Chapter 1:

Layer 1 of the Primordial Hollows. Welcome to Isekai.

What it Takes for a Loser to Become a Career Isekai Adventurer ダメ人間が本職異世界冒険家になる資格は


Den wheezed as he swung his hammer down again on the rusty lock sealing shut the heavy stone doors before him, cursing his uselessness for the millionth time. He grit his teeth, bringing the household tool down over and over, clipping the number-lock and bouncing off without so much as a dull tink. He had already been at this for two minutes and had worked up a sweat. His swings were wild and unpolished, his flabby unaccustomed arms only managing to bring his tool down on his target with pathetic accuracy. His next strike completely missed, striking solid stone and sending a sharp pain up his arm.
Bookmark here

He let his arm give and groaned out loud, his skin hot. This shouldn’t be this hard! he thought. In the movies it only takes one hit to break one of these. He had expected that it might take a heavyset dork who couldn’t remember the last time he exercised more than a single hit to break the lock, but rattling it again with his free hand, he could see his best effort had only landed a few dents. Den seethed as he pushed his thick rim glasses up his sweaty nose then brought his hands back to the hammer grip and returned to his swings. I am going to get into the Primordial Hollows. I’m not going to be stopped by a dumb lock before I can even set out as an adventurer!Bookmark here

He continued to batter the lock-- and the door around it, his anger only roiling hotter inside as his arms ached from the effort. “Just break already!” he shouted. His hit clipped off and fell down on his knee. He gasped in pain, dropping the hammer and falling onto his other knee as he seethed, sucking air through his teeth. He slammed a balled fist against the door several times as he gripped his throbbing kneecap. “Damnit,” he spat. “Damnit!”Bookmark here

He let his head fall against the door as he silently simmered. Of course I would stall out at the starting line, he thought. “I can’t do this…” he said, and let out a heavy sigh. This was a stupid idea. A loser like me has no hope of taking the path of an adventurer. Even as these doubts swirled in mind, he felt a new wave of anger drive him back up onto his feet. “But I’m going to do it anyway!” he shouted. Bookmark here

The timid voice in the back of his head told him he should keep his voice down, but he stomped his foot and ignored it. He didn’t care if anyone heard him-- not that he thought anyone would. It was nearly nine at night and the sun had set nearly a half hour before. Den didn’t think any of the geezers that populated the suburb would wander their way up the dark peak of Primordial Hollows Hill on a humid summer night like this. Bookmark here

He was sure the insects alone would keep people away. He slapped a bug that had landed on his bare arm. He hated this backwater suburb without a movie theatre, where the old outnumbered the young, where the night was filled with the loud humming of insects. Mosquitos hung around him in a cloud and he swung his arms wildly hoping to scatter them, if even for a moment. The slowly simmering resentment of his banishment from the city was thrown onto the pile of other frustrations currently burning within. Can I just get inside and be done with these damn bugs?!Bookmark here

“Whatcha doing?” a soft voice asked from behind.Bookmark here

Den swung around. A girl in a hoodie and sweats stood in the pale light of the single streetlight overhead. She was alone on the old concrete road that led up to the massive set of doors set into the rugged hilltop. Den’s heart hammered. He hadn’t heard her arrive at all-- damn the bugs! He hesitated to answer, tightening his grip on his hammer. Bookmark here

The girl grinned. “Nice tee.” Bookmark here

He glanced down to check which Scope Sisters graphic shirt he was wearing. This one was emblazoned with the cute little sister and busty older sister holding their signature guns. Nothing too sexy or trashy. She probably wasn’t making fun of him. He was tempted to ask if she knew the video game series, but decided he had other things to think about. While the girl looked normal enough: a little taller than him, warm caramel skin darker than his own, and even sporting a cute side ponytail, Den immediately took note that in her right hand she held a pry bar and in her left a long pointed staff. Bookmark here

Was that normal here? The country was another world from the city he knew. Maybe cute girls just carried things like that here? Totally not weird. He gulped. It’s weird isn’t it... While that alone gave Den a decent amount of unease, he noticed the girl’s brown hair ended with a hot pink tinge and her attentive green eyes gave a gentle glow. Does she have Terraling blood? he wondered. Bookmark here

While he had been startled, it fizzled under his low boil frustration. He quickly decided the girl’s presence didn’t change what he had come here to do. “Isn’t it obvious?” he asked, gesturing to the double doors behind him. “I’m breaking into the Primordial Hollows. You have a problem with that?”Bookmark here

She gave him a half grin and tilted her head, her side ponytail swinging. “Nope. I’m a friend. You don’t need to make such a scary face.”Bookmark here

Den wasn’t making any face different from normal. He had no intention of apologizing for it. His anger was all he had now. “You want in the Primordial Hollows too?” he asked.Bookmark here

“You know it!” she said, hitting the old concrete road with her staff once. “With the way the world is ending and all, I thought why not, you know?” Bookmark here

Den pushed himself up. “Alright then,” he said. With that established, he didn’t even know what to ask her next, his frustration at his own weak communication skills flaring up. When was the last time he’d had any kind of conversation face to face with someone his age? Almost two years ago? He must have talked to people back when he was still taking university classes. Not that any faces came to memory. He turned back to the door and brought down the hammer one more time on the lock. “We’d be in if I could just get past this dumb lock.”Bookmark here

“Do you really think you’re going to break it like that?” the girl asked. “With those chubby arms? I don’t think so.”Bookmark here

“You have a better idea?” Den asked, gritting his teeth and bringing the hammer down again.Bookmark here

“Why don’t you just use the code?” she asked.Bookmark here

Again, Den swung back to her, this time his eyes going wide. “No way. You’re an adventurer?” Den hadn’t thought there were any adventurers under the age of forty other than the rich kids playing adventurer in Starter Town’s Primordial Hollows Cathedral. He gave the girl another sideways glance up and down. From a stain on the arm of her baggy sweater and one shoe that had no sock, she didn’t exactly look like a rich kid. Bookmark here

The girl shook her head. “I passed by the Guildhouse down in the city yesterday. The updated code had been posted on the board because too many people had been forgetting it and the Guildmaster was tired of getting phone calls about it. Then I had my genius idea to come here.” She put her hands on her hips and puffed up her meager chest proudly. “Feel free to praise me.”Bookmark here

Den couldn’t help but let off a laugh and throw down his hammer. “What kind of security is that? Is that what counts as security out here in the boonies? Well damn, if it works I’ll give praise where it’s due.”Bookmark here

“Stand aside, bub,” she said, walking past him and setting down her spear. Keeping her pry bar in the crook of her arm, she pulled her smartphone from her pocket and looked down at a picture. She laughed. “Only one number had been changed.” She slid the last of the six number dials a single digit and the lock clicked open. “Now where is my praise?”Bookmark here

“Thank you Guildmaster for being lazy,” Den said, reaching down and picking up his hammer. Bookmark here

The girl humphed. “Whatever.” She turned and swung out her pry bar, putting it in the crack of the door. She pulled back with all her might and the doors gave a very small quake. Bookmark here

Den let out a sigh. This was not going to be easy. It took them the better part of fifteen more minutes of taking turns of heaving at the door until they had finally opened a crack. Purple light poured out into the night. From there it didn’t take much longer to scrape one door open enough for the girl to slip into the warmly glowing chamber beyond. Den made to follow, but to his great irritation, while he was a few inches shorter than the girl, he made up for it in his gut. He drew his breath in and with a great heave, he squeezed through, falling down.Bookmark here

Breathing heavily, he looked up to see the girl holding out a hand with a genuine smile. Den wanted to be embarrassed, but he supposed he’d never had any pride to lose. He took her hand and she brought him onto his feet with a strong tug. “What’s your name?” she asked.Bookmark here

“Den,” he said.Bookmark here

“I’m Rika,” she said. “Let’s have a good adventure tonight.” Her smile gained a single sharp tooth. “Not that I am expecting much from you.”Bookmark here

“Probably shouldn’t,” Den said, hefting his hammer to his shoulder. “I’ve disappointed everyone who did.” He took a deep breath. “But my old world is gone. I’m ready to give everything I have in this new one.” Bookmark here

“Then let’s kill us some monsters,” Rika said, giving him a fist bump. Bookmark here

They turned and looked at the explosion of glowing purple crystal in the center of the stone chamber. It grew like a flower, foot thick pillars reaching several feet over his head like massive petals.Bookmark here

A shiver ran down Den’s spine and he rubbed his bare arms, his hair standing on end. His t-shirt and shorts did little to keep him warm in the sudden chill. “This is it,” he said. “This is the magic of the Primordial Hollows.”Bookmark here

“Sure is glowy,” Rika said, lifting her hands and looking at the slowly drifting magic particles in the air. Bookmark here

“Are we ready for this?” he asked. He adjusted his glasses and re-tied his greasy shoulder length hair in a band as he craned to look around the chamber, taking cautious steps forward. Bookmark here

“We’ll be fine,” Rika said, swinging around her pry bar as she moved forward without hesitation. Her long black hair bounced with each sure step she took around the central crystal. While her attitude gave Den a little assurance, in her loose exercise pants and jacket, she looked ready for a relaxed evening at home rather than a raid on the Primordial Hollows. The fact that her weapons of choice were a pry bar and sharpened tree branch didn’t exactly inspire confidence either. Regardless, he would rather die here than go back to his grandmother’s home right now.Bookmark here

“Should we try to close the door behind us?” Den asked. “This place doesn’t have a guard or anything, right?”Bookmark here

“No way,” Rika said, waving her hand. “Even if it did, the cops have bigger problems.” Bookmark here

Den noted that despite her confident tone, it appeared Rika had no real idea if there truly was a guard or not. He scratched his four-day unshaved facial hair and let out a breath regardless. “I can’t imagine any police coming around either with everyone worried about the jump in robberies during the brownouts.”Bookmark here

“Exactly,” Rika said, “no one is going to care if we take a little stroll.”Bookmark here

“What I don’t understand is why there’s a shortage of Essence Ore if the stuff grows like this in even the first room.” Den said, looking up at the giant tower of crystal.Bookmark here

“Are you an idiot? That’s the Connecting Crystal! You can’t use that for electricity.” She tossed the pry bar at Den. “Here, you take this one, it’s heavy.” Bookmark here

He flinched, grabbing for it but only managing to fumble it to the cave floor. He groaned, shoved his hammer into his belt-loop, and snatched the metal rod, surprised at the weight. He was a little irked that his ignorance of the Primordial Hollows was already apparent to Rika, but he supposed he should just be thankful she seemed to have done more research than he had. That wasn’t hard to do though, given his ‘research’ had been remembering his Grandfather’s stories then immediately looking up the path here on his maps app. Now, he only had one important concern remaining. “If you know what we’re going up against here, why did you only come with a stick and a pry bar?”Bookmark here

“Because there could be no better weapon.” She brought the sharpened stick over her head. “She’s beautiful isn’t she? It’s hickory! It’s strong and flexible! When I came in the afternoon, my Pointy Stick of Destruction was enough for all the lame beginner monsters I ran into.” Rika paused in the entrance to a tunnel. She waved her stick from side to side. “I promise the First Layer is painfully easy. It’s the tutorial level.” Bookmark here

“Yeah, a tutorial level for the Isekaijin,” Den said, unable to prevent the slight edge in his voice. Bookmark here

She gave him a mischievous grin. “They chose to come light years across space to Isekai for the dream of adventure. Compared to that, isn't it a little sad we have the Primordial Hollows in our backyard and fear it?” She set off into the tunnel and disappeared behind a bend.Bookmark here

Den knew all too well that for them, adventuring was not a game like it had been for their ancestors. When they died, they would not respawn. Even so, he felt a tingle of excitement in his stomach. Adventuring still sounded like a lot more fun than laying around at his grandmother’s and watching the world fall apart. Is this feeling why you decided to be an adventurer too, Grandpapi? Bookmark here

The warm smiling face of his Grandfather fifteen years ago flashed in Den’s mind. He remembered the energy that filled the old man when he spoke of his time in the Hollows. “Adventuring is the journey of discovering who you want to be,” his Grandfather had said. Den’s heart skipped a beat as he remembered his old excitement. Adventuring is not about strength or quality of Enchanted Item, he recalled. It’s about putting yourself in the right place to use what you have. Bookmark here

Den gripped his fist. “You used everything you had to give us a good life. I never was able to do anything but disappoint you, but for once, let’s see if I can’t do something with this life you passed down to me, Grandpapi.” Den found a smile rising to his lips. Bookmark here

He pulled his phone from his pocket to send a message to his friend LazerW0lf. Just in case they really were in over their heads, he wanted to let someone he trusted know where to find his body. He got as far as opening his social media folder before the screen went black. He groaned. Right. His phone’s battery had to give out the same day the Empire’s energy supply fizzled. He shoved it back into his pocket and gripped the pry bar with both hands. Screw it. I’m just going to have to make it out of here, then.Bookmark here

He ran forward, raising the bar. Crystal grew from the floor and walls cast a soft purple glow that gave just enough direction to move forward. Den eyed the dark pockets and shadowy side paths beyond the clearly marked and chained main path. He rounded the corner of the tunnel and came to Rika’s side in a small chamber lit by magically glowing wall torches. In the middle of the cavern, a group of three huge rats sniffed about, their long noses twitching and tails swinging lazily.Bookmark here

“Giant Rats,” Rika said. “These are the weakest of the weak.” Bookmark here

Den hefted his weapon. “Leave these ones to me. I’ve been wanting to smash something all day.” Bookmark here

The giant rats turned their way, three sets of eyes falling on Den. Their lips rolled back in furious hisses as they burst forward. Den lifted the heavy pry bar just in time to absorb the first rat that jumped at him. The force of the lunge knocked him back a step. Den grit his teeth, and with eyes squinted, he brought down the pry bar, the metal slamming down on the monster’s shoulder. It gave a pained squeak before it burst into smoke. In its wake, a small crystal fell to the earth with a soft tinkle. His breath came short from lungs unaccustomed to exercise. He had come for this, but the intensity of a real fight still made him irrationally spooked. Again, his own weakness pissed him off. Still, he was glad deep down that at least there wasn’t any blood.Bookmark here

“Congrats on your first kill,” Rika said. “Now it’s my turn.” She rushed past Den and fell upon the remaining two rats, bashing one out of the way with the heel of her staff before she drove the sharp end into the other. The first hadn’t even finished bursting into smoke before she ended the second as well. She rose up and looked at him with a knit brow. “You really that out of shape?”Bookmark here

Den’s breath came shallow and he leaned forward to let the pry bar’s weight sit. He grimaced. “Yeah. It’s a bit embarrassing but before I shipped out here today, you could say it had been a hot second since I got some exercise.”Bookmark here

“Hm,” Rika said. “Well, hang in there. This layer is designed for useless level one players like you and me to gain some confidence on. We may be losers compared to the Isekaijin, but we’re not completely powerless. If our ancestors found a way to make it down to the Hundreth Layer, we should still be able to handle a lot too.”Bookmark here

Den nodded, his excitement growing to rival the hot anger inside. “I want the next one,” he said. Bookmark here

She seemed to like that answer. “Welcome to Suburb 23,” she said with a grin. “Where are you coming from?”Bookmark here

“Starter Town,” Den said, rising up and rolling his shoulders, catching his breath as his heart calmed.Bookmark here

“Starter Town, huh?” she said with a humph. “I can’t say I’m a fan. You decided to jump ship rather than face the electricity bill?”Bookmark here

“It wasn’t exactly my choice,” Den said, leaning down and picking up the Essence Ore his rat dropped. It looked hardly more than a shard of rough brown glass. Deep within, he could see a very gentle light of magic. It was hard to imagine this was what powered their civilization. He’d never actually seen the stuff that fed his room’s electrical sockets. Bookmark here

Rika fished up her monster drops and set off again. They were quiet as they followed rotting signs with faded writing explaining the best strategies for safe Hollows adventures. “I’m sure this area would have been a lot more interactive for the Isekaijin, back when the AR features were still online,” Rika said, looking around. The chamber came to a stop with a pair of stone doors ahead. “Oh! Oh! Finally! We’ve made it through the old game mechanics introduction hall. Let’s put those arms of yours to good use!” She ran ahead and put her hands to the prints on the doors. With a flash of magic they slid into the walls on either side. Bookmark here

Den followed Rika into the wide round chamber beyond. Lit by glowing crystal in the walls, Den first noticed a circle of glowing purple runes in the center of the chamber. Four pillars rose to the dark ceiling overhead, but other than another set of doors on the far side of the room, there was nothing to see. As soon as they were both in, the marks on the floor flashed, and the doors creaked shut behind them, a loud click of a lock sounding. “Should we be worried about that?” Den asked.Bookmark here

“They open when we defeat the spawn.”Bookmark here

Den gulped as a shadowy mist poured out of the cracked stone floor inside the glowing spell-circle. The smoke condensed into a ball and swelled. A Giant Rat squealed out, trailing smoke. Compared to the cat-sized trio they had spotted earlier, this nearly two foot tall rat was a real monster. It landed, its lips already brought back in a hiss. Den’s heart quaked as he raised his pry-bar. “What’s the plan, Rika?”Bookmark here

“Attack!” She ran forward with her spear over her head, screaming all the way. The rat came for her, but as soon as they met, Rika swung down her weapon, landing a solid crack on the monster’s head slamming it against the ground. It squeaked and froze in a daze. Rika took that opportunity to pull her sharpened stick back and with a wild screech, she drove it into the stomach of the monster. With a dying squeal, it fell to its side and burst into black smoke. Bookmark here

Rika turned back to Den and struck a pose with a v for victory at her cheek. “And that’s how it’s done!”Bookmark here

“I think another one is coming,” Den pointed over her shoulder as another rat jumped out of the ball of coalesced shadows.Bookmark here

Rika swung around. “Right. Shit.” She swiped the small glowing magic crystal shard off the ground and shoved it in her pocket before jumping back several steps. Two more Giant Rats followed the first in jumping out of the magical smoke. Rika lifted her point to the monsters and glanced over her shoulder at Den. “Now it’s your turn. If you want any magic crystal, you better work for it!” She ran to the left, and two of the rats took chase. Bookmark here

The other turned to Den. He lifted his pry-bar, the metal heavy and awkward in his hands. The monster screeched and Den found himself screaming too as it lunged for him. He swung the crowbar, squeezing his eyes shut. A heavy thud rolled up his arms and a squeak of pain escaped the Giant Rat. Bookmark here

Eyes flying open, Den found the rat squirming on the ground. Not only had he protected himself, but the strike had stilled the shiver in his legs. A laugh bubbled out. “Hey, I did it! Did you see that, Rika?” The Giant Rat tackled him in the stomach, knocking him to the ground. Den swore under his breath as he managed to elbow the monster away from his face, but the large animal crushed the breath out of him. He managed to pull up his rod in both hands and the monster chomped down. Slobber flew from its massive incisors as it shook its head back and forth. “Okay, Rika, there’s a Giant Rat on me!” Den yelled, glancing at his supposed teammate.Bookmark here

A final death squeak sounded as Rika finished off her rat and turned to him. “You got this, Den!” she said, pumping her fist.Bookmark here

“No, I don’t! It has my weapon,” he shouted as he broke into a breathless sweat trying to squirm the rod free. “Pointy stick this thing before it chews my face off!”Bookmark here

Rika took a step and hesitated. “I’ll probably skewer you too.”Bookmark here

“Ugh, fine!” Den reared back a fist. He punched the nose of the Giant Rat and with a squeal it flew off him. He rolled to his feet, and heart racing, he somehow managed to draw the crowbar up and swing the sharp curved end down on the rat’s head. With a soft crack like that of a breaking egg, the monster hit the earth and burst into smoke. Den stood, heaving air, a hot sweat running down from his messy hair. He looked at Rika as he leaned into the weight of the rod. Bookmark here

“See I told you you were fine,” she said.Bookmark here

“Little thanks to the weapon you gave me though.”Bookmark here

“Yeah, I found the crowbar really hard to use too.”Bookmark here

“Then why did you give it to me?” Bookmark here

“Well, I didn’t want to use it.”Bookmark here

Den sighed. “You didn’t think to bring any better weapons? A sword? A shield?”Bookmark here

“I don’t know about Starter Town, but they don’t exactly carry powerful weapons at the corner convenience store.” Rika gave a shrug. “Think of this as the lame beginner items they give you at the start of the game. You play games?”Bookmark here

Den pulled the prybar up to his shoulder. “Until a day ago I was hardly doing anything else.”Bookmark here

“Then use some of that MMORPG knowledge!”Bookmark here

“I play FPS, give me a break.” He caught his breath. Bookmark here

Rika grinned. “Well you better get used to the new genre then. That was only the second wave of five. They’re going to keep doubling.”Bookmark here

Den wiped sweat from his brow and braced his feet, turning to the amassing shadow in the center of the room as more over-sized rodents jumped out. “Alright,” he said. “Fine. Let’s do this.”Bookmark here

--- Bookmark here

“I can’t stop thinking that the Giant Rats are… kind of cute?” Den said, unsure of his own words. He pulled his bar out of the dispersing shadow of his newest kill. “The way they squeak is pretty cute, right? And they were so thoughtful of each other waiting for their turn to attack.”Bookmark here

Rika paused a few steps ahead as another jumped out of the shadows behind a large stone on the side of the tunnel they continued through. Rika wasted no time running it through. “Best not to think about it. They’re mobs. They’re just magic given form by the Hollows. If they weren’t trying to kill us I’d want one as a pet too.” She brought her finger up to her chin. “A normal sized one though. My job definitely doesn’t give me enough money to feed a big one.” They paused at a three way break in the path. Old boards above each tunnel labeled them. Bookmark here

“Extra mini-quest dungeon…” Rika read. “Long route... Or boss room? Which are you thinking?”Bookmark here

“These rats are only just starting to help let off some steam--” Den said. “Boss chamber.”Bookmark here

“Okay. We’ll hit the mini-quest route next time.”Bookmark here

Den raised an eyebrow. “Thinking of becoming a real adventuring party, then?”Bookmark here

“Of course,” Rika said immediately. “How else do you think we’re going to be able to get power for internet now that they’re rationing it?” She put a hand to her chest. “I will be team leader, obviously.”Bookmark here

“Now hold on,” Den said. “Why is that ‘obviously?’”Bookmark here

“You look like you’ve just walked out of a cave for the first time in a decade. I can tell you’re a video game nerd with no real skills. The leader needs to be the awesome one.”Bookmark here

Den grimaced. Her guess hit too close to home. He supposed if the leader was the face of the party, it couldn’t be him. “Fine,” he grumbled.Bookmark here

“Then it’s decided!” Rika said with a haughty laugh. “We’ll go to the guild tomorrow and make it official!”Bookmark here

“I don’t know if I’ll be able to join right away…” Den said, looking off to the cave wall. Bookmark here

Rika pouted. “Why not? You don’t want to join a super awesome adventuring party?”Bookmark here

“It’s not a matter of what I want to do,” he rubbed the back of his head. “I had a long time to do what I wanted and I have nothing to show for it. I should be thankful I still have family willing to give me a roof and a job so I can avoid the draft.”Bookmark here

“Ah,” Rika deflated for the first time since they entered the Hollows. They were quiet for a long moment as they continued on to the boss chamber. She ran forward to stab through a Giant Rat before planting her staff definitively and looking back to Den. “So what’s next then?”Bookmark here

“After we beat the boss, as much as I don’t want to, I’m going back to my grandmother’s. I’ve walked more today than I have in the last two years combined. I pulled a muscle in my butt like thirty minutes ago too.”Bookmark here

“Shhh, shhh,” Rika held up a finger to Den’s lips and he came to a stop. “We’re having a moment. It’s serious time now. What comes now that you’re in Suburb 23?”Bookmark here

“Oh that’s what this is.” Den frowned and looked away from Rika’s intense gaze. “I’m assisted living care for my grandmother.”Bookmark here

“What does that mean?”Bookmark here

“I take care of her-- do her grocery shopping and other errands.” Bookmark here

“That doesn’t sound like a real job.”Bookmark here

“It’s real enough on paper to get pocket change from health care and keep me from being sent out into the Great Field to build solar panels twelve hours a day.” Bookmark here

“You don’t sound too happy about it,” Rika said with a tilt of her head. Bookmark here

“GrandPre-- my grandmother-- she’s an immortal witch. She is healthier now in her seventies than I have ever been.” Den stretched once before walking past Rika. “From what she told me today, she plans to run me into the ground with worthless errands and other part time jobs as punishment for wasting my youth in video games.” He sighed. “But still better than the Emergency Energy Corps.”Bookmark here

Rika nodded as she continued at his side. “I know a lot of people being snatched up by the EEC. If I have to be at risk of monster attacks at work I’d much rather do it on my own terms here in the Primordial Hollows rather than in the Isekai Great Field.”Bookmark here

A Giant Rat jumped out from behind a rock ahead and ran to block the path.Bookmark here

“That one is yours.” Rika pushed Den forward.Bookmark here

He ran forward, and in two well placed strikes, he floored the monster. Breathing heavily, he looked up at Rika who nodded sagely. “I think that when you have a problem it’s best to break some things.”Bookmark here

“Just going to say that’s a bad way to deal with stress.” He laughed at himself. “I suppose my method of trying to forget about it through playing games didn’t do me any good either though.” Bookmark here

“So if this whole situation just fell on you, then what is it you actually want to do?” Rika continued forward in a light skip.Bookmark here

“Now you sound like my parents,” Den said with a laugh. “Is everyone supposed to have a dream? I’ve been telling them for years I want to stream my games and become a famous YouTuber…”Bookmark here

“You’re a little late for that party aren’t you?”Bookmark here

“Once the scare from power shortage blows over, I’ll be back in Starter Town in a heartbeat,” he said, keeping his eyes forward. “I’m going to do it for real this time.” Bookmark here

“Blow over, huh?” Rika said softly. “You actually think that’s going to happen?”Bookmark here

“I’m sure someone will figure something out.”Bookmark here

“That-- I hate that,” Rika said, squinting as she looked ahead. “I hate waiting around for someone else to fix problems.”Bookmark here

“Then you got an answer for all this?”Bookmark here

“Hell no. I also hate wasting time thinking about junk I can’t do anything about.”Bookmark here

“Then what does that leave you?” Den asked with a laugh.Bookmark here

“Only what I can do. Like this,” she threw her arms to the side and spun in a circle. “Adventuring solves a lot of my problems. So that’s what I am going to do.”Bookmark here

“That seems like you’re oversimplifying a lot.” Bookmark here

“Better than overthinking everything and not getting anything done.” Bookmark here

Ahead, smoke poured out of the floor and condensed with a magical pop into a translucent liquid-filled bubble of a monster with a frown and wall-eyed stare. Bookmark here

“Shit.” Rika halted, throwing out her arms, hitting Den in the chest.Bookmark here

“What?” Den looked away from the pulsing slime monster around the dim tunnel. He didn’t see any other threats. “What’s wrong?”Bookmark here

“I really hoped we wouldn’t see any. Their spawn rate is only three percent on the First Layer.”Bookmark here

“What?” Den raised his weapon, a trickle of sweat running down his neck. “I don’t see anything else besides the slime.”Bookmark here

The slime.” Rika shivered. “I hate them.”Bookmark here

Den laughed. “Oh really?” He took a step forward and swung his crowbar. The slime jumped backwards away from the sharp metal and let off a high pitched whine.Bookmark here

“It doesn’t look like it has any special abilities...” Den said, cautiously poking the monster with his weapon.Bookmark here

“It doesn’t need to be magic to be evil,” Rika hugged her spear to her chest. “They’re acidic! Ever so slightly! I fought one earlier and it scorched my Pointy Stick of Destruction!” Bookmark here

Den grinned and shook his head. “Fine, fine. Leave them to me.” He raised his prybar. He could almost see tears in the eyes of the slime. “I’m sorry little dude.” He brought down the weapon. The slime let out a weak “Blahg!” and splattered, Rika jumping away. A few seconds passed and the pooling liquid fizzled into smoke. Bookmark here

Rika let out a long sigh. “Thank the goddess. Right then! As we were!” She skipped on singing, “die slimes, die slimes.”Bookmark here

Den followed in silence. At this time a day before he’d been gaming without a care in the world. The slingshot ride of the past day gave him whiplash. He was glad for one thing at the very least-- right now with Rika at the wheel, there was no way for him to overthink things. He might as well enjoy the ride. “So, Ms. Adventurer,” Den said, trying to ground himself. “Something tells me you’re not a Guild Member are you?”Bookmark here

“Not yet!” she said as if that was something to be proud of. She shot him a wink and peace sign over her shoulder without slowing her determined march. “For now I’m just a post office worker downtown. That job won’t cut it anymore though. Internet and electricity costs will crush my favorite online creators.”Bookmark here

Den found his breath shallow. “We don’t know yet it’ll get that bad.”Bookmark here

“No we don’t,” Rika agreed. “But if it was going to be easy for Starter Town to replace the Monoliths as the Empire’s battery, don’t you think they would have done that already?” They rounded a sharp corner and after cutting their way through a couple more Giant Rats, they arrived in a large stone chamber. Rika turned around and jumped from foot to foot, fists bobbing. “Let’s do this! Time for the boss battle!”Bookmark here

The impressive doors carved with delicate organic borders stood nearly twice their height. Ages back, he’d seen a picture of boss room gates in a textbook, but he’d never once imagined that he would stand in front of one himself. He pointed to a glowing platform lit by a magical white light leaking from the dark ceiling that sat off to the side of the chamber. “That takes us back to the entrance, right?”Bookmark here

“You thinking of running now?”Bookmark here

He laughed weakly. “I wasn’t suggesting anything. But just to be sure, no one has died in there, right?” He rubbed his left bicep that had begun to burn.Bookmark here

“No one. It’s barely a step up from the tutorial battle we owned earlier I read.” Bookmark here

“You read?”Bookmark here

“Well after my original Pointy Stick of Destruction was damaged by slimes earlier, I thought it would be best to come extra prepared. You were an added bonus.”Bookmark here

Den’s heart skipped a beat as he looked up at the doors. “Now I’m starting to get excited. This will be new for both of us.” Den set down his weapon and rolled his shoulders and neck. “I don’t suppose you have any healing or stamina potions?”Bookmark here

“Do I look like I have the money to spend on magic healing items? I made sure to have a small dinner so that if I was hit in the belly I wouldn’t barf.” She awkwardly unzipped her backpack without taking it off and pulled out a water bottle. “Have a healing item.” Bookmark here

Den caught the bottle and took a long drink. Rika held a hand up to the door. “As leader of our party, I give you the honor of opening the door to our first boss battle.”Bookmark here

Den nodded and handed her back the water bottle as he made his way up to the round door. He grabbed hold of hand shaped indents and with a groan, he threw his weight to the side. The large stone grumbled and after a grinding moment of resistance, it rolled into the wall. Bookmark here

“To victory!” Rika drew her spear off her back and raised it overhead with both hands. Releasing a yell she ran into the vast dim chamber beyond. Bookmark here

Den followed cautiously, adjusting his grip on the crowbar. The room was taller and wider than the last. Crystal hung from the ceiling giving rise to a layer of moss on the chamber floor. The stone door rumbled shut behind. They came to a stop a few steps inside and a large magic circle lit blood red, the crystals around the room shifting red as well.Bookmark here

A huge cloud of black smoke rose out of the ground, swirling wildly, and an army of Giant Rats squeaked out of it into existence. In seconds, a dozen rats and five trash can sized slimes filled the room. Bookmark here

Right. Only slightly harder than the tutorial, she said… Den bit his lip. “We should stick together and watch each other’s backs. We need to do something about all these rats. You draw them in and I’ll finish them off while you distract them.”Bookmark here

“Don’t tell me what to do!” Rika said. “I’m the leader!”Bookmark here

Den rolled his eyes. “Then what’s the plan?” Bookmark here

Her eyes darted around the chamber. “You take care of the slimes. I’ll take care of the rats.”Bookmark here

Den thought that put a significant amount more work on her, but he had no intentions of fighting her on it. He agreed with a tight lipped nod. Bookmark here

“Oh,” Rika said. “Also watch out for the splash zone!”Bookmark here

Den turned his focus to the nearest slime beyond the sea of rats and ran forward. The first of the Giant Rats made a jump for him and he slammed it out of the way, not slowing down as he broke out of the circle of vermin. Den slid to a stop, swinging his crowbar down on his target slime. The monster’s rubbery skin held for a long moment before popping like a balloon. Bookmark here

Den couldn’t help the evil grin and feeling of incredible satisfaction that filled him as he heard the monster’s high pitched squeal. Pale yellow liquid spurted from the rip. The slime’s skin fizzled into smoke and the yellow liquid within gushed out in all directions. The hot wave rolled over Den’s leg and a sharp hot sting bit his skin. “Shit!” He stumbled back kicking his leg to shake off the acid. “You didn’t tell me these things self-destruct!”Bookmark here

“I said watch out for the splash!” Rika shouted, driving her spear through a rat and spinning in a circle to stab another. “They’re even mean when they’re dying.” The rat closest to Rika hissed, and she hissed back. She sprinted through the swarm, sending them falling back over themselves. “I will teach you fear!” Rika yelled, giving off an evil laugh. Den grimaced, wondering if his ally was the real monster. Bookmark here

A single rat broke off the group and set its sight on Den. It jumped for him, but with a swing of his prybar, he knocked it out of the way. He laughed and rolled his shoulders, his blood pulsing. Three rats chased Den as he ran for the next slime, swinging his pry-bar and ripping through the weak skin of the monster. The liquid that rolled free as Den slid to a stop beyond the splash zone washed over the rats in chase. One fell squirming to the earth while the other only gave a squeak of surprise and froze. Den spun on one heel and slammed both out of the way before moving on. Bookmark here

Half the mob of remaining rats came after Den and as one attacked him from behind, it was all he could do to swing wildly with the pry-bar. Rika shouted in surprise as the rats he batted away slammed into her as she gave chase. She stabbed a rat that turned and jumped at her face, and Den very nearly was skewered along with it. They each gave each other a glare before they ran in opposite directions. Two more slimes broke under Den’s assault and he couldn’t help smiling as he managed to avoid the splash. Bookmark here

As he pulled his rod out of the pooling slime of the second to last, with a squeal, a Giant Rat slammed against him from behind, throwing him to the earth. Falling with one arm in the fading slime, Den yelped as the acid burned his exposed arm. With a grunt he threw off the rat and swung his rod. The monster jumped out of the way as Den rolled onto his back.Bookmark here

The rat took this opportunity to jump again, and Den didn’t have enough time to pull in his rod. With no other options, he released a yell and threw a punch, meeting the rat’s face with a solid thud. The monster squealed and reared back in surprise. Another rat barreled in, jumping attop Den, snapping at his face. He slammed his head against the rat, knocking it back and with a mighty roar, he threw his other hand to the pry-bar and scrambled to his feet, heart hammering. The two rats shook off their surprise, but now Den heaved heavily, his blood gushing fast in his veins. He trembled and balled his fists, letting off an airy laugh. “What are you waiting for?” he asked. Bookmark here

The next rat jumped for him and he sent it flying with a swing. Without losing momentum, he twisted and brought the metal rod down on the second. It gave a startled squeal of pain and both monsters burst. Den stood alone, breathing heavily. He raised his arms and roared at the heavens. Huffing heavily, he glanced over his shoulder to Rika who with a final shout, finished off the last of her Giant Rats. Bookmark here

She shot him a cocky smirk. “Didn’t take you long to go wild.”Bookmark here

Den took a deep breath, doing his best to raise his chin and compose himself. “I don’t know what kind of person you think I am, but I am no savage like you.”Bookmark here

“Yeah, you keep telling yourself that. Feels good doesn’t it?” She laughed evilly as she skipped over to him. They arrived at the lone remaining monster in the room: the final slime. He raised his prybar as the slime approached, looking at him with watery eyes. Rika stopped a safe two yards away and said, “Do it.”Bookmark here

“You are a villain aren’t you?” he asked her. He brought his rod down, sending slime gushing. His throat sore, breath harsh, and muscles throbbing, he nonetheless recognized a small tingle of pride. Even more so given the poor cooperation displayed by their self-proclaimed leader. Bookmark here

Rika bounced over to him and raised a hand for a high five. Despite his resentments, he wasn’t a monster who wouldn’t meet a high five. The strike sent a painful ache running through his body. Bookmark here

“Great work so far, Den. Only two more waves to go!” Rika balled her fist and shot him a sharp toothed smile.Bookmark here

“I may accept that you make a better face of the party, but you are a terrible tactician,” he said. Bookmark here

“You think you could do a better job?” Rika asked.Bookmark here

“Strategy is the only skill I’ve built in my years of gaming. You have to let me have this.”Bookmark here

The magic circle in the center of the room came to life, black smoke pouring from the earth. Rika gave a humph. “I suppose it is the job of a leader to distribute duties. I didn’t even want to have to think about it anyway. You better be thankful.”Bookmark here

---Bookmark here

Every part of Den hurt. He lay on his back on the floor of the chamber. Even so, he knew in his heart that thanks to Rika allowing him to call out their battle formations, he had been able to survive her attacks. The biggest problem had been when she completely ignored the plan when she got tired of waiting. He was thankful to be alive. He tried to sit up but his muscles convinced him to give that up. He tried to flex his fingers, but that hurt too. He clenched his buttcheeks. Even that hurt. Bookmark here

Even so, he could only laugh. It hurt intensely, but he couldn’t deny how great it felt. He could not remember the last time he had worked himself so hard. That alone gave him an overwhelming joy of accomplishment. Bookmark here

“You still alive over there?” Rika called from the far end of the chamber where she dug through a chest at the back wall. It had unlocked when they finished the battle sequence, delivering their reward.Bookmark here

With a great effort, Den craned up his head. “Barely, but could be worse.” Bookmark here

She jutted a thumb over her shoulder to point to the doors in the back of the room that had opened. “Those go down to the Second Layer. Up for more?”Bookmark here

“How are you still on your feet?” he wheezed.Bookmark here

“There’s treasure man!” she said, lifting up a fist sized brown gem. “I’m hurting too, but-- shiny stuff!”Bookmark here

Den laughed weakly. “You made good work of that King Rat.”Bookmark here

“I know. You were okay too, I guess. Do better next time. I broke a perfectly good pokey stick saving you.” She stopped rummaging through the chest and looked over her shoulder. “I suppose knocking out it’s feet wasn't a bad plan. Made finishing it off much easier.”Bookmark here

“I was actually aiming for its head when I threw the bar.” He laughed nervously, rolling onto his side. “Could definitely have been worse.”Bookmark here

“We have to start somewhere. But hey, the pay isn’t bad!” She took a step aside to show the contents of the large chest: a heaping pile of dull brown Essence Ore. “So I know a guy. Well-- I’ve heard of him. He’s on the inside with the Guild. You could call him the Guildmaster. I bet we could sell him some crystal and get good dough!”Bookmark here

Den pushed himself up, managing to stay on his feet. “How much we talking?” Bookmark here

Rika picked up a shard of the dimly glowing crystals the size of her palm and squinted at it. She gave it a bite and a small lick. Finally she nodded. “It depends on the grade of course.”Bookmark here

“You can tell by the taste?” He shuffled over to her side.Bookmark here

“No, but it’s somehow tasty looking isn’t it? It gives a pleasant shock too.” Bookmark here

“What are you, a toddler? Don’t put strange magic crystals in your mouth!” Den fell into a squat next to her, taking one of the crystals. “What grade is this?” Bookmark here

Rika shrugged. “I dunno. It’s a little brighter than that first crystal we snagged, but it’s only the first floor, so probably Grade E.”Bookmark here

“Got a guess how much that can go for?”Bookmark here

Rika nodded deeply then said, “I have no idea.”Bookmark here

Den dropped his crystal back into the chest. “Right.” He dusted off his hands. “What time is it?” He pulled his phone from his pocket. On pressing the power button, there was no response. He groaned. “Right. No power.” Bookmark here

“We can fix that,” Rika jumped to her feet, holding out her crystal. “Hold this to the charging point. Every IOS update since 143.9 should accept raw Ore.”Bookmark here

Den took the crystal and held it to his phone port with a raised eyebrow. A bolt of purple lightning issued from the Essence Ore, running into the phone with a soft hum. The startup screen came on immediately. The crystal hummed and gave off heat for nearly ten seconds before with a soft puff it crackled apart into a fine dust and fell in a purple cloud. Bookmark here

When the phone finished coming online, Den was surprised to find that in an instant it was already up to thirteen percent. “That was fast,” he whistled. Bookmark here

“The Empire is addicted to Essence Ore energy for a reason. You can’t beat magic!”Bookmark here

Den put his hand in his pocket and pulled out the fingernail-sized shard of magic crystal he had won in his first battle. He brought that to his phone and a purple bolt rippled out before the crystal almost immediately burst.Bookmark here

Rika leaned over his shoulder as his battery rose one percent. “That would be grade F Essence Ore.” Bookmark here

Den’s phone dropped the percent it had gained and he laughed. “Something tells me that we’re going to need more crystal if we want to make something of it.” He yawned as he shoved his phone into his pocket. It was already nearly ten PM. At this point GrandPre would surely be asleep. He did not want to be in the awkward position of explaining his Hollows inflicted condition to her of all people. “So how are we getting the haul home? I take the chest, and you take the rest in your backpack?”Bookmark here

“Oh no,” Rika said with a laugh. “Infinity Chests don’t move.”Bookmark here

“Okay, then do you have a spare bag for me?”Bookmark here

“Uh…” The sharp toothed grin on Rika’s face froze. She patted her pockets before pulling out a single plastic bag and a handkerchief.Bookmark here

Den facepalmed. “That seems fair.”Bookmark here

“It’s fine!” She gestured to his shirt. “You can carry back most in your shirt and I have pockets for days!” She pushed her arms through the large center pocket of her jacket, her hands popping out the opposite sides.Bookmark here

Den leaned back without removing his hand from his face. He didn’t want to give her the satisfaction of seeing his grin. Bookmark here

Teleporting back out to the original purple crystal room using the magical light pouring from the ceiling in the back of the boss room, Den again barely managed to squeeze his way out the crack of the front doors. He squinted left and right into the near pitch darkness of the hilltop forest. “You sure there are no cops?”Bookmark here

“Just because our pockets are sagging with treasure doesn’t mean we’re criminals,” Rika said, pushing him on from behind. “They ain’t got nothing on me!” Bookmark here

The night wind was cool and fresh-- a big difference to the still hot summer atmosphere he was used to in the capital. Den walked forward cautiously as Rika slammed her shoulder against the door, cutting off the last of the magical light. Bookmark here

“I knew that the country was going to be dark,” Den said, “but this is ridiculous, I can barely see my hand in front of my face.” Looking up at the sky, he could see the moons clearly. “Wow, the night view is good though. The moons are only little specks in Starter Town.”Bookmark here

They walked forward, looking at the sky. Rika pointed up. “Wow! Sigmund and the Earth Gate are really clear tonight!” Sure enough, the glowing green Great Ray and silver ring were more visible than Den had ever seen them. “Bet you can’t see that in the city either,” Rika said.Bookmark here

“Those two we can,” Den replied.Bookmark here

Rika looked down and gasped. “Wait… it shouldn’t be this dark...” She pulled out her phone and used its light to walk their way to the clearing that looked out over the city. The lightpost here was dark. The city below only gave a very dim, flickering glow. Many of the thousands of houses that covered the foot of the hill were entirely dark while what few houses still were lit flickered with only a very weak electric warmth.Bookmark here

“So this is what the brownouts are going to look like…” Den said.Bookmark here

“I’m glad I remembered to unplug my computer before I left,” Rika said.Bookmark here

“As long as the mob field stays online, I suppose there’s no point complaining.”Bookmark here

“See the white lights in a line out there?” Rika said, extending a finger. “That’s the suburb’s mob wall.” Den could clearly see the long line of white lights that ran from one edge of their view to the other. “As long as that’s lit, we’ve got nothing to worry about. My question is why are we on brownout when Starter Town is still rocking it over there?”Bookmark here

Letting his eyes travel up from the village, across the black expanse of the Isekai Great Field, Den focused on the shining diamond of Starter Town. Even all these kilometers across the flat space, the city gave an air of grand wealth. Its towering skyscrapers sparkled as they climbed the mountain leading up to the towering royal castle atop the Hollows Cathedral. “Yeah, I have no answer why the suburbs are throttled but they can shine on.”Bookmark here

Rika pouted. “Starter Town doesn’t change. I feel like things are going to get worse before there’s any chance for things to get better. We did a good job today, but if we want to be ready when Starter Town messes things up for everyone again, we’re going to need a hell of a lot more Essence Ore.” She sent him a sideways glance. “You still in? Bookmark here

“My lackluster performance today didn’t discourage you?” Den asked, unable to help his own frown. “You sure you want me on your party?” He wouldn’t want himself.Bookmark here

“You’re a breathing human being. That alone fulfills almost all my conditions! You did acceptably. Be thankful I’m such a benevolent leader.” She crossed her arms and raised her chin. “Don’t try to compare yourself to me. It’s hard being so close to greatness, I know.” Bookmark here

Den took a deep breath and threw his fists into the air with a shout. “Screw you, Starter Town!” His voice was devoured by the sound of the night bugs, but the pain in his heart had eased. Rika gave him a wide eyed stare. Den nodded. “I don’t know the first thing about the world of adventuring, but I want to get stronger and become so much more than the loser I am now. I want to live as a career Adventurer. I don’t want to depend on my grandmother or my parents or Starter Town.” Bookmark here

Or my own dreams… Those dreams never paid off. He would let them burn with the rest of his old dying world. This world ran on Essence Ore and the need was only going to grow. They would have to work themselves nearly to death, but in this new world, it may be the only way he could reach the independence he thirsted for. “You’re right, Rika. We’re going to need a lot more Ore.”Bookmark here

Bookmarked
You can resume reading from this paragraph.