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The gym is huge, with a very full parking lot. Rhynn just makes his vehicle disappear as usual, so we pile out at the curb and then walk in. I hear a roaring cheer and look at Rhynn quizzically.
“This is one of the main arenas. They also have decent training rooms. The manager and I go way back, so he’ll be excited if I tell him I’m thinking of competing, and he’ll definitely let us check out a room.”
Rhynn walks up to a reception desk with a hostess and nobody else. The ticket desk, meanwhile, has about thirty people waiting in line. Some of those people I have a hard time recognizing as people, but they’re patiently waiting in line and nobody is saying anything, so they have to be people, right? Some of those people in line are giving me the stink-eye, so to make it clear I am a person, I decide to talk with Podlihob.
“Do you have any advice on how to hold back? I’m not sure how to fight without killing people.” We will get to the heart of my current anxiety, so you can cure it with joyous laughter Mister Clown!
“We’re players. You should be trying to kill us so we can just respawn. I’m pretty sure the doorways for the arena work as temporary bind points to respawn at, and I bet the training rooms are the same. Or maybe it’s the locker room. Whatever. You should be okay to go wild, though.”
“But we’re not sure if I’m a player, right? Isn’t that bad?”
His answer really is not reassuring me. I have been researching dimensional magics since last night, so I have some escape spells lined up, but if I take a lethal attack unaware I could just be dead. I do not want to be dead. I am mostly enjoying being alive except when I fuck things up horrendously.
“Rhynn will probably come up with something for you to avoid attacks. Dude is famous. Like, legendary in the player community. He took an ancient stupid meme and turned it into one of deadliest builds out there. He doesn’t have a cooking class and is still one of the best chefs in the world. He gets shit done in PVP but has been out of the scene for a while. I was stoked when I met him yesterday. Not gonna lie, I had to hold in my spaghetti pretty hard when I realized who he was. With him on the team, we can dominate just by standing around and not fucking up.”
Podlihob’s eyes saparkle while he talks. I wasn’t expecting all that, given how he acted when we first met. This really isn’t how Podlihob normally talks, either. I guess meeting Rhynn made him feel better about whatever was bothering him?
Rhynn is no longer talking to the receptionist and is instead talking to a guy who came out from the back. He’s a pale orc, his skin is a light olive, and he’s very tall and super skinny for being that tall. The orc has a huge grin on his face, and suddenly Rhynn is motioning us over.
“This is Podlihob and this is Zavyyn. Podlihob I think has some PVP experience, Zavyyn has none. Guys, this is Alba Noe, one of my old battleground foes.”
“You say foe like I actually could challenge you. You killed me so many times I lost count. I’m looking forward to watching you work from a different perspective.”
Alba’s voice is a cultured baritone, and he keeps grinning while talking.
“Nice to meet you,” I offer, craning my neck to maintain eye contact as we get close.
“Yeah, good to meet you,” Podlihob says, slightly restless. He seems anxious to begin training.
“I’m busy this morning; we have some B and P tier qualifiers going to figure out a couple tournament brackets. But you let me know the next time you’re coming through and I’ll help with the training. Might grab a couple of assistants, too.”
He’s very interested in our training.
“Fuck you man, our training is private. I don’t need any leaks about our fighting styles.” Rhynn is having none of that help! I would have taken the help, but I am clueless about this world, so I guess this is normal.
“There’s that Rhynn paranoia on display. You can always tweak your build if you think people know too much about your tactics or skills.”
“I can tweak your nipple when you’re standing next to me and I don’t. Just because something can be done doesn’t make it a good idea to do it. Anyway, we want our training private. You’ll get a show if we decide we want to do this.” Rhynn seems firm on private training. I remember a quote about controlling information to control a war. Maybe he’s thinking of something like that.
“Fair enough. I’ll be happy to show you to a training room.”
Alba leads us through a narrow hallway before getting to a door.
“Here’s the locker room. The training room is through there. Take the key and you can rest assured nobody will be coming in to bother you. Talk to me before you leave, and we can schedule some more training sessions for you. I’ve got work to get after. You guys have fun.” Alba smiles at us and walks off as we wave our good-byes.
Inside the locker room, we prepare ourselves. Rhynn changes into a leather kilt, with a leather harness across his chest. His tattoos spread across his face and all over his arms. Podlihob turns his mask to cover his face and pulls his hood up, straps a crossbow with weird, spidery protrusions made of bone to his back, and pulls out a large black spear with glowing silver and red runes spiraling around it and the tip glowing an ominous purple. I stand there with absolutely no clue what I should be doing. I want to do an awesome gear reveal like them, but all I have is this piece of wire that is hard to see and the robe I am already wearing.
“Do you have a weapon you want to use?” Podlihob asks me.
“I have some weapons from when I killed a dragon, but I don’t really know how to use them or how they work. I do have this wire,” I say dubiously.
“Rhynn will probably have some ideas on how you can fight. Don’t sweat it.” Podlihob adjust some small wires and wraps them around his knuckles.
“Come on, lads. Let’s make with a training montage.”
What did Rhynn mean by this? I really don’t know.
We enter the training area. It is a large white room and seems far too large to fit in the building. When I mention that, Rhynn tells me we’re in a pocket dimension. I should try studying this place when I have a chance. For now, though, I’m going to watch Podlihob and Rhynn spar.
Podlihob flourishes the spear and then bounces it off his palm. It slowly spins, mostly upright, with the blade facing up and the base slightly above the ground. That angle is not stable and it should fall over, but it just rotates with that slight axial tilt. Podlihob then appears on top of the blade in a weird pose, like a dancer, holding that strange crossbow up. When he said he could turn his spear into a sniper’s nest, for some reason I assumed it would involve the blade thrust into the ground with a tiny platform that popped out for him to stand on. Obviously, I do not know Podlihob well enough.
Podlihob screams “Showtime!” and his crossbow glows before a multitude of lights shoot out, curving all around the room before converging on Rhynn, with no possibility for him to dodge.
Rhynn stands there, with a bored look on his face. As the beams reach him, he lets loose one sharp wordless scream, and every beam disintegrates.
“What else you got?”
Podlihob and the spear vanish, and then I see them up high in the air, with the spear loaded as a crossbow bolt. Purple electricity crackles all around him before he fires. The spear leaves the crossbow so quickly I swear I see it in the air and still in the crossbow at the same time, which I think means it is going faster than light? Maybe? That was weird.
Rhynn plucks the spear air out of the air and tosses it aside.
“You’ll have to do better than that to get me to move. Here, try an attack.”
Rhynn moves his shoulder slightly, and Podlihob reels, falling through the air.
“Okay, I think I got a measure for your abilities. You’re better than I thought, but you still have a lot of room for improvement.”
Seriously, he can improve on attacks that float around light speed? What do I have to do to get a pass, blow up the planet?
“You definitely need better defenses, and you need more distractions for enemies to not pay attention to your attacks. Well, for most arena fighters, you’re strong enough. I can still coach you up.”
Podlihob has managed to pull himself up onto a knee, and is wheezing, holding his abdomen.
“I’m.. looking… forward… to it.” He barely manages to gasp this out.
“Alright, time for the furball. I’ll go easier on you. I won’t attack you at all. So try something on me.” Rhynn looks at me expectantly.
I animate the wire and send it at Rhynn, and he dodges it easily. I really don’t know how to fight well with this thing yet. I should try a different attack so I’m not just doing the same thing over and over.
This time, I conjure water inside Rhynn’s lungs. After a few seconds, he collapses, spewing water and choking. Then his body disintegrates into particles of light, gently floating upwards.
“I win? Hooray?”
Podlihob just stares at me in shock.
“How the fuck did you do that?” Rhynn’s voice comes from the doorway behind me, incredulous.
“I conjured water inside your lungs. I thought it would be an effective attack and I’ve used it before.”
“Drown is a water and necromancy spell, and I have no problem overcoming the drown spell. What you did was something different. It was like it wasn’t recognized as an attack at all, so we never entered our combat modes. Let’s try this again, but this time I’ll make an attack near you and then you try that attack again.”
We take our positions again, and I see Rhynn’s shoulder twitch. I feel a slight sting against my cheek, and then begin conjuring water again. Once again, Rhynn collapses and turns into light particles.
“What the actual fuck? I had every defense possible up, and your spell went off like they weren’t there. How are you casting this spell?” Rhynn demands of me.
“I’m just casting a few billion conjuration cantrips at once. That’s okay, right?”
I’m level 0 and don’t really have spells outside of fecalmancy. I don’t want to fling poop, so all that leaves me for attacks at the moment is my cantrip.
Rhynn’s jaw drops.
“I thought you were bullshitting me when you said you did everything with cantrips.” His tone sounds like I’m doing something wrong. “Multi-casting is a really high-level skill, and each extra spell you cast is increased in cost exponentially. What’s you’re talking about is impossible.”
“But cantrip has a zero cost, so even if it increases exponentially, it would still be zero. Haha, I have gamed the system!” I declare this triumphantly, feeling quite a bit of pride in myself.
“All spells have an MP cost. And even if it was just 1 MP, the second would be increased by at least 1 more, and then the exponents kick in. Lots of players have verified this. Even with maxed out MP reduction skills, spells still have an MP cost.” Rhynn looks at me like I have grown a second head.
“I don’t have MP, I have mana. Would that make a difference?”
“You said that before. And you said you have health, not HP, right?” Rhynn approaches me; his eyes bore into me.
“Yeah, I have health. What’s the difference?”
Not like this should really matter, right?
Rhynn’s face gets really close to my own, and then he speaks.
“The cut on your cheek is already gone.”
“I have a little bit of health regen, it’s not that big a deal, right?” Rhynn shakes his head at my words.
“I am going to hit you really hard. This is an attack that takes people to the edge of death but can’t actually kill. It’s a good attack for doing lots of damage to people with an absurd amount of HP, but can’t be used as a finisher, okay?”
I am okay with experiments but getting hit sounds scary. I don’t like pain, it sucks!
“Okay, I guess. Can I close my eyes, at least?”
“Whatever makes you feel better.”
I close my eyes and an explosion of pain blossoms in my head. My eyelids are full of stars, and I feel my body sail through the air. I crash into the wall and slide down into a pile on the floor.
“Stand up, you won’t die from that,” Rhynn calls out to me.
I pick myself up gingerly and feel slight stings from where his fist caught my face, and where my back hit the wall. After a second, I realize I am fine. I open my status and check, and sure enough, my meager health stat is full.
“I don’t think that actually hurt me. I mean, it really hurt, and felt awful, but my health didn’t change at all.”
This is good, right? Does this mean I am the cheat character now? This absolutely feels like a cheat power. Even though I am level zero, with my cheat power I will try to, uh, come up with some goals?
“This is a double-edged sword. Even though this can make you strong, this is also going to restrict you at the university. They have to measure MP fairly frequently for all sorts of things. Including the mage duel team. If you have no MP, you’re probably not going to qualify as a student, much less as an athlete.”
Rhynn puts one hand on his mouth and his other hand on an elbow while he thinks.
“You could become a solo gladiator on top of being in our team. We should be able to give you a fake identity for solo fights, and you can just dismantle your opponents. They probably won’t be able to tell what happened. Instead of water, you should probably suffocate players with a gas so they have a harder time figuring out how you’re winning. If you go up against a remote golem, see if you can remove the remote link to disable them. You can probably become a division champion in a few months, and that should pay enough you won’t need any other job for a while. You can prove your income with winning deposits, and players working as gladiators is pretty common. Once you have a team tournament under your belt, you should be experienced enough to go solo.”
“I guess that works. How should we go about it?”
I am actually kind of eager to be working and contributing to society, even if it just as an entertainer. The idea of poison gas isn’t one I want to think about, for some reason.
“For now, practice some more with that wire. I’m going to train some with Podlihob and give him some things to think about and work on, and then we’ve got an incredibly special training menu for you.” Rhynn’s smile at the end there is one hundred percent untrustworthy! That is the smile of angry vengeance and I am not okay with the training he has for me!
I keep my objections to myself and practice moving the wire some more. Rhynn explains to Podlihob several points of character-building strategy I don’t get, Podlihob talks some about restrictions on his abilities, and Rhynn apparently has some ideas about how to get around those and mentions a devil for some reason. I don’t really get their conversation as it all sounds like gobbledygook to me. Something about sentry traps and tying their attacks to Podlihob’s crossbow so they attack at the same time he does, with the same attacks. Rhynn keeps bringing up the merits of one statistic versus another and diminishing returns and my brain shuts down, unwilling to put the information together in any sort of coherent fashion. I feel like I am getting better with the wire, though. I made a handle for it and produced another length of it so I can dual-wield it, and I feel more comfortable with two since I can use one to counterbalance the other when I swing it around with, what else? Muh cantrips.
After a long conversation, they duel again, and this time Podlihob actually forces Rhynn to run around the area to avoid attacks. Rhynn still manages to defeat Podlihob, but this time Podlihob does a victory dance.
“I stood up against the Muscle Wizard for five minutes! I even damaged him! I am a fucking beast!” Podlihob’s crowing is interrupted by Rhynn cuffing him.
“Don’t get ahead of yourself. You’ve still got a lot more training to improve your skills with this new skill loadout. The spear acrobatics are a nice touch and make for a good finisher, but you have to be able to do that while also managing the new rotation, kid.”
Even though Rhynn just smacked him, Podlihob still looks excited.
“Got it! I’ll practice in the corner!” Podlihob runs over to where I am.
“You’re up, furball!” Rhynn calls me over.
I plod over. Each step, I wonder what this is going to involve. Is he going to talk to me at length about things I’m completely clueless on? Is he going to make me do something crazy, like laps around the room with bunny-hops?
“Stand here and don’t move. Your training is to get used to pain. Even if you can’t be hurt, you still have to get used to pain so you don’t fall apart in a match if an attack connects. Keep your eyes open and watching me at every moment. I’m going to beat on you until I think you can handle an attack in combat.”
This is the worst. My training is to take a thrashing? I hate training.
Rhynn’s shoulder twitches, my head flies back, and I land on my back.
“Get up. You have to be able to take attacks without letting them affect you at all if you want your invulnerability to be meaningful.” Rhynn is merciless.
I get up on my feet and stare at Rhynn. I try to narrow my eyes to watch his shoulder.
“You’re looking at the wrong place. The attacks are coming from my hands, not my shoulder.”
My head flies back again, but this time I manage to keep my footing by taking a step back. I bring my head forward to look at Rhynn again.
“That’s a good look! I’m going to increase the tempo of my attacks as we go, so look forward to that!”
Time becomes a blur as I continue to take blow after blow. As the afternoon goes on, I get better at not allowing the blows to move my body. I use cantrips to increase my density briefly when taking the hits, and my eyes get better at seeing Rhynn’s hands move. His attack is a quick jab that shoots out compressed air, and, during a short break, he tells me this is one of his weaker attacks.
Finally, we have gotten to the point where I am completely unfazed by his air bullets.
Rhynn says, “You’ve come a long way, furball. Now it is time for me to get a little serious. I will cast a spell.” Rhynn holds up a hand.
“I cast: FIST!”
His scream is followed by an enormous fist descending at me from above, and then everything goes black.