In the aftermath of the wraiths’ withdrawal, the combined skinchanger, elemental and ogre forces found themselves uncertain how to proceed. They could no longer attack the wraith strongholds, but neither were they directly threatened, and in the pursuit of their enemies they had ignored all former territorial boundaries and drawn together natural foes who now looked upon each other with dismay.
It did not take long for the skinchangers to start fighting each other. The prey tribes scattered swiftly, but the predators—now uprooted from their traditional homelands—refused to back down from the threats of their local rivals. The elementals, unwilling to take part in the disputes of fleshly creatures, dispersed back into the elements from which they had come, leaving the ogres to observe the rampant infighting and consider their own course.
Though skinchangers themselves, the ogres had long since ceased considering themselves such, and no longer shifted. Huge both in girth and in might, they had no predators in their native south, but had been driven north by a combination of internal warfare, natural disasters and overwhelming amounts of ‘vermin’ races devouring their food supply.
Here in the north, none of those problems seemed to exist. The four ogrish clans that had been forced north were on good terms with each other, having been allies previously, and while they found these lands uncomfortably cold, they were also not under threat by Tchellaryllyn–the volcano that had wiped out a vast swath of ogrish civilization and sent the rest of the south into a frenzy when it explosively erupted. The north had its own volcanic mountains in the Khaeleokiel range, but they were long dormant. Likewise, though the ogres considered most of the ‘lesser’ skinchanger races to be like vermin, they were not nearly as troublesome as the lizards and toothbirds of the south.
All the ogres truly required was fruit, grain and moderate-sized bodies of water, which in that age were found in abundance in the east-central land—what would one day be known as the Heartlands. With an eye to this, the four tribes of ogres decided to ignore the protests of their former allies and settle around the lakes, claiming the Heartlands for themselves.
The predators who considered that land theirs were furious, but many prey-races flocked to the ogres’ side—for fearsome as they were, the ogres were technically a prey race. They did not eat meat and had no interest in hunting the preyfolk, a vast difference from the views and practices of the reigning predators. And so when the disconnected predator clans began to raid the ogres to discourage them from settling, the preyfolk informed on them and volunteered to work as scouts, messengers and other supportive personnel in the ogres’ service.
Soon towns had sprung up throughout the lake- and orchard-land of the Heartlands, populated by garrisons of ogrish warriors and their peaceful preyfolk servants, as well as scavenger-folk who found town-life to be an easier existence than roughing it in the wilderness. The predators found themselves increasingly forced to the fringes and deprived of sustenance, forced to strike like raiders at increasingly well-defended outposts, until some decided to be clever.
For though the wraiths had withdrawn, their influence had not entirely faded from the skinchanging folk. Assembled in mixed towns for the first time ever, preyfolk were finding it easier to communicate with and understand their fellows if they manifested the wraith-mask: the standardized face they had used to try to infiltrate the wraith ranks during that long war. Soon most town skinchangers operated under the mask regularly, to the point that they rarely became their beast-selves. A common face made all interactions smoother and more equal, and since the ogres never used it, it was also helpful for tricking or conning them; they had a hard time telling one mask-wearer from another.
The predators who sought to exploit the townsfolk realized that they too could wear the wraith-mask, though it was more difficult for them to hide their predator-scent or instincts. Nevertheless, many of them infiltrated the ogre-controlled towns to carry out their hunts within the walls, while their wild cousins remained marginalized.
What no one counted on was that the masks made it just as difficult to tell mate from other as it did friend from foe.
And so it was that, under the influence of the masks and such ogrish novelties as clothes and accessories, the skinchangers sometimes found themselves pairing up with those outside their tribe. Predators with scavengers, scavengers with prey, prey with predators, and intermingling among the varieties of their own type. And while many of these assignations were brief or ended badly, some blossomed—and some simply caught, since all the skinchanger races were quite fertile and, apparently, interfertile.
And the children of those unions were born changeless.
They seemed to have been gifted the wraith-mask but nothing else, for they were hairless and claw-less and small-toothed, bearing traces of both their parents but not equal to either in grace or power. They could neither change nor feel the touch of the spirits. Uncountable numbers were destroyed as runts or mutants or punishments for some unknown transgression—but not all.
And as those first generations grew, and the stigma of having a changeless child began to ease, more were born and fewer were killed.
The ogres encouraged it. They had never felt threatened by the predators, scavengers or the preyfolk, but they were expanding their influence over this land and disliked having to deal with infighting among their servants—or the potential for uprisings. A blending of the skinchanger clans into this bland, toothless, changeless creature seemed ideal.
In addition, these new hybrid creature had a few merits of their own. They were not as skittish as their prey-parents, not as tactless as the scavengers, not as vicious or cunning as the predators, and got along quite well with all the masked folk and most unmasked skinchangers, who simply pitied them. They could be trained for strength or wits or agility, but were adaptable enough to switch focuses later in life—something few skinchangers, hardwired by instinct, could do. They took easily to crafts, tools and cultivation, and even seemed capable of innovating on their own, whereas the skinchangers focused on immediate needs without much thought for the future or possible improvements.
The ogres, who love war and idleness equally but did not like dull work, found them to be the perfect slaves.
Under the ogres’ aegis, the new hybrid race—which initially was just a patchwork collection of individuals of widely varying bloodlines—began to flourish, and to multiply in number. The ogrish governors permitted hybrid babies or children to be left in the care of the government if they were too shameful for the mothers to keep, and sharply punished their killing or abuse. They also rewarded those skinchangers who chose to keep their hybrid children by providing them training, protection and roles of greater prominence in ogrish households—as guards or stewards or personal servants. No real power, just a measure of hierarchical advantage, which the ogres knew was important to skinchangers of any type.
They also opened their shrines and temples to the hybrids, for many traditionalist skinchangers—particularly the shamans—considered the hybrids to be abominations undeserving of the aid of their bloodline spirits.
The ogres had their own spirit, Oega, from whom they took their name. Long ago, Oega had settled on the ogrish form–too big and dangerous to be considered prey but not itself a predator, content to rule through bulk and intimidation and occasional violence rather than suffer constant rivalry or fear–and decided that it was the pinnacle of creation. From then on, Oega refused to change, and without Oega’s permission, neither could any ogre, beyond a few cosmetic variations. Few ogres minded, as they enjoyed lording over others just as much as their spirit did.
Thus neither Oega nor his people were perturbed by the hybrids’ inability to skinchange, nor did the spirit care about their origins; like his people, Oega enjoyed having servants to tend to his whims no matter their bloodline, and liked the idea that they would serve him in the afterlife as well. He also adored adulation, unlike other beast spirits who merely wanted their children to behave like them, and the hybrids’ gratitude—coupled with their skill at crafts—soon had his shrines awash with gifts and adornments.
Over the course of the next few centuries, the ogrish civilization spread to fill the Heartlands, and the population of hybrids increased exponentially as that of their parent skinchangers began to diminish. Soon most townsfolk were hybrids, with only a few skinchangers and the requisite ogrish lords and ladies. Sometimes half-ogres were born too, the product of unusual dalliances between hybrids and ogres, but unlike hybrids, the half-ogres were greatly frowned-upon. The ogres saw what hybridization was doing to their servants and had no intention of having that happen to them.
It was not until some time later that the hybrids would come to be called ‘humans’, but it was in this age that they truly came into existence: the melding of many types of beast-folk, under the guidance of the ogres, for the purpose of breeding easily-controlled labor.
And as with many such experiments, humans were destined to bite the hands of their creators.
Next: The Torch of Truth and Freedom, Part 1