ours after losing consciousness in the arena, Dr. Sconder had awakened and returned to his laboratory. He sat at his desk, angry and frustrated.
"Curse that boy," he said. "I had the perfect opportunity to do away with him, and I let him get the better of me. Now he's got half of the talismans in his possession, and no doubt he'll have that collar off as soon as he returns to wherever that hideout is." He laid his elbows against the desk, running his bony fingers through his hair. "My only chance now is to kill him before the full moon rises again and he gets off this planet."
"I was about to say the same thing," a voice from behind him said.
Startled, Dr. Sconder turned around in his chair. Standing behind him was a large, translucently yellow, glowing apparition.
"The problem with you is that even if you were to succeed in destroying Hogan," the spirit explained, "You'd only have a finite amount of time to enjoy it. That's why you humans will never expand beyond a couple planets at a time."
Dr. Sconder smirked. "So, you must be the great A'nake. I always wondered if I would ever get the chance to meet you."
A'nake floated onto one of Dr. Sconder's lab tables, sitting against it. "I sure wish I had made it here in time to see all the chaos that Varzen had caused as a result of the talisman. He would have been the perfect host body for me to invade, since he already would have had the army I'm looking for."
Dr. Sconder scowled. "It was my genius that put Varzen in power. All my inventions, all my hard work, that's what allowed him to conquer this planet. But he finds a trinket in the sand and he tosses me away like a piece of trash."
"And you're going to take it out on the boy who supposedly protects those 'trinkets'?" A'nake asked.
"I know what you want. You want to take the talisman for yourself. Well, you can have it. Me, all I want is to see the look in Hogan's eyes when takes his last breath."
"What makes you think I would give you that satisfaction?"
Dr. Sconder stood up, walking to a nearby counter. He picked up a test tube filled with a red substance and showed it to A'nake. "You know what this is? It's a sampling of Hogan's blood taken after his injuries from the fight in the coliseum. I've extracted the DNA from his cells and have begun to incubate a clone." He placed the vial back down. "You could imagine my intrigue when I discovered his DNA wasn't totally human."
A'nake got close up to the vial, giving it a good look. "I'm not surprised. His father wasn't totally human, either."
"Which means that this clone of Hogan will also carry his peculiar genetic code, which will give us a perfect copy of him - right down to his powers, and if my calculations are correct, right down to his ability to transform. If you're looking for a host body, he's the perfect candidate."
Dr. Sconder motioned A'nake to a 2-way mirror, where they saw a small infant sleeping on the floor in the next room. "I've been giving him megavitamins and growth hormones to speed up his maturation. It's only been 24 hours, and already he's grown to the equivalent of a 6-month-old boy."
A'nake marveled at the sight of the young child. "How long will it take before it reaches Hogan's age?"
"About 5 weeks. Plenty of time for you to find Hogan before the full moon."
"Five weeks means nothing when you're ageless," A'nake boasted. "Very well. I accept your offer for this boy. And in return, I shall see to it that your handiwork is used in the destruction of the Ki'rath."
Dr. Sconder gave an evil smile. "It is an honor to be part of such a historic event."
Dr. Sconder and A'nake both shared a maniacal laugh.
Ten minutes after the sun began to rise, Hogan and Rena reached their hideout. Hogan looked over his shoulder to see the sun coming up over the horizon. He sighed, knowing that the talisman in his hand would be inactive for more than six weeks. They both pushed aside the rock that sealed off the entry way, and descended into the cave one at a time.
There were several children standing around when they came in. When Hogan pulled down the rope to return the rock to its position, an obvious question hung on everyone's lips.
"Where's Liarna?" a small boy asked.
Rena and Hogan bowed their heads. "I'm sorry, Kalom," Rena said solemnly. "Varzen... got her."
The children were not shocked so much as they were disappointed.
"It's my fault," Hogan said. "It was my idea to have her try her sword on my collar. I was the one who put her in danger."
"No, she did what she had to do," Rena replied. "Varzen wouldn't have let her live anyway. No way he'd let the leader of his opposition off the hook."
"Who's going to take care of us now?" another girl asked.
"To be honest," Hogan explained, "I promised her I would help you guys out. But I don't know what I have to do."
"I'll help," Rena responded. "Liarna helped us out a lot, but now we need to start helping ourselves."
Hogan gave a small smile. "Thanks."
The group began to make their way back to the mess hall. "How are you guys doing on food?" Hogan asked.
"We're running short again," Kalom replied. "That maulcat you hunted is the only thing we've been eating, and we've just about picked it dry."
"All right. I'll get back up there to hunt in a minute. But first we need to do something about this collar around my neck." He brought his hand to it and gave it a small tug. "Damn little bugger won't come off."
"There's some tools in Liarna's old room," Rena suggested. "Probably nothing a chisel and a hammer can't solve."
"Yeah, well, just watch the neck."
They entered the bedroom once used my Liarna. In her nightstand, they found a modest-sized tool box. Hogan sat on the bed as Rena grabbed a small mallet and a chisel. She kneeled in front of him.
Rena looked up at Hogan.
"How old are you?"
Rena furrowed her brow. "Why do you ask?"
"Oh, I'm just interested."
"I.. I'm 14. What about you?"
"What, me? I'm 17." Hogan sighed. "Look, I don't want to downplay your problems here, but you do know that as soon as that full moon comes back, I'm probably going to have to leave you guys."
"I know," Rena replied as she put the chisel against the side of the collar.
"And that means that someone else is going to have to take care of these kids."
"I know that too."
"And you're OK with that?"
Rena withdrew the chisel. "Liarna knew that we'd eventually have to be on our own, so it's not a big surprise."
"Yeah, but when I'm gone, you'll need to do all the things she did. You'll be doing the hunting, the feeding, not to mention the protecting. Are you sure you're ready for all this?"
"What are you getting at?"
"I've got six weeks before I have to leave. I can teach you how to fight like me. With your spirit."
Rena's eyes lit up. "Really? You'll show me how to do that?"
Hogan smiled. "Not like I have anything else to do."
A second smile gleamed across Rena's face. "Thanks."
She brought the chisel back onto the collar around Hogan's neck. It took a couple minutes of pounding, but eventually she managed to break the collar in two places, causing it to fall off of Hogan's neck. When the encumbrance was removed, Hogan instantly charged up his fists.
"Ahh..." Hogan said, relieved. "Back to my old self again." He got up off the bed. "Would you like to join me while I go out hunting? I can teach you about spirit fighting while we're out there."
Rena jumped to her feet. "I'm looking forward to it." She walked up to Hogan's side. "Dad."
Hogan put his arm around Rena's shoulder as they walked out of the room.
Meanwhile, the baby that was in Dr. Sconder's was starting to walk under its own power. A'nake watched intently as the child looked out to the 2-way mirror separating them.
"He's maturing quite quickly," A'nake commented.
"I see you admire my work," Dr. Sconder gloated. "But I suggest you possess that body soon, before he reaches his terrible twos."
"How dare you tell me what to do?" A'nake bellowed. "I will usurp this body at my own convenience."
"Suit yourself," Dr. Sconder said, acquiescing. "But I'd like to know what you plan on doing in the meantime if you aren't going to take advantage of this vessel I've prepared for you."
"That is not of your concern. But rest assured," A'nake said as he began to float away, "I intend to use my time wisely here." With a cackle, he was gone from the lab. Dr. Sconder sat back down at his lab desk, flustered.