Chapter 4:

Magic, Grengalheim, and the Deviant

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

The night passed in a blink of an eye, but Den’s work with the landscaping crew dragged on forever. They drove to rich houses high on the hill around the suburb and he worked under the summer sun pulling weeds and mowing lawns half asleep. For lunch, Den ate a surprise handkerchief boxed lunch left for him by GrandPre before she headed out to the community activities committee. The box came with a message: Den, eat well and move. A healthy body makes hard times easier.

Well, it was going to be a long time before Den would have anything close to a healthy body. In general though, to become a good adventurer, he did indeed need to eat better than convenience store snacks, he supposed. As usual, GrandPre’s meal made with many vegetables from her home garden was delicious, and while he wanted to be angry about it, he said thanks at the end of the meal with her in mind.

With work done at three, he met Rika at the Guild and they turned in their haul to earn another few coins that could cover dinner. From there, like a dream he found himself again scaling the Primordial Hollows hill. Den was pleased that while he was still tired, his muscles weren’t as sore. Rika talked as she led the way up the woods path. “I hope that the person Chloe is bringing today is going to be a real adventurer type. You two are fine, but I want someone, you know, capable?”

“Hey!” Den said, a flare of indignation rising in him. “That’s unfair to Chloe. She’s totally capable.” Of the three of them, Chloe had money, a real weapon, and time, making her already the closest to being an adventurer. Chloe had messaged the group chat, letting them know she had visited the Guildmaster to get added to the party. In the Guild App, he saw she’d been added to their party, which was exciting, but it irked Den all the more that her basic stats even outclassed him and Rika. If she had someone she believed to be useful to them, Den had high hopes.

They scaled the top of the hill to the sound of Chloe counting in a clear voice. Rika slowed as they closed in on the cliff-face Hollows doors. Chloe’s words echoed through the empty clearing as she counted. In the crumbling concrete entranceway, Den spotted her in the same luminous blue bunny coat right away… but for some reason, she was sitting on the back of a large man doing push ups.

Rika raised a single eyebrow looking between Den and Chloe with a bemused smile. “Are we interrupting something?”

Chloe counted the muscular man’s pushup. He slowly lowered himself with difficulty into another and back up again. He wore jeans with cowboy boots and even a leather and sheet metal armor vest over his black sleeveless gym-shirt. The backpack next to the door was worn and stained from use. While his stomach did hang out a bit and he struggled to lift himself and Chloe up, at a glance, Den still felt this man had considerable adventuring experience beyond theirs.

Chloe looked up at them and gave a nod, slipping her phone into her center pocket before returning her unimpressed gaze to the man under her. “While you were slacking, Grengalheim, our team members showed up. Chloe is very disappointed.”

The man’s brow was tight in concentration while his muscular arms trembled. “I apologise, but I can’t say I am trained to carry smug pipsqueaks on my back.”

“You’ve gotten fat.” She reached down and poked his stomach that hung down under his tight armored rib cage. Den would never say the man was fat, but it did appear that the plate metal and armor on his chest and shoulders would fit a slightly more lean man. “If you can’t make it to one-hundred,” the girl continued, “then you will dishonor the Grengalheim name.”

“You’re not the peak of health yourself, twerp.” The man-- Grengalheim-- said lowering into a pushup and rising up again. “Have the manor hands been serving too many sweets recently?”

“I’m always good for a throwdown,” Rika said, eyes twinkling. “Are we making bets? I’m betting five shards of Grade E Ore on Chloe.”

The way the two talked, it did sound like it was leading to a fight. Somehow, Den too had the overwhelming suspicion Chloe would win-- no matter the type of competition. While he was curious to see what would happen if they left the two to their verbal battle, since they were planning to take on the Hollows, he supposed he should be the mature one and stop this before they ended up exhausted before they even got started. “This is your friend, right Chloe?” Den asked. “Shouldn’t you give him a break and introduce us?”

“No,” the girl said, tucking her phone into her coat’s large center pocket. “First of all, he is not my friend. An acquaintance at best. Also he doesn’t deserve a rest or an introduction. If he wasn’t such a lazy bum, he would be done by now.”

“Chloe, given our teammates have already arrived, don’t you think it would be better manners to end this and meet them at our best?” the man asked while continuing his pushups.

“Chloe is always at her best,” the girl said. “No excuses. Grengalheim the First cleared the Hundredth Layer. Chloe will not accept you on her new team until you push to one hundred.”

She counted the last two dozen reps as the man sweated and heaved out the feat. The moment he completed the final trembling rep, Chloe pushed herself off his back and Grengalheim collapsed. He rolled onto his back, breathing harshly, bringing his dirty hands up to his face to wipe sweat from his short brown hair and goatee. Chole reached down and patted his stomach. “Good work. You’re not over the hill yet.”

“Could you at least pat my head?” Grengalheim asked weakly. “And I am only thirty-three. I don’t know what you’re talking about.” The man took a deep breath and with a swing of his arms, he threw himself onto his feet. At his full height, Den guessed he had to be at least six feet-- a solid head over both Rika and himself. The man stretched back with his hands on his hips and rolled his neck before raising a fist to his armored chest. “I’m Grengalheim. Despite this shortstack’s complaints I am actually the Overseer of Suburb 23’s Primordial Hollows. It’s nice to meet you two.”

Rika moved in and put one hand to her chest and fell onto one knee. “It’s wonderful to have you on our team,” she said, then her face turned sharp with desire. “Will you be my boyfriend?”

Grengalheim laughed once with a raised eyebrow. He clapped Rika’s hand. “Nice to meet you too, Rika. And no. Not interested. Thanks though.”

Rika sighed and rose up with hanging shoulders. “Aw, okay… Looking forward to adventuring with you.”

Den patted her shoulder. He had to give her credit, she wasn't picky, didn’t waste any time, and most of all she was polite-- that gained his respect at least. He dropped his hand and turned his attention back to Grengalheim. “You’re already an adventurer then?” While standing, his pudgy stomach was hardly noticeable. With his crew cut and leather armor, he definitely looked the part of a rough and tumble adventurer.

Chloe waved a dismissive hand at Grengalheim. “He dressed up to show off today. He is the weakest individual here.” She gave Den a onceover. “Chloe is however confused. She does not understand why Den chose to wear recycling. Explain yourself.”

Den shifted the weight of his backpack and adjusted the metal food cans on his forearms. “I did actually try to come prepared today…” That morning he’d been quite proud of the ‘armor’ he’d scavenged from the recycling bin. Now, next to Grengalheim’s real deal, however, his stomach churned at the ridiculousness of his partially burned shirt and cans. He lifted his chin however and set his hands on the screwdriver and hammer shoved into his belt. “I don’t care if it looks ridiculous. I need armor if we’re going to be pushing deeper and facing more monsters like that skeleton.”

Chloe gave a shrug. “I appreciate that you can wear it so proudly. Chloe prefers that to this poser dressing up as an adventurer.”

Rika’s brow furrowed. “I’m confused. Are you not an adventurer?”

Grengalheim brought a hand down to his belt and lifted up a shining copper Guild Badge. “I was born and raised one.”

Chloe shook her head. “And yet these noobs are more adventurers than you.” She gestured to Rika. “That one wants to clear the Hundreth Layer.” She nodded to Den. “He wants to make a career off this.”

The man let out a hearty laugh eyeing them both with a warm intensity. “Hundredth Layer clearing career adventurers, huh? I like that spirit.” He held out his fist. “Despite what this one says, I’ve waited my whole life for the day I could set out with adventurers like you.” Den and Rika met his fist. “You’re moving onto the Second Layer, correct? This will be a good refresher. I’m level nine. You better prepare yourself for an increased spawn.”


The Second Layer looked much the same as the first with long tunnels lit with softly glowing crystal and well marked paths, side routes chained off. Rika and Chloe led the group with Pokey Stick of Destruction and cosplay knife raised, respectively. Den held his hammer and screwdriver at the ready though in the first stretch of the layer he didn’t have a chance to use them.

A startling number of monsters randomly spawned out of black smoke that poured from the craggy walls. Not just the Giant Rats Den was by now well acquainted with, but also Giant Porcupine, Fox Bats, and even a strange rodent Grengalheim called a Colugo. The army of giant rodents fell as Rika and Chloe relentlessly met them with terrifying force. Grengalheim trailed the group with his hands in his pockets and an easy smile as if he was walking in the park.

As soon as the doors clattered shut, sealing them into the first spawn chamber, a dozen monsters jumped out of the smoke pouring from the magic symbol on the center of the round room. Rats hissed and waited for them to proceed. Slimes bubbled up from the earth. Three porcupines rustled their sharp quills. Red eyes blinked from the ceiling as the intimidatingly big fox bats eyed them from the ceiling.

“What is this?” Den said. “Why are there so many?”

Grengalheim itched the back of his head. “I am an adventurer regardless of Chloe’s claims otherwise. Sure under the old rules I was only allowed in on Guild business quarterly, but that still allowed me to reach level nine. The spawn rate is scaled accordingly.”

Rika threw her arms over her head. “Yes! This is the spawn I was hoping for. This is how we’re getting enough Essence Ore for the four of us.”

Den grit his teeth. With this many enemies, and this many allies, letting everyone attack freely would surely lead to chaos. “Rika. You’re on the porcupine. Chloe, take out the rats. I can handle the slimes. Grengalheim--” Den glanced back at their newest ally. While he was armored, Den could not see any weapon on him. “Can you take care of the fox bats?”

“They won’t attack until they are the last monsters in the room or they are attacked,” Grengalheim said, giving an easy shrug as if it was silly to even ask such a simple question. “You can leave them to me.”

The team broke up on Den’s call and moved in. Now that they had this diverse of an enemy pool, Den was thankful to have a decent amount of different kinds of weapons. His hammer’s sharp end and screwdriver rent apart the slimes while Chloe cut through the rats and Rika brought down what Den believed the most dangerous of the enemies-- the porcupines-- with her spear, not needing to worry about the sharp quills.

The rats were the greatest in number and while Chloe was able to dispose of them with casual swings of her knife, she didn’t run so a few stragglers targeted Den as well. His breath came short as he fought his way through the three rats that surrounded him. He barreled forward at a Giant Rat with his left arm raised. The monster sprang, closing its mouth down on Den’s can-bound arm. He grinned as the force of the bite barely registered. He brought his hammer down on the rat’s head and soon disposed of one more.

Out of the corner of his eye, Den glimpsed Grengalheim moving forward at last, still with his hands in his pockets. Eyes on the ceiling fox rats, he didn’t seem to have a single worry. As two of Den’s rats exploded into black smoke, the last charged the carefree Grengalheim with ferocious speed. “Grengalheim!” Den said, attempting to chase, but his trembling legs made his reaction slow. “Watch out!”

The man glanced sideways at the approaching rat. At the last second when it jumped for him with its sharp teeth bared, Grengalheim twisted, snapping a fist out of his pocket at the monster. With a click, a metal pole expanded, running through the rat. It screamed and burst. With skilled grace, he brought his hand to the tip of the winding pole and pushed it back down into the spring loaded handle. Grengalheim gave Den a smile. “Thanks for the heads up, but you don’t need to worry about me. I cleared the Second Layer the first time when I was six.”

Den could only manage a nod. He watched Grengalheim quickly dispatch the fox bats without even breaking a sweat. Even at a distance, the massive flapping wings startled Den. The difference in their composure and experience was almost painful. He had no idea how many more thousands of monsters he would have to slay to even think of catching up to Grengalheim.

Den doubled down to take out as many monsters as possible in an attempt to shore up the lead in experience points Rika had taken the day before. When the battle ended and they cleaned up the dim fallen crystal, Den asked, “You said before you’re the Overseer of this place? You’re the image I’ve always had of an adventurer.” Jealous he may be, but he already found himself admiring Grengalheim.

“You hear that?” Grengalheim said, rubbing his goatee and giving Chloe a cocky grin. She only rolled her eyes as she continued to collect Essence Ore. Returning his gaze to Den, he said, “My family has acted as the Overseer of this Hollow since the suburb was established.”

“How deep have you been then?” Rika asked.

“I’ve made it down the first fourteen layers with my father.”

“Then what are you doing wading through the Second Layer with us?” Den asked. “If you’ve been an adventurer for so long, you probably have much better things to do than hang out with beginners like us.”

“Chloe will clarify.” Chloe stowed her knife in its sheath, tucked it in her pocket, and met them at the chamber’s exit door. “Grengalheim is not an adventurer. He is a janitor. The Guild hires him to walk through the first four layers quarterly.”

“That’s--” Den started. What was he supposed to say? That wasn’t really adventurer work. Did entering the Hollows four times a year count as adventuring really?

Rika laughed. “That’s it? I should be able to catch up in no time then!” She skipped on and Den could see Grengalheim’s momentary pride crumble.

The man gave Chloe a glare. “I know what you think of me, but I answered your call. I am taking this seriously.”

“Chloe hopes so. She wishes to have the help of one worthy of the name of Grengalheim.”

Not understanding the bad blood between the two and not having the energy or people skills the situation called for, Den didn’t say anything. Rika didn’t even seem to pick up on the mood of the situation, and led the group on, lighthearted. They came to a spot where the path broke into three, moldy wooden signs hanging from the ceiling.

Grengalheim gazed up at the signs, itching his goatee with a look of deep consideration. Rika stopped at his side with her hands on her hips and asked, “What are you thinking?”

“I’m thinking if we have a significant increase in the number of adventurers coming through in the weeks and months to come, I’m going to have to replace all of the old signs.”

“Why?” Rika asked. “These old faded signs look rad. I feel the adventure in the air.”

“Wonderful. I liked it too, but I’m worried it’ll make me look lazy,” Grengalheim said. “I’ll tell my father. That’s one less thing I need to get done in these busy days.”

“Chloe thinks that Grengalheim should leave all such jobs to his father,” Chloe said, walking one foot ahead of the other until she came to a stop under the signs and looked straight up at them. “She doesn’t want anything else distracting Grengalheim.”

“I wish I could leave it to him,” Grengalheim muttered.

Den lifted his phone with the AR mode on and saw the old projections that hung in the air. “The signs are definitely much cooler than the virtual markers. Makes this place feel older than it is.”

That moment, smoke poured out of the walls and three Giant Rats hissed into existence. Den quickly snapped a shot and stowed his phone while two of the rats barred their teeth and prepared to leap, Rika and Chloe raising their spear and hammer in turn, but Grengalheim froze in place. His wide eyes were pinned on the rat in the back, its fur black and shimmering softly with a magical glow. It’s eye had a different gleam. It’s gaze rolled over Den and his party members, and in the same moment that the other two rats went on the offensive, it bolted for the closest tunnel.

“Holy freaking shit!” Grengalheim shouted while Rika and Chloe ended the front two monsters. Den gulped as he saw Grengalheim who had been a calm presence to this point suddenly turn white with his mouth hanging open. “That’s a Deviant!”

Den put his hands on his weapons, the tension in Grengalheim’s words putting him on edge. He glanced at the quickly shrinking monster and saw that both Chloe and Rika had gained equally shocked looks as they swung around. As usual, he was the only one who had no idea what was going on. He had hoped that he could hide his lack of knowledge from Grengalheim but the shock in the air forced him to ask, “What’s that mean? Should I be worried?”

Grengalheim charged after the monster, shouting over his shoulder, “They have a one in a hundred-thousand spawn rate. I haven’t even ever seen one before! They have a special drop. Ignore everything else; take out that rat!”

They followed Grengalheim down the side tunnel, the black rat fleeing, running in and out of the shadows cast by the stalagmites. Den did as he was asked, though his breath was already coming short. He didn’t really understand the big deal of a special drop. It looked the same as the others except for being a different color, and the fact it was running the opposite direction he thought was promising, but Grengalheim’s reaction only made him nervous.

“Don’t get me wrong, I am all for catching this special monster,” Den wheezed, “But we currently have a terrifying mob on our tails.” Glancing over his shoulder, Den’s skin crawled as he saw a surging wave of furry monsters spawning and giving chase only a few steps behind. He had to guess at least a dozen Giant Rats as well as another two dozen other rodents had amassed behind, another half dozen slimes slowly rolling in line further back the long meandering tunnel. One on one even he knew they weren’t a real problem, but that many rushing them all at once in a massive throng of clawed feet, twitching whiskers, and hissing, Den had to admit it was embarrassingly intimidating and made him tremble.

“Don’t worry about the vermin,” Grengalheim said, glancing back for only a second. “We can abuse their attack pattern and take them out later.”

Returning his vision to the front, a pair of wooden doors at the back of the tunnel had come into sight. The shimmering grey furred monster they pursued darted diagonally from one natural stone pillar on the side of the tunnel to another. It looked back at them and stood up on its hind legs, its nose twitching in agitation, its red eyes glinting dangerously. It jumped at the doorway, grabbing on with its front paws and clinging for a moment. It was trying to open the doors itself. Den grinned, thankful for the supremacy of his thumbs. The monster realized the uselessness of trying to open the handles that way and instead scurried behind one of the large pillars next to the doors.

“We need to make a plan for this Deviant,” Grengalheim said, his crazed eyes shooting between the party members. “These monsters are bad news. They have intelligence. Don’t let your guard down for even a moment.”

With a sudden hiss, the dog-sized rat in question burst out from behind a boulder, slamming into Grengalheim and sending him crashing to the earth. Den screamed as Grengalheim shouted and punched the monster back. In the blink of an eye, without any of them noticing, it had come back on the offensive. It slashed at Grengalheim’s face relentlessly, and it was all he could do to ungracefully grip its scruff and slug it back.

“I got ya!” Rika said. She swung her spear down at the monster, but its eyes flashed, and it nimbly leaped sideways. Rika’s staff slammed hard against Grengalheim’s stomach and he wheezed, curling up. The monster wasted no movement, springing forward again, landing on Grengalheim’s head and slamming it back against the earth as it propelled itself for Rika, knocking her off her feet. It moved its incisors for her neck and for a split second, Den’s heart stopped, but with a tough grunt, Rika headbutted the monster. Owing to the true toughness of Rika’s skull, the monster staggered back.

Den overcame his shock and pulled out his screwdriver and hammer. This was their chance! He couldn’t let this perfect opportunity go to waste. He rushed forward and leaped over Grengalheim. Flying through the air with his weapons raised, he grinned as his blood surged with the excitement of the moment. The rat shook its head and caught sight of Den-- but it was too late. The moment Den would touch ground and bring his tools down on the monster, it would be over.

He landed--perfectly atop Rika’s spear. With a choked, “shit,” his feet shot out from under him. Weapons flying from his hands, Den crashed down on top of Grengalheim who again wheezed. Sorry dude, he thought, but honestly, he was thankful for the soft landing. He did feel bad that with his weight accounted for, surely the attack had been a critical hit. In a rush to push himself off Grengalheim, and get back to his weapons, the Deviant slid in to take advantage of Den on his butt. It sprang at him with it’s teeth open, and Den could only yelp in fright as he threw up his can covered arms.

A small round stone slammed into the monster’s face, starling it and knocking it off-aim. It landed on all fours and jumped out of the way as Chloe swooped in, just barely missing stabbing through it with her knife. “Tch,” she said in irritated disappointment. She gracefully rose back up to her full height, standing over Den, forming a wall between him and the Deviant. “Chloe told you she would protect you,” she said as she raised her left hand, holding a sling. “Den is cute when he tries and fails epically.”

He’d lost the opportunity to take down the monster, but he could only chuckle in relief that he was still alright. He wasn’t sure the same could be said for Grengalheim who moaned under him. He finished pushing himself off and onto his feet with his weapons in hand while Chloe quickly drew another pebble from her center pocket and tucked it in the sling, swinging it at the ready.

The Deviant backed up slowly, squinting at Chloe and hissing. The scratching of claws on stone grew deafening as the monsters to their rear closed in. The Deviant rat spat on the ground bitterly and sprinted past them for the coming mass of mindless monsters. Rika jumped to her feet. “We’re going to lose it!” She threw her spear and it flew majestically-- hitting stone two feet to the right of their target with a clatter. The Deviant paid it no heed, running on. Rika laughed and stuck out her tongue. “Aiming is harder than it looks.” While that result was disappointing but utterly unsurprising, the wildly rolling spear did cause the wave of rats to come to a screeching halt.

Grengalheim rose up, holding his stomach with one hand and lifting an open hand over head. “You’re a little shit,” he said watching the rat as it closed the final few steps to the incoming throng of rodents. “But you’re not getting away.” A black metal ring on the middle finger of his raised hand flashed and in that second, a ghostly blade nearly two meters long materialized in licks of flame, running out from Grengalheim’s palm. He brought his hand down and the magical sword crashed down on the Deviant, cleaving it in half. The rat exploded into smoke, giving off a bright glow. As suddenly as it had appeared, Grengalheim’s magical apparition fizzled into heat waves.

No freaking way. Did their party member just end it all in one slice with a giant ghost katana?! Den’s mouth dropped open. “You have an Enchanted Item?” The air filled with the crackle of Essence Ore as Den’s pockets grew light, answering him. Even he knew that such an awesome show of magic would require a significant price. The magical cost of the item was paid from their combined spoils of Ore it seemed.

“Damn, I’m glad that worked,” Grengalheim said and crumpled onto his knees. “I think I’m going to be sick.” The army of rats fell upon them. As Grengalheim wretched, Den had his chance to fight, smashing and stabbing his way through the seemingly endless spawn they’d brought upon themselves. Back to back in a circle around Grengalheim, Den’s heart hammered.

The one saving factor in the madness of their defense was just as Grengalheim had said. The Giant Rats seemed to have an attack sequence where only one would attack at a time. As he dealt with the other dangerous rodents like porcupine and fox bats, the biggest of the enemies waited for their turn to die on the party’s weapons. It took nearly ten minutes of wild and ungraceful swinging and hitting and grunting to eliminate the lot. When Den brought the hammer down on the last rat’s head and it burst, he fell to the earth out of breath alongside the monster’s Essence Ore.

“Dear god everything hurts!” Den yelled, letting his arms go limp and the knife and screwdriver rolled out of his trembling fingers. At the start of the day he’d thought he’d been getting stronger, but now with his can armor dented with bitemarks and all his muscles trembling in the wake of tension following the nonstop fight for their life, he was sure he was slowly but surely destroying himself.

Rika squatted next to Grengalheim and rubbed his back as he held his stomach. “Did that monster manage any serious damage?” she asked.

He shook his head. “No, but you and Den did.”

They gave their most sincere apologies for his sacrifice for the team.

Chloe walked through the sea of dropped Essence Ore and picked up a softly glowing golden object. “Chloe spotted treasure so she took it.” She brought it back to the group and held it out in both hands. It was a tiara of gnarled and greened gold. Strangely, despite having elaborate symmetrical sweeping artifices it appeared to be organically formed. In the center, a purple crystal glowed softly. “Chloe likes the shiny. What is it?”

Grengalheim rubbed his face as he pushed himself up with a groan, but when he brought his hand away and caught sight of the item, his face broke into a wide grin and he laughed almost giddily. “That battle was a mess. You all have zero teamwork,” he said, reaching forward and lifting up the item. “But I’ll take any beating to get an Enchanted Item like this. This prize is going to make adventurers out of us losers.”


Den was half dead on his feet as they closed in on the end of the second layer boss battle. He focused on staying on his feet. That was about all he could manage. He stood with his feet wildly placed and breathed deeply, his arms out to the sides with his two tools extended. He left the slimes to Grengalheim who took care of them considerably more gracefully than Den by unloading his piercing pike into them. Chloe handled bats with her sling. Rika ended a majority of the rodents. At this point, Den just stood in place and smacked down anything that ran into his radius. He’d given up on trying to keep up with the others in kill count. It irked him, but he was running on fumes.

When the last of the monsters of the fourth wave were vanquished, Grengalheim gave him a tired smile. “You hanging in there, Den?”

He gave a weak nod. “Still better than day one.” He’d purposely been biding his time for the coming boss battle.

“Den’s fine,” Rika said. “He’s not very strong, but he pulls through and doesn’t complain.” At this point even Rika was out of breath and stood with one hand on her hip, leaning on her Pointy Stick of Destruction.

Grengalheim had been doing the running work and snapped his pike in the air to remove clinging slime. “An admirable trait in a party member,” Grengalheim said. “but it can’t be easy to take on the fortress with only a hammer and screwdriver.”

“You don’t understand.” Den said with a weak laugh. “I have armor today. And these tools are so much better than the pry-bar.” He rolled his wrists. “I’m to the point where I’m light headed. It kind of feels great-- like I can do anything. Bring on the boss!”

Chloe gave him a skeptical side glance and skipped sideways three times to put herself between him and the large boss summoning magic circle in the center of the room. “Chloe does not trust loopy Den. Stay behind Chloe where it is safe.”

“Good vibe, Den,” Rika called, lifting up her spear. “But don’t overdo it. You don’t help the team if you’re dead.”

“It’s only the Second Layer,” Grengalheim said. “We should be able to clean this boss up even if Den takes it easy.”

At last, black smoke poured out of the magic circle and amassed in the center of the room. A skeleton riding a guinea pig formed out of the smoke and fell to the earth.

Grenglaheim laughed. “Aw, nice! A Guinea-pig-mount Skeleton. These are a good spawn for the Second layer.”

The skeleton clung to the back of the rodent by its long majestic orange and white fur. Den faltered as he took in the guinea pig’s floppy ears, scruffy fur and big black eyes.

“We have to fight this baby?” Chloe asked, voicing Den’s doubts, her face broken.

“It may be cute, but don’t lower your guard,” Grengalheim said. “These usually spawn after the Fifth Layer. They’re nimble and pack a good punch. Everyone stay behind me.”

The skeleton raised an fist holding a long gnarled stick. Just a stick? Den thought. If it was a sword or a spear the monster might have been a bit intimidating, but that just made the whole image all the more silly. Den couldn’t help a grin from forming. This was going to be easy. Red light flashed in the skeleton’s empty eye sockets and it screeched, the guinea-pig raising its head to bare its fangs and release its own not all too ferocious battle squeak.

They’d had a tough enough time breaking through the skeletons that had spawned during the mini-boss battle. Now one had the speed of a mount too? Grengalheim ran in front of Den and grounded himself, Chloe and Rika each falling in on either side of him. Den let out a weak laugh. Now this was a formation he could get behind.

Rolling his neck and chuckling to himself, Grengalheim lowered himself into a low squat, raising his pike at the monster. “I haven’t seen one of these in years. This was one of the first dangerous monsters I fought working down the Hollows.”

Dangerous? That had to be an exaggeration.

The skeleton fell forward on the guinea-pig and it sprinted for them on four surprisingly fast paws nearly unseen under its long fur.

Grengalheim brought his pike forward with both hands. “It’s best to focus on taking down the mount. Separate and conquer.”

The guinea pig sprung into the air at the last second, flying two meters up. Just how powerful were its legs? It hardly looked like it should be able to move its chunky body around let alone achieve such heights. It fell at Grengalheim, but he threw himself to the side and dodged, twisting his spear back and into the monster. Rika screeched as she threw herself on the monster from the left and Chloe swept in from the right with her knife.

Letting out a full laugh, Grengalheim said, “That’s it, team! We’ll take this boss down in no time!”

“Yeah,” Den called from behind, unable to work up the energy to run in for a cool attack of his own. “You guys are doing great.”

Rika shot him a sideways glare. “I know I said to take it easy,” she said, “but do something, Den!”

“If it comes in my attack radius, I will.” He stretched out his arms and swung his weapons in small circles to show the extent of his range.

“Your hammer attack will help with the skeleton,” Grengalheim said, jumping back as the Guinea Pig shook them off. “Here, let me give you a hand.”

The skeleton’s eyes fell on Grengalheim as he ran to the monster. It threw a punch, but he deftly dodged it and swung his polearm up to catch the monster’s wrist. With a twist, he dislodged the hand, sending it flying back at Den.

Completely unprepared for that, Den wildly swung his hammer. Miraculously, he connected with the hand, the fingers flying in all directions. I can’t believe I did that! Den’s heart fluttered with satisfaction. The cracked palm bone however flew straight and true-- and smacked hard into Grengalheim’s forehead.

“Shit!” Den said. “Sorry.” He wasn’t sure what face to make. He was overjoyed he’d delivered such an amazing home run, but Grengalheim reeled back with a choked shout.

Rika and Chloe continued to jump at the guinea-pig-mount, running their weapons into it while Den and Grengalheim had the skeleton distracted. With Grengalheim dazed, the monster’s eyes flashed as it spotted an opportunity. It burst past the other two and slammed into Grengalheim’s legs from behind. In the same second that Grengalheim fell backwards, the skeleton threw itself off the mount, falling on Grengalheim and landing a decisive blow to his gut with its elbow that would have made history in professional wrestling.

Grengalheim coughed roughly and went limp. The skeleton rose up with its remaining fist in the air like a new champion.

A cold sweat broke out on Den. “Uh, you okay there, Grengalheim?” he called.

No response. The man lay with his limbs splayed as the skeleton threw itself up onto the guinea pig once more, pulling its stick out from the monster’s fur. Rika and Chloe fell into line side by side in front of him.

“He’s down. We’ll have to take it from here,” Rika said. “It’s time to show our true skills!”

“Couldn’t we have done that before we lost our strongest member?” Den shouted.

“Chloe saw this coming,” Chloe declared. “Grengalheim will be remembered.”

“Don’t say things like he’s dead!” Den said. He’s not dead… right?

The situation had turned in an instant. They were now down their most experienced fighter (most likely not dead) while they faced an opponent considered dangerous. Den took only a moment to make his decision.

“Rika, draw the fluff ball to the right while Chloe keeps reeling it back in. I’ll see what I can do about the skeleton,” Den said, running forward and falling to a knee next to Grengalheim. The man’s chest rose and fell. Thank the Goddess, he’s alive. Relieved that their teammate wasn’t dead, Den forced himself back up. “And I guess I’ll guard Grengalheim.” He supposed that was the right thing to do since it could be considered his fault that the man was on the ground now. Well, he surprised me. He should be thankful I even managed such a strike.

Following Den’s plan, Rika pulled away and stabbed at the guinea pig with the spear from Den’s left. Chloe flung a stone to draw the monster over to the right. As it passed, Den swung his hammer and screwdriver, but completely missed the skeleton as it dodged. The monster smacked its stick against Den’s cheek. Chloe stabbed the mount with her knife, drawing in the boss, as Rika came at it from the other side. They were doing damage, but after this process repeated a few times, Den grew dizzy as both cheeks swelled from his own repeated damage. Seeming to grow tired of the game, the skeleton threw itself off the back of the guinea pig and as it landed, it swung its stick with ferocious strength that seemed completely unfair.

It knocked the legs out from under them, sending them to the earth. Head spinning, Den pushed himself up.

“I got this,” Rika said with a grin, but her head was spinning as much as Den’s. She drew up her spear, but pointed it in the opposite direction of the boss monster.

That one isn’t going to save us, Den sighed wryfully.

Even Chloe lay on her side letting off a long low groan. “Chloe hurts. She will make the enemy pay most dearly.” But despite those strong words, she made no move to get up.

Come on, Chloe! You can’t just say something so cool and go on laying there!

The monster jumped for them, and Den did the only thing he could think to do. He reached inside his pocket and drew out the item they had won earlier that day. He had not the slightest idea what was needed to use an Enchanted Item. He held it up on an outstretched arm, and prayed it was as easy as he needed it to be. “Slip tiara save us!” he shrieked, not caring that his voice cracked. A strong hot energy rippled out from the Enchanted Item and rolled out from Den with a purple aura to his neighboring three teammates. The guinea-pig-mount coming down on them, the world flashed to white.

Den grunted as he dropped a foot onto his backpack. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the massive shape of the Connecting Crystal. With no giant rodent in sight either, he considered that the Slip Tiara had successfully done its job of ejecting them out of that hopeless battle. From the position on his back, he glanced around to see his other three teammates and their weapons had been successfully transported in as well. They groaned and pushed themselves up from the ground with difficulty, but they were alive.

With a hiss and crackle of electricity, his backpack wheezed and dust poured out as the once plump bag shriveled up under him, setting him on the cold stone floor. Ah, the cost of magic, Den thought, tears in his eyes. We’re alive, but it cost us everything.

They scraped themselves up and in silence they slunk downtown to the convenience store. They used up the last of their funds getting food, Chloe and Rika carrying it back to a corner table for Den and Grengalheim who couldn’t manage any more than sliding into their seats. Grengalheim held a bag of ice to his head while the other two sat down. “I’m sorry, friends. I let you down,” he said.

Being the first real words after their battle, Den sighed and considered he should pay his dues too. “Yeah, sorry about the whole knocking you out thing too.”

Grengalheim lifted his head and gave a pained grin. “Well, it was a good attack.”

Settling in the seat next to Den, Chloe started eating another cup ramen. “It was a spectacular feat. Chloe was deeply impressed. Especially when it led to defeating Grengalheim.”

“Why does it sound like I was the boss monster this fight…?” Grenglaheim asked, pulling in a curry box Chloe slid him without looking.

Rika smoldered from her seat next to Grengalheim. “I can’t believe you teleported us out of there, Den,” she grumbled, furiously eating an ice cream. “We totally could have beaten that boss.”

Den looked up from the hamburger he was about to take a bite from. He was going to make a comment on how stupid that was, but decided he didn’t have the will to fight Rika on that point. “Well, now we know the Slip Tiara works,” he said. He started chewing, savoring the flavor, knowing that the next day he wouldn’t even have the funds to afford this much. Even so, he was excited. “So between the Slip Tiara we just picked up and Grengalheim’s Slash Ring, we already have two Enchanted Items,” Den said.

“Why didn’t you mention you had an Enchanted Item at the beginning?” Rika asked, turning on Grengalheim. “If you’d used that in the boss fight, we would have won in a second.”

“You saw the cost we paid,” Grengalheim said, continuing to eat his curry. “The Slash Ring is a pretty solid offensive Enchanted Item, but since it’s a much higher level than I am, the Essence Ore cost is not worth it. I could have made maybe three slashes with the Ore we had on us at the time. That may have been enough to take out the Guinea Pig, but slash damage is weak against undead types of monsters. An attack like that would’ve eaten up all our Ore with minimal effect.”

Chloe picked up the Slip Tiara that sat in the middle of the table. “If Grengalheim is too weak to use his Enchanted Item, why did the Slip Tiara use so much Ore?”

“It’s a newly spawned item. Being only level one, it also doesn’t have an efficient rate of Ore use,” Grengalheim explained.

So as Den understood it, even if they had Enchanted Items, if the item was too strong and they were weak, the cost would be exorbitant, but if the item was weak as well, then the cost would still be unreasonable. He groaned internally. It sucked that even as adventurers the system reminded them that being weak losers sucked. “So basically, our Enchanted Items are off limits if we want to collect any Ore,” Den concluded.

Grengalheim nodded. “That is probably a good rule to work by.”

Chloe frowned. “It is unfair Den was the one to activate the Enchanted Item. Chloe wants to use one too.”

Rika also crossed her arms. “Ugh… It’s going to take forever to get to the bottom of the Hollows!”

Pausing in his eating to sit up and laugh, Grengalheim said, “I know you mentioned you wanted to get down to the Hundreth Layer, but you do know that even the Tenth Layer is forbidden to individual adventurers? Even then, teams of five are only allowed down to the Thirty-fifth Layer. That includes the Royal Guild Parties in Starter Town.” He shrugged. “Sekaijin are just not built for the lower Stratum.”

Rika didn’t pause as she met Grengalheim with fiery eyes. “I don’t care. I’m going to do it.”

To that, Grengalheim had no answer, just looking at Rika with an open mouth.

Chloe patted Rika on the head. “This is the difference between you,” she said, looking at Grengalheim. “This is why Rika is cute and Grengalheim is a disappointment. Chloe wants to dream as an adventurer too.”

Den may not agree with the wild headlong charge method Rika lived by, but it felt good moving forward without a care for all the impracticalities to come. He cracked open his can of beer and raised it. “To reaching the lower Stratum!” he said. The others raised their drinks in cheer. After taking a long swig, he flopped back in his chair. “That said though, I am seriously going to need a rest day soon.”

“Well, it’s not going to be tomorrow,” Rika said. “I got another party member request on Groupus. We’re going in again tomorrow night,” she said, grinning with an excited flash in her eyes. “Then we’ll have a full party to register at the Guild!”

Den reached forward and picked up the Slip Tiara. “Well, at least we have this in case things go poorly again.”

“Don’t even think about it,” Rika warned.

“It is disappointing,” Den pouted. “Grengalheim’s Slash Ring was the most lit thing I’ve ever seen.”

Chloe shrugged. “Chloe admits that Grengalheim may have been a little cool, but she has seen better. The Slash Ring was as basic as Enchanted Items came in the Isekaijin Age.”

“But it’s still magic,” Den said. “My image has always been that Enchanted Items are all tucked away in museums or hoarded by the elite Guild families. I’d never thought of using one myself. I don’t care how basic the Enchanted Item is, I want to get my hands on one I can fight with too.”

“Don’t get your hopes up,” Grengalheim said with a sigh. “Getting our hands on the Slip Tiara was miracle enough.”

Den comprehended that, but even so, his heart burned with desire. “I want to become a real adventurer. I’m going to do it.”

Chloe patted his head too. “Chloe likes her dumb team members.”

Feeling inspired despite their failure, Den pulled out his phone and opened the camera app. He held their golden monster drop to his forehead and attempted to find an angle to snap a picture with the three other members. It was not easy given the cord leashing his phone kept him from fully extending his arm. “Despite the final loss, today was still a victory,” he said, managing to catch all the team members in the photo. “We have one more teammate.”

He dropped his sore arms and looked over his team. “Once we have our last member, we’ll have a full party. We’re going to become successful adventurers or I’m going to be worn down to dust. Those are the only two options left to me.” His stomach growled. Unfortunately, the second option seemed more likely at this point. “We better make money tomorrow. I don’t think I can take any more nights without dinner.”