The world is a strange and dangerous place. A dizzying variety of creatures inhabits the world, staking their claim on every patch of land, no matter how remote or inhospitable it may seem. Anomalous areas and materials can also be found scattered all over the planet, some of them incredibly useful, and some of them lethal enough to kill anyone that approaches them. One might think that it would be difficult for people to distinguish between magical creatures and objects, and merely weird but mundane ones – after all, not everyone is a mage, and many magical phenomena do not have obvious tells that they are magical. However, there are obvious signs that a creature or material is magical, and the distinction between them and their mundane counterparts has been obvious to humanity since ancient times. It is only in modern times, with technology becoming increasingly sophisticated and wondrous, that people are starting to wonder where mundane ends and the magical begins.
Magical creatures are, as their name implied, imbued with magical abilities. All of them are imbued with a powerful life force and a correspondingly powerful resistance to foreign magic. Most of them are noticeably tougher and stronger than their size and build would suggest. Many of them are also faster and more agile than they should be. Some have spell-like magical abilities, like being able to breathe fire, subvert minds, or make themselves invisible. A few are even sapient, equal to humanity in every way. Better, even, some heretical voices say.
With that in mind, a perceptive person might ask themselves – why have these creatures not wiped out humanity as a whole by now? For that matter, why have they not wiped out all mundane animals, which are not similarly blessed with more powerful bodies and potent magical abilities? And, if one takes this to its logical extreme… why haven’t the more powerful version of these creatures supplanted their still magical, but unquestionably weaker equivalents?
The answer is simple, and has been known to humanity since time immemorial. Magical creatures require ambient mana to live. Their magical enhancements and abilities are tightly integrated into their bodies and metabolisms, and their souls are incapable of naturally producing enough mana to keep them going. Should their innate magics ever stop, the creature they support will quickly die as well.
The more powerful and magical the magical creature, the more ambient mana it requires to keep itself going. They won’t immediately die if they move into an area too mana-poor for their metabolisms, but most magical creatures will quickly waste away in such circumstances. The effect has been described by sapient magical creatures as feeling either as drowning or starvation, depending on how severe the ambient mana difference is.
This dependence on ambient mana means that powerful magical creatures either stay in the deep reaches of the Dungeon or cluster around large mana wells. This is the primary reason why humanity (and mundane plants and animals) have managed to survive on the surface.
Humanity and the Wilderness:
During the Divine Era, while the gods still walked the earth and talked to people, human territory rarely increased. Sometimes a great hero or king managed to scour a particular region of dangerous magical creatures and made a new settlement there, extending the reach of human civilization by a small bit, but just as often that was soon undone by a loss of territory to the world’s monstrous inhabitants somewhere else in the world. Whatever area humanity ruled, they usually ruled for a reason, and if that territory was ever lost to the beasts it was usually retaken not long afterwards… but the reverse was also true. The deep wilds were dangerous lands that only powerful mages and divinely-blessed heroes could venture into, and it was rare for humanity to successfully colonize such places. The domain of humanity ebbed and flowed, but overall remained static over the centuries.
The rise of the Ikosian Empire was the first big change in this pattern. With their incredibly potent magical system that only grew more powerful and sophisticated as time went by, the Ikosian Empire suddenly had a large number of powerful people that were capable of taking on the powerful magical creatures of the world. Moreover, these powerful mages greatly coveted the areas that magical creatures inhabited, and had every reason to push into them as much as they could. For the first time in a long time, the domain of humanity started to grow.
Moreover, it did not just grow in the Ikosian Empire. The Ikosian system of magic was revolutionary for its openness and sharing, but this also made it impossible for the Empire to retain a monopoly on its use and teaching. It quickly spread outside the empire, to Hsan, Koth, and Altazia. Almost everywhere one looked, humanity was on the advance, pushing into every area it could and clashing with everyone they encountered there – including many sapient species that already lived in these lands and didn’t look too kindly on humanity’s attempts to push them out of their homelands.
The Silence of the Gods was, in the short term, a huge disaster for humanity. With societies everywhere struggling to reorganize themselves in the wake of this monumental change and the loss of divine magic and its miracles, magical creatures of all sorts began to aggressively retake their old territory. Their magical abilities had remained intact in the wake of the Silence, and many of the frontier settlements fell to magical creature attacks, making the already chaotic situation even worse.
By the time the dust settled, the territory held by humanity was much diminished. Many areas that had been painstakingly taken from the wilderness were reduced to ruins. Many overgrown castles, walls, temples, and outposts can still be found in wild areas of the world as a testament of this tragedy. Many predicted the situation would only grow worse in time, with humanity being constantly on the defensive, their territory getting smaller and smaller with every passing age… perhaps, some whispered, the age of man was at an end.
Such apocalyptic visions never came true. Although humanity had lost their divine protectors, their magic only continued to grow more potent and versatile. Little territory was retaken, but little of it was lost, either. It seemed that humanity had entered a new equilibrium with the magical creatures of the world.
This equilibrium lasted until recently, when the technological revolution in Altazia produced a new invention that would revolutionize the way humanity dealt with dangerous magical creatures.
We are talking about guns, of course.
With the invention of these gunpowder weapons, mundane humans with no mage support are able to deal with many of the magical creatures that would normally be too dangerous for them to handle. This has led to an intense period of expansion into previously wild territory – especially in Altazia, where guns were first invented and used most heavily in their recent Splinter Wars. Even on other continents, however, the knowledge of gun creation is starting to spread… and as it does, humanity is once again starting to spread.
Magical Creatures and Magical Resistance:
All living being are resistant to foreign magic. This seems to be a function of life force, which resists intrusion of mana that isn’t attuned to the soul of the person in question. This includes ambient mana, which is naturally repelled by living beings. Scholars speculate that without this protection, ambient mana would slowly seep into people and poison them, even if they aren’t actively trying to use it. It is well known that ambient mana can seep into solid objects given enough time, and there are rumors that high levels of ambient mana in the deeper reaches of the dungeon can cause people to drop dead from ambient mana poisoning even if they don’t deliberately draw on it, so the idea isn’t as farfetched as it may appear, but the question is not considered settled.
What is definitely a fact is that magical creatures has a stronger life force than humans, and thus also have an intense resistance to hostile magic directed at them. This magic resistance will not stop indirect effects created by magic (such as magic projectiles, lightning bolts, and the like) from hurting them normally, but it will disrupt attempts to affect their minds, souls, and bodies. A mundane animal is very easy to enthrall or paralyze through magic; a magic creature far less so.
Magic resistance is never an absolute thing. It makes direct magic directed at a creature harder and more expensive, as one first has to punch through the magic resistance and reinforce it more to withstand the pressure of more powerful life force, but in theory, all magic resistance can be overcome. It’s just a question if the mage in question is skilled enough to pull it off, and has enough mana to pay for the reinforced spell. In practice, however, there is a point at which no human mage can effort a powerful enough spell to counter the magic resistance involved. This point is generally not reached by surface creatures (not even by dragons, who are merely ‘extremely difficult’ rather than impossible), but some of the deeper Dungeon denizens have downright absurd magic resistances that even legendary archmages cannot overcome.
In any case, it is generally considered suboptimal to try and overpower a magic creature’s magic resistance with one’s magic. Most mages will instead look for a way to indirectly hurt such magic resistant targets. Mind mages are hard hit by these kinds of threats, however, as most of their arsenal involves directly targeting minds of creatures, and they have few methods of indirectly affecting them.
Magical Creatures and Ambient Mana Assimilation:
As noted, magical creatures need to absorb ambient mana to live. To that end, they have developed special biological and spiritual/soul structures that let them take in ambient mana around them at prodigious rates without poisoning themselves like a human mage would if they attempted the same.
For a long time, humanity was mystified how magical creatures can benefit from ambient mana when a human mage would quickly meet his end if they tried to do the same. Many theories were put forward, but there was no way to pick one or the other, and no practical benefits from any of them. It was only relatively recently, in the past several centuries, that this knowledge began to proliferate among mages. Some heretical voices claim that this is because, after the Silence of the Gods, soul magic use surged massively and necromancers were able to perform experiments that would normally bring divine wrath on everyone involved, but that is understandably a controversial idea.
In any case, the way magical creatures use ambient mana is by first attuning it to their own soul, converting it from ambient mana into their own personal reserves. Under no circumstance do they use raw ambient mana in their metabolism, since such an action would have identical results for them as it would for a human mage attempting to use ambient mana to cast a spell – the ambient mana would damage their tissues, poison them, and drive them mad. Magic creatures don’t literally consume ambient mana. They assimilate it.
For magical creatures this process is completely instinctive and thoughtless. They do not have to invest any attention to make this assimilation happen. Humans, lacking the organs and soul structures necessary for this, must resort to harder, more deliberate methods. It takes months of training for humans to be able to assimilate ambient mana into their personal reserves, and the end result is extremely underwhelming when compared to the standards of magical creatures. It takes years of practice for a human mage to perform the skill smoothly and easily, and even then it requires conscious effort, and is barely equal to the weakest of magical creatures. Despite this, the skill has become part of the standard skillset for any self-respecting mage, and is commonly taught to every aspiring mage across the world.
The flow of mana across the world produces many strange materials with anomalous properties. It is also speculated that some of the materials are products of living magical creatures, even if they don’t exactly look like it – places were large amount of magical creatures die and pile atop one another have been known to produce strange objects and magical zones if they are for some reason undisturbed by scavengers and looters. These processes generally take for too long to be observed or exploited by humans, so it’s hard to either prove or disapprove these kind of theories.
In any case, it is generally easy for a mage to tell when a material is magical rather than mundane. Magical materials resist magic in the same manner as living beings, and they cannot be reproduced through alteration. A spell that can shape normal steel will fail when presented with magical steel, and there is no known way to make a piece of normal steel innately magical. Magical materials can be combined and processed with alchemy to change and refine their properties, and certain procedures can strip them of their magic and render them mundane.
Magical materials are still made from normal atoms and molecules – no unknown magical elements are involved in their construction. Magical silver is still silver, and will behave like one in most ways. Rather, their magical properties seem to be a consequence of stable mana constructs imbued into the material. These mana constructs tend to be extremely complicated and hard to study, and have never been successfully reproduced by a human mage.
Mana is the mysterious substance upon which all magic rests, and usually it behaves like an invisible, odorless gas that has the ability to seep into solid objects given enough time. However, deep beneath the earth, where concentrations of mana are incredibly dense and accompanied by other, yet unknown environmental pressures, mana is known to crystalize and assume solid form. This ‘crystalized mana’ takes the form of translucent blue crystals, and seem to persist in this form indefinitely.
Though usually blue, it also comes in other colors. There doesn’t appear to be much difference between them, and patches of strangely-colored crystalized mana are no less or more effective than their more common blue counterparts, but some mages believe otherwise.
Crystalized mana has baffled humanity ever since it was discovered. It defies many of the properties one usually associates with mana. It has weight and acts like a solid object, but if it’s ground into small enough pieces it will vaporize and turn into ambient mana. It is not, as some people suspect, a regular rock imbued with mana – pure crystalized mana will evaporate into nothing when broken up into small pieces, with not residue left behind. Most crystalized mana isn’t 100% pure, however, so a certain amount of dust and gravel is bound to be left behind.
Crystallized mana has started to become intensively mined in modern times, as it is a very stable, convenient source of mana for magical machinery. While spell formula can be used to make mana batteries, these cannot match the densities present in crystalized mana and are prone to exploding if damage or sabotaged. Crystalized mana, by comparison, is relatively inert – hitting it with most attacks will simply cause it to evaporate into ambient mana, which is rarely harmful on its own.
The conditions under which crystalized mana is created are not currently understood by humanity, and cannot be replicated. Crystalized mana is thus mined from the ground, usually in dangerous conditions of the Dungeon, which makes it an expensive commodity to most. Finding deposits of crystalized mana is not terribly hard in the dungeon, but finding ones that are sufficiently abundant and accessible from the surface to be commercially mined is a rather rare thing. As magical machinery starts to become more common and more power-intensive, however, more and more countries are starting to scour their underworld for possible sources of this resource.
Crystalized mana was originally connected to the idea that Zorian will eventually find a way to make external mana storage to overcome his small mana reserves. Just like the article says, mana will, under certain extreme conditions, crystalize into a stable and solid form. Zorian was originally supposed to figure out how to replicate this process, creating artificial crystalized mana. Now, by itself, this was not terribly useful – it was a complicated and expensive procedure, and it was still cheaper to just mine it out of the ground, despite the dangers involved in that. However, this was supposed to be a basis for him then applying the same principles to his personal mana, finding a way to ‘solidify’ his personal mana while it was still attuned to him. He couldn’t do it while it was still inside him (obviously), but he could basically spend his personal mana to make a mana crystal, let his reserves recover, and then keeping adding to the crystal. This would let him build up a potentially infinite external mana storage, though the crystal would keep getting bigger and bigger as he added to it, so it would obviously get too large to carry around at some point.
In another variation of that idea, I had witches possess knowledge of building a ‘heartstone’ – an external mana storage that was stabilized by the fact it was made with the help of the caster’s own life force. Basically, by imbuing a piece of crystalized mana with their life force, witches were able to use it to store a large amount of personal mana in it, in the same manner as above – dump some of your personal mana into it, let your reserves replenish, repeat. However, in order for the heartstone to remain stable, the user had to continually cycle their life force in an out of the stone – in order words, a portion of the witch’s life force was permanently invested into the heartstone, and if it was ever destroyed they would be immediately severely wounded. Zorian was supposed to learn how to make a heartstone from Silverlake and then combine it with his knowledge of how to make artificial crystalized mana to make a heartstone v2.0 – by crystalizing his life force, it would be able to persist outside his body indefinitely, allowing him to cut it off from his system, taking an immediate life force wound but allowing him to be free from future risk after he recovers.
Neither of those ideas got into the final plan, for two simple reasons:
A) I realized it was pretty unsatisfying to have Zorian overcome his lacking mana reserves in this fashion. They are his primary limitation, and removing or sidestepping it basically trivializes a lot of the plot.
B) I realized neither of the two ideas would be massively useful to Zorian to stop the invasion in the real world. Both required massive initial sacrifices in order to reap long-term benefits, which wasn’t that useful in the last arc of the story where they couldn’t afford to make such sacrifices. The real benefits would only occur after the invasion was stopped and the crisis had been resolved – and the story itself had ended. Pretty unsatisfying.
Additionally, the heartstone idea had the problem that there was no way the witches would keep something like that to themselves. The heartstone, while dangerous to make and a huge point of weakness, had so much benefits that everyone and their mother would rush to copy it. It just strained credulity that something like that would be widespread among them, yet completely secret from all outsiders.