- Bala Ged
The subcontinent of Bala Ged, separated from the continent of Guul Draz by a miles-long marsh, seems stuck in time, a primordial throwback to the way Zendikar might have been eons ago. Damp, fetid air, thick vegetation, algae-choked marshes, and mold-covered thickets—these are the elements that define Bala Ged. The subcontinent is also home to the surrakar, a reptilian humanoid race on the cusp of sentience. Few "civilized" humanoids call this place home.
"Tracked a bask of nema crocs through the densest reaches of the Bordermire. Lost a third of our rations to the grasping marsh, just before we hit the edge of Bala Ged. We should be able to replenish with some mosses and beetlefruit by this time tomorrow—but the expedition is losing morale even faster than supplies. The skins are worth every effort, but it's getting harder to convince the allies of that."
—Expedition journal of Kol Jofara of Kabira
The dense, humid jungle that covers much of Bala Ged is known as the Guum Wilds. This jungle boasts the largest array of carnivorous and poisonous plants on Zendikar. The flora of Guum rivals the titanic jurworrel and jaddi trees of Murasa, wrapping around every surface in a continuous, tentacular crawl.
"I keep thinking I see her. Everywhere I look, the shadows of Guum look like the curves of her face. It's my fault she went looking for the seer; I raved about my time with the Mul Daya, talking up their soul-speakers and spirit-channelers. She wanted answers about her father, and now she's lost and it's all because of me. I'll find her, or I'll die in the trying."
—Rinta Bannock, Greypelt trapper
Deep within the Guum Wilds can be found slick, slimy limestone outcroppings of rock dotted with cave mouths. This is where the surrakar nest, never far from either their caves or a bog. They are very territorial, and even brave expedition groups know to steer clear of the limestone hillocks. There are rumors of deep tunnel systems underneath Bala Ged that the surrakar use for spawning, but these are unconfirmed.
"Are you sober? We're far past oaths and treaties. Surrakar couldn't recognize a border if it swam up and bit their scaly leg. You're soft-hearted, that's your problem. 'They're living creatures, Marak.' 'They almost have a culture, Marak.' But you didn't hear them crunching on the bones of your guide, did you? Your childhood friend? It's not a discussion. We're killing them. If you don't want to help, then you can die along with the fish-eyed bastards."
—Marak, hunter of Umungshore
This swampy inlet lies at the edge of the Guum Wilds, protected from the waves by the thousands of trees between it and the ocean. Fed by the Umung River and several waterfalls that cascade down the surrounding cliffs, Bojuka Bay is a watery marsh of vast proportions. The Umung River flows slowly through the bay but provides a clear and deep passage for boats going to or coming from the Guum Wilds. Those who pass through Bojuka Bay must be prepared to bribe or fend off the savage marsh trolls that reside there. Fortunately the Grotag tribe of goblins that reside in the trees can provide assistance in this regard, assuming they too are appropriately bribed or intimidated.
"Thank you, Sister Saranna. And my thanks to all of you gathered here. It's been a dream of mine for twenty years to open this passage, and I'm overwhelmed to see it finally completed. We've all known someone who has given time and toil to bring the Bojuka Route to fruition, and some of us know some who've given their lives. There are no words to express my gratitude. I'm humbled, and eager to get started. With the permission of the Sisters, I'd like to declare this Route officially open."
—Speech of Jin Kalau, Sea Gate ship's captain, one year before the closing of the sea route into Bojuka Bay
The Umung River descends in steps from the interior to sea level as it passes through Bala Ged. Once explorers pass the dangers of Bojuka Bay, reaching the interior of Bala Ged is a matter of slow progress against the current and porting small vessels around or pulling them up the many rapids and falls at each "step." Small villages of humans and Joraga elves can be found along the Umung specifically to aid travelers at such points.
"Expedition day sixty-one. Hit the shallows; we've had to drag the skiffs for three days, and the waters are black and sludgy. Maps lied about the Joraga outpost—it's deserted, except for the mortician beetles and heartstabbers. No sign of the grail temple or of the other party. Starting to wonder whether we got good information back at camp."
—Anonymous, mission log
The Tangled Vales
The Tangled Vales are a number of interconnected jungle valleys that run between steep hills that ripple across the southern portion of Bala Ged. Clans of Joraga elves make their homes in the vales along with some human hunters and trappers. The jungles of the Vales are a twisted and dangerous morass of predatory plants infested with bestial dangers, but the Joraga have made relatively safe zones by cultivating antagonistic plants as a defensive barrier around their paths and villages. Even the elves avoid the fungus-choked hilltops, knowing them to be even more deadly. Traveling so high exposes one to the region's unpredictable winds and deadly flying hunters, such as gomazoa.
"He want arrows sharp. He want shrooms cut. He wants traps sprung. All day Goga work for elf man. Never Goga time to rest, always working, getting bit. Tuktuk warned Goga, but Goga wanted 'venture. Well, Goga has new trap to spring for elfs. Use bait to lure floaters down. Bring floaters to camp, so they can grab elf man, and others, and suck their brains. No more work for Goga."
—Goga, Tuktuk hireling
Bloodbriar patches are hungry clusters of nettled vines that react to movement by constricting around it. If the vines constrict on a creature with blood, the thorns pierce the body and siphon the blood directly to the plant's roots. Victims watch in horror as the white veins on the dark vines turn crimson with the blood flowing through them. The Joraga elves of the Tangled Vales have learned how to cultivate and direct the bloodbriar so they can use it as barriers against outside threats. They typically control them by causing regular disturbances in the vines by hurling objects on the sides where they want the plants to grow and by feeding the briars small (and not so small) creatures.
Cut fungus is a dangerous plant that lives in the jungles of Bala Ged. A cluster of cut fungus resembles an unusually large growth of a layered, mushroom-like fungus, but the caps hide blade-like spines. Cut fungus have primitive sensory detectors that alert them to temperature changes and motion. When these happen in conjunction (such as when a warm-blooded creature or cold steel are brought nearby) the cut fungus opens its layers and unleashes a spray of blade-like spines. The spines carry a mind-affecting toxin that causes delirium, passivity, and eventually, parasitic growth. Over time, wartlike growths cover the victim, killing the host and allowing a new cut fungus colony to grow.
"Blessed are the bloodeaters, for they cleanse the jungle of sin, leech away the contamination of dreams, and give of the lifeblood in their stems for our hungry."
—Ghet family blood prayer
Elves are naturally an adaptive race and have fared better than most others on Zendikar. They are the most prevalent race in the continent of Murasa and have a strong presence in other regions such as Bala Ged. They mainly inhabit villages suspended from the treetops, building small villages in the tangled jungles that wend through the narrow lowlands of the hilly interior. Other elves use their culture of living life out on the limb to reside in cliff dwellings cantilevered against rock faces.
Zendikar's elves are risk takers by nature. "Nothing ventured, nothing gained" is a sentiment of the elves would approve. They're not usually foolhardy, but their lifestyles have made them almost fearless in the face of danger. They use this clarity of thought during trouble to take calculated risks, often astonishing other races with the results.
For the elves, surviving and thriving are deeply interdependent, and you can see this worldview in their daily lives. An elf rarely lacks the equipment for any task that might arise during the day, whether it's dispersing voor slug infestation or climbing a cliff. What an elf lacks for in preparation, he makes up for with improvisation and quick thinking. It's no surprise that elves are prized by planeswalkers as guides regardless of the terrain or their knowledge of it. Using zip-lines and expert climbing techniques, the elves fearlessly span the gaps between branches or cliff faces. Indeed, some of the branch paths elves take are impassable without their guidance and skills, as they often leap breaches and climb hidden trails. Of course, to benefit from the elf's skill and wisdom a potential employer must be quick enough to keep up. Elves are notorious for thinking of their own survival first and expecting others to do the same.
What's notable about elvish religion is the lack of it, even in the face of many unexplained phenomena on Zendikar. The elves know that ghosts and spirits exist and can affect the material world. But they ascribe no transcendental significance to this fact. They know of the Roil, but to them it's simply the way of things. If the elves have a religion at all, it's to associate the strangeness and deadliness of Zendikar with a sensation of time dilation, both in the expanded and contracted directions — the elves' own long lives make it seem natural that past generations should live among us (albeit in ghostly form) as well as that the land itself should change from time to time (even in a single day).
"We should not despair of our lost ones, for they are not lost. We should not decry our insignificant place in the large world, for it is not so small. The unknown is vast, but I am glad of it; none among us knows what is possible in time, and whether the great forces of the world bring sorrow or a tomorrow full of hope."
—Speaker Hazzan at the Throne of Obuun
Elves have small village clans that include everyone allowed to live in the settlement. Leadership is decentralized and communal, although those with a combination of age and the relevant skills associated with a given decision tend to take the lead. In mixed-race settlements, non-elves are often inducted into the clan or become de facto members but tend to be gently encouraged to live at the periphery of the settlement. Overall, elvish social organization reflects their high degree of self-sufficiency. Individuals are expected to look after their own needs first and foremost, then their families, and finally the clan at large.
Most clans are part of one of the three major elvish nations (although "nation" is used loosely here, more to refer to regional populations than to any coherent structure). Clans act like individuals, with clan speakers focusing first on what is best for their clans and neighboring or allied clans while trying to balance their needs with those of other clans. This self-centered focus can lead to divisiveness within the nations, but the elvish propensity to take surprising risks often causes clans to lend their support to the nation at crucial moments.
The Tajuru nation is the largest of the three main nations, counting among its number hundreds of far-flung clans across Murasa and other parts of Zendikar. The Tajuru are the most open to people of other races, seeing their skills and perspectives as valuable new tools for survival. Tajuru elves are also more open to new lifestyles, be it living in a mountaintop citadel or roaming grassy plains.
The Tajuru are famous for their seemingly innate skill with tools and their use. Many of the crude but functional technologies that allow for survival in extreme locales (hang gliders, rope bridges, pulley-operated transport, zip lines, and so on) are the result of Tajuru innovations. Indeed, the risky branch-top "roads" of Kazandu, the passage path through Sunder Cove, and other similar "civilized" thoroughfares throughout Zendikar were created and are maintained by numerous Tajuru clans along their length.
The Tajuru clans owe allegiance to the speaker Sutina. She rules from the Tumbled Palace on the cliffs of Sunder Bay. This crumbling edifice of ancient origin is clutched in the bows of a huge and thorny jurworrel tree that has lifted it off the ground and has been threatening to drop it into the ocean for as long as anyone can remember. Speaker Sutina is often seen on the cliffs of Sunder Bay when the tide-altering monster Lorthos makes its destructive rise to the surface. If there is a connection between her and the beast, none but Sutina and her closest advisors know it.
"A map is a brittle record; do not rely on images made of the past. The land makes itself new each day with the sun, so we celebrate its rebirth. We simply delve where the forest pulls us, building strong roads and branchways where we can, leaving our expectations behind."
—Tajuru Speaker Sutina
The Kazandu Splinter
The elves of Kazandu have separated from the Tajuru nation and don't acknowledge Sutina as their speaker. They believe their life amid the Kazandu canyons, down in the shadows created by countless jaddi-tree limbs, makes their worldview irreconcilable with that of the "overworld" Tajuru elves.
Mul Daya Nation
This secretive nation of elves have an unusual speaker, Hazzan, an ancient elf who follows the cryptic edicts of a centuries-old elvish ghost called Obuun. Hazzan claims the
ghost occupies a wooden throne entwined in vines and bark. Now speaker Hazzan sits in the throne to channel Obuun and address the Mul Daya nation. The elves of Mul Daya often give precedence to their speaker's commands immediately after their own survival,
which other elves view as a fanatical perversion of elvish culture.
The Mul Daya are the most likely to serve as spies and assassins, always with Hazzan's utterances as the basis for their goals. The seat of Mul Daya power lies in the mysterious, deadly, fetid jungles of Bala Ged. There, in its damp, teeming wilds, Hazzan holds court over his people, delivering the cryptic messages he receives from the spirit. This nation has a relationship with the spirits of their elvish ancestors that sets it apart. To the Mul Daya, the spirit world and mortal realm are no different aside from their tangibility. Hazzan is simply more attuned to the ghosts.
Death and the spirits of the dead are as much a part of their lives as the natural world. This is not macabre to the elves at all; they view it as the truest view of the natural system.
"I've done this a long time. You run an expedition, you figure out quick what your curse is gonna be. We've had no problems with the Grotag, the vampires, the bloodbriar—and this is the most obedient hurda I've ever driven. The curse is the damned elves. And I've known elves—some people call 'em haughty, and it's certain they've seen more'n you ever will—but these deep-jungle kind are far worse. They're phantoms, slipping in and out of the greasy vines, moaning their chants on the night's wind. They're our curse this time, the Mul Daya, I can feel it in every beat of my heart."
—Chadir the Navigator
The Mul Daya can often be recognized by their face-painting and tattooing. Many Mul Daya decorate their skin with an enwrapping vine motif and use strange poisons and acids culled at great cost from strange creatures and plants in the depths of Bala Ged and Kazandu. The best of the Mul Daya warriors are called "vine ghosts" for their silence in entering and waging battle. These elves train in camouflage, stealth, poison use, and trap setting.
Mul Daya soulspeakers
Soulspeakers use the arts of necromancy to communicate with Obuun, the Everliving One. To do so, a soulspeaker performs a ritual and drinks a poison that kills him. Then once dead, the body rises and speaks the distant Obuun's words. Thereafter the undead soulspeaker performs a ritual of renewal that restores life to his limbs.
The elves of the imperious Joraga nation have little respect for any other race of Zendikar or for other elves. They see the survival of their nation as most important, and they view the influence of others as a weakness and jealously guard their traditions. The Joraga eschew the goods and habits of others, even avoiding the pathways blazed by the Tajuru when possible. Many view their nomadic clans as little more than bands of roving murderers, but a complex culture hides behind their aggressive exterior. Elves of the Joraga tribe honor druidic power and physical prowess, and their society mixes these pursuits into a single tradition of jungle mysticism.
"No, you are the intruder, human. I've seen your kind, touching our world from beyond its borders, seeing through skin and bone like spidersilk. This is not your territory any more than it is the cobra's or the hartebeest's, nor is it mine. But it is my duty to defend it, for I am elf-kind, and you have outsider's eyes."
—Mondi Thal, Joraga hierarch
The Joraga tribe is more loosely organized than most due to the frequent movements of the clans. Clans follow various beasts of Zendikar in their migrations or hunting patterns, with individual clans devoting themselves to a particular creature and incorporating its attributes into their martial art and spellcasting.
The core of Joraga mysticism ties their clans together, giving them common ground and mutual respect. All the clans honor Speaker Nen, an ancient elf who dwells in a rain-slashed jungle atop the lofty and cloud-shrouded plateau. Nen delivers few commands but when his wisdom is required, he sends messages in the form of beastly messengers.