The vedalken Keimon frowned into the etherium gears and arms of the wind orrery and tried to remain calm. Of Esper's twenty-three winds, nine had gone badly wrong. To his stormcaller's eye, the wind dynamics looked like angry, glowing snakes inside the artifact, airforms writhing and snapping at one another. The intrusion of alien mana was warping gust patterns all over Esper.
And then there were the behemoths.
Outside his master's sanctum, the huge Naya beasts' footfalls sounded like thunder—except that thunder didn't rend metal and etherium as if they were cobwebs. In only moments, they would shear open the sanctum walls and bring crushing death to Keimon and his master, the vedalken archmage.
"I'll die here if you tell me to, Master Drathus," said Keimon. "But please—don't tell me to."
Archmage Drathus finished a brutally long chant and snapped closed a spell capsule.
"Done," he said, a look of dry certainty on his blue vedalken features. "Let's go." The archmage tucked the capsule inside his etherium ribs.
Keimon dashed for the sanctum's doorway, but an enormous claw tore a new exit in the side of the mages' sanctum, the metal screaming. Wind-models and delicate filigree instruments smashed against the floor, and Keimon heard the building itself groan. Archmage Drathus and his apprentices had spent thousands of hours researching reality in this sanctum, and in seconds Keimon saw it rent to scrap.
Keimon saw the face of the first Naya behemoth: a roar sculpted in muscle and teeth. Its bulk loomed over the hole it had opened, such that Keimon could barely see the second behemoth behind it. They were cut off—the only way out was through the beasts.
But mana can also be destructive. The dragon Nicol Bolas seeks to gather the mana resources of the combined shards of Alara into a single tremendous source—the Maelstrom, a savage storm of raw mana. The Maelstrom lies at the center of Alara, where lands from all five of the shards overlap. Since the shards reconverged, the Maelstrom has grown from a tiny seed to a raging tempest of potential, feeding on the violent clashes of the Alaran war.
The Maelstrom has become more and more dangerous as it grows. At this point, standing at the center of the Maelstrom would destroy most beings; the reality-twisting forces are so chaotic that they would tear a person apart like a planetoid split by gravitational forces. But while the Maelstrom is dangerous, it is still a powerful source of mana—and it can fuel potent magic for mages with a flair for the unpredictable.
"Master, the capsule—use it on the behemoths!" shouted Keimon.
"No, not here!" hissed Drathus. "We'd take half of Palandius with us. We must get it to its destination."
Keimon had only seconds to bring a storm. The stormcaller didn't relish such impromptu magic, but the circumstances clicked in his mind like the gears of his orrery. Winds swirled around him, and through the hole in the building he could see the grid-chopped clouds swirl into vortex after vortex. He could feel the currents, the ionic friction of the clouds whirling against each other, the gathering energy. In moments there would be deadly lightning at Keimon's command.
But the spell wasn't coming together fast enough. The first behemoth heaved its claw into the building, slamming Archmage Drathus and throwing the vedalken across the room like a doll. The elder vedalken clutched his chest as he skidded to a halt and crumpled to the floor in a heap.
Keimon shouted unintelligibly as the lightning blossomed out of him.
As it surges and grows, the Maelstrom arcs off strange magics, lashing the surrounding lands with bizarre effects. These arcs can be dangerous, shredding living tissue or disrupting magics. But it can also be a strongly generative force. Spells cast in the vicinity of the Maelstrom have special properties, spinning off secondary aftershocks that can take bizarre forms. The cascade mechanic represents this kind of Maelstrom magic: they're traditional effects like life gain, direct damage, or creature summoning that have a random secondary effect. Sometimes there's even more than one aftershock, the raw potential of the Maelstrom providing fertile magical fuel.
As day faded into night, Keimon helped his wounded master trudge across Esper's landscape, the lights of Palandius receding behind them. The first marauding behemoth had fallen to Keimon's sapphire electricity, but his magic hadn't affected the second beast at all, even in the hugest, fiercest blasts he could muster. Perhaps it was a new adaptation—a hide resistant to magic—or a preexisting species they simply hadn't seen yet. Either way ,it was a bad sign for Esper.
They had escaped by taking to the air—an unpleasant ride. The winds were wild and gnashing, hissing in a language Keimon could no longer understand. Keimon held his master as delicately as he could as he rode the winds, streaking over the heads of the behemoths for as long as he dared. From the air, he could see the devastation in the gargantuans' wake; they were only the vanguards, and other creatures followed in their footsteps. Snickering viashino threw fire magic at scurrying homunculi. Keimon saw at least one sphinx, downed and helpless, being devoured by some crowd of wretches.
"Naya," wheezed Drathus, now slumped over Keimon's shoulder as they made their way across the glassdust desert. "We must deliver the capsule deep within Naya."
Smoke covered the stars on the gridded sky, making it hard for Keimon to navigate; he simply tried to keep the incursion zones on either side of him, and travel within Esper as long as he could. But ahead of him, he saw a kind of beacon—a flickering glow on the horizon, strangely cheerful against the gathering night.
Although it's crucial to his plans, Nicol Bolas has set up no guardians of the Maelstrom. The mana storm has become dangerous enough that it simply destroys the most intrepid (read: foolish) would-be interlopers automatically, and the rest are generally scared off by the bizarre, fierce creatures that have formed from its energies. The swirl of planar crust at the junction of the five shards has formed a kind of valley, in the bowl of which the mana storm grows, surrounded by the strange sights and sounds of its metaphysical offgassing.
Keimon had no words. They had reached the rim of a wide basin where the land was torn raw and spiraled in on itself, like a tornado molded in earth. Cradled in the gorge was a raging squall of light and energy—like nothing he had ever seen in his career as a stormcaller. Its prismatic mana flickered in Keimon's eyes and danced along his etherium filigree. The wind here was deafening, but Keimon felt he heard voices deep within its chaotic rhythms, hints of secrets he could barely comprehend. It was intoxicating.
When the elemental attacked, Keimon could barely hear his feeble master's warning.
The creature looked like it was made from the combined landforms of five different biomes, but walking upright like a vedalken. It lunged at Keimon and Drathus with limbs like tower spires, knocking them apart and grabbing Drathus in one great hand. It clutched him and roared at the sky, backlit by the glow of the mana storm.
Keimon had no idea what he was yelling, but he got the creature's attention. It turned toward him and dropped his master—who fell in two pieces, his etherium bent in ugly ways. Keimon's fists balled. He felt the crackle of mana and the exhilaration of rage.
Alarans are just now discovering the Maelstrom; not even a planeswalker (other than Bolas) knows of its existence yet. Even if one knew about it, it's unclear what could be done about it. If it grows unchecked, it may overflow its central valley and crash into the surrounding shards, but any attempt to tap into its power may be equally disastrous. Its future is simply not known at this time.
Keimon called on mana bonds he knew, but felt the force of the maelstrom feeding his spell, like tendrils reaching into his soul. In the air above him grew a sphere of gray cloud, roiling and whistling with internal motion—and in it, he heard voices again, like the susurant syllables of a thousand whispers. There was no time to ponder—the elemental strode toward him.
He had never called anything but a storm before, but instead of lightning and wind, a great sphinx burst forth from his summoning-sphere, spreading its wings like a newborn drake. The sphinx's bearing was wise and mighty, and it gave the chaotic elemental pause.
Keimon's next thought was to rush to his master—but he failed to move. The mana storm pulsed through him, pushing its tendrils deeper into his mind. His hands moved involuntarily, carving strange signs on the air—and he found himself casting again.
The air shimmered, and an enormous, snakelike monster tumbled out of the aether, screeching. Before Keimon could comprehend the meaning of this, the mana surged through him again, and he lashed the fusion elemental with a pulse of strange, ætheric energy. The massive creature vanished before his eyes, twirling into a lick of smoke and evaporating into the maelstrom.
Keimon couldn't stop the flood of spells. The mana swirled through him in fierce waves, tearing the magic directly out of his soul. He was casting spells he had never seen before, uncontrollably, in convulsions.
He stumbled over to Drathus's body, hearing the whispers grow in his mind. He managed to wrench free the capsule from inside his master's chest-chamber. This would stop. All of this would stop—now.
He continued to cast wildly, the voices reaching fever pitch, the magics sweeping out of him in a nonstop deluge. He summoned some kind of surprised-looking, dreadlocked elf. He felt a momentary balm of light. In desperation, he reached for the spell-capsule's detonator—
And then there was nothing, as Keimon terminated himself.
The Maelstrom tore apart all evidence that he had been there—the sphinx, the wurm, the elf, and the bodies of the vedalken. The winds picked up the spell capsule, and it fell into the center of the nexus. There it disintegrated with a harmless pop, its magics devoured by the voracious storm, even its sound drowned out by the screaming gales.
Letter of the Week
Dear Doug Beyer,
My question is about elves. What's the lifespan of elves in Magic? In D&D, elves can live 1000 years or so. In Tolkien they lived tens of thousands of years. In their source mythology, the sidhe were immortal faerie spirits.
Elves (even in Lorwyn) don't seem nearly as connected to the spirit or faerie world as the sidhe, and they don't appear to be as long-lived as their counterparts in D&D or Middle-Earth. If they were, there would probably have been elves in Naya who remembered the intact Alara.
As in much of the folklore, most elves in Magic are long-lived, often spanning hundreds of years. With their long lifespans, they have long perspectives, seeing nature as a much more durable constant than we, as humans, are able to see in our mayfly lifetimes. In most cases and on most planes, Magic elves don't live to see a thousand, but it's probably possible in certain circumstances (i.e., with the right magic). The Cylian elves of Naya, as you point out, have only stories of pre-Sundering Alara, and no eyewitnesses. So the Naya elves are not millennia-livers, although the style guide doesn't specify their precise lifespan.
And we do consider elves to be non-fae and non-spirits; although Lorwyn was based on certain faerie folklore, we make hard distinctions between elves (a long-lived race of nature-associated humanoids), faeries (a short-lived race of tiny, flying creatures) and spirits (the restless ghosts of the dead or surreal beings like kami), where much of Lorwyn's source folklore considers those races and words to be largely interchangeable.