The war against the wraiths came in seasonal waves, for the upheaval of the weather took decades to abate. In late spring and throughout the summer and autumn, skinchangers of all clans would harry the wraith towers, shattering or imprisoning any of their enemies they could catch. Every destroyed wraith inevitably coalesced back at one of the towers to take on a new body, but imprisonment was just as problematic; if given access to sunlight, the wraiths could eventually draw enough power to destroy their own glass-like bodies, usually injuring their captors in the process. Keeping them underground eventually reduced them to somnolence, but their fellows could detect their presence and invariably raided the prison-camps to retrieve them.
In the winter, the skinchangers and their beast-spirits withdrew, leaving the field to the elementals. Wind and Water wracked the wraith towers with screaming gales and thick ice, Earth attempted to topple them, and the children of metal—particularly the magic-talented Ciauren types—hunted them from below. The Ciaurens had far more success in imprisoning the wraiths they captured, dragging them deep underground to places their kin feared to breach.
But the wraiths were not passive defenders. Though they could not unfold themselves or their towers into the manifold dimensions of their nature easily, it could still be done, letting them channel inordinate amounts of energy and spread their influence—and crystalline tower substructure—throughout the land. With simple twists of space, they could open portals into the depths to recover their brethren, and though it became more and more difficult for them to do so without directly tapping the power cores of their flagships, they destroyed many of the underground cities of the Ciauren metals, the Branciran metals and the earth-kin Nimir in just such a way. Anywhere one of their people was taken, they could locate by the missing wraith’s resonance, until finally the Ciauren metals discovered that they could use the emanations of their Light-scoured dead kin—the third part of the metal race that was destroyed for accessing stellar magic—to mask the resonance of their captives.
For a long time, capture was the only tactic that worked, and the wraiths spread slowly through the northern continent, occasionally moving their flagships and colony ships to positions of advantage. Once the captains decided on a permanent location, the tower-ships would set down crystal roots and begin budding smaller structures nearby, creating their own defensive perimeters that automatically struck at any skinchanger. Because of the kidnappings, some of the wraith combatants withdrew from physical conflict, preferring to hover in the sky—despite the amount of focus and energy it took—and strike from a distance, but most were not structured for that. The ones whose forms were most designed for such behavior were those that had been lost in the flight through the Darkness at the Chain of Ydgys.
Years became decades, the wraiths restricted only by their limited numbers: just over thirty thousand, with a handful successfully captured each season. The skinchangers numbered in the millions, with many thousands of metal and earth-kin allies, but nothing they did seemed to work. Even the magic of the Ciaurens was no match for the wraiths; a single wraith could draw every bit of offensive energy they flung at it into itself and then project it back at them, incapacitating dozens on its own, or else finesse the great arcs of energy into devious and annihilating tricks. Despite their long studies, the Ciaurens were not natural mages like the wraiths, their tactics brute-force and crude, and except for their clever concealments, they were no match for the fallen stars.
Finally, the Ravager and the Guardian decided that they could not direct the battle from afar. They had to participate. As the most primal of the native beast spirits, they had some influence over the six elements of their birth, and had long ago divided them: Air, Fire and Metal for the Ravager, Water, Earth and Wood for the Guardian. The parent elements acknowledged them and encouraged their children to give them aid, so that in addition to all the strength and influence of Predator and Prey, the Guardian and Ravager could mold the environment to their will—to a degree.
But they could not walk among the creatures of flesh. Unlike their beast-spirit children, neither the Ravager nor the Guardian was tied to a single race, and so they could not manifest themselves as physical beings without manifesting every trait of every one of the skinchanger breeds—making them ungainly and frightening mélanges of wings and scales and stingers, fangs and claws and tentacles. They needed the structure of a bloodline to cage their endless potential, and so they learned to possess skinchanger hosts—willing or unwilling—and empower them with all the authority and influence of a Great Spirit.
For the Guardian, taking a host mainly meant protecting a threatened population of skinchangers from wraith depredations. If it took a host with Deer blood, it manifested antlers and hooves in addition to armor of stone and bark, and could draw all native creatures into its wake like a massive herd to stampede or to flee. If it took a Hare-folk host, it bore the ears and the tail but also the teeth and claws, and though it would urge all its constituents to flee—and guide them to safety—it would also fight when cornered, with all the elemental powers at its command.
For the Ravager, however, learning to manifest in a skinchanger host was only the first step. It was willing to use its host to assault the wraiths—usually by taking over a raptor-blood so it could attack the flyers—but its real interest was in learning to enmesh itself with one of the captured wraiths. To devour and take over the enemy.
It took a long time for its experiments to bear fruit, but in the meanwhile it picked up a few other tricks, like how to shape its host to mimic the appearance and even the resonance of a wraith. Though it taxed the host creature horribly, the Ravager in its faux-wraith form managed to infiltrate wraith towers more than once—though it was always found out before it could wreak much havoc, its host destroyed and its essence sent fleeing for a new host. Its irrepressible hatred toward the wraiths always made it overreach, and soon it realized that it should spread its knowledge so that calmer hearts could have their opportunity.
Decades had now become more than a century, the conflict never settling enough for the skinchangers to reestablish their civilizations—for when it was not the wraith assaults in the north, it was refugees flooding up from the south due to the periodic but continued eruptions of the southern volcanoes and the push of the swarming reptile-folk. All was in disarray, with the memory of cities and towns merely a campfire-story for most skinchangers.
Yet the wraiths had found the limits of their reach and still had not mastered the grand working that would change the world to their liking. They had too few tower-ships to empower their spell without draining everything they had, and though the crystalline buds had been storing energy from the sun, it was not enough. More than that, the wraiths themselves were becoming increasingly terrestrial; with each passing year it became harder and harder for them to expand into their native forms, and easier to sink toward physicality. To develop internal organs, circulatory systems, skin and muscle in place of their solid crystal flesh.
Some even began to like it.
A schism loomed among the wraiths, held back only by the alliance of the three captains. One, Darcaniel, held that they should adapt to this world and learn to propagate themselves by its rules—to increase their populace by reproduction. Another, Ylwai, said that they should experiment on the skinchangers to see if they could be raised into something like a wraith, or at least enlightened into a creature it would not pain them to live beside. The third, Tirindai, believed that there could be no yielding to the world but that peace could perhaps be made even with such savages—even if it was only the peace of isolation. Though they bickered their three views, they refused to break trust even as their followers grew distant from each other and each wraithly outpost became its own separate culture.
The time was ripe for the Ravager’s trick. Wraiths from different towers did not know each other as they once did, and with physicality being impressed more strongly upon those that came from the non-flagships, a variance of appearance and resonance could not be avoided. The Ravager thus approached several of the beast-spirits—independent, clever creatures like Daxfora the Slinker, Griinag the Scavenger and Zolvin T’okiel—and offered to teach them how to blend in with the wraiths. How to infiltrate them.
Griinag refused; she would not be used by the Spirit of Predators. Zolvin T’okiel also declined, though not because of his grudge against the Ravager’s raptor children but due to doubt about the trick’s worth. Daxfora, however—always the eager and crafty one—leapt at the chance to learn.
The Ravager taught it how to wear the face of a wraith and walk on two feet, how to smile and use its eyes as its most important sense, for this was how the wraiths behaved; their true selves were amorphous lights imprisoned in opaque glass cages, peeping at the world through two large slits and showing their approval of each other by letting more of their essence be shown. Daxfora learned quickly to mimic their expressions, their voices, their movement, and passed the knowledge along to its children, so that the first wave of wraith infiltrators all bore tinges of fox-red in their long fine hair.
The tactic went well. Not quite predators, Daxfora’s fox-folk were able to hold back their instincts and engage their curiosity, and soon learned more of the layout of the tower-ships and the habits and politics of the wraiths than all of the Ravager’s experiments had ever gleaned. Slowly, other beast-spirits asked to learn the trick, until there came a time that the children of Daxfora and Shaskret and Lilivir, Sessenekh and Tenkosh and Hythrak all walked among the wraiths to some degree—sometimes even mistaking each other for wraiths.
Yet they still could discover no way to destroy their foes. The Ravager had found out how to devour them, but could only eat one at a time, and the digestion was slow and laborious; the wraith’s essence fought to the very last instant. Likewise the wraiths had no solution for the skinchanger problem, for as many as they killed, just as many returned the next year. There were too many of them and they bred too fast.
Unfortunately, among those who experimented with the wraith mask was the blackbird spirit, Hythrak. A gentle creature, Hythrak became enamored of the beauty of the wraiths and their work and began to lose sight of what they had done to the world and the native creatures. It encouraged many of its tribal children to take on the wraith mask—even those who did not intend to infiltrate a tower—and itself went on an infiltration mission to Ylwai’s flagship, thinking that it could perhaps influence the wraiths to a better way.
Ylwai and its kin were not as blind as those wraiths in the peripheral tower-ships, and though they allowed Hythrak into the flagship, it was a trap. Finally having one of the beast-spirits in its grip instead of just the mortal skinchangers, Ylwai experimented on Hythrak, hoping to reshape it into something truly wraithly, something worthy of the lighter realms. Despite Hythrak’s own affinity for the air and the light, the experiments proved too much, and the spirit of blackbirds died in the depths of Ylwai’s flagship.
Upon its death, every blackbird’s mind broke. The ones still in animal-form scattered to the four winds, while those in wraith-mimicking form were locked there, confused and terrified. Many were killed by the alerted wraiths but others fled and still more, wearing those forms out of interest despite being far from the tower-ships, found themselves with hands instead of wings, feet instead of claws, and only a vague idea of what to do with their lives now.
Though the wraith-captain Ylwai regretted the death of Hythrak, it had discovered how to eliminate the competition without remaking the world: find and destroy the beast-spirits. Both Darcaniel and Tirindai agreed that this must be done, and the three captains focused their efforts on the hunt.
In the following seasons, the fight turned vicious. Beast-folk and spirits retaliated relentlessly for Hythrak’s death, but in doing so exposed themselves, and Darcaniel’s hunters brought down Ryntri Lakhigi the Fleeting Step, Aherenka the Mighty Tusk, Sessenekh the Slitherer and Garto the Strider. Each one left a void in its beast-folk children and imprisoned them in the forms they held at the moment of their fall. In this way, the people of Garto became mere animals; the people of Aherenka were locked in bristly, boar-faced war form; those of Sessenekh were split between serpent-faced, wraith-faced and full snake; and the children of Ryntri Lakhigi reluctantly submitted themselves to another spirit, the lion Athalarr, to avoid the inevitable descent.
But not everything went the wraiths’ way. Finally beginning to comprehend the true dimensional nature of the wraiths, the Ravager formulated a plan. They existed in all dimensions at once, though they had to fold their extradimensional selves flat in order to not be crushed by Halci’s dark physicality, but that meant that they had a presence not only in the physical world but in that of the spirit as well. Planning to fracture them from their higher forms and break the bonds of resonance that existed between the tower-ships, the Ravager summoned the Ciauren mages, the predator spirits and every elemental of Air, Fire and Metal it could muster, and with their assistance tore the spirit realm away from the physical to create a misty, trackless space between them.
The damage done was instant and tremendous. For the skinchangers and their beast-spirits, contact was suddenly restricted; they no longer shared one great consciousness, one will, one solid template of being, but were still tethered together despite the rift. In the long run, this allowed separate tribes to crop up within one breed of skinchanger, such as the white northern wolf-folk and the black border-wolves, but in the short run it was a shock akin to being torn away from one’s parents. The Guardian and Ravager suffered as well, losing the ability to manifest at all without a mortal host, but like the beast-spirits they still had a natural stake in the world and could not be severed from it even by this act.
For the wraiths, it was not so pleasant. All intrinsic contact between the tower-ships snapped, their resonances no longer able to reach across the distance. Their higher senses fractured into confusing shards; their bodies automatically settled another step toward physical, so that some of them began to feel pain, hunger and weariness. Their personal resonances and energy supplies dampened, power-sources no longer right across the dimensional border. They even lost the ability to perceive the spirits due to the strange new gap.
But worst, when their bodies were damaged so badly that their essences escaped, they found themselves in the misty in-between realm, unable to sense the resonance of their tower-ships or perceive into the physical or the spiritual realm. Adrift, these freed wraith essences wandered the new realm aimlessly and were soon joined by other, stranger entities that considered this new place a void that needed filling.
Thus, the Grey came to be, and the tide of the war turned.
Next: The Fourth Flight and the Thorn Curse