The Black and Shadow Magic

It has been said that the Black is what separates everything which exists from everything which doesn’t, a barrier between Existence and Nothingness. As a barrier between two things, it is neither of them, for as a barrier between everything and nothing, the Black cannot be comprised of anything that exists (since that lies on one side of the wall), and it also cannot be comprised of nothing (since that lies on the other).

Thus the competing claim that the Black is what lies between what is actual (does exist) and that which is imagined (does not exist) is mistaken, as the Black is made of that which could exist: that which could, might, and will exist. Simply put, the Black is possibility and probability, but not certainty. As such, one does not find mirror images of anything in the Black, only distortions of realities and possibilities.

Still, sorcerers and fortune-tellers peer into the Black to tell the shape of the future, or the shape of the past — looking into it by peering into a reflecting mirror in the dark, or scrying into obsidian bowls filled with still water — even though it takes a skilled diviner to make sense of their visions and why divination is not always accurate: for the Black does not show what will be, only what might be, and one is only staring at shadows cast by the now, at possibilities, not certainties.

But even this is not all. Yes, the Black may hold a shadow of the life you think you would lead with the girl you profess to love, the reasons your promotion in the templarate failed, but it also holds the terrible thing that was chasing you in your dreams last night. Dreams and nightmares, ideas and concepts, all are adrift in the black, a web of tangled shadows cast from the unconscious minds and physical landscape of Athas.

The Black “closest” to Athas is a “shadow realm” — a nightmare of Athas — all the thoughts and terrors psychically shaped by generations to reflect their world, their perception of it: a mirror of the minds of the people, a dark silhouette of the world. In fact, the Black contains a possibly endless number of “shadows” of Athas, twisted reflections of people, places and events.

Let us take the ziggurat of the Tyrant of Tyr as an example: while it remained unfinished, it cast dozens of shadows into the Black. One might have been set with gargoyles upon the corners, another one without any adornments, one might have been incomplete and crumbling after centuries of neglect, another might have red bricks on the second tier, another might have blue, one topped with a small, covered ritual chamber, another without. These were all possibilities. Even Kalak himself cast shadows into the Black — shadows of success and failure.

But the Black cannot hold real things. You cannot find the true ziggurat Kalak was building in the Black because that thing exists. You might find a nightmare reflection of it, a horrid place of death, terror and pain, created by the psyche and spirit of the slaves who died or were injured in its construction. Nor can you find Kalak’s actual death. You cannot find the true past that happened, or the true future, only possibility.

Like shadows, things in the Black are not true reflections of a real thing: warped and distorted silhouettes created by the light cast on the object. Like shadows, where a ball can become a tall pillar, a tall man can be short, or his arms and face can elongate grotesquely, the shadow changes depending on the light(s) cast upon it.

And the Black becomes weirder, more alien, more nightmarish the deeper into it you go. Deeper in the Black are more distorted places that barely resemble Athas. The strange, bizarre, improbable, and impossible all exist in the Black. There is little logic to it, for logic is a property of certainties. If it can be conceived, or was, it exists there. If not, it exists beyond the Black, on the other side of the wall — if it has never been thought of, it exists in the unreachable place that contains all that does not exist, which is beyond all that might exist. Unreachable because once something is conceived of, it exists, even if simply as an idea. It becomes a possibility, and is thus contained within the Black. One cannot conceive of something that does not exist…the minute it is conceived of, it exists, even if just as a shadow of truth.

These are the forces powerful illusionists and wizards, even psionicists, can tap into. With them, they grant reality, solidity, and life to conjured images by infusing them with shadow, or to walk from one end of the land to the other by stepping into shadows and passing through some twisted image in the Black where the distance is not so far, summon shadowy nightmares that torment their victims, and weave pocket-dimensions from the invisible aether. For the Black is the source of shadow-magic on Athas, a type of spell-craft that summons forth shadows from within the Black as imagined by the caster, that draw forth and shape the shadow-stuff itself as desired, that reacts to sentience, thought, emotion, and desire. It is empty, and can be filled. We are the light, and it is the shadow cast by the world.

Deeper still are empty, black, unshaped places filled with nothing but thick, suffocating shadow, where you could make anything you imagine, though it might kill you, where whatever you imagine is made “real” — no place for those without perfect mental control and inner peace, for it would be filled with nightmares and dangers created by the subconscious of the mind, moment to moment, terror building upon itself.

One wonders, then, is the Black a dark reflection of all sentient minds? A pyschic imprint underlying the fabric of reality? Is it a metaphysical “shadow” of the physical world? Or is it more, given the mystical powers that can be derived from it? Is the Black perhaps the empty void from which Athas was birthed, from which all that exists emerged? Do not many occult disciples and elemental cults talk about how out of formless chaos or empty nothingness, order and form arose, or how the sentience or words of a great being shaped into being all out of the nothingness of before, like the words of a wizard shaping or bringing forth shadows to reality?

Was the creation of all things shadow magic on the scale practiced by the lost gods?

For can not all things be found in the Black? Are we a shadow brought forth from darkness, and what, then, were we the shadow of? Could the moment of the world’s creation be preserved somehow? Might then the Black also hold a creation that never happened…the Nothingness beyond the other wall of the Black? Or an entirely different creation altogether of which we are blithely unaware? These are mysteries and questions that plague us and yet cannot be answered. For how would we tell truth from a fancied conception or nightmare?

Which showcases that just because something has been conceived doesn’t mean it will be easy to find within the Black. For the Black is not a grab-bag you can just reach into and pull forth whatever you desire — it is more difficult and more dangerous than that. Indeed; consider that it took Andropinis three centuries to locate a gateway back to Athas, and further required the maenad’s participation for him to return.

For those who are unfamiliar with the story, Andropinis was banished to the depths of the Black by powerful sorceries, but eventually escaped through a mystical gate when he came across an empty plane of dust and crystal in the Black, inhabited by the humanoid maenads, whose home was originally a lush archipelago on a world of endless water and fertile isles. But, and this is where the novice struggles, there is no actual gate between Athas and the Black. Nothing real exists in the Black, because it is a place between reality and nothing, a realm of concept only.

However, since Andropinis was in the Black, and could conceive of such a thing existing, he could find it there in the Black and use it — the shadow of his own idea. But one must ask themselves, how did he use a gate to Athas to get to Athas, being that such a gate doesn’t really exist? Was the maenads’ focused desire to escape their prison what allowed Andropinis to make his way back to Athas? And, even more confusing, were the maenads real things put into the Black long ago, or were they illusions Andropinis brought with him out of the Black, now made real? Perhaps, given the description of their lost home, they were survivors from the Blue Age of Athas, criminals banished to this terrible place for unspeakable crimes in forgotten days, or perhaps merely twisted shadows of a forgotten and long-dead past…

Such are the mysteries of the Black.

There is another mystery, too: the place beyond the Black…Nothingness. The Hollow.

We cannot truly conceive of nothing. Even the idea of nothing is an idea. Yet, the Hollow is said to be nothingness. So what created the Hollow? And how is it sustained?

It is said the Hollow is the prison of Nothingness created by the Champions to imprison the First Sorcerer, Rajaat, who nearly destroyed the world in forgotten times of myth. Obviously the Champions based their decision to make the Hollow, to make Rajaat’s prison out of the Black, on something they knew about the Black.

We know that to make something in the Black, you have to be able to imagine it, yet you can’t imagine “nothing”…even the concept of nothing is something. This was their puzzle. Trying to conceive nothingness — removing all self-awareness and sensation — would have been a maddening task. Thinking beings know sensation precedes self-awareness; to achieve nothingness, one must remove both. Yet if you remove self-awareness, sensation remains. But if you aren’t self-aware, how can you remove sensation? Conversely, if you remove sensation, all you have is the awareness of self. If you erase awareness of self and sensation, you simply cease to exist, in which case, how do you imagine anything to will it to exist? We suppose it must have driven the individual attempting to achieve such a state insane, or worse.

Who was the Champion who conjured Nothingness? And what happened to him? For one of the Champions must have put his formidable will-power and psionic and arcane mastery towards “not conceiving nothingness” in order to use the Black to completely annihilate Rajaat. I suspect even the Champions were not so great that they could make what exists become what doesn’t, and so the plan backfired, forming the Hollow containing Rajaat.

For why would the Champions seek to imprison the First Sorcerer in Nothingness, and not just destroy him? Perhaps the Champions sought not to contain Rajaat, as it happened, so much as to destroy him? To move him from “existence” to “non-existence”…to put him across the wall by creating such an idea in the Black and then bringing it forth with sorcery? And the prison that resulted is unstable because nothing can’t exist and can’t be conceived — it is a paradox — requiring a great deal of magical life-energy to sustain, which is why the Dragon levies the cities every year, in what is swiftly becoming an act of world-wide genocide.

I suspect Daskinor: one of the most powerful wizards and psionicists on all of Athas, paranoid, insular, locked himself away, devoted all his efforts towards achieving dragonhood. Why? What is a Sorcerer-king so terrified of, to the point of utter madness, as it is whispered by others? I suspect the quest to conceive of nothingness, to banish Rajaat from existing, led Daskinor to thinking about the world in new, strange ways — bizarre and abnormal, illogical ways. And that he was frightened by what he experienced — so frightened he was driven mad.

It is recorded he often rants: “Nothing is coming. Nothing is coming to get me. NOTHING!” His first templars took such pronouncements in his fevered insanity as a command to protect the palace and the city, to secure it so that nothing and no one could ever reach their king, to seal it off from outsiders. Daskinor remains barricaded in his palace, only coming out during brief spells of clarity; otherwise, the templarate runs everything for him, and the only reason they don’t change the isolationist policies is because it has become tradition at this point: “The God-king said…” Combined with generations of inbreeding, and the insanity and mental problems it has produced among them. But the “nothing” he fears may not be a pronouncement to protect him, but a knowledge of what he experienced when the Champions created the Hollow and forced Rajaat inside.

The Black contains reflections of all the Dragon Kings, too. Shadows of themselves that completely differ from the original. If these shadow-selves have all been shoved into Daskinor’s mind, it explains his madness — his contradictory behavior — as Daskinor’s personality, thoughts, memories and so forth all shift between these personalities. If there are lengthy pauses between his proclamations, it merely means none of the shadows (nor Daskinor himself) has the strength to break the psychic “surface-tension” generated by the constant battle for control of the body, and only occasionally one gains the upper hand.

It is said his voice changes, and he becomes “other people” at times, that the king is wholly insane, and one never knows whom one is dealing with. So I wonder if perhaps Daskinor reached into a mirror and pulled his shadow-selves out of various twisted shadows of Athas, enough of his shadows that he would be able to fight Borys. The effort was too much, or some of them were stronger than he expected, or he pulled something out he wasn’t expecting at all…and the mirror shattered, he couldn’t put them back in and the shadows all ended up trapped in his head (or worse, roaming the Trembling Plains).

More frightening, perhaps, is that maybe he just found ONE shadow. One shadow where HE was the Dragon instead of Borys, and brought that shadow into this world, tried to integrate it with himself — or take it over like he used to do — to make himself as strong as the Dragon. Or something else just as terrible.

Regardless of what the Black is, regardless of our suppositions about how it was used, given the Hollow and the Prison of the Maenads, what is possible with the Black is clear, and it raises interesting questions.

Was the Black used as an extra-dimensional prison, because you could shape “worlds” there out of shadows, that with enough power you could shape the shadow-stuff as desired into a semblance of one’s imaginings? It seems likely that a powerful wizard or psionicist could create “holding places” within the Black, places they could place things — or people — and forget about them, into worlds created specifically to hold them, worlds with rules all their own, shaped only by the will of the wizard. That is, after all, what the Hollow is: a planar prison, a demiplane floating in the Black, an empty place lost amid the deepest shadows of Athas.

This also makes you wonder: what else did the Sorcerer-Kings hide there? Is the Black full of demiplanes? Like the Hollow? Like the Maenad’s prison? And avangions vanishing into places unknown during their metamorphosis…are those places perhaps demi-planes, shaped shadow-realms, in the Black? Do fiends and githyanki come from demiplanes found in the Black as well?

Perhaps the Black and the elemental plane of Fire “intersect” after some fashion, or the Black has a reflection of that plane, and from this come fiends: dark and terrible creatures of smoke and shadow, obsidian and flame? Perhaps the Githyanki are creatures born of a shadow-plane intersected with Air — terrible creatures of an empty, timeless void, from a place that is a dark reflection of the sky, and they are dark reflections of the waif-like air elementals?

Or perhaps the githyanki’s home is a psychic impression of the worst feelings that come with those of the feeling of immensity when one looks up into the encompassing nothingness that is the sky, and they are born of sparks of that terrible emptiness, smallness, and eternity. Perhaps fiends are the black thoughts of the ages, echoes of the worst thoughts and emotions from throughout time, subconsciously shadow-shaped by the minds of uncounted sentients…or even merely the dark imaginings of the summoning wizard, who expect terrible creatures that will fulfill their desires when summoned, and so that is what comes from the nether-places — from the empty abyss that is the deep Black.


copyright (c)2004, 2010 Raven Daegmorgan
Athas, Dark Sun, and related properties are owned by Wizards of the Coast