One Snow grunted, and they turned, standing back-to-back as they walked sideways towards the exit.

One Snow slashed sharply, clicking his teeth when the insectile mob darted backwards, dodging. But at least it was forced back by his swing, so he could get his blade up to guard.

He heard Itagaki suck in a breath, and he grunted himself as he felt more teeth latch on his shin. Glancing down, he speared the enemy mob with his sword, whipping it sharply back up, bisecting the beetle.

They weren't tough.

Even as he sliced another of those winged ants out of the air, his grip spasmed tightly as another one darted in to bite his forearm.

Their attack power wasn't even that high.

He simply smashed it with a hammer blow, sweeping it off his arm, awkwardly swinging the sword at another mob that was going for Itagaki's back.

But they swarmed.

His gaze darted up. Both their health was in the Yellow Zone.

"Gya ha ha." A self-satisfied laugh echoed around them.

There was a tremendous pause, and then, as one-

The insects leapt forward. He swung his sword and Itagaki swung her polearm, but even if they cut down a dozen, that was merely a fraction of the insects that latched on to her.

His gaze darted up to the red HP bar.

Then down to the clenched jaw, the half-crazed look.

Like that, their eyes met.

The HP bar went to zero.

And she shattered into pixels.

The insects slumped inward. The body those bugs had been resting on like a layer was gone, so they collapsed into the cavity, a lump that lost any resemblance to the human that had been there.

He screamed. It wasn't human words, but the howl of a beast.

He swung the sword, wringing power out of his Circuits even as he wrung air out of his lungs. With a crash like a storm, the blade and the gust descended, hammering into the lump of bugs and scattering them like a corpse.

"Haah haah haah." Breathing hard, nearly hyperventilating, his gaze darted around.

There was no announcement of victory. There was no holographic bar congratulating them.

So the Boss wasn't defeated.

Another sharp and burning pain in his shoulder. It wasn't a conscious decision anymore. He reacted and sliced off another winged ant.

His eyes darted to his HP bar.

Like that, it had crossed into the red.

He made a choice.

He held his sword in his left hand, and activated his menu. His hand was trembling, but even so, he navigated the options without any mistakes.

[PM

From: One Snow

To: Diabel

5F boss is Zolgen. Made of bugs.]

He grunted, almost gasping, as another beetle latched onto his leg. But he didn't cut it until he hit send.

Then he took up his sword and swung it.

"Gya ha ha." That same laugh, that reveled in knowing something he didn't, echoed around him.

He raised his sword, and forcibly calmed his body.

There was that same great pause, and then-

The swarm convulsed.

"Iki!" A defiant roar as the wind burst outward. Scraping out his Circuits, he willingly carved off HP he absolutely couldn't spare in exchange for blasting more of them.

He stumbled, swinging the sword wildly, as his body was doused in venomous fire from being submerged in their fangs.

Darkness.

And with a grunt as he felt the floor press against his face, there was light. It was dim, and flickered, but there was definitely awake.

One Snow pushed himself up, hands against the rough stone beneath him, as he frantically looked left and right.

"I'm here." Itagaki said, stepping forward to catch his attention.

One Snow sighed in relief. "That's good."

Then he finished pushing himself up, looking around with a frown. "Where are we, anyway?"

It was a strange clearing in an ancient city. Great flat cauldrons with stacks of burning wood cast a warm light.

And those pyres were flanking a great and terrible stone. It was a flat slab supported from beneath by upright boulders, like something the druids of old would have piled up. There was a troubling red color staining the top surface.

But carved in the face of that stone were words that they could inexplicably understand.

[ALTAR OF SERIOUS BUSINESS]

"Yo! You're awake!"

They spun in place.

Walking towards them in a completely casual manner, was a tall and confident man. Like a strutting hound, he strode towards them with his hands thrust into the pockets of his black slacks.

Of course, that was something you could notice only after taking in his extremely colorful Hawaiian shirt.

His bright blue hair was swept back, and his grin was so wide that it looked like the edges would touch his earrings.

"Welcome." Speaking again, it was clear that he was the one that had addressed them. Confidently striding up, he walked past them, casually hopping to sit insolently on the slab at the front of the scene. "This is the place that undermines the tension of the chapter even more than usual, where characters that were sacrificed to raise the tension gather to complain about it. I'm your host; you can call me [Lancer]."

After saying something that was a little too confusing, he nodded confidently, and pulled a cigarette out of his shirt pocket.

Lancer lit it with a satisfied hum.

One Snow stepped forward, clearing his throat, glancing at Itagaki before speaking. "So… what should we do?"

Lancer frowned. "I just said." He blew out a ring of smoke. "Well, I'm not interested in listening to kids complain, so I guess you should address the readers instead, but that's why you're here."

One Snow and Itagaki exchanged looks. Unlike certain protagonists, they didn't have the experience to finish the scene, so all they could do was act confused.

"So… we're dead, then?" Itagaki ventured to guess with a deeply hesitant voice.

"I dunno." Lancer shrugged casually.

"Why are you here?" One Snow asked.

Lancer opened his mouth, but before speaking, he frowned mightily instead, before speaking. "Let's just say arriving here is the job of those summoned into the class of [Lancer]." He was pouting and scowling as his gaze extended off into the distance.

One Snow and Itagaki exchanged helpless looks again.

"So, what should we do from here?" Itagaki asked.

"YOU'RE SO USELESS!" With a tremendous roar, a heavy figure streaked in like a comet from the side. Arriving feet first, it was his intention to deliver a mighty drop-kick tsukomi on the man that was insolently smoking.

However, without looking up, Lancer grabbed the leading foot and swung him around, so that he hit the ground face-first with a tremendous crash.

It was a frozen scene. One Snow and Itagaki looked on, either appalled or amazed, as the fat man lay face-down on the ground.

"I give you points for trying, I guess." Lancer said with a resigned tone.

Grumbling, the figure pushed himself up, and then pushed his glasses up his nose, even though the lenses were broken. Also, his face was bleeding.

"Are… are you okay?" Itagaki asked uncertainly.

"Yes, yes, it's no problem." Grumbling, the overweight man stood, brushing off his knees with his fingerless gloves. "One Snow. Itagaki. It's a pity you arrived here, too."

"Um, thanks." One Snow said.

"You don't remember me, do you?" He said with a sigh. "Even if it's been four chapters, you should remember other Front-Liners, you know?"

"I'm sorry." Itagaki said. "But I completely don't recognize you."

"Guh!" Clutching at his chest, he leveled an accusing finger. "It's me! [AAAA], called Yona! Remember it already!"

"Right, sorry." One Snow said, making a soothing motion at Itagaki.

"You know, you're not explaining anything either." Lancer idly pointed out, still slouching on the slab as he smoked his cigarette.

"Right, right." Yona grumbled. "Well, like that guy explained, this is the place where characters that were killed off by the author gather to complain. Since it's not really a [Bad End], there's no hope to go back and make another choice."

"So all we can do is impotently complain about taking a dive against some obnoxious villain." Lancer interjected, as he opened a beer he had gotten from somewhere.

"What do you mean, [Bad End]?" Itagaki said with a confused tone, asking a question about a term she was unfamiliar with.

Yona sighed with frustration, shoulders sagging. "I can't believe there are so many Noobs in the Launch." After saying something that would probably have annoyed her if she understood it, he forced himself upright and wagged his fingers. "Right! In a normal game, there are branch points where you can make a choice! They're always fake choices though, because if you don't do what the writer intended, you immediately reach an ending that tells you to feel bad for going off the rails! That's the [Bad End]!" After finishing an explanation that was one-third explanation and two-thirds impotent complaints, he nodded in conviction.

"And that… doesn't have anything to do with this place?" One Snow asked, hesitating.

"That's right." Yona nodded confidently.

"So, what should we do now?" Itagaki asked.

Yona frowned, pushing his broken glasses back up his nose. "How do you feel about [Goblins]?" His question was a little off-topic.

"I don't really like them." One Snow blithely responded. In his experience as a casual reader of fantasy literature, they were over-used.

Yona took a shaky step back like that was a personal insult.

"In that case you'll probably end up like this one." Lancer casually said, reminding the audience he was still in the scene, as he reached behind the [Altar] and lifted something up.

It was a pale girl.

She was thin, with sunken eyes and hair like seaweed, and her limbs hung limply. Without addressing or acknowledging them, her head lolled to the side, as Lancer lifted her by the back of the pale dress like a hospital gown.

He set her beside him on the [Altar]. Rather than sitting, it was more like she just remained the way she was placed.

Lancer opened another beer, setting it in front of the girl, before helping himself to another one as well.

Noticing the incredulous gazes of the two new kids, he asked an innocent question. "You want one?" He gestured with the beer can.

"I'm under twenty, so I'll have to decline." Itagaki said, taking the initiative as she formally refused.

"Your loss." Lancer shrugged, sitting back and taking a sip.

One Snow nodded with a convinced expression. "As I was saying, [Goblins] are awesome."

"Ha ha ha!" With a superior tone, Yona struck a pose. "Then, let me be the first to welcome you to the team! It's hard, but as long as you remember the motto [Losing is Fun] then it's rewarding in its own way!" After picking the least reassuring of all game mottos to quote, Yona offered them a smirking smile.

Beside Lancer, the pale girl fell backward off the altar.

"Hey." Lancer said reproachfully. "You didn't finish your beer."

Like that, the scenery faded to darkness with a spooky effect.

"Oh wait, yes you did." Lancer corrected himself.