At the same time that the Ravager and Guardian were cursing Tirindai, the western skinchangers and elementals were pulling down the flagship Liunaitheia, which belonged to the aggressive captain Darcaniel. Unlike with other fallen ships, which had been knocked down and sometimes half-buried but subsequently retrieved and repositioned by the captains, the elementals chose to tear a chasm in the earth beneath the flagship and plunge it into the lightless depths.
Darcaniel and his spirit-hunters were the least arcanely-skilled of the wraiths. Thus, when the earthquakes hit and the ground began to subside, they had no option but to flee on foot, having also been the first to lose the talent of flight. Some wraiths fell with Liunaitheia when the earth finally split, but the vast majority—about eight thousand—escaped the fall and the subsequent sinking of the nearby colony ships.
With the far-too-solid earth between them and their ships, Darcaniel’s hunters had no safe haven, and the elementals were not finished. Recalling the first form of the Great Spirit, many elementals of many different types fused together to create faux dragons—gestalt elemental beasts with the gravitas of earth, water or wood and the swiftness and damage of air, fire or metal. Most of the fused dragons were made of only two or three elements, for more than that caused uncontrollable infighting among the elemental-kin. They were effective against the wraiths though, for the darker elements—wood, earth and water—absorbed any magic aimed at them, while the lighter elements gave them the energy and impetus to chase such fleet-footed enemies.
Thus, rising from the disturbed ground that had swallowed up the wraith ships, the fused dragons began to hunt the hunters across the great northern plains. Darcaniel’s people had adapted themselves to pursuing the long-legged prey-spirits such as Ryntri Lakhigi, and thus though they could not fly, they could run vast distances in the daytime, drawing energy from the sun. At night, though, they were blind, and as they crowded together around their captain and his flagship key—the only vessel of stellar power that remained among them—those on the fringes became victims of skinchanger predation. The plains belonged to Athalarr, King of the Northern Cats, and he resented both the wraiths’ incursion and their murder of his fond enemy Ryntri Lakhigi.
Over long weeks, the fused dragons and skinchangers forced Darcaniel’s hunters westward, away from the rest of their kind. By the time the plains began to give way to the impassable western forest, Tirindai had long fallen and Lalliel long vanished over the ocean, and even Ylwai was unreachable. When the hunters saw more skinchangers awaiting them in the shadows of the forest, they despaired.
These were the creatures that had fled the central lands when the wraiths first descended, and who had been touched by the wraith war only through their spirits. While they felt great rage toward Darcaniel’s kind because of that, they had no direct experience with them. Thus, when Darcaniel’s hunters approached—exhausted, ragged and nearly mortal from the loss of their ships and their own dwindling ability to touch magic or the higher dimensions—some of the border skinchangers took pity on them. Instead of falling upon them like the spirits urged, they withdrew into the woods.
Darcaniel saw this, but with no other options–as the fused dragons and rageful skinchangers were still on his heels—he ordered his people to flee into the woods as well.
To the wraiths, the impassable western forest proved as good as its title. The canopy was thickly interwoven, the ground overgrown with shade-loving plants and fungus, the land itself stonily irregular, and once in its depths they lost almost all contact with sunlight. For many, it was so intolerable that they fled the deep shadows for the savage embrace of the dragons and were destroyed; for others it was so enervating that they soon collapsed to the mossy stones and had to be dragged by their fellows.
The dragons and the plainsland skinchangers would not breach the forest, though, and the forest-dwelling creatures seemed to have withdrawn, so Darcaniel led his followers deeper in, hoping to find some sort of high point or clearing in which to rest and regain the touch of the sun.
What they found instead was a titanic many-colored tree–one of the elder children of Wood—and the conclave of elementals and skinchangers that worshiped it. Having breached this sacred place, the wraiths were converged upon both by the worshipers and the skinchangers that had let them through the woods. Their hale numbers depleted nearly to nothing by the verdant darkness, the wraiths could not fight so many foes.
Rather than let his people be destroyed, Darcaniel bid them to stand down and tried to parley with the tree-worshipers, but instead of speaking, the worshipers grabbed him and whisked him away. His followers nearly panicked then, but the few that retained their wits kept the others from attacking the skinchangers, for the skinchangers had not yet attacked them. They could only hope that their captain had not been summarily destroyed.
That hope wavered over the next few days, in which Darcaniel remained missing and the skinchangers continued to surround them, herding them out of the light whenever it shifted so they could not amass their energies. Finally, on the fifth day when all but the strongest of the wraiths had collapsed from light-deprivation, Darcaniel returned in the company of a splinter of the Wood-child tree and the Air Elemental itself.
In exchange for his people’s survival, Darcaniel explained, he had bargained away their higher selves. They were all to receive earthly roots, so that they could never again unfurl into the higher dimensions—and thus never rise back to their original lighter realms without suffering as any darker-realm creature would. Their access to the flow of magic would fade nearly to nothing, and without conscious effort they would slowly become more and more physical, more and more biological, until they were fully mortal. With no way to procreate or reincarnate, it seemed a slow quiet death instead of a quick and brutal one.
But Air had also taken an interest in these wraiths, and though they had brought down many of its favorite bird-spirits, it was inclined to be merciful to creatures who loved the sky as much as it did. It promised to breathe into those that submitted to the rooting, and thus give them some of its lightness, so that though they were shackled to the world, they would not feel it too heavily, and so the sun would still buoy them as it always had. They would be swift and bright and clever, and perhaps some day they would even remember how to fly.
Darcaniel had already submitted, his crystalline substance now riddled with fine roots, and most of his people followed suit. Some flatly refused to be so tainted, and with regret the worshipers separated them from the rest and forced them from the forest, to where the dragons and skinchangers still waited.
The rest were welcome to stay around the sacred tree, and for a time, they did.
As for Ylwai’s researcher-wraiths, their ships had been threatened with undermining much like Darcaniel’s. However, the attempt to drop Ylwai’s flagship, Iseilian, did not go as planned: his flight’s ships were not planted directly in the ground but had been moved many times and now stood on artificial crystalline buttress-structures so that their resonance would not be impacted by the heavy earth. Thus when the ground began to fall away beneath them, Ylwain had just enough time to awaken his ship and rise away. The other ships, alerted, followed suit.
Ylwai decided to take this opportunity to leave the battleground of the central north—to fully abdicate the war. He had been the captain least interested in fighting, and regretted the deaths of Hythrak and the other spirits not just for the loss of their knowledge but from sympathy. Opting first for distance, he led his ships over the northern mountains and deep into the tundra.
As desolate as this land seemed, though, it was not empty, and the spirits who called it home were the most easily angered of all. The ships had barely set down when the Winter Graces attacked, drawing curtains of stormclouds over the sky and coating the crystal walls with ice thick enough to block out the remaining light.
Confident of their power-sources and less shackled by physicality than Darcaniel’s wraiths, Ylwain’s wraiths initially ignored the Graces’ assault. After all, they could shift dimensions and merely step through those ice-coated walls, and the energy in the flagship and colony ships was enough to sustain them until summer came to the north.
Or so they thought. For as Ylwai struggled to reconstitute the spirit of Hythrak by piecing together and infusing all the shards he had cut from it, his wraiths languished. The cold made their physical shells brittle and they could not venture far from the ships. For researchers and observers, being cooped up was intolerable. Plans were made to burrow down into the snow and earth beneath the ships and at least investigate there—perhaps carve out a cavern that they could flood with crystal and refract light into, so that they could study in a place shielded from the cold wind—but even the ground was frozen too hard for them.
When the first of the angry skinchangers showed up to claw at their walls and pee on the support-buttresses, Ylwai’s researchers decided that they had had enough. They interrupted their captain in his work to demand that he either bring them somewhere warm and sunny with no skinchangers, or he give them a way to deal with this intolerable climate.
Finally aware of his surroundings, and having made no progress in rebuilding a beast-spirit, Ylwain yielded to his subordinates’ demands—somewhat. He did not want the hassle of finding them a new terrestrial headquarters, and if all they needed was distraction, he knew of an ideal research-environment.
Against the shocked arguments of his followers, Ylwai altered the ships’ structures to intersect with the Grey, leaving them still anchored to the physical world but out of phase with it—there yet not there. Instead, their main bulk hung suspended in the gap between realms, the space where the bodiless wraiths had been doomed to wander aimlessly.
To embodied wraiths, the Grey was not nearly so dangerous. The researchers soon realized that they could venture into its vastness yet retain a sense of where they were in the physical plane, and where their ships were. Their crystalline physical bodies did not exist solely in the Grey and thus could still receive information from the heavier realm, and as they had been extruded from the ships’ substance, they could always feel its resonance. They could always find their way home.
Soon almost all of Ylwai’s researchers were out of his hair, allowing him to turn his attention to the matter of broken beast-spirits once more. Even the Winter Graces abandoned their assault, having lost track of their foe; while they could sense the anomaly at the ships’ anchor-site, they could not effect it and had no way to breach or even detect the Grey. Most of the skinchangers also abandoned the area, though there were a few that looked upon the vast expanse of cold and marshy land and decided to make a place here. Those of Ylwai’s researchers who became bored with the Grey eventually turned their attention to those skinchanger populations, not to disrupt but to learn, and in later ages would come to a compromise with them.
Thus Ylwai and his ilk waited out the end of the war by distracting themselves with projects, while the ragtag remnants of the other flights—especially those who had split from the doomed main bulk of Tirindai’s army and fled to the Tantaelastarr flagship—holed themselves up wherever they could.
With more than three-fourths of the wraiths dead or unreachable and the rest in hiding, the alliance between the skinchangers, elementals and ogres crumbled. The Earth and Metal elemental-kin retreated underground, joined by a few intrepid skinchangers who were intrigued by the craftsmanship of the Branciran metal-folk. In the future, these skinchangers who did away with their unnecessary fur and adapted themselves to a life of subterranean tinkering would come to be called goblins. The rest of the skinchangers and the ogres began their own squabbles over territory and were soon embroiled in tribal wars.
Undetectable to all the native folk, though, were the excursions underway in the Grey. News of Ylwai’s intentional breach and investigation of this new realm spread to the other arcanely-inclined wraiths, and soon the Tantaelastarr wraiths—who would one day be called the mist-wraiths or airahene—and Lalliel’s followers on the White Isle—the white wraiths or haelhene—were competing to recapture the essences of their slain fellows. Both sides brought their bounty back to their flagships to be reincarnated, but while the airahene tried to ease their comrades back into physical life, the haelhene forced all newly-revived wraiths to embrace the Isle as their new master and conform to their views and goals, or else be slain and revived again.
And again. And again.
The Isle spoke to all the wraiths upon it in a strange voice. Like them, it had been caught in the Darkness in the Chain of Ydgys; like them, it had fallen far. If it was the hungry light that had chased them from their homeworld, it had been changed too much to recognize—ossified and twisted into a sort of multidimensional reef that gathered the haelhene wraiths to it like so many little fish. It demanded that they gather more essences—that they even risk the Thorn Curse to steal souls that were straying into Tirindai’s domain—and though Lalliel and her lieutenants retrieved one colony ship and planted it within the mass of the White Isle, the bodies that the Isle made for its newborn wraiths were not ship-crystal. They were something weaker, something that did not flow properly but developed nodules and spikes as it aged, gathering energy at those points that disrupted its proper circulation. Thus the haelhene became ever more powerful, but less and less in control.
And the conflict over the lost wraith souls continued, both in the Grey and in the sky above the shore where Tirindai fell, as his living followers and his betrayers struggled for supremacy.
The world moved on without them.
Next: The Ogre Dominion and the Birth of Humanity