Game of Realms
Realm & Rulership
Denounced as perversions and abominations by the Temple of the Cleansing Flame, strange beings known as Shades are feared throughout the lands of Men. Debate still rages over the true nature of these beings, who seem Human, yet are afflicted with a sinister taint that warps their bodies and poisons their souls. Often called the "Children of the Damned," Shades are born to Human parents, normal but for their bizarre appearance. A Shade's skin is ashen grey and cold to the touch, and their pupil-less eyes are as black as coals. No one knows why Shades walk among us, but the cause is finally becoming clear - when a Human father dies while his child is yet unborn, there is a chance - but not a certain one - that the child will be born a Shade. There are no accounts of such births before the Turning. The pallid visage and detached demeanor of the Shades has given rise to countless rumors and stories that link them to the Undead, and few of any race have grown to trust the Pale Ones.
Widely viewed as aberrations, Shades are easily the most distinctive and the most mysterious of the breeds of Humanity, if they are indeed a "breed" at all. Unlike the Aelfborn, Shades are not hybrids born of mixed blood: both of a Shade's parents are Human. Also, a Shade's physical appearance does not depend on the race of his parents. Whether born to a pale Northman or an Irydni with skin the color of pitch, Shades are uncannily uniform in appearance. Often called "the Stillborn" or "the Children of the Damned," Shades seem touched by death itself. The skin has a pasty, corpse-grey pallor, with sunken eyes that give their faces a drawn, skull-like appearance. Few can look directly into the strange, pitch black eyes of a Shade for very long. Shades are born hairless, and never grow any hair throughout their entire lives, even lacking eyebrows. A Shade's flesh is cold to the touch, like the flesh of a corpse. Shades have thin, chilling voices that rarely rise above a whisper. Despite their light skin, Shades show an uncanny aptitude for stealth, and blend easily into darkness or shadow. Shades creep through the dark so easily, in fact, that many simple folk believe them to be practitioners of evil magic.
Except for their bizarre and frightening appearance, a Shade's physiology differs only slightly from their Human parents. Shades are slightly weaker than the average Human, but are slightly more agile. Shades also show a profound weakness of Spirit, having even less spiritual aptitude than the average Aelfborn. Some claim that the Shades' lack of Spirit contributes to their greatest flaw - Shades are incapable of siring or bearing children. Magi who have researched the issue claim that the spark of life of a Shade is too weak to transmit life into a child.
Shades are also the youngest of the Children of the World, having only appeared in the wake of the Turning. Shades were born rarely at first, but have become more and more common as the Age of Strife has ground on. Why some infants were born Shades while others (even in the same family) were not was a mystery at first, but eventually the patterns were surmised by Magi and Loremasters, who now understand the method (if not the cause) by which an unborn Human is transformed into a Shade. If a Human man is slain while his child is yet unborn, there is a chance (each expert disagrees as to the exact likelihood) that the child will be born a Shade instead of Human. The more often the father dies and returns to flesh, the more likely the transformation becomes. If a woman who is with child is slain, when she returns to flesh the unborn child inside her will almost certainly have changed into a Child of the Damned. As time has passed since the Turning, the number of Shades in the World has risen sharply. Whether this is simply a product of the endemic wars of the Age of Strife, which slay so many mothers and fathers-to-be, or whether some other force might be at work remains unknown. The Shades themselves do not seem to know or care.
Shades follow the customs of their Human parents, and have yet to develop any true culture of their own. Indeed, despite almost a century of persecution, most Shades still dwell among the Sons of Men. It is far easier to measure the impact Shades have had upon Human culture than it is to define any kind of unique ways of life practiced only by Shades.
Immediately after the Turning, an entire host of rituals and traditions sprang into being to eliminate Shades, who most of Humanity viewed as abominations. Once the Sons of Men discovered that Shades remained Shades no matter how many exorcisms were worked upon them, and returned to life no matter how often they were burned, banishment became the preferred solution. Today Shades -are tolerated, if not accepted, and most cities allow their Shades to dwell among them, though few Humans will admit to liking their company. An entire subculture of Healers and Magicians has arisen, who try to prevent the transformation of unborn into Shades. Strict regimens of fasting or prayer, exotic candles and incense, foul smelling potions, and magical talismans all figure into their methods, which they claim can keep the shadow of Death at bay. Surprisingly, these so-called "Shadow Chasers" number many Shades in their ranks and claim to bring a personal insight to the problem. Whether the Shadow Chasers' methods are truly effective remains uncertain. Some consider them to be well-meaning philanthropists, others see all Shadow Chasers as greedy charlatans.
While Humanity has been quick to weave a tangled web of superstitions around Shades (it is considered bad luck to drink from the same cup as a Shade, be unexpectedly touched by a Shade, cross a Shade's path, etc.), Shades themselves are, for the most part, a pragmatic people. They have no fear of Death: indeed, some Shades claim a unique understanding of it. Shades who work as Assassins or Rogues are quick to use the widespread dread of Shades to their advantage, cowing and intimidating their victims. When not "working," however, Shades do not embellish their macabre appearance the way an Irekei might.
The oldest Shades, born immediately after the Turning, are also the most eccentric. They bore the full brunt of persecution and inquisition, and as a result many have come to hate Human civilization. These grim specters lurk in the shadows of Human cities, spreading whatever madness and terror they can to avenge the cruelties and tortures of the past. Some of the Aberrant Shades, whom whispered rumors call Shadow Lords, are said to be able to speak with spirits long dead and manipulate the very stuff of darkness. The Shadow Lords, it is rumored, often go mad, haunted by visions and nightmares of times long gone, memories that are not their own.
The following is the transcript of the lecture given by the Honorable Magus Brendar Kolanthis to the assembled fellows of the High Collegium of the Arcane Conclave, during the Collegium's 4,796th official assembly, held in the ninety-fourth year of the Age of Strife.
Esteemed Magi, Archmagi, and assembled Seekers of Wisdom, I am honored to once again have the privilege of presenting my findings to such an august assembly. As all of you know, the event popularly called the Turning has left an indelible mark on nearly every aspect of life in the fragments that remain of sundered Aerynth. One of the most striking developments has been the appearance of entirely new races, strange beings heretofore unknown to Arcane Scholars or the Wise. As most of you no doubt recall, I have most of my life after the Turning to the study of one of the races, the mysterious Shades, also called the Darkborn or the Soulless Ones. When Shades first came to the attention of the High Collegium in the early years of the Age of Strife, I devoted all of my efforts to an intensive study of the physical nature of these new beings. After much exhaustive research, I presented my initial findings to this august body more than five decades ago, at the 4,743rd official assembly. I am not here to speak regarding the "who's," "what's," or "how's" of Shades ï¿½ for that information I would refer you to the eight volume compendium of my previous research, now more than fifty years old and which remains, I add with all modesty, the definitive work on the subject.
(muffled laughter from the assembly)
No my esteemed colleagues, today I shall concern myself with the "why's" of Shade existence. Why are some Humans born Shades in this new Age? Why have they only been born since the Turning? Answering this question can help determine what, in the final analysis, Shades truly are. Despite the typical Shade's lack of proficiency in the Arcane arts, the High Collegium, in its wisdom, has seen fit to allow their admission into the Conclave, and one worthy Wizard has even attained a seat here, in the Collegium. I would like to begin my discussion by recognizing High Magus Knellerict the Pale, whose assistance, guidance, and unique insight into Shade existence proved invaluable in the second phase of my Shade research. Thanks to innovations brought about by the diligent work of Wizards like Angillor the Blue and Vesper the Erudite, I have been able to travel to more than a dozen separate fragments of Aerynth, trying to unravel the riddle of the origin of Shades and the enigma of their ultimate destiny. After extensive interviews with scores of Shade informants and thousands of others who claimed some knowledge of the issue, I am finally ready, after fifty years of research, to present my findings to this august body. Why are some Humans born as Shades? I have found a wealth of possible explanations for the origins of Shades, but I fear that none of them, not one, has emerged as a conclusive answer to the question.
(agitated murmuring from the assembly, with some shouting from irate members)
My esteemed colleagues! If I may be allowed to continueï¿½ I must remind everyone present that Shades have existed on Aerynth for less than a century, at least that we can verify. As Rummandorn the Elder once wrote, "the true nature or destiny of anything can best be divined by observing its place within the natural World and the Universe, and its interactions with all of the other elements of the cosmos." Shades have yet to claim a place in the natural or supernatural order, and have yet to make a significant contribution to the flow of history as we know it. Until they do, this question may remain unanswered and indeed unanswerable. Early in my research I found that the more conventional means of inquiry were completely ineffective. All of the Spirits, Intelligences, and Demons that I have been able to call and interrogate on the subject have given conflicting answers, if they could give any answer at all. Associates of mine in the Holy Church have assured me that a similar indecision also plagues the Archons themselves.
While we still lack a certain answer to the question of why Shades exist, we are, of course, free to speculate and theorize. My research uncovered hundreds of stories concerning the origin and nature of Shades, though most of these are obviously little more than rabid superstition and local folklore. After lengthy consideration, I have compiled a list of ten theories. I shall describe each in turn, and then demonstrate what evidence I have been able to uncover that supports or refutes each theory. The potential explanations tend to fall into three broad groups: those that propose a magical origin for Shades, those that declare Shades to be the product of divine or religious influences, and theories that claim Shades are the result of the Turning itself, a "natural" effect of life in the Age of Strife. I personally favor these last explanations, but all bear closer examination.
Magic, often in the form of curses or baneful spells, is one of the most common explanations for the origin and existence of Shades. The Archmage Fellistor of Mellisar has advanced an opposing viewpoint. According to his researches (which included countless rituals worked upon willing or unwilling Shades as test subjects), the blood of every Shade bears a faint magical aura, almost as if the Shade had been subjected to some kind of transmutation spell. I have tired many times, but I cannot duplicate the learned Fellistor's findings. If, however, we presume this theory to be true, it raises an interesting question: who is casting these transmutation spells?
Just who is responsible for the birth of Shades varies depending upon who you ask. Witches, some rural folk believe, are capable of casting ritual curses upon a Human man or woman that predispose them toward siring a Shade. An interesting notion, but why then do Shades not appear among any other of the World's races? Why is the birth of Shades so seemingly random, regardless of whether or not a given parent has ever offended a Witch, or even lives within an easy journey of any reputed Witch? As has often been discussed in this hall, the very existence of Witches has been notoriously difficult to verify (unless one is a Templar or Confessor). I was unable to find any firm proof linking Shades to Witches, but I was also unable to dismiss the theory entirely. It remains an unlikely possibility.
If not Witches, who then? There are some, mainly folk who dwell near shadowed or blighted lands, that claim the Vampyres and Lich Lords, masters of the Unholy Legion, have embarked upon a vigorous program of spells to prompt the transformation of unborn infants into Shades. Shades, according to this line of reckoning, are the advance troops of some unholy invasion. So little is known of these dire entities that this idea cannot be discounted: indeed, the undead-like nature of Shades is the greatest piece of evidence in its favor. On the other hand, I have been able to determine that Shade births are no more common near shadowed lands than they are anywhere else. Indeed, the same number of Shades are born on fragments that have never known the depredations of a Vampyre of Lich Lord. If this is some form of dark necromancy, it can function across the void between the fragments, and does not appear to follow any of the known laws of Magic. More study needs to be done in this area, but alas, I was unable to interview a Vampire or Lich on the subject.
(laughter from the assembly)
The final group often mentioned as being responsible for a magical origin of Shades is a very logical choice, though doubtless one that will offend many members of this audience. On many fragments I have heard both learned and ignorant alike claim that the Stillborn are the result of a final, retributive curse levied upon Humanity by the Elves.
(a furor erupts in the hall. The speaker attempts for several moments to regain order, and finally the repeated banging of the High Chancellor's staff quiets the crowd)
Offensive as the notion may be to some of the highborn members of this assembly, the notion is quite common, and does have some historical precedent. For example, consider the War of Frost, fought between the Dar Khelegur and the Giants of the North early in the Age of Days. The Elves won their final victory but invoking a terrible curse upon Giantkind, a curse which destroyed their ability to produce normal, healthy offspring. Most of the varieties of Giant we know today are only those mis-born mutations that managed to survive despite grave abnormalities and managed to breed true amongst themselves. The sterility that plagues Shades (coupled with the steady rise in the number of Shade births) was, according to this theory, intended to bring about the eventual extinction of Humankind. If the last Magi of the Hidden Court did indeed work some Shade-inducing spell just before the fall of Kierhaven, but alas, the Turning blunted the weapon ï¿½ in a world where no Human can truly die, sterilized offspring become a moot point. The greatest argument against this theory is the utter lack of any evidence. Such a curse would have required the life's work of many master Wizards, working together. Not the slightest hint of any such collaboration has surfaced. Indeed, Magi who experienced the Turning felt no great outwelling of magical power beforehand. Finally, every Elvish magus I have ever asks vehemently denies the idea, and knows no other Elvish Magus who ever worked on such a spell either.
Many more theories and legends claim that Shades are the result of some kind of metaphysical influence, either demonic or divine. Many village elders believe that powerful Demons, succubi and incubi, roam the fragments of the World in the guise of either beautiful people of specific spouses, tempting or seducing men or women. The children born of their union have no souls (for indeed, one of their parents did not), a condition that seems readily applicable to Shades. By this reasoning, Shades are not truly half Undead, but bizarre changelings born of Demons. It must be noted, however, that a very small number of Demons have remained on Aerynth since the end of the War of the Scourge. If Shades are demon born, why did the Demons wait until the Turning to begin siring their pale children? The idea seems profoundly unlikely, but I must admit that I was unable to directly question a succubus on the matter.
There are many who believe that Shades are somehow linked to Ardan, first king of the Titans, who died but was saved from the Shadow Outside by the hand of the All-Father. Some scholars believe that Ardan, who served as the shepherd of the dead from the time of his resurrection until the Turning, is trying to create a new race in his image, as so many of the Gods have done. An interesting notion, and one that might shed some light on the story of the infamous Shade Katullus. A fallen Healer, Katullus was the first and only Shade ever to become a Prelate of the Church of the All-Father. Sponsored by a powerful Bishop from Kurrvo, Katallus' admission in the ranks of the Holy Church was an attempt to bring the newfound race of Shades into the fold of the All-Father's Children. Alas, the attempt failed. Katullus was posted in the Holy City of Dalgoth, where he worked as a scribe and copyist of holy tomes. The young Prelate crept into the Patriarch's most sacred libraries by night, and read many ancient tomes denounced or prescribed by the Holy Church. None can say what Katullus found within the ancient books, many of which predated the foundation of even the Elvish branch of the Holy Church, but the knowledge seems to have driven him mad. The Shade Prelate became wild and erratic, and wandered the streets of the Holy City spouting heresies and blasphemies. He was promptly excommunicated from the Holy Church, and the Patriarch himself issued a ban on Shades serving in the clergy.
In the long years since, Katullus has wandered throughout the fragments of Aerynth and into the wastelands, preaching his insane gospel to any who would listen. A mysterious cult, the Brotherhood of the Shroud, has grown up around Katullus' teachings. The Brotherhood are fanatical followers of Ardan, and believe that Katullus is the chosen of the Grey Lord. It is whispered that Katullus still bears ancient scrolls from the realm of Ardan, stolen from the Patriarch's libraries, which reveal great secrets about the War of Shadows, when the Men of Ardan first fought the Unholy Legion. The cult exhorts the World to prepare itself for the great change that is approaching ï¿½ the Turning, they say, is but Dusk, and soon Night will fall. Death will return to the shattered World with a vengeance, and all who live will be consumed by the shadow to come. Rumors link the Brotherhood with Human sacrifice, cannibalism, and a host of other depraved crimes. I was able, after an extensive search, to locate several members of the Brotherhood of the Shroud, but they were too busy trying to kill me to explain the mysteries of their faith.
Katullus' more orthodox brethren within the Holy Church remain undecided about the origins and nature of Shades. The Patriarch has yet to issue a formal proclamation, and until he does debate will doubtless continue. Of all the theories I have heard voiced by various Bishops, Cardinals, and Prelates, the only one which we have not yet heard are the teachings of the Beata Lucretia of Evenford. She theorizes that the birth of Shades is direct, conclusive proof that the All-Father is dead, and not merely departed as so many of the Holy Clergy believe. The All-Father has traditionally been regarded as the source of all Human souls. Now souls cannot escape from their bodies even in death, and yet the populations of the fragments continue to rise. The Beata believes that the universe's surplus of "soul stuff" is running out, and that Shades are children born without souls. There are some obvious flaws in her reasoning: if there are no more new souls, why then is not every Human child born a Shade? Lucretia's ideas have made her something of a pariah within the Holy Church, but she continues to advance them through sermon, writ, and debate.
A very different theory, advocated by High Inquisitor Hegrannimous Dalt of the Temple of the Cleansing Flame, states that Shades are a perversion of the All-Father's will, creatures of sin and evil that exist outside His grace. Temple theologians have surmised that Shades are ordinary Humans who have had their Flesh and Spirit transformed by the influence of past sins. Under certain conditions (which seem to defy easy description), the sins of a family line going back up to seven generations can poison an unborn child, corrupting their flesh and leaving them more Undead than Man. Shades, therefore, exist as a visible emblem of their family's sin and shame, and more than one Noble House has had its reputation destroyed when one of its scions gave birth to a Shade. Saint Malorn himself has penned several Holy Writs that touch upon the Shades. According to Malorn, the unborn child who falls into the shadow of sin remains nonetheless innocent, cruelly chained to the evils of his ancestors. Shades, therefore, offer the Temple a wondrous opportunity: Templars and Confessors can, through the rites of Ordeal and Correction, cleanse the sins of Men long dead by purging Shades of the evil that has infused them. Shades are, therefore, singled out for special attentions from the Temple's Confessors, who hope to "cure" the Shades of their affliction and return them to the ranks of Humanity. Although many Shades have been taken into the Temple's dungeons, no successful cures have ever been reported. While this theory seems to me to be entirely spurious, I must add that of all of the religious groups I have questioned, the Temple is the only one that professes absolute certainty about the origins and nature of Shades. The Archons they invoke seem not the least bit confused.
Again, I must point out that I am not an expert on theology, and am therefore not qualified to judge the validity of any of these religious viewpoints. Perhaps some of my esteemed colleagues will be able to shed further light upon them. Now we move to the final group of theories, which seem to me to be the most likely. Many Scholars and Magi, our own High Magus Knellerict the Pale among them, believe that Shades are somehow a "natural" consequence of the changes brought about by the Turning. The exact cause remains undiscovered simply because all of the effects of the Turning have not yet been determined, and are still not understood.
The best-known of the so-called "natural" theories was first advanced by Cassandra the Anatomist, a Magus who resides in the Free Cities of Tariponto. She was able to determine, through extensive research, that the death and rebirth of an unborn child's father was much more likely to result in the birth of a Shade, and if the mother died while bearing an unborn child, the reborn child would almost certainly be transformed into a Shade. The precise details of the process are still unknown, and indeed Cassandra's findings have led many to suspect that death may not be the ultimate cause of Shade-birth, but that Shade-birth itself may be a symptom of some other process that remains invisible and unknowable to us. In an area where so much is uncertain, Cassandra's study remains the greatest pillar of understanding we have regarding these strange beings, and served as the inspiration for all of my work.
In conclusion, all we can say with any certainty is that Shades do exist, and that their numbers are steadily growing. While there are those who still dismiss the notion that Shades are a separate race unto themselves, we must remember that the powers and peoples of the World have reacted to them as if they were. In the first days following the Turning, before the advent of the Trees of Life, frightened commoners tended to torture, burn, or exile any Shades they encountered without hesitation. Magi of all races inflicted countless hardships and tortures upon them (vivisection being among the tamest) in a ruthless quest to divine their true natures. The Shades invariably survived these torments, but were left understandably wary of their fellow Men. Shades have tended to live as outcasts, or to favor the company of their own kind. So-called "pale quarters" have arisen in many of the larger Cities and Safeholds, Shade ghettos where other folk fear to tread, especially by night.
Shades have walked the fragments of the Sundered World for less than a century, and can hardly be said to have a history of their own: indeed, few Shades have been able, as of yet, to leave much of a mark on the history of any land or folk. This may be changing. I would direct you to Katullus and his followers, or to Sharledney of Ramarra, also called the Faceless One, believed by many to be the finest Assassin in the World. Some claim the Faceless One has adopted a political agenda, and that the future of the Petty Kingdoms may rest on her knife as much as it does on the swords of the Warlords. One of these War Lords, Hedrick Gesterl, is a Shade himself, and has finally managed to defeat his twin brother (a normal Human, I might add) and name himself the head of House Gesterl, the "Pale Prince" of Krallenmoor, What role does inheritance and pedigree play in the Age of Strife, and what need will Hedrick ever have of an heir? As you can see, Shades are poised to enter the Game of Crowns, and they seem determined to play it on their terms. Within another century, I am certain that the Shades will have carved a place for themselves in the World and laid the foundations for a Lore of their own. Perhaps by then the daunting question of their origin will have been solved.
This concludes my lecture. Any who wish are free to delve into the notes and accounts of my research, which will be bound into several volumes over the course of the next year. I humbly thank the esteemed members of the Collegium for their attention.
(applause from the assembly)