♡ the gardens
Most of the time, your characters will be in the Gardens. This is a near-heavenly realm of paths that wind through beautiful bursts of flowers, leading to breathtaking views of dazzling waterfalls and lovely ponds. Most of the Gardens seem to be stuck in a perpetual spring, with the temperature mild and the trees in bloom, but wander enough and you'll stumble upon a hot summer day on the shores of an inviting lake, a field of snow just right for playing with, or an orchard of autumn fruits waiting to be harvested.
The Gardens give off a feeling of unfinished newness, as if whoever created them hasn't yet decided on the details of how they should be. Paths and destinations change by the day. But if you're lost, you can always find a guide to help you back to one of the constants.
At the very center of the great expanse of the Gardens lies a stretch of crumbling white ruins. Were they once a temple? A cluster of homes? It's impossible to tell anymore. One thing that sets them apart from the rest of the Gardens for sure: no flowers grow there. Only hardy wild grasses spring up between the stones, and the offshoots of the Vine disappear down steps leading into the darkness.
You can go inside if you want--at least on the surface. There's nothing there. If you try to follow the Vine down the steps and into the darkness, it grows wildly to block you, no matter what you do to try to clear it.
Get far enough away from the ruins that they disappear amongst the flower-lined paths, and you'll start to run into some peculiar areas. Expanding outwards from the ruins in a wide spiral are nine strange places known only as "the necessities." Each has, as you'd expect from that name, the necessary amenities for daily life...but all take a very different approach to that.
Specific information on the nine necessities can be found here.
Around the necessities, little paths lined with berries and fruit-bearing vines begin to appear. One of these paths is where you'll be led if you ask a guide cat for food. Follow it, and soon you'll be in the orchard. Or at least, that's what it's called; it's really a lot more. A series of rolling hills covered in trees bearing every fruit and nut imaginable and patches of tilled earth in which all sorts of vegetables grow, the orchard is the main source of food in the Gardens. If it grows and is edible, you can find it there somewhere.
Streams stocked with all kinds of fish wind through the orchard, and wild game birds--quail, pheasant, turkey, grouse, any others you might find particularly delicious--roam amongst the trees, where their eggs can also be found. No matter how many are taken and killed, either birds or eggs, more appear the next day. But shoot and chop carefully; if you kill a songbird by mistake, or accidentally shoot a fox or cat, someone's going to be very angry...
At the edge of the orchard is a narrow cave mouth. Outside it hangs a wooden sign that reads, "LAKE SANGUINE: REST AND REFRESHMENT WITHIN," and is adorned with a pair of fangs dripping blood. That gives you some idea of what lies inside.
Take the winding path inside, and you'll find a cavern light only by the unearthly reddish glow of levitating orbs of energy. Empty coffins line the walls, and from a crevice in the rock, a waterfall pours into a small but very deep lake...of human blood. It's quite homey, to a certain kind of being.
No one is saying where the blood comes from.
Leave the orchard in the direction opposite Lake Sanguine, and you'll soon arrive at a more normal lake with a lovely beach. Running along this beach is a boardwalk, and at the widest part of said boardwalk is an old-fashioned arcade. Go inside, though, and you'll find that it looks much more modern. The machines all offer video games, and in the corners are internet-enabled computers. Are you saved from the Luddism of this archaic world?
Not quite. You see, only the following games are available:
♡ Sushi Cat
♡ The contents of this site, with the most machines being dedicated to Winterbells
♡ A version of Oregon Trail where you can only die from attack by wild animals
♡ The contents of this site, with no walkthroughs
♡ Robot Unicorn Attack
Oh, and the computers only give you access to the following sites:
♡ An e-card site with nothing but Valentine's Day cards available
♡ This Wikipedia page (all links from it are broken)
♡ Kitten War
Enjoy your technological marvels.
Follow the boardwalk away from the arcade and it leads down into a modest cobblestone path twining away from the beach into a wooded area where it's always a gentle, colorful autumn. Nestled there is a sprawling Tudor-style home with a large sign over its doors: LIBRARY. Inside, it's as comfortable as can be, with fires in the fireplaces burning just high enough to keep out the fall chill and a number of armchairs and sofas. Amidst all this are shelves and shelves of books.
There is, of course, a catch.
The easiest book to find in this library is, by far, a slim volume containing the surviving poems of Sappho. Dig a little deeper, and you'll find romantic poetry by a vast number of poets: Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Maya Angelou, Rosalía de Castro, Adrienne Rich, and many others, all female. There are no novels, although the occasional biography of one of the featured poets may be found, and books of fairy tales featuring heroines appear here and there.
Fortunately for those with more prurient tastes, there is a section in the back containing a number of in-depth books on sexuality and a vast collection of Victorian-style erotica. This part of the library is always guarded by at least one bear, who will never fail to catch anyone under the age of eighteen and direct her back to the poetry and more age-appropriate books on young love or teenage sexuality.
THE VIRIDIAN PAVILION
Gradually, winding paths inlaid with malachite and jade emerge from the undergrowth. The weather and simple feel of the Gardens grows ever more vernal, and soon enough the paths lead to the center of this feeling: the Viridian Pavilion, a homage to everlasting spring. Gently sloping marble paths lead up to a strange sheltered platform, some kind of cross between a gazebo and an outdoor cathedral. Inside, the floor sports floral patterns made of semi-precious gems. That's only a taste of the color here. The stone columns that rise from it do not quite form walls. Some are more like sculptures (of fairies and flowers, naturally) than pillars; others hold panes of colored glass. The whole place is neither indoors nor outdoors. Flowering tree branches form what is almost a roof, and strange pink and blue petals drift down to be swept away across the dance floor. At night, elaborate glass lanterns that burn with pale blue and gold flames bathe it all in an ethereal light, a replacement for the moon that is not there.
To the sides of the pavilion proper are long stone benches at tables that are always stocked with a small but fine selection of light foodstuffs--salads, soups, and pastries, none of it too hearty. Meanwhile, paths lead away from the center of it all into little pockets of privacy amidst the tall flowers behind the pavilion, with comfortable benches strategically provided in each.
The most notable feature of the Viridian Pavilion, however, lies at the center of the dance floor. There, a ring of copper inscribed with strange gears and mechanisms surroundings a staircase sunken into the stone. It leads deep into the earth, to another realm--helpfully labeled by a pedestal behind it etched with the words, "The Isle of Antikythera."
It should also be mentioned that the area is frequented by some peculiar creatures not found anywhere else in the Gardens. They cannot be captured in any way.
There is no normal way into the Labyrinth, at least not usually. You don't simply stumble into it. But if you break the rules of the Gardens badly enough, that's when the ground opens up and swallows you whole, and you find yourself trapped in a dark maze that seems to go on forever. Within it, access to the Vine is patchy at best--it's all around you, but responds only sporadically to commands, occasionally letting you get a glimpse of others' activities and maybe respond to a post they make, but never make one of your own.
That's hardly the worst part, though. The worst part is this: the Labyrinth changes itself to meet the tender needs of whoever it is punishing at the moment. If you're its victim, all around you will be echoes and shadows of your worst fears, images of them at the corner of your vision. And you won't escape. Not until the Queen decides you can. Only then will you find an opening to stumble out in the middle of the ruins.
♡ the wild places
Ignore the cats' guidance. Wander off the paths. Keep at it for long enough, and eventually you'll arrive at the edges of the Gardens, where reality starts to fray. This is where the wild places begin. Here everything is brighter, and the air is heavy and sweet as syrup. Wolves prowl these edges, and if you try to push past them they'll growl at you warningly--but they won't stop you.
There are three different wild places you can reach from the Gardens; all are beautiful and dangerous, and all are prone to the same effects, known as wildcards (explained in the FAQ).
Within the Gardens you can find pockets of tropical lushness here and there, but nothing like what surrounds the Gardens to the northeast. Here the air grows thick with humidity and something else, some unexplained force. Tropical plants grow wildly in colors not seen in nature or even on the normal visible spectrum. Everything is brighter. Distorted birdsong passes through the trees, as do the faint but magnified noises of something stalking through the undergrowth. Take a handful of damp earth from the jungle and bring it back into the Gardens, and you'll be able to create what your heart desires from it. But stray too far in and vines that aren't the Vine will ensnare you and drag you into a darkness that flashes with unnatural color, where the thick air crushes your lungs until you can't draw breath--
--until you find yourself being dragged back into the Gardens by a dutiful wolf, battered and perhaps scratched by thorns but otherwise no worse for the wear.
There are small, lovely shores on lakes within the Gardens, but no ocean to be seen or heard. That changes when you reach the dunes in the northwest. Here the sound of the sea crashes eerily in your ears. Is there a hint of a song in it? Listen hard enough and you might find out, or you might go mad. Treacherous paths wind through the ocean breeze-scented wonder of the dunes, and sea grass in colors not found in nature grows wild. Bay trees and other plants native to the temperate seaside block your view of the ocean, wherever it is, but the sound never goes away. Take a handful of sand and bring it back into the Gardens, and you'll be able to imagine things into existence. But just when you think you're about to push past the trees and weeds and reach the wide open shore, you stumble into a sinkhole and fall through the sand into the darkness, where saltwater swallows you up--
--until you find yourself being dragged back into the Gardens by a hard-working wolf, wet and a bit abraded by sand but otherwise intact.
Pretty little streams run through the Gardens, but they are tame. To the south, a great expanse of river opens up, and it is wild. The water froths white as it pours furiously past jutting rocks and slippery stones. Strange and colorful fish flash through the foam and are gone. Plants that should not be sprout crazily on the little islands in the pounding waters, and somewhere nearby a waterfall roars. Take a handful of pebbles or river clay and bring it back into the Gardens, and you'll be able to build new things and places with your mind alone. But there's no sign of the other side of the river. Think you can get there? You can make it far enough that the line in the distance almost begins to resolve into a shore, and then the rapids will sweep you off your feet and send you tumbling toward the waterfall--
--until you find yourself being dragged back into the Gardens by a watchful wolf, soaking wet and bruised by rocks but otherwise healthy.
As the Queen of Hearts summons more and more women to the Gardens, they will change it and make it grow. New places will appear. The Queen herself may make a change or two. Who knows? Maybe the incarnae will pitch in as well. Paths may open up through the wild places leading to new realms.
This world is a mutable one.
THE CAVES OF THE ARIMOI
This great expanse of caverns and rocky passages can be entered from a number of cave mouths scattered about the Gardens, each with a sign reading, "This way to the Caves of the Arimoi." Inside, ever-burning torches provide light here and there, and wonder can be found: glimmering gems and crystal stalactites in the walls and ceilings, turbulent shallow streams of purest water, mirror-like lakes in the darkness, and all manner of cthonian marvels. The place feels distinctly different than the Gardens--far older and more settled, for one, and darker in every way.
Treasure chests nestle in corners. Within them are more amazing things. Tomes written in ancient Greek detailing strange spells that no longer work; intricate clockwork mechanisms that line up to measure the revolutions of distant heavens; jewelry fit for a queen straight out of mythology; busts in marble and bronze of forgotten gods, goddesses, and monsters; bits and pieces of once-noble weapons and suits of armor, never the complete thing.
But beware while you explore, for monsters lurk all around.
Empusae: They first appear as a beautiful woman, but should you get close, they'll lower their disguise and attack. They have flaming hair and fiery faces, clawed hands, and two mismatched legs--one like a donkey's and one made of brass. They will try to eat you, dead or alive.
Dracaenae: Creatures with the upper body of a beautiful woman and the lower body of a dragon. They vary. Some can be found in the shallow streams and lakes of the Caves and are clearly of sea-serpent stock; others are earthier, with thousands of feet. Some have venomous scorpion's tails, and others simply have terrible claws and teeth. They inflict the status effect Poison.
Chimerae: These beings are more uniform. They all have a lion's head at their front, a goat's head rising from their back, and a snaking tail that ends in a serpent's head, complete with fangs.
Hydras: More snake monsters! These are beasts with nine serpentine heads, all which bleed and breathe poison. They don't regenerate when cut up, though. Maybe someone's holding something back?
Maniae: Endlessly shapeshifting creatures who turn into all nature of monsters, the only similarity being that all are covered in blood. It's an illusion, though, and their only actual weapons are barbed whips--although since they seem to fly in the larger caverns, they may well have wings somewhere in there. They inflict the status effect Confusion.
THE ISLE OF ANTIKYTHERA
Descend the stairway at the center of the Viridian Pavilion, and you will find yourself at the edge of a vast cavern, its top, bottom, and far sides obscured by distant mists. At the center of it, occupying most of the space available, is a huge island floating in the air. From the foot of the stairs, a gleaming bronze bridge with tall, solid railings leads to the island itself. Here, metal towers rise high above the ground. The sound of restless gears turning fills the air day and night--or would, if there were any separation between day and night here. No natural light source can be seen in the mists, but all manner of unnatural ones thrive. Ball lightning sentinels follow set paths through the streets; great glowing globes top the brass spires that rise above; lanterns of glass and wire hang from every eave; and luminous pipes connect unknown mechanisms. Amongst them all, the place is as bright as day all the time.
Nothing grows in the place known in the Gardens as the Isle of Antikythera; no plants or animals can be found. But there is life. Peculiar contraptions made of glass and metal, transistors and gears, populate the area, all with different and inscrutable purposes. They roll, scrabble, climb, skitter, and walk through the streets, chattering with each other in clicks and beeps. With its homes and its inhabitants, the place is truly a city in its own right. Here are towers, and there are little apartments, all built of connected and welded metal; both wide roads and narrow lanes wind through it all. And always, the robots are working to build ever more complex creations.
These inhabitants seem quite friendly, if puzzling and incomprehensible. If stopped, they will beep and chitter amiably at you. If you seem to be lost, one will appear to guide you to a familiar landmark. This is a real danger here, as the Vine only penetrates a block or two into the city; detailed exploration must be done while cut off from the Gardens. It's a good thing the robots--some squat and slow, others quick and spindly, all of them peculiarly primitive-looking, with endless gears in place of microchips and copper and iron in place of silicon--are aware enough to help. Indeed, they seem to have formed their own society here, although it may be difficult for the visitors from the Gardens to tell just what is a restaurant (do they even eat?) and what is a church.
Despite the communication barrier, some interaction with the robots is possible. Besides greeting visitors and guiding them back to the bridge to the Gardens, the robots also seem willing to barter. It's unclear what exactly they value. Creations of wild stuff will be turned down without fail, but just about anything else gleaned from the Gardens or the Caves of the Arimoi, down to a stray rock or flower, may net a reward. The usefulness of these rewards, however, must be puzzled out. All of them seem to measure the properties of the Gardens in some way not normally available to its inhabitants, but they don't come with instruction manuals. A music box may change its melody in accordance with the mood of an incarna, or a pocketwatch may count down to the next unexpected disruption; a compass may tell you how close you are to each of the three wild edges of the Gardens, or an astrolabe model the locations of most animals. Whatever they are, these goods are never too powerful, but often useful when you get the hang of them. They give no details--at least not in a language that anyone can comprehend--but do seem to provide some concrete information...if you can figure out what it is.
Overall, the city is a bizarre and wondrous place. Only a few things can be said about it for certain: each road eventually ends at a different ticking clock. Some buildings may be entered, but no way above the first floor may be found. The language of its inhabitants cannot be decoded. The equations inscribed all over the walls produce accurate, if not necessarily useful, solutions. And if the robots within the floating mechanical city have a name for it, they aren't telling...but here and there, a word appears etched into structures and walls amidst the equations. Lovelace.