Chapter 1B: Hold the Line

[THREE MONTHS AGO, EVENING]

"Another round for everyone! No, two rounds, on me!"

Cheers, whoops, and hollers were heard for miles. After a successful expedition to Floor 60, Goddess Loki herself invited everyone in her Familia to the Benevolent Mistress. Loki, a red-haired girl with a cutting-board chest and a tiny, form-fitting, black outfit, swung a chair 'round and sat down next to Aiz Wallenstein, her most successful child (also her sexiest child, but you didn't hear that from her). Loki and Aiz had a strained relationship, but not for any past grievances. Their personalities simply went together like sheep and wolf, except the sheep had a big, blue scabbard and kept slapping the wolf in the face with it.

"Sooooooooooo, aren'tcha gonna tell me what was down there?" Loki downed her tenth ale. It's only fair that a Goddess should outrank mortals in everything, including liver strength. "Musta' been somethin' strong. You got a good nick on your chin."

"Hm?" Aiz snapped back to reality and rubbed her wound. She couldn't admit a level one supporter was responsible. "Correct. On the sixtieth floor, we encountered new landforms and monsters. The trend in size actually reversed, and the monsters appeared smaller and more intelligent than in stratum five."

"Hmmm? More intelligent? Ya mean like they saw through all your combat tricks?" Loki giggled. "Don't worry. Your truly holds weekly mischief seminars. Complementary bag of tricks at the end!"

"It's not that," Aiz sipped warm milk and stared off into space. "Those monsters were almost human. Before we approached, they were speaking in some language and laughing and holding hands."

Bete Loga, a silver-haired wolf Chienthrope and a First Class fighter in Loki Familia, snuck up behind the two girls (as best a fellow like Bete can "sneak") and put a hand on each of their shoulders. Loki turned, but Aiz remained deep in thought. Bete snickered.

"Hey, Aiz, you're not gonna tell Loki you have trouble fighting human-like critters, are you?" Bete lowered his voice. "Not after beating that Prum supporter to a bloody pulp!"

"Huuuuuuh?" Loki cocked her head. Aiz stuck a fork between Bete's eyes, and the wolfman howled and fell to the floor.

Aiz clenched her fists and shut her eyes. Loki knew that look well: "no more questions." Captain Finn Deimne, Loki Familia's small (even for a Prum) tactician, pulled a seat up next to his Goddess.

"Aiz overworked herself during the expedition," Finn said. "It's not something you should worry about. I'll deal with her at length in the morning. Let's grab another drink and leave Aiz to her thoughts, how about?"

Loki gladly obliged. Aiz slumped back into her chair. On the other end of the table, unnoticed, Lefiya Veridis, a petite elf girl with a long, golden ponytail watched the Sword Princess and frowned. Prum supporter...?

...

[TWO DAYS AGO, AFTERNOON]

Riveria Alf, First Class mage, lead Lefiya, her Second Class apprentice, into Loki's Grand Library. Ancient spellbooks, demonic biology indices, and forbidden history tomes lined the shelves from carpet to ceiling. In the room's center, four inward-facing couches surrounded a coffee table. Though Loki's Library doubled as a conference room, the two were alone at the moment.

"Today's lesson is on telepathy," Riveria took a seat on a couch. "You'll be learning to-"

"Telepathy? Like... reading thoughts?" Lefiya grinned from cheek to cheek to skipped over to the "Psychics" section of the library. She started pulling out books at random, but one caught on something and wouldn't budge. The petite elf girl tugged and tugged until the book slid free, along with a hundred or so other books just overhead. A muffled whine made its way through the fallen book pile.

"I have today's volume right here, actually," Riveria opened a small notebook covered in runes. "Please put those back."

"Whyyyy meeeee..." Lefiya's Misfortune stat was Rank S.

"In fact, traditional telepathy is a spell reserved for only the most competent mages," Riveria continued as Lefiya hurriedly re-shelved books completely out of order. "However, magic 'tools' like this notebook allow a certain level of silent communication at a distance, not unlike true telepathy."

"Eh?" The apprentice took a seat next to her master. "Isn't it just a normal notebook?"

"Observe," Riveria pulled a second notebook from her cloak and handed it to Lefiya. She opened the first notebook and rubbed a small coal over page one, leaving a faint, black mark. Lefiya noticed her own notebook glowing, and when she opened it, am identical coal mark faded in to view. "It's not entirely discrete, but with this, two parties can communicate from great distances."

Lefiya nodded slowly, her eyes still fixed on the page. She wondered what kind of mage had the power to make such amazing tools.

"Unfortunately, today's lesson will have to be cut short," Riveria shut her notebook. "I brought you here for a different reason."

"A different reason?" Lefiya slowly closed her notebook as well. "You need me to do something?"

"I have to disappear for a while," As Riveria spoke, Lefiya noticed the corner of a third notebook jutting out from her cloak. "For now, you'll be acting as head mage for our Familia. That notebook is how you'll stay in touch with me, but don't write more than necessary. Understand?"

"Head... mage...?" Lefiya turned blue in the face.

"Something very troubling is occurring," Riveria stood up and headed for the door. "One day, Lefiya, my position will be yours for good. Treat this as a test of your aptitude."

"I-I understand," Lefiya stood tall and tried to look strong. "Leave it to me!"

Riveria pulled her hood over her head and walked away.

[ONE DAY AGO, LATE EVENING]

Finn Deimne sat in the library/conference room, in a couch circle with every First Class adventurer in Loki Familia: Aiz Wallenstein, Bete Loga, Gareth Landlock (a sturdy Dwarf), and the Hiryute twins, Tiona and Tione. These impromptu meetings were annoying, but Loki adventurers knew better than to blow them off, as Finn would never gather busy dungeon divers over a trivial matter. He tapped a glass goblet and called the meeting to order.

"As you all know, we've received word from Lefiya Veridis that Riveria has taken Goddess Loki some place safe," Finn paused and listened through the half-open window. Distant shouts echoed in the night. "Lefiya, would you close that window?"

Lefiya peeked out from behind a couch and slinked over to the window. She shut it tight and dashed back to her hiding spot. Finn tapped his goblet again.

"Sorry, but I don't want anyone listening in. Anyway, if communications between Riveria and the adventurer's guild were recorded properly the notebook she left," Finn leaned forward and stared at Lefiya's elf ears poking up behind the couch. She felt his eyes on her. "We should expect the first wave of desperate adventurers here shortly."

Tiona hugged Tione tight and quivered. Though the amazoness sisters were twins, their maturity levels were day and night. Bete grabbed a silver coin from his pocket and laid it on his thumb.

"Heads we hold, tails we run," said Bete. "I mean, that's why we're here, right, Finn?"

"It's not a decision to take lightly," Finn said. Bete pocketed the coin. "Many of our Second and Third Class adventurers are returning from the dungeon later tonight, and we don't have time to send word. If we abandon them now, they may be harmed on their way home."

"Damn!" Bete snarled. "I still don't get why they singled out Loki. Why not that shifty God Hermes with the stupid hat?"

"They believe our expedition to Floor 60 is responsible," Aiz interjected. "Somehow, someone found out about the magic seal we broke on our way down from Floor 59."

"I dinnae know much aboot magicks," Gareth spoke up. "But it sounds right near logickal ta me. The beasties started slowin down not days after that, yeh? Tar up the witch-goddess an feather her all over, maybe the dungeon fergives em an we all get ta go back ta stabbin stuffs."

"Why didn't we notice it before now, then?" said Tione. She gave Tiona, still wrapped around her, a quick peck on the cheek.

"Lefiya, your findings?" Finn motioned her forward.

"Um, well," Lefiya was a nervous wreck, but she crept back into view. She buried her face in the notebook to avoid eye contact. "O-our unknown third writer, which Riveria gave the last notebook to, apparently works for the adventurer guild. S-she wrote again this evening, saying the rate of decrease in gemstone collection has been exponential."

"Exponenti-who?" Bete's eyes glazed over.

"Imagine a speck of moss in a pond," Finn continued in Lefiya's place. "It doubles each day. By the third day, you've got four specks. On day four, eight. Still not much, right? But after just twelve days, that speck of moss has grown to over four thousand times its original size. If we assume the guild's gemstone collection correlates with monster spawns, then in less than a week, monsters will have all but disappeared from Orario's dungeon."

"There she is, then," Gareth stared up at the magic ceiling lamp lighting their late-night conference. "No beasties means no shiny rocks. No shiny rocks means no power, yeh?"

"I-I think we should flee!" Lefiya placed a hand over her heart. Tears welled up in her eyes. "E-even if we make it through tonight, Miss Riveria's told me stories about old places that lost their energy source and turned to lawless chaos. Black liquid burned for power dried up, coal cooked for steam disappeared, and every time the same ending!"

"This blows," Bete kicked the coffee table. "If we're gonna run, we oughtta wait for our half-baked spelunkers to show. Anyway, what's a hungry, wimpy mob compared to this all star team of First Class fighters right here, y'know?"

"My, my," Tiona stopped whimpering and smirked. "Standing up for the newbies after all? Bete's heart grew three sizes that day."

"Shut up!" Bete scoffed. "If we leave the city, we'll need them for meat shields and dumb muscle. That's all."

Loki's best adventurers sat in silence. Through glass window, Aiz saw a faint, flickering flame in the distance, then another, and another. She stood and reach for her scabbard.

"Bete is right," said the Sword Princess at last. Everyone gasped. Was this Bete's first halfway decent tactical decision? "Lefiya, do you know any protection spells?"

"Y-yes," Lefiya tried to hide her blush. "Nothing that would cover the whole resort, though."

"Don't worry about that," Finn got up, walked to a corner of the room, and grabbed Loki Familia's flag: a red sheet on a pole with a black joker insignia on both sides. "Aiz, Bete, and Gareth will hold the front, so focus on protecting them. Tiona and Tione will scout the sides of the house for surprise attacks. Remember: these are normal citizens we're dealing with, not monsters, so aim to disable, not kill."

Aiz bit her tongue. Was that reminder directed at her?

[EARLY MORNING, PRESENT DAY]

"Riveria? Goddess Loki?"

"Hurry up and get yer Heifer Goddess, bunnyface. I'm freezin' out here!" Loki tried to stick her arms up Riveria's cloak for warmth, but the mage whacked her with the end of her staff. "Owww..."

"Don't worry about that, just come on in," Bell unlatched the door and pulled it all the way back. Riveria and Loki walked in. The grand entrance hall looked much different than Apollo had left it. His curious collection of stone statues was gone, and large, motivational banners with slogans like "You can do it, Bell-kun!" and "Hestia is Bestia!" hung down from the rafters.

"Oh man," Loki dashed to the end of the hall where a massive hearth roared, warming the whole place. "Check it out, Riri: internal heating! I guess that big boobed loli's a pretty good homemaker after all."

"Well, I am the Goddess of the Hearth."

Goddess Hestia emerged from her room. Her hair was a tangled mess, and she'd slipped into white rabbit slippers with beady red eyes. Riveria turned and bowed.

"Please, mighty Goddess Hestia, grant our own Goddess Loki sanctuary," Still bowing, Riveria pulled a pouch of gold from her pocket and thrust it forward. "I don't expect this to last more than a few days."

"Grant who what now?" Hestia turned 180 and gasped.

"MOO-MOO!" Loki zoomed back down the hall pulled Hestia into a way-too-tight hug. "Oh, I haven't seen ya in forever, Moo-moo."

"Stop calling me that," Hestia gagged and tried to dislodge Loki's arm. "No-eyes, good-for-nothing, pavement-chested wench!"

"That's right, we haven't seen Goddess Loki since that day," Bell's thoughts went back to that rainy day when he broke the truth to his Goddess. "Thanks for covering our meals back then, by the way."

"Oh, yeah," Loki stopped suffocating Hestia and chuckled. "I almost forgot about that. Moo-moo, I believe you owe me one!"

"Whaaaat!?" Hestia broke free and pointed a finger at Loki. "What happened to 'out of the kindness of my own black heart?'"

"Riri, you can pocket the dosh," Loki waved a hand at Riveria's coin pouch. The mage stopped bowing. "I'm cashing in on a favor - with interest! Well, you guys, this has been great, but I've got business with Mr. Log and Mrs. Flame."

The trickster Goddess dashed back down the hall to Hestia's hearth and stuck her head in the fire. Bell couldn't tell if she was in pain or ecstasy or both. Riveria put the gold in Hestia's hands.

"Consider it advance pay for whatever she breaks. Unfortunately," Riveria put her hood back on and walked to the door. "I can't stay to babysit her. I have to take care of something."

"Stop," Hestia put her hands on her hips and pursed her lips. When Riveria turned her head, she continued: "Aren't you forgetting something?"

"Not enough money?"

"Tell me," Hestia sighed. "Why are we housing Orario's least responsible deity?"

[AROUND THE SAME TIME]

Eina Tulle woke up. Had she fallen asleep on the job? No, it was dark out. She must have been too tired to walk home after doing those calculations for her message to the priestess. She slid out of her blanket - wait, blanket!?

Misha Flott was asleep at her own chair, snoring faintly. Her pink hair looked frazzled. Eina poked her a few times, and when that didn't work, she popped the sleeping girl's drool-bubble.

"Gooo, gooo, Argonaut! You're the best and they... are... not?" Misha threw her arms up for her dreamy cheer.

"Misha, what's going on?" Eina looked around. The office was dark, and they were alone.

"Oh, right," Misha pointed to the east window. "It's too dangerous to go out, so when you fell asleep, I decided to stick around."

"Dangerous?" Eina felt for her glasses and found them. Once her vision came back, she leaned toward the east window and saw a bunch of little fire-lights. "Isn't that Loki Familia's resort?"

Eina noticed a desk drawer glowing. She pulled it out, opened the notebook inside, and saw a couple curious lines of text. They looked nothing like Reverend Eria's handwriting from the last entry. She read the words out loud:

Don't worry about us, Rev!
We've got your back!

"Just what did I get myself involved in...?" Eina wondered as she stared out at the distant flames.

[A LONG, LONG TIME AGO]

Great God Zeus, high above in Heaven, patted Hephaestus' head.

"Amazing work, lass!" Zeus looked the gate over. Hephaestus grumbled and returned to her work. "So this is all it takes, then? Step right through and you're as mortal as they come?"

The Terragate was a large, Mithril arch, glowing with decades of imbued, divine magic. Each Mithril piece divided up by two smaller, darker ichor-stone: the "nodes." Hephaestus' finest creation, its magnificence dwarfed even Thor's hammer. If you looked close, you could almost see lightning crackling inside.

"Mortal enough, my lord," A loud CLANG echoed across Heaven as Hephaestus struck her anvil. "When it's done, you'll simply step through and let Earth's gravity handle the rest."

"When it's done? Lass, you've been working for twenty years! The minor gods have got themselves worked into a tizzy over the possibilities! Why, it's all Freya thinks about nowadays!"

"Patience, my lord, patience," Hephaestus' red eyes appeared to glow like hearth fire. "Just a little more time, that's all I ask."

"Lass," Zeus narrowed his eyes and walked to Hephaestus' side. "Don't tell me you've got unvoiced reservations?"

"Of course not, my lord," Hephaestus stopped hammering. "Only-"

"-Only? Only what?"

"Persephone confessed her concerns to me earlier," The Divine Smith turned away from Zeus. "Since then, I've wondered if we're not meddling needlessly."

"I see," Zeus lifted Hephaestus up by her neck. She gagged and grabbed his arm. "So our troublesome friend poisoned my daughter's mind, and now she's spread her venom to you as well? Have we not agreed to a hundred rules for this game, ensuring our divinity will not bring suffering to the mortals? A hundred rules, and here you are, trying to stall or perhaps destroy MY Terragate?"

"Ghk- no-!" Hephaestus kicked at Zeus' toga. "Un- unhand me! It's- not- finished!"

"I'll be the judge of that!" Great God Zeus hurled Hephaestus into the Terragate. The inner nodes lit up, locked her in midair, and shot lightning out from all directions, centered on her body. Hephaestus screamed as a misaligned node blasted her right eye with a thousand volts. After a moment, the device shut off, and Hephaestus fell down through the clouds and into Earth's atmosphere at blinding speed.

"I suppose it could use a little adjustment," Zeus grabbed Hephaestus' hammer and surveyed her forge. "Oh, what fun we'll have..."