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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 made it to the semifinals of the tournament, but not without some interference from A'nake.

Chapter 38: The Main Event

The tournament was now entering its fourth day. Hogan got up that morning, showered, got dressed, ate breakfast, and headed to the arena... all without saying a word. It wasn't until he and Balatin arrived at the arena that Balatin tried to talk to him.

"Hogan, are you all right?" he asked. "I've never seen you so serious before."

"I've gotta win this one," Hogan said quietly. "I've gotta win."

"Come on, this shouldn't be too hard. I mean, you've beaten A'nake before, right?"

"Yeah," Hogan replied. "But never under these circumstances. A'nake in a body, me without a talisman... I'm 0-and-3 in that situation. And if I lose here, then I have no way to stop him from winning this planet's talisman."

"Don't say stuff like that, Hogan. You just have to stay focused."

"That's what I've been trying to do."

Balatin blinked a couple times. "Oh. Sorry."

"It's OK. I think I'm getting close to his power now. I've already absorbed three talismans; hopefully that'll be enough for me to at least make this a close fight."

"Well, good luck."

"Thanks. I'm gonna need as much of that as I can get."

Hogan sat on the benches outside the ring as he watched the first semifinal match. Toma was up against the only semifinalist that Hogan wasn't familiar with; a leopard-like creature with deep brown spots covering a thick fur coat, although it wasn't quite as feral-looking as the animals Hogan was familiar with on Earth. The match lasted close to ten minutes, and for once Toma was actually had a challenge on his hands. It was still obvious who was the better fighter, however, and Toma eventually wore down the leopard with a steady combination of attacks. The leopard was knocked down, and the ten count administered. The ending horn sounded, and the crowd cheered as the prohibitive favorite was crowned as the tournament's first finalist.

As he walked off the ring, Toma looked at Hogan on the bench. "You're next," he sneered as he made his way into the locker room.

Hogan scowled back at Toma, then set his sights back on the tournament ring. He didn't even wait for his number to be called; he simply made his way up onto the battlefield, A'nake doing the same. They stood on opposite ends of the ring, glaring at one another.

"I'm sure they have a lovely prize for third place, Ki'rath," A'nake taunted as they waited for the starting horn to sound.

"You can have it, then," Hogan growled in reply. "Because there's no way you're going to beat me this time."

"Oh, is there? I guess we'll see about that."

The first horn sounded.

Without even a moment's hesitation, A'nake charged at Hogan. Hogan charged at A'nake in turn. But rather than take a swing at A'nake's host body, he dodged at the last second, then sent his elbow into A'nake's back. It crashed into the ground and slid several feet before picking itself up.

"The one difference between this fight and all the others," Hogan explained, "is I don't have to knock you out. I just have to get you out of the ring and I win the match."

A'nake scoffed. "Hmph. The same rule applies to you."

They met at the middle of the ring again. Even though Hogan was still somewhat weaker than A'nake, he still managed to conserve his energy by dodging the unwieldy body's attacks and getting in his shots when possible. Still, it was obvious that A'nake had the upper hand in terms of size and strength.

Seizing an opening, A'nake grabbed Hogan by the back of the neck, trying to toss him out of the ring like it had done with an earlier opponent, but Hogan managed to stop his momentum as he skidded near the edge. He got back up on his feet and glared back A'nake.

"That was the wrong move," he said. "Now if you want to knock me out, you're gonna have to come after me. If you miss, all your momentum will carry you off the platform."

"That's what you think," A'nake hissed in reply. "I know how you fight. You get impatient. All I have to do is wait you out, and you'll come after me. In fact, I'll just move back to the other end of the ring." A'nake did so, side-stepping its way to the western edge of the platform. "Now you've got the same problem."

"What makes you think I don't know your fighting style too? You'd never let yourself win any other way than by knocking me out. Well, here I am. I won't even fight back. Go ahead, take me out."

"Don't worry, Ki'rath. I will."

The two of them stood there. Both of them waiting for the other to make a move. The tournament - which had begun as a free-for-all in the qualifying rounds - had now become a chess match. 10 minutes passed, neither of them moving an inch.

"This could get interesting, folks," the announcer said over the loudspeaker. "It appears as if both competitors are in a defensive stance, and waiting for the other competitor to go after them." Another three minutes passed, and still neither of them had budged. "Some of you may want to take a bathroom break - this could be a long one."

Half an hour passed. Both Hogan and A'nake remained frozen in their respective positions. The crowd began to get restless, jeering and booing the two fighters, imploring them to go on some sort of offensive.

It was 15 minutes later when something finally started to develop. A'nake had gone into a crouching position. Arms shielding its head, A'nake tucked into almost a ball-like form, its massive body compacted down to nearly half its size but twice the width.

Something's up, Hogan thought. He's gotta be charging up for some sort of attack. But he knows I'll see him come after me with plenty of time to defend myself. What could he be doing?

A'nake's eyes were now closed in concentration. The crowd was getting listless again, anticipating something was about to happen.

Another five minutes passed. The match had now gone past one hour, and neither one of them had moved from their position. A'nake remained in its tucked form.

Hogan balled his hands into fists. He's definitely charging up for an attack. My only chance is to knock him out while he's still concentrating. Silently, he drew back a little, steady himself for a charge, like a sprinter waiting for the starter's rifle. Sensing the right moment, he pounced forward.

Within a fraction of a second, he felt a swift impact with his head against something large moving at an incredible speed. His recoil sent him flying almost to the walls of the arena, and he crashed into the grassy field surrounding the ring.

The entire crowd gasped in surprise.

Dazed, Hogan could only stare at the sky above him, cloudy and orange with the setting sun. "What hap-... How did-... Where did he..."

A'nake stood at the edge of the ring where Hogan was once standing. "Once again, Ki'rath, your ignorance of other races is your downfall. I knew that this body was capable of teleportation as long as I built up enough energy. That's the main reason I chose this body."

"But..." Hogan stammered, the gravity of the circumstances beginning to weigh down on him. "But... that's not fair... you're not allowed to do that... are you?"

"As long as he stays within the confines of the ring," the referee explained, totally oblivious to what this match meant, "it's legal. The match is over. Number 202 is the winner."

"It's official!" The announcer shouted. "Number 202 is our second finalist!!"

The crowd cheered in response.

"No!" Hogan shouted, standing back up and running towards the ring again. "No!! He's not supposed to win!"

"That means Number 202 will be facing off against Toma for the grand prize!" the announcer continued.

"NO!!" Hogan screamed. "Don't you get it?! If he wins the tournament, he'll enslave all of you!"

Hogan made it to the edge of the ring where A'nake was waiting, a smirk on its face that it had waited far too long to use on Hogan.

"Well, Ki'rath," A'nake gloated. "It looks like I was right all along. Without the power of the talismans, you can't do a thing to beat me. And all I have to do is win one more match, and the talisman is mine. And there's not a thing you can do about it now."

Hogan opened his mouth to speak, but no words could come out. He watched meekly as A'nake made its way across the ring, towards the western exit. As he watched, the realization was sinking in. Hogan had lost. Hogan had failed. A'nake had defeated him, and he was now powerless to stop the evil spirit from fulfilling its goal. Only one opponent now stood in A'nake's way - and Hogan's only chance was to find him and convince him of the truth.

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