Origins of Ronan and Sheru
Sins in Shadow: Of Sheru and Ronan
The following is taken from the Books of Midnight, found in the private collection of Indethrion XI Faendryl, commonly called Indethrion the Mad. Commonly held to be apocryphal, most research into the Books has been confined to damaged copies available in the Library Aies of Ta’Illistim, on generous loan from House Nalfein.
The source tomes for this document appear to predate those copies, and are, by all appearances, whole.
The Shadow With Wings
Sheru and Ronan are two faces of a coin.
At first, it seems no pair of gods could be more different. One, the Lord of Madness, dwells in Lornon’s unknowable chasms, feeding on the terror of the lesser races. The other is a weary paladin, consigned to shadow, guarding mortals where they are most vulnerable: in dreams. The truth is that Ronan and Sheru are more closely kin than any other living Arkati, and they were once alike and aligned before their squabbles became an enmity spanning ages.
As with all Arkati, their tale begins with a drake.
In the dark swathes of time before written history, there lived a drake that was as old as any of its kind. He had no true name. He had come before the very idea of names, and had never desired to claim one for himself. Lightless black and immeasurable in size after aeons of existing and feeding and growing, he had little concern for the dealings of lesser drakes and wyrms. They rarely saw him, save as he flew through the sky, a black streak against the unending blue.
It was for these reasons that they called him the Shadow With Wings.
Perhaps the best hallmark of the beast’s age was the silvering about his ancient scales. Though the days of those draconian gods were many, they did age, in time. They were also fierce and predatory, often clashing with and killing their own kind. Few drakes ever lived to see the day when the color began to leach from their impenetrable hides, but the Shadow had, and so he glinted like a sea of silver and onyx in the light of the sun.
The secret to his great age was his solitude. Other drakes his age had been wiped out by internecine conflict, but the Shadow had no interest in bloodshed, no hunger for the domains or demesnes of his kindred. It was not that he was not a covetous creature, for all drakes were driven by bestial desires to control and to own. He had simply found something that no other drake had: a realm of his own. When he was young, when the world was newborn, he had burrowed through its feeble walls and gone to another place. That place was the Endless Dream.
To call the Dream another world would be but part of the truth. Within its boundaries was a place where thought and form were one, a paradise of the mind where anything that one could imagine could also be. So the Shadow spent his days hunting and his nights hoarding the secrets of the Dream from his own kind.
Then came Kel’toren.
Small and crimson, a stunted wyrm with eyes of glowing amber, he had spent most of his life hiding in the shadows of greater beings. One day, he came upon the Shadow, lazing in the cold flow of a waterfall. Kel’toren was fearful, but his previous patron had fallen while battling the vicious tyrant Beh’Amant. It would not be long before a larger drake slew him, either for joy or for food. His choice was simple: perish for certain, or risk the displeasure of the Shadow, who was known to kill only rarely and not for sport.
“Great One,” he said, his voice a gentle keening.
One great eye cracked open, its slit a silver crescent like the half-spent moon. It regarded him for a long moment, and then the reply came:
Kel’toren was not a stupid beast. He was possessed of a sort of low cunning, and that was enough to warn him not to test the Shadow’s mood. So he fled, and flew to a place not far away, but he did not give up. The fear of death is, after all, a powerful motivator.
So when the Shadow was sunning in a meadow full of fat sheep and sweet-smelling grasses, some days later, Kel’toren approached again. He trod toward the greater drake on carmine talons, terrified but unswayed, and hunkered down near him. This time, he did not speak, but waited for the Shadow to wake on his own.
The Shadow woke many hours later. He let out a chagrined growl at the sight of persistent creature, but he did not attack. Kel’toren was no threat to him; he was barely a threat to the sheep.
“What do you want?” asked the Shadow.
Kel’toren’s answer was simple. “Only to live.”
There was no formal understanding between the two creatures, but after that, where the Shadow went on Elanthia, Kel’toren followed after. A younger, more fiery drake might have killed the intruder, but the ancient saw little purpose in bestirring himself. He went where he would go, and if Kel’toren was as present around him as the air itself, it was no nuisance to him.
The red drake could not follow his ambivalent benefactor everywhere. Sometimes he woke to find the Shadow gone with not a scent on the breeze to mark his passing. Always, the silvered black drake returned before a less gentle superior found Kel’toren and did away with him for good. Even so, he was a creature of fear, and lived in terror that one day, he would find himself truly alone.
Now, as was said, the Shadow rarely came into conflict with others of his kind. That did not mean that he did not have foes. The very size and power that he had acquired from such a long life made him a target for others wishing to prove their might and dominance. Slaying him in battle would be an incredible feat, one that would make all other drakes think twice before challenging the victor of such a fight.
The Shadow and Kel’toren were wintering on Aenatumgana when one such competitor struck. Taahmad, a devilish golden creature, had been plotting the Shadow’s downfall for some time. She had enlisted the aid of four other drakes, her consorts, to cover any routes of escape, and to witness the slaughter so they could spread the tale.
She was as swift as streaking sunlight on the winds. The Shadow had no warning when she struck. One moment, he was bathing his sweltering bulk in a fresh snowfall, and in the next, there were scythe-like teeth tearing at his neck. Had it not been for Kel’toren, he would have been lost.
The smaller drake did not strike out of any bravery. He was driven by confusion, terror, and self-preservation, perhaps, but there was no heroism driving him to launch himself at yellow Tahmaad and begin savaging her exposed belly. Fending him off was effortless to her.
Nonetheless, it allowed the Shadow an opening.
He tore free of her assault and slashed back with a swipe that would have disemboweled a lesser drake. Against Taahmad, it was but a glancing attack. With a trumpet of rage, he snatched the stunned Kel’toren up in his talons and fled.
Taahmad’s mates were at every turn. To the west, he found silver Jormungant. From the east came cerulean Nythok, the Sky-Breaker. South and north waited Lefatin and Hethra, both copper drakes terrible and potent in their own right. The sole refuge that the Shadow could find was a cave near the very roof of the world.
By the time he dragged Kel’toren there, the younger drake had recovered from his confusion and surrendered to panic entirely. Fear seeped from him like blood from a wound, staining the walls of the cavern with its corrupting strength. He keened and cried as the assailants circled in on the cavern.
“We will not die in this place,” said the Shadow. The certainty in his voice was enough to pull the younger drake back from the brink, but not to allay his tumult of emotion.
“Surely we shall! You cannot defeat all five of them, great drake or no,” he said.
“I have no intention of fighting them. I will flee, as I have always fled.”
Kel’toren laughed at that, emboldened by the frantic pounding of his heart. “Your senses may have taken leave of you, Great One,” said he. “We are trapped here. There are no ways out but one, and that one leads to death.”
The Shadow regarded him. For a moment, he considered fleeing on his own and leaving the nettlesome little beast to a gruesome fate. They had flown together for some years, and so he felt a glimmer akin to compassion in his heart.
“I know of a place where they cannot follow, where none but I can go,” he said. And he told Kel’toren, briefly, of the Dream, and how he could burrow through the walls of the world and go there when he wished. There was time for little else, but he ended with a warning. “There, thought and form are as one. You must master yourself if you are to follow me.”
“Anything!” Kel’toren said. “Do not leave me here to face them!”
The Shadow could see that Kel’toren was beyond self-control, but his pity overtook him. He wrapped the smaller drake in his silver and black wings and, as he had done so many times before, burrowed through the walls of the world. In the past, the commutation had been a careful one, but this time was hurried, and the passage left a scar, a thinness in the space for ever more.
The Shadow and Kel’toren were safe from Tahmaad. They spilled together out onto a black vista of unfathomable beauty. It was a place that the elder drake had made in his long years of mastery over the Dream. Blossoms of impossible color shimmered beneath a sun that drank light rather than birthed it. Creatures flew on wings of jewel. Silver waterfalls poured up cliffsides of radiant black stone.
This beauty lasted for but a moment. The Shadow had no time to find relief in his long-time sanctuary, for he had brought into it a flaw, a cancer, and that cancer was Kel’toren.
In the space between heartbeats, the smaller drake’s fear poisoned the place. The inconceivable blossoms crumbled into grey rot. The water-that-was-not-water dried. The sun became a hungry hole in the skies, threatening to consume all.
“We must go,” said the Shadow, recognizing the source of the corruption.
He turned, thinking to shuffle the smaller drake back to the Elanthian plane and to safety. What he found was not Kel’toren at all, not the small crimson reptile that had sheltered by him. He saw an abomination.
Kel’toren’s fear, the overwhelming emotion that had driven the lesser drake for all his life, had found fertile ground in the place where form and thought were one. He was monstrous, a creature of many eyes and snapping maws.
“No,” they said, as one.
“You have not the control to exist here, in this place.”
Kel’toren was not swayed. “All my life, I have been afraid. I have dwelled in constant terror, and that made me weak. But here, look what I have done in moments! I can destroy as easily as you create, and my fear gives me that power.”
The Shadow pleaded. “Come with me. I can show you the mastery of this place.”
“You?” Kel’toren laughed. “How long did it take you to craft these things? How long have you owned this place, coming here while I slept? You are no true master of this domain. You are little more than a gardener!”
There was no rescuing him from himself. That, the Shadow knew the instant the creature that had been Kel’toren spoke those words from its many maws. Even as he watched, the Shadow saw wonders that had taken him centuries to craft blistering and breaking. More, he saw how the power was sweeping away everything that Kel’toren had been. He acted quickly, in something that might be called mercy.
His neck snaked out and his maw closed around Kel’toren’s neck. One snap ended his compatriot’s madness. Had the Shadow been mortal, perhaps he would have mourned, but drakes are not so easily swayed to loyalty or remorse.
Instead, he pulled his former accomplice from the Dream, not far from the waterfall where first they had met. There, the last of the lesser drake’s life spilled from his form.
Yet in Kel’toren’s ending, there was also a beginning. As the Shadow surveyed the desolation an unprepared mind had brought to his realm, he saw movement in the curve of the other drake’s corpse. Two of them there were, perfect and new, creatures dark as his own scales but small and frail, smaller and frailer than Kel’toren had been. These were Arkati, each born part from fear and part from mercy, and they were Ronan and Sheru.
The Shadow had created Arkati before, but these were different.
The making of an Arkati was never an intentional thing. His last had arisen from a passing fancy while he lay on a hillside. He had been content, bathed in warmth and sunlight, and the creature that had arisen from this was comely, golden and strong, but shared little of the Shadow’s goals or demeanor. These nascent beings were silent and thoughtful as their creator, and though they were well-formed, theirs was a dark beauty, like the dreamy vista of his crafting before it had come to ruin. They were as alike as apples from the same tree.
They were also strange. Arkati had always been born to adult forms, but with fresh minds. Ronan and Sheru had eyes that knew too much. Neither had the wonder of a new creature as they went through their first days on Elanthia sheltered by the Shadow’s wings. Instead, they seemed forlorn.
Never once did either of the pair smile. They were not sullen, but neither did they take delight in the loveliness of the world, nor even in serving their drake. This perplexed the Shadow, who knew well how most Arkati took pleasure in doting on their draconian patrons. The question weighed on him until he finally demanded they answer it one day.
“We are not of this place,” said Sheru, or Ronan, for they were as alike to another in those days as to be indistinguishable.
Then the other said, “We are of the Dream, and to the Dream we wish to return.”
Upon the Shadow’s mind, the answer weighed even heavier than the question. He had never considered taking the pair into the Dream. Since he had killed mad Kel’toren, he had voyaged there only rarely himself. The Shadow had grown quickly fond of the two, and feared they might have even less control than the red drake had on that plane, with similar results.
“You cannot go there. I forbid it,” he said, and left it at that.
So they continued, the trio: the silent drake, and two joyless Arkati, for some centuries. In that time, they walked in the dark places of the world, and Sheru and Ronan came to know much of the darkness. They also learned of the mortal races, who unlike Arkati had the power to sleep. They came to find that, in sleep, sometimes the dreams of mortals abutted on the Dream, and that made them envy those lesser creatures. But for the most part, they kept to themselves. Everything changed one day, when they encountered another drake, almost entirely by chance.
The great beast, named Vashelisk, came upon them while they were resting in a grove near Nagothrym. His hide, though heavily scarred, was grey and swirled like polished agates. He swooped low, letting out a cry of warning, but not of threat. He landed nearby, accompanied by a grey and fair Arkati.
“Hail, Old One,” said Vashelisk, his posture without threat. “You are the one called the Shadow with Wings.”
The Shadow laughed, the sound low in his throat. “If you know of me, then you know, too, that the affairs of other drakes are not my affairs. You would do well to leave.”
“What I have to say is the affair of every drake,” Vashelisk said. “A great danger is coming to us all.”
“Our kind knows many things, but visions of our own future have always been unclear,” said the Shadow.
“To us, perhaps, but not to him.” Vashelisk turned his great silver eyes upon the grey Arkati. “His name is Jastev.”
Jastev told them all how he had seen into the darkness of the future. He spoke of a darkness to come, from beyond the world, one that would eradicate drake and Arkati alike. A darkness that would knock the world from its wagon-wheel course, and send it spinning onto another track.
Without knowing why, the Shadow believed.
“What might we do?” he asked.
Vashelisk lowered his head. “There is little that can be done, but there is a chance for the survival of our race. I have put the preparations in order.”
He had been all over the world, telling the tale of the future to other drakes. Those who did not listen, he made listen. Among them, he had found a consensus. The drakes would prepare for war. And soon, in a year and a day, their favored Arkati would be gathered and sent to the moons for their own protection. This Jastev knew, for the future came upon him in torrents of incredible clarity.
While the two drakes held council, the Arkati waited in silence. Jastev was little disposed to speak, and Sheru and Ronan were often silent, so this suited them all well. But as their masters’ conversation drew to a close, Jastev turned his eyes upon the pair.
“I am sorry. I am so sorry,” he said.
“Why?” asked Ronan and Sheru, speaking as one.
“For what shall come to both of you.”
“What do you mean?” Sheru asked, suspicious.
Jastev said, “When the time comes for us to be sent to the moons, one of you will go to Liabo and the other to Lornon, and never again shall you meet as brothers.”
“That is absurd,” said Ronan. “We are cut of the same cloth.”
“I know what I know,” Jastev told them.
Sheru’s voice was cold as he said, “As do we.”
Despite their protestations, the pair succumbed to a new emotion. It quivered within them, growing and putting out cold tendrils. Jastev’s word had awakened in them both the specter of fear.
When Vashelisk and his strange Arkati had left, the Shadow slumped against a hillside, his gaze dim. He looked bent beneath the weight of every year. His Arkati went to comfort him.
“Shadow,” they said. “Will you go to war?”
“It is what the others will do, but I have always gone my own way.”
“Then we will go to the Dream, at last?” asked Sheru.
“No,” said the Shadow. “I shall, but I cannot trust the two of you there. I have been betrayed before. You will be called to the moons, and Jastev says you will survive. But until that time, you must fend for yourselves, and for that, I know true remorse.”
Remorseful he might be, but drakes were not sentimental. With nary a look back at his creations, he burrowed into the space between worlds, and was gone, never to return to Elanthia. Sheru and Ronan were alone.
They held each other in the darkness the fear grew in them: fear of what would happen to them now that they had been deserted; fear that they might never see the place of their birth, which called to them from every shadow. But both were resourceful, and they replaced fear with discussion as the night died and daylight came.
Sheru quavered. “What shall we do?”
“There has never been any other path for us,” Ronan said. “We must find our way to the Dream.”
“But the Shadow with Wings forbade it.”
“He has abandoned us,” said Ronan.
“Do you believe what Jastev said?” Sheru’s eyes shone in the light of the rising sun, almost appearing amber instead of grey.
“Whether I do or not, I will not chance it happening.”
With the threat of exile to the moons looming over them, they decided to go separately, and seek around the world for ways to return to their birthplace. With one last embrace, they parted, agreeing that they would do anything to reach their goal.
Ronan wandered across the world. He spent the remainder of spring in a fertile wood, where a nearby waterfall shone with rainbowed hues in the sunlight and gleamed like silver by night. In summer, he lived among other Arkati, and he came to know Lumnis and Koar and even Phoen, who told him of his brief span before abandoning the Shadow with Wings. Fall came, and he walked with Imaera and L’Naere in the greenest reaches of Elanthia, but found not a shred of the Dream there. In winter, he went in desperation to Fash’lo’nae himself, but the stooped and bookish Arkati could give him no assistance.
At last, he returned to the grove where he and Sheru had parted. It had changed in the course of the year. The greenery had thrived and died and regrown in new configurations, but that was the least of it. All around, there were mounds of disturbed earth. And there waited Sheru.
“I found nothing,” said Ronan. “Nothing in all my travels. We are trapped here, and we will go into exile.” He no longer had to take Jastev’s word for this, for in his travels among the other Arkati, it had become clear that the drakes were enacting Vashelisk’s plan.
“No,” said Sheru. “We will not.”
He turned to his brother. His eyes brimmed with tears and happiness. One hand stretched out, and the nearby air rippled; changed. Beyond it spread a vista the two had seen but once before, on the day of their birth.
“How?” Ronan asked.
“The mortal races,” Sheru said. “The answer was within them the whole time. Come with me.”
But Ronan halted. “What do you mean?”
“It does not matter! The Dream awaits us, my brother.”
“Sheru, tell me.”
Sheru frowned. “Ronan, let us not belabor it. The mortal races had within them the secret of entering the Dream. I extracted it from them.”
“What are all of these mounds?”
“I had to bury the bodies somewhere,” said Sheru.
Ronan, shaking, chased after him. The moment he stepped beyond the boundaries of Elanthia and into that strange space, the tumult of emotions he felt began to seep from him. His uncontrolled thoughts tore at his body, threatened to reshape it. He fought for control.
In the distance, Sheru was also wracked by the reality of emotions, but not his own. The stink of a thousand fearful gasps, expelled from the mortals he had slain, still clung to him. His monstrous deed, the murder of thousands to divine the path to the Dream, turned upon him. His grey eyes filled with a sick yellow sheen. Fur began to sprout from his perfect flesh. His teeth became fangs, until truly, he was the monster that his victims had seen.
“We must leave here,” said Ronan.
“Yes, you must,” boomed a voice neither thought they would hear again.
The Shadow materialized out of the darkness. He had known the moment his creations had entered the Dream, and he was not pleased. Silver-edged black wings spread wide and he reared up in fury. Without any effort, he cast the misshapen body of Sheru out into the waking world.
“Master, please,” said Ronan.
The Shadow turned on him. “You defied me, my creation.”
“I did, and I repent it. I saw what Sheru did to open the way here, and if that is the cost of coming to the Dream, I will never tread these paths again. So do I swear.”
“That is not enough,” said the Shadow.
Ronan faced his creator, and found that he was shockingly unafraid. His form had ceased to shift. He had resigned himself to his fate.
“Kill me, then, if you must.”
“I have a harsher charge for you, my Arkati,” the Shadow with Wings. “Sheru has divined the knowledge of coming to this place, and it cannot be taken from him or from you. Nor do I have any desire to slay a creature of my own making.”
“You would spend your days defending the Dream against his incursions?”
The Shadow shook his great head. “No. I would have a penance of you. And by the time you are done carrying it out, perhaps you will wish I had killed you instead.”
He told Ronan that he planned to hide so deep in the Dream that he would never again be found. But of Ronan, he had one demand: that the repentant Arkati defend the paths between the Dream and Elanthia, and never allow it to become perverted by fear or rage or horrible acts.
“So be it,” said Ronan.
“Take this, then.” The Shadow dropped one of his scales, his silver-edged scales that were as dark as ink. Using the powers of the Dream, he shaped it into an unbreakable blade, and nudged it toward Ronan.
The young Arkati said, “I do not deserve this gift.”
“It is not a gift, but a reminder. You and Sheru were created same. Only circumstance has set you on this path and not his.”
Then he sent Ronan from the Dream to face the coming exile of the Arkati. It came not days later. The Arkati were gathered together by the drakes, and a great spell was worked to send them to the moons. There, Ronan found Phoen, his distant kindred, and remained with him. It was not long before Sheru came to him.
“My brother,” he said.
Sheru had exerted control over his shape, as all Arkati could do. Now he appeared fair and young, a mirror to Ronan. All except for his eyes. They were yellow and burning like a beast’s.
“Where?” Ronan said. “Where do you see a brother?”
Ronan, too, had control over his form. He turned to Phoen and placed a hand on his shoulder. In the space between instants, the guardian of the dream’s face and form shifted. They became a dark reflection of Phoen’s own.
“This,” said Ronan. “This is my brother. I do not know you, monster.”
So Ronan went with Phoen and the other Arkati of Liabo, and Sheru was abandoned to the darkness of Lornon. And from that wedge, the path of the two diverged, until their kinship was barely a memory, and all that they had between them was enmity everlasting.