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Alba has been gushing at us about our match for about ten minutes. We have all changed into our regular clothes, and Rhynn is ignoring him by staring at his phone. Podlihob has pulled out a ball and is idly bouncing it off the floor and a locker before catching it. This is dumb, I’ll be the rude guy who says something.

“Hey, I’m going to let you finish, I just need to know where the toilet is in here and you can go back to talking. To those guys. Who aren’t paying attention at all.”

It’s hard to not laugh in Alba’s face when the expression changes that much, but I persevere.

“Yeah if you need to talk to us every match, we’ll get an agent, and you can talk to them. We’re not looking for endorsements, so I didn’t think we needed an agent, but I really don’t care about the money from this. I’m doing this for these guys, not myself, and definitely not for you or the arena, Alba.” Rhynn tells it like it is! I’ll follow suit.

“I don’t even need to use the toilet, I just wanted you to stop talking. You’re not talking right now, and it’s pretty awesome.” He kept telling us how great our future with the arena will be. Those are the words of somebody who is lying if they repeat it that much.

“I’ll um just let you guys know when your first tournament match is, then, shall I.”

Oh, we’re done with qualifiers? I missed that tidbit in the torrent of hype.

“We should have the brackets finished by the end of the week.”

“Thanks, bye.” We march out of the locker room, while Alba looks only a little bit like a high school kid who just got shot down by the most popular student in class. He’s not our boss and not our agent, and he very obviously needs us at the arena more than the other way around. We ignore the reporters asking for post-match interviews and conferences. When we are finally driving away, Rhynn talks.

“Let’s take it easy tonight, boys. Just two qualifying matches means we’re probably looking at a large tournament bracket. We’ll kill our livers if we go out and party every time we win. We’ll train in dungeons between now and the tournament. I don’t trust Alba after tonight. He’s working an angle on us to be that invested in our results. An instanced dungeon is the safest place for us to train away from prying eyes.”

“I don’t trust that guy. He seems like a used car salesman or con artist or something.” Podlihob sneers.

“He has to keep the arena going mostly with advertising. The AFL doesn’t get the revenue from ticket sales or concession stands, that all goes to the city, so he’s constantly on a marketing push. I don’t envy him his position. That’s doesn’t mean I want to listen to him, though.” Rhynn sounds slightly sympathetic.

“What does AFL stand for?”

Arena… Ooh the only F I am coming up with is a bad one, I’m out.

“Arena Fighting League. We’re in the Unlimited division.” Rhynn explains the different fighting leagues; most of them include an Unlimited division, which is the only division available to players and usually allows golems as well, and then each division has several tiers. Hey, while he’s in tutorial mode, I’ll ask a question that I keep forgetting.

“What are players? A player versus a non-player… Is this world a game or something?” Nobody has explained that to me! Or if they did, I don’t remember.

“This is a difficult question to answer. For most non-players, though, players are essentially immortal demigods. For now, that’s probably the easiest way for you to understand. Because players are so powerful, there tends to be laws limiting what players can do. If players got serious, a handful could destroy a nation. That’s balanced by the players who have an interest in propping up the status quo. Lots of players tend to get involved with running nations, or important institutions in that nation. Then you get guys like me, hedonists who are happy as long as they have enough money to do whatever they want.” Rhynn lights a cigarette. “Good meal and good wine, and I am a happy little duck. What about you Podlihob? What’s your goals?”

“You know my goal; it’s embarrassing to talk about.” We do? Did he already tell us? I’m going to make him mad at me if I say that, I’ll just keep my mouth shut.

“You’re a romantic, kid, but I like that about you.” Romance? I deduce that Podlihob’s goal involves love! He’s the one who’s gung-ho for the arena, maybe his romance involves the arena somehow.

“But is this world a game? What’s this system business all about?” Rhynn didn’t answer that question for me and I’m still curious about it.

“There’s this old quote, that all the world’s a stage and we’re just actors on it. There’s a lot of truth to that. Everything can be done to one person or another’s benefit. Money is one way to keep track of those benefits. Plenty of people view different parts of the world like a game, and some take those games seriously or not depending on how those individuals think. Is this world a game? If you want it to be, sure. It’s a game, enjoy it. If you don’t want to think of it as a game, nobody is forcing you to, and you can be dour and joyless.” Rhynn light another cigarette and flicks the butt of the last one out.

“As for the system, you should definitely look into the explanations at the university about it. People get weird about the system. Like, we’re going on a holy war because of our ideas about the system. You should get an academic to talk to you about it so you can make your own decisions about it.”

The system is serious stuff! I’m a little intimidated to try to find out more about it. Maybe when I get my curse researched at the university I’ll ask then.

“By the way, furball, our arena battles so far have been in a plain arena. Once the tournament is going, we’ll get random environments in the arena based off dungeon hazards. That’s another reason for us to train in dungeons. Our opponents will probably be a little more serious, too. Those guys today seemed low tier, like B. Hell, they may have been power-leveled. The tournament battles will be with battle-hardened veterans from this shard.” Rhynn takes a big drag on his cigarette, and it looks like he smokes half the cigarette at once. Half the cigarette is the cherry now! I don’t think I’ve seen him do that before. “We might let you drown them all first battle just to see if that works. That will piss off Alba, but if we win, we win, and the advertisers can get bent.”

“Let’s do a night dungeon,” Podlihob interrupts. “Right now. We can do the Spook House. That environment fucks people up.”

“That’s a good idea. A lot of hazards are trivialized if we can fly, but that one is not. Taking it easy off the table, we’re going ghost hunting.”

We are flying away from the city now, heading to parts unknown (to me). Spook House sounds different from most of the dungeons we’ve done. I don’t think any of them were individual houses. They were caves, forest mazes, enormous trees, abandoned mines, things like that.

We fly from the city, eventually arriving at a ramshackle house atop a bluff. We enter an instance of the house after landing, standing on a large porch bathed in moonlight. A swing bench hangs from one chain, a rocking chair is broken laying on its side, and darkness peeks out at us from the cracks of the storm shutters on the windows.

I don’t think this place can feel more haunted. I can hear children’s voices faintly. I can’t tell if they’re laughing or crying.

“This feels like a good place to die or go crazy,” I announce.

Podlihob laughs and Rhynn cracks a smile.

“Most people do this dungeon once, if at all, and never come back. Lots of poltergeists and horrible scenes that mess with your mind. It has effects popular in the arena, though, since the mind mojo is only directed at the combatants and not the audience.” Podlihob has put away his crossbow and is wrapping a cloth around the head of his spear.

“To combat the poltergeists, you need holy attacks. Podlihob’s cloth there is some holy relic, and I’ve got blessed brass knuckles. Most wizards without access to holy magic try to talk to the spirits or use barriers to keep them away. If you can figure out a barrier and just herd them all away from us, we can smite them with holy crap to get rid of them. There are two paths in here, we either go up to the attic or down to the basement. The attic has more jump-scare bullshit, the basement has more gore and torture porn. I think we do the attic first, take care of the twins, then go to the basement and take care of the ghouls.”

I consider Rhynn’s speech. I have been able to imbue dimensional spells with attributes. Maybe I can try holy as an attribute?

“Give me a second. Let me try something.” I stare at the brass knuckles Rhynn is wearing. I inspect them and see they are blessed and have some modifiers and a list of attributes, but I don’t really care about most of the information seen. I concentrate on the blessed part and see a description of the blessing.

Holy Attribute: Energy channeled from the font of life. Adversely affects beings of death.

Font of life? That sounds like some nonsense. But I remember how cellular respiration works. Maybe I can just charge up a wire with adenosine triphosphate (ATP)? That stuff helps things live, right?

I pull out a wand and extend the wire, covering it with a moving shroud of ATP, which manifests as a glowing goop. It looks unsanitary, but Rhynn whistles his appreciation.

“That’s some grade-A holy element right there. Maybe you don’t need to mess with the barriers. Let’s go in.”

Rhynn opens the door, which then falls off its hinges with a bang.

“Every fucking time,” Rhynn says. “I should just blast the door open, but I always forget.”

We only jumped a little, really.

Rhynn steps in, then I do, and finally Podlihob. As Podlihob crosses the threshold, a clock begins sounding out the hour. But each bell toll varies in speed and pitch slightly, and after about a half dozen I am losing my mind.

“Where the fuck is that clock? I’m going to break it.” I hate it so much.

“There’s no clock. It’s that mind mojo. After the auditory attacks come the visual. It should be the flashing lights next.” As if on cue, a strobe effect occurs, and I am assaulted by vertigo. Through the fog of flashing lights, I remember there was a specific frequency of strobe effect that caused disorientation, and an easy way to deal with it was to speed it up. Well, I can’t speed it up, but I can add my own strobe effect at a faster frequency.

My faster flashing lights make it feel like we’re in a dance club, and the vertigo leaves.

“Is this all the poltergeists have for us? Cheap science tricks?” I ask derisively.

“There’s a hum that starts when we go to the basement, but for now that’s the minor stuff. When we cross the foyer, we get assaulted by the poltergeists. All we can do down here is destroy the shit they throw at us. We can’t fight them till we get to the attic.” The flashing slows slightly and I realize mine is the only one going, so I dispel it.

“I scoff at the poltergeists’ ability to throw things! I’ll use some gravity magic and they won’t be throwing a thing.” I feel like I may be getting overconfident here, but I really am not afraid. This place is nothing but a cheap amusement park attraction, and I’m here to clean it up. Fear my janitorial prowess!

We slowly advance across the foyer, watching all around us. A loud bang occurs behind us, and the door is shut.

“I thought it fell off the hinges?” I ask, but as the final word leaves my mouth, I see a dustpan suspended in the air. I increase its weight many times over, and it falls back to the ground, twitching slightly as through someone is trying to pick it up.

“Whatever, the shit’s starting to fly.”

I goop the dustpan and see a few wispy tendrils float up from it. I continue to use my gravity and holy combo on everything else I see floating. The storm shutters begin opening and slamming shut, so they get sprayed. Take that, poltergeist, I can crap out glowing slime and it is way better than any ectoplasm you might throw at us!

As though the house was reading my mind, ectoplasm sprays at us from holes in the walls, floor, and ceiling. I seal them all with my slime, but we still get nasty undead juice on us. It feels a little caustic, so I shake it off and rub the remainder with the ATP.

“If you get any on you, I can take care of it with my goop of life!” I scream at the end as a challenge to the poltergeists. Ghosts are nonsense.

We finally make it from the foyer to the hall. A set of stairs go up on one side, while doors on the other side creak their protests at our presence. A large opening in the back of the hall reveals tattered furniture.

“Which way?” I ask.

“We clear this floor first and then head up. If we clear each floor, the kids in the attic are less powerful.” Rhynn’s eyes dart all around. Is this place that freaky? It’s just an old house with ghosts in it. If we have to clear each room on this floor like we just did the foyer, it will take a while. I could just spray my goo into each room and see if that makes it go faster.

“Just to be sure, there aren’t items we need to collect or anything here, right?” I don’t want to mess up our dungeon completion by sliming some item we need.

“If you wanted to talk to the ghosts, there’s a method we could use that involves researching the story behind this place and fixing it. The story is constantly changing, so each time you research a new variation. But you have magic jizz, so I think we’re skipping appeasing their spirits.” Rhynn is actually not lighting a cigarette, which I take as an indication of how seriously he takes this place.

“Awesome, how about we just open doors and I blast the whole room and call it good?” I have high hopes for my hypothesis in this experiment, namely that we can efficiently be done with this dumb shack.

“Absolutely. It might not work in the attic when we actually confront the twins, but it will probably work all the way up till then.”

“Rhynn, you need to have more faith in my magic. I am full of special blessing for these ghosts.” I give him a thumbs up and stride to the first door, confident.

Instead of touching the door, I blast it off its hinges with goo. Suck on that, ghosts! I see several items in the room rattling as though they are about to fly at me, and I proceed to blast the room with my slime.

I repeat this process in each of the rooms, and soon I have creamed the parlour, the study, and the dining room. Through the large opening is a conservatory with a door to the kitchen and a pantry. Goo for all these rooms! Where this place once was a haunted house, I have turned it into an orgy’s aftermath with the power of magic. Oh, here’s a bathroom, kaboom! Bathroom, more like splatroom, am I right?

Rhynn and Podlihob both have been laughing while I make salacious comments before spraying each room. My jokes ride squarely on the intersection of crude and offensive, and they’ve been enjoying the change in atmosphere. Can’t be spooked when we’re laughing so hard we can’t stand it! Finally, we’re back in the hallway, backing up to the stairs as I spray the hall. There’s not a lot in here the poltergeists could throw at us, but I’m not giving these stupid ghosts any openings.

With the first floor defeated by my holy prowess, we move on to the second floor.

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