ogan didn't know how he was going to approach Toma this time around. The last time he and Toma met, the professional fighter brushed him off. Since then, everyone had been made to believe that he was the one who wanted to abuse the talisman, not A'nake. Balatin had already left for Dracon, so he had nobody to defend him anymore. Still, with Hogan out of the tournament, there was only one more chance to keep the talisman out of A'nake's hands, and that was if Toma won.
Hogan sat in the locker room, waiting for his third place match to begin. It was there that he spotted Toma, changing into his fighting uniform from his usual bejeweled outfit.
"Toma?" Hogan said, meekly.
Toma merely turned to face Hogan with a cold expression.
"Listen, I..." Hogan felt like he was talking to a movie star. "I have to tell you something."
"I already know about you, kid," Toma said flatly. "And I know you wanted that charm so you could use its power on all of us."
"That's the problem. None of that's true. A'nake is the one who wants to use the talisman to turn people into slaves. I'm the one who's supposed to keep them away from him."
"And what happens if you don't?"
"You don't want to know." Hogan took a step towards Toma. "Look, you're the only one left who can keep A'nake from winning. You have got to win this fight. And if you lose... then don't take the second prize."
Toma gave Hogan a wry look. "What?"
"The awards ceremony is tonight. Tonight's a full moon. That's when the talisman's power is unleashed. You don't want to be anywhere near this planet when it happens."
"Forget it." Toma got up off the bench and started for the exit. "This is how I earn a living. I don't accept my prize money, I don't eat. Besides," Toma stopped at the doorway, "I still don't believe that you're not the one that should be kept away from that talisman."
Hogan stood alone as the door to the locker room closed loudly in the distance.
Hogan's third place battle, despite his lack of enthusiasm, was nearly a mismatch. Facing off against the leopard creature that Toma defeated in the semifinals, Hogan quicly learned that the leopard's only real asset was its speed. Hogan did have his hands full blocking his opponent's attacks, but the ones that landed barely fazed him. On the other hand, when Hogan managed to get in a shot, it sent the other fighter for a loop.
The match ended when the leopard caught Hogan off-guard and slammed him into the ground. Taking a cue from his obvious ancestor, he pounced at him like the non-human animal would, but Hogan anticipated it flawlessly. With a boot to the stomach, Hogan grabbed the leopard's wrists and threw him backwards, sending his opponent out of the ring. Hogan had won third place, but he knew it was a hollow victory.
The final match took place shortly thereafter. Hogan watched from the benches on the sideline as both A'nake and Toma entered the ring from opposite sides. The crowd was going wild as the two finalists took their positions, waiting for the starting horn to sound. Hogan felt compelled to root for Toma; at least when he won he wouldn't know how to use the talisman.
The horn sounded. The final match had begun.
Instantly, both competitors went into their fighting stance. As A'nake brought its massive arms up near its face, Toma came towards A'nake brandishing the razor-like claws on the ends of his fingers. Both of them had a look of total concentration on their faces.
Toma took the offensive first. He slashed at A'nake's unguarded abdominal region, scratching the skin but failing to draw blood. A'nake countered with a clothesline-like elbow to Toma's chest. Unaffected, Toma sprung back onto his feet.
They went back into close quarters. A'nake's mass proved to be a bit of a disadvantage, as it had a difficult time blocking all the moves the Toma was putting on his opponent. Despite Toma's strength, though, A'nake's defenses were remarkably tough.
"Getting tired yet?" A'nake asked in the midst of the battle.
"Hardly," Toma sneered in response. "I could spar like this all day."
The fight seemed to be evenly matched most of the time. A'nake would catch Toma by surprise and hit him with a shot that would send him crashing onto the floor of the ring. Then Toma would retaliate, using his speed to get some quick shots in against A'nake's giant form. Though Toma may have been winning on points, A'nake was the one who seemed to be doing the most damage.
Still, both of them seemed to start getting fatigued after 15 minutes of nonstop fighting. A'nake was feeling the worst effects of it; it was telegraphing its attacks so much that Toma barely had to expend any effort dodging them. Toma, however, was slowing as well, and he was quickly losing his speed advantage.
"I thought you could spar all day," A'nake scoffed, catching Toma's arm during a clumsy attempt at a slash.
"I'm getting just as tired as you are." Toma used his free arm to swipe at A'nake's chest. A'nake was extremely scratched up, but it didn't seem to cause the spirit any major problems. "But I have enough energy to finish you off."
Toma jumped back to the edge of the ring. Then, after taking a moment to build up as much power as he could, he leapt back at A'nake, ready to uncork the final blow. A'nake was building up for a similar attack, ready to end the fight with one more shot. Toma's outstretched leg closed in on A'nake as A'nake whirled around for one last clothesline.
They collided. Both of them had made impact at the exact same moment.
Hogan watched as A'nake was knocked backward, causing the huge body to recoil a few steps back, but regain its balance soon enough to avoid falling out of bounds. However, the force of A'nake's attack send Toma soaring backward, and crashing into the wall of the arena. When he landed on the grass, it was apparent that Toma had lost consciousness.
Hogan felt his stomach turn sour.
"Number 16 is out of bounds!" the referee shouted. "Number 202 is the winner!"
The crowd erupted in applause.
"Ladies and gentlemen," the announcer boomed, "we have a new champion! Number 202 is the winner of the 1000th annual Sarlowan fighting tournament!"
A'nake stood at the center of the ring, basking in its victory. From the bench, Hogan could see the evil glint in its eyes as the situation came crashing down on him. He's won, he thought. A'nake's won the talisman. This planet is doomed.
That night, as the full moon shone brightly in the sky, the awards ceremony was about to take place. The stands remained packed as everyone waited for the champion's crowning to start. Hogan, Toma, and A'nake all stood behind the medalists' podium, ready for the announcer to call their names.
"Ladies and Gentlemen," the announcer began, "it is now time for us to award our top three competitors. Everyone who participated in the tournament has our appreciation for showing their courage and their valor the last five days. But the three people on the field now have shown the most skill in this competition. Here to award the prizes is our very own esteemed leader, the great King Umor!"
The crowd applauded as their monarch's name was announced. The King smiled and waved at the audience in response.
"In third place, we have a man who has shown us that even Earthlings can excel in this tournament. Everyone, please give a round of applause for Hogan Atwater!!"
Hogan stepped up onto the bottom rung of the podium, meekly waving to the crowd as the cheered for him. If A'nake hadn't won, he might've felt a little better about coming in third. Umor placed a bronze medal around his neck, and handed him a small slip of paper. Upon inspection, Hogan realized it was a check for 83,900 rogles.
"And now, in second place, our former champion who no doubt will be back next year to try and regain the title. Let's hear it for the great Toma!!"
The cheers for Toma were nearly deafening as Toma mounted the podium and preened for the masses. The king gave him a silver medal and another check.
Toma glanced at the check handed to him. "251 thousand? I guess this was worth it after all."
"And now," the announcer continued. "In first place. This guy came out of nowhere, but he did fantastic for a rookie. Our 1000th annual fighting tournament champion - A'nake!!"
Hogan shuddered when the name was announced.
A'nake stepped on to the podium, raising its arms in glory. King Umor came to it and handed it another check - presumably more than Hogan's and Toma's combined - and placed the ribbon adorning the talisman around the host body's neck.
"Very well done, A'nake," Toma said, Offering his hand. "That was the toughest fight I've ever been in."
"The sentiment is mutual," A'nake replied, shaking Toma's hand in an odd showing of sportsmanship. "I'm glad I did so well with this body."
"I'm sure you worked a long time to get yourself into such good shape," Toma remarked, misunderstanding what A'nake had just said.
"Oh, I don't know how much exercise this body has had," A'nake answered back, its arrogance getting the better of it. "It wouldn't have mattered anyway - even if I'd lost, I would've just gotten out of this body and possessed the winner's instead."
"Gotten out of your body?" Toma asked, confused. "What are you talking about?"
"A'nake's a disembodied spirit," Hogan replied. "It invades people's bodies and controls them from inside."
Toma still didn't understand what was going on, but the permutations did not work to his liking. "You mean this... isn't really you?"
A'nake gave an evil chuckle. "I could've fought as myself, but I figured why run the risk of losing? So I just snatched up another competitor and used his body for my work. And obviously, I chose the right one."
"Wait a minute..." Toma's anger was starting to rise. "That... that's cheating! You're using the strength of two people in one body!"
"That's what I've been telling you, Toma," Hogan explained. "A'nake was the one who wants to use the talisman on everyone. He even tried to get me disqualified by drugging me with some rage-inducing powder. That's why I nearly went berserk during the third round."
"Are you serious?!" Toma asked, enraged. Hogan nodded quietly. "You mean to tell me that I came all the way out here to fight in this tournament, and now I'm losing to a cheater? Well, I'm not going to stand for it! I demand a rematch!"
"It's too late," A'nake gloated. "The tournament's over. I already have the talisman." It brandished the charm in front of Toma. "And now, everyone here is going to find out just what it does."
"Not if I have anything to say about it!" Almost reflexively, Toma made a swipe at A'nake with his talons.
The crowd gasped in horror.
Hogan, standing on the opposite side of A'nake, looked on in shock. The slash missed A'nake completely, but it did catch the talisman. Toma's claws were so sharp, they actually sliced through it. Hogan watched as the talisman came apart in four fragments, falling onto the grass in front of the podium.
"Serves you right," Toma scowled. "If you don't play fair, you don't deserve the prize."
Hogan wasn't even watching the other two medalists anymore. He was transfixed on the pieces of the talisman laying on the ground. "The talisman..." he whispered. "It's been... destroyed!"