Part Three: Divided

Act One: Eternal Coast

In the eyes of Ryoku Dragontalen, we are in
Fon Coast, in the world of Fon.
It is late morning
On November 17th, 2019.

Scene One: Sea Legs

Sitting at the edge of the beach, I tasted salt on my tongue, carried by a gentle, wafting breeze that cooled my skin. The air felt somehow cool and warm at the same time. I let the waves lap across my bare feet, soaking in the purities of uncorrupted water, while I stared out into the open ocean.

Of all the worlds I'd been to, I'd never seen such a thing. Blue water stretched out to touch the sky, extending fingers of clairvoyance to the corners of the world.

Fon, Sira called it. Fon was the world we now found ourselves in, the same day after our flight from Orden. After my failure, and our necessary departure from the very place I needed to be.

I tried to force the thoughts from my mind. Thinking of my failure wasn't going to help now. For everyone's sakes, I just needed to get stronger.

And so I was here. Fon; the most beautiful world I'd ever seen.

"What are you staring at, dumbass?"

Sira's sharp voice cut through my thoughts like a knife through butter. Startled, I tried to stand up and slipped on some sort of shell below me. I flailed wildly in the air, trying to save myself – and Sira caught me around the waist.

"Honestly, can you get any dumber?"

She spun me around to face her. In a world of summery beauty, Sira fit in like one of the waves or a splash of the sun's crimson rays escaping into the sky. Her scarlet hair shone in the sunlight, her matching eyes glittering with the reflection of the sun as she looked down at me, trying to stop a smirk that wriggled at the corner of her lips.

"I was trying to look out over the water," I muttered, "until you came crashing in."

"Oh, shut up," she muttered, and let me go. I unceremoniously fell, trying to regain my footing. I was not used to walking in the water. When I turned to her, about to snap, she was staring out over the waves into the vast sea. "Guess you never seen something like this before, huh?"

I steadied myself. "No. Not at all."

Sira grunted, shoving her hands in her pockets. "It's overrated, really. Just big, salty lakes that stretch out farther than you can see."

Without any sort of pretense, she reached for her sword. I reacted in alarm, and she flashed me a wry grin. "Come on, kid. You're made of tougher stuff than before, aren't ya? Let's spar – you and me. See if you can't defend yourself yet."

I didn't move. "Seriously? With all that's going on, you want to spar?"

"You want to get stronger. Doesn't that come with the territory?" She drew Sinistra, and the way the sunlight caught the fiery blade was magnificent. Sinistra was longer than any sword I'd ever seen, and its face was as deep-red as flavored punch or strawberries. Sira scowled into the sun. "After all, not like you can beat Lars if you can't beat me."

The sourness shone through her voice. Lars defeated all of us, and Sira was no exception. Even the mighty Sinistra was batted aside in the end. Will lost his mighty lance in the combat, something left from his father, Jason.

I lost something, too. The security of the one I meant to save, Chris Olestine. Beyond that, the girl I truly needed to save. My sister, Roxanne – somewhere in Ordenstraum Keep with that monster.

Sira watched me for a long moment, but pretended not to when she leveled that giant sword against me. Sunlight caught the blade, making it shine like the blade was made of the sun itself. "Well, come on, kid! Let's go!"

She wasn't waiting for my response, and she swung at me. It was an easy swing, just in case I was dumb enough not to dodge. I shot to my feet, barefoot, and found my knife in my hands. It was a horribly meager defense against such a mighty sword, but it was my best one.

Sparks rained across the sand from the clash of steel. Sira's brows rose in pleasant surprise, then she put a little more strength behind her blade. I hopped away, splashing water all around as I danced away from Sira's attack. Her blade dragged across the crest of a wave, spraying steam and water in an arc. I met the assault at the tip of the blade and lashed, trying to weaken her grip enough to close in. She repented quickly and lashed again in full.

This time, I drew on the strange little marks at my wrists. They looked like three intersecting waves with a narrow streak of lightning connecting them. At my behest, they began to shine a faint blue as I hopped into the air, easily clearing the height of Sira's slash to land atop her blade in motion. I quickly retreated, however, when I found her blade hot beneath my feet. I let out a yelp as I dropped back into the water.

Sira laughed outright at me. "Cool trick, but you're mine now!"

When she closed in, I danced around the swing of her sword and hopped within her inner circle. I saw her eyes alight with surprise, until I reached up and kissed her. She smiled into my lips. Then, and only then, did her sword hand relax.

"You gonna pull this against Lars, too?"

I frowned at her. "I think it'd work better on Vincent."

She shoved me away, grimacing. "Creator smite me, don't even joke about that." A second later, she was lunging at me again with her sword aloft. If I was sparring with anyone but Sira Jessura, I might not have predicted such a low blow. As luck found it, I did, and danced away from the fangs of her mighty weapon, waves slapping against my legs.

When she rose her sword in the air again, I lunged into her inner guard, but found the flat of her blade blocking me with startling speed. I skirted around it just in time to dodge a broken nose and lunged low into the water, away from Sira. My leg hit something, cutting me short, and I fell beneath a wave.

My head went completely under, and panic washed over me like a cresting wave above my head. Open-eyed, I stared out into the dark waters of Fon ahead, seaweed churning like sea monsters below the waves. Since this wasn't my own world, could that be an actual thing? Did sea monsters exist in Fon?

Breath whooshed back into my lungs abruptly. My head popped out in the lapse of a wave. I caught a glimpse of something on the horizon, across the water. I almost went back under the water, but a strong arm steadied me. Sira.

"You almost drowned us both, moron," she muttered. "What are you staring at?"

It took me a minute to focus, wiping streaming water from my face and eyes. Salt water didn't taste very good. "A ship? Yeah, a big one, huge sails. Black flags. Probably headed for..."

The longer I looked, the clearer I could see it. The crown of the ship pointed not far from us. Tracing a path with my eyes, I saw what looked like a pier on the shore nearby, maybe a mile south from us. It was little more than a long bridge where smaller boats may be able to dock. If it dropped anchor a few miles out and sent a rowboat – provided I knew a thing from history books – it should reach that pier later today.

Sira saw where I was looking, brow raised. "Huh. You can see all that? Good eyes, kid."

She started for shore. When I looked back at her, half-submerged in the water myself, she looked at me. "Well? Shouldn't we go find out what they're up to?"

I hesitated. "Really? What if they're hostile? That black flag..."

Sira snorted derisively, holstering her bag over her soaked head. Her scarlet hair looked almost black when it was wet. "That's the point, kid. We're supposed to be getting stronger, aren't we? We sure as hell aren't gonna do that if we try to make friends everywhere, unless you'd rather beat up our friends to get better."

I wrinkled my nose at her, but she didn't notice, so I doggedly tagged along, using my marks to get out of the water with more ease. Once I grabbed my things, we trudged our way down the beach, leaving muddy prints in the sand.

There it was again, I thought – the notion of getting stronger. Just how were we supposed to do that? Beat the tar out of people until we got better at doing it?

I couldn't erase that face from my mind. During our last night in Orden, the eerie violet eyes of Vincent Ordenstraum were drowned out only by those of his son, Lars Ordenstraum – an entity who might be even more menacing than his father.

Sira and Will fought the emperor at my side on that last night and could attest to his sheer skill. He toyed with us until I landed a lucky hit, and that made it all too clear how far beyond our league he was. It was only thanks to the interference of Loki's son, Fenrir, along with the Timeless One and his team that we managed to escape.

Even then, of course, we forgot the one thing that truly mattered. In the chaos of our escape, we left without the person I was supposed to save. Chris Olestine, the last possible connection to my sister. Given all the strange things I'd learned since coming to the spirit realm, I hoped Chris might be able to help me sort it out, too.

Walking down the beach with Sira, I remembered seeing the thing that shook me the most about my stay in Orden. Just before entering the ballroom, I was almost certain I saw her. Roxanne, my sister. Her blond hair, tied up in a fine ponytail, wearing a regal white dress. I was certain she fled the scene with a blond man, possibly Kimo Goldenhart, but the scene didn't make sense to me. It was seconds before Lars Ordenstraum himself bore down upon me, and I wondered if the entire scenario might have just been wishful thinking.

The relationship between Kimo and I was confusing at best, but wouldn't he tell me if he hid my sister in Orden somewhere? If she was there, too, couldn't she reach out to me?

Regardless, I'd explained my thoughts to Will just before we left the empire for good. If it was true, maybe Will could protect her for me until I returned.

Sira and I rushed along the beach in nervous silence. The large ship on the ocean slowly advanced, growing larger and larger in size as it drew closer. We passed through a brief section of jungle that wrapped across the shore. Sira made short work of the tangled vines with her mighty blade, Sinistra, and we ducked around everything else.

Probably an hour passed by the time we reached the pier. It was little more than a rickety bridge, one which swayed in the current of the water where it stretched into the waves. In worse weather, the waves likely plowed down on that rickety bridge with a great deal of force. I wasn't eager to step out on the bridge, especially after our last encounter with one in Orden.

As we reached the bridge, Sira pointed out to the boat. Now we could see a smaller boat making its way toward the pier. The great ship stopped altogether. It must have dropped anchor.

Now we only had to wait. Sira showed me how to use a smooth stone she carried to ensure the edge of my knife was up to snuff. We didn't bother with the smooth, black face of Ragnarokkr. That blade never seemed to dull, especially since I couldn't properly put it to use.

I checked over my things safely on the shore, far away from that rickety pier where Sira watched the ocean like she might dive in and bring the fight to those possible pirates. I examined my staff, counted my arrows, and made sure my bag straps were tied tight. Mentally, I ran over the visuals I required to use my magic. The way that Kaia Oceyen showed me only required for me to imagine being in the elements, or things I associated with them. For water, I would envision creeks and streams, or maybe the grand ocean before me. The same applied for all the other possible elements I'd tried my hand at, and they turned out better with my visualization.

I studied the rowboat as it approached. One man stood in the boat, arms crossed, wearing a black coat and a wide-rimmed hat, but I couldn't spot much else of use about him. I could tell he knew we were here. A crew of at least ten with him did all the work of rowing the boat.

When they closed in, I finally braved the pier with Sira to meet the incoming group. A few feet away, one of the burly men rowing the boat jumped across to the pier with a rope in hand – the entire pier shuddered, and I grabbed on for dear life – and he used the rope to secure their rowboat to a small iron knob. With a growl of effort, he tugged the rowboat up close to the pier and tied it taut, ensuring the crew could safely cross.

None of the dozen men who clambered off the rowboat heeded us. A smaller one with a ratlike face looked at us, but his expression said nothing. Maybe we were just in the way. A couple of them pushed past us, but most of them waited for their captain to disembark.

Lastly, the captain himself stepped onto the pier in an elongated step, pushing aside a rapier at his belt to move his legs widely. I saw a bit of a loosely trimmed beard and wavy brown hair beneath his hat, but his face kept to the shadows.

Sira stepped toward him, keeping a hand near her sword. "Hey. Was wondering if you guys knew how to get to some kinda town? Or knew anything to help us, really. Me and this kid are traveling in search of getting stronger."

The captain raised his head at her, still hidden beneath his hat. Then he grinned, and reached up, grabbed his hat by the top, and removed it. Before I could see his face, he was bowing before us, holding the hat out in his elongated hand.

"Aye, then yer in the nick o' time. Me and me men're lookin' fer the assistance o' somebody like ye."

"Somebody like us?" I asked.

The man lifted his head, and I looked into the face of my good friend Will. His blue eyes twinkled in a friendly way, but there was ruggedness to his grin that looked alien on him.

Sira's shoulders dropped, the physical embodiment of dropping her guard. "The fuck? Will, what are you doing here playing pirates? Don't you have a rebellion to run?"

Will's grin fell. "How d'ye know my name, lass, or the slur of it t'be frank – when I don't 'ave the faintest o' yers?"

"Oh, come on," Sira growled. Although, right after she finished talking, her eyes widened a little, and she muttered, "Oh, fuck."

"What?" I asked. "Am I missing something here? Because we just parted ways—"

Sira jabbed me in the ribs, hard enough to knock the wind out of me rather than just simply advising me to keep my trap shut.

"My bad, I guess," Sira gave in, not looking Will in the eye. "You look a lot like somebody we know. A passing resemblance, really. I'm already over it."

The captain hesitated, not letting Sira out of his sight. "Right then, lass. A good lookin' bloke your acquaintance must be, with more than a passin' resemblance. The name's Captain William, and I'm the captain o' that there wondrous ship on the horizon. I'm willin' to let your... oddities, go, if ye hear out me request."

Sira crossed her arms. "Alright, whatever. What is it?"

Will smiled – I still couldn't see anyone else but my best friend Will, and struggled to play along with whatever Sira was playing at. "I need to get to the Capital. That's on this island, past what me fellow sea-farers call 'the Carnivorous Cove.'"

Sira snorted. "Seriously? The Carnivorous Cove?"

"Please tell me that has to do with a carnival," I murmured.

"And this Carnivorous Cove is a challenge to you?" Sira went on, ignoring me but for the smallest grin.

The captain's expression turned serious. "A challenge enough. If the lives of me men are at risk, I'd give just about anythin'. You look capable – more or less. Escort me and me men through, and I'll reward ye handsomely."

Sira and I exchanged glances. It was the promise of a fight we needed, and it got us to the Capital.

"Yer world travelers, aren't ya?" Will added. "Could work somethin' out for ye. Me ship has crossed every sea in Fon, braved every bay, challenged every cove. Ye'd be surprised what sort o' loot ye can come across on the seas."

Sira and I locked eyes again, and her smirk grew. Now Will showed us the promise of a fight and reward for it. Those were Sira's two favorite things.

"Okay, sounds like you got a deal," Sira agreed. She hoisted her sword up onto her shoulder, perhaps as an intimidation factor if the deal went sour. To her, I realized, the blade Sinistra was almost as light as Ragnarokkr was to me. I'd never tried lifting her weapon, though, and I thought she might cleave me in half if I so much as touched it. She stuck out a hand to Will. "The name's Sira. Sira Jessura, of Orden."

Will looked unaffected by any of that, and he took her hand firmly. "Aye, well met, Sira of Orden." He turned to me expectantly. "And you, Defender?"

I jumped, a little surprised at being addressed. "Uh, Ryoku Dragontalen."

He smirked at me, and we shook hands. "Good t'meet you. If that's all, I'd like to get going. It'll take time t'get through the cove."

Sira and I nodded as one. "Yeah, for sure," she agreed, and tapped her bag on her back. "We got our shit. You got yours?"

Will nodded to his men. All of them but him carried rucksacks, while all he had was a light day pack on his back. "Suited for a few days. By yer leave."

We started off down the beach. We made strange company – Sira and I, odd enough together, now accompanied by a dozen pirates, one of which looked awfully like the friend we'd just left.

As soon as we were out of earshot, I nudged Sira. "You want to explain?"

She gave me a look, then smirked. "Right. I guess you're confused as fuck, hey?" When I didn't respond, she glanced away. "Ever heard of doppelgangers in your world?"

I made a noise under my breath. "You're not going to write this off as coincidence, are you? We just happen to find somebody that looks like our best friend?"

"Not quite," she replied. She quickly glanced over her shoulder to ensure the captain wasn't hovering over her shoulder. "The spirit world's a little different. A new rule with all these myriad realms is that souls are sorta... recycled. Think of it like some sort of alternate timeline. There's supposed to be a bunch of Will's, and me's, and even Vincent's that look like they led different lives. This one, for example, would be if Will grew up on the water. There's no honor to his voice like the one we knew."

I stared at her incredulously. "Well, how do I know I have the right Will from... before? Or you?"

"They wouldn't know about you," she told me firmly. "Reincarnation isn't a thing for these doppelgangers. They're lookalikes of a morbid sort, but this Will would never have stepped in to save you back in Bytold. Well, not for nothing, anyway. Everything our Will did for you was of his own accord."

I watched the alternate Will walking at the head of his pirate group, head held high, his boots kicking up sprays of sand. In some weird way, I could picture my Will ending up in this life. "What if they were to meet up?"

Sira shrugged. "So far, what I've heard, it's never actually happened. One o' them always has to leave the world just in time, so two doppelgangers never walk the same land. It'd probably mess everything up with these fragile-ass worlds."

I nodded, though I felt far from understanding. "Let's call him William," I said softly, "to prevent confusion. After all, that's what he said, isn't it?"

"Yup," Sira agreed. "Just think of him as somebody else. If this turncoat turns tail, I'd run him through without a thought of our Will somewhere else. Wouldn't affect him in the slightest."

I nodded again. "Got it."

(Meanwhile, in the eyes of Dawn Elethel...)

The Shadowhearts were upon us.

I knew as soon as the shadowy creatures appeared nearby. The sky reddened until it felt like the sun would set, but it was only early noon. The trees shuddered, the grass whistled lowly as if to warn us. Shadows rose from the earth like ash carried in the wind as some form of their dark manifest. Everything fell dead silent. No birds, no animals. Not even the wind could be heard.

After the events in Syaoto, these monsters turned rampant. Large numbers scoured the world. They became almost impossible to manage. A number of us had turned into something of Shadowheart-hunters for the people, training their armies and people to deal with the insidious monsters. Their claws excreted venom that eventually killed their target. Their sheer presence only served to create even more of them, and they soon became an enormous problem.

We roamed in the wildlands west of the Capital, where sparse woods dotted the countryside and hills rolled more than any spot of level land. We hadn't gone out here much. We traveled south to the Enthralmen Jungle and to the swamps even further south. We trekked back and forth to Balgena to the east, but never into the actual magical capital itself – Brom claimed Arthexus still had hard feelings for the Capital after the election. We even neared the northern Fort Issomas on our Shadowheart hunts. This, however, was my first trip this far to the west, past the village of Reulio.

This far west, a great ravine split apart the land, and hills rolled on either side of us as we braved the chasm. We noticed the reddening sky as soon as we entered, and soon darkness rolled across the valley. When we realized how many there were, Guildford sent a scout for backup. Even then, we might not have enough time.

Cursing under my breath, I used a stray vine to tie my hair back loosely. Those vines tended to appear around me. Being one of druidic and elven blood, nature liked me a lot. I could hear the whispers of the trees and the earth like they were simply other faces around me. Nature saw me as a daughter, and each singular vine, leaf, tree, and even fruits and vegetables saw me as a sibling. If I was in a mood – which happened a lot where Ryoku Dragontalen was concerned – the very leaves in the trees would shudder violently, and roots writhed under the soil.

Three other mages circled near me, and all regarded me nervously. Syaoto Capital didn't boast so many mages, especially since Balgena rooted itself away from us, and few of ours were of much consequence. The majority of them made better healers than battle mages, but I couldn't do this alone. I needed them.

Our highest-ranking men led the group. Ragekku Gero was not the type of man to bark orders from afar – nay, he was far from it. He led the charge, golden sword hoisted in the air, his blue hair an icon at the head of his army. Oliver Rouge, his second-in-command, led where his general often forgot – urging his men forward, signalling to the scattered archers on the bank of the ravine, eyeing our formation. He was a little older than his general, and perhaps wiser, but he'd never dislike Ragekku for it. Ragekku led like no general before him.

AlexRetton, newly a field commander, sat astride a blush-blond mare atop the ravine, his own bow at his side and a keen eye on the incoming darkness. His close friend and my fellow Defender, Joey Elder, rode in at the other end of the valley, his lethal black sword in hand. His usual red sweater stuck out beneath Syaoto armor. I knew little about my friend in terms of his own Defender life, but he turned out to follow Syaoto with fierce devotion. As Defenders, we were both stuck here in this war-torn world.

The creatures fell upon us as easily as a shadow from a bird's flight overhead. They came in all shapes and sizes. The strange, octopi-like creatures called Gokri made up much of their ranks. I swallowed hard, noticing them. They weren't a simple Shadowheart to deal with. Others were larger, stepping out from beneath the sparse trees with claws like tendrils. Syaoto didn't seem to harbor the simple Silhouettes or other, common breed of Shadowhearts. Gokri and their ilk were dangerous, and it meant nothing good for Syaoto.

I coaxed my own energy into the grass as simultaneous shouts of attack lit the field. Nature was hesitant to lash out at the insidious dark creatures, but she knew she had to. If they weren't stopped, Shadowhearts would burn this world to the ground.

A burst of arrows rained down into the ravine. As they struck a few Shadowhearts down, a thick vine tore through the ground next to them, lashing up to ensnare one of the large, clawed Shadowhearts, gripping it heavily around the shoulders. It took little to bring the monster to dust.

In its wake, I spotted our other field commander who'd already lunged into the fray. Perhaps our most devoted to Syaoto, and most transformed – Guildford. Clad in full armor and a long, black cape emblazoned with the emblem of the King's Own, he wielded a wicked set of hand-axes with edges of sharp, black steel, weaving in and out of the Shadowheart ranks like he was the battle himself. He'd cut his hair recently. Somehow, our previous school teacher looked younger than ever before. It wasn't the kind of young where I pictured him back in our old classroom, though. He was a soldier now. A knight of the King's Own.

The same tree that lashed out gave a tremendous shudder, shedding much of its leaves. Where they fell upon the Shadowheart hosts, the dark entities sliced to ribbons.

In wake of the razor-sharp leaves, Ragekku roared his men into action. Dozens of armored feet slammed the rocky ravine floor in tandem, their shouts rising up like our own sort of monster over the din. At a shout from Joey, another volley of arrows followed.

It wasn't long before I found my own adversary. An unwelcome figure floated above the heads of the horde – a Mystic, we called them simply. With peaked hats and shadowy outlines that resembled cloaks, their latent power was an obvious one, even back in the day. This one already singled me out, and shimmered with a red aura.

I put my druidic magic on the back burner, and touched on my more innate sense of magic. Being an elf and what my people called 'the Light' filled me with the capacity for a rare form of magic. My skills largely turned to healing and protecting others, but I wasn't defenseless in the least.

Light runes appeared behind my eyes, formed in the complex tongue of magic. Just as the Mystic unleashed a horrific burst of flames, my magic flared to life. Feet before the frontmost of our lines, a translucent barrier shimmered to life. The flames slammed into it like a dam thrust into the middle of a river. I could feel the blast of heat from where I was. I heard gasps among some of our men. The newer ones, likely. Many took fright more from my druidic magic, yet awe from my elven.

The flames whittled against my barrier for almost a minute. The heat grew intensely, and I broke into a cold sweat from upholding my protection. Some flames licked up simpler Shadowhearts without the brains to get away from the fire. Not even one of our men passed my shield.

It grew in intensity until black spots danced behind my eyes before the Mystic relented, and the flames whooshed out, leaving the ravine almost cold in its wake. As soon as the barrier lapsed, a black-handled axe soared up over our lines and struck the creature down from where it hovered. The axe landed alone amid a pile of black ash, and Ragekku snatched it up, waving it over his head.

"Hey, Gill! Keep a better grip on your weapons, yeah?"

Guildford popped out of the fray quickly, wiping Shadowheart ash off his other axe before accepting his from Ragekku. "Least I've got my own weapon to keep a grip on, Lord General."

I hid a smirk as I turned away from them. It was subtle, but a remark on Ragekku's marriage was something commonplace between the two. Guildford would never mean ill intent to Ragekku's beautiful wife, Melodia, but the commander and King's Own knight had grown close over the last few years.

Ragekku grimaced, returning his focus to the Shadowheart fray. "Yeah, yeah. Barks of an unchained dog."

"And yips from a chained one," Guildford added, but he already turned, mid-strike, and cleaved one of the huge, clawed Shadowhearts through the chest, reducing the monster to ash. When Ragekku shot him a look, Oliver stepped in to block a strike that would have hit his Lord General. It went all but unnoticed.

A shrill noise caught my attention from above. Another Mystic. A red aura already seared around it. Guildford and Ragekku saw it at the same time.

Before I could activate my magic, a distinct noise carried out over all the ruckus in the ravine with a haunting note. I couldn't identify it before a bluish-white streak shot through the air and into the Mystic. Whatever it was, it dragged the Shadowheart to the ground, into the horde of Shadowhearts.

Guildford and I exchanged glances, then turned to Ragekku. He was already shouting orders to his men to cut a path to the entity. Whatever it was, it saved at least a handful of us, if not a larger sum. We couldn't let it get overwhelmed.

However, we didn't have time to cut a path. In a spray of dark matter and electric bolts of energy, the bluish-white figure appeared in the thick of the horde ahead of us. It was with stunned silence that we beheld the arrival of a large wolf. The creature radiated electric energy like a stormcloud, mostly from a pair of golden horns upon its head. The fur along its back and forearms was mostly a bright, snapping shade of blue, and the underside of the beast as white as snow. A pair of intelligent, narrowed black eyes took us in shortly. Then, the creature snorted.

"Light of Ellithea," came a deep voice from the creature, "I did not expect to find you at the head of an army."

"Who...?" I started.

A storm of movement broke out behind me. I turned, spooked, only to find all men in the army drop to a knee. Joey and Alex followed suit, though they looked a little confused. Ragekku, Guildford, and I stayed standing, though hesitantly.

"Rise, people of Syaoto," the wolf spoke. It sounded male, with a rich, vibrant sort of nobility to its voice. "I am a god, but not the kind deserving of your worship. Rather, I seek your help. However," the wolf went on, turning to face the looming horde of Shadowhearts behind him. He'd cut himself quite the path to reach us, but the horde seemed endless. They would be upon us again in seconds. "It seems I am required to earn my favor."

In the heat of battle, the gears of my mind started to click, and I understood who the creature was as he sort of lowered his front legs, dipping his snout toward us in a gesture of respect. "My name is Fenrir, god of wolves. Today, I am one of Syaoto."

With a rippling snarl and the resounding ambience of thunder, the creature wheeled around as easily as he arrived, lunging into the fray. Lightning sprayed out from his electric fur in all directions. Not even a spark touched our men.

I expected more fear from our men, but instead came raucous cheer and eager shouts. Men rushed past me, once more the picture of Syaotoan vigor and honor. They recognized the wolf god, I realized, faster than I did. Maybe it was for the reverence of his late father, Loki, who gave his life to protect Syaoto two years ago in their time.

My focus turned to my magic. I threw everything I had into barriers to protect my team. and into the trees and the earth to rise and defend us.