unit. "Somehow, guys, the download didn't take. I'm going to need a couple of minutes to transfer it manually from ships logs."

As she got up from the terminal, she turned to Roger. "Care to accompany? I want to make sure I got the location correct...and besides, I wouldn't mind the company." She caught the eyes of both Defender and Wanderer briefly, the look she usually gave them when she knew what she was doing.

"Umm, sure," Roger followed PC out.

The two left, closing the meeting room door behind them. Not more than 5 seconds after they left, the screen came on, and a text message flashed on the screen...apparently left just then by PC before she left.

"Sorry to do it this way, guys," the words said, "but I had to say this 
somehow with him out of the room.  There's something really weird about all 
of this...both him and the 'queen' were very vague about this monster 
thing...but there was a definite level of charisma about the queen, a 
sweetness.  There's something deeper about this whole situation that I think 
bears investigating, but I don't see any reason to provoke Roger or anyone 
else involved in this until we know more about what's going on.  And yes, I 
am talking to you, Mr. Chocolate-syrup-on-my-cheese-fries. ;) ;) ;)

"My suggestion is we go take a look around and find out what's going on and 
go from there.  The people on that construct could be in very serious 
trouble.  Also, the entire reason I found this thing is the first place was 
because it sits at the last known coordinates of the Eaglewing Sub, which I 
have reason to believe is part of the wreckage below...and I know finding 
that sub has been on the backburner for awhile now.

"I'll be back in a few with the coordinates.  Discuss among yourselves. ;) - 

"P.S.  This message will self-erase as soon as someone hits 'Enter'.  I'd do 
it before we came back. :)"

The Wanderer poppped over to the console and punched the 'Enter' key erasing the private communication. He turned to the other Protectors and guests saying, "Who do you think she was talking about?" with a grin. He turned to Defender, "Your call, boss. Do we play along and go monster hunting?"

"I'm kinda in the middle here. Yes, we need to investigate. No, I don't believe in sea monsters, but I do think there's SOMETHING down there that's causing shipwrecks. If these people aren't there of their own free will, something needs to be done. If they are, we need to make sure something *doesn't* need to be done. In any event, given that everyone in this room decided to wear our respective union suits...or just plain suits as the case may be," Sting said, nodding at Max, "we're kinda locked into at least taking a look here. Yes, it *would* be nice to have a plan going in...but why mess with a winning formula?" Defender could just picture the toothy grin behind Sting's mask at this moment.

The Wanderer nodded at what he thought was agreement. "As usual, we keep our eyes open and do what we do best." He thumbed back toward the conference room, "Something's fishy about this sea monster. And we'll know more once we meet the Queen." The man in black's wheels began to turn wondering if this sea monster had any connection to the one he had investigated months earlier.

Defender nodded in agreement. "We probably should at least appear to play along. Besides, I've seen enough strange stuff before this to keep an open mind." Activating the intercom, "PC, how are those maps coming? We've already hummed all the songs we know and Wanderer is jonesing for some cheese fries."

"Tell Wanderer I've got his cheese fries RIGHT HERE!" PC said, laughing. "Oh, I got the maps too, Roger's checking them for accuracy. We'll be right up."

Once Roger confirmed the coordinates shown, PC loaded it onto a disk and the two returned to the conference rooms. A couple of keystrokes later, the maps were shown on the main viewscreen.

The Wanderer looked on with curiosity. "And this sea monster only started to be a nuisance recently?" he asked Roger.

"Well, yes and no," he said. "It's been there longer than I have, and mostly leaves us alone. Any craft which goes much below the surface though, is fair game and gets destroyed. We seem to be living in detente with the beast."

"So capture of, and relocation of the beast is what you're asking us to do?" the Wanderer asked.

"Ah, sure. That would be fine," said Roger. "Or you know, kill it. Really we just want it gone."

"OK," the Wanderer said nonchalantly, glancing over to Defender with a I-don't-like-the-feel-of-this look.

"We'll be happy to check it out, but I can't promise you that we will be able to properly deal with it." Defender smoothed his hands together. "Okay. Who's up for a field trip?"

The Wanderer's hand shot up. As did the Beggar King's. Sting's hand raised, as did PC's. When Defender looked at her, she replied "Unless someone else has gotten their pilot druthers together, I'm in on this one, boss. Don't worry, the little woman will stay out of the way" She winked with a little wry smile as she completed.

The Mystic shook his head, "Unless you feel a need, I have business I would rather not put off."

Sting looked over at the Mystic. "I know you generally have other pressing matters, but this might be a case where your talents may not only be appreciated, but necessary."

The Mystic considered, "I do have other matters to hand. However, perhaps ... if you insist, I shall come. But I would offer instead Ragnar. If it seems later that my presence is required, then I can join you."

Sting thought for a second before speaking. "Sounds good to me. My main concern is many times sea monsters are mystical in nature...that and with Ka-Sador's departure we're short handed. But if Ragnar has your recommendation, that would work."

The Mystic departed to fetch Ragnar.

Sting looked at Defender as the Mystic left. "I'm sorry, that really should have been you saying that. Still thinking like I was leading my group on the Ripper case. Sorry."

"You are welcome to the Big Chair anytime you want it, old man." Defender said with a smile.

"Does that mean I can come to work in jeans, too?" Sting fired back.

"Hey, I was..." Defender started to say until he realized Sting was yanking his chain. He just shook his head and sighed.

"Looks like the usual compliment with Max and Ragnar thrown in," Defender said to the group. "Can everyone be ready to go in an hour?"

"Of course," answered the Wanderer. "A few phone calls and I'm ready for the high seas!"

Max stood and stretched upward. "Ugh... ah. Any time I'm summoned, I inform my people of my potential absence. My barons and marquises can handle the kingdom while I'm away. So, I'll just slip over to the lounge for some coffee while I wait."

"Sure thing 'young man'" Sting said.

Defender nodded at the jab and excused himself to change into something a little more appropriate. Once in the sanctuary of his small room, he sighed to himself. The mantle of Protector was a heavy one sometimes and being the one in charge was even more difficult. There were days when he wished... well, a lot of things. He was always grateful for Sting and the Wanderer's experience. In fact, between the three active Protectors, he was the least experienced.

He pushed those thoughts from his head. He had a 'kingdom' of missing people and a 'sea monster' to deal with. Plus he had no idea how long this would take. He gathered a small bag of personal items and made his two phone calls. First one was to Mara. She would want to know that he was okay and would be missing their nightly dinner time. She reminded him to stay safe and that the 'family' was depending upon his return.

The second call was to his new assistant. "Karen. This is Alden. I'll be away on business for a little while. No, it's nothing to worry about. You're in charge of my office and let Frank take care of the business. Of course I trust you. I wouldn't have hired you if I didn't trust you. Okay. I'll be in touch as soon as I am able. Bye."

He grabbed his bag and headed for the hanger to help with the pre-flight checks.

On his way Defender heard the definitive pop of displaced air marking the appearance of...

"A word, boss," the Wanderer said as he leaned back against the wall.

"I assume you have a particular one in mind," Defender said. "What's up?"

"Roger seems a bit....strange," the irony of the Wanderer referring to anyone else as strange struck Defender funny. "And if there is a 'queendom' of subjects like him, we could be overwhelmed quickly. If they are prisoners, then this is one big rescue mission. Nevertheless, if there is some force that compels ships to remain, we could get stranded. We should let the Table know of our whereabouts as a precaution."

Smiling, he offered "I'd love to make the call."

"Excellent idea. Please make the call." Defender said. "Oh, and between you and me, I think we might need to keep an eye on Max. He's not the most stable individual on a good day. And you know how he is about all this pseudo-Dark Ages stuff. His loyalty might be in question just because this woman calls herself a Queen."

"Right-o," said the Wanderer with a tip of his hat. The man disappeared from view presumably to secretly contact the Round Table from a secure communication device.

Sting walked in to the kitchen, where he saw Max with a cup of coffee. Sting poured himself hot water and let an Earl Grey teabag steep as he sat next to the Beggar King. "OK, far be it from me to act as counsel to kings, but you had a look in there like you were four years old and you were told your puppy ran away. Do you need to talk, friend?"

"Nothing really to talk about," Max said. "I've just been wondering if I shouldn't be on the streets, helping my people instead of jumping on every mission with this group to parts unknown. I think one or two of the group are a little uncomfortable around me and I worry that it might endanger people in a dangerous situation. I think both Defender and Wanderer question my..." He trailed off, focusing on the concentric wave patterns in his cup of coffee.

Sting put a hand on his friends shoulder. "Defender and Wanderer both owe you their lives. When the MUSE thing went down, you were taking out the trash while both of them were on their backs and I was on my last breath. Don't EVER discount your value or worth to this team and the individuals therein. Between you and me, I trust you right now more than I do Wanderer.

Max looked questioningly at Sting. "How can you not trust him?"

Sting pulled a newspaper from the recycle bin. Turning inside, he saw a brief writeup on a visit the Wanderer had made to the U.K. to convene with the Round Table, complete with photograph.

"I saw the same article. The guy gets around," Max responded.

"Max, I was over there that entire week. Moreover, I was working in close contact with the Round Table, Dux in particular. I never saw him...which is possible. What I don't understand is why Dux never mentioned him being there, especially since he knew we were teammates. With everything going on with the investigation...I just wonder when this picture was taken. Something about this whole thing bugs me, but I don't know what."

Sting paused before continuing. "Just because I'm wondering about his methods, I don't think Wanderer is inherently untrustworthy ... not in the least. I guess my primary point is with you, we all know who you are, and we all know how much you care about people. I've seen it, so has the rest of this team. I've read many accounts of the street people feeling like they don't belong anywhere ... men and women without a country. Max, you've given them a country ... complete with a liege who looks after their best interests. That makes you a better leader than most of the despots on this planet who actually hold 'official' titles.

"Funny," Sting continued, raising his mask to take a sip of tea, "but before you brought this up, I was actually going to try to make a pitch for you to come on officially. Especially since you're on missions with us all the time anyways. I think the team would understand if on occasion your duties keep you from your people. And if they don't ... well, if you could use a sidekick on solo adventures, I'm game."

"I'm afraid my paramount duty is to those that call me Liege," Max said. "I don't mind helping out. Noblesse Oblige and all that. In this situation, it is the duty of nobility to assist others of noble birth. Thus, I go to help.

"You're offer of assistance is greatly appreciated. I shall remember it next time Duchy business becomes too large for either myself or Tatterknight."

Defender entered the vehicle dome as PC was finishing her pre-flight checks. "The Jet's been refueled and checked over. The coordinates are programmed in so we should have no trouble finding the place." PC smiled as Defender nodded gravely.

"We should be careful," PC continued. "I felt very relaxed on that construct... maybe too relaxed. We don't have any psi's on the team but we might want to check with Ragnar about if he has any spells that might counteract mind control effects."

"I think that's a very good idea," Defender answered. "I'll go ask him while I can get him apart from Roger."

As Defender started to walk away, PC spoke again. "You know, that whole 'any time you want to take over' thing you told my dad...combat tactics are in his blood, it came from working so closely with the U.N. But he'd never ask for leadership over you because he himself admits he's nowhere near the people person you are. I just wanted you to know that so you didn't think he was actively bucking for your job. It's just his instincts. But he knows ... like we all do ... you're part of what makes this team the family it is."

"I'll let you in on a little secret, Lorelei. I'm the least experienced of the group. That even includes Max and yourself. The weight of the job is sometimes a little much. Especially now that Mara and I ..." Defender smiled to himself. "Wait. Forget that last bit. Confidentiality and all that."

Defender stepped out into the hall.

"Good rapport isn't learned by experience, boss, unless you have it to begin with." Lorelei said, and that paused Defender briefly. "I understand, though, where you may be coming from. When this mission is done, I'd like to sit and talk to you about it. It might make everyone's life ... both on and off the team ... a little easier."

Ragnar arrived at the warehouse waiting for an escort. One was provided and with fifteen minutes to go before the deadline, the party was assembled. Ragnar deactivted his hologram device and the vaguely Russian looking man vanished to be replaced by a full size Krai, albeit a rather small one by Krai standards.

Finally, the team was gathered, and PC was already strapped in to the pilots chair doing last minute checks. She invited Defender into the co-pilot's chair and asked everyone else to take a seat. "Although I recommend Ragnar take the seat behind has the most leg room." she said cheerily.

Ragnar nodded. "Most gracious," he said, in a rough voice that oddly enough sounded vaguely Russian or Eastern European. Everyone settled in then PC keyed in the launch codes, and they were off.

A couple of hours later, PC said, "The floating island should be visible any time now." She piped the wing camera view onto an internal screen and most of the Protectors got their first view of the odd mish-mash of ships that made up Roger's home.

Defender asked PC to do a slow circle of the "island" so they could get an idea of the lay of the land. PC complied and the EagleJet did a wide loop around the strange craft - slow being a relative term when dealing with jets.

As advertised, the floating island was a mish mash of vessels of all sizes, shapes and nationalities lashed, welded and other wise connected into a huge whole.

PC banked and brought the jet in for a water landing about the same place she landed previously. As before a launch was sent out with a cable to attach to the tow hook. Soon the EagleJet was being brought alongside the cruise ship.

"Roger, if you would please," Defender said. "Take us to your leader."

"My pleasure," said the man. As soon as the jet was docked, he led the party across a series of gangplanks and gantries past a wide variety of ships, pointing out as he did some of the modifications that had been made: this one turned into a smokehouse, that one with soil spread on the deck to make a garden, the other serving as a fishing pier.

Finally he stopped them in front of a shelter that looked something like an upended wicker bowl or basket resting on a table. "The dwelling of the Queen," he said. "Please wait a moment while I see if she is ready to receive you." He entered the shack.

"We are in grave danger," Max said. "He so totally didn't laugh at your 'Take me to your leader' joke, Defender."

"Joke? What joke?" Defender replied in confusion.

"Max, just be glad Defender changed before we left. The queen might mistakenly address him as 'Levi'" Sting said. "And no, I'm not letting that go, boss. I've got snarky commentary for a week because of should be honored."

"Note to self. Develop a more patient sense of humor." Defender shook his head. "Okay, let's keep our heads here. We don't know what's going on and need as much information as possible."

The Wanderer smiled slightly at his teammates' bantering, but felt uneasy about the situation they found themselves in. As they approached he thought he saw a military class icebreaker and several yachts which should have raised quite a disturbance when they turned up missing. Meeting a so-called queen who ruled over a collection of Gilligan's Island misfits was the sign of a delusional mind, which made it quite dangerous. A quick glance over toward Max and the Wanderer saw some strange parallels which caused him even greater concern for all of humanity.

Roger stepped back out, "The Queen will you see you now." He held open the door and the heroes entered.

The interior of the hut was lit by what seemed to be oil lamps. It was filled with an esoteric clutter of odd looking tools, bones of sea creatures, chairs, rugs, furs and bric-a-brac. For a moment, there was something like a faint fog in the air, a hint of heat haze perhaps. Then they saw a kindly looking woman of mature years stepping forward to greet them. "Lorelei! I'm so glad you returned," she said. "And these must be your friends. Who would like tea?" She turned to a stove where a kettle was just beginning to whistle, "Your timing is perfect."

The Wanderer remained in the back of the group, politely refusing the kind offer.

"Your Majesty, I am Duke Maximillian Immergrun the First, known as the Beggar King," he said with a flourish and a deep bow. "And I am at your service. May I present the Protectors of Port Alexander. This is the Wanderer, Sting, Ragnar, Lorelei you know, and Defender, captain of this little guard." He paused momentarily. "And I would love some tea."

"Splendid," she nodded around a little nearsightedly at the assembled crowd. "Sugar and cream and jam are there," she pointed at a sideboard. "The tea will be ready in a moment." She swirled some hot water in a teapot, then added some leaves, then the water. Capping it, she moved it over to the sideboard to join the rest of the items. "So, have you come to rid us of our monster?"

"That was our intention." Sting said. "However, Roger wasn't really able to tell us very much about the beast. We were hoping you could tell us everything that you know about the monster...where it is, what it looks like, has it ever surfaced, anything you can specifically tell us about it."

"I know a bit more than Roger, since I have been here longer," she said. "It has never surfaced. I have seen it a few times, and it looks much like a man, only with gills and webbed feet - and is much, much larger. It is greenish blue and has fearsome talons and fangs. It lives on on near the sea floor, never straying far from this point and attacks anything which dives too deeply."

"Do you know where it might have come from?" Defender asked.

"It is my belief that it has dwelt here all its existence," said the woman.

"So, it predates your colony then?" Defender asked.

She considered this for a moment, then said, "Yes, I think so."

Moving the subject along, Defender continued the questions. "Has anyone under your care faced it and survived?"

"Some few have seen it and survived, no one has been able to pass it. Only a very few were foolish enough to attempt to fight it and none survived," she said.

unds like it may be guarding a lair, " voiced the Wanderer, "how far down is it safe to go before the monster attacks?"

"It does, doesn't it?" said the woman. "I'm not sure how far down is safe. Surface swimmers have never been bothered, and diving even twenty or thirty feet seems safe."

"If it only attacks when provoked, then can't you live in harmony with the creature?" posed the Wanderer.

"What if it gets hungry?" she said. "It's nerve wracking living with such a monstrous creature so near. And the children, what of them? They like to swim, too, and what if one dives too deep?"

The Wanderer very nearly responded that the creature was there first, but decided against a confrontation. He appeared to accept her answer and looked to Defender who was better suited when tact was required. "Want me to take a look?" he offered.

"I think that would be the best course of action here." Defender turned back to the 'Queen.' "We did not come here as 'dragon-slayers'. While I understand your concerns, we need to find out what this creature is and if this situation can be resolved without killing. I hope you can understand our methods."

"Of course," she said. "We wish only to live without fear. What may I do to help you? Of course, we will have lodgings prepared for you."

"That is a good question. I am a little 'out of my depth' in this matter." Defender said. "I think that the Wanderer is the only one of us who doesn't have to worry about breathing underwater."

"This construct looks like it has almost every conceivable type of sea vessel. Any chance of a functioning submarine? Or even a mini-sub or two? I would think that if you did, we would at least have scuba gear." Sting mused out loud. "With the sub, we could follow and track Wanderer at a distance...if he hits trouble, he'll at least have a shorter trip if he 'ports out of danger."

"Scuba gear we have," said the Queen. "All of our underwater craft, though, are now wrecks on the bottom of the sea."

The Wanderer mocked taking a deep breath, and replied "I'm ready, race ya to the belly of the whale. Arggggh"

Max was uncomfortable. He glanced from Wanderer to Defender. Something was on the man's mind. After a reassuring look from Sting, he took a deep breath. "I can't swim."

"Roger, will you show our guests their rooms and where the scuba gear is located?" asked the Queen.

"Yes, Ma'am," said Roger. "This way."

He led the heroes back toward the cruise ship, "It's the place with the most bedrooms." Overhead, a storm was brewing and all around them, people were packing up anything that might be damaged by rain. "The scuba gear is also on the ship. It was there for the use of the passengers, but now everyone is afraid to dive."

"Anyone else a certified diver?" Defender asked. "We will need to check the gear and make sure the tanks are recharged completely. I'd actually like to do that now."

The Wanderer looked amidst the gear for an underwater flashlight and waited for his companions to get suited up. "Are you coming with us?" he asked Roger.

"I hadn't planned on it, although I could," he said. Turning to Defender he added, "I'm certified. We can start checking the gear now. Although it will be dark soon, shouldn't we wait until tomorrow?"

"With a storm coming, it could delay us further," commented the Wanderer. "Does the monster become more active in inclement weather?"

"While it would be good to have someone along who knows the area, I think it best for you to stay up here." Defender said. "I would not want to put you at undue risk. However, if you would be standing by in case we need an extra set of hands, I would appreciate it."

Glancing toward the darkening skies, "I think it best to wait until morning before going down. I still want to check the gear tonight, though."

"Of course, of course," said Roger. He called through the door and soon a young woman appeared. "Mary will show you to your rooms and arrange for dinner. Defender, I'll show you your room myself when we're done here."

As the heroes were led away, Beggar King caught Sting's attention. "What am I going to do? I'll drown." A light undercurrent of panic ebbed in his words.

"You don't think your scuba equipment will phase with you?" Sting said, before something else dawned on him. "Max, can you swim?"

"Not a lot of opportunities to swim, living on the streets. And open fire hydrants don't count." Max answered. Trying to cover his obvious nervousness, he countered, "Did you know that until the modern era, most professional sailors didn't know how to swim? The navies never taught swimming because a man overboard was not something you could recover. Most were press-ganged anyway."

Sting smiled to himself. Perhaps the others saw Max as eccentric but Sting felt that that was part of what made Max Max, God bless him. "Lets run this past Defender," Sting began, "but it might actually be a blessing in disguise. If the situation isn't what it seems, and these people aren't what they seem...personally, I'm reticent about leaving PC up here without any sort of metahuman 'backup'. Also, the entire active team is going to be down there...if something should happen, PC will need help rebuiling the Protectors at worst...or assembing a rescue party at best. Besides, it will afford you an opportunity to speak with the Queen, royal to royal."

Sting paused for a second. "Sound reasonable to you, Max?"

"Yes and no. I didn't come along to bench warm." Max was upset at his own shortcomings. "I can speak with the Queen at any time, but there is a windmill to tilt against. I SHOULD be there for that. I just don't know how I'm going to manage it yet." Max took a deep breath. "Let me talk to Defender."

He gave Sting a reassuring smile, or what passed for one from Max, and headed back to the dive room.

When he entered, Defender was talking to Roger about the specifics of the gear. When Max entered, Defender looked up. "What's up, Max? Is there trouble?"

"No... I, uh..." He looked at Defender and thought of all the times the man had placed himself in danger without a second thought. He thought of Sting and the Wanderer and how bravely they had fought time and again. He thought of the noble Ka-sador, prepared to fight to the death each time he faced any villain. Even the Princess had shown more courage than Max felt at the moment. "I... well, I was about to try and gain another audience with her Majesty for a little noble-to-noble, tete-a-tete. I just wanted to... uh, check with you quickly about this gear. Could you give me the quick run down?"

"Yeah, I guess," Defender said. He gave Max the ten minute class, oblivious to the way Max was picking up very little of it. To his credit, Max hide his glassed over eyes well. After the brief instruction, Defender caught Max's attention. He asked, dubiously, "You have done this before? Right?"

"Huh? Oh, yes. Of course. Swim like a fish..." He said, finishing in his head, "... through wet concrete."

"Good." Defender said. "Maybe you should get some sleep."

"Yes, of course. Roger, would the Queen be willing to speak with me again this evening, or should I leave it until after the dive tomorrow?"

"I don't know. I can ask, I guess, if it's important," said Roger.

"Oh, it's not important. I guess I'll go to bed then." Max waved and walked out.

"He's an odd one," Defender told Roger. "But he's really a good man. He's the self-professed protector of the street people of Port Alexander. Actually, in a lot of ways, he's much like your Queen. He calls himself 'Duke Maximillian, King of Beggars.'"

"He and the Queen might have much to talk about, then," said Roger. He twisted a final valve. "I think we're done here."

"Looks like..." Defender counted tanks. "...five sets of tanks with forty five minutes of air. Five back up tanks with twenty five minutes. Floatation vests and weight belts. Lights, goggles, and wet-suits. Yeah. I think we are set. Roger, I think I'd like to grab some shut-eye now."

"I'll show you your room," said Roger.

Max wandered the ship and the area, soaking up the local atmosphere. In many ways, the place reminded him of the Beggar Kingdom. There was the same ingenuity in adapating found materials to new uses; boilers converted to fish smokers, deckspace converted to gardens, a swimming pool converted to a drinking water reservoir, and so on. The rain was coming down fairly heavily, so few people were out. Ghosted out, the rain was no problem for Max who moved from ship to ship alone and without let or hindrance. Something struck him about the place, something odd. He suddenly realized what it was - the silence. In Port Alexander, there was always light and power, and always noise and activity in the Kingdom. Here there was more of a small town feel. The phrase "roll up the sidewalks at sundown" came to mind. Perhaps the weather was also a factor, but for whatever reason, the only sound was the roll of rain on hulls and cabins, and the only lights were occasional lanterns here and there and now and then a candle flickering in some room on a ship.

The next morning, the whole crew - Defender, Sting, the Wanderer, Max, PC and Ragnar - met Roger in the equipment room. "Looks like rain again today, but the winds are high up so we should be OK," said Roger.

"Good. Let's suit up. Ragnar, will you be coming along or staying here?" Defender asked as he removed his electronic gear. It was all water-proof, but not pressure proof. "We have enough air for five divers with spare tanks up here just in case forty-five minutes aren't enough. I would like to have Roger suited up and standing if we need an extra set of hands."

"Sounds like a plan." Sting said. "Just warn me if we're about to run into mermaids, singing crabs or a guy in green speedos with wings on his feet."

The Wanderer flicked his handtorch on and nonchalantly stepped over the side disappearing into the depths. As the water collapsed into the dive, the light bobbed to the surface "Come in, the water is fine!" assured a familiar voice.

Suitably attired, Defender followed. After a moment of immersion, he popped back to the surface with a thumbs up.

One by one, the rest of the crew stepped off the diving platform floating on the side of the cruise ship. When everyone was together, the experienced divers spent a few moments making sure the novices had the basics down - breathe in through mouth and out through nose, and so on. Then they began to descend into the murky, cold North Atlantic depths.

The Wanderer kicked off ahead of the group suspecting that his physiology was better suited to any dangers while undersea. If there was something down there and it was unfriendly, then a quick escape could be needed and who better than the teleporting Wanderer to lead that retreat?

The rest of the heroes followed in his wake. Quickly they dropped down twenty feet or so. Off to their side, the hull of the cruise ship curved away from them and began to dissappear in the turbulent sea. Visibility was limited to perhaps five meters, and with no sonar or other devices to help them, they would have little time to respond if something did appear.

Hoping that the poor weather would lull the beast to sleep, the Wanderer continued his descent. Thus far, everything was well. He gave a look behind him at the rest of his friends and signalled that he was going deeper. With one eye focused into the depths that lie ahead, the Wanderer scanned the area for any wreckage that might confirm the Queen's story.

He dropped slowly down to a depth of 10 meters or so. This was, they had been told, the beginning of the dangerous depth. The ship hull was now above him and he was in open sea. The sea floor was only about 150 meters at this point, still far too deep for a normal scuba dive.

Defender kept an eye on the others while observing his surroundings. He noticed that Max was having difficulties keeping up. "You okay?" Defender asked via hand motion. Floundering as he was, Max still gave a big thumbs-up. Defender shrugged, worried that the Beggar King would become a liability this far out of his element. At this point, Defender would have to trust the man knew his limitations.

The Wanderer kept dropping, as the others continued to fall behind. Soon all they could see was the dim glow of his flashlight. The Wander reached twenty meters of depth without incident and slipped further down. Defender paused and took a head count at the twenty meter point - all were present and accounted for.

At around thirty five meters, the Wanderer suddenly felt a change in the water around him. It was a pressure wave, as if he had stepped into a strong current, only it was coming almost straight up from the ocean floor, almost like a geyser - and it hadn't been there a moment before.

Frantically, the Wanderer tried to propel himself out of the way of the surging funnel. If something was coming up, he hoped he would be able to get out of its way.

The Wanderer's light had dissappeared, and now it reappeared rising fast. On his heels, everyone felt something like a current pushing them up and away.

Sting looked at Defender. After working with the so-called "Pocket Protector" for this length of time, Defender knew what the eyes were saying..."Oh crap.".

Defender motioned for everyone to spread out and head to the surface. At this point, it was obvious to all that Max was panicking. He ghosted out by instinct and began clutching at his air tanks. Something was wrong.

The divers started to rise, all save Max who was thrashing about in his ghosted form, clutching at his likewise intangible scuba gear.

The Protectors swam surfaceward, propelled by the pressure wave beneath them. Max, ghosted, was not pushed by the pressure wave and remained. At the edge of his vision, Defender saw the Wanderer's flashlight, rising toward the surface, with the Wanderer presumably carrying it although the murky water didn't allow a positive view.

Max struggled, panicky, with the unfamiliar scuba gear, the unfamiliar pressure and the anxiety of the unfamiliar element. He lost the mouthpiece and grabbed for it, but then took a deep breath of water and ... was fine. In shock, he tried again and realized that he could breathe normally. Beneath him he saw a shadow rising. A huge shadow, he looked around and realized his friends were nowhere to be seen.

At that moment, Max wished that he was more ghostly, as in invisible. He silently prayed to the Beggar god that this was all a part of the plan. He remained to observe the shadow.

Below him, out of the murk, appeared a sight which so astonished Max that for a moment he forgot both to breathe and that he wasn't supposed to be able to. The monster looked like some sort of unholy cross between a bear and the Creature from the Black Lagoon, only about sixty feet from head to toe. It swam up toward the petrified Max and swallowed him in a single gulp. For a moment it seemed to tread water, then it dove down.

Near the surface, a frantic Defender did a head count and came up one short.

He signaled the others to surface before dropping a few meters to look around for the missing diver.

The Wanderer spoke out, "Whatever it was, it was big." He twisted around, "Is everyone OK?"

"I'm breathing," Sting said. "There's something to be said for...wait a minute, where's Max? Damnit, I knew him going was a bad idea."

A moment later, Defender broke the surface. He held a set of air tanks in his hand. "These were Max's. Something bad... very bad happened." He pointed to the air hose phased through the straps. "No Max."

Sting shouted an expletive that took everyone aback, never really hearing Sting say something of that nature. "I'm going after him"

"Hold on. Where's the Wanderer?" Defender asked, grabbing Sting's arm. Ragnar pointed downward. Defender sighed. "We need to let the Wanderer scout ahead. He might..."

"Look, boss, I'm going wherever Max is. If it's inside Monstro or whatever that thing is, so be it. He'd do the same for me." And with that, Sting started to pull away.

"Yes, but he can walk out of the side of Monstro like a ghost," Defender said, making a 'whoosh' hand gesture. "None of us can do that. Right now we need a better idea of what we've gotten ourselves into."

Sting saw the Wanderer dive, and looked at Defender. "I hate it when you make sense. OK, let's give the Wanderer his shot...but let's not take too long, ok?"

As Sting and Defender debated topside, the Wanderer descended.

"Agreed. Don't worry, Max can take care of himself." Defender said the words, but something inside refused to believe it. True, he had seen the man hold his own in a fight, but there was something 'child-like' in Max. Perhaps it was the same quality he had seen before in those suffering mental illness. Or maybe it was a romantic idealism and innocence that Defender envied.

"I'll stay here. Everyone else, fan out in case Max breaks the surface elsewhere and needs help."

The Wanderer dropped down into the deeps, rapidly passing the twenty meter point and coming up on a thirty meter depth. There he paused for a moment, this was where things had gotten hairy the last time.

Cautiously he paused, taking care to not create any currents that would seem unnatural. Then he realized that everything he did was unnatural to the denizens who dwelled here. He felt fortunate that he wasn't emitting the telltale air bubbles that most divers would be and progressed further down.

He dropped further down, passing forty meters, then fifty. Even with his lamp he could see only a few meters. Sixty meters, then seventy and then he saw the bottom.

Finally, he thought to himself as he touched bottom. Visibility was near zero, but onward the Wanderer went groping about the sandy floor looking for signs of wreckage or Max. At least he could return with information about how deep the water was, but he wanted something more concrete.

He groped and realized that he wasn't on sand. Nor rock. He was on fur. He remember the sea floor was supposed to be about 150 meters down, not 70.

Fur? he questioned himself before coming to the conclusion that this was not a good situation to be in at all. The only thing worse, he thought, was if this beast decided to crush him. Apparently, it didn't know he was there. Why was it just sitting here motionless? The fur indicated that this creature was a mammal, yet he did not recall seeing any air bubbles which probably meant this was not of the earth. The Wanderer racked his brain for any information as to this creature's origin. As he pondered, he continued to walk lightly and explore the dimensions of this furball.

He had only taken a step or two when the beast moved, rolling over and dropping away beneath him. A shadow came out of the depths toward him, a head that looked something like a bear and something like lizard, but large enough to swallow him whole. If the rest of the creature was to scale, the damn thing had to be fifty or sixty feet long. The mouth was open and the beast looked perfectly willing to see what alien flesh tasted like.

The Wanderer regained his bearings and disappeared from the creature's view with a muffled whump.

He reappeared a little to the left and grabbed for a hand hold of fur. He got it but saw a gigantic clawed hand raking toward his position.

The Wanderer strenghtened his grip and flattened himself onto the beast and began to concentrate. He had never tried to affect something so large before and wasn't sure it would work. There appeared to be no effect and then the claws raked him out of the creatures fur.

Underwater, no one can hear you scream.

The Wanderer positioned himself for the next assault, then cut and run for the surface. Perhaps Max had assuaged the creatures hunger, for it did not pursue him with any vigour.

Above, a few tense moments passed, then the Wanderer broke the surface.

Sputtering, the alien spat out some seawater, "Um, we really ought to be going. I wasn't able to make friends." As he paddled over to the ladder the heroes could see his overcoat was shredded.

The other heroes followed him to the boat, where they were joined by PC and Roger, who were quickly briefed. "What about Max?" Sting said tensely. "We just leave him for dead?"

"I saw no sign of him," offered the Wanderer as he climbed up. "That thing, whatever it is, is at least 50 feet long and not afraid to swallow anything near it." He wrung out his hat and checked his overcoat, "I have no suggestions as to how to proceed. It is too big get a handle on."

The Wanderer looked toward Defender, "do you have any ideas? I don't think we'll be able to communicate with it."

"No, we don't leave him," said Defender. "But we need something more. With all the ships here, one of them might have some sonar equipment. The skies are also looking unfriendly. We need to find some sort of power boat to spread out search pattern. I fear we are desperately out of our element here." Defender saw the look on Sting's face even through the mask. "We aren't going to leave him. I swear. But the reality is simple. He's either dead right now or he has found someway to remain safe. If it is the second option, which I pray is the case, then we need to act fast to find him and get him back without further loss. We need to immobilize it some way. We need to put our heads together."

"Immobilize?" Sting said. "Defender, remember my first case with you guys, when the MUSE was snagged? Mystic had bound Ka-Sador with some sort of mystic rings. Ragnar, how feasible would it be to be able to bind the creature that way?"

"The Bonds of Vieltoor, that might be possible. Although, a creature that size might well burst the bonds easily," said Ragnar. "The Bonds is not my strongest spell. I am better suited to a support role, enhancing the abilities of others or summoning the Servitors of Vieltoor to our aid."

The Wanderer thought about a tactful way to approach the subject, naturally he disregarded all of them. "Ragnar," he said getting the Krai's attention. "The beast, it...well, resembled a bear, and had fur. I couldn't help but think of you and your race." The Wanderer began to describe the beast in greater detail, hoping that maybe it had some connection with the Krai race in hopes of finding a way to combat it.

Ragnar was of the opinion that the resemblance was entirely coincidental. "After all," he pointed out, "Terran bears resemble bears, too."

The Wanderer conceded his point, remarking "True, yet terran bears don't grow to fifty feet and live underwater."

"Neither do Krai," said Ragnar.

"You know, I wish I had a chance to find out for sure if the Eaglesub was around here somewhere. That would have been better suited to getting a closer look at this thing." PC said.

"If it is there, and on the bottom, then we're going to need help," answered the Wanderer. "I made it down about half-way, and then ran into the creature, well...actually I landed ON the creature."

Sting could see that everyone was still shell-shocked by what had happened, but he knew that if Max was even still alive, he wouldn't be for long. He took a deep, calming breath before speaking. "OK, boss, you said we need tracking equipment, a better way of getting down there...where do we get this? Who do we contact? Standing here staring isn't going to take care of this problem...we at least need a step forward."

"PC. You've been doing all this research on the sub. What was the power supply? If it was something exotic, we might be able to attune the sensors of the jet to pick it up." Defender said.

"Not that I've been able to ascertain." PC said. "As far as I know, the Eaglesub ran on standard forms of power, nothing out of the ordinary or supernatural."

"Then we are back to the sonar concept. Roger, are there any ships here equipped with sonar?" Defender ran his hand through his wet hair. "On another tract, perhaps we can distract it while another group slips past."

"There are quite a few sonar units around," said Roger. "The big boat had a sonar for tracking fish, and we've got another couple from other sources."

Defender was pleased with the first good news of the day. "Good. Do you have one on a small boat that we can disconnect from the cluster? Here's my idea. Sting, Ragnar, and the Wanderer take the small craft out away from the cluster to see if you can get some idea of the topography down below. Specifically, we are looking for a cave large enough to shelter this beast. Meanwhile, PC and I will work on another unit to see if we can get something semi-portable to take with us below. Luckily, I know a thing or two about small stuff. Comments? Input?"

"We've got maps of the bottom around here somewhere, I'll dig them up. We should be able to detach something onto a small boat, but I don't think we've got anything small or waterproof," said Roger.

"Are there any submarines that are part of the collective?" PC asked. "I would think maybe we could cobble some things from that. Maybe I'm dumb, but wouldn't that kind of equipment be at least water resistant?"

"No submersibles anymore, they've all been sunk. And even then, most sonar isn't designed to operate wet," said Roger. "Well, except for the sound generator and receptor. But the computational elements work best dry, like any other electronic instrument."

"Regardless, we need a good look at the bottom. Sonar will let us pin-point any potential lairs as well as give us some idea at what depth this thing is active at." Defender nodded with himself. "I think this is our only sane course of action at the moment. Roger, I'd also like to look at your maps and compare the results. See if anything has changed in the recent past. By the way, you don't happen to have an oceanographers or zoologists on board, do you?"

"I don't think so, nothing that specialized," said Roger. "I'll get a scan started soon and find those maps for you. Is there anything else I can do for you?"

"Just concentrate on that for now, please. Our comrade's life is potentially in danger and the sooner we can get to him, the better off he will be."

The Wanderer thought to himself that distracting the beast was easy, avoiding it much harder. He cleared his voice, "If I may ask, what is our immediate objective?" He ticked off what he saw as the options on his gloved hand.

"Number one: Rescue Max, which assumes he is still alive and requires a location."

"Number two: Retrieve the Eaglewing Sub, again we are unsure of its existence, location, and its condition."

"Number three: Removal of the beast. Beyond killing it, which seems an impossibility at this point, is there any way to subdue or relocate it."

The Wanderer looked over to Defender, "Are there any others? each are connected and may very well help solve the others. Which should we focus on?"

"Max has got to be our first priority. Unfortunately, that means going through that beast. I don't think we can fight it. So, we need to find someway to remove it from the board," said Defender. "Does it bother anyone else that Roger did not seem to be in any hurry? I fear that they are trying to keep us in the dark."

"That or they're under the control of something or someone." Sting said. "The general vibe that I'm getting is that no one in this entire collective seems to be in any hurry about anything. However, unless we want to involve some outside sources in this, we're somewhat beholden to them at this point for help."

Defender turned to the Wanderer. "You're the only one of us who has seen this creature. What's your assessment of it? Do you think we stand a chance against it in the water?"

The Wanderer collected his thoughts and gave his assessment. In vivid detail, complete with gestures, the alien recounted his encounter with the beast. Its appearance and immense size were relayed, including his attempts to grapple the beast only to be raked by its claws. "Underwater, my punch doesn't quite have the usual pepper behind it so damaging it may be a problem. Maybe your Stinger can cause a bit of a splash," he offered to Sting with a wink.

"Somehow I was able to float atop the creature and walk on it, so its stamina may not be great. Perhaps we can tire it out, it seemed rather sedate but still powerful. And it looks to chomp first, so our maneuverability is something we have to be conscious of." The Wanderer checked the area which fell to the beast's claws and had since healed due to his alien constitution, "I'm not sure if we should look to subdue it, or kill it. The threshold for either are unknown at this time."

"I hate to sound like a doomed hero from a bad 50's monster movie, but we should avoid killing it if at all possible. We don't understand it and killing may be a bad choice." An idea formed in his head. "What if we tired it out and get it to the surface. Perhaps at that point Ragnar can use his spell and trap it. We could then capture it."

"I'm not sure it will come to the surface, it didn't look to pursue us when it had us on the run. If it is guarding something down there, it may not venture too far from it," offered the Wanderer as a possibility. "Although, I'll be happy to run interference again."

"If it is guarding something down there, perhaps we need to see what it is." Sting said. "And you may not have to run interference...I wonder...I can get other objects to shrink with me if it's within a certain proximity..." Sting put his scuba gear back into pace...and then attempted to shrink to about a foot.

He shrank down to foot high and was buried beneath the scuba gear which had seemed to shimmer for a split-second, but failed to shrink.

Defender picked the SCUBA tank up off his teammate. "So, back to the distraction idea. Who's game for distraction and who wants to try and get past?"

"Sign me up for distraction," volunteered the Wanderer. He figured his rapid constitution and ability to teleport made him a natural. "If the beast is more accustomed to the depths, perhaps a sturdier lightsource could affect it. Regardless, visibility down there is minimal so we may need to upgrade our lighting."

"I can go either way. I think Sting should be in our sneak group. Ragnar?"

"Distraction, probably. Sneaking is not my forte. I can conjure a few servitors to add to the confusion," said Ragnar.

"Then I'll sneak with Sting. And if the creature turns on us, I'll break off to buy you more time. And gentlemen and lady, that's a plan." Defender was suddenly pleased with how painless that had been. "Now we need to see those charts. PC, you seem to have a decent rapport with Roger. Do you think you might convince him of the urgency?"

"I'll see what I can do, Chief." PC said, as she then set off to find Roger.

Roger was not hard to find, and when PC found him, he was going through a stack of charts and had already set a few aside. PC could see that the charts he had set aside looked like sonar scans of the sea floor, and the rest of the charts looked like other charts of use to mariners - navigational charts, current maps, and so on. He looked up when she entered the the sonar room. "Hi. I've got some of the stuff you need right here."

"Great!" PC said. "I'll get this out to the guys right now. They're anxious to get back down there...we've got a lost comrade and if he is still alive, we need to get to him...quickly. How soon before you can locate whatever else we have available?"

"I'm working as fast as I can," said Roger. "I won't know for sure until I've gone through everything. Or you can go with what we've got."

As the division of duties fell, the Wanderer approached Ragnar for a private conversation. "Looks like us off-worlders get the job of luring the beast away."

Ragnar looked a little surprised, "Yes, it seems so."

The Wanderer lowered his voice, "I didn't see any sign of Max. Without oxygen he would have already perished, if he had phased out to avoid the beast then why hasn't he returned?" With a glance toward Sting and Defender he commented to Ragnar, "They are such a fragile people, have you ever thought about death?"

"It is impossible to live in the Krai Empire without thinking of it. We are a harsh people. Harsh to those we conquer, certainly, but harsh on ourselves as well. The penalty for failure in the Empire is often death," said Ragnar. "You think ... 'Max' ... is dead?"

"I am not sure," answered the Wanderer in a manner trying to convince himself of his uncertainty. "When Max is in his ghost form, I am not sure if he needs to breathe. I hope that is the case." With a sigh, the Wanderer turned his attention back to the pressing matter at hand, "we need to occupy the creature's attention so Sting and Defender can explore the depths. Is there any way for you to discern anything through your mystic arts about the beast that could be helpful?"

"Sadly no, I am but a tyro in these things," said Ragnar. "I can aid others to some extent with my spells, granting them speed, flight, skill, strength, health or rendering them invisible. I can summon the Bonds of Vieltoor, although I do no think they will serve against something so large. I can make myself more difficult to harm. I am best, however, at summoning the Servitors of Vieltoor."

"I am sure they will have to do," he said with a clap on the alien's back. To the group the Wanderer spoke, "When will the fun begin? Ragnar and I have our gameplan and we'll have the beast sucking wind, er water in no time." He smiled and added, "I wouldn't be surprised if it lost quite a few pounds after our escapade."

"Very soon. I want to take a look at those charts then we need a quick gear check." Defender looked toward Sting. "You ready for this?"

"I'm going to have to be, aren't I?" Sting said without a hint of his usual biting wit.

Defender gave him a sympathetic smile. "Of all of us, I think your head is the most in the game. And your job here is the most dangerous. This creature could be protecting it's home or offspring. The rest of us have the option of fleeing. I only wish you could turn invisible."

"Well, I effectively can, for about as long as I can hold my breath." Sting said. "Here's hope I don't find out my limits. If that thing does track me, I'm probably at the biggest disadvantage. No speed, limited strength, and no idea how my vibrationally-based sting works in the water. Where's that Triton guy I read about in the archives when you need him?"

The Wanderer wanted to study the charts as well, knowing what was below would help him in case he needed to make a desperation teleport. It was tough enough, but having to dodge any wreckage would best be discovered now intead of the hard way.

PC arrived then with the charts that Roger had found. They had a pretty good selection covering the sea floor for a mile or two in every direction. Many of the charts had a large object visible which was marked "monster," or "guardian," or "beast."

From the rest, they pieced together a pretty good idea of the sea floor topography. The interesting feature was the large number of wrecks on the sea floor all of which were within a very tight circle, perhap 70 or 80 meters across, and located almost directly beneath the floating island.

Defender thumped a finger on the wrecks. "I'll wager that this is our target. I saw a Diver Down buoy and some rope in the dive room. So, here's the plan. One of you keeps a hand on the rope when you go down for diversion duty. As soon as you make contact, give the rope a tug hard enough to bounce the buoy. We'll take that as our signal to head down. Everyone ready?"

A check of the scuba gear revealed that everyone still had enough air to make the attempt practical and so the group assembled in the water. The diversion team prepared to drop.

"Wanderer," asked Ragnar, "should I create a Servitor to accompany us or lead the way? Or shall we beard the beast ourselves first?"

The Wanderer considered Ragnar's offer and remembered how quickly the beast could move, "That would be an excellent idea, Ragnar. Any advance notice or other targets for the creature would prove most helpful on our part of the mission."

"Very well," said Ragnar, "I summon the Servitor of Vieltoor!" In the water nearby a creature formed, it resembled Ragnar in it's basic shape, but was smaller and, although there was nothing anyone could put their finger on, it somehow reminded them of the Mystic. "Servitor! Descend ahead of me but stay within sight. I shall give you further orders then."

The creature nodded and dove under the water.

Soon thereafter, the Wanderer entered the water with a splash and resurfaced to grab the rope and await Ragnar.

Ragnar dove down, followed by the Wanderer, each carrying the most powerful light Roger could provide.

Once the two aliens had descended, Sting and Defender entered the water and swam a dozen or so meters away from the buoy. There they impatiently awaited their signal to descend.

The Servitor was barely visible beneath the Wanderer and Ragnar as they swam down after it. As before they were able to descend to sixty meters with no difficulty. The Wanderer noticed that the Servitor had pulled a little further away but was still easy to see.

The Wanderer felt a little worried about the summoned creature. He wasn't exactly sure from where it came or if it was truly alive, nevertheless if it succumbed to the creature then they would lose a valuable part of the plan. Signalling to Ragnar, the Wanderer picked up his pace to keep up with the Servitor.

The Wanderer thought the Servitor looked bigger somehow, but perhaps that was only the distortion of the water.

The thought struck him that perhaps the area was some nexus of magical power which caused the Servitor to seemingly grow, it would explain the beast if it was magical in nature. Filing the thoughts away for further discussion, he proceeded on keeping a watchful eye for the beast, a bit concerned since this was deeper than he had previously gone and there was no sign of the beast.

Speak of the devil, a pressure wave from below heralded the arrival of the beast as it had before. Ragnar's servitor was clearly larger now, perhaps twice the size it had started.

The Wanderer tensed for the ensuing altercation, indicated to Ragnar that the beast was coming while tugging on the buoy. The time for luring the beast away had arrived. He set off with powerful strokes away from the rushing wave.

On the surface, the buoy bobbed.

Silently hoping his companions were alright, Defender dropped beneath the surface and began to swim with all of his strength. He gave Sting a thumbs up then concentrated on making the best time possible.

"I'm off, chief. I'm gonna be going top speed because we may not have time to do otherwise." Sting said, and he dove. Inexperienced as he was at diving, he hoped his super speed would help a little bit in cutting through the waters.

It did seem to. Sting was out to an early lead with Defender following behind.

Ragnar swam in the opposite direction that the Wanderer had taken. The servitor dissappeared into the depths below. The Wanderer felt the huge bulk of the creature sweep by him, it was apparently going after Ragnar first.

Not that he could keep up with the beast, the Wanderer took off in pursuit to lend a hand to Ragnar. Hopefully the Wanderer could get close enough to effect some type of offense.

The beast wasn't running, so the Wanderer was able to get to it quickly. It had caught Ragnar in it's claws and was worrying him like a dog with a rag doll. Blood clouded the water. As the Wanderer watched, Ragnar stopped struggling and went limp.

The Wanderer frowned in concentration, but there was no visible effect. Shrugging he swam closer and punched as hard as he could. That got the beast's attention and it released Ragnar who began to float slowly upward. The beast raked vicious claws across the Wanderer.

The Wanderer grimaced from the claw attack as he blinked out of the creatures sight. The creature seemed a bit confused as the Wanderer dissappeared.

The Wanderer caught his breath for a moment, but then the creature began to move upwards again and he forced himself into action.

As Sting hit the forty meter mark, he saw something clouding the water, blood it looked like. Then floating below him in the water he saw Ragnar, who had been horribly mauled. His mouthpiece had fallen from his mouth, and as Sting watched a few bubbles dribbled out of his mouth.

Immediately, Sting swam over to Ragnar, put the mouthpiece back to his mouth, and tried to pull him to the surface, using his enhanced strength to pull the Krai along. As he saw Defender on the way down, Sting pointed downward, motioning him to keep going.

Using muscles re-designed more for jumping than swimming, Defender gave it his all. His chest burned with each breath and his skull pounded from the rapid change in pressure. Hoping the Wanderer was still involved with distracting the creature, Defender swam like a man possessed. Deeper, ever deeper.

Sting dragged Ragnar to the surface, pleased to see that he seemed to be still breathing when they reached it. He was gouged and bleeding and it looked as though his arm, at least, had been broken.

Sting screamed up to the ship as loud as his voice could carry him. "DIVER DOWN! MEDIC, EMERGENCY CREW!!!!!"

There was a bustle on the deck as men hurried to try to help get Ragnar out of the water.

Defender felt a push of water coming up at him. Suddenly at the periphery of his vision, the Wanderer blinked into existance and Defender realized that the grey mass below was not just the limit of his light but was the beast. The Wanderer punched, with no visible effect and a huge clawed hand, easily the size of the Wanderer himself reached to grab the alien.

The Wanderer tried to teleport clear, but only moved a little further into the path of the claw. As Defender angled away, he saw the claw close on the Wanderer.

Trusting the Wanderer's ability to teleport out of danger, Defender continued his assault on the depths. He was now more wary . In the back of his mind, he felt he would soon be engaging the creature himself. The consequences would likely be costly.

Defender angled away and down but a moment later he felt a large bulk above him. Rolling over he saw a giant head with open mouth bearing down on him.

At that moment, Defender realized exactly how out of his element he was. An image of Mara flashed in his mind and he knew that he would have to do everything in his power to avoid this ignoble death.

As the beast closed in on him, Defender juked to the side and grabbed the back of the beast's head as it went by. This provided only a moment's respite as huge claws came forward to rake him out of the fur where he was gripping.

Defender dropped his grip and played dead. He began to float slowly upward. The beast took one casual swipe at him, which stung a little but didn't do much damage, and incidentally sped him upwards.

The delay getting Ragnar out of the water drove Sting crazy. Finally, they had him in a small boat to take him back to the Floating Island.

"Take Care of him." Sting said to the crewman in the water as they attempted to raise Ragnar into the ship. With that, Sting reset his breathing apparatus, and prepared to dive.

"What's that?" said Roger and pointed. Sting looked and soon it was obvious to all that it was the Wanderer, bobbing to the surface.

Sting cursed loudly, something PC knew he rarely did except under extreme cases of anger and frustration...he swam over to the fallen Wanderer and dragged him over to the ship. His mind raced at the utter failure of this mission...had we really underestimated this monstrosity this badly? And what was it going to take to take care of this thing.

He was pleased to note that the Wanderer seemed in fairly good health, although unconscious.

"Take care of them," Sting said. "I need to get Defender out of there now!" With that, Sting headed down as fast as he could.

He dived deep following the buoy rope down. At perhaps forty meters, he made out another figure floating slowing up toward him - Defender. After his initial rush of concern, he realized that Defender seemed relatively unharmed, and was still breathing using his scuba gear.

Sting then waited for Defender to meet him and they both floated to the surface together.

Breaking the surface, "Son of a bi..." The rest of the sentiment was lost as Defender bobbed momentarily beneath the water. "How's Ragnar? Where's the Wanderer?"

His heightened healing was already closing his wounds, but blood was in the water. Defender swam away from the area, out of a healthy respect for sharks. "That thing tracks by movement. I played dead and it left me alone. Predator mentality. Won't eat dead prey. Perhaps a slower descent..."

"Perhaps we need to confab with the two unconscious ones over there first." Sting said, very animatedly. "I mean, they weren't down there but a couple of minutes when Moby down there treated them like a can of Star-Kist! If we're going down there, you're gonna either have to figure out a way to get the scuba to shrink and grow with me *OR* we need to call in some bigger guns. That thing laid waste to us. I want Max back, but I also don't want anyone else even remotely dead!"

The Wanderer struggled to a sitting position, "I'm ready. Awaiting orders." Suddenly he collapsed back prone and whimpered "as soon as I rest."

Sting looked inwards, in the direction where the crew had taken Ragnar. "Ragnar looked really bad, and I don't know if this crew has the medical facilities to take care of him. Maybe we should give Mystic a call, let him know. He may be able to do something for Ragnar now."

"Let's see what sort of facilities are here. But the Mystic should be alerted. And both the Wanderer and I need a little time." Defender looked at his minor wounds. "I suspect I need a lot less time. And we need a better plan then 'Get Her.'"

"Right." Sting said, then turned to look at his daughter. "PC, contact Mystic and give him headlines and coordinates. If he wishes to join us, he may. I'm gonna check on the seafaring M.A.S.H. unit to make sure Ragnar is in good hands." And with that, Sting sped away to where Ragnar was being looked over.

Ragnar was in the sick bay on the cruise ship and did seem to be receiving competent care. He was drifting in an out of consciousness, as the doctors debated the use of drugs; after all stitching up a wound is pretty similar on humans and krai, but who knows how drugs will interact with an alien metabolism? And these doctors had figured out pretty quickly that the metabolism was like nothing they'd ever seen.

When Sting arrived, Ragnar waved weakly at him, gesturing him over. When Sting came close he whispered, "My sending ... lost it. Growing!" He fainted.

Sting looked at the doctors. "Take care of him. If it means his life, do what you need to do. We're trying to contact his...associate...for further insight but I have no idea where to go from there." Sting then returned to where the remaining Protectors were.

PC went to the EagleJet and started punching the buttons needed to contact Mystic.

The storm was interfering with the radio and PC wasn't sure if she was getting through. There was certainly no response from the Mystic which was not unusual, often he could only be beeped and asked to return a call.

PC cursed in frustration...someway, somehow, the relative antiquity of the equipment had to be addressed, and if she was going to fly the team with any sort of regularity she needed a laptop with satellite 'net access...not cheap, but it would ostensibly allow her to interact with the main unit at home and let her do what she does for the team 'on the road'. She decided she would try a little later and came back out as Sting arrived.

"Ragnar's being taken care of, although he's not going to be in any shape to help us for awhile. I'm just glad he's alive. However, he had something very strange to tell me. He was briefly awake and said to me 'My sending ... lost it. Growing!' Anyone else who was actually down there have anything else to add?"

The Wanderer propped himself up at Sting's words. "He was probably referring to his Servitor. Ragnar summoned one of his magical creatures, it swam off toward the beast. I believe it hurried ahead outside of Ragnar's desires, then it grew. That was the last I saw of it." He swung his feet over the side of the cot, and gingerly walked over to a chair.

"Almost like it was drawn to the beast, I thought its growth was an effect caused by Ragnar, apparently not. Regardless, it didn't help slow it down."

"What. Was this creature flesh and blood?" Defender asked with the excitement of a mad scientist. "If it was, there might be a scientific explanation here."

"It is alive, as best I can tell," answered the Wanderer. "As to the form of life, I'm not sure but it is definitely not mechanical."

Defender knew so little about magic, but biology was another matter all together. Granted, he leaned more toward the 'tech' element of 'biotech', but this was perhaps something that he might be able to deal with.

"Okay, we know the creature is incredibly powerful. We know that it is protecting a certain area. And now we know that Ragnar's Servent-thingie was drawn to the area and grew. We need some data from that area. Water samples... radiological data... all that sort of thing. Does anyone know if there are any scientific vessels here?"

"Actually, there are." PC said. "I'm not sure what KIND of science...after all, I'm a techgeek, not a doctor...but it would stand to reason that at least one of those ships SHOULD have something to do with the marine sciences."

Sting pondered a moment. "Wanderer, you said that the creature grew as it got closer to the beast. Maybe I'm a layman, but the only two things I've ever seen, real or not, close to the size of that thing are dragons and Godzilla. Radioactivity made Godzilla... but couldn't the creature also be magical in nature?"

"Yes, I'd wager that it is; it certainly isn't natural." The Wanderer added, "at least not on this planet." He stood, a little shakey, "if it is magical then there is probably a power source or summoner of said beast."

"Maybe both." Sting said. "You said the creature got bigger as it got closer; certainly sounds like it could be a magical power source fueling that."

"True, more powerful than Ragnar if he lost control," reasoned the Wanderer. "Unfortunately, until he recovers it is all speculation." The Wanderer stretched, "Which still leaves us with the big question, how in the world do we get to whatever is beyond the beast. It is as if it knows we are coming."

"So far, it has shown predictable, animalistic traits. It is territorial. It is a carnivore that will not eat dead prey. When I played dead, it left me alone." Defender looked at the others. "The nature of this beast might not be natural, but it certainly acts like one. I'd still like to gather as much data as possible on it's environs. It also occurs to me as more than a coincidence that this creature is seemingly tied to the very area this colony mysteriously sprung up. I think it is time we investigated the origins of this kingdom."

"Sounds like a good lead," agreed the Wanderer. "If all it takes is playing dead, I may be able to scout around a bit more down below," he said standing up and mimicking a jellyfish.

"We'll go that route only if you promise to teleport out at the first sign of danger." The Wanderer did his 'Alien Scouts Honor' bit. Defender laid out his simple plan, pointing first to Wanderer and Sting. "You two talk to the Queen about how this place came to be here. See if you find out anything suspicious. Ask her about magic too, to see if anyone here might be a practicer. Meanwhile, PC and I will see if we can't scrounge some basic gear. A Geiger counter would be good if we follow the Godzilla line of thinking. Best case scenario is that one of the ships has an oceanographic set-up."

The Wanderer nodded and looked toward Sting. "The Queen awaits."

Sting jumped at the Wanderer, shrinking to his one inch height as he did so, grabbing hold of the Wanderer's coat collar. "Ready," he said.

The pair headed toward the Queen's quarters while PC and Defender went to check out the scientific vessels.

A pair of what must have been guards, although they had no weapons as far as the heroes could tell, were standing outside of the Queen's quarters. When they were informed of the heroes' mission one entered and a few moments later, returned and invited them in. The Queen was bent over the stove, fussing with the tea kettle, "Sit down, sit down," she said. "I'm putting the water on for tea. Or coffee? Do you prefer coffee? There!" She turned to the Wanderer, and incidentally to Sting, although she didn't know it. "What news?" The Wanderer realized she was not as old as he first thought, and was actually fairly attractive; there was something in her face that reminded him of Patricia Reynaldo.

Gallantly, the Wanderer told of the latest encounter with the beast. Sting noticed slight embellishments to the Wanderer's stories about the fall of Ragnar, including an heroic rescue of the alien.

"Your Highness," the Wanderer began, "do you have any information which could assist us? Any insight as to how long the creature has been here? Perhaps it is connected with your kingdom in some way?"

"It is possible, I suppose," she said. "The same forces which draw the ships here could draw other things."

"Currents? Tides?" She smiled apologetically, "This is not my strong suit, I'm afraid."

"Yes, I suppose that is plausible," he smiled. "You realize that if we are unable to defeat the creature that for your safety we will have to insist that you leave. I am sure we can find a lovely place back in Port Alexander for you."

"Oh, I'm sure it won't come to that," she smiled sweetly.

"I just wanted to prepare you. Unless we find out more about the creature, an evacuation will be necessary. My colleagues and I are falling short of any helpful information. Soon, we may have to begin relocation procedures."

"I'm sure that won't be neccessary, although we do appreciate the offer," she said.

"If only we were so optimistic."

The Queen simply smiled, and poured the tea.

Clinging upon the Wanderer's high collar, Sting whispered questions which the alien asked aloud. "Tell me Queen, how long have you been here? from where did you come before, and how did you arrive?"

"Oh, I've been here for a few years now," she said sipping her tea. "I was one of the first to arrive," she said.

"Arrive how?" he asked. "I would very much like to read about your journey, where may I find the chronicler for the kingdom?"

"We are not so formal here, there is no chronicler. And my story is not so interesting. It is the same as everyone's," she sipped again. "My craft was drawn here and it, and I, remained."

The Wanderer looked around the room, "is this your original craft?"

"Part of it," she said. "What is your plan now? Have you devised a method to defeat the beast?"

The Wanderer continued to marvel at the makeshift throneroom until Sting broke his admiration.

"OK, time for me to play bad cop. Trust me." Sting whispered to Wanderer. He jumped off of Wanderers shoulder and grew to full height, taking a position behind him.

"Sorry to startle you, ma'am. Very often I tend to hitchhike on my compatriots conversations, but you bring up some points I must respond to. To be honest, part of devising our method depends very highly on discovering more about your conclave of subjects, as we feel that the beast and how all of you came together might somehow be connected. At the risk of causing offense, your majesty, your answers to questions that, as ruler, I would expect you to be well versed in, are very vague, and if we *ARE* to defeat the beast...and more importantly, rescue our dear friend, if he is to be rescued...we need you to be start being more specific. "

Sting raised his mask to mouth level and began to sip a prepared cup of tea. "Now your majesty, please think very hard. When you came here...why did you stay? Is there anything that specifically happened. Please tell me as much about the day you arrived here as you possibly can."

The Wanderer feigned shock, in hopes that he would fall out of favor of the Queen. With hands on his hips, the black clad alien looked upon Sting with dismay at how harshly he talked to such a kind woman.

"Really!" The woman sipped her tea for a moment, "I'm not sure how much help I can provide really. My craft was drawn here by wind and current. I couldn't leave, since I had no power and the winds kept me here. Another few ships arrived quickly, and we combined our ships. I had nothing to go back to, and so I remained."

"How long ago was this?" Sting asked. "I know time sort of loses meaning here, but can you tell me when your ship left dock? Also has anyone ever decided that they didn't want to remain here and leave? If so, how? Did they simply un-link one of the ships?"

"It was, perhaps, five years ago?" she smiled apologetically. "It is hard to tell. Certainly people have left! Anyone can leave anytime they wish. Well, weather permitting!" She laughed. "How will this help you defeat the monster?"

"Because we have reason to believe that the same "source"...whatever it may be...that created the beast below is what may be drawing these ships here." Sting said. "That's why we're trying to find out whatever it is we can about how this area came about. Perhaps it's best that we speak with some of the other denizens that came here. Wanderer, was there anything else you wanted to know?"

Sting bowed in the direction of the queen. "Thank you for your time, your majesty." Sting then turned to leave, the Wanderer behind.

As soon as they were out of earshot and eyeshot, Sting zipped back to 1 inch and got in the ear of the Wanderer. "To quote a famous cartoon character, this whole thing stinks like yesterday's diapers. Did you notice that she mentioned our dealing with the beast twice, yet didn't even ask about how Ragnar was, or even any condolence of our 'fallen' comrade? Either she's playing us, or someone's playing *ALL* of us.

"In any event," Sting responded, "I think I played it hardnosed enough that she got the hint that we're suspicious, and I'll be interested to see what, if anything, she does."

"If you must know," began the Wanderer and then lowered his voice just above a whisper as some of the island dwellers looked at him strangely as if he was addressing them. "I found your tone a bit harsh, that sweet woman has an entire kingdom to concern herself with. You shouldn't convict her so."

Soon thereafter, the Wanderer commented to Sting in a clearer manner like the Wanderer of old. "I want to go below again and see what this beast is guarding so valiantly. Think we can find an underwater camera of sorts so I can document my findings?"

"You'll have to check with Roger, I thin" Sting said in a low whisper, "Maybe one of the ships sent out to explore underwater phenomena can help. Oh, by the way..." Sting stopped and caught the Wanderer's eye. "What was that back near the Queen's quarters about 'that sweet lady having a kingdom to run'? That sounds more like something Max would say, Mr. Resident Cynic." As soon as Sting said the words, though, something dawned in the back of his brain.

The Wanderer shrugged, "Another mystery, I suppose," he said with a scratch of his head. "Let's find Defender and see about locating a camera. If we can get some video maybe it'll prepare us for our next great adventure."

"You go ahead." Sting said. "I've got another hunch I want to play. If you don't hear from me after, say, a few hours, try and make an effort of finding me."

"Aye aye," he said with a salute adding, "and be careful."

With that, Sting tried to find an area nearby with no eyes on him at all and, achieving that, shrank to his smallest height and returned to the Queen's quarters, staying within shadows and taking great care not to be seen when her inner sanctum was reached. Once arriving, Sting found a shadowy corner and simply observed...and listened.

Sting found a place to hide and watch. The Queen moved around the room, mumbling quietly to herself and although he couldn't hear what she was saying, she didn't seem happy. She bent over the stove to top off her tea, when there was a knock. Without turning she called out, "Who is it?'

"Roger," came the answer.

"Enter," she called with a tone of command in her voice that was completelyabsent when she spoke to the heroes. Roger came in, and the Queen turned to face him. Sting gasped; the figure and face of the woman had changed from the sweet matron to a lithe yet voluptous dark-haired beauty."Roger," she purred. "What a pleasure it is to be able to show my true self. What news?"

Sting punched an open line to Defender's comm. Something was not right with the Queen.

"The bear like one, Ragnar, is badly wounded, but should survive," said Roger.

"Good, very good. I would hate to lose any of them," said the Queen.

"The others are very focussed on retrieving their comrade, the Beggar King," continued Roger.

"Idiots! If the beast has him, he's dead by now. Pity. He could have proved useful," she sipped her tea. That simple act caused sweat to bead on Roger's brow. "What else?"

"Defender and PC are running tests to try to figure out why we are here, why the beast is here, and what is strange about this region."

The Queen laughed a rich laugh, "A waste of time! Still, better they ask that than some other questions. And so long as they remove the beast, I care little about the means."

"Yes, my Queen," said Roger.

"The Wanderer and Sting were here, find them, see what they are doing and if they need help - or need to be redirected." It was clearly a dismissal. Roger knew it, bowed and left.

Moments before, Defender answered Sting's call. From out of his earpiece was coming a high and tinny sound, a voice he did not recognize with almost all the bass stripped. It reminded him of how Sting sounded when he was shrunk, but it wasn't Sting's voice. What he heard was this:

"The bear like one, Ragnar, is badly wounded, but should survive."

The voice changed, even with the bad sound quality, it sounded
feminine, ""Good, very good.  I would hate to lose any of them."

"The others are *hisss* -air comrade, the Beggar King," said the first

"Idiots!  If the beast *hiss* dead by now. *Hiss* useful," said the
second voice.  There was a pause, then "What else?"

"Defender *hiss* PC are running tests to *hiss* are here, why the
beast issss*hisss* about this region," said the man's voice.

The woman's laugh came through clearly. "A waste of time! Still, better
*hisss* some other questions.  And so long as they remove the beast,
I care little about the means."

"Yessss*hissss* een," said the man.

"The Wanderer and Sting were here, find them, see what *hisss* if they
need help - or nee*eeeeeee* ected."
PC looked at Defender strangely as he stiffened. Before she could say anything, he removed the emergency spare comm unit from his belt and replayed the message for her.

"Your father wanted proof that we were being used. I think we have it." Defender turned from his work. "We still have to find Max, but I think discovering the purpose of the beast is now more important than ever. It is guarding something."

"Oh, yeah, that's Sting's handiwork." PC said quietly, knowing from past experience his spy methods. "I usually have that worked out for him, but he probably sent it to you in case there were people around. And from the snippets we've heard, and the "een" mentioned by one of the people, it wouldn't be too far off the mark that one of those people talking was the Queen.

"I think we need to link up the troops. I agree we need to learn more about the beast, but if we are being set up, it won't be long before they realize it. I know I can send a silent alert from my mainframe at home, in case Sting's still undercover...or should I say underfoot...but can we do that remotely?"

"Hopefully, he will extricate himself from the situation. I'll buzz the Wanderer," Defender said.

Defender flipped his communit on again, "Defender to Wanderer. Could you please join me on the science vessel Cousteau Duex."

After asking for directions the Wanderer stepped aboard the Cousteau Deux a few moments later.

"We've got some interesting information. Seems your suspicious about the creature might be true. Check this out." Defender motioned toward a bank of displays while handing the alien a comm earpiece. Defender yammered about saline levels while hitting a button on his WristComp. A recorded stream of audio played for the Wanderer alone.

When it was finished, Defender reclaimed his earpiece. Without saying a word, he nodded grimly. "So, you see. Judging by this, we are suddenly out of our depth. Beyond salt, we really need to know what's down there."

The Wanderer snapped his fingers rhythmically and removed the earpiece. "I see. So what you're saying is if we had enough cheesy fries, the saline levels could be neutralized," he said in a strange attempt to thwart any eavesdroppers.

"As usual, the key lies under the mat," the Wanderer added, "have you found a deepsea video camera or camera? Maybe I can give us an idea of just what is down there."

Defender produced a video camera which was found on one of the research vessels and after a quick lesson in its operation the Wanderer was outfitted and ready to descend once again.

"Have you figured a way around the creature?" Defender asked, realizing another solution to another problem. He held his left arm and WristComp out in front of PC. "It links to the mainframe as well as my own computer at home."

"Not exactly," answered the Wanderer, "but I'm sure hoping your 'play dead' routine works." With a grin, the Wanderer assured him "this time it is non-engagement, hopefully the beast will cooperate."

As the Wanderer prepared to descend once more, a cry from the deck caught the heroes' attention. Something had bobbed to the surface forty or fifty meters out. Whatever it was looked like a human form - perhaps clad in motley.

In the blink of an eye, the Wanderer disappeared from his staging area and splashed down next to the form.

It was the Beggar King, and he was breathing! A moment later, the Wanderer had teleported back to the deck with his human cargo.

Rising to his feet, Max regarded all about him. His voice was regal and his stance was heroic. "Like Jonah, I have survived in the belly of the beast. And like Proteus, I have been plunged into the sea and return forever changed. The sea now holds no power over me, anymore than the land or air. Ghost no longer. I am reborn!"

He smiled at the Wanderer, his voice normal as he spoke again. "Did I miss anything?"

The Wanderer fumbled with the camera, and raised it. "Can you jump back in the water and do it all over again. We should get this on tape!" Sensing the occasion, albeit it joyful, dictated a more serious tone he recanted and clapped Max on the back.

"I was just preparing to go down to look around again, what happened? That beast has laid up Ragnar and darn near shredded me!"

"I was fumbling with the breathing apparatus and suddenly the beast was upon me. I never had a chance to avoid it and I was totally unable to escape it's bowels once I had gone down it's gob. After that, I faded in and out of wakefulness. I have no idea how long I spent inside it, but it eventually vomited me out. Now... I am changed." Max looked at the camera for the first time. "Oh, but I am keeping you from your task. Please allow me to step aside."

The Wanderer looked at Max curiously. The man had just undergone an experience of Biblical proportions and didn't want to jumble up the task at hand. "Well, I was planning on seeing what is so important down there to the beastie. I'll be sure to shoot it with an eye for the Port Alexander Film Festival, naturally."

Looking toward Defender he added, "Everything is still a go, right? I'll be OK, at least we know Max is OK and the creature has a weak stomach. Max ought to be checked out by the medical staff."

"Yes, of course." Like everyone else on deck at the moment, Defender was dumbfounded at Max's appearance. Secretly, Defender had all but given up on the man, convinced that he was lost. Shame burned inside, but outside he was all business as he addressed the small group of curiosity seekers. "Could someone please show Max to a doctor?"

"I am... fine," Max said. But he followed the stunned young girl has she led him away to the medical facilities.

Setting aside his delight in the return of the Beggar King, the Wanderer leapt over the side and began a descent. At around sixty meters, he felt the beast approach.

The Wanderer gauged the impending pressure surge and teleported away from the beast's path, upon reentry he remained still so as to not alert the creature of his presence.

He saw the creature come up on his side, then reorient itself. The giant snout came closer to where he was floating. He was drifting slowly upwards, and the beast seemed content to let him do so.

The beast watched the Wanderer for a moment, then swam away as the Wanderer floated upwards. The Wanderer began to descend again, and the beast was back. The Wanderer tried to teleport clear again, but the creature was having none of it, a claw raked the alien staining the water with his blood.

The Wanderer recoiled in pain. Realizing that confrontation would end up like before, the Wanderer chose to teleport far away and went limp, hoping his wounds would close up and the beast would be unable to track him.

The Wanderer floated for a few moments and considered his options. The beast didn't seem to be trying to hunt him down.

After regaining his strength, the Wanderer again tried a slow descent; taking care to not disturb the currents any more than he had to.

This time, he felt the beast approach at about fifty meters by his best guess. Again the Wanderer teleported 20 meters to the side and remained still and again, the beast approached and slashed him.

Exasperated, the Wanderer teleported straight up to escape the beast and resurface.

Back shipboard, a figure burst into the Queen's room where Sting was still watching. "Your Majesty!" cried the man.

"What?" she said with a cool tone. "It is important yes?"

"Yes, Your Majesty," the man dropped to a knee. "The one called Maximillian, the Beggar King, has returned - alive."

"Really? Yes, this is news. Where is he?"

"Taken to the infirmary on the big ship," said the man.

"Good. Good." She thought. "I will be there shortly."

The man bowed and fled.

The Queen bustled around for a moment, then left. Sting followed, calling Defender again and rattling quickly, "Queen's on her way to visit Max. This can't be good...Queenie's a major threat, may have used mind control on the Wanderer in her visit. If you hear things get noisy, be ready, I may not have time to signal you."

When the Wanderer surfaced, PC and Defender were waiting for him, Defender with an ear to his communit.

The Wanderer broke through and smacked the surface in frustration. "This is NOT going to plan," he yelled out. With a toss of his head, he disappeared and reappeared back on the deck.

"I think we have established that this beast is very intelligent," Defender said as he looked around the deck. He motioned for PC to 'help with the camera.' Leaning in, "I think it is time we tried to communicate with it. And a quick heads up, Sting is following the Queen. The Queen has gone to talk to Max. Trouble may be afoot."

Defender could see the mounting irritation in the Wanderer as he looked out over the ocean. "My vote is we take Max and go home. Tell the kingdom to stay at their own risk, or we'll help them re-locate. Short of killing the creature, it's staying put."

"We would certainly discover the true motivations of those that called us here were we to do that." Defender thought for a few moments. Somewhere deep inside, he had wanted to believe that everything was on the up-and-up. The evidence was damning, however. It was time to call. "I'll go get Max and Sting. PC, prep the jet for departure. Wanderer, go with her, but monitor your communit. I'm going to leave the frequency open. If you hear anything at all bad or if I cut the audio, find us. And PC, you get the jet airborne at that moment. It's time to play a little hardball."

"Only one problem with that, boss." PC said quietly. "Weather isn't cooperating with us. Take a good look around, that storm's building, not waning. No way I can guarantee our safety right now if we took off...providing, of course, we can even get airborne. It's your call, but that's my semi-educated opinion."

"We are only making a show, Lorelei. Don't worry. I don't plan on putting anyone in danger. If you have to go airborne, us your best judgment as to your safety and that of the jet."

A few moments later, Defender was in the infirmary where Ragnar lay semi-conscious. Nearby, Max was getting a once over from the island's "Doctor," an EMT. He had apparently beaten the Queen to the infirmary.

"How are you, Max?" Defender asked.

"I am as I always am," he responded. "There has always been a King of Beggars and it is not yet time for me to surrender the position."

"Uh... okay. The question is, are you fit for travel?"

"I am prepared to go where ever you ask. Is it off to the Gates of Hell to steal the collar off of Cerberus? Shall we journey now to Valhalla and drink mead from the Ever-plenty Horn of the Gods and compete in sport with our fallen kinsmen?"

"Well, no to the second and I'm afraid you've already been to the first. No, I'm afraid we are heading home."

Max looked puzzled. "Home? Have you found a way to dispatch the beast?"

"No. I'm afraid not. But a good leader knows when to retreat. Luckily, I have smart people to remind me of such things."

"What about this kingdom?" Max gestured around. "What about the Queen's loyal subjects?"

"I'm afraid that we are going to have to offer them sanctuary elsewhere if they wish to escape the beast."

"So, we are not bringing the mountain to Mohammed, but taking Mohammed to Port Alexander. What if they aren't willing?"

"That is their choice. But I would want to live elsewhere myself." Defender had been watching the shocked EMT out of the corner of his eye. He spoke to the man. "We'll be taking Ragnar with us as well. His mentor is better suited to deal with his condition than this medical bay. Could you arrange a gurney, please. Max, I will need your help with him."

"Surely not in this weather!" said the Queen from the door with a tone of motherly concern. "I am not a pilot, but it looks dreadful out." She moved closer to Max, "I was told you were lost. I'm glad I was misinformed."

"I have survived worse," Max said.

"But I wonder," she continued. "You are the first to survive such close contact with the beast. How did you escape?"

"I have an entire kingdom to care for, Majesty. My will to live and return to them kept me alive." Max hopped off the table he had been sitting on. "Twice now I have faced my own certain doom and twice I have come out stronger."

The Queen leaned closer, "But what happened to you down there? In all my years here, nothing like it has occurred. It is ... unprecedented!"

"The beast devoured me. It tried to digest and consume me, but was unable to. I eventually escaped," Max replied. "As I said, my will to live was too strong for it."

"Do you feel ... the same? Do you feel well?" The Queen turned to the attendants, "Is he being well cared for?"

"I feel... superior to myself. I can phrase it no other way," Max said. "I am Persephone returned from Hades. Or perhaps Thor returning to Asgard. Even Cuch-cullan after dinner."

The Queen nodded. "Yes. I see." She turned to the others. "What now is your plan? Rooms have been prepared for you. Surely you will stay the night?"

"I'm afraid we need to leave as soon as possible," Defender said. "There is much to do to arrange the evacuation of this site."

"Departure is impossible in this weather, you must agree," said the Queen, "and evacuation is unneccessary."

"This creature is unstoppable, I'm afraid to report. Surely you don't plan on staying where your people are in danger." Defender said.

"This is our home. We will not leave our home," she said simply.

Sting zipped to a far corner of the infirmary, where he would be sure no one would hear him except Defender, through his earpiece.

"Suggestion, boss." Sting whispered. "If you really want her to force her hand, tell her she may not have a choice. Due to the danger this creature poses to sea travellers, we will have to report this to higher authorities, and we have direct connections to both IPAC and the United Nations that will assure the outside world will know about this creature, and about them. Then, they may have no alternative but to be moved. I'd prefer you do this without letting her know I can see you right now."

Defender spoke on, even as Sting was speaking to him. "That is your choice, of course. But you will have to live here with that creature beneath you. I'm afraid we are unable to remove it." Defender looked from Max to Ragnar then back to the Queen. "The price we've paid to this point has already been too high. Unless you can give us a better reason than your stubborn insistence to remain in danger, we will be leaving."

"Of course, you may leave whenever you wish. Perhaps your plane is sturdy enough to ride out the storm," said the Queen.

"I will check with our pilot, but the specifications for the jet speak volumes." Defender clapped Max on the back. "I'll be back in a few minutes."

He started to walk out, stopped, and addressed the Queen again. "We might need those rooms tonight, but I suspect we won't when we return. I suspect the expedition then will be much better funded. A creature of this nature will draw quite a lot of scientific interest. Your little kingdom will become quite famous, I would guess."

Sting had decided that he played in the background enough. He zipped outside the door, found a place where no one was watching, and then grew to full height before re-entering sickbay.

"There you are, chief." Sting said to Defender, only barely noticing the Queen. "So what's the verdict? Staying or going?"

"That would be a shame," the Queen said to Defender, repaying Sting by ignoring him in turn. "I don't suppose I could persuade you to keep our existance a secret?"

"We could try, but the creature's proximity to your kingdom would make that practically impossible," Defender stated. On the inside, he cringed. He hated doing things like this, but knew that he had to follow it through to the end. "If you have any suggestions, I'm happy to hear them."

"What can we do?" she asked. "We are poor refugees doing our best to make lives for ourselves here. You are people of power, power beyond that of mere mortals. You will do what you will do, all I can do is ask on behalf of my people that you let us be."

Defender smirked. "Next thing you will tell me is that we are oppressive. Our powers have nothing to do with what is right and wrong. This creature is unlike anything encountered before. It is a danger to your community and the world at large. And if it were not guarding something below this hodge-podge of vessels, it might be dealing some serious damage to the ecosystem of the ocean at large. And if there were more of these things out there..." He trailed off at the thought of sea monsters attacking cruise ships and fishing vessels.

"Lady, this thing must be studied and understood. As a scientist, I have that responsibility. As a Protector, I have the responsibility of protecting those that want to be protected. If you refuse to leave the vicinity of the creature, we have a problem."

"Perhaps this will all be moot soon. I still have hope that you will be able to find a way to overcome the creature," she said. "Now I must go. Sleep well, and we can speak more tomorrow."

She left the infirmary leaving the heroes alone with the medical staff.

"Well, that was fruitless," Defender said, more for the benefit of those on the other end of his comm signal. "Protectors to the Infirmary, please."

Clicking off his comm unit, he looked toward Sting. "Why do people stubbornly cling to something like this?"

"I can tell you the simple answer," Max said. "But you won't be satisfied. This is their home and they have to believe that it is safe."

"Max, I'm sorry, but I need to disagree on this one." Sting said softly, before turning to Defender. "With all due respect," Sting murmured, "we need to meet somewhere more secure. There's a lot you guys don't know yet."

After a few moments the Wanderer strolled in, "you rang?"

"There is only one place we can be assured of no monitoring. That's the jet. Shall we?" Defender motioned toward the door.

Outside, the weather had turned rough. There was no rain, but winds were high and the clouds above looked threatening. The heroes made their way to their vehicle, entered and made themselves comfortable.

The Wanderer plopped down in a swivel chair and after a couple of revolutions he stopped, awaiting Sting's news.

Sting looked at everyone. "Part of me really wishes Ragnar was healthier. There are some things that we could really use his expertise on."

"I've spent several hours in the Queen's chambers monitoring her. After Wanderer and I had met with her, the way Wanderer was speaking in her presence was not like the Wanderer typically fact, it sounded more like Max than the Wanderer we all know. Furthermore, the entire time we met, despite one of us "presumed dead" offense, Max, damn glad to have you back and don't ever scare me like that again...and one of us seriously injured, the ONLY thing she wanted to talk about was whether or not we dispached the Beast. Very uncharacteristic, I felt, of someone so "matronly".

Because of this, I really wanted to get a good look at the Queen when she wasn't addressing strangers of her own world. Boy, did I ever. Defender, you got the audio feed of a very disturbing conversation. Yes, we are being used. Yes, there's something the Beast is guarding that she wants. She called us fools for thinking Max survived the Beast, and she instructed good ol' Roger Dodger to make sure that we were taken care of...and kept off track."

"However, here's the kicker. Our matronly queen isn't matronly. I saw her literally change from the form we know to a brunette with biiiiggg.." Sting instinctively made a hand motion that garnered an arched eyebrow from her daughter "well, you know. And a bigger attitude. Definitely UNLIKE our kindly, tea drinking queen that we all know and are exasperated by.

"Folks, my instincts tell me she's a witch. They also tell me that she's behind this "storm" we seem to be facing, since it arose VERY suddenly AFTER we were here. And these least some...are DEFINITELY under her thrall, at least by evidence of the change in vocal delivery I witnessed in the Wanderer."

Sting paused for a second, then looked at Defender. "That's what my recon turned up. Thoughts?"

The Wanderer leaned forward with a curious expression, "Exactly how big?" With a wink, he broke into a grin "I must say, I'm glad there was an explanation for it all. This queen is shrewd, but not powerful enough to take out this beast...of course, neither are we." He stood, "if we can't leave, and the queen doesn't crack, it leaves us with few options. Unless the queen has a private study we can loot for intel."

"She may" Sting said. "In fact, it was my intention to go back on 1 inch recon...after I get a nap, it's been a LOOONG day. Unless we can come up with a better plan. Frankly, I wanted to see if Ragnar could determine if the storm was magical in origin."

"Ragnar," began the Wanderer, "is more on the summoning side of magic while the Mystic is the diviner. We can check, although I'd suggest we assign a guard to him. If what you say is true, then the queen will be looking for a way to keep us beholden to her plan. With Max back, she lost a bargaining chip." A glance over toward Max saw him add, "And since you're an anomaly be alert, she may want to acquire you to find out why you were able to escape."

"I'm not afraid of her," Max said. "With your permission, mon Capitan, I'll go aloft to see what the extent of the storm is."

"Can you do that safely?" Defender asked.

"I believe so."

"Then, by all means. Aerial recon would be useful." Defender took a deep breath. "She certainly plays the martyr well. I almost believed her. Regardless, I'm ticked off. This further fuels my suspicions that the creature is guarding something. Why else would she so desperately be trying to remove it? We'll take shifts in the infirmary with Ragnar. In fact, it would be a good idea if we all stayed together there. Max, are you up for your recon?"

"Ready as I'll ever be." With visible concentration, he shifted to his ghost form and rose through the cockpit ceiling.

"Does anyone else have any surprises for me today?" Defender asked.

"I see your plan in sticking together," Sting began, "but we need to find out more about the Queen. We're strangers in a strange, becoming hostile land, and we need to find out what we're up against. Right now, I'm best equipped to do that. However, it would be nice to be able to get some better surveillance equipment to you so we can get a better feed."

"Weren't you talking about a nap," Defender responded. "I'm afraid that nothing we have will survive your shrinking."

"In any event, right now, she doesn't know that I know or we know. We need to take advantage of that as long as we can. We need to work a signal so that you guys know if I hit trouble. "

"It's your show, Sting. You tell us what signal you think you can do that we will get."

"We could always minimize Queenie's discovering Sting by occupying her, that is, provided she doesn't have some muscle we haven't seen yet," offered the Wanderer. "I'm sure she'll come to speak with you boss, when we start rounding up her subjects for evac."

"Whoa. I think we've tried that route before. She didn't bite." Defender said. "But now that you bring that up, I wonder how much concentration she requires to maintain her matronly appearance. What would happen if that dropped while she was in front of her 'subjects?'"

"Maybe you can't get her away from the room," PC said, "but maybe I can. At the very least, I can get Sting replanted and he can wait for her to leave for some reason. Maybe ask her to go for breakfast, or a walk. Act friendly-like. She probably doesn't see me as the potential threat she sees you guys. In the meantime, Sting, you need sleep. You're not going to learn much more tonight and you need to be at your best."

"Yes, mom." Sting said.

Max slipped back through the top of the jet. He was noticeably damp. "This storm is vicious. Even ghosted out, it got to me. It is rather localized and obviously a freak storm. The edge is not as clear cut as I would have like to have seen if it were created. Absolutely no thought into detail of effect. Now if the Wachowski brothers had done the storm..."

"Perhaps that's how the creator make it look natural." Sting said.

"So, I say that we return to the Infirmary. We'll stand guard over Ragnar and take turns sleeping. Sting, after you've gotten some sleep, you'll do your thing. PC can try and distract the Queen at that time. Any questions or comments?" Defender looked about the cockpit.

The Wanderer raised his hand, prompting Defender to call on him. "Do you suppose there are dissidents imprisoned here? Allies who are more forthcoming with information could prove useful."

"That is a possibility that I hadn't considered," Defender replied. "And between Max and Sting, we should be able to scout the entirety of the complex."

"True." Sting said. "However, we need to be careful. If we nose around too much with the wrong people..."

"Right." PC interrupted. "So how are we doing this, boss? Are we all taking shifts with Ragnar or how do you want this to work? I feel like we're burning rest time."

"Wanderer and I can stand guard, which means we need to take shifts. Everyone else should grab what sleep you can." Defender stretched. "We should stop by the galley and get some coffee first."

"I can sleep on the ride home," Max said. "Time to have a look around."

He again ghosted out and passed through the jet's exterior.

"I hate when he does that," Defender sighed. "Let's go."

The Wanderer fell into step with Defender.

Defender stared through bleary eyes. A cup of cold coffee sat in his hand as once again counted the lines in the floor tiles. Sting began to stir on his cot. Setting aside his own mug, Defender poured a cup for his companion from the thermos they had scrounged.

"Max hasn't returned from his search yet," he told Sting once the man was awake enough to comprehend. "I expected him to be back by now. This sort of thing is becoming a habit with the man."

Sting shook the cobwebs from his head...he had no idea how tired he actually was, especially given that he stayed in one spot for so long. "Hmmm," he nodded. "Not sure what to say. I could try to do a perimiter sweep, but he can go places I can't. You want I should try?"

Defender shook his head. "I don't think that's a good idea right now. I'm not going to send the team into a trap one at a time. We're needed here for now, guarding PC and Ragnar. If Max is all right, he will come back soon, I hope. This sort of cowboy, hotdog mentality is going to be the end of us, I'm afraid. Max should have waited for back-up."

"No, he would blend in better by himself, I saw why he did it. This is our reality...we're about five people against an entire colony of people presumably under the thrall of one woman. The Queen. And if this nagging suspicion at the back of my head is right...or even if it isn't...she's a dangerous, dangerous enemy. Our best shot of getting out of here alive is taking her by surprise and taking her out. That's why tomorrow I'm planning a full day of tailing her. Maybe get the drop of her when she's by herself."

Defender pointed at his communicator. "Not all back-up has to be physically present. He could have worked out a signal or something. If he got into trouble, we should hear his voice coming from one of these."

As if on cue, elsewhere on the floating island ...

Utterly disgusted with what he saw before him, Max felt a reckoning in the wind. He fished in the inside pocket of his coat for the Protectors' communicator he had been given months ago. He hit the All Page button and spoke.

"This is Max. Come to the Queen's boat now, please." He made no effort to hide his disgust.

The Wanderer stepped out of his cabin and stretched, glancing at the storm clouds and hurried off to the queen's chambers.

Sting shrank and jumped into one of Defender's pockets. "Element of surprise." Sting said. "Shall we?"

"PC, keep an eye on Ragnar. We'll be back shortly," Defender said as he headed for the door. A few minutes later, the three heroes stood together on just outside of the Queen's quarters. Max ghosted up through the deck, a body in his arms.

"I found her dungeon. There are... there is no one alive in it." Max said, laying the body at the feet of the heroes.

"Well," began the Wanderer, "this confirms that all is not happy in the kingdom. It also tells us that we're alone out here and she's willing to kill to get whatever that beast is guarding."

"When are we gonna thwack her?" Max asked. "Do we thwack her now?"

"I'd wager that the queen is more thwackable than the beast," concurred the Wanderer looking at Defender for approval.

"Thwackable or not, she needs to answer for this." Defender said. "And that time is now."

Sting jumped out of Defender's pocket and shrank to an inch. "I'm going in and getting set in order to give Queenie the shock of her life. You do your thing, I'll be there."

Defender gave Sting a minute or so, then turned to the Wanderer. "Would you like the do the honors of knocking?"

"It would be an honor, although you ought to do the talking." The Wanderer rapped on the cabin door, expecting the queen's guards to answer.

He was not dissappointed. "What is it?" asked the man who opened the door.

With a polite smile the Wanderer invited the man outside, "Good sir, Defender has something important for you to relay to the queen." The Wanderer stepped aside.

The man stepped outside, leaving his companion just inside.

"Helloooo," chimed the Wanderer sticking his head into the chamber to see the guard who remained inside. The Wanderer wanted to get an idea of where the man stood in case he needed to act swiftly. "How are you?" he asked trying to lure the man outside.

"A little tired," the man said and smiled. He did not, however, leave his post.

The guard outside said, "The Queen does not wish to be disturbed. Can it wait until morning?"

"No. No, it can't," Defender replied grimly. To emphasis his point, he stepped to the side to let the guard see the corpse Max had retrieved from the dungeons. "In the name of the international community, we would like to discuss with your leader how this sovereign nation treats prisoners."

The man's expression darkened. "I see. One moment." He stepped back in and closed the door.

The Wanderer looked cautiously to Defender, "I don't think the diplomatic approach is going to work."

"I don't think so, either." Defender took a deep breath. "Get ready, everyone. Max, if you would please."

The Beggar King smiled, ghosted, and followed the guard through the door.

The two guards were just inside the door talking. "... should go in and wake her," said one.

"You're senior, you should do it," said the other.

"Would you prefer if I did it?" Max asked.

"Jeeez!" The men jumped nearly out of their skins. The "senior" one gathered himself and said, "Ah, no. I'll go and do it. Could you wait outside? Please? Or in here? But not halfway like that?"

Max smiled grimly, folded his arms, and waited.

The man bustled into the Queen's reception chamber.

In the meantime, Sting had run past the guards and up to the door leading to the inner chambers. As he moved through that door, he felt a slight resistance, sort of like the pressure change in a clean room, then he was into her reception room, which looked like it had the last time he was in it. He moved on to the next door, slid under the door again, and found himself in a luxurious boudoir. The Queen, in her younger and more beautiful shape, lay on the heavily cushioned bed.

Sting heard a knock at the door from the reception chamber and a voice, speaking what he thought was German or Dutch.

The Queen sat up in bed and replied in the same language. They exchanged another few words, then the man knocking at the door retreated. Sting saw the Queen rise and begin to dress.

The guard returned to Max and spoke, "She will be out shortly."

A few moments later, the familiar matronly figure of the queen appeared in the doorway and approached Max. "What is the problem?"

Max looked away and simply motioned toward the outside door.

The Queen walked to the door, a guard opened it and she stepped through.

"Sorry to disturb you, but this could not wait until the morning." Defender stepped to the side, revealing the body laying on the deck. "Max found this body as well as others. We'd like to know the circumstances of his death."

She looked at the body for a moment, then turned back to the heroes. "He was a criminal and was executed."

"His crime?" asked the Wanderer.

"This sounds like an interrogation," said the Queen mildly.

"Is that what happened to him," the alien said with a nod to the corpse.

"He was found guilty by our laws, and punished by those same laws. Under what laws are you questioning me?" asked the Queen.

Sting had grown to full size as soon as the Queen left and made a quick search of the room. He found little of interest; books mostly written in a language he didn't understand and paraphenalia he associated with mysticism, although he didn't have a firm reason for thinking that. Frustrated, he shrank back down and ran out to eavesdrop on the Queen and her friends.

"You want to make this a legal issue? That's fine." Defender had not been this riled in a very long time. "We'll be more than happy to involve the appropriate authorities. Since you are technically in international waters, that means the U.N. And where the U.N. goes, the world's reporters go. In no time, this place will be swarming with so many petty bureaucrats and tele-journalists that your idyllic world will become a three-ring circus. Now, don't play the heavy hand of the ruler with me. And while we are at it, let's leave the martyr act in bed too.

"How you rule is your business. But it's hard to accept this little kingdom of yours as an innocent place when you live on top of a festering dungeon filled with decomposing corpses. We did not come here to play global policemen. Ours was a rescue mission, or so we thought. Perhaps we have been chasing the wrong beast all along. Now, would you like to help assuage our concerns and answer the questions?"

The Wanderer took a step closer to the guards and gave them a sideways glance as if to say, 'Think twice before you act.'

"How did they die?" Max asked in a soft voice behind the Queen. "Why weren't the bodies removed and properly laid to rest?"

"Laid to rest where? Do you see a cemetary nearby?" She waved her hand around. "Besides, they were not worth the effort. The sea deals with them eventually."

"How were they executed?" Max asked again, his volume rising slightly.

The Queen gave him a long look then said, "They were left to die of exposure. It doesn't take long in these cold waters."

"What crimes did they commit to require death?" Defender asked.

"Serious ones, they endangered our entire community with violence," she said.

Defender let out a stifled chuckle. "You see, that's just what I expected. I know we are being played. And you know that we know we are being played. But at this point, I don't even care. Every time we turn around, it is something else like this that comes up and screams in my face that this place is wrong. And there always seems to be a wonderfully curt yet vague explanation. How amazing is that.

"I don't want to jump to conclusions, but that's all you've left us. Yeah, I guess you were right. I guess we are fools." To emphasis his point, Defender played a snippet of the conversation Sting had broadcast from the Queen's chambers.

"Idiots! If the beast *hiss* dead by now." Came across the speaker of Defender's wrist comp.

"Oh, I'm sorry. You called us idiots, not fools. I'll have to get it right next time. What else are you hiding?" Defender asked as he hit the button on his wristcomp a second time.

The woman's laugh came through clearly. "A waste of time! Still, better *hisss* some other questions. And so long as they remove the beast, I care little about the means."

"Other questions? Like questions about your less than matronly appearance when you aren't in our presence? Or how about this wonderful storm that blew up just as we got here? Then there is the question about what the creature is guarding so strenuously. Did I leave anything out? Oh yeah, the question about how several hundred people could have been stranded in the middle of the ocean, separated from friends and family, and never wanted to return home even after given amble opportunity. Yeah, we've been avoiding a lot of powerful questions."

Sting, listening under the door out to the hallway, had enough. He peeked out and patched into Defenders ear piece, measuring carefully his choice of words. "Boss, I actually have one more question." Sting whispered, "Can I please knock this bitch into next week?"

The woman sighed. "It was too much to expect you to understand - to even try to understand. This is not your place, your world. Go, then. Go, do what you will." She turned to reenter her home.

"No, Majesty. I understand a world of outcasts," Max said now standing in front of her. "I understand all too well the responsibilities of rule. Our worlds are not that different. Only, if you ask my subjects if they would rather return to the normal world, all of them would say 'Yes.' And most of them are either working to do that or help others accomplish it. What would your subjects say, if we asked them where they would like to be? Would they honestly say that they would prefer to live in fear, at the mercy of this monster? Or, would they say they wanted to have their lives back?"

"Of course, that all depends on whether they could willingly and honestly answer the questions." Defender turned to one of the two guards. "How about you? What life would you chose?"

"Me? Um, this life is pretty good, actually," said the man.

"Do you have any family or friends who aren't here?"

"Well, I've got a sister back in the States," he replied.

"Do you have any desire to see her?"

"Eh. We were never what you call close," he said.

"Being exiled into the middle of the ocean has really helped that, no doubt."

"I like it here. It's better'n pumpin' gas in Oklahoma!"

"I'd wager that diesel fumes are better than the belly of a sea creature," piped in the Wanderer. "You have no authority to claim this area as your home."

"If we don't, then who does I'd like to know!" said the man.

"It appears that is an issue you've already taken up with the beast," the Wanderer answered and turned to the queen, "And failed."

"It is always thus on the frontiers," said the Queen. "If man never pushed out toward bear and wolf infested land, where would we be? Goodnight. I hope your trip home is pleasant." She again turned to enter her dwelling.

"Gentlemen, this is no longer our issue and something for the U.N. to sort out," Defender said. He looked at the guard. "Your laws. Your mess. See to the body."

The Wanderer asked the queen as she turned. "Do they know? Your subjects, do they know that you have not been honest with them?"

"Do you know I haven't?" She shook her head. "You are intent on painting me as a villain. Good night." She stepped in and closed the door.

When the Queen stepped back through the door, Sting raced back to the boudoir and hid himself away again. He heard footsteps approach and stop just outside the boudoir door. The Queen said a few sentences in what sounded like German or Russian and then opened the door. She closed it turned to face it and mumbled a few more words while making strange gestures, then turned and walked to the bed. With each step her form shifted so that by the time she reached the bed, the matronly queen had been replaced with the beautiful younger woman he had seen before. She removed her robe and lay down to sleep.

The man who had been talking looked at the body, then at the other guard, who said, "Go ahead, Bill, I'll stay here."

Bill went and picked up the body, then headed for a hatch that Max knew led down into the prison area.

Defender turned and headed for the infirmary. Max watched in confusion before following the guard into the prison. The Wanderer followed Defender.

Max watched as Bill placed the body on the floor in the prison area and the started to head back to his post.

"Who was he?" Max asked.

Bill jumped, "Geez! You scared me!" He looked back at the body, "Him? An anarchist."

"Did he blow stuff up? Or did he just speak out?"

"We caught him before he did much damage," said Bill.

"How about that guy?" Max said as he pointed at another corpse. "What did he do?"

"I think he was the one who went crazy and tried to kill the Queen."

"And that one? How about that one?" Max worked his way around to each body, in turn, getting their stories. He was working an angle and hoped the guard would go along with it. He had just one more trick, if this one failed.

"That one was in the plot with that one. That one, I don't know. It's been here a while by the look of it. Maybe before my time," said the guard.

"So, two guys plotted to blow up the city. One guy went crazy and tried to kill the Queen. And this one here... you don't know. Does any of this seem, I don't know, *strange* to you?"

"Yeah. Strange in a good way. It seems strange to me that there's so little crime, that we get along so well. People here treat each other nice. You don't get that most places," said Bill.

"No, I mean... isn't it strange that someone would try to kill the Queen. Or that someone would try to destroy such a perfect community?" Max regarded Bill closely as he asked the question.

"There are always troublemakers," said the man sententiously.

Max pretended to ignore his pithy response. "Did they say why they did it?"

"I don't know," was the reply.

"Didn't you attend the trial?" Max asked with some confusion.


"Why not?" Max was now looking him directly in the eye. "Would the entire community have been at the trail of a man who tried to destroy their homes?"

"I've got a job and a life. What was the last trial you went to?"

"Every single one that happens in my kingdom," Max said with a weak smile. "Who do you think presides over them. What sort of turn out did the trials have? Had to be the talk of the community for weeks."

"Look. I don't know much about that trial. I wasn't there, I had other things to do, ok? Just like now. I'm on duty. I don't track every crime here, and if you can in your 'Kingdom' it must be a pretty damn small kingdom." The guard stomped over to the steps and headed back to his post.

"Got ya," Max said under his voice as he zipped up next to the guy. "No, the two kingdoms are about the same size. The difference is that my people aren't programmed to turn a blind eye to injustice."

With that, Max grabbed the guard and ghosted out. With some effort, he took to the skies and flew at an angle to clear the storm. In a matter-of-fact tone, Max gave the guard his only warning. "Technically, this is kidnapping. Don't thrash around. If I drop you, you will die."

The warning was unneccesary, the man was nearly paralyzed with fright.

Max quickly put a mile or so on the odometer before coming to a hover. "We've not got much time, so I recommend that you focus. Do you remain in the community under your own free will?"

"Don't drop me, man. Damn! Yes, yes! It' great! I've got a good job, respect. Please don't drop me, I'll say whatever you want," the man was freaking out.

"Really? Say... ah, skip it." Max looked at the man. "I want to hear the truth. Are you satisfied with living on the floating city or would you rather go home?"

"It is home. Please, please, put me down."

By now, Max was visibly tiring. He returned to the dungeon and put Bill down on the stairs. Once solid again, he patted the man on shoulder. "We do need to work on this rude nature you seem to have. Otherwise, that was very informative. Thank you."

At that moment, his communicator began to buzz. He fished it out of an inner pocket and spoke into it. "Ghost train."

A while earlier ...

Defender continued back toward the infirmary. "I have officially had it with this place. We were asked here to rescue them from a boogieman. Once we got here, we were given precious little information to work from. And it appears that no one cares that said boogieman is here. As far as I am concerned, our job here is done. And I will agree with her. She can't be dishonest if she never says anything.

"This people are all officially listed as missing at sea," he said, calming some. "We are unsure whether they wish to be here at all. These are international waters, so I see little recourse but to... wait a sec... Wanderer, what if they all do want to stay here? We are assuming mind control, but what if it is something else?"

"I suppose the queen could be a pawn," he mused. "Something has drawn them here, she could be a symptom and not the problem. This floating city is not threatened by the beast, it only bothers us at a certain depth. Who are these people and what do they have in common? This is all to much for me." The Wanderer took off his hat and scratched his head in confusion.

"Do we know for sure that these people don't know all about her?" Defender shook his head. "We have no proof and I am completely lost as to how to proceed. We really can't impose our morality on them. We weren't asked to come here to rescue them from themselves. If this is mind control, it is beyond our experience. Sting is convinced that she is in the wrong, but we have no damning evidence and I am really tired to the point of rambling. I'm going to grab sleep. Wake me if the Minions of Darkness attack."

"Will do," replied the alien as he hunkered down into a deep meditation and awaited the return of Sting.

Just before Defender could shamble off for shuteye, Sting grew to full height in front of Wanderer. "OK, someone care to tell me what happened?" Sting said. "I thought the plan was confrontation, not negotiations."

The Wanderer cracked an eye from his meditative state, and called out "Defender, it's for you."

"It was confrontation. And I hit her with everything I had. I didn't have enough. Sleep now."

"Defender, please." Sting said. "By daybreak the rules may change completely. I missed half of what you talked about. What exactly did you hit her with?

"This is no way to treat a future dad," he mumbled as he rolled off the infirmary bed. With bleary eyes, he regarded Sting as if for the first time. A half-formed idea played in his brain before evaporating into a sleep deprived cloud. Defender sighed, handed the spare earpiece to Sting and replayed the entire conversation from his recording.

"We have proof that she is not what she seems. We have proof that people were allowed to die for crimes against the community. And we have proof that things are just weird. But we have no solid proof that she is a bad guy and that we should thwack her. Damn, I can't believe I'm using Max's vocabulary. That is, unless you found something."

Sting listened intently to the tape, noting in particular the area where the Queen asks what crimes she has committed and what right anyone had to speak on her nation. He brought his comrades close and spoke in hushed tones to not draw attention. "Well, as far as international laws...lets say that yes, everyone on this boat is here on their own free will. The boats themselves, however, are not. Some may be privately owned, but the ocean liner, the various research vessels...SOMEONE owns those, and technically, the people that had the ships join the collective are, at the very least, chargable for theft to grand theft. In the case of some of the research vessels, there may be sensitive information about the technology involved that those countries could charge THOSE individuals anything from espionage to treason. Not to mention the scores of human rights violations incurred in the execution of those people, "justified" or not. Were we able to leave the island on our own power, I'm willing to bet one phone call and a key connection would have UN forces out here in a day. However, she'll never risk busting up her little situation here to do that...I guarantee you that storm will be in effect until we play ball or until we venture into it to take our chances. With better flight equipment, I'd chance the storm, but the Jet is over a decade old and I wouldn't trust it in a magically intensified storm.

"And make no mistake, boss, that is magic. I witnessed her spell to change appearance with my own eyes, complete with vocal incantation." Sting then spoke the phoenetic sounds, to the best of his ability, he heard the Queen speak.

Sting then motioned both Defender and Wanderer in closer. "I'm not sure of the dialect...but it sounds vaguely Russian to me. I could be wrong. I also found *several* written books in a language unknown to me. Spellbooks or journals, I'm not sure, but I'd bet it's the same language that she spoke." Sting then looked right into Defender's bleary eyes. "There's a solid chance that this her current form...could be Baba Yaga. I can't prove it...yet...but this is burning inside me."

He looked towards Ragnar. "Is there any way to get him conscious? He looks like a Russian sometimes, maybe he knows Russian."

PC then chimed in. "Maybe somewhere on the ship has an internet connection of some sort? If so, maybe I can get a line on your little phrase there."

The Wanderer spoke from his trance, "If we wanted to force her hand, we could start arresting folks on the charges Sting proposed." He stretched out and poppped near the other heroes, "Although I'm not sure what fighting her will accomplish, except for some bruised civilians who will no doubt come to her aid. Is there any chance that the storm isn't real?" The Wanderer looked over to PC and her sensors.

"None." PC said. "By everything I've looked at, the storm's real. Whether it's NATURAL or not is another story."

Sting, frustrated beyond belief, simply walked away from his compatriots in stunned silence, trying to comprehend what to do next. It's obvious that there was no way off of this compound without braving the storm...but the thought of turning tail and running sickened Sting. There was a grave, grave evil there, and he was certain the Queen was at the center of it. He mused about the possibilty of snagging her in her young, beautiful form and carrying her at top speed into the sea so that she could meet the Beast face to face.

Face to face...that gave him an idea. He picked up his signal button, once outside, and pressed once, the signal for Max to respond.

"Ghost train."

"GT, it's Buzzkill." Sting said quietly. "When you're done floating around, drop by the infirmary, 10-4?"

Max left the frightened guard and headed to Sting's location. The first thing Sting noticed was how fatigued Max appeared. The Beggar King waved weakly at him, finding a seat so he could catch his breath. "S'up?"

Sting took one look at Max and realized that talking with him would get him about as far as it did Defender. "Remind me never to take early naps, it keeps me off schedule with the rest of you guys. Never mind, Max, go to sleep. Whatever happens happens in the morning, I guess."

With that Sting shrank and left the area to ponder the situation.

"I just don't understand people, sometimes," Max said as watched Sting go. "A guy gets himself a little tired from kidnapping a guard, turning him into a ghost, and flying him several miles away from the compound and suddenly he gets the 'Nevermind?'"

He rose slowly and entered the Infirmary. Without the added mass of another human being, slipping between the molecules of the wall was child's play. To his credit, the Wanderer did not start at Max's appearance. "You know, Bill the guard is an awfully surly man until you threaten him with a half mile fall to his death. Then he gets all sorts of talkative. I don't think there is any mind control going on here. At least, I don't think it is an obvious thing. There is likely some subtle manipulation, but I don't know if there is any 'magic' involved.

"I also think that Sting is out in search of someone he can thwack. Is it me, or is everyone getting very frustrated about this case?"

"I am," said the easygoing Wanderer. "Were it not for you guys, I'd have walked home long ago." The alien sat up on his bunk, "No offense, but you humans are hard to figure out. These people ask for help, but provide none. They demand to remain isolated and separate from society, yet choose to invade an area occupied by a beast."

"This place reminds me too much of one of those restaurants you take kids. All the entertainers are little robot-like puppets and all the waiters are all forced-happy. The whole place is almost real, but you know that it isn't. That's the way this place feels. Like it is sort of real and populated by people who almost act real. Like it was all programmed by someone who doesn't quite understand how real humans behave." Max shook his head. "I've spent a lifetime dealing with people who have lost all hope. Exiles from society. None of them act like this. This place is spooky."

"Technically, they are not in imminent danger nor are they a danger," surmised the Wanderer. "The beast only appears if one drifts into its domain, and if there is something sinister with the queen and whatever the beast is guarding then I suspect it will continue to remain a stalemate." He scratched his head, "Short of arresting the queen and provoking her to relaliation, I cannot see any other course of action but to leave at the earliest convenience."

"We have no proof that anything is going on. Only the fact that this place is 'spooky.' I wonder if the EagleWing is below the creature and she wants access to it." Max had a sudden realization. "I could findout what is down there. After all, the creature shouldn't be able to touch me. Wait... On second thought. It ATE me. Hmm... I've got an idea. If I'm not back by morning, I'm not ever going to be back." Max stood again and walked through a convenient wall.

When Beggar King entered the dive locker, he was surprised to see Sting there. He was staring into space, almost...despondent.

"Gimme somma dis... Gimme somma DIS... Give me some of this." Max was singing to himself as he entered. He appeared delirious from lack of sleep and fatigue. Running upon Sting unexpectedly, he started visibly. "Ah! Oh, wait. That's a switch. Me being startled entering a room. Wait. Why aren't you out getting some sleep or something smart?"

With Sting there, Max decided to take a seat. Some of his energy was returning with the resting. "Okay. I give. Why do you have the Defender face on?"

"And his response was basically 'I'm tired, go to sleep'." Sting said. "Max, I understand fatigue...hell, I'M tired, but I just have this worst, sick pit of my gut feeling that if we wait for morning, we're screwed."

"Yep. That sounds like Defender. He's a cranky bastard if he doesn't get his afternoon cat nap and his warm cup of milky tea." Max gave a half smile, hoping to raise Sting's spirits.

"I actually had an idea to see what the hell was down there...but I needed you for it, and when you came back dead on your, I just feel like I'm the only one who truly believes we're in danger right now."

Max's smile turned to a frown. He had seen this sort of thing too many time in his kingdom. "You aren't alone here. You know that, don't you? Look, I'm tired because I was ghosting with a huge amount of additional personage a few minutes ago. That takes a lot out of me. When I'm ghosting alone, it takes hardly any effort. Did you know I ghost in my sleep sometimes? Do you have any idea how terrified I was the first time I woke up in the floor under my bed?"

"I don't know if we will be able to see what is down there, but I was about to give it a try. Since I no longer have to breath, I was going to go down to the depths outside of the effects of the storm. But let me let you in on a little secret here. I don't expect to come back. For one, this creature ATE me once before. For the second, the extreme pressure and temperature of the ocean floor will probably kill me. And I'm not exactly firing on all three cylinders here. Wanna tag along? If the drowning doesn't get you, the monster will probably eat us."

Sting looked up at his compatriot. "How did you get out of the beast? You never did explain clearly...or maybe I just didn't hear it."

"It spat me out," Max said bluntly.

Sting took that in. "Actually, that's why I was looking for you. I had an idea in regards to getting past that thing. Personally, I really haven't tried yet. I've been trying to get this damn gear to shrink with me...if I can do that, I know I can get past the creature. However, what we haven't done yet is truly work together. In tandem, maybe, but not together.

"My speed makes me a more effective swimmer out there. MAYBE I can outswim that thing, maybe I can't. You're not a good swimmer, but you can ghost so that the creature can't hurt you. What if we worked together on hang on to me to let me do the swimming....but also to ghost us if that thing gets too close. Of course, this hinges on you being able to ghost at least one set of scuba gear as well. I'm not afraid of getting thing I can do is shrink to 1 inch, go between the gaps of his teeth, and hope my lungs can hold more air than it takes to swim to the top. The other thought is...that thing has to sleep sometime."

"It's a good idea, and all," Max said after thinking about it. "But there are a couple of issues with the idea. First, and the most important... it ATE me. You know, like with the swallowing and the trying to digest. I can pass through nearly anything, but it got me somehow. This thing might be so dense as to ignore my ability. The second is the fact that I am a lousy swimmer because I've been afraid of drowning. I'm not afraid anymore. Third, I'm pretty sure that I'm faster than you. Witness..."

To illustrate his point, Max ghosted out, counted down from three and zipped behind Sting at the quickest speed he could muster. "I don't go full out often. But when I do, I can really bake. But the final issue is that for me to ghost anything more than the clothes on my back, it takes effort. A lot of effort. I managed to ghost Bill the guard and fly him out of the city, but I've been wiped out ever since. I might have had him ghosted for a minute, total."

Sting went to another piece of scuba gear. He attempted to envision his essence...the energy from the rock that gave him his power...reaching out to include the gear, just as it did his everyday accessories. "Come on, come on" Sting thought to himself, "or else we're never gonna get out of this." Finally, after a minute of concentration and trying to feel the gear, Sting attempted to shrink.

He rapidly shrank to the usual small size and the scuba gear seemed to shimmer for a fraction of a second, but stubbornly remained the same size.

Max watched. "I'm not saying your plan is bad. I just wanted to give you the necessary information about my abilities."

"True dat, true dat." Sting said. He would REALLY need to work on this to see if it was possible...if he was to be the espionage guy for the group, he needed a way to record what he saw, and the only way to do that was to get the equipment to shrink somehow.

"In any event, Max, no way am I letting you go down alone. I spent hours cringing over what I was going to tell Tatterknight and your people when we got back. You had no idea how relieved I was. Don't put me in a position to follow through on that. Maybe the rest of the team finds you eccentric, but in all honesty, Max, you're the only one I truly understand. Maybe that makes me eccentric...perhaps we should move the kingdom into the Commercedome." Sting worked up a smile and laid a hand on Max's shoulder...or at least tried. "Let see if we can recharge. One way or another, I'm *not* spending another night feeling this helpless, and we're gonna need our strength. Oh, and thank you. I still think we'd make a great duo. King and Sting!"

"Yeah. Like professional wrestlers. You know, we could move to Falcon's Bluff and join the GWA. I heard they had some great wrestling there. They have the Rockfords, Geek2, Kordell Touchstone, Ralph Road, Brad Watkins, and some big guys who look like Republicans." Max put the flashlight up. "I think we should go back to where the others are."

As the two men walked back towards the Infirmary, Max stopped in his tracks. "Wait. Eccentric? Who thinks I'm eccentric?"

	*		*		*		*
The Protectors spent an uneasy night, and when they awoke and ventured out of their rooms, they found a fresh dawn - the storm had broken.

"So, who's up for a little diving expedition?" Max asked to the dirty looks of everyone present. "Hey, I don't like leaving a job half-done."

"Half done, Max?" Defender asked. "All I see is riddle after riddle with no clues. This creature is beyond our means and I cannot find any signs of actual wrong-doings here. Granted, there are some laws being broken, but they need to be dealt with by the authorities."

"I don't know. I might be able to get by the critter down there." Max said emotionlessly. "I'm willing to give it a try."

"Didn't that thing almost kill you once?" Defender asked.

"It didn't, did it?" Max countered. "I'm willing to risk it."

Defender shook his head. "Well, I'm not willing to risk you, without a damn good reason. So far, we've not been given anything even vaguely approaching a good reason."

"OK, Defender." Sting said, nonplussed. "I hope you and the team have a safe journey back, because I'm not going anywhere."

"I don't think we had gotten that far into the planning," Defender said. "But it sounds like you already have it decided."

"Well, considering your whole thought process of 'having no evidence to do anything', it was a natural conclusion." Sting retorted. "Look, let me repeat what I told you last night since given your level of sleep deprivation I wonder if what I said truly sunk in. I have reason to believe that the person ruling very well be the witch I've been hunting for the last decade. I know she's a mage, I've seen it with my own eyes. I've heard her thoughts of us...and I know for a fact that what is going on here is wrong. Maybe you can't see hard evidence...but damnit, we know right from wrong, and there isn't a person in this room that can tell me that what's going on right."

Sting walked right up to Defender and looked him squarely in the eyes, with a look beyond each others masks, and he spoke with a whisper. "Remember the night I came to you? Before I left for Europe? Everything I told you? You were the first person I've told that to in eight...years. Why? Because I trusted you. I saw you as someone who had my back no matter what, because you know something, I'd have yours. And last night, I sat and told you squarely that the woman who was directly responsible for the slaughter of my dear friends could be on this boat, and you know what? You didn't give a damn. No reaction, nothing. All you cared about was sleep. And you knew how deeply I felt about bringing Yaga to justice. You had to. You want to sleep? You want to go home to your wife? That's your right, and I really can't blame you for that. Fact is, I wish that I still had a wife to go home to."

"Oh, don't even think about..." Defender said, but a look from the Wanderer got Defender to take a deep breath instead of finishing his thought.

Sting took a step back. "No evidence of wrongdoing? Max, how many bodies were down in that dungeon?"

Defender, visibily angry, stopped Max from answering. "That's a whole other issue."

"Sting replied coldly. "And exactly what issue would that be? Last I checked, vigilante executions were against the law. Moreover, the way they were executed, and then just dumped in a dungeon...Is that not "wrong" in your lexicon, Defender?"

"In case you missed this little tid-bit, Sting, we are not in Port Alexander. Hell, we aren't even in the United States. And half the ships here, including this cruise ship, have international registries. That makes this an international issue and under international law. We barely have any jurisdiction in P.A. And you of all people should know the difference between what is right and what is legal. But this is not about that, is it?" Defender looked Sting in the eye. The two shared a brief standoff. Defender crossed his arms across his chest.

"Firstly," Sting said, "given recent events, I think my somewhat renewed ties to the U.N. would probably deal with our jurisdictional issues. At least potentially. As far as what this is want me to admit this is personal? Fine, guilty as charged. I have no problems admitting that. However, my personal issues do intersect with the fact that there are things that this woman needs to answer to.

Sting took a deep breath before continuing. "Look, I'm not asking anyone to stay with me. Do I have hard proof? Not yet. But for the record...if this were any one of you...if you knew in your heart of hearts something was wrong here...I'd stay for you, no question. However, Ragnar's hurt, and he needs medical some of us should leave at least. But I'm not. Not until I know what's going on. One way...or another. I've hunted for Yaga for close to a decade, and if this woman is her, there's no *WAY* I can walk away from this.

Defender was at his wit's end. The frustrations of the night had not disappeared. Instead, they were being reflected back from Sting. "You want to play it this way, then fine. We'll play it this way. But Lorelei and Ragnar go home as soon as this conversation is complete. The Coast Guard can get us home when we are done, assuming we aren't killed. The Wanderer and Max can decide for themselves if they are going to stay. Oh, and for the duration of this mission, you can call the shots, Sting. This is your deal."

Drawing in close, Defender made sure to speak so only Sting could hear. "If you think I blew you off, you are wrong. I was hoping you would get some rest so that you'd have a clear head. But as far as going home.... Yeah. I'd like to go home to my wife... my pregnant wife!"

"Lorelei, I want you and Ragnar out of here."

Sting looked at Defender, then whispered back. "I'm sorry, I didn't know. For what its' worth, congratulations."

The Wanderer broke the tension with a slap on his thighs as he stood up. "That settles it then, looks like we're back on duty." He shadow boxed briefly, and snapped to attention with a salute. "Ready, sir."

"Is this macho fest over with? Damn, I was beginning to feel like I was watching my friend's parents fight." Max just shock his head and motioned to the Wanderer and himself. "If you two can't play nice with each other, we're going to have to separate you."

Sting looked around at everyone. "I'm sorry." Sting said, with as much sincerity as he could muster. "I think we're all frustrated, and I finally hit a point I don't very often. Defender, I do understand where you're coming from. Thank you for taking a moment to snap my perspective back to reality. Can I compromise with you? Give me one hour and the resources of the team to nail down proof. If I can't, we're out of here and we make some calls regarding this base. I think we all agree international authorities need to know about this place."

Sting looked at Defender. "I may be 'calling the shots' on this mission, but you're still in charge, and push comes to shove, I will defer to you, especially now that I know where you're coming from. Give me one hour?"

Defender relaxed somewhat, unfolding his arms. "I assume you have a plan. So, let's get started."

The Wanderer piped in whispering, "A dossier on this Yaga dame, might help. It'll give us an idea of what we're up against." He looked out at the sunny morn, "Now that the storm is gone, if this is a witch then the Mystic will probably be able to give us a heads-up on what she's looking for."

"In a minute, Wanderer." Sting said. "Something just came to me and, well, you know how minds get when you get old...or maybe you...oh, never mind!"

"Here is our problem." Sting continued, "We know that the Beast is guarding something, but we're not sure what and we're not sure how to get there. That may be a problem that we let a higher authority decide and decipher, one way or another. Now that we know the beast is there, once we call in IPAC, the UN, or whoever on this, we can deal with that problem when the time comes.

"I agree with you, Defender, that the various ships and members therein fall under international law. We will need proof that these things do exist. Therefore, in addition to what I know you've catalogued with your eyecam to date, I want you to get logged proof, including the names and registries of as many ships as possible...start with the biggest. When we go to the UN, we need proof of this place. Maybe it isn't the core issue here, but then again, Al Capone found justice on the charge of tax evasion, even though he was guilty of far worse."

"The proof of the Queen's doing, I feel, is in her chambers. She has several handwritten volumes in her chambers written in an unknown language, but to hear her speak it it sounds vaguely Eastern...german, possibly Russian, but also possibly nothing that we know about. I'm betting that they're either journals or spellbooks, but either way, we're not gonna find out with the resources we have here. Therefore, we need to take one or more with us. Yes, in a U.S. court of law it would be inadmissable evidence...however, as the Queen was so quick to point out, others laws "don't govern here", and I personally have no intention of being around to deal with "her law".

"PC, you'll need to run point on this. Truth be known, between my run- in with her and the goings on of late last night, you're the only one she may even partially trust at this point. It's a nice day, ask to go for a walk, even hint at possibly wanting to become part of the community, if need be. Just keep her busy. I'll do a quick recon of her room to make sure things are still as they should be. Once the Queen is out, Max, I'll basically have to guide you either over or under her room for you to actually come in, grab a couple of books, and ghost out with which point we all come back to ship and take off."

Sting paused for a second. "Don't look at me like that. Yes, this is something I'm thinking about on the fly...but think about it. We get those books back to mainland, we find anything that we need, we can always come back...and this time better prepared. If we don't, we let internationals handle it...and I live with it. But I'm so dead certain what we need to know will be found in those books, one way or another."

Sting looked around. "OK, what am I not considering when going over this?"

The Wanderer raised his hand, "What if she decides to flee and/or erradicate the kingdom when she discovers her books missing?"

"She won't do the can imagine how immesurably useful it is to have people to work and do your every beck and bidding. As for the former...if she flees, she'll know *exactly* who has her books and where to come for them. If they're that important to her, that is."

"She's not gonna let us leave," Max said. "She can't afford it. And if she does, she'll find some why of obscuring this place. How long has it gone unonoticed?"

"Doesn't matter," Defender said. "If this woman is who Sting thinks she is, then we have other things to worry about. I'll get the camera from the jet and start shooting."

Sting looked at Defender. "I thought you had one as part of your "workgear"? You showed it to me that one time during the Art Museum mission."

"My camera has a very limited memory storage when I can't upload directly to the mainframe. In this case, we only need stills anyway."

"In any event, be careful." Sting said "Something tells me that after last night the Queen will have her people wired to us. And here I am telling papa-to be to be careful. In any event, do what you can quickly and then get back to the sub...if we're going to be making a running getaway...which wouldn't surprise me, given our may have to be at the helm to at least get us airborne." "PC, before we leave...please try the Mystic one more time. If possible, give him a brief overview but at minimum inform him that Ragnar's hurt and we're working on getting him home within the next several hours. That way, if we're NOT, he'll know to look for us or to send help. Then come back."

"Got it." PC said, and she went to the jet to make her contact."

"Wanderer, I'd like for you to get Ragnar to the Jet and get him comfortable..and if possible, conscious. And then keep your ears open. In fact, is there any way for our comm units to send but not receive? I'd like the both of you listening in on the three of us in our encounter."

"Aye aye," nodded the Wanderer with a wink.

Soon Ragnar was ensconced on the plane and PC had tried to raise the Mystic -- with no success. There was some kind of interference that blocked her attempts to radio out. She went to join Max and Sting back on the ship, leaving Wanderer to watch the jet.

Defender was out with the camera taking pictures of the various ships, so PC, Max and Sting were free to pursue their plan.

After her frustrating experience trying to radio out, PC was ready to move on to the final step of the plan. She and Max and Sting got their signals in order and approached the Queen's home. Sting shrank to his smallest size while Max and PC waited out of sight.

Sting was able to sneak into the chamber without much difficulty, as before, with only the vague sense of pressure change or something as he entered the inner chamber, which was empty.

Using his communicator, Sting gave the "all clear" signal, stating that Max was to proceed alone at first, then PC would come forward to inquire of the Queen's whereabouts.

Max took a breath and dropped through the deck where he stood. Once underwater, he proceeded to the center of the floating city and began scanning for the tell-tale supports of the Queen's craft. Slipping through the bottom, he peeked up to make sure that he hit his mark.

As he zeroed in, PC approached the guards and asked if the Queen was in.

"No, Miss, I think she's out near the big ship. I thought she was seeing you and your friends off, but if you're here I guess I was wrong."

"Well, we had a couple of last-minute things to take care of, and I had hoped to be able to speak with her privately." Lorelei told the guard, smiling warmly. "Might I wait here for a few minutes to see if she might return?"

"Sure," the guard smiled.

Inside, Sting was pleased to see Max ghost up through the floor.

Sting raised a finger to his lips, then proceeded to find some of the more recent handwritten tomes from the Queen. Using speed without using noise, he looked for signs such as a pen near a book to try and take the most recent. Giving Max two books, Sting whispered very quietly in Max's ear "How many pockets you got in that coat of yours that we can conceal the books?"

Max opened his coat to reveal dozens of small pockets of varying materials and colors. None were large that a paperback novel. Max shrugged in apology and took the two books he was handed. He then pointed to Sting and one of the larger, outside pockets. "What a ride?" He whispered.

Outside, PC took a second, then got an idea. She used her comm to contact Wanderer, who should have been at the craft with Ragnar. "Wanderer, it's PC. I was looking for the Queen and her guards said she was coming to see us off. Is she there?"

Wanderer took a look and saw the Queen with a couple of guards standing on the deck of the big ship watching the jet. As he watched, she turned and left.

The alien thumbed his communicator, "Breaker 1-9, man in black here....the queen was here just snooping around. She appears to have been checking out the jet and just left." The Wanderer became curious and decided to inspect the aircraft as soon as PC acknowledged his call and the queen disappeared from view.

"No." Sting whispered. "I'm gonna take one more fast look before heading out. Head back to the jet and hide those somewhere hard to find where they won't get hurt. Also, take a look around the jet just to make sure they didn't stick a bomb anywhere." Sting went to pat Max on the shoulder, only to see his hand go through as Max began to ghost. "I'll give you two clicks on this if I need you back here" Sting said, gesturing to his comm unit.

"Right. Bomb." Max dropped through the floor and speed away underwater. Popping up near the jet, "Right. I wonder what a bomb would look like."

He slipped into the passenger compartment of the jet and slid the books into a stowage compartment under the seats.

He practically bumped into the Wanderer, who seemed to have had the same idea. They quickly compared notes but neither had found anything that looked bomblike. Ragnar was sleeping peacefully in his bunk and appeared undisturbed.

Sting took another pass through the room, looking for anything to add to his "casefile." He had only spent a moment, when the warning tap came on his communit.

Outside, PC had seen the Queen approaching rapidly a few steps ahead of a guard and given the signal.

Sting tapped back twice...his acknowledgment that he got the message, but that he needed just another minute or two.

PC saw that the Queen was returning and walked to outside the hallway to greet her. "Your majesty." PC said, smiling to her. "I was wondering if I might speak with you for a moment."

"Certainly my dear, in just a moment, I need something from my chambers," said the Queen and brushed past her.

PC went to her comm unit and buzzed once again, then spoke "Guys, it's me. I'll be a few minutes." She knew that no one heard that, but thought that might cover what she was really doing with the comm unit.

Hearing the second buzz, Sting immediately shrunk to 1 inch...and waited.

The Queen entered her building and left PC's sight. A few moments later, the inner door opened and Sting saw the Queen entered. She slid through the door like a professional, he noted, checking the room quickly for visible intruders. A large shodow loomed behind her filling the door. She made a quick search, then stepped back to the door where she began to speak quickly in the language Sting associated with what he thought of as her magic.

Sting turned on his comm and slipped over to the door. From there he could see the shape looming in the doorway, it looked kind of like a huge bear. The Queen finished chanting and gazed into the middle distance for a moment, then smiled. She began a more thorough search of the room.

Sting zipped out of the room, got to safe distance, then got the Wanderer on the com. "Wanderer, check on Ragnar. NOW! That means physically touching him. I think the Queen set up a dopperganger." Sting said into the com, still at 1 inch.

The Wanderer deposited the comm unit into his pocket and checked in on Ragnar. Gently he patted his shoulder, "Wake up sleepy head."

Slowly the alien opened his eyes and muttered a few words in a language that was utterly unsuited for human vocal cords. From conversations with Ka-Sador, The Wanderer recognized it as Krai. Ragnar woke fully and switched to English. "Is there a problem?" he asked weakly trying to rise.

"No, just concerned," soothed the Wanderer as he bade the Krai to lie back down. The recognizable Krai language was proof enough to the Wanderer that the queen hadn't replaced the apprentice. Yet he would still keep a watchful eye, and hoped to relay this good news to Sting once radio silence had ended. Satisfied, the Wanderer took a seat and awaited further action.

Sting, still at one inch, hadn't heard anything from Wanderer, which he took as a sign of good for the moment. He then returned, in one inch size, to the queen's chamber. He had to see what she was up to.

She was examining the room carefully. To Sting's eye it looked like she was checking to see if anything was missing.

Sting checked on the bear in the door, which hadn't moved. Satisfied that it seemed more as a guard than anything else, Sting sped away from her quarters and directly to the craft. On the way, he radioed PC and Defender to return to the craft immediately.

Seeing the last person make it on, Sting released the tethers connecting the craft to the construct and then entered, closing the door. "Fire it up, PC." Sting said.

"Roger." PC said and started to get the craft going, with Defender in the co-pilots chair helping where he could.

Sting continued. "When I left, she was searching her room for missing stuff and had conjured a bear to guard her room. What she would be searching for is anyone's guess...but it must be important enough for her to have something beyond the normal armed guards. In fact..."

Sting went to Max and whispered. "I'm not sure where you put them...but maybe we should split them up. Hide one in one place and the other in another."

Max looked around the relatively small confines of the jet's interior. "Do you really think that's necessary? And just between you and me, I don't remember seeing chicken legs on her hut. I feel gypped. You just can't believe your folklore these days, can you?"

"Actually," Sting quipped, "the chicken legs are on her, not her hut. At least the last time I saw her. Of course, I think she's gotten implants since then, but I digress. And you're probably right...if she's finds them, she's gonna find them no matter what."

Sting looked over to PC. "How soon until we're airborne. Clock's ticking."

"Strap in," said PC. "We go now." PC had already run the preflight and within moments, the plane was airborne and headed for home. Ragnar had fallen back asleep and the rest were beginning to relax when the turbulence hit. PC checked her instruments, they were about ten miles out from the floating island and a hell of a storm was kicking up out of nowhere. Within seconds the plane was being tossed in a gale like a basketball in a Harlem Globetrotters exhibition.

The Wanderer called out from his seat, "Can we take the long way home? or does this storm surround the entire island?"

"Go low." Sting said. "I think she's figured out what's missing. Either that or she intended to do this all along. At the very least, I think this proves tpo a degree that we're dealing with a mage of some sort."

PC acknowledged, and tried to bring the plane down low to avoid most of the effects. "One comforting thought," she said. "If the books are important to her, she's gonna need to come get em."

"Oh man." PC said. "Guys, this isn't a localized storm. It's *FOLLOWING* us."

Without saying a word, Max ghosted out and allowed himself to fall from the plane. Once clear, he made a beeline for the floating platform to find the Queen.

Sting caught Max'es departure out of the corner of his eye. "Oh great, man overboard." Sting said. "PC, 360 arc, find where Max went, although I have a feeling..."

PC swung around until she saw Max's ghost figure in the distance. "He's heading back."

"Geez, first the beast, now this, he really has a death wish." Sting said. "Wanderer, you're best equipped to follow him, back him up, please. If he's in combat, signal us if you can and we'll come back, otherwise I want her to chase us." Sting went to where the books were stashed. "Defender, you still have your camera handy and operational?"

The Wanderer looked out the cockpit and tried to gauge the distance. "We may have to wait a bit, we're pretty far away and I'd be no help if I was KO'd when I appeared."

"The camera's stowed," Defender said between gritted teeth. "Got my hands full right now anyway."

"And about to get fuller, I think." Sting said. "Wanderer, what's your 'safe" teleport distance? How far out from the construct can we be?"

The Wanderer did some quick calculations, "At most half a mile, but less due to altitude and other factors. If I push too close, I'll be goo when I arrive and no help to anyone."

"PC, get us there." Sting said and took a deep breath. "Part of me feels that this may have nothing to do with the books, although it's another stoke to the fire. She planned this from the start...she had no intentions of us making it back with what we know. She wants a fight, she's got one, but on our terms. As soon as we're close enough, Wanderer and I are going back. I have no intention of leaving Max alone. It's my hope that once we engage her, she'll have to draw her energies to fight us...and that will give you two the chance to break out and get Ragnar out of here. When the three of you get back, you can get Ragnar proper medical care and get the books to the Mystic and to whatever linguists you can access, find out what's going on, and take appropriate steps."

As Sting talked, PC turned the ship around and flew it back towards the construct, trying to stay low to avoid possible radar pings and the like. She didn't think it would help, but it wouldn't hurt to play it safe wherever possible.

"I don't know if we are going to be able to stay airborne much longer." Defender was shouting over the cockpit noise. The stall alert was a constant drone. System alarms were flashing and sounding. "We're going to have to set it down. Max may be on his own for a while."

"Max may be on his own permanently if we do that. Do you really think this storm is something we're going to be able to wait out?" Sting said, knowing the danger but also knowing what they were up against. "Get as close as you can before shutting down. Use your judgment."

The emergency lights in the cabin came on. PC made a guess, "Lightning strikes. We're going down and we're going down hard." The heroes strapped in as PC tried to bring the jet down under some kind of control.

They say any landing you can walk away from is a good one. In this case, they'd be swimming but the sentiment holds true. The jet was a wreck, taking water and sinking fast, but the heroes were relatively undamaged. They were also about fifteen miles out from the floating island and a long way from any land, in the cold North Atlantic.

The Wanderer freed himself from his restraints and immediately checked on PC. She presented the most vulnerable member, he surmised, and possibly took the highest impact from the crash. Securing her safety, along with whatever emergency gear was top priority; then Ragnar.

PC was bruised but allright, and was already looking at the emergency gear. The crash hadn't done Ragnar any good. He was conscious but a wound or two had reopened.

The Wanderer tended to Ragnar as best he could, securing water survival gear and anything else he could for the alien to prepare for evacuation. The scramble was intense, but everyone seemed OK. Once they surfaced and got their wits about them, they could regroup.

Meanwhile, Defender activated the emergency transponder. "We don't have much time. We need a raft or other floatation system. Everyone grab what you can of the emergency equipment." Turning back to the console, he radioed an 'SOS'. Being the eternal engineer, he mentally kicked himself for not including a GPS in his wristcomp.

There was an emergency raft in the plane and it rapidly inflated. The heroes were aboard and barely clear when the EagleJet went down, probably for the last time. They weren't out of the metaphorical woods yet, though. The waves were high and the raft was already taking on water.

Sting grabbed a hold of one of the Wanderer's pockets and shrank, taking refuge inside in an attempt to conserve both space and weight on the craft.

The EagleJet slipped beneath the waves, and the suction was more than the poor raft could stand; it shipped enough water to drop below the waves, washing the supplies that were not in hand over the side.

As Sting tried to gather supplies, an idea came to him. "Ragnar," Sting said. "I remember you saying you could generate force fields, unless I'm wrong. Is that actual surrounding fields, or can you do a "wall" of sorts?"

Ragnar coughed water, then said weakly, "No wall, but ... I summon a Servitor of Vieltoor to come to my aid ..." The air shimmered and a creature, looking much like Ragnar himself, only possessed of a pair of furry wings that looked useless, appeared in the air above the Krai. The wings were not useless, it seemed, for the held the Servitor aloft. Ragnar extended his hand up, "Take me and hold me above these waves." The servitor complied lifting the krai-mage up out of the water.

Ragnar chanted again and another servitor appeared, then a third. Each plucked a bedraggled hero from the water and then hovered near Ragnar, who gasped, "Where should I tell them to take us. Quickly! I think I may faint."

"Only one place nearby that I know has dry land!" Sting said. "Back to the construct. Ragnar, I can shrink and hitch a ride with someone else if one less servitor makes it easier on you!"

"Once summoned they remain for some time," said Ragnar. He looked around the swirling storm, "Which way is the construct?"

Defender activated his wristcomp and pulled up what navigational data he had managed to capture before they left the construct. He did not have a compass. With the storm still raging, he was unable to get a sighting on the sun. "We need to get out of the storm. Once we do, I can get a ball park idea of which way to go. So, go that way."

Ragnar nodded. "Take us safely out of the storm as quickly as possible," he instructed his creatures. When they hesitated he pointed at random, "That way."

The creatures began to fly carrying their shivering (for the most part) burdens.After just a few moments, Ragnar gave a soft cry and fell into unconsciousness. The storm dropped off rapidly in intensity as they flew, within about half an hour they were clear enough of the overcast for Defender to get an estimate of their direction of travel from the sun. He punched the data into his computer and calculated their position. They had cleared the storm in a direction almost directly opposite that of the construct.

The Servitors decided that they had accomplished their mission and began to hover.

"Well, I've always wanted to swim the channel. I'm beginning to think our only chance of survival is someone swimming back to the construct for a boat. I'm afraid that someone might have to be me. Anyone else have any ideas?" Defender suddenly shook his head at his own stupidity. "Computer. Open channel to IPAC. Mute. What do you want to bet they can locate us through radio triangulation."

The Wanderer volunteered his services to return. "I may not be as buoyant, but I don't need oxygen. I can go."

"Let's see if I can raise IPAC. If not, we'll draw straws." Defender responded. "It figures that Max is the only one who can fly and he isn't hear right now."

"Working," said the computer. A moment later, Defender heard, "IPAC switchboard, what can I do for you Defender?"

"We have an emergency condition. Our location is unknown and we are down in the North Atlantic. We have a medical emergency currently and several cases of hypothermia brewing. We need pick-up ASAP."

The voice changed from a tone of friendly interest to one of professional competence. "Understood. One moment." There was a pause of what seemed like forever but was only a few seconds. "I've got you Defender. I read ... three IPAC phones at or near your coordinates, how many pickups do you need?"

Defender did the math, "Five personnel present. One unaccounted for."

"Checking. Boy, you are in the middle of nowhere. Our closest facility is in England ... and an ETA of an hour and a half."

"I don't think the servitors will last that long." PC said, shivering. "If our intention is to try to go back to the construct, maybe IPAC should meet us there...I can give the original coordinates of the construct."

"Could you give me our coordinates and we will try to close the distance. And you'd better include Intensive Care equipment. One of ours is a norm."

"Problem with that is I don't know if the servitors will last long enough for Wanderer or Defender to make the swim". Sting said, as he pointed in the opposite direction of where they came from. "You said the construct was that way, Defender? Care to see if the Servitors will listen to someone other than Ragnar if he's unconscious?"

"I plan on that, but I'm afraid going back is a bad idea. We need to head toward help, not danger. Ragnar and Lorelai's life depend upon it." Defender said. "Not to mention yours, Sting. Or are you vibrating in place out of excitement for our first team vacation. Next year, I vote we go someplace warm. And dry. Very, very dry."

Sting let loose a burst of laughter that was strangely cleansing given all the circumstances. Defender was correct, survival was the first key, even though he shuddered as to how Max was dealing with the situation. "Sounds like a plan." he said. "Do you want me to ask them, or would you like to do it?"

"Let's all give it a shot in turn. If we can't get them to do it, then we try and wake Ragnar just long enough to give them instructions."

Each member tried to get the summoned creatures to obey them, but with no success. They turned their attention to waking Ragnar, and eventually he opened his eyes. "Are we safe?" he asked weakly.

"We will be shortly," Defender said with full bedside manner. "We need your servants to carry us that way and to stop when we tell them too. Help is on the way, but we are going to try and shorten the distance."

"Servitors! Obey this man as you would me," said Ragnar.

"Thank you, Ragnar. Get some rest now." Defender soothed. "Servitors. Carry us in this direction until I tell you to stop."

Once they were moving, he took stock of their situation. The odds were still grim, but at least they now had a chance. "How is everyone doing? Come on, sound off. Lorelai. Stay with us here. You've got to stay awake."

"I'm still *COUGH, COUGH* here." Lorelei wheezed, more out of guts than any true energy left. "You not rid of *HAAAAUCK* me that easily. Someone's gotta plan the baby sha...sha...*RAAAAAAAALF* The sentence ended with her projectile vomiting into the ocean.

"How long has it been?" asked Ragnar. He paused to breathe deeply for a moment, "The servitors will fade after ... an hour."

"Long enough that I've gotten religion," Defender replied beneath his breath. He looked at the time count on his wristcomp. He knew they would not make it. "I swear to you, Mara. If I make it home to you, I will never allow myself to get into this position again."

"I hope IPAC was over-estimating their ETA," he said to the group. "And it is time for a back-up plan. Ideas, please."

"Ragnar, you said you could give others powers." Sting said. "Does that include flight? Do you still have juice for that?"

"Not for long," he said. "Far easier to ... summon more servitors."

"Let's hope it doesn't come to that. To think, I could have been sitting in another boring board meeting." Defender smiled fatherly toward the others in the assembled group. "Tell you what, let's just pass the time for now. Have any of you been to Falcon's Bluff? Beautiful city. They are building an office tower so large it will have it's own apartments and condos..."

"Never been." Sting said. "However, I do know the city. They're one of four sites that are being considered for an expansion team. The Falcon's Bluff Thorns. It's part of the discussion slate for the NFL Owners meeting in a few weeks..."

"Wait until you see their stadium complex. When I was there, they were having some sort of charity event with sports, entertainment and wrestling stars...."

Defender switched Servitors with Ragnar, so that if they dissappeared in the order they were summoned Ragnar wouldn't be the first one into the drink.

That done the heroes tried to keep their spirits up as they flew on toward their rendezvous. They had a frightening moment when the Servitors began to dissappear, but Ragnar was able to summon a few more and they continued their journey.

They all breathed a sigh of relief when the chopperjet appeared in the distant sky, and their IPAC beeperphone told them they'd been sighted. Within ten minutes, they were wrapped in warm blankets being fed warm drinks and were hurtling back toward Cornwall and an IPAC facility.

Once safe, Defender asked for a line to either Wilkens or his counterpart in Cornwall. He gave the short version, including what little they knew about the whereabouts of the Floating City and Sting's suspicions about the Queen. He informed them that there was still one member of the team missing, presumed somewhere between where they went down and the Floating City. When asked about the circumstances of their crash, he relayed what he knew, praising PC for her skills at keeping them in the air for as long as she did.

"Sounds like a tricky situation, Defender," said Wilkins. "What are you planning to do next?"

"Once our wounded are safe, we need to get back out there. She's after something beneath the little collection of ships. And I don't know if she is arrogant enough to assume her storm did us in. I was hesitant to act before due to a lack of damning evidence. This time, I'm angry."

"She would be that arrogant, if her comments about us when we weren't around are any indication." Sting said. "But yeah, Max is unaccounted for. We need to go back in. Oh hell, who am I kidding. She tried to kill us. She's killed people on that ship and mesmerized hundreds more somehow. whether she is who she says she is or not, we can't leave her out there." Defender looked in Sting's eyes at that moment and saw something in them that only someone that knew him would see...behind the cold veneer raged a Molotov cocktail of anger, frustration, and...remorse?... that told him that Sting was an eyelash from murderous intentions.

"Do you need transport or backup," asked Wilkins.

"We talked about that," Sting began,"and we think that could be dangerous with the Queen's abilities, taking aircraft in that way. However, there's another way that could potentially be weatherproof...submarines and other submersible craft. We could move in that way, under the weather patterns, and simply pop up right where they would be."

The Wanderer chimed in, "just so we don't upset the beast."

Wilkin's voice was carefully neutral, "Yes, the beast." There was a pause, "Submersibles are slow compared to planes or jet choppers. Based on the data PC sent, you're looking at ... fifteen to twenty hours in transit, minimum. That's after we find a sub and arrange a pickup. Unless we can find one closer in."

"Do you have a pilot crazy enough to risk the freak storm that downed us? If so, then drop us a mile or so out with a Zodiac and we can move in from there." Defender patted PC on the arm. "Unfortunately, our crazy pilot is in no shape for this mission. And we will need back-up. Assuming the people we saw were real and not some sort of illusion conjured by the Queen, there will be civilians to be... dealt with."

"Most of the civilians appear to be innocents. We aren't sure if they remained pacified through mind control or just fear. My biggest concern is giving her time to escape. Then again, she most likely assumes that her storm finished us." Defender turned to face his two companions. "What do you two think?"

"It didn't appear like there was a vessel she could make a hasty retreat on," stated the Wanderer thinking of all the wrecks felled by the beast. "Capturing her may prove extra difficult, I'd wager that she won't care about her subjects if push came to shove." He turned to the IPAC rep, "Do you have anything that could incapacitate the normals in the kingdom quickly? Gas?"

"We have a number of nominally non-lethal solutions, but delivery is the problem, if I understand the situation correctly. Gas would be hard to deliver in a storm and harder still to keep in useful concentrations, most of the other weapons are more in the nature of line-of-sight weapons - tasers, stunners and so on," said Wilkins.

Defender shook his head. "I agree with the Wanderer in his concern that she might use human shields, but putting your battle-hardened and highly trained troops in her line-of-sight is more frightening to me. No offense to your men, Wilkens, but if she manages to mind control even a couple of them... Well, the fight will take on a whole new complexity. We want to remove her weapons, not bring her better ones."

"We'll be sitting ducks in the Zodiac, but it endangers the fewest people. Any objections, gentlemen?"

"PC," the Wanderer began. "How far out can their research vessel's equipment reach? If we could knock them out it may blind the masses to us coming. A distraction to occupy the queen couldn't hurt either. I could swim ahead, unless Max is doing the same thing as we speak."

Defender looked at the current time. Nearly two hours had passed since Max had fallen out of the jet. He would never say it aloud, but he had the gut feeling that Max would not be a factor in the operation. In all likelihood, the Beggar King was captured or worse. Taken out of his normal haunts of the streets, Max had proven to be a very limited resource. Alone, against a floating city of pliable servants and a shape shifting sorceress...

"Most of those vessels have some sort of radar capacity. The cruise ship alone would have equipment to detect up to ten miles or more. None of that will pick up a craft as small as a Zodiac, but the chopper-jet will show up. Most of the research vessel's gear was for underwater detection, so it would not be a significant threat. That assumes they watch any of it. It is a more believable scenario that we won't be detected until we are within visual range. Which means we will not have surprise on our side. I'm suddenly wishing Ka-Sador had given me that flying belt."

"Actually, *cough*," PC wheezed, "that may not be accurate. It could actually be much worse or much better. On a clear day coming in high, they could spot us probably 40 to fifty miles out. HOWEVER, *cough, cough*, that could be cut down if the pilot comes in low and the weather is bad...which it may be. I could see the queen keeping a storm going in her vicinity if for no other reason than to be ready to amp it up if detected. Depending on how good a pilot we get, we could get as close as a mile or two on a clear day, and in bad weather we could drop in their laps provided we get close *cough* enough." She turned to no one in particular.."I could really use some more tea if it wouldn't be too much trouble."

"Okay Mr. Wilkens, we'll refuel and get back out there. If possible, have your men on stand-by and back a safe distance. I'm not sure what that is, but using what data we have about our crash should give you an estimate. Wanderer, can you teleport with Sting shrunk down and in your pocket?"

"I should be able to, it'll drain us both though," he answered. "If they are on visual, then we should go in at night. Unless you intend on being friendly," the Wanderer asked to get an idea of what tone Defender had in mind.

"I think we are cutting it close to evening as is. We shouldn't have to wait too long."

"Then lets get on the stick." Sting said. "Times wasting, and we have a friend to save."

"Hold up," PC said. "Before you go, Defender, I'd like IPAC to link your visual systems up to their systems. I want at least an outside shot of being able to monitor you here...provided they'll give me temporary access to a console. I want to take another stab at tracing the Queen's language as well now that I've got better access and equipment.

"I don't think we have time for that. My camera feeds into my wristcomp. That's sealed and TEMPEST hardened. We'd have to crack the shell, thus opening it to the sea water. The broadcast is encrypted and I don't know the key off the top of my head. And you will be in the infirmary, resting."

"Last I checked," PC retorted, "I computer jockey from a sitting position. We're all drained, but that's not keeping you from doing what's expected of you, don't expect me to not do what's expected of me...or something like that. Besides, if we lose contact, the countdown begins."

"Countdown to what?" Sting asked.

"The countdown to finding every paranormal good guy I can get my hands on and hitting that construct like Normandy in '44" PC retorted. "People back home are counting on you getting back...alive, preferably." PC said, looking at Defender with a knowing smile. "But it won't come to that, because the three of you are about to give the Queen the royal crowning she deserves. Sting said...times wasting."

"Do you really expect me to relax while the three of you are out there with no visible contact and no way for me to be able to all?" PC said. "I mean, seriously, do I look like I can kick back in a hospital bed and watch soap operas instead of backing up the team?"

"Beats allowing the hypothermia to do permanent damage."

"My god, you can be so infuriating someti...uhh" PC stopped in mid- sentence as Sting walked over and gave her a casual love-tap, catching her as she fell unconscious. He motioned for the medics to take her as he walked over to Defender and whispered in his ear. "You can't talk to them when they're fired up," Sting said, "you'll find that out soon enough. Now, can we please go take this bee-yotch out?"

Wilkins said, "Let me just patch into our switchboard over there." His picture on the monitor dissappeared. A moment later a different face appeared. "Good afternoon chaps," the new face said. "I'm Mr. Windsor-Smythe, I'm local to the IPAC branch here so I'll coordinate this next bit. The chopper is refueling as we speak and our best pilot is having a spot of tea to build his strength up. Mr. Wilkins tells me you need a Zodiac ready for sea deployment and that's all in the way of special equipment, wot?"

"A pair or two of Nightvision Goggles would help tremendously. But that's all we need for now. Thank you."

"I'll see what we can find for you," said Windsor-Smythe.

"Okay, the tentative plan for now is to drop in low and hope to go unseen. If we aren't spotted, Wanderer can teleport in to a highpoint to provide a forward eye. If we are spotted, then everyone is to get to the platform by their best method. Assume the Queen is hostile, as well as Roger. Everyone else should be treated with caution. I suspect she will turn them on us, but there is no reason to hurt them if we don't have to." Defender swallowed hard before relaying his last thought. "And if Max is there and conscious, we cannot assume that he is friendly. He's not got the strongest grasp on reality, so I suspect he would be easy picking for her. Comments? Questions?"

There were none, and the heroes went their seperate ways while the chopper refueled.

Preparations made, Defender, Sting and the Wanderer boarded the jet helicopter after the zodiac had been attached below with quick-release bolts for instant deployment. Their pilot, Jack Apowen, gave them the weather report as they lifted. "Heavy cloud cover, with some rain around our drop zone is what it looks like. I'll see how close I can get you."

"Developing weather," said Apowen half an hour later, shocking the heroes out of their private meditations. "Extremely high winds are developing,looks like a funnel cloud of some kind, centered almost exactly on our target."

"She knows we're coming." Sting said. "That or she's very paranoid. Best guess, how close can you get us?"

"Maybe a mile, mile and a half," said Apowen.

A few moments later, Apowen spoke again, "Something strange is happening out there. I'm now starting to get lots of small trails fleeing the eye of the storm. Boats it looks like, all suddenly appearing from under the cloud cover and scattering."

"A jailbreak of sorts," commented the Wanderer. "Can we raise Max on the communicator? If the queen is on the move then it should reduce civilian harm."

"If we can raise him, he can raise us. If the Queen's still on board, we're losing the element of surprise." Sting said. "Right now, all we have going for us is the fact that she *MAY* think we're dead."

"We should probably target her vessel. She's using the storm to cover her escape," the Wanderer offered aloud.

"Any ideas on how?" asked Apowen. "All I can see get the moment is vague radar pings."

"Her craft was visually distinctive, but that's not going to help on radar," Defender said. "We need to find out what's going on."

"I'll keep heading in toward the center unless I hear otherwise," said the pilot, turning to his task.

Defender leaned in over the pilot's shoulder and looked at the radar display. He pointed out two directions on the screen. "This is the most likely avenue of approach. If I were trying to get away, I'd head in this direction. How hard would it be for you to circle around here?"

"It'll add a few minutes to the travel time, but not a big problem," the pilot changed his course by a few degrees. "Not much headed out that way," he commented. "Most of the boats are heading for landfall, I'd say."

Apowen brought the chopper round the back way. They passed close enough to some of the fleeing vessels once or twice to make visual identification; the ships were clearly formerly some of the more seaworthy parts of the floating island, but just as clearly not the Queen's vessel.

The weather grew rougher, and finally Apowen said, "This is as far as I can go. I make us about a mile and a quarter out. I'll pull back a couple of miles and wait as long as I can. Good luck."

The heroes boarded the zodiac and Apowen shot the bolts. With a splash, they were once again in the cold North Atlantic. The chop was terrible, the wind furious, but the rain only moderate. They made their way through the swirling winds on the small craft, wondering if they were heading in the right direction, when suddenly they popped out into the eye of the storm.

A quarter of a mile away, they saw all that remained of the floating island - the Queen's quarters. Without the clutter surrounding it, it looked sort of like a hut mounted on a pole, something like a very tiny one legged offshore oil rig. The leg was long, very long. They realized that they could tell it was so long because the hut was in the middle of a whirlpool and they could fifty meters of the hut pole before it vanished into the swirling water. They also realized they were in imminent danger of being sucked into the whirlpool themselves.

"She's desperate for whatever's beneath the creature. Wanderer, can you make the distance?" Defender shouted over the sounds of the whirlpool.

Sting grabbed onto the Wanderer's coat and shrank to one inch, neatly fitting into one of his pockets. "I think this is your cue to teleport, old chap." Sting said. "Can you take Defender with you too, or are you jumping, boss?"

"If he teleports you, it will wipe you both out and make you easy pickings for her magic. Hop in my pocket and we'll take the roller coaster approach." Defender said.

"Check. Give me a minute." Because of the waves, Sting took the safe approach...he grew to full height after clambering out of Wanderer's pocket, then shrank again when linking to Defender.

"Here's the plan," Defender yelled. "Wanderer, teleport in and avoid conflict for as long as possible. I'm going to have to ride the whirlpool down. At some point, it will draw close enough for me to leap. Sting, who would you like to take your chances with?"

The Wanderer gauged the distance, "Sting, you can come with me. You may need to converse with the Queen while I recoup, but I'm sure there is something you want to discuss with her."

"I'll see you as soon as I can get there." Defender kept his concentration on piloting the Zodiac. If you're going, you should go now."

"Right." Sting moved over to Wanderer's pocket and steeled himself for the transport. "Lets roll."

The Wanderer saluted his comrades, held up his thumb and eyed along it to his destination as if he were aiming a rifle. "Bang," he said disappearing.

The Wanderer and Sting reappeared on the "deck" of the Queen's hut. She was there, standing on the edge with arms outstretched and a look of concentration on her face. Next to her stood Roger with a sabre on his hip and a rifle on his shoulder. Around them stood six large creatures, looking much like bears but with a bit more intelligence in the face and long and fearsome claws. When the Wanderer appeared their faces lit up with anticipation. There was something about them that reminded the Wanderer of the creature that had dwelt beneath the island.

The Wanderer smiled, "Did I miss anything?" In a non-threatening manor he attempted to diffuse the tense situation and allow Sting to get in a more advantageous position. "We must get the queen to safety, this storm is dangerous," he said beginning to focus his concentration on the nearest beast.

Sting slipped out of the pocket at 1 inch size then immediately began to close directly on the queen, clearing his mind of everything but the goal of bringing her to justice.

Two of the bear things started to close in on the Wanderer as Sting raced to his target and then grew to full size, letting fly with a punch as he did so. The punch was dead on target.

The Queen's head snapped back and she went sailing off the edge of the platform and began to plunge down toward the maelstrom. The Wanderer snapped out with a couple of quick punches and two of the bear creatures dissipated beneath his fists.

The Queen fell and as she fell, the winds grew stronger and wilder the further she fell. The winds shrieked around the island of stability that was the hut, and Defender began to think he might be in trouble.

Suddenly the sea-floor was visible, so strong was the whirlpool effect. Sting and the Wanderer caught a glimpse of the floor before they were forced to defend themselves from the remaining bear-things.

The Wanderer teleported behind his foes, while Sting shrunk down to half-size to avoid his attacker. Both punched and two more bear-creatures dissipated. The two heroes could see the storm getting stronger, but were still in the eye.

Defender was in the middle of it. He tried to ride the current a bit longer, but prepared himself to leap for the sea-floor.

The Queen fell further and her path took her toward a wreck no visible on the sea floor, before she reached it the wind reached insane heights, it was a tornado of positively Baumian proportions. The winds touched the wreck and it broke apart sending fragments flying in all directions. The Queen fell into the swirl and was shot off and up at incredible speed. In seconds, she was lost to sight. Almost as quickly, the storm began to return to normal. It would still be a mighty storm, but the supernatural ferocity began to fade.

That meant that the whirlpool, which was completely artificial began to collapse. Defender decided it was crunch time and leapt out and down. He hit the sea floor just ahead of the crashing waves and leapt immediately for the hut.

On the deck, Sting and the Wanderer dispatched the remaining bears and a frenzied Roger, and then felt the storm began to affect them now that the supernatural control was nowhere to be seen. The saw Defender's desperate leap and then the wave that clipped him knocking him off line, he would not land on the deck but just below it. They readied themselves to aid him as he hit the slick side of the deck - and stuck as his nanites clamped. Then he started to slip, but Sting and the Wanderer were ready and reached down to pull him to the dubious safety of the hut.

Said hut was beginning to rock as the collapsing whirpool crashed against it. It rocked back and forth as the heroes clung to the deck and watched.

Sting looked around him at the carnage that had happened...and thought of how it all could have been avoided if he had taken the swing at her while she slept that he wanted to. Especially knowing that, although not conclusive, there was no doubt in his mind, given the paraphenalia, the books in Russian, and most importantly her ego, tbere was no doubt that it was Yaga that they faced. He took cold comfort in the fact that he managed to lay the one solid shot across her jaw he needed to save her sanity.

Almost as one, the heroes turned and entered the clutter of the hut for a preliminary search.

"From the looks of things, I think Queenie was already on her way down." Sting said. "We basically were playing mop-up. I have a sneaking feeling that Max probably stowed away on one of those ships when things got beyond his control. Otherwise, I have no earthly clue where he could be."

Defender held up the remains of the communicator. "This does not look good. We know he came back here. He must have been thinking he could take her on or distract her or something. With his ability to walk through solid matter, there is no telling where his body might end up if he were incapacitated or killed. And he has no way of getting in touch with us if he is in trouble."

With a sigh, Defender tossed the pieces of the phone overboard. He turned from his teammates to resume the search of the hut. Inside, he was tearing the operation apart. How could it have run differently? Where did it go wrong? How could it be avoided in the future? Both Ragnar and PC had almost died. The others had also come close. He knew only one thing. As leader of the team, it came back to him. It was his fault.

"So, who wants to call IPAC for the pickup?" asked Sting.

"Defender to IPAC. Situation is neutralized. Please arrange to intercept the ships fleeing our location. We are unsure of their involvement in this. Also be advised that the Beggar King may be present on one of those ships. His condition is... unknown. Advise caution."

With his borrowed night vision goggles, Defender returned to his search.

Within a few hours, the worst of the storm had dissipated and IPAC had a team out to the hut. Windsor-Smythe contacted them by video link with the news that they had managed to intercept quite a few of the fleeing ships but that Max was not on board any of them. From the ships, they had pieced together a rough outline of what had happened.

Max had apparently shown up and attacked the Queen while the other heroes were still trapped in the storm. No one knew the results of the fight, but shortly afterwards, bear creatures had begun to appear all over the floating island and had begun to dismantle it with force, the inhabitants fled to such craft as were still sea-worthy and tried to depart. The Queen's creatures had no interest in stopping them, and in some cases helped them get clear of the hut. As soon as the craft were clear of the Queen's hut, she appeared on the deck and the storm and winds began.

Windsor-Smythe concluded, "Interviews with the refugees paint a strange picture. The Queen was apparently not a bad ruler; a despot, true, but not arbitrary. If you accepted the rules, life seemed to be not bad and most of the people were relatively happy. Revolutionaries were dealt with harshly, but a lot of the people seemed alright with that. Some were still in shock about the dissolution of the island and concerned about the Queen's welfare. Others, as soon as it seemed sure they were free of her influence, cursed her and wished her dead."

"There was some sort of craft on the sea floor. She wanted it badly. Has your crew managed to recover any debris?" Defender asked.

"No, we've been concentrating on functional craft," he said. "We may be able to get more information from this 'Roger,' or from some of the documents in the hut," said Windsor-Smythe. "I'll get a crew there to remove and catolog the contents as soon as possible."

"Want me to take a look below?" offered the Wanderer. "That is, assuming the beast is gone."

"As long as you do it safely, I see no reason you shouldn't," Defender replied.

The Wanderer pulled out his flashlight and walked over to the railing. "Don't leave me," he said with a grin before leaping over the side into the drink. Down he dove, wary that the surge of the beast would be upon him at any moment.

The surge did not come, and he was able to safely land on the ocean floor. A quick survey showed wrecks of several craft on the bottom, but all were partly or completely broken up and rapidly being covered with sand - the water was still disturbed from the unnatural weather and a great deal of sand was suspended in the water. The Wanderer returned to the surface and reported what he had found.

"I hope we can find some answers from those books then." Defender looked at his companions. "Looks like we are finished here."

"Yeah, we're done." Sting looked pensive, but knew they had done all they could.

Defender held one of the strange books in his hands. "You know, I think a couple of these should end up in the Mystic's hands. I'm sure IPAC has the best interests of the world in mind, but I wonder about their experience in magic."

"Yeah, especially since the ones we had ended up on the ocean floor." Sting said.

Defender handed a couple of the volumes over to Sting. Outside the hut, he called for a pick-up. He would be glad to get home and put this all behind him. Maybe one day, he would be warm again. One day.

		*		*		*		*

A call came from the Mystic that he had finished investigating the books and would like to speak to the team. A time was arranged and shortly before it arrived the monitors indicated that one of the monorail cars was coming down the tunnel.

Soon after, the Mystic entered the Fortress, greeting his old friends warmly and looking with interest at Merlynne. The others noticed that he and the Wanderer chatted easily as if they had only been apart for a few days.

Once refreshments had been prepared, the Mystic began to speak. "Your suspicions about the nature of the books were mostly correct. Several were grimoires of great power, written in one of the oldest mystic languages - one most commonly used in Slavic regions. One is very old indeed, predating the birth of Christ by some time. They magic they treat of is primarily that of nature: winds, summoning spirits of the land, and so forth. There are marginal notes, all in the same hand, covering a spread of several thousand years, leading me to believe that this 'Queen' is an immortal and has had the book in her possession for that length of time. There are a few cryptic references, in ball point pen, to 'the sphere'. From what I can make out, she believed it to be some kind of focus or lens.

"There are other things which I have not yet been able to fully comprehend, but I thought you would like to know what I had found thus far," he concluded.

"Thank you," Defender said. "She was looking for something out there. Do you think it might have been this sphere?"

"That was my impression yes," said the Mystic.

"Judging by her magical texts, do you have any suppositions about what she might have wanted this focus for? Please excuse my lack of knowledge, but I'm concerned that she got away clean. She went to an awful lot of trouble creating her little floating city. I would love to know as much as possible." Defender smiled grimly. "We might cross paths with her again."

"I cannot speculate about her motives," said the Mystic, "But from her notes, she seemed to believe that this object would enhance her abilities. For some, that would be reason enough to seek it.

"At the risk of making wild speculations, I think this object was a ... an amplifier of some kind. From what you have told me and from Ragnar says, I think the guardian beasts were rogue summonings. Ragnar summoned a Servitor and as you approached the place where this orb may have been, the Servitor grew larger and then went wild. I think the orb may have been magnifying the power of the summoning to the point that the Servitor broke free from control and became a free agent."

"Wait. Are you implying that the beast we continued to run into was one of Ragnar's Servitors? Or am I missing something?"

"No, the beast was there before Ragnar arrived, wasn't it?"

"So we were led to believe," Defender said. "Do all the beings conjured through that spell look alike?"

"Summonings? No, not at all. The Servitors of Vieltoor, such as Ragnar and I summon, look much like their caster. Having no true physical form, they model themselves after their summoner. Other summoning spells summon other creatures. Darkspell, of cursed fame, summons Servitors of Daemonus, and they are demonic in form and attitude," the Mystic said.

"Perhaps we never saw the beast she sent us after. The thing that attacked me looked similar to Ragnar." Defender rubbed his hand through his hair. "She summoned a being to go and retrieve the sphere. It grew and became monstrous. She asked us to take care of it. Ragnar summoned and his charge became a free agent as well. Does that sound plausible?"

The Mystic considered. "Yes, that sounds plausible indeed. She somehow discovered the location of the object, travelled there and sent a summoning to fetch it. Once free of her control, she realized her mistake and was forced to use other means to try and recover the object. She was trapped there by her own first mistake!

"You say the original creature. It was similar to Ragnar, you say. Was it perhaps more similar to what Ragnar himself resembles, a bear?"

"Yes. Very similar to an aquatic bear."

"An unbearable aquatic bear," piped the Wanderer trying to participate in the conversation.

"Then perhaps her summoning has some tie to bears," said the Mystic. "It does seem possible."

"She had some bear like minions, I believe," offered the Wanderer. "Perhaps some research in that vein might give us an idea as to where she gains her power."

"Not to go all Mulder on everyone," Sting finally chimed in, "but aren't bears one of the animals that Russians tend to use as an image of strength? Or am I too much of an old-school pro-wrestling fan?"

"Yes." The Mystic nodded, "The bear is a totem spirit strongly associated with that region."

"Makes sense," Defender said. "Wrestling? Really?"

"Oh yeah." PC chimed in, smiling. "Back when we lived on the east coast, we never missed EWF when it came through New York. I even have a Derek Machismo foam glove at home."

Defender smirked. He had never understood the draw of combat sports, especially those that were obviously fake. "Well, I think we are closer to understanding what the witch was up to. If there is a next time, we will be better prepared to deal with her. Thank you for your diligent work with the books."

Sting turned to Mystic and shook his head. "Excuse us, we've had a long couple of weeks and are trying to loosen up again. It really seems more and more like my Baba Yaga theory is bearing some fruit here. Of course, no hard proof stinks."

Interlude 32.1: The Bank Job
Interlude 32.2: Star on the Rise
Interlude 32.3.1: Alden's New Assistant
Interlude 32.3.2: Alden's New Assistant II
Interlude 32.3.3: Alden's New Assistant III
Interlude 32.3.4: Alden's New Assistant IV
Interlude 32.4: The Lady from the Lake
Interlude 32.5: Fire In the Hole!
Interlude 32.6: Not So Alone?
Last Updated 29 September 2003