With the wraiths finally killable—at least in a manner that would stick for more than a few days—the skinchangers and beast-spirits decided to press their advantage. Though the beast-spirits had lost much of their connection to their children, they could still strengthen and guide them, as well as manifest when enough of them were in the same place. Thus they began organizing the first real regiments of fighting skinchangers so that they could empower the greatest amount to fight the wraiths.
Tactics did not change significantly. Because of the wraiths’ magic, it was most prudent to lure them away from the tower-ships so that they could not call for reinforcements, but the wraiths had long since grown wise to such tricks. Decoys and masked skinchanger-saboteurs were put into use but they too gave few gains, especially once the wraiths had captured a few spies and learned how to tune the resonance of their towers to repel those breeds of skinchanger. As they expanded their repertoire of repelling magic, the skinchangers found it increasingly difficult to infiltrate their towers, and were forced to focus their masked spying on the wraith outposts that were not the original crystal tower-ships but offshoots or other new constructions.
Still, progress was made, with each ‘slain’ wraith ending up in the Grey to fruitlessly seek some sign of their ships. The resonance of the tower-ships could pierce the Grey enough to allow the wraiths to return, but only if they were very close by; those wraiths who died on distant battlefields had nothing to guide them home. (Several millennia later, some wraiths slain during this war still roam the Grey.)
Elemental assaults on the tower-ships continued as well, forcing the towers to move regularly to avoid being undermined and dropped into subterranean caverns. The elementals and the skinchangers both stopped taking prisoners, and though experiments on skinchangers continued among wraith-captain Ylwai’s sect, the other wraiths equally gave no quarter.
Unfortunately for everyone, the threat of the Grey sank in slowly. The wraiths persisted in expanding their territory, creating new outposts from which to exterminate the skinchangers but which put them in danger of the Grey. The skinchangers continued to attack and were massacred for it, hundreds dying for each wraith that went down. More spirits perished—the Bull, the Goat, the Bat, several of the lesser Cats and even the Burrower Keynakin and the Striker Kvenkiut. The children of some were adopted by other spirits, some forgot their own sentience and fled as beasts, others were trapped in their wraith-mask forms.
A point came when the wraiths finally seemed to realize that death was a danger. Thousands of them had been slain, their essences missing in the Grey, and the three captains convened to agree that this could not go on. Without the ability to procreate—though Ylwai had been researching that solution—the wraiths could not replace their lost members, and at only thirty thousand for the entire race, they could no longer afford deaths. Abandoning the outposts, they began the retreat back to the tower-ships.
Never before had the wraiths withdrawn. Emboldened, the skinchangers gathered on the fringes of wraith-taken territory with the intent of a massive assault—one to overwhelm them entirely.
Aiding the skinchangers was the advance of the ogres, a skinchanger breed that preferred their hybrid form and no longer changed. Children of Oega the River-Wader and previously dwellers along the rivers and lakes of the warm southern lands, they had been forced from their homes first by the eruptions of the great southern volcanoes and then by the swarms of lizard- and cat-folk that had descended from the slopes to infest the land. Bulky, muscular and possessed of a deep connection with the elements and nature spirits, the ogres had attempted to fight back, but the swarms were too great for their slow-moving style of warfare and finally pushed them north.
The ogres had never seen the wraiths before; all nine wraith tower-ships had come to rest in close proximity in the north and had spread across the northern continent but not yet veered south. Nor were they too kindly-disposed toward the skinchangers, whom they considered small furry annoyances. Even promises of land in the north—full of lakes and rivers currently controlled by the wraiths—and the influence of the elementals and spirits could not convince them to join the war.
In the end, the Guardian and Ravager took two ogres as hosts—Vina Treakaher the shamaness and Kirhuua Kaar-Ventai the warlord—and infused them with all the knowledge and anger that they had gathered during the long Wraith War. Both ogres concurred that the wraiths threatened the world itself, and with a combination of diplomacy and force, they brought the four ogre clans to heel and led them into the fray.
The ogres brought spiritual power and focus into the fight, along with complex tactics and actual weapons—far more dangerous than the teeth and claws the skinchangers used. Unlike the savage north, which had long been dominated by the fight between the predatory and prey clans, the ogrish south before the arrival of the moon had been fairly civilized, with agriculture and big airy buildings and elemental-made plumbing and blacksmiths. Those blacksmiths came along with the rest of the clans, and soon the skinchangers were carrying blades with them on harnesses that would not restrict their shifting. No longer did they have to worry about losing teeth in a wraith’s glassy carapace.
The advance of the ogres sped the retreat of the wraiths, for with actual military commanders and coordinated shamans, the native folk were not such easy pickings for wraith-magic and much more effective at sieging wraith-outposts. The wraiths also had no time to learn how to repel the ogres from their towers, leading to the capture of several tower-ships and the concerted (but failed) effort to smash them. The wraiths finally seemed to be on the run, constantly moving their lesser ships closer to the three flagships—though they flagships remained far separate.
Then came the Fourth Flight: the sudden arrival of the last set of three ships that had disappeared in the Darkness that guarded the hole in the Chain of Ydgys. They slammed down in the far north-east, at the center of the inner sea that would one day dry up to become Riddian, and from there their captain, Lalliel the Eternal, contacted the other three to learn what had happened in her absence.
Though shocked that the Fourth Flight had somehow managed to survive the Darkness and the hungry light that had chased them here, the other wraiths quickly informed Lalliel of the situation and she dispatched her sorcerers—the best energy-manipulators of wraithkind—to reinforce the threatened towers and destroy the native army.
For a time, the new influx of wraiths deadlocked the war. The skinchangers had gathered under the banner of the ogres and the Great Spirits and were learning to work together, to pool their talents and protect each other despite their differences, but Lalliel’s sorcerers were vicious far beyond the norm. As they spread through the wraith ranks, they started influencing other wraiths to ignore the three more cautious captains, to annihilate the skinchangers even when it meant overreaching themselves. Several of Lalliel’s sorcerers sought out Ylwai to learn the secrets of the skinchangers and spirits, and though Ylwai taught them some of what he had learned, he eventually banned them from his territory for their harsh proposals and attempts to lure his sect of researchers away from him.
While the Fourth Flight’s tactics set the native army back on its heels at first, in due time they came to disaster. Defending all four flagships spread the wraiths too thin, especially as the Fourth Flight kept luring other wraiths back to their flagship to join their ranks. Only the Fourth Flight wraiths could gather enough energy to fly, the others having become too terrestrial in their several centuries here, and both communications and the wraiths’ traditional method of teleportation had been wrecked by the creation of the Grey. Forced to march small but powerful armies to fight larger, angrier ones that could move freely through the north because of the thin wraith coverage, wraith-captains Tirindai and Darcaniel were suffering severe losses, and Ylwai and his followers had holed up in their flagship to weather an extended siege. Lalliel’s sorcerers were far more interested in inciting than fighting, and had sparked conflicts with several Nimir and metal-folk enclaves that had not previously been hostile, thoroughly surrounding the fallen wraiths with enemies.
It was springtime, only a year after the arrival of the Fourth Flight, when Tirindai’s army found itself cut off from its flagship and forced into the rough eastern landscape that would one day be known as the Heartlands. Lalliel and many of her sorcerers were with them, but on their tail followed the bulk of the native army, scenting blood, and though Lalliel recommended that they make for her flagship Hlacaasteia, she seemed to be leading them southeast instead of northeast. Tirindai was too busy trying to coordinate his wraiths and hers, trying to buoy up those who had become nearly flesh and could not handle things like pain and weariness. As they were still lighter and swifter than their foes, Tirindai finally ordered them to run instead of fight—to try to reach the flagship Lalliel insisted was there.
Instead, they found the sea.
The native army converged upon them from all directions, ogres and skinchangers and metal-kin and spirits and elementals all wroth from the centuries of oppression they had suffered. With weapons enchanted by the spirits, the native folk hacked down the wraiths, who killed many natives in return but could not stem the horrible tide. Throughout the battle, Lalliel’s sorcerers and those they had been whispering to throughout the march withdrew to the back of the column, at the water’s edge, and no matter how angrily Tirindai ordered them to assist, they did not act.
More and more wraiths turned from the fight to join her. More and more fell before the hooves and horns and swords and axes of the natives.
And finally Lalliel—who until then had stood at Tirindai’s side though she had offered no aid—turned and joined her people, stepped up onto the waves and began walking away, toward a dim light that could just barely be seen glowing far out to sea. Her followers did the same.
Tirindai railed after her, tried to chase her, but he had no power to surmount the waves; as a child of air and light, the dark ocean sapped his strength even more than the thick forest or the deep caverns. No matter what he shouted, she would not turn. And with the wraith ranks so visibly depleted, the skinchangers rallied and began to roll over the remaining fighters like a great clawed wave.
Finally only Tirindai stood, keeping the skinchangers away by the power of his captain’s blade—the sharp crystal key that connected him to the flagship Tantaelastarr and could draw upon its energies no matter the distance. Any skinchanger that came within reach was annihilated by the bright blade, but soon they withdrew to simply surround him, and the Guardian and Ravager stepped forth.
With the help of their ogrish hosts, the two halves of the Great Spirit had concocted a plan. Since wraith souls could not be truly destroyed—unless the Ravager ate them, and even that was still speculation—and they would end up back at their flagships even if it took a million years of wandering, the only way to completely neutralize one seemed to be changing it. And they wanted the captains—all four of them—neutralized.
Thus the Guardian and the Ravager, with the help of the many elementals and shamans that had come on the trek, laid upon Tirindai a curse. Earth, Air, Fire, Water, Metal and Wood all woke for a moment to imbue their elemental children with the power to naturalize the wraith—to force him into full physicality, stripped of all his higher dimensions. The beast-shamans invoked the rage of their patrons upon him, tormenting and tearing at his essence to make it vulnerable. And finally the Ravager—with its ability to shape wraith-souls just as it could shape skinchangers—and the Guardian—with its affinity for both plants and dark, secret places—transformed Tirindai from mortal flesh to immortal trap.
No longer free, no longer mobile, but a tangle of thorns that could latch onto the souls of wraiths and pin them in place but not touch the spirits of others. An entity pulled and shaped to reach into the Grey and collect every wraith essence within its reach, then cage them within itself, inextricable, far far away from any tower-ship and any chance at resurrection. With an imperative to grow and spread, to kill and capture all of its kind and keep them from returning. No longer a wraith but a spirit of the world, forced to act as it had been cursed.
Tirindai succumbed and fell apart into coils of thorn, already reaching out to imprison the comrades that had fallen around him. The native folk, viciously elated, immediately began plotting to do the same to the other captains, but the Ravager noticed the captain’s blade fallen in the sand and could not resist trying to claim it.
The power of the flagship was too much even for the crafty predator-spirit. When the Ravager clasped the blade, all that energy poured into its host, thrusting it out as the ogre Kirhuua perished. Terrified, the Ravager fled the field, and no one else dared disturb the blade from where it had fallen. When the cursed thorns grew over it then started spreading toward the skinchanger army, they retreated before it. Their work was done.
The Guardian’s host Vina mourned deeply, but the Guardian decided not to retaliate; Kirhuua’s death was his own doing and the Thorn had been designed to be controlled by the Guardian’s influence. It would be long and busy ages before the Guardian realized that the Thorn had slipped its grasp–growing too big, devouring too much territory and chasing out the other local spirits until it was strong enough to resist any command, even those of its makers.
In the meantime, the native army turned its gaze to the other three captains, one unreachable across the water, one holed up in a flagship, one on the run with his own ragged army. The war was nearing its end.