Chapter 2B: Will You Be My Wallenstein?

Lefiya Veridis woke up.

A dim light intruded on her field of vision. A vague, blonde shape came into view - she could feel something soft running through her hair - and a soft, sweet song made its way through her ears. Lefiya was content to lie there like that, listening to this sweet music, until she realized her head was propped up on Aiz Wallenstein's lap.

"Eeeeeee!" Lefiya triple-somersaulted off Aiz and directly into a wall. She would later pay for this in forehead knots. Aiz crawled over and put her hand on the girl's head, pushing her thick hair up off her face.

"How are you feeling?" Aiz asked.

"What - where am I? What happened?" Lefiya tried, unsuccessfully, to remember.

"Mind Down," Aiz answered. "You protected us with Via Shilheim, but it pushed you over the edge."

Though Lefiya was only level three, a Second Class adventurer in Loki Familia, she was already fairly famous among her peers. They called her "Thousand Mage" for her unique magical style. Ordinarily, mages memorized magic from Grimoires, but the extreme strain this placed on their minds meant even the most mentally fortuitous casters could only learn three or four spells at most in their lifetime. Lefiya's third magic was known as "Summon Burst," a rare Elven incantation from ages gone by. With Summon Burst, she could copy any other spell she knew the chant for at twice the mana cost. Riveria's spells combined with her own made her easily the most versatile mage in the Loki Familia, if not the whole city.

"Oh, no," Lefiya said. Memories rushed back to her. "We've got to get back out there!"

"Stay," Aiz pointed to her lap, and the Thousand Mage very hesitantly lied back down. Though Lefiya couldn't say it out loud, this was one of her greatest fantasies. "The fighting slowed down after we left. Also, your mana is too low to continue casting. If you tried, you would surely pass out again or worse."

"Sometimes I hate being a mage," Lefiya turned away from Aiz's gaze but didn't dare leave her lap. "I wish I was as strong as you, Aiz. You can fight for days without breaks and take on Minotaurs and Golems and Dragons and-"

"That may be true," Aiz interrupted. "But without warriors and mages working side by side, we would both be helpless. Do you remember Monsterphilia?"

Once a year, Ganesha Familia hosts a monster-fighting tournament with tamed monsters. "Monsterphilia," he calls it. Last year, many of those monsters escaped, including a colossal, Hydra-like Vine Beast. Even Aiz couldn't chop its toothy, petaled heads off faster than new ones bloomed, but everyone worked together to protect Lefiya while she cast Riveria's most powerful spell, Wynn Fimbulvetr, a torrent of cold rivaling the ancient Frost Giants in strength. With the entire creature frozen, shattering it was a cinch. Teamwork makes the dream work!

"I guess you're right," Lefiya said at last.

"The dungeon-diving party should be arriving soon," Aiz said. "I'll join the others in escorting them. You worked really hard last night, so rest until you're healed, okay?"

Lefiya nodded. To her absolute astonishment, Aiz Wallenstein bent down and planted a soft kiss on her forehead before lifting her up into a nearby bed. She was completely at a loss for words. Her mouth hung open as she watched the Sword Princess leave the room, golden hair gently rocking with each step.

The elf girl indulged in some day-dream fantasies before completely processing that series of events. Wait, did Aiz just kiss her!? But it was just above her eyes, so it was like a motherly or friendly thing. Wait, but she'd never seen Aiz do something like that for anyone! Did Aiz know Lefiya liked her? No, she couldn't possibly know. Lefiya kept her true feelings locked away in her heart. Oh, my, this was just too much on top of everything else going on. Even the Thousand Mage couldn't take it all, so she drifted back off to sleep.

...

Riveria Ljos Alf wandered the crowded streets, hood down, listening for rumors. In Orario, word spread fast, but never this fast. The mere fact that, within a day's time, everyone in the city went from clueless to wholly united against Loki Familia was a major anomaly.

For example, how did the rumor spread? They were the first and only Familia to reach Floor 59, so no one outside their group could have possibly known about the magic barrier (if that was the cause of this mess). Additionally, none of Loki's Third Class adventurers (Level 2 and below) followed them further than the Floor 40 resting point, so her mole would have to be one of the higher-ranking explorers. She flipped through them in her mind. Raul? No, he idolizes his superiors far too much. Riine? A possibility, but Aiz treats her well enough to make up for the others' abuse. Hmm...

Riveria's ears picked up the faintest disturbance in the winds. She heard leaves crinkle as if underfoot. Turning north-northeast, out of the corner of her eye, a bluish, blackish, almost transparent figure peered out at her from behind a tree.

Riveria dashed forward with extreme speed, the full "gallop" of a Level 5 adventurer with nearly-maxed Dexterity. The figure disappeared behind a different tree, but when she reached its dead Winter branches, she saw no figure, no person, nothing. She cursed under her breath before noticing a blue blur dash down a nearby alleyway, and her cloak billowed as she followed, each step a giant leap forward.

The chase was on.

...

Finn Deimne walked over to a warm body lying in the courtyard grass and checked its pulse. Alive, breathing, but unconscious. Just as it should be. He didn't give the ragged-looking man lying face-down in Goddess Loki's front yard another thought before moving on to the next person.

"How many is that?" Tiona yelled to him from the other side of the brick walkway running right up to Twilight House's entrance. "Twilight House" was the ancient-looking castle on Loki's resort property and her Familia's main base of operations.

"Three on my side so far," Finn paused over a bloody, battered figure. Half-elf ears, dark brown hair, no real armor. Must've been a new adventurer, just beginning her journey when the trouble started. "Sorry. Make that four."

"Bete's work?"

"Hold on," Finn rolled her over checked for claw marks. Sure enough: long puncture wounds through the chest. She had a cute face. He wondered what her life was like, what Familia she swore allegiance to. She looked eleven, maybe twelve. A girl like this, Finn thought, should still be playing with toys and learning arithmetic, but she had to go and get herself tangled up in this mess. Finn finally yelled back: "Yeah."

"DAMNIT! We shoulda left him in the dark!" Tiona yelled to high heaven. Lucky for her, Bete was away with Gareth, Tione, and Aiz. They'd volunteered to go escort Loki's lower-level children back home while she and Finn counted battle-wounds. "He doesn't know how to hold back!"

"L-Let..." A soft voice, almost inaudible even in the post-battle silence, sounded out from Twilight House's entrance. Tiona turned and saw Lefiya limping toward them. "L-Let me help."

"Lefiya, go back inside and rest," Finn waved her away, but he saw a look of absolute determination on her face as she hobbled closer. He recognized that look from somewhere else. It was the look that Bell Cranel boy had when he decided to finally stand up for himself and fight that Minotaur alone.

Lefiya bent down over the seemingly-dead girl near Finn, placed her hands on the girl's chest, and chanted:

I wish upon the name of my ancestors from Wieshe
Those among the great Oak trees, my proud brethren
Respond to my voice and venture out to the plains
These connecting bonds, this heavenly vow
Please answer my call, and grant me your grace.

A large, magic circle materialized under Lefiya, and she began to glow. Beams of light shot up from her pressed-down palms.

"Summon Burst?" Finn took a few steps back. "But even Riveria doesn't know any spells for-"

ACESO! Hear my plea from your gleaming throne in golden clouds above
Below the immortal pillars of Asclepius and Epione, ye child of gods
Bestow a fraction of your divine rejuvenation on an unbeating heart
Take from me what you will, pour sand from my Earthly hourglass
Wet dry blood, warm cold veins, and return this body its spirit!

Her magic circle grew in size and intensity until the whole courtyard was covered. Eventually, it faded, as did the glow around Lefiya. She, along with Finn and Tiona waited, unmoving, watching for something, anything to happen.

After a few very long moments, Lefiya hiccuped, and a glob of blood trickled down from her lips.

"Lefiya!" Tiona ran over to the girl, past a stunned Finn, and hugged her tight. She started coughing, even more blood spraying out with each motion.

Finn's eyes were transfixed on the previously cold, pale corpse before him. He'd checked twice, no, thrice: no pulse, no breath, completely dead by all measures. Yet now, as Lefiya leaked vital fluids, this young adventurer's wounds closed, and color rushed back to her face. Her eyes twitched as she struggled to return to the world of the living.

"Magic never ceases to amaze me, even now," Finn reached down and gripped the girl's arm. Sure enough, her pulse was steady. "Tiona, I'll take her inside. You grab Lefiya. They need bedrest."

"Isn't she an enemy?" Tiona knew what Finn would say before she asked, but she felt like she had to anyway. Also, she liked hearing his commanding and authoritative voice.

"Not in this state," Finn put his arms under the young girl's back and lifted her a few feet off the ground. "Right now, she's just a responsibility."

...

Raul Nord was a tall, lanky Human of nineteen years (give or take). His spiky-brown hair matched his eyes, and he was rarely seen without a large backpack despite not filling the role of "supporter." Rather, Raul was to Finn what Lefiya was to Riveria: apprentice, close friend, and future successor. Though neither Riveria nor Finn expected to kick the bucket any time soon, they both knew well how easily the dungeon could wrest life from even the most experienced adventurers, and their roles were crucial enough to require immediate replacements were the worst to befall them.

Riveria preferred teaching Lefiya in a more traditional, apprentice-style way with structured lessons and rigorous practice in controlled environments. Finn, on the other hand, as commander of an massive Familia, knew the most crucial aspect of a commander was his ability to make excellent decisions under unpredictable and chaotic circumstances. Raul, therefore, "learned" by leading lower-level Loki explorers on shorter trips through the dungeon when his Familia wasn't busy with primary expeditions. He "passed" his tests by returning alive, and so far, he'd made straight A's. Not too hard when your first F would also be your last, guaranteed.

Marching out of the dungeon with many battered adventurers behind him, Raul saw a curious scene: though the Sun was now high above, no one else inhabited Dungeon Square. This sacred place where adventurers gathered, formed parties, and bought supplies before delving into the Great Dungeon was, today, entirely empty.

"Where is everyone?" Raul finally asked, holding a hand over his eyes for a better view.

A small group of hefty Boaz men, carrying heavy cudgels, approach from a side street. Raul hailed them, but he could tell his followers were gripping their weapons tightly.

"What's that flag there, yeh?" The best-dressed man, clad in full chainmail, pointed to the trickster insignia on Raul's flag. "Who you with, boy?"

"Loki Familia, Sir!" Raul raised his flag and saluted. "How can we help you?"

"Interestin," All six - seven? eight? Raul was a bit dizzy after the elevation change - men licked their lips. "Heading home now? Gon go settle down for a nice nap with yer Goddess?"

"Yessir," Raul saluted again. For him, saluting was less a sign of respect and more a nervous tic.

"Very interestin, very interestin indeed, cause y'see, word on the street is yer Goddess ain't nowhere around, y'see?" The Boaz men circled Raul, cudgels raised. The line of Level 2 warriors at his back raised their blades to match, but they waited for their leader's command. "Wouldn't be goin to some secret meetin place, wouldja? Wouldn't be willin to show us the way?"

"Airiel."

A great gust of wind whipped through the square, blowing all of the Boaz men up into the air and tossing them on their backs. When the dust cleared, Aiz Wallenstein stood before Raul and his exploration team, her sword pointed at the downed chainmail man's throat. Bete, Gareth, and Tione followed close behind her.

"Geez, Aiz, you didn't have to go all out," Tione said. Some low-level adventurers clapped at Aiz's performance.

"Show-off," Bete muttered.

"Sword Princess!" Raul smiled and relaxed now that the threats were on the ground, grumbling to themselves about back and shoulder pain. "Do you guys know what's going on?"

"Ye better follow us, lad," Gareth said, beckoning his group back to Loki's resort.

...

In one of Twilight House's many mass bedrooms, a very young, unnamed girl yawned. At her bedside, a frustrated-looking Prum sat diligently, arms crossed. She made some nondescript sound, and he turned to face her.

"Awake? How are you feeling?" Finn asked her.

Where was she before now? What was she doing? Why was she here? A brief, blurry image of a grey wolf running toward her flickered in her mind's eye but quickly disappeared.

"Oh," she said. Now she remembered.

"I'm told resurrection carries some unfortunate side effects," Finn seemed to be talking partly to her and partly to himself.

"But... why?" The girl struggled to stand or at least sit, but a sharp chest pain pinned her to the mattress. "Why save me?"

"This is a matter concerning not just Loki Familia but all citizens of Orario," Finn turned away from her. "Petty infighting is unimportant. Unless you'd like to try again?"

"No," She shook her head as best she could. "I'm sorry. I didn't want to fight, but Soma told us we had to."

"Isn't Soma a recluse?" Well, that answered one question. Finn wasn't surprised Soma would be mixed up in this mess with his Familia struggling more than ever.

"E-Ever since the trouble, he's talked to us a lot more," She moved her eyes around, examining the room. Many other adventurers were resting here. They must be Loki Familia's normal adventurers, she thought. How nice of them to share a room with a thief like her. "I-I don't think Soma really believes that stuff about Loki. We were just going to steal things after the others did the fighting."

"I've sat here with you because there's a two - no, three - things which, to me, don't add up," Finn counted to three on his fingers. "I was hoping you could help me find some answers."

"I guess I owe you," She tried her best to smile.

"First, who started the rumor that we were responsible for the trouble?"

"Soma said another god told him," The girl tried to think back to her Familia's briefing. "He didn't say which one. He's all about details, you know, so I thought that was weird, but we were all too nervous to ask him about it."

"Second," Finn's words slowed down as if he was choosing them very carefully. "If Loki is the target, why are raids still occurring all over the city?"

"Huh?" The girl narrowed her eyes but then remembered overhearing something. "I think the city got closed off, but they're trying to open the gates and take the Tower."

"Closed?" Either Finn's eyes grew wide or his pupils shrunk. Either way, same effect. "They shut the city gates?"

Now this was an entirely new issue. They would have to communicate this to Riveria in case she hadn't heard. Even without calling a meeting, an unspoken understanding had already emerged between the higher-ranking members of Loki Familia: after a short rest, they would lead all members outside the city and establish a temporary camp. In the tropical climate just south of Orario, citrus-fruit and other foods grew wild, and the explorers could feed themselves in (relative) safety while the city burned and Riveria hunted for a solution.

If no solution materialized, if the Great Dungeon really was dying, at least some of Loki's children were previously farmers or other menial laborers, so they could eat off their stored supplies while planting a Summer crop. If worse came to worse, they might have to "requisition" established farmland from some innocent families in the country, but Finn tried not to think of that option just yet. He was certain other people in Orario were already thinking the same thoughts. No matter what, you had to eat.

"What was the third thing?" The girl noticed Finn staring off into space.

"Oh," He snapped back to attention. "Aren't you a little young to be a warrior?"

"I didn't have any choice," She frowned. "That's the sort of person Soma takes in, I think. People without any choice."

"Listen," He hopped off her bed and took her hand in his. "Not all gods are like Soma. I think if you met Loki, you might even like her. Before this is all over, I'll make sure you get a chance to do that. Alright?"

"Thank you," The girl smiled a big, toothy smile. Finn noticed she was short a few teeth. "From the bottom of my heart."

In the end, thought Finn, after the adventuring is done and the crystals are sold, this - this right here - is what it's all really about.

...

Riveria wasn't used to this sort of exertion. In dungeon runs, she stood with other mages behind the front line, largely idle as they combined spells for maximum effect. While First Class members were allowed to deliberately break rank as needed, she rarely did, and as a result, even with sky-high Dexterity, she was already losing the shadowy figure as they dashed from corner to corner, alley to alley.

Much to Riveria's surprise, her mysterious interloper turned into a dead-end alley. Did he not know that? She heard her heartbeat in her head as she pushed for one last burst of speed. Somehow, it looked like the mystery man's legs didn't move with him, as if he was floating just above the ground.

When she finally made it to the end of the alley, a large Boaz stood before her, his back to a colossal gate between them and the other end of the alley. He held a massive sword out in front of him, and she slid to a stop just out of his striking range. A blue mist coalesced around his sword and slowly faded away.

"That mist-" Riveria started.

"Projection magic," The large man returned his blade to the strap around his back. "High-level. In the right light, it could pass for Human."

"Who are you?" Riveria regarded him with suspicion. "What are you doing here?"

"Ottar," He held out one massive hand. Riveria grabbed a single finger and shook. "And same as you, I suspect."

"Reverend Eria, please to make your acquaintance," Riveria smiled. Ottar couldn't see her eyes, but he knew she was really Loki's magician. Goddess Freya kept tabs on everyone. Still, he didn't feel a need to call her out on her baloney.

"I didn't recognize him," He made a floating-up gesture with his hand, referencing the still-dispersing mist. "I thought he might run in to my sword to keep you from catching him. Looks like I thought right."

"Can't projections pass through objects?" Riveria sensed this "Ottar" fellow knew a lot more than he was letting on with his short, matter-of-fact observations.

"Normally, yes," Ottar turned toward the sky. It was nearly midday by now. "Normally they can't make sounds, either, yet I heard this one grunt. Some trick."

"Odd," Riveria lost herself in thought. "I know every high-level mage in Orario by name, but casting a spell like that, and all just to watch someone from the shadows..."

"We're on the same page, then," Ottar walked down the alley and back into the sunlight.

Riveria quickly began piecing it all together. Somewhere in, above, around, or - gods forbid - under Orario, a god had unleashed its true power and was causing trouble. Perhaps this same god was even behind the rumor of Loki Familia's involvement. But which god would do something like that, and why?

...

Great God Zeus, high above in a third-story cafe balcony, finished off his tea and tossed the decorated porcelain cup aside. It shattered into a hundred very beautiful pieces on the floor. The waitress for his section gritted her teeth but said nothing.

"HARRUMPH! And why would you suspect me of this?" Zeus eyed his daughter with suspicion, but it was a false suspicion. 'Pretending to be losing an argument' was a fun game for him. "Would not he stay behind in Heaven if he had such concerns?"

"Despoina, who only descended recently, told me he was absent in Heaven when she left," Persephone said. She was a fair-skinned Goddess with curly hair and a white toga, taking after her mother Demeter far more than her father. "Yet no one among us has seen him here, either. I know you two had a strained relationship, Father."

"That much is true, but I didn't kill him," Zeus turned his nose up at Persephone. "We simply disagreed on the nature of our responsibilities. Anyway, isn't the current theory that we return to Heaven at death? If he died, someone up there would've noticed."

"Theory, yes," Persephone leaned forward. Zeus admired his daughter for her hardheadedness and confidence. Though she didn't take after his looks, she inherited one-hundred percent of his attitude. "But without any slain gods to confirm, it will remain a theory. I, for one, believe we will simply disappear after death."

"And I'm sure you have excellent evidence for that," Zeus cracked a smug smile.

"Indeed," Persephone, with absolute composure and grace, grabbed her knife from the table between them and stuck it directly through her left hand. A mortal woman at a nearby table screamed. Golden ichor, lifeblood of gods, poured out from Persephone's hand and onto the wooden table before her. The mercury-like substance bored a hole directly through the wood, dripped onto the balcony floor, and began tearing through that as well. The cafe's waitstaff rushed downstairs to evacuate their diners.

"And what's that supposed to prove, insolent bastard child?" Zeus slammed his fist on the ichor-burnt table, splitting it in two.

"When Humans bleed, their bodies refill with blood over time," Persephone held up the hole in her palm to Zeus' face. "This, however, is our weakness. In Heaven, our modest supply of ichor did not matter since we could not harm one another. On Earth, reduced to this half-mortal state, we could easily bleed each other dry. Even now, after that small wound, a part of me has faded forever. Don't you see, Father?"

Zeus wasn't ready to accept the implications of Persephone's "experiment," but to go this far just to prove her point, he could tell she was entirely convinced. Though his daughter was wrong about the murder of her husband, he began to see her way on this matter. Starting tomorrow, Zeus would forbid gods from ever entering the Great Dungeon again. It was simply too dangerous. Their Familias would have to make do without direct supervision.

...

Lefiya Veridis came to. Again.

This time, she didn't somersault out of Aiz's lap. She pretended to remain asleep, not even opening her eyes, basking in the pleasant feeling of Aiz's hand running through her hair, caressing her scalp. For all she knew, this was just another dream, and you know what? She would be okay with that, too.

"I suppose we're a lot alike," Aiz said, likely to herself. "You always push yourself too hard. You'd do anything for us. Today, you risked your life for a person you'd never even met before."

Aiz touched a finger to Lefiya's nose and ran it down her chin, across her chest, and stopped at her waistline. Lefiya turned bright red. What was with this intimacy? Actually, that's it, Lefiya thought. She really was dreaming. There's no way Aiz, the soft-spoken, deeply withdrawn Sword Princess would be spending one-on-one time with some second-rate Elf girl with everything going on outside.

"I hope she's okay," Lefiya finally opened her eyes and spoke. Aiz's face, partially silhouetted by the ceiling-lamp, smiled down at her. Even Heaven couldn't possibly be as wonderful as this moment. "I just didn't want anyone else to die."

"You have a long life ahead of you," Aiz said. "There'll be plenty of time to be a hero."

"I guess I'll have to get to know you really well one day, when I'm-" Lefiya couldn't finish her sentence. The thought of Riveria dying, even of old age, even in a dream, was too much.

"No need to wait that long. If this all works out, we could all go, um," Aiz put a fingertip to her lips, inquisitively. "What do women do for fun, normally?"

"I guess they shop for clothes?" Lefiya shrugged. She couldn't remember the last time she bought anything but equipment and potions. "We haven't really had normal lives, had we?"

"Adventuring isn't such a bad life," Aiz placed the same finger on Lefiya's bottom lip - an indirect kiss. Now she was absolutely, 100% certain she was dreaming. "We'll shop for clothes, then. Tiona and Tione would like that."

"Aiz, before I wake up," Lefiya felt a lump well up in her throat, trying to stop her from saying those next words, but she wouldn't let that happen. This might be her only chance. "Kiss me."

Aiz Wallenstein obliged. There, hidden in Twilight House's grand library, now the only room where they could be alone, Lefiya Veridis and Aiz Wallenstein embraced. One thought back to her past, of her obliviousness and failure, of Bell and that wretched dog-girl, wondering if this was, in some way, a personal act of revenge. The other thought of the future, maybe in the dungeon or maybe far away from Orario on a little country homestead, just the two of them living out the rest of their days in quiet love and peace. For Lefiya, even the harsh TICK, TOCK of the grandfather clock seemed to melt away in their moment of bliss.

"By the way," Aiz stopped and caught her breath. "What did you mean, 'before I wake up?'"

A wave of terror washed over Lefiya. This was no dream. She touched her lips, and Aiz's saliva was still there. The elf girl giggled a little, nervously, before quadruple somersaulting off Aiz's lap and straight out the door.

"EEEEEEEEEeeeeek...!"

Aiz could only laugh. She laughed a real, hearty laugh, something she hadn't done in years. Maybe... maybe opening up like this wasn't so bad after all.