ogan nearly felt sick to his stomach. Instinctively, he scooped up the four talisman shards, thinking that maybe there was some way to reattach them. But even though the cuts Toma had made were straight, Hogan couldn't keep them together.
"I guess this means I don't have to worry about either one of you using that thing on me," Toma said, still oblivious to the possible ramifications of what he had done.
"The fourth talisman's been cut into pieces," Hogan replied, restating the obvious. "What am I supposed to do now?"
"Well, obviously this talisman has no use to me now," A'nake explained, viewing the recent events as little more than an inconvenience. "I guess it's time for me to take my leave of this planet and seek out the next one. At least I can go with the satisfaction of knowing that once again, you had no chance of beating me when you can't resort to any of your tricks, Ki'rath." A'nake stepped down from the podium. "So long, suckers."
A split-second later, A'nake shot up into the sky and out of sight. The body that the spirit had usurped for the tournament was now sprawling on the floor.
Hogan wanted to pursue the spirit, but was too busy worrying about the problem he already had. But before he could ponder things too much, he was interrupted by a loud thunderclap accompanied by a flash of nearby lightning.
He looked up at the sky. In the light of the full moon, Hogan could see storm clouds rolling in at an almost unnatural speed. Unlike before, though, there was no rain to accompany the lightning; instead, the wind was gusting and a general feeling of disease was in the air.
"Toma," Hogan shouted. "you need to get out of here!"
"Why?" Toma asked in response. "What's going on?"
"I don't know, but whatever it is it can't be good!"
Toma nodded in compliance, and walked briskly towards one of the tunnels leading away from the playing field.
Hogan now stood all by himself in the center of the field, unsure of his fate and scared out of his wits. Lightning bolts struck all around the arena floor, seeming to dance around him as if they were trying to surround their target rather than strike him directly. A few more seconds passed before one final bolt of lightning came down from the clouds directly above Hogan, hitting him squarely and carrying him away.
As Hogan had grown accustomed to after being transported via lightning several times already, the snow-blindness in his vision dissipated after a few seconds, to be replaced by total darkness. Wherever Hogan had been taken, it was pitch black. He even tried waving his arms in front of his face, and couldn't see them.
"Hello?" Hogan asked. "Is anyone home?" He paused for a few seconds, but heard no answer. "Look, I'm really, really sorry about what happened to the talisman. I never thought it would get damaged like that."
Hogan's words were again met with silence.
"Where am I?" Still no answer. "What's going on? I'm not... dead, am I?"
"HOGAN ATWATER..." A booming voice reverberated through out the room.
Hogan looked frantically around in the darkness, searching for the origin of the voice despite the complete darkness filling the entire place. "Who's there?"
"YOU HAVE FAILED IN YOUR QUEST TO PROTECT THE TALISMANS," the voice continued, ignoring Hogan's question. "AS THE KI'RATH, IT WAS YOUR SOLE DUTY TO PREVENT THE TALISMANS FROM FALLING INTO EVIL HANDS. NOT ONLY DID YOU ALLOW THAT TO HAPPEN, BUT IT RESULTED IN THAT TALISMAN BEING DESTROYED."
"Please!" Hogan shouted. "I didn't mean for this to happen! I'll do whatever it takes to fix it! Just don't kill me! Please, I'm begging you!"
"KILL YOU?" the voice replied. "IT IS NOT OUR INTENTION TO KILL YOU. HOWEVER, WE CANNOT ACCEPT WEAKNESS FROM THE KI'RATH. YOUR POWER IS SOMETHING THAT MUST BE ADDRESSED IMMEDIATELY."
"You mean..." Hogan gulped, "I'm losing my powers?"
"OF COURSE NOT! YOU ARE THE CHOSEN ONE. YOU ARE THE KI'RATH. WE CAN'T JUST FIRE YOU AND HOLD INTERVIEWS FOR A REPLACEMENT. WHAT DO YOU THINK THIS IS, BURGER KING?"
"Huh?" The change in tone threw Hogan for a loop. "Who are you? What do you want with me?"
"LOOK BEHIND YOU."
Hogan turned around, and saw an odd-looking creature, appearing somewhat like a gremlin. It was nearly fluorescent blue, seemingly giving off its own light, with long, pointed ears and a short, squat body with tiny wings coming out from the back.. It was a quarter of Hogan's size, but it was floating in the air to meet Hogan at eye level. Hogan recoiled in surprise. The other creature burst into laughter.
"Sorry about that," the gremlin said, giggling. "I just haven't had anyone to play around with in about 5000 years, so obviously I was starting to get a smidge bored." It flew around Hogan a couple of times, chuckling to itself.
"My name is Karsh, but the important thing is, I'm the guy in charge of fixing this problem that you've caused. You see, I..." Karsh pointed his thumb at himself, "am the guy who's in charge of the passing of time in this little place we call 'The Universe'."
"So, where exactly am I?" Hogan asked.
"You ever take an astronomy class, son?" Karsh asked in reply.
"Uh, not really."
"OK, I guess I'll have to explain this then. You know what happens if a star gets too big, right?"
"I think so," Hogan answered back. "doesn't it collapse on itself and become a bl-... I'm in a black hole?!"
"Very good, Hogan! You're more perceptive than I thought! Anyway, when I and the other ancients - I forgot to mention I'm one of the ancients you keep hearing about, didn't I? That's right, yours truly is one of the nine most powerful entities in the entire universe!"
"As you were saying?" Hogan prompted, crossing his arms in annoyance.
"Oops, sorry. As I was saying, when we were looking for someplace to build our pad, we needed something with a lot of room. And I mean, a looooooooot of room. We need enough room to house every good-natured being from all planets containing intelligent life for all of eternity. 3 beds and 2 baths isn't going to cut it. So eventually we decided, hey - what better to stuff everyone into than a place with so much gravity that everything ends up taking an infinitesimal amount of space - the center of a black hole? Oh, and the real estate agent gave it to us for a reasonable price; all she asked for was her own little slice of paradise when she kicked the bucket. That sort of thing is no problem for us."
"So what you're saying is... this is the realm of the ancients?"
"My, you catch on quick!"
Suddenly, the room acquired some illumination. The floors, walls, and ceiling of the expansive room were all giving off a faint indigo light. Hogan's eyes started to adjust to the light.
"I still don't know what I'm doing here," he said.
"Well, as you can probably tell, the last thing we wanted is for one of those talismans to get chopped into pieces. You know, there's a reason we had six of them."
"Because five was too few and seven was too many." Karsh laughed at his own joke again. "Seriously, though, we need to have all six talismans operational. And super glue isn't going to help at this point."
"But it's too late. The talisman's already broken. What are we supposed to do about it now?"
"Hogan," Karsh said sternly, "you forget who you're talking to, and where you're talking to him. I'm the guy in charge of time, right?"
The light bulb went on in Hogan's head. "Oh, I get it! You turn back the clock to the semifinals of the tournament and I play it a little differently."
"Well, that's kinda what I had in mind, but I can't reverse time. I can only slow it down or stop it."
"What good does that do, then?"
"I'm not finished!" Karsh flew towards the far wall, and Hogan followed. "I might not be able to turn back time, but the black hole can do that for us."
Hogan blinked twice. "Come again?"
"In a black hole," Karsh explained, "time and space are flipped. Your movement in space is extremely limited, but moving in time is a cakewalk. We can go from now to then just like we were walking to the drugstore."
"All right! So we go back to my fight with A'nake, and this time I'll change the way I fight so I'll win this time."
"Hold it. What makes you think that you'll win if you got another shot at it?"
"Well..." Hogan stammered. "the only reason I lost was because I hesitated in making a final charge at A'nake. If I didn't wait so long, I could take him out."
"See, that's what I meant when I said we're going to have to address your power while you were here. Thing is, I've seen the way you fight. Very, very sloppy. You just dredge up some spirit energy in your hands and figure that's enough to knock the other guy out. And most of the time, it is. But when you're going up against the heavy hitters, you need to do more than just set fire to your fists. Your body has to literally become an antenna of spiritual power, so that the energy inside you is amplified to maximum strength."
Karsh and Hogan reached the far wall, where a large hatch was situated in the middle.
"So I'll put time at a standstill in this room while you work on your posturing. Luckily, I found just the guy to teach you how to do all this."
The hatch opened. The person standing in the doorway sent Hogan reeling.