In the wake of the Seals, the southeastern landmass that had been known as Shangal, or the Dragon Coast, found itself riven by quakes and inundated by the Rillian Ocean. Where it once had been connected to the northeastern landmass by the Great Swamp, there now lay a broad arm of the expanded Atharine Sea, which extended the threat of the haelhene wraiths that dwelt on the White Isle at the center of that body of water.
The people of Shangal were not strangers to the wraith threat, as the haelhene wraiths had raided their shores as regularly as they had raided the northeastern tribal territories. However, the rise of the Rift to the west had tilted the landscape nearest the sea, sinking some parts and lifting others, which ruined nearly all of the settlements that had guarded the shore. With Ruen Wyn establishing itself to the north and bulwarking its own lands against wraith invasion, the haelhene depredations turned more and more toward shattered Shangal, and the people struggled to survive on the Atharine coast.
What made their plight worse was that Shangal had never been unified. Before the Seals, it had been a patchwork of small city-states going about the motions of existence under the vague aegis of the God of Dreams, Surou. Never a hands-on deity, Surou had given his people no mandate and in fact rarely communicated with anyone, preferring to spend his limited time on the physical plane in strolling through the area’s striking karst landscapes and drifting among its coral islands. Though he did not entirely withdraw when the rest of the gods were forced from the mortal plane, the lifting of his pervasive dreaming aura left the people of Shangal confused and disturbed by the reality they had previously seen through a rose-colored haze. Their cities either isolated themselves or began fighting, and at the time of the Sealing a majority of the city-states were at war with each other.
With many of the warring cities suddenly shattered or submerged, refugees fleeing in all directions and no news of what had caused the cataclysm, the people of Shangal were easy pickings for the haelhene wraiths. Their shamans and dreamweavers could not stand against wraith-magic, and they had no true mages of their own—only a few refugees from the Yezadran city of Marinseher, which had been caught on the Shangal side when the Rift rose and was nearly destroyed by its upthrust.
But to the aid of the people came the dragons.
Like those of Zhangi-Uru, the dragons of Shangal lived in the south in order to avoid contact with the wraiths. Specifically, they dwelt in the warm Rillian Ocean, which had inundated much of the land during the Sealing disasters. Many of the dragons, which were predominantly water-wood-fire gestalt elementals, found themselves washed inland and stranded by their own nature, having fins instead of wings or legs.
In another land, they might have been attacked in their moments of vulnerability, especially since these sea dragons were known to collect and store shiny items—particularly pearls, shells and gemstones—within their woody central bodies. However, the people of Shangal had revered the dragons since their first sighting along the southern coast, and in the age of Surou’s rule the dragons had often swum up the rivers to tour the land and bask in the adulation of the dreaming people. The common name of the land had even been taken from the dragons’ popularity. Thus it was not surprising that the people—even refugees—did their best to help the stranded sea dragons, sometimes by dragging them to a river and sometimes by bearing them water while they struggled to assume a more land-capable shape.
So many of the dragons were aided in this way that when they managed to return to the water and the company of their fellows, they called together a conclave to discuss their responsibilities toward the land-dwellers. They had never considered themselves involved in the business of humans before, even though they did like to tour the rivers, but they decided that the respect and aid that the people had shown them merited the return of the favor. Thus, those sea dragons that had learned to walk on land taught the skill to others of their kin, and together the dragons swarmed the rivers and swam north to confront the attacking wraiths.
Other dragons soon joined them, for though the sea dragons predominated, there were also hermit-like cloud dragons dwelling atop many of the karst pinnacles, who in turn summoned their wind dragon cousins to assist in the assault. When the rivers thinned into the uplands, the sea dragons tried out their new legs and continued the trek to the north shore. Everywhere they passed, the humans quit fighting and followed in awe—as if they were once again dreaming—until they were an army marching upon the Atharine Sea.
The haelhene wraiths had made deep inroads on the north shore, flying upon their black raywings to kidnap and kill. At the sight of the terrestrial army, they started to turn away, but the wind and cloud dragons had flown ahead invisibly and herded the haelhene raiders back toward shore with all the strength of their air-aspects. In the ensuing ground-to-air battle of fire, steam and thorns, many haelhene were pulled down and shattered, many more lost their raywings, and the rest were forced to escape into the Grey to wander aimlessly in search of home.
After that first victory, there was much celebration, but the wind dragons soon soared away and the cloud dragons whisked back to their solitary promontories; both types included air elementals and had notoriously bad attention spans. This left the sea dragons to patrol this unfamiliar—and far colder—shore, with no flight capabilities and thus little way to take the haelhene by surprise.
And the haelhene were far from done. Enough had escaped that they brought word of the conflict back to the White Isle, and further raiding parties were sent to Shangal’s shore with orders to hunt dragons as well as humans. With their own magic and aerial prowess, the haelhene began a program of spotting, luring and destroying sea dragons that were foolish enough to come after them alone, and kidnapping humans from unprotected communities.
Distressed, the dragons thought they would have to retreat—to yield the shore to the wraiths again, unless they could summon their air-aspected allies and somehow keep them here on patrol. However, several of the humans who had become virtual camp-followers of the sea dragons brought up the idea that if the dragons could adapt to land travel, perhaps they could adapt to another form—a human one.
So began several years of experimentation, as the dragons and their followers tried to figure out how to squeeze a massive gestalt elemental entity into the size and shape of a human. A summoner from Marinseher put forth the idea of displacing that extra elemental mass into the spirit realm, the same way skinchangers could leave their tails and claws and fur behind when they shifted to human shapes. However, though elementals were technically spirits and could access the spirit realm, they were each only a tiny piece of their Primal element, which made the gestalts less-connected to the spirit realm than most due to their combined nature. It became a spiritual problem as to how such a thing could be done.
Then a shaman put forth an idea: Could spirits be created as well as destroyed? It was already known that spirits could ascend toward godhood, since Athalarr the Lion was doing so in Altaera, and that mortals could become gods as well. Perhaps, then, a gestalt elemental could fuse beyond the simple gestalt state to become a singular entity and rise up as a new spirit. If that could happen, it might be possible for other gestalt elementals to throw in behind it and be transformed by its influence.
This would require true harmony between a sea dragon’s three elemental aspects, and many sea dragons retreated from the fight against the wraiths in order to meditate on it. Others continued to struggle to protect their humans.
One, which would eventually be called Lilivir, started out in meditation but found it too difficult to concentrate on harmonious integration when the humans nearby were suffering. Other sea dragons had also retreated to Lilivir’s area to meditate, and they seemed to be having more success, as they did not respond to the people’s prayers. Perhaps this was because the area was remote enough to not be under haelhene threat; however, it had been nearly inundated by the expansion of the Atharine Sea and the people were having difficulty with the still-subsiding ground, which could swallow houses and fields without warning.
Exasperated, Lilivir tried to ignore the humans, then tried to scold them. They obeyed her and ceased to interrupt, but soon she found that she could not concentrate on her meditations because she kept thinking about them and their plight. They were doing their industrious best to shore up their farms and homes, but the exposed bedrock was so porous that any wave or rainstorm could trigger disaster.
Finally, incapable of meditation, Lilivir rose from her river and spread her Wood aspect throughout the fields and village-land to reinforce it. When the rain came, she channeled it carefully through the fields, and when the cold came, she warmed the land with her deep-sea fire. All of her elements worked in harmony, and her people stabilized.
Having lent almost all of her elemental mass, though, Lilivir could no longer swim away or fight the haelhene. With the little excess substance she retained, she shaped herself a humanoid body so she could interact with her villagers, thinking she could be content with that.
She did not realize she had solved the problem until the adulation of her villagers and her own balanced nature sparked her ascension.
Immediately she ceased to be a gestalt dragon. Though she retained control over the landscape that was her former body, her human shell was now independent of it; she could travel away and not wither like a flower cut from its vine. She could still draw fire, water and wood from any surrounding in order to build herself a facsimile dragon body, but could also pull pure spirit-mass from the other realm to morph her human form to her will. The first form she chose was that of a huge, sleek river serpent the color of coral, with feet as well as fins, and claws that could rend a haelhene’s crystal body like paper.
Thus was born the River Serpent, and Lilivir put her talents to good use in baiting haelhene by appearing like a human then shifting when she had been ‘caught’ and rending her captors apart. Anchored to her landscape-body, she was hardier than the older spirits and could both withstand arcane strikes and escape bonds, and learned to shed her fleshy bodies whenever necessary.
Soon, other sea dragons began to follow her example, and as they were altered from gestalt elementals to skinchanging serpents, they learned that there was more to the flesh than just fighting. The combination of reverent humans and new fleshy bodies culminated quickly in the birth of river-serpent hybrids.
Conflict soon rose around this new human race, with the leaders of many of the city-states feeling threatened by the growing followings of Lilivir and the other embodied River Serpents. Warfare broke out between River Serpent followers and those of the ‘old lords’, but Lilivir was supported by the other beast spirits as well as her followers and the dragons, for she was the first newborn beast spirit since the descent of the wraiths.
Over the following decades, the old lords were overthrown one by one, with River Serpents or serpent-kin uplifted in their place. As the landscape continued to disintegrate into the sea, their influence became critical to creating human-habitable islands and sustaining the people in comfort and prosperity, so though there were objections to the dragons’ swift takeover of control, few dared oppose them.
Lilivir herself never strayed far from her home village, and so as the River Serpents spread, her direct influence over them waned. Newly flesh, some of the serpents grew decadent or tyrannical, some spiteful, some simply mischievous, and so an underground movement began among non-serpent-blooded humans to return the land to human rule. Some of these humans embraced foreign gods or beast spirits that sometimes conflicted with Lilivir, while others depended on training and skill alone, but all were dedicated to assassinating River Serpents and serpent-kin wherever they could be found.
Their job was not difficult, as Lilivir’s bright colors were echoed by her kin, giving them unusually-colored skin and hair even in human form. This sometimes led to accidental attacks on foreigners, but more often it stirred up resentment from the new serpent-kin elite toward the common people. The land, which was now called Ciritheen—Land of Dreaming Islands—was nominally a spirit empire headed by Lilivir but in practice was still city-states bickering with each other, and although some of those city-states were now on islands, nothing had truly changed.
Lilivir tried to keep the peace from afar but had the northern coast to protect, and could not control her kin—even those who claimed to follow her. She had unwittingly set up a scattering of dynasties that shaded from benevolent to abusive, and was never able to undo the tangle.