ogan, I understand your curiosity, but we as Ki'rathians are expressly forbidden to tell you anything about your father."
The Ki'rathian shaman, who Hogan learned was named Zeim, quickly ushered the Ki'rath back the transporter. For the last hour, Hogan had been pressing him to say something - anything - about his father, but all attempts were unsuccessful.
"But aren't you, like, the guy in charge or something?" Hogan asked. "I mean, you're the shaman, right? So it's not like you're going to get in trouble with anyone if you tell me."
"You are wrong, Hogan. I will have to answer to someone. The ancients themselves."
Hogan stopped walking. "You mean, they're still floating around somewhere?"
"Of course," Zeim replied, continuing on to the transporter. "I am not just some arbitrary leader of a club; I must answer to a higher power. And they would not be pleased to find that I had broken one of our most sacred rules."
"But why is it so important that you guys keep this from me? I mean, what's the harm in telling me about my dad. I mean, whatever scandals there are, I'm sure I'd get over the shock after a while."
"There are two reasons," Zeim explained. "First, it would interfere with the destiny that has been laid out for you. And second..." the shaman paused, "it is feared that the Ki'rath may abandon this quest in favor of more personal pursuits if all the details of his ancestry were revealed."
Hogan frowned. "Doesn't make any sense to me."
"That is all I can say, Hogan. Now, we must return to the transporter. The fourth talisman is on one of the fastest timelines in the universe - even faster than this one. An hour is elapsing on this next world for every second we waste here. You must hurry."
As Hogan and Zeim went back to the stonehenge where the transporter was located, Hogan's mind kept drifting back to his dad. "Can you at least answer one thing?" he asked.
"What do you wish to know?"
"Is my dad... the reason I'm the Ki'rath?"
Zeim sighed. "I am sorry, but I cannot answer that question either."
"That's OK," Hogan replied. "I'll just take that as a 'yes'. You wouldn't be so protective about him if he wasn't."
When they reached the stone formation, Hogan walked onto the engraved platform that served as the launching pad to each destination.
"A tournament is being held at this next planet," Zeim instructed. "This is the 1000th annual event, and the talisman is their grand prize. They do not know of its power - only that it is an ancient artifact with astronomical value. You must somehow win the talisman by winning the tournament. But, be warned. There will be many other combatants from other planets there, and they will look at you as being an easy knockout. To put it in your terms, Hogan, everyone will be gunning for you."
Hogan nodded. "I guess they'll be all the more surprised when I wax their tails."
Zeim smirked. "I shall wait here for your return. Goodbye, Ki'rath."
Lightning struck the platform, and Hogan was gone.
Hogan found himself on what seemed like some sort of luxury resort when he rematerialized. As he looked around, he marveled at the immaculate surroundings; the pathway he was on was decorated on each side with perfectly trimmed hedges and palm trees. In the distance, he saw a gated area where a large swimming pool could be found. The sun was shining brightly on him, and there was a soft breeze blowing from his left.
After taking in the surroundings for a while, he quickly remembered his task, and headed towards the large structure in front of him. As he walked, he was passed by two other beings. One of them looked to be over eight feet tall, with orange scales and reptilian wings poking out from the back, and the other was about half as tall, wearing a powder blue shawl that covered his entire body.
"I just hope I make the brackets this time around," the smaller one said as they passed by.
"Don't think like that," said the tall one. "If you're going to get anywhere in this thing you've got to be confidence that you can win it all."
"What about you, then? How do you think you're going to do?"
The reptile shook its head. "I don't have a chance in Hell."
Hogan smirked. "Hey, guys!"
The two aliens stopped and turned around to face Hogan.
"Is that building where the tournament's held?"
The shorter one blinked twice. "Uh... yeah. Why, you want to buy some tickets to go see it?"
"No," Hogan replied. "I wanted to sign up."
The two of them stared increduously at Hogan for a few seconds, then burst out into uncontrollable laughter.
"Di- Did you hear what he just said??" the shorter one asked amidst his cackling.
"You can't be serious!" the reptile crowed. "An Earthling... fighting in the tournament? Please!"
"I hope you have good medical insurance!"
"No- Life insurance!!"
They continued on their way to the building, still laughing their heads off. Hogan rolled his eyes, then began to follow them up to the front of the structure.
The structure turned out to be a gigantic coliseum, larger than any stadium Hogan had seen on Earth. When he reached it, he found a small table where a man sat with some sort of computer. Above the table was a large sign reading "FIGHTING TOURNAMENT SIGN-UPS".
Hogan walked on up to the table. "Uh... hi. I want to sign up for the tournament."
The attendant, mostly humanoid but with pointed ears and a long, rounded nose, punched a few buttons on his computer. "All righty. Name?"
"Hogan. Hogan Atwater."
The attendant typed the name in. "Planet of residence?"
The attendant chuckled. "Seriously. What planet are you from?"
"I told you. Earth." When the the attendant gave him a look of consternation, he sighed. "By way of Ki'rathia."
"Ki'rathia it is, then." He held out his hand. "Now, for your entry fee."
Hogan furrowed his brow. "Entry fee? Nobody told me about that."
The attendant sighed. "There's a 1,000 rogle fee per entrant. If you can't pay it, then I'm afraid you can't enter in the tournament."
Hogan checked through his pockets. He had lost his wallet back on the desolate planet when he was imprisoned by Varzen. "Crap, I'm short on cash right now. I don't suppose you could float me a loan, could you?"
A voice behind Hogan startled him. "Don't worry, sir; he's with me."
Hogan turned around to see a familiar species: a Draconian, albeit much taller and more muscular than the figure that Hogan had remembered from Prince Drax.
The Draconian handed the attendant an orange slip of paper. "I'll pay for his entry, if that's OK."
"That's quite all right," the attendant replied. He took the bill from the Draconian, then handed Hogan what looked like a suit of armor. "These are your sensors for the qualifying round. Fighting will start tomorrow at around 10 o'clock, but you'll need to be here an hour beforehand. Remember that by enrolling in this tournament you claim all responsibility for any debilitating injury that you may incur while fighting."
"Gotcha." Hogan took the armor from the attendant. "So exactly how many fighters are there going to be? Fifty? A hundred?"
The attendant looked up the roster on his computer. "By the looks of things, we currently have eight hundred thirty-nine entrants."
"Eight hundred thirty-nine??" Hogan stammered. "Damn, I'm going to have my hands full in this tournament."
"Most of you won't make the first cut, however," the attendant explained. "And only 64 combatants get past the second round."
Hogan walked away from the sign-up desk, and the Draconian followed. "I had a feeling the Ki'rath would be here for the talisman."
"You know about me?" Hogan asked.
"Of course! You brought our most celebrated king back from the dead." He offered his hand. "The name's Balatin. It's an honor to meet you."
Hogan shook Balatin's hand. "Thanks for paying my way in."
"I was a little worried you wouldn't get here in time," Balatin explained as they walked back down the pathway to the resort's hotel. "That's why I came. I figured if I won, I'd just wait here and hang on to the talisman until you arrived."
"The way everyone's acting around me, though, I almost feel like this is a waste of time."
"Well, Earth is one of the weakest planets in the universe when it comes to martial arts. Especially since you guys are on such a slow timeline."
"You know, that reminds me - isn't this a faster timeline that the one on Dracon? How come you didn't slow down?"
"The wonders of science," Balatin replied. He pointed to the band wrapped around his forehead. "A little while after you left, our scientists managed to invent this synchronizer. It lets us tune into timelines that are faster than Dracon. Thanks to this, we've been able to establish trade on about a dozen other planets. We can't synchronize ourselves to slower worlds, though."
They reached the courtyard to the hotel, and sure enough - there must have been at least two hundred fellow entrants conversing with each other. Hogan felt like he had stepped into a petting zoo - there were countless variations in height, build, clothing, skin, coloring, horns, scales, wings, tails, and other inhuman characteristics.
"Most of these guys have been doing this for years - some of them for decades. So a lot of us are pretty well acquainted with each other."
Hogan looked around, taking it all in. "So what do you think my chances are of winning this thing?"
"You? The Ki'rath?" Balatin replied. "I'd say you're a shoe-in for the quarterfinals at least. Only then does it get really tough. There's a few strong favorites in the bunch here, but they're all pretty evenly matched." He pointed out one of the contestants. "This guy, though - I'd be worried about him if I were you."
Hogan looked at the fighter that Balatin pointed towards. He looked like a celebrity of some sort; his lime-green body was adorned with all sorts of medals and awards. Even from far away, his stature looked intimidating. "He looks pretty flashy."
"His name's Toma," Balatin explained. "He's a professional prize fighter, and one of the most powerful beings in this timeline. Every fighting tournament he's been to, he's taken first place."
"And I'll bet he's thinking that talisman would make a nice addition to his trophy room."
"Right. And from what I've heard, he's not the most courteous guy to run into, either."
"Well, hopefully I won't have to deal with him until the later ro-"
Hogan was suddenly struck from behind, sending him into the ground. When he picked himself up, he turned around to see a gigantic creature, at least 10 feet tall and overwhelmingly muscular, laughing cruelly.
"Well, it looks like the Ki'rath has finally arrived," the massive being boomed. "I can't wait to hand you your defeat in front of thousands of spectators."
Realizing who it was behind the facade, Hogan burned with rage. "A'nake!"
"Oh, you really are perceptive, aren't you?" A'nake said sarcastically. "When I learned that they were giving away the talisman as the first prize in this tournament, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to show off my power to such a large audience. Of course, I had to usurp someone's body before I could enter, but no doubt you'll agree that I picked a good host, wouldn't you?"
"Size isn't as important as you think," Hogan retorted. "I can't wait to see you get knocked out by someone half your size."
"I sincerely hope you don't mean yourself, because unless I'm mistaken, you've never gotten the better of me without that talisman of yours. And I see no reason why this losing streak of yours would be broken here." A'nake began to walk away. "I'll see you in the ring, Ki'rath."
Hogan and Balatin watched as A'nake slowly mixed into the crowd again.
"Just once I'd like to not have to deal with that guy," Hogan muttered to himself.
"Don't sell yourself short," Balatin said. "With three talismans already, you're probably close to his level by now."
"Problem is, if he wins, then the talisman's all his. Fair and square."
"There's over eight hundred people out here, Hogan. I wouldn't worry about it."
"I'm not," Hogan replied. "But we might need a few more allies."