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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 cleared the first qualifying round of the fighting tournament which boasts the talisman as its grand prize. But Hogan's two chief rivals - Toma and A'nake - have also advanced.

Chapter 35: A Marked Man

"The second round is where they determine who gets into the brackets," Balatin explained. "They basically send four people at a time into the ring, and the one of them who lasts the longest gets in."

Hogan was sitting anxiously on the bleachers around the field, waiting for his number to be called. His armor was still on. "Same rules as before?"

"Basically, yeah. And any hits you took in the first round carry over. So if you only have one sensor left, you've gotta beat everyone else without getting hit again."

"A'nake only has one sensor left," Hogan recalled. "So he might get knocked out right here."

The two of them watched as A'nake went into the ring, the sensor on its chest the only one remaining that hadn't already been punched out. Three other alien beings entered the ring along with it, and they each took their position on separate corners of the ring. Seconds later, the starting horn sounded.

Despite being the most vulnerable fighter in the ring, A'nake didn't bother putting up any sort of defensive stance. It went straight for one of the other three opponents, giving him a shot to the gut so forceful it sent him flying out of the ring. It then charged across the field to the other two combatants, simultaneously connecting with a punch to the head against one of them and a kick to the torso on the other. A'nake turned to his left, slapping the sensor on the second rival's back to eliminate that player. It then sensed the last opponent coming at it, and it swiftly reacted with an open palm to the head, shutting down the last of his sensors. A'nake was now the only fighter left standing, and it smirked bemusingly as it basked in its victory.

"They call this a tournament?" A'nake taunted. "These are supposed to be the best fighters in the universe? I took them all out in less than a minute!"

Hogan felt uneasy watching A'nake gloat in front of the crowd. "Damn it, he's through to the next round."

"You'll do just as well as A'nake did, don't worry," Balatin consoled. "Besides, it wouldn't be any fun if you didn't go face to face against that guy."

"I don't want this to be fun. I want to win this tournament, get the talisman, and get the hell out of here before anything bad happens."

The human and the Draconian watched impatiently as the second round progressed. They continually anticipated their numbers to be called with each subsequent grouping, but they waited almost the entire day without either of them being called. Meanwhile, they got to see the fight between Toma and his three opponents; unsurprisingly, he dispatched of them all without much trouble or taking his first hit.

The sun was starting to set when the public address system made another announcement. "May I have your attention please. Will the following contestants please enter the ring: Number 141."

Hogan and Balatin shook their heads in unison.

"Number 526."

Hogan sighed. That wasn't their number, either.

"Number 317."

Balatin jolted up. "That's me!"

Hogan smiled, patting Balatin on the back. "Go get 'em, tiger."

"Number 839."

Hogan's eyes went wide. That was his number. He and Balatin were put in the same group. "Damn."

"Well, I guess this means one of us isn't going to make the brackets. I promise I'll go after the other two guys first."

Hogan chuckled. "Thanks. But don't expect me to go easy on you."

The two of them both climbed up on the ring. Facing them was a stout, light-furred creature with horns, dressed in an auburn gi; and a bare-chested, grey-skinned being resembling a gargoyle.

"Good luck," Balatin shouted, presumably directed at Hogan.

The starting horn sounded.

Hogan stood for a moment, taking a protective stance. Balatin charged at the gargoyle, but his punch was caught and the other fighter twisted his arm around, effectively paralyzing him. Balatin was then struck in the head and thrown back several feet.

Hogan decided to enter the action then. The gargoyle only had one light remaining on its back, but hitting it proved to be a challenge, since he had trouble getting behind the gargoyle and its 15-foot wingspan. Eventually, though, he faked the gargoyle into turning the wrong way, and a kick to the back sent his opponent out of contention.

Balatin was meanwhile fighting the horned creature, and was having a tough time contending with the ram-like being's superhuman strength. The two of them sparred for more than half a minute before Hogan jumped into the melee. Obviously favoring the contestant he knew, he uncorked an elbow to the chest of the ram. That was its last sensor remaining, and it too was eliminated.

Finally, Hogan and Balatin set their sights on one another, both of them smirking at each other in amusement at the circumstances. Still, Balatin only had one light remaining on his head, and Hogan still hadn't been touched. They went at it for close to a minute until Hogan finally found an opening. Not wanting to hurt his friend, he flicked his finger up against the sensor on Balatin's head, turning it off. The sensors on Hogan's armor flashed, signifying that he had won the match. The crowd cheered in approval.

"Looks like you're in the brackets, Hogan," Balatin said as the two of them walked out of the ring again.

"I'll bet nobody here expected an earthling to make it this far into the tournament," Hogan bragged. "And I have a feeling that this show is far from over."

That night, a party was held in the resort's courtyard to honor the 64 competitors who had qualified for the one-on-one bouts. Hogan noticed that while everyone was quick to brush him off at the outset, he had now become the most talked-about fighter in the tournament. Several of the other competitors even came up to him and asked for autographs. One of them Hogan recognized from earlier - the tall dragon who had laughed at him when he had arrived.

"Have all the earthlings suddenly gotten this strong?" he asked.

Hogan chuckled. "No, just me. I guess you could say I'm doing Earth proud, though."

"I'll say," the dragon replied. "There were only two people who got this far without getting hit once: you and Toma. That's pretty good company if you ask me."

"Ah, these first rounds were more about finesse than power. I'm not sure I'm going to do quite as well from here on out."

"Don't sell yourself short, kid. You're the crowd favorite now. They're gonna be cheering you on the whole way."

Hogan smiled. "Good. I'll need all the help I can get."

"Especially when you go up against me," a voice taunted behind him.

Hogan turned around. Sure enough, there stood A'nake, glaring at him like an angry parent.

"Those were some fancy moves out there, Ki'rath," A'nake said. "It's a shame that I've seen them all before."

"You two know each other?" the dragon asked.

"Uh... yeah," Hogan answered, his eyes still fixed upon A'nake's massive host body. "You could say that."

"Well, introduce me to your friend," the dragon requested, totally oblivious to the tension between them.

"He's... not exactly a friend, to be honest."

"That's right," A'nake remarked. "In fact, I've been sent here to prevent this Earthling from winning the grand prize. You know what will happen if he gets his hands on that talisman?"

Hogan scowled at A'nake. "Nothing compared to what you'd do with it."

"He'll wait until there's a full moon, get a crowd of people, and transform them all into monsters that he'll enslave to do his bidding."

The dragon looked at Hogan with concern. "Is... is this true?"

"Of course it's not true!" Hogan shouted. "This guy's lying through his teeth! That's exactly what he wants to do with it!"

"My fellow competitors," A'nake announced to the crowd, "don't you think it's rather odd that this earthling has somehow managed to make into the upper levels of this tournament? How come he's so much more powerful than anyone else from that planet?"

Some grumblings began to rise from the crowd.

"No doubt he's found some way to steal the powers from other, stronger beings, so he could use them here in this tournament. And if he were to win, who knows what kind of destruction he will bring down on this and many other worlds."

All the other fighters were now looking at Hogan with utter contempt.

"I know that in the end," A'nake explained, "only one of us will win the tournament and its prize. But I ask you all, however the competition works out - you must prevent this earthling from winning! The fate of the universe depends on it!"

The crowd roared with agreement. Hogan felt a chill sweep through his body. A'nake had just turned the entire field of competitors against him, which he knew was going to make his task all the more difficult.

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