Highspire, aka The Towering City
The metropolis of Highspire is a city contained largely within an enormous stone pillar nearly a mile in diameter with hundreds upon hundreds of floors. No one knows where this strange artificial mountain came from, but the city is known as one of the preeminent centers of learning on the continent in both magic and science. It is also one of the larger centers of industry, and the base of Highspire is infamous as a morass of pollution so severe that the dangerous chemicals, alchemical runoff and corrupted food and water supplies cause everything from disease to birth defects. Worse, since magic is part of the mix, this mix of ooze and garbage sometimes pulls itself together with a modicum of intelligence, roaming the slums at the base of the tower and keeping the population in perpetual dread. In Highspire, everything is about how far up you are. The highest levels are palatial and possess absurd resources, while the lowest are so polluted and so dangerous as to be nearly unliveable. An enormous lake of clean fresh water is somehow maintained near the top and flows through every level, creating a sort of plumbing. While higher levels are not supposed to dispose of waste in the waterline, this happens frequently enough that by the time it reaches the base of the tower the water is more sludge than liquid, contaminated with everything from industrial runoff to discarded alchemical experiments. Most who live in Highspire dream of rising to a higher level, both for material benefit and social prestige, and one's "level number" the highest in the facility one has ascended, is a mark of social status. The culture is a mix of confucian meritocracy and free market capitalism, leading to a system of considerable personal freedom...but with little in the way of a safety net for those without. Every aspect of the culture reflects this "high is good, low is bad" mindset. People from Highspire won't use straws, but rather lift their glasses over their head and tip them back to "receive" their beverage from above (implying it's cleaner, more valuable, etc than someone's who has to "suck up" their drink). Metaphors like "she's rising in the ranks," and "he's made it to the top" are common, and statements that something immoral was "low" perpetuate a common prejudice that the poorer people of Highspire are more desperate and less trustworthy. That said, a considerable criminal underworld exists in Highspire, both deep in the lower levels where the guards fear to tread and in the complex series of ladders, bamboo poles and other ramshackle construction that surrounds much of the outside of the Spire, with gangs of young cutpurses snatching bags and sliding or climbing out of sight with the speed of circus performers. This extensive network is a cross between a ship's riggings and an impromptu shantytown, and though the view is spectacular the ramshackle nature of the platforms makes the whole area potentially dangerous. As bleak as things can get, Highspire is also a meritocracy, and children who score well on academic tests or show talent in the application of real-world skills are often able to school at much higher levels than their parents could otherwise afford. This leads to a vicious competition among young people for the best grades and most noteworthy achievements, and many Highspire parents see (and treat) their children as potential tickets out of poverty.