The city of Caldera is an enormous, “stacked” city built around a small, secondary cone of an enormous, dormant volcano crater. Before history, a volcano exploded violently, blowing off the top three-fourths of the mountain. Much of it collapsed in on itself, leaving a fairly flat plain inside the crater. Over time, a smaller volcanic cone grew inside the crater (a bit off center). A few thousand years ago, Tarisian horse nomads built a fortress here and over time this grew into the megacity called Caldera.
Outside the Crater
Caldera’s crater sits in the middle of a large isthmus called the Sea Bridge, which connects the northern and southern continents. The Gold Road hugs the morning shadow of the Liuven Mountains, the north-south range that Caldera’s dormant volcano belongs. The Sea Bridge has a very well-kept road of stone that crosses the mountains from sea to sea, passing right by Caldera.
Caldera sits at a temperate latitude. The winters are very cold. The summers are hot. The protected seas to the east and west of the city do little to moderate the climate. The land around the caldera is a mix of rocky, mountainous terrain and forest-covered hills.
The crater is a quarter of a mountain, most of its top destroyed long before history. It’s about 7 miles across, with a jagged ring of peaks forming the crater wall. The top of this ring is fortified with towers and a wall, largely invisible to people on the ground. Guards make regular patrols, but it’s impossible to keep dedicated people from climbing the walls. The patrols are meant to stop armies.
Five long switch-backs wind back and forth up the steep slopes of the outer caldera walls, which stand at least 2000 feet high. Each terminates at a different tunnel about half the way up the mountain face. The tunnels are protected by very old, very strong gatehouses, manned 24 hours a day by guards. Each gatehouse has a permanent garrison of soldiers assigned. It is nearly impossible to get into the crater without passing through these tunnels, unless one wants to scale a thousand feet of icy, rocky cliffs. Visitors pay a toll to enter the crater.
Inside the Crater
The tunnels emerge at ground level inside the crater. Visitors are often surprised by what they find inside. Regardless of the weather outside, inside the crater, it always seems to be warm. It may not be sunny and clear and it often rains and sometimes even snows in Caldera, but the temperature rarely dips below 60F or reaches over 80F.
Most of the crater is covered with about 18,000 acres of terraced farmland and small forests and lakes. There are small manorial villages scattered around the crater to service the farms.
The city, built around a small volcanic cone, is clearly visible from every point in the crater. It is an overgrown thing, almost a single structure with every building connecting to every other building, in an organic stack of at least eight layers. Some very tall buildings and monuments stick out the top. The outer edge of the city cuts off abruptly, eight stories high, as ancient laws forbid building more than about 1.5 miles from the city’s center. For this reason, the city is almost perfectly round, too.
There are a few main city gates, but there are thousands of ways to get into the city. Caldera depends on the volcano walls to protect it.
Inside the City
Caldera was not a planned city. Its roads wind around the small cone and the bumpiest terrain inside the crater. Still, there are some key geographic features obvious to anyone who studies the city.
The city has two main sections. High Caldera is the part of the city built on the flat top of the small cone. Beneath and all around High Caldera is Low Caldera, though everyone just calls it Caldera.
This much larger part of the city is almost perfectly round except for a slice cut out of it where the Cerul River runs. It’s a truly unnatural river, originating at a gushing spring in High Caldera, running down a series of falls and out of the city, through the farm land in the crater, and eventually through a series of canyon tunnels that let the water escape out of crater entirely. The river eventually runs into the western sea. The buildings along the river are cut in a stepped “V” pattern, as the owners of the land closer to the river have been able to prevent buildings over top of theirs.
A City of Layers
The top layer of the city is the newest and most miraculous in many ways. It contains many large temple complexes, streets lined with impressive manors and homes, giant statues, all sorts of towers, and numerous arenas and amphitheaters.
Beneath these layers is not solid ground, but seven other layers of buildings. Each layer is usually one story, but often two or three. It’s misleading to think of the city in eight perfect layers. There are buildings which reach from the bottom to the top. Sometimes roads just descend into lower levels and you barely realize it. Other times, you need to take a ramp, stair, or elevator to reach another level.
With few exceptions, the streets of Caldera are very narrow—usually around 5 feet wide—and the side alleys usually around 2-3 feet wide. Space is at a premium and it was not wasted on streets. The streets are also not very straight. They wind around hills or buildings and cut off abruptly where someone decided to build a new structure. People generally know the maze of their local neighborhood, can get around the areas nearby, and get totally lost anywhere else. In the poorest areas, people cut through houses to get around more conveniently; this is an accepted way of life.
In the lowest levels, there is no natural light. To get around, people carry magical light sticks, which are plentiful (torches are frowned upon, for fear of starting fires). Some streets have permanent lights, though there are monsters that seem to feed on them regularly. Higher up, many streets have open plazas that get sunlight, casting everywhere else in a hazy, dusty dimness. Only on the uppermost level do people enjoy full sunshine.
There are hundreds of distinct, small neighborhoods, each with its own name. Few of them are worthy of mention. A handful do stand out, however.
Cerulside is the mile and a half of terraced land along the Cerul River. This is the most choice real estate in the city, owned by the richest and most powerful families. Hundreds of years ago, the Arima caste kicked the tanners and smiths and other craftsmen off the river and built their villas here. (The craftsmen now get their water piped into their shops and factories, or they have shops on the many underground canals, far away from the quiet river.) Every building in Cerulside has full sunlight, because of the way it’s terraced all the way down to the river.
Gold is another rich neighborhood. When Cerulside filled up, the rest of the elite moved topside. Considered gauche compared to the old money of the riverfront, Gold is still one of the best neighborhoods in Caldera. The homes here often exceed Cerulside’s in size and grandeur. Incidentally, Gold is so-named not for the money here, but for the sunlight (the true gold of the city).
Tursala, named for Tursa, the Torchbearer, goddess of light, is a temple district that reaches from the top of the city to the lowest levels, where its original temple complex was built. These top layers are filled with temples, colleges, dormitories, and the like. The temple of Tursa sits in the center of the neighborhood, its 100-foot-high torch filling the area with light every night.
Minotaur is the scariest neighborhood in Caldera, sitting at the lowest levels near the city’s center. It has become known for being plagued with monsters, which the inhabitants try to kill or contain. People say that magic is strongest there and it warps everyone who lives in it. The streets are especially maze-like here and visitors often get confused and lost.
Sunbridge is an older, top-level neighborhood that is in decline. Its only claim to fame is being the home of the Temple of Smoldering Sorrow, an old church dedicated to some of the stranger aspects of the Torchbearer. The neighborhood is tucked between three university campuses: the Arcane Sciences Academy, the Fexactium Sword School, and the Old Caldera College. The buildings here often stretch to five stories—mainly crumbling tenements with street-level restaurants and storefronts. A lot of the neighborhood is covered with skylights down into The Gloaming, the neighborhood beneath it.
The Gloaming sits on the second level down, just beneath Sunbridge. It’s a nicer neighborhood than the ones above and below it, largely due to the watchful eye of a senator who has a manor house here. Several Gloaming landmarks are common stops for university students from other neighborhoods: The Golden Beam (a popular entertainment tavern), Mama Lusia’s bakery, and Gloaming Park (famous for its greenery and sculpture garden).
(More to come!)