ith the children prodding him into the hole, Hogan could only imagine what was lying inside. He took a small jump, and went down the hole. There was a short freefall, accompanied by a soft landing on a large padded mat. He looked around and saw torches illuminating the way. He rolled off the mat, as the children came down the same hole, landing on the mat beside him.
"OK," Hogan said. "I don't know what's going on here, but honestly - I have no idea where I am, I don't know what I've done wrong, and I could really use some food right about now. Would either of you care to tell me anything?"
"You're not the one to be asking questions," an adult female voice said behind him.
Hogan turned around. There stood a humanoid woman, dressed in a blue top that exposed her midsection, grey pants, but most importantly a mask over her lower face, showing little more than her eyes and her short, black hair.
"Mom!" the kids shouted. They ran over to the woman, hugging her from the waist.
There was an icy glare that came from the woman. Quite obviously, Hogan was not a welcome visitor. "Who are you?" she asked.
Hogan thought for a moment. I guess telling them I'm the Ki'rath isn't going to mean anything to them, he concluded. "Well, it's... kind of hard to explain."
"I'm sure," the woman replied snidely. "At least you can tell me what you were doing on the planet's surface. Anyone that brazen must be awful foolish... or a spy."
"Why's that?" Hogan asked.
The woman chuckled. "I guess you fall into the 'foolish' category." She looked down to the children and nodded at them, silently telling them to head off down the corridor so that she and Hogan could talk more privately. "The animals in this region of the world are extremely dangerous. They would tear you to shreds if you were out alone for a long period of time." She paused. "You still haven't told me who you are or what you're doing here."
Hogan sighed. "OK, it's like this. My name's Hogan. I come from the planet Earth."
"From the planet Earth?" the woman asked back. "So you're saying you're an alien?"
Hogan had never thought of himself as being extraterrestrial, but under the circumstances it was the proper term. "Yeah, I guess you could call me that. I'm looking for a talisman, about an inch and a half across, has some inscriptions on it. Have you seen it?"
"What is this... talisman for?"
Geez, make it harder on me than it already is, Hogan thought. "Well... how do I put this... there's a spirit that's going from planet to planet trying to steal the talismans and use them to create an army of werewolves. But if I get it, I turn into a werewolf myself and I can fight it off. It only works during a full moon, though."
"A spirit going from planet to planet?"
"Trying to form an army of werewolves?"
Hogan nodded again.
"And if you get it, you turn into a werewolf instead."
"Yeah, that about covers it."
The woman turned her back to Hogan, and took a couple steps away. "If you really are a spy, you're doing a damn good acting job. But if you're telling the truth, then you're too late. By about two months."
"Two months?!" Hogan asked, astonished. "That's impossible. I left the last planet yesterday."
"Then obviously you aren't dealing with the same person. Because Varzen took all the men and women within a 20-mile radius and imprisoned them a couple days before the full moon. All of a sudden, rumors began to spread about him having turned them all into monsters."
"Why weren't you taken with them, too?"
"I was out hunting when my village was invaded," the woman replied. "When I came back, all of the houses were empty except for all of the children. I guess Varzen didn't think they were important enough to take along."
"So you guys are all holed up in here?"
"Unfortunately, no. Most of the children died when we made our way over here. Those that survived are now suffering from malnutrition. I'm doing all that I can to keep them going, but I can only hunt so much and I have dozens of people to feed, plus I can't run the risk of getting caught."
"I'd like to help out," Hogan said, "but I'm just about ready to faint if I don't get something in my stomach soon."
"Not so fast," the woman retorted. "You still haven't proven that you aren't a spy."
Hogan shrugged. "Not a whole lot I can do about that."
"Not necessarily. Take off your clothes."
"Take off your clothes. A spy would be wearing a homing device so that Varzen's men could track our location."
Hogan shook his head, pulling his arms out of his leather jacket and then his shirt. "You never did tell me your name."
"It's Liarna. The pants, too."
Hogan rolled his eyes. "Geez, at least let me keep my underwear on." He pulled off his shoes and continued undressing. "There, happy now?"
"Not yet. I'll have to check those more thoroughly. In the meantime, I will lend you some of the boys' clothing."
Hogan chuckled. "Fine. As long as there's some food at the end of all this."
The largest clothes they could find for Hogan barely fit him. A grey shirt went down to his belly button, and the juvenile pants he was given gave his legs almost no room to breathe. He kept his shoes, though. When he was done, it was close to lunch time, so Liarna led him to the dining hall. It was a very modest area, with about three dozen kids sitting around four large tables, shoveling forkfuls of what looked like gruel and beef jerky into their mouths.
"We're getting down to our last few days of rations," Liarna explained. "I'm not able to hunt nearly as often as I could in the village, and merchants hardly ever pass this way. We barely have any money to pay them, anyway."
Hogan looked at the faces of the kids. They were so sullen, completely lacking in the typical vividness and gleam that a normal child's face has. "These kids look like they've seen better days."
"They're destitute, Hogan. They're essentially orphans. Do you know how it would feel to lose your parents?"
"As a matter of fact, yes." Hogan looked down at the ground. "My dad died of leukemia when I was eight. I watched as the life got sucked out of him."
There was a moment of silence between them. "You'll forgive me if I've become desensitized to the subject of death."
They walked over to a couple empty seats at one of the tables, and began eating. It wasn't the most flavorful food Hogan had ever had, but he was already hungry enough to eat his ear off. "Is there anything I can do to help you guys out?"
"Not unless you know how to hunt," Liarna replied. "And you wouldn't stand a chance without a weapon of some sort."
"Oh, I don't have to worry about that," Hogan said in between bites of his food. "I have my own means of defense."
"Watch this." Hogan brought up his fists, and they immediately began to glow violet. This display caused Liarna to go pale in shock. "Impressive, ain't it?"
"Oh my God..." Liarna gasped. "You're the Ki'rath!"
"That's right, I'm the Ki-... hey, wait a second! You mean you knew all along?"
"No- no, I didn't. I really thought you were a spy pretending to be the Ki'rath. But a simple spy wouldn't be able to manipulate his spirit energy like that." Liarna clasped her hands in a begging manner. "Please, you've got to help us!"
"Well, yeah, of course. But what do you want me to do?"
"First thing we need is more food," Liarna answered. "If you can hunt a few of the animals around here, that would keep us going for a while. Then we can help you find your talisman. Do we have a deal?"
Hogan nodded. "Deal. Just one more thing," he said, finishing off the rest of his meal. "Where can I find this Varzen guy?"
"Don't worry about him," Liarna replied. "He's mine."