Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Exalted City of Crux

Still cheating-- have a couple of projects I'm working on right now (editing and revising) so I'll post one of my favorite game bits-- my description of the City of Crux from the Dragonblooded Game. I do love this setting and hope someday to be able to return there-

ON CRUX

“Crux is by no stretch of the imagination a place of dreams for anyone. Perhaps I phrase that poorly…those whom I have been given to associate with would find Crux a punishment, a place of bewildering contrasts, strange impoverishments and confusing patterns. Perhaps that is why is has remained a stop over point rather that a true gateway to the Threshold from the Blessed Isle. The scales tip that way as they say. I am perhaps stating, again as I have said, the case rather badly. I suspect it is my confusion at this moment. Trapped as I am and awaiting, if not death then something truly painful, I am driven back to the only gift that has served me well these years—not tact, for I am notably short in that, not sense, as I am trapped in a space I can measure with the span of my hands from a sitting position, and not loveliness which if you know me goes without saying and those who have put up with me these many years have been gentle enough not to bring to my attention.

What I have is a gift for observation and a curiosity that has made me, at times, an asset to the Thousand Scales. Yes, I am aware that they “do not” exist, but I will leave it to you to ration that out if you will. Perhaps, should these papers fall upwards along the chain, someone will delete those words and replace them with something inoffensive like “my family” or “my associates”. So be it.”

The ancient city of Crux lies on the threshold, south and to the west of Arjuf. Other cities draw the Dragon-Blooded to them when they make the leap out into the greater world from the Blessed Isle, but the lures of Crux are more subtle. Like its greater satrapy, Cascading Flowers Kingdom, Crux has fallen into a kind of decay that conceals its greatness. For those willing to dig beneath the surface, figuratively and literally, Crux offers secrets and wealth aplenty.

When the Scarlet Empress rose and cemented her control upon the Blessed Isle, she looked forth out to the Threshold for the places that she could bend to her will by diplomacy and steel. Cascading Flowers was among the first of these places to pledge itself to the new empire, and as a result it remained relatively unravaged by the wars which followed. As well, it gained a number of key concessions that those who fell to the Legions could not obtain. The cost for the satrapy would be Dragon Blooded provincial observation, the usual costs in food and coin, but also a relative cement of the kingdom’s borders. With no ambitious Exalt at its helm, looking for greater conquests, Cascading Flowers would remain as it ever was. A fine place, tiny and stable, kept in place by ancient treaties and agreements.

Now, with the Scarlet Throne vacant, that status is in question, and the lord of the province, Son of Wreaths, dreaming in the capital at Blossoming Pearl, must consider which of his neighbors will eventually decide that these lands look particularly attractive. Even now those considering adventure, employment or even scavenging have been to draw to this sleepy, age clogged place.

Crux, though not the capital, is the most important city in the province. As a major port, it provides lifeblood through the various Guild caravans and fleets that pass through it on the way to other major points like the Lap, Arjuf, and the City of the Steel Lotus. A great river connects Crux and Blossoming Pearl. The wetlands it creates in the midlands serve the farmers, ranging from the weedlanders to the more careful and controlled rice plains. The far south of the province begins to level out, however, leading into stony plains and eventually the mountains of the neighboring regions.

Crux, it should be noted, is an artifact of the First Age, now greatly decayed. Even in the time of Shogun, the mechanisms of the city had already decayed and locked into place. The three tiers of the city are built on gigantic slabs of circular stone, some mile across. The levels are connected with a great shaft a hundred feet across that once lifted the city into the air and back down. This function, alas has been long lost and to put it politely, the city is stuck in the ground. The highest level, called the Day Quarter, sits at ground level but tilted at a slight angle, meaning that one walks uphill to go from the dockside, where one edge of the city dips into the seam-- to the wealthy quarter in the south. The furthest point of the south actually lifts up about twenty feet from the lip of the hole, requiring intricate structures access to the city levels below. This south gate only leads into the lower city, protecting access for the wealthy district.

Day Quarter houses notable embassies of the few Dragon Blooded families who have decided to place interests here. Most have some connection to Guild trading, making the necessary arrangements for goods to be transferred here to avoid certain tariffs and taxes. Other important local families and merchants also own homes there. In the center of the Day Quarter lies the great Tilted Bazaar. The docks of the city possess a great number of cranes, used to carry goods from incoming ships to waiting caravans or to the various levels of Crux itself.

Access to the lower city, known as the Dusk Quarter, comes in one of two ways. The first are three great stairs carved into the wall of the city. The east wall is for traveling up during the day, and down during the night. The west goes down during the day and up after dusk. Guards ensure that no one goes in the wrong direction. The southern stair, which serves as an access gate out from the city, can be used by persons heading up or down, but at their own risk. Each year a number of travelers fall to their death from these stairs. The stairs hug the wall, going down the hundred feet counter clockwise.

The other faster and more convenient way to travel down is via the numerous elevators scattered across the city. Hatches and cut access ways, some normally used for the lighting of the lower area, have great cranks and pulleys arranged next to them. For a nominal fee, a person and their luggage can be lowered down. Some of these machines are powered by men, some by machines and some by animals. The most sophisticated tend to be in the wealthier side of the side. The largest elevators exist near the docks, attached to cranes for lowering supplies down below.

Once upon a time, the city itself would rise and fall, but some great accident left this working disabled. The only evidence of this magical and mechanical marvel lies in the fact that the Dusk Quarter rotates around the great column supporting the upper level. It completes one cycle every twenty-four hours. Lights to illuminate the lower level were crafted shortly after the machinery stopped working, a system that drew in and amplified the sun’s glow during the day. However, over the years those devices have been either disabled or have themselves slowly run down. Now, on the brightest days outside, the Dusk Quarter feels slightly overcast. The situation grows worse from there.

The northern point of the Day Quarter contains the various docks and shipping areas for those Guildships and travelers coming by sea. Given that the northern edge dips below the sea, the city has a great waterfall. The fall is kept in check by certain magics and is filtered to be palatable. It lowers to a dim stream at low tide and a rushing torrent at high tide. This water is useful to the residents of the lower quarter. Combined with rainwater caught but buckets or tunnels in the walls (boiled carefully) they can survive. Wastewater from the upper level goes into a complex sewer system that flushes the material down the inside of the central column down to the furthest bowels of the city. Still, because of the holes in the ground of the highest level (cut carefully to avoid having to patch too many sewage lines) rain can pour down in rivers rather than in a spray.

Most of the tradesmen, workers, domestics, and those who prefer a lower profile live in the Dusk Quarter. If they have business above, they must make the hike upwards and some do this each day. Dusk Quarter is notorious for the businesses that hug the walls between the stairs, receiving the least light—brothels, bars and places of more illicit entertainments. The further one moves out from the central post of the Dusk Quarter, the grimmer the city becomes. This means only those with little money or questionable business use the stairs as they invariably terminate in places no one would really want to be lost in.

Finally, deep below that, rarely seen by even the longest lasting dwellers in the city, lies the Night Quarter. Reachable by a set of stairs along the central pillar, it contains the ancient and oldest workings of the city, including the mechanism which turns the Dusk Quarter. Down there, the most desperate are said to make their lives…cleaning and sifting through the sewage systems of the city, living on a pittance from the city service commission or just simply off the refuse of the upper tiers. It is said that a great many things can be found there in the Night Quarter, most of them being your own death. Tunnels for those hoping to mine something from the earth, strange races perhaps, criminal haunts…rumors there are aplenty.

Crux has a significant, but strange community of sorcerers and would-be sorcerers. While there are a few exalt mages who still have legitimacy and contacts with the colleges on the Blessed Isle, they tend to be affiliated with specific families or passing through on the way to somewhere better. Most sorcerers of real power and training either remain on the Isle or else find a place isolated and alone where they can pursue their work. Life in the Threshold, while opening them to new opportunities in learning and magic also presents a host of problems.

But Crux overall has never suffered from a shortage of sorcerers and thaumaturgists. Most sorcerers, Exalted or in some cases God-blooded, are outcaste—either trained outside the isle or else having broken with or been sentenced away from their house. Significant restrictions on learning and activity exist on the isle and the unwary trip over them in their hunt for power. Those people who have caused problems find themselves in the Threshold, and Crux attracts them like flies. As well, mortals who dabble in the arts and sciences of thaumaturgy have found Crux attractive, given the number of magi here and the strong presence of the gods and spirits.

All of these mages tend to be split into two factions within the city, though a rare few have no allegiance. Each faction is headed by a Dragon Blooded who controls his allies and apprentices with promises of essence, magical knowledge, materials and research assistance. Sharpened Thought, is a former artisan of manses on the Blessed Isle, when one of his creations mistuned itself in the last stages of creation, he was forced to flee he. Fire-aspected, he already had a strong bias against him in the Heptagram. Eventually he arrived here and began to draw in pupils and hangers on. However, a few years later, Oaksaint Vross arrived, an Outcaste Dragon Blooded of Air. He had been trained in the Threshold by various masters and had built a solid reputation for himself. Since that time, the two have been biter rivals, sending agents against one another, sabotaging projects and generally trying to steal the most promising students from one another. Those Sorcerers affiliated with a family here avoid interacting with these two, and in fact with each other. This means that the only reliable source of magical training and knowledge lies with these two bitter old magi.

In part, Crux draws those magically inclined and repels those of the Immaculate Order, because of the large number of spirits, elements, and small gods who hover around the edges of the city. The original agreement between Cascading Flowers and the Scarlet Empress gave the satrapy a certain leeway regarding these beings. Notable is the spiral stairs of water in the bay that lead into a contained spirit city beneath the waves known as the Spiral. Sages and sorcerers sometimes venture there to bargain with spirits or simply to see the wonders of the place. Obeying strange rules unto itself, some travelers never return while others have claimed to see themselves in strange garments or forms…