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Mana is a mysterious substance that permeates the entire planet of Empyria. Different locations contain different concentrations and types of mana, but it is always present. High concentrations of mana affect the area they're in, changing the climate, spawning monsters, and even warping the shapes of humans born within them.
Although it is widely used across all of Empyria, the exact nature and properties of mana are still poorly understood. The most troubling of these properties is that when enough mana is gathered in the same place, it tends to start thinking.
Mana has a property called a condensation threshold, which varies depending on its type (see below). If a volume of mana greater than the threshold is stored in one place, it spontaneously reshapes itself and "condenses" into a living being. Muddled mana condenses into monsters which mindlessly attack nearby humans, while pure elemental mana condenses into intelligent and powerful spirits.
Some people believe that mana itself is sentient, and the threshold is simply the point at which it becomes capable of acting on its thoughts. There is even a theory that spells work because the mana is following the mage's drawn instructions, encoded in spellcasting glyphs. Unfortunately, spirits themselves seem reluctant to share their knowledge on the subject, so it remains conjecture for now.
Broadly speaking, there are four main types or elements of mana. Most naturally occuring mana is muddled, meaning it is an uneven mix of these types, and is invisible to the naked eye; it must be extracted, refined, and separated into pure mana before it can be seen and stored. Pure mana appears as a faintly glowing liquid, the colour of which depends on the element.
Each element has a broad variety of associated spell effects. Some magics can only be cast by using mana of a specific element, while other magics seem to be easier or harder to cast depending on the element being used. The elements were named by humans after the most striking and memorable of these spell effects.
Many people find certain elements of mana to be easier to use than others. In popular culture, this is often mythologized into a system of "magical affinity", in which your preferred element is symbolic of the associated Great Spirit's favour. Various dubious articles claim it can predict anything from one's personality to one's ultimate fate. In truth, it's just that each element handles slightly differently, causing individual preferences to form - no more supernatural than a talent for arithmetic or sports.
From lowest to highest condensation threshold, the elements are air, water, fire, and earth. Muddled mana has varying thresholds, but always much lower than any of the pure elements.
Air mana governs the motion of air. It is associated with motion in general, space, and gravity; the portal glyphs in your average phone are powered by air mana.
Air-element combat magic lends itself well to quick, long-ranged strikes. There is a common misconception that air mana flows faster than the other types, but experiments have shown this to be untrue.
Air-affinity people are stereotyped as energetic and friendly, but thoughtless and unreliable.
Threshold: medium low
Water mana can be used to generate liquids (though, like all mana constructs, it dissolves back into mana once the spell ends). It is associated with the removal of energy, especially thermal; water magic stops, freezes, and reverts.
Water-element combat magic tends to be indirect, focusing on manipulating the environment or status effects over pure damage. HP-restoring magic is usually water-elemental.
Water-affinity people are stereotyped as cool and adaptable, but self-centered and manipulative.
Threshold: medium high
Fire mana governs flames and thermal energy. It adds energy, increases the intensity of existing effects, and speeds things up.
Fire magic is what comes to most people's minds when they picture combat magic. Mages who just want pure power will go straight for the fireballs, and it's a common military mage specialization.
Fire-affinity people are stereotyped as passionate and moral, but overbearing and judgemental.
Earth magic governs the generation of temporary solid matter. Where water reverses effects, earth is better at preventing them entirely. It is also associated with divination magic, though this is still impossible for modern humans to achieve.
In combat, earth magic is slow and complex, but each spell is powerful and affects a large area. HP - a magical shield-like ability that protects against physical harm - is generally considered to be an earth magic.
Earth-affinity people are stereotyped as calm and reliable, but rigid and stubborn.
Aether is a perfectly even mix of all four types of mana. It is exceptionally stable - it does not seem to condense even at volumes far surpassing earth mana's threshold. As such, magitech batteries often store mana in the form of aether for safety's sake.
There is a lot of debate over the nature of aether. Different schools of thought perceive it as the true nature of mana, a super-category that encompasses all four elements, or even a religiously significant substance.