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loogslair.com As I've said before, Grrr.


Guardian of the Ceremony

A Serial by Tim Connolly

In the previous chapter, Hogan was issued an ultimatum by A'nake: come to his laboratory alone, or the Du'imite emperor would suffer the consequences.

Chapter 56: Tea Time

Hogan shimmied down the long, clear tube that led into A'nake's stronghold. He lost track of the distance over time - especially since the area was completely dark - but surmised that this workshop of his must have been buried at least 100 yards underground. No wonder nobody's ever found this place, Hogan thought as he continued crawling down the tube. It's like I'm making my way into Hell itself.

After roughly 20 minutes of crawling, Hogan finally spotted an aperture where light was coming out. This prompted Hogan to speed up a bit, making his way to what had to have been the actual entrance into A'nake's abode. A couple minutes later, he had finally reached the end of the tube, and pulled his way out into the entry way of A'nake's laboratory.

It was exactly as Hogan envisioned such a place - crowded, lined with stony walls, dank with the smell of mildew, lit with torches on either side of the hall. The only thing missing were rats crawling around his feet. Knowing that he needed to find A'nake before anything happened to the emperor, he quickly scampered down the hall way towards the large wooden door on the other side. He grabbed the ring at the center and gave it a strong tug, causing the door to swing inward.

The scene that Hogan witnessed was unlike anything he had expected.

It looked like the living room of some humble cottage. A fire was crackling in the fireplace in the far right corner, and a small, round wooden table was facing it, with two chairs on opposite sides. Seated in one of those chairs, stroking what appeared to be a calico cat, was the same bald Du'imite that was on the video Hogan had seen earlier. His expression was inviting, even friendly. "Welcome, Ki'rath. Welcome to my home."

Hogan slowly made his way towards the table, instinctively charging up his hands with spirit power.

A'nake looked concerned. "Oh, please. There's no need to do that now. Come, sit down. Have some tea."

"What's going on?" Hogan asked, still not trusting this display. "Where's the emperor? Where's the talisman?"

"We'll get to that, don't worry." A'nake motioned to the empty chair across from him. "Please, have a seat. Make yourself comfortable."

Hogan was still wary of his foe, so he merely stood behind the chair, leaning down and placing his hands on the back of it.

"I'm sure you're wondering why I'm being so friendly," A'nake began, his expression still affable. "After all, the two of us would both want nothing more than to see the other utterly destroyed."

"You got that right," Hogan remarked, rekindling his hands.

"Well, Ki'rath, it's quite simple. I could easily kill you right now if I wanted to. All those times in the past that you fought me and won - I never was at my full power, you see. When I left my body, I didn't have near the strength I used to, and yet, it was almost enough to destroy you several times. I really have nothing to fear from you at this point. So you see, before we fight, I believe it would serve to both our benefits to sit down and enjoy this time together."

"You really are nuts," Hogan said as he looked at the cat that A'nake was petting.

A'nake took notice. "You like him? I put him under the same suspended animation spell this body was in while I was out on my little planet-hopping adventure. His name is Freckles. You can pet him if you want."

Hogan had no mind for the cat. While A'nake was making kissy-faces at his pet, Hogan seized the opportunity and lunged at A'nake. Before he was able to do anything, though, A'nake reached his arm out at Hogan, and he was immediately sent into the other wall with amazing speed. He fell down onto the floor, somewhat dazed.

"Come now, drink your tea," A'nake demanded, though his voice was still bright. "It wouldn't want it to go to waste."

Slowly, Hogan made his way back to the table. Relenting, he sat down in the empty chair. He reached for the cup in front of him and slowly brought it to his lips. The tea had a peculiar flavor to it, like cinnamon and raspberry mixed together.

"Du'im was always known for its tea," A'nake remarked. "Finest in the universe. You like it?"

Hogan felt humiliated, as if A'nake was treating him like a doll. "It's wonderful," he deadpanned, not really meaning the words.

"Good, good." A'nake took his cup and sipped some of his tea. "I know that this seems quite uncharacteristic of me to be doing this sort of thing, but you see, this is how my life was before all this started."

"That's a lie," Hogan retorted. "I know what you were like before you escaped."

"Oh, but that wasn't the whole story, Ki'rath. I never meant to be a cruel person. But when my livelihood was threatened, I had to take some extreme measures."

Hogan took another sip of his tea. "I know you were an alchemist before you found out about the talismans."

"That's right," A'nake said. "You see, I, like you, believed in the spirit of life. I thought that everything ought to be derived from the soul, that that's the way the ancients intended it. It was my life's work to study the nature of the spirit, and learn how we could manipulate it at will through means such as magic and meditation. That was, until I saw that people were beginning to take their faith away from themselves and into machines."

"What's wrong with machines?" Hogan asked defensively. "I used machines all the time on Earth. Cars, computers, TVs, telephones… Machines are what made Du'im the academic and commercial force that it was."

"But at what cost??" A'nake asked with pain in his voice. "I'll tell you what the cost was. We gave up our souls to those machines. Machines have no spirit, no life force that it can use on its own. They are just pieces of matter, vessels that merely do the bidding of the one who pushes the button or throws the switch. My people were losing their focus. They would rather play around with a bunch of toys than harness that which the ancients had given to them."

"But that doesn't make sense," Hogan argued. "Maybe you think that the machines don't have souls, but what about the people who make them? What about the ones who put their hard work, their effort - their soul - into building a machine? Doesn't that mean anything to you?"

"As far as I was concerned," A'nake replied, "those people were traitors. They were betraying their spirits by replacing them with metal and wood." A'nake finished his tea. "That's when I snapped. I wanted to show them - show them the error of their ways. Show them what it's like to be just a puppet to do the wishes of another."

"So you made your way into the emperor's cabinet, found the talisman and used it on the Du'imite people," Hogan concluded. "And in doing that, you gave up your own soul as well."

Suddenly, A'nake's facial expression became cold and sinister, the way Hogan had remembered it on the video. "Why don't you see my work room, Ki'rath? I'm sure you'll find what you're looking for there." He motioned to the other door in the room, located at the wall behind Hogan. Slowly, Hogan got up from his seat and made his way to this door. He grabbed its handle and pulled hard, the door opening with a loud creak.

What he saw was much closer to what he had anticipated originally - the actual laboratory was much darker and foreboding than the homely room he had just come from. There were long tables strewn about, with various beakers and flasks containing oddly-colored liquids here and there. If the complex weren't underground, Hogan would've expected to see some flashes of lightning as he beheld a scene that only a mad scientist could appreciate.

Scanning the far wall, Hogan spotted a Du'imite man in chains. Upon further inspection, he realized who it was. "Emperor O'bire!" he shouted. "What have you done to him?"

A'nake snickered as he entered the room behind Hogan. "His eminence is merely a spectator for the work I've been doing. Now that I'm back from my voyages, I think it's about time I returned to claim that which is rightfully mine. The emperor is going to help me with that, as are you, Ki'rath."

"Help you?" Hogan barked. "No way in hell am I helping you do anything."

A'nake chuckled again. "I'm afraid neither of you will have much say in the matter."

"You got that wrong, buster!" Hogan shouted, sending his hands ablaze and charging at A'nake. But once again, he couldn't even lay a finger on the sorcerer before he felt himself stopped in mid-air by A'nake's outstretched hand.

"As I was saying," A'nake taunted, "when resume my position as emperor, I'm going to need some bodyguards." He cast his hand outward, and Hogan rocketed towards the back wall, crashing into a large set of glass test tubes and vials as he slammed into the wall with amazing velocity. He fell on all fours on the ground below him. The ragged clothes he was wearing provided no protection for the broken glass, which had cut up the skin on his back pretty badly. As he stood up, he could feel a couple of shards still sticking into his skin. Still, he managed to dredge up enough energy to pounce at A'nake again, but the same result occurred; A'nake's telekinesis froze Hogan right in his tracks, and he was thrown back down onto the floor.

"One of these days you're going to have to learn that you're never going to beat me if you just keep charging at me head-on like that," A'nake gloated. "But in the meantime, I think I'd better restrain you before you hurt yourself any further." With a flick of the wrist, Hogan was back in the air, placed next to the unconscious emperor against the wall. A pair of iron chains, seemingly alive on their own, latched themselves around Hogan's wrists. Hogan jerked and pulled at them.

"It's no use resisting," A'nake said, smirking. "Like everything else, I've enchanted those chains with my unique signature of spirit energy. They will only respond to my touch." Hogan continued trying to escape from his bindings, but even though he should have been able to snap the chains from their moorings with his strength, they wouldn't budge.

Fully satisfied with himself, A'nake stood in front of both his hostages, grinning cruelly. "We'll just wait for his eminence to wake up from his little nap." Reaching into the pocket of his robe, A'nake pulled out the talisman he had obtained earlier. "And then I'll get started filling those bodyguard positions."

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