You can't be serious," Balatin said. "Toma's not going to help us out."
"I don't expect him to," Hogan said as he made his way across the crowded courtyard to where Toma's circle of friends were located. "But he ought to know exactly what he's playing for."
Balatin looked stunned as he watchd Hogan walk away. It took him a few seconds before he realized that maybe he should follow. When they reached him, he was accompanied by a posse of five of his friends, similar in physical appearance to Toma but not as muscular and certainly less decorated. When Hogan and Balatin came near, he looked upon them snobbishly.
"Is there something you need to talk to me about?" Toma scoffed.
"As a matter of fact," Hogan replied, "Yes. I just wanted to tell you that this talisman that they're giving away as the grand prize - it belongs to me."
"Sure, kid," Toma said dismissively.
"I'm serious. It's got powers that only I can unlock. And I was sent here to get it back. Now, I'm probably not going to win this tournament, so all I can ask is that if you win, you let me have it."
"You want Toma here to give up the grand prize?" one of his followers asked in amazement.
"You really are dense," said another.
"What would an Earthling like you do with something so powerful, anyway?" a third cronie asked.
"I bet he'll use it as a lucky charm!" a fourth one joked. All five of them shared a laugh at that remark, but Toma remained emotionless.
"Look, kid," Toma explained. "You think I'm out here for my health? This is how I make a living. I enter into these things, collect my prize money, and head off to the next tournament. Now, unless you plan on buying that talisman off of me when this thing is over, then you're just gonna have to win it like everyone else is trying to do. Now buzz off."
"Now look here!" Balatin screamed. "This guy isn't some ordinary Earthling! He's the Ki'rath! And he could whup all your butts with his eyes closed!"
"Balatin..." Hogan said quietly. "You're not helping..."
"He was asking you nicely for the talisman just so he wouldn't have to beat it out of you!"
"Balatin!" Hogan hissed. "Shut up!"
"Now I don't know what gives you the right to treat us like little kids, but you'll be sorry you di- urk!"
Toma grabbed Balatin from the throat.
"I don't know who you are, or what you think you're trying to pull," Toma growled as Balatin choked for air, "but you'd better hope we don't meet in the ring. You're lucky I'm in such a good mood right now, because otherwise I'd be turning you into hamburger. Now why don't the two of you run off to your mommies and leave me the hell alone!"
Toma shoved the Draconian away, sending him onto the ground. He gasped for air for a few seconds, then he and Hogan made their way out of the courtyard.
"Why did you say that stuff?" Hogan asked angrily. "Now everyone's gonna be after me even more."
"I was just trying to help," Balatin replied. "Besides, I've been meaning to tell him off for a while."
"Now I've got two enemies in this tournament," Hogan sighed. "I'm just glad the qualifying round starts tomorrow or else I'd have all of the 837 other competitors out for my hide."
The next day, everyone piled into the coliseum for the qualifying round. Hogan donned his armor - which consisted of three green lights on his chest, back and head - and made his way onto the floor of the arena, where everyone else was crowded on a 100-yard square ring. Balatin was by his side, wearing a similar suit of armor. Looking around him, Hogan could see that the stands were totally packed. There were twice as many people watching as there were people in Hogan's hometown.
"So how does this work?" Hogan asked.
"Those lights on your body are sensors," Balatin explained. "They detect impact on those three regions of your body. If an opponent hits them hard enough, they go red. If all three of your sensors turn red, you're out. They keep going until there are 256 people left."
"Sounds simple enough," Hogan said.
"There are a few other rules, though. First, you can't knock out more than one sensor on the same person. Also, they're looking more for technique in this round, so no knockouts or drawing blood. And finally, if you step out of the ring, you're out."
"Thanks for the warning. Good luck."
"Same to you!" Balatin ran off to take his position on the ring. Hogan did the same. Being the last entrant, Hogan was placed on the southeast corner of the ring, limiting his openings. There was only about ten feet between each competitor, plus there looked to be over 100 referees overseeing the action.
As the stadium clocked ticked off 10:00, the crowd began to grow quiet, in obvious anticipation of the opening ceremonies. Everyone turned to face the western side of the coliseum. Within moments, someone emerged from the uppermost opening. He was an old man, with a long white beard that appeared to drag along the floor, wearing a royal blue cape and light blue uniform with a gold crown on top. The crowd went berserk.
Out of the corner of his eye, Hogan spotted Toma, his jewelry removed for combat. Not too far away from him was A'nake, obviously nonplussed about the extra festivities.
As the crowd began to die down, the old man began to speak.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, People of all worlds. I welcome you to the planet of Sarlow, and this - the 1000th Annual Sarlowan Fighting Tournament!"
The crowd erupted in cheers again.
"This event marks one thousand years of being the foremost tournament in all of the universe, as well as the 1000th tournament that I have overseen. It is with this tournament that I, the great King Umor, offer this mysterious object - " he displayed the talisman - "as the grand prize. For centuries, scholars have gone great lengths to discover the origins of this medallion, and what properties it possesses, to no avail. My hope is that whoever wins this tournament will find the proper use for this item, so that we all may learn what had brought it here. I expect all of you to give us your full effort in this competition, and not hold anything back. Good luck, and may the best fighter win!!"
The crowd was almost delirious in its fanfare. Moments later, a horn sounded above the din, signalling the beginning of the qualifying round.
Hogan turned back around. The three competitors that were surrounding him looked at him with obvious plans. Suddenly, all three of them pounced towards Hogan. Anticipating the charge, Hogan leapt into the air, and the three assailants crashed into each other. While they were dazed, he quickly came back down and tapped at a sensor on each player's suit, causing them to flash red. Satisfied with his work, Hogan started to head towards the center of the field.
The preliminary round was basically a free-for-all. Hogan watched for a moment at what was transpiring; it reminded him somewhat of a barroom brawl. He spotted A'nake about 100 feet away, fighting off several contestants at once. Just as he was about to make a move for his rival, he sensed someone coming from behind. He whipped around, blocking the attack from an alien being and striking him in the chest. The sensor went red, and an alarm sounded to notify him that he had been eliminated.
Hogan resumed his hunt for A'nake, avoiding others' attacks and getting in his own shots as necessary. Less than a minute had passed, and already Hogan felt as if about 20 people had gone after him. Nobody had managed to inflict a hit on him, though, and Hogan had strung up about a half-dozen kills himself. He started to close in, and when he got within 20 feet of A'nake, he noticed that two of the spirit's sensors had already gone out; only the one on its head remained lit. Sensing the opportunity to knock out his main opponent, Hogan rushed at A'nake's head.
"Your run ends here!" Hogan shouted, getting A'nake's attention.
"I'd like to see you try it!" A'nake replied.
Hogan lunged at A'nake, fists drawn to strike the final sensor. A split second before he could unleash his attack, however, the sensor began to flash green, as well as the ones on his own armor. A second horn sounded, signifying the end of the qualifying round.
"Damn it!" Hogan said under his breath. "Couldn't they have waited another half-second?!"
A'nake chuckled. "Well, Ki'rath, it appears your attempt to rid me from this competition is too late. Rest assured, I will see to it that the talisman reaches its rightful owner - me."
"I wouldn't get so cocky. There's still seven more rounds to go. And you were lucky to get this far."
"Luck may have gotten me this far," A'nake explained, "but from here on it will be my strength that carries me to the Winner's Circle. Now go, before I decide to take you out of the tournament anyway."
Hogan turned around and left, disappointed that he had missed his chance but satisfied that he had qualified himself.
"Hey, Hogan!" Balatin shouted from his right. The sensor on his chest was the only one still on. "Did you make it?"
Hogan nodded as he made his way towards his companion. "Yeah. I think I did pretty good, actually."
"So, how many times did you get hit?"
"Me?" Hogan asked, finally reaching Balatin near the edge of the ring. Everyone began to make their way off of the playing field to set up for the second round, and Hogan and Balatin followed the crowd to the northern exit. "I don't think I got hit at all. I don't remember anyone hitting me."
"Nobody touched you?" Balatin asked incredulously. "Are you serious?"
"Yeah, a lot of people went after me, but I never got hit."
"That's amazing... They say that only about eight or nine people get through the qualifying round without being hit by anyone else."
"Really?" Hogan asked. "Wow. I didn't realize I was in such exclusive company. I tried to take A'nake out, but they called time just before I could hit him. How did Toma do?"
"He didn't take any hits, either. I don't think he ever has in this tournament, actually."
Hogan looked back and saw Toma, strolling casually off the field, all three of his sensors still on.
"He's gonna be a hard nut to crack, I think," Balatin remarked.
"I kinda hope he and A'nake wind up together in the brackets somewhere," Hogan said. "That way one of them will knock the other one out."
"Well, let's not get ahead of ourselves. There's still one more round before they even draw the brackets, and it's not going to be any easier than what we just went through."