Tourney at the Hanging Gardens (part one)

Atlantis wasn’t the only advanced civilization to suffer a sudden and precipitous fall; there was also Ys, Norumbega, Arcadia, and others… at least according to the lore of the hit video game Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

Jenny Handerly (who goes by Handzy online) is also seeking her own path to paradise, through the game.  If her ragtag team of friends can win the next Hanging Gardens tournament she’ll be set toward the future of her dreams, but there are plenty of obstacles in the way, in the gardens and well beyond them in the ruthless, youth-obsessed, and often bigoted world of E-sports.

Tourney at the Hanging Gardens

by

Blaine Arcade

Tutorial

The party had journeyed deep into the caverns of the hanging gardens of Babylon. It was not a place that knew true darkness, so no matter how far down they went they would always be able to see their way. Still, it was as dim and cool as it ever got in their paradise, and it had them all on edge.

They hadn’t constructed the gardens, and they didn’t know any of those who had, so all of the small questions about its functioning were allowed to fester and grow into giant frightening shadows in the back of their minds.

Mushrooms were a good example. The gardens were supposed to be deathless, that was the reward for reaching them, and for giving up your humanity to do so… but then why were their mushrooms? Such organisms thrived only where there was death and decay, and their pale white caps were visible everywhere in the caverns. They had to be feeding on something that no longer was.

Not so naive as to think they could spend their time lounging on clouds and letting waterfalls and canals take them wherever they pleased, the party had all brought their weapons. The gates were open to people from all over the world, and all over time. There was no telling where their fellows had come from, or what value was closest to their heart.

Each of them served a purpose in the mission to recover the chest of Uxul. The weathered gargoyle led the way, antelope horns and massive shoulders pushing through hanging ferns as long and wide as crocodiles. He suspected traps as much as the others, but did not fear them. Explosives couldn’t threaten his rocky shell, blades bounced off, and poisonous fangs couldn’t find a vein anywhere in him to infect.

Behind him skulked a most loathsome creature, though you wouldn’t know it by his smile, unless it was full enough to show his pearly fangs. In place of a right hand he had a prosthesis of two metal hooks, together perched as replacement fangs should his supernatural set fail him. Back on Earth he had stalked the seven seas endlessly, never having to worry about being invited in when the waters were lawless and your property was mostly defined as whatever solid object you were currently standing on. Nobody could call the thieving parasite anything affectionately, but if they could they might name him the vampirate.

He would slit throats if need be, but he could only do so in close quarters combat. The woman behind would have the opportunity to strike first should they spot their foes from a distance. Ready in her arms sat a bow and arrow, its surface tarnished by splashes of soot and ash. Her quiver contained arrows, but at the tip of each was a firework packed with brilliant colors. She did not disclose which civilization had forged her, but it was apparently one where they felt their enemies needed to explode in flashy displays to get their point across.

Behind the firework archer was the grape stomper: a citizen of Arcadia. The place the Greeks grew in those blessed hills was arguably close to the glory of Babylon, and she showed many signs of having lived there without a care for centuries. Her feet and ankles were permanently stained dark purple from entire seasons of dancing that produced medicinal wine. She wore a circlet of leaves that looked alive despite no roots. Over her shoulder, and with just three fingers on one hand, she carried a sloshing jug with ease, even though it weighed nearly as much as she did.

If need be the wine within could be poured onto any wound to rapidly speed the healing process. It was the height of foolishness to descend into the lower levels of the gardens without someone like her by your side.

Together they would reclaim the chest and make sure its golden contents couldn’t be used for alchemical evil, but first they had to find it. Luckily, during the theft, it had sprung a leak, and was leaving a trail of coins from a hundred different civilizations. A periodic sparkling upon the ground had led them deeper and deeper, until there was no hope of reinforcements from the less lawless and wild sections.

There came a sound that made them all freeze in their tracks, like a cross between the chatter of a dolphin and the song of a loon. They’d heard it before, and understood what it meant all too well. The sound was echolocation, and the being generating it was pinpointing their position. Their only chance to maintain the element of surprise was to charge toward it, and to do so immediately.

I’ve got the chest!” the gargoyle shouted as he burst through the undergrowth and smashed low-hanging stalactites.

Look away,” the archer followed up before firing an arrow directly into the ceiling. It exploded in a brilliant yellow flash, hopefully blinding their foes for a moment. The vampirate had already disappeared, to do his work from the shadows. The grape stomper knew he could handle himself, and her medicine would be much more needed by the other two.

She took up a position between her other teammates and moved with them, but the first attack came from above. A hand with pearl talons dove and scratched the stomper’s shoulder. -15. She didn’t stop, just aimed her jug at the flying creature as it completed its swoop. One of the many secrets of the Arcadian vintners was giving wine loyalty; what she carried would heal her friends and poison her enemies.

A liquid ball blasted out of the jug and into the sky, striking the creature. -10. The splash of wine dyed its slick body a magnificent color, and through the raining droplets they saw that they had identified their foe correctly. It was the flying mermaid, woman from the waist up, flying fish from the waist down. Her dolphin cackling was unmistakable, but it didn’t tell them who she had allied herself with.

The gargoyle could feel it; the chest was through a final wall of vines. He reared back to rip through them with slate claws, but the chest beat him to it. Levitated by magic, it shot through the veil and struck the beast’s chest, cracking his armor and knocking him onto his back. -60.

So what are all those red numbers?” Mr. Vallet asked.

They’re damage values,” the archer said quickly to quiet him. In the gardens she was known by several names. Today it was the firework archer. In another battle it might be lightning conductor or burned witch. Outside Babylon she was called Jenny Handerly, but her handle online was Handzy thanks to the impressive liberties she could take with a keyboard when the chips were down and the stakes were high: high enough for two full experience levels. Handzy focused back into her second set of eyes, those of the archer, and lit the fuse of another arrow.

This time it was with the intent to destroy rather than blind. The rest of the thieves had burst out from their hiding places. The flying mermaid was their ranger, so that left a brawler, an assassin, and a medic. They were easy enough to identify: dragon knight, master of disguise, and water witcher. The gargoyle was already getting back up, putting himself in the way of the charge.

A ball of wine sailed over the archer’s head and struck the stony behemoth’s back. Several of his cracks sealed. +25.

That one was green,” Mr. Vallet said, pointing at one of the four monitors.

Yeah Dad, because she healed me,” his son Marco snapped, lifting his hand off his mouse just long enough to slap his father’s pointing finger out of his peripheral vision.

She healed you with her gun?”

It’s a wine jug,” the grape stomper said. Outside the gardens she was a he, and his name was Elijah. Handle: Plusplus. He was able to explain much more patiently, even while keeping the others’ health pools topped off. “This is a first-person shooter, so it always looks like you’re holding a gun, but it’s a fantasy game, so the ‘gun’ can be basically anything.”

Uhuh… Uhuh,” Mr. Vallet muttered. “Man, video games sure have come a long way since I was a kid. I think the last time I played one I was just jumping on platforms and whipping zombies.” None of the four teenagers responded to that, so he did his best to discern some information on his own by squinting at their screens.

It mostly just looked like a mess to him, like a spatter painting that might cause a seizure. Every second was a tangle of beams, bullets, splashes, rainbows, and electric sparks. There was a chest, he could see it sometimes when the fire died down, and it seemed pretty important. It was floating, following around whoever was closest to it, and a big gold number at the top of the screen, perhaps the king of all these numbers since it was the only one that didn’t immediately disappear, kept counting up whenever the chest followed one member of his son’s team.

The chest looked harmless enough, but it had nearly broken his son’s armor. Picking it up and throwing it was an ability exclusive to the dragon knight. He lit the cave more aggressively than all the others, belching streams of fire from the slats in his helm. The swirling rumors of the gardens said he was cursed, a dragon slayer in life back on Earth. Now he looked like them, reptilian slit eyes, green scaly skin, and a dagger-tipped tail poking out of one leg of his own suit of rusty armor.

Now that the chest had been thrown the ability was on cooldown, and couldn’t be used again for some time. That gave the gargoyle a window of opportunity to get in close, where the flame stream would be useless as well.

You got this,” Handzy encouraged him as she pumped exploding arrows into the water witcher and the master of disguise to keep them off him.

Of course I do,” Marco, whose name was displayed in-game as Granslam, boasted. The gargoyle grappled with the knight, rolling his body that was mostly mountainous shoulders forward. The tumbling wheel toss dealt injury each time the knight’s back hit the cavern’s floor. -9 -9 -9 -9.

Their enemies were suppressed, but the chest was tailing water witcher. They needed to get it back, and only one of them had the opportunity to strike. The vampirate emerged from the shadows, in fact from one shadow specifically.

His pale form emerged from under the water witcher, and with his twin hooks he began covertly siphoning away health as a stream of red mist. If it reached a critically low level the chest would detach and follow him instead. Once time ran out whichever squad had more accrued seconds of chest stewardship would be declared the winner.

And what’s Glenn doing?”

When we’re playing he’s called Flippers,” Marco said for him, knowing full well his friend needed to concentrate. “You know, like pinball flippers. He’s playing our assassin. He’s supposed to sneak around and kill people without them noticing. Shit!” The dragon knight blasted the weathered gargoyle away with an explosion from his mouth.

Hey language,” his father scolded, taking a sip from his coffee mug. “What would your mother say?” That always made the boy reel it back in. Mrs. Vallet had passed nearly five years ago, from a serious infection. Even in the hospital, even with her eyes fluttering open and shut, she had watched her little boy’s language like a hawk. If he wanted to swear when he was older he could do it in Spanish, so all the white people in public wouldn’t know he was being rude.

There are four roles required for a team,” Handzy told him to get the heat off Granslam. “Brawlers absorb damage and disrupt enemy formations, assassins flank and kill, rangers pepper with damage from a distance, and medics heal their teammates.”

But the bad guys don’t look like you.”

That’s because each role has several characters within it that you can choose, and no character can be in the same match twice. I’m the ranger, but I’m playing firework archer. The enemy ranger is playing flying mermaid.”

There, now that we’ve explained the whole game to you can you go away Dad? We’re practicing for the tournament.”

I would love to go away,” he said, stepping around the unpolished granite counter top to put it between them and lean on it, first rolling up his sleeves so the stone dust wouldn’t dirty his elbows, “except you kids are using all the bandwidth. I can’t watch my shows. You’re the only entertainment in the whole workshop.”

Their voices didn’t echo in the utilities room, which barely had enough space for the stack of unfinished counters, one row of computers and chairs, and the various fuse boxes the business needed, but if they moved thirty feet to the right anything they said would bounce around the high metal ceilings and hanging lamps of Granite Valet stonework company.

It was late in the evening, so none of the employees were there, just the owner, his son, and his son’s friends. Or, he had to correct himself, they might prefer to be called coworkers. They were really trying to make a go of this E-sports venture of theirs. It took a few hours, but eventually Joaquin Vallet understood there was some money in it, if you had the skills.

That was why they insisted they needed to use the warehouse’s business class internet. Apparently, E-sports professionals were only as good as their connections. One microsecond of lag could cost them a point of damage, and thus a kill, and thus the round, and thus a tournament with a prize pool of one million dollars.

Mr. Vallet really didn’t mind their presence. It was good to have kids running around the place again, though they were all nearly out of high school, and they were more ‘glued to their seats’ than ‘running around’. Still, sometimes they would finish up a practice and walk out into the open space between all the leaning slabs of swirling earthy colors and play catch with whatever office supply they had nicked on their way out. He had taken to leaving them something on the counter there to see if they would pick it up and toss it around. Today it was the coffee mug, but he had to empty it first. He took another sip.

Marco even seemed annoyed at that, so he figured he might as well keep talking if every single sound was going to set him off. The boy could use a thicker skin; it was a shame he wasn’t taking cues from the stony gargoyle he was controlling.

So does this game have a story or something?”

It has lore,” Plusplus said.

Is that like a story?”

More like backstory,” Flippers said, finally speaking up now that his target had expired. “It’s a multiplayer-only game so there’s no need for story while you’re playing, but you can look up a bunch of information about the characters and stuff in the menu. Plus the company that makes it has a bunch of tie-in comics and books.”

So give me the exam notes,” Mr. Vallet said, finally draining his cup. It was too late for coffee, he could already feel it frying his nerves, but the kids always stayed up late and he agreed to keep an eye on them all since it was a Friday and Glenn’s parents specifically asked that he not be allowed to stay up past one. If they didn’t call it quits by midnight he was going to have to wrangle them all and drive them back to the house against their will. “It’s called Hanging Gardens of Babylon, right?”

Yeah,” Flippers continued. He was a pale skinny kid, with his narrow focus, like the path of an arrow, coming across with every word. “It’s about a bunch of mythical lost civilizations that were super advanced: Atlantis, El Dorado, Ys, Arcadia, Shambhala, the city of the pillars, Cockaigne, and Norumbega.”

I’ve heard of some of those. What, no Big Rock Candy Mountain?”

Huh?” three of the kids said at once.

Nothing, it’s an old song. Keep going Glenn.”

Anyway, the lore is that each of these civilizations, where they reached near-utopia states thanks to combining science and magic, all had the same goal in mind. There was a true utopia out there, one where you could be immortal, and if they kept advancing they would eventually be able to reach it.

It turned out they were right. There is a place… the hanging gardens. It’s bigger than a mountain range, loaded with plants that hang off its ceramic sides and grow into a bright cloudy abyss. It just floats there, in the middle of no place we’d ever recognize. There is no age there, so the vines keep growing down and down and down, never dying, never finding land.”

But your characters are fighting in the gardens right now, right? How did they get there?”

That’s why all of these civilizations fell or vanished. It’s how Atlantis sunk to the bottom of the sea. Their rulers eventually figured out the gateway to Babylon is locked, and the key is a mass sacrifice of human life.”

That’s… really dark.”

You don’t know the half of it. Each time the ruling party or figures sacrificed their people and made it the gardens, there were a few lucky stragglers managing to sneak or buy their way in at the last minute. Those people and beings are the characters we play.

They’re constantly dealing with the guilt of what they had to do or ignore to secure their own immortality, but their presence makes the gardens imperfect. They don’t age, but they can still die from violence, and they’re surrounded by people they already know to have committed thousands or hundreds of thousands of murders, all for a ticket to paradise.”

So they’re all fighting because they don’t trust each other… and those fights are the matches that you guys are playing?”

Now you’re getting it Mr. Vallet,” Handzy said. “And so are we!” They all howled victoriously, Plusplus taking his hands off his mouse and keyboard for one brief moment to clap. Mr. Vallet thought they had won, but they were right back into it. Apparently all they’d done was wipe the enemy team completely, meaning they had several precious seconds of peace to accrue treasure chest points while their foes were ‘respawning’.

So you guys are all playing your favorite characters right? Marco your favorite is the gargoyle? It’s because your old man’s in the stone business right?”

It’s just a coincidence,” his son said with a roll of his eyes. “This is serious Dad. We can’t afford to play our favorite characters. We’d lose if we did.”

What do you mean?”

Balancing every character perfectly is impossible,” Handzy said, picking up the thread. “They release software patches all the time to try and make it as close as possible, but there’s always a character that’s dealing .01 more damage or healing per second than all the others, so you’re at a disadvantage if you’re not playing them while they’re strongest.”

It’s called min-maxing,” Flippers threw in. “Minimizing damage taken and maximizing damage put out. You’ll never win a tournament without it.”

Doesn’t that take all the fun out of it?” the middle-aged man asked, realizing they’d finally hit the wall he’d always known was coming. Everything they’d said so far sounded kind of interesting, but there was always a generational divide lurking somewhere, ready to smack him in the face. “I don’t think video games are supposed to be about math.”

Life shouldn’t be about math, but we’re still forced to think about money all the time anyway,” Plusplus said with uncharacteristic bite but typical insight. As the group’s healer perhaps he hated min-maxing the most, and just wanted to help people without getting bogged down in the details of why it couldn’t be done.

You’ve got me there,” Mr. Vallet admitted, “but I didn’t invent the stuff and I don’t think I ever would have. Still, it’s a shame you have to play this way. Who are all your favorite characters?” They paused, which they could afford to do since their enemies weren’t quite back yet.

Party animal,” Plusplus said. “He’s a fat drunken satyr. When the enemy damages him his blood comes out as big wobbly wine bubbles that heal his teammates when they pop them.”

I like the time traveler,” Handzy said. “She has an hourglass for a waist. Her projectiles can be delayed in time, reappearing mid-path when somebody steps in front of their trajectory. It’s hard to plan out though, so she’s almost never the meta.” She saw Mr. Vallet’s nodding confusion. “Uhh that’s the metagame. It’s whatever the most efficient version of the game looks like at any time.”

My favorite is the master of disguise,” Flippers said. “He does pretty much what’s on the tin… disguises himself as the enemy in order to get close and take them out.”

And I like the half-petrified Vesuvian,” Marco finished. “He’s a guy from Arcadia who was there when Mt. Vesuvius erupted, but thanks to magical protection only half his body got blasted, now one side of him is all ashy and magma-looking.”

I see,” his father said with a grin. “So still kind of a rocky look going on.”

Sure Dad, whatever.” Marco finally chuckled, but they couldn’t be happy for long. The other monsters and sorcerers and tinkerers of the hanging gardens were back, and eager to get a taste of the treasure chest. Mr. Vallet listened to the clickety-clack of their keys. Suddenly he didn’t feel like interrupting them anymore, so he stepped out into the warehouse, where the leaning slabs of rock, some fifteen feet high, absorbed much of the heat, leaving the air chilled. From the side they looked like giant books on a shelf, leaning because there was one space at the end that never got filled.

Marco wasn’t talking about college yet. He only talked about the game. His mother would have said something about that by now, but Joaquin hadn’t done it for her. Maybe they could win; he had no way of knowing how good they were. The tournament they were training for had a grand prize of one million dollars for the winning team.

Or organization, he reminded himself. There were whole organizations, companies, competing in these things. The players lived in team houses, wore jerseys, sold jerseys, and maybe even big foam fingers. No, probably not those things. What use would a gamer have for something that made it impossible to play?

One of those corporate outfits was going to win. Surely that’s how it went in this world, like most other worlds. The hanging gardens of Babylon weren’t a paradise, but a conglomerate with a paradise billboard.

Or maybe Marco, Jenny, Glenn, and Elijah would win. After all, what did he know about video games?

The Fall and Ascent of Arcadia

(excerpt from HGOB tie-in novel Arcadia to Babylon)

In all her years there had never been a harvest as large as this one, but of course her amazed brain muttered that every year now. She supposed the beaming smile of a god had no limits, and that it could grow beyond their faces, further and further, growing their blessings in turn. Demeter must have been greatly pleased with something the people of Arcadia were doing.

The grape harvest had produced fruits so large and so perfect that they were practically gemstones; she could barely stand to ruin their perfection with her stomping. She plucked one from around her feet and examined it. Rich. Purple. Plump. The size of her palm. She helped herself, having to take multiple bites as if it were a plum.

The flavor must have been a potion brewed by Demeter herself, stirred in a moon crater as cauldron, with a sunbeam as golden rod. Were this her childhood, and she was back stomping sour grapes in a barrel for her family that treated her as a slave, she never would have dared eat one.

Even a single grape would have been deemed too much of a reward for her, too much profit robbed from them, but the grapes of Arcadia filled an entire building, nearly drowned its marble columns. Their fields had produced so much they were now using the old senate rotundas as barrels. Arcadia’s architecture was a marvel the world over, and most of their structures now had multiple floors, but the grapes had filled this place so much she had no idea if she was on the second or third.

Somewhere below her there had be a spout, eventually receiving the juice she was crushing out of them with her big bare feet. She’d been told there was a celebration going on, and they were so in need of refreshment that they couldn’t wait for wine proper. The juice was flowing directly into their crystal goblets, and they deserved it too, for the bounty the governing council had managed to negotiate as patrons of kind Demeter.

Where had all the lazy others gone? The grape stomper stopped and looked around. The harvest sat quietly, fenced in by marble on all sides. A few hours ago the place was full of friendly feet, all dancing away to provide. They’d probably taken a break without telling her, something they often did, arguing that her giant’s feet were the most important and thus needed to do the most work. It was all gentle teasing, and in her mind not undeserved. She was always told she had exceptionally large feet for a woman, and many didn’t even bother to say ‘for a woman’ at the end.

All the better to stomp with. It was fun for her. She could run without the soles of her feet ever hurting. Take a deep breath and have it always be sweet. The juice of her labors was always nearby, measurable, showing her exactly how much joy she’d created down to the drop. Even in her lowly position in Arcadia she had it all, and all it took to get it was one step.

When she was eleven, still owned by her parents, she had been sitting by a tree on an unauthorized break from her duties. The rags that were her clothes smelled foul, so she experimentally pinched and freed her nose repeatedly to see how much the odor dampened her mood.

Her hand was blocking it while it swept in, and she only saw when she pulled her fingers away. The meadow before her was not the one she sat down near. No, this one rolled, was filled with flowers and grass as high as her knees, and it went on for ages. Its greens were so bright that she wondered if they counted as a different color.

Underneath this new land there was a thick skin of lively mist, a feature that could not be mistaken for anything else. She was looking at the fabled land of Arcadia. It had been a mere legend as far as she was concerned, until that very moment, and her heart swelled in disbelief. How did it go? She need to remember every detail before it slipped away.

Arcadia was the roaming pastoral countryside. It stayed alive by flouting the seasons, traveling along on mist like a slug, with the migrating birds to avoid the coldest weather. An Arcadian bloom never shriveled or fell unless attacked. Its fruits couldn’t wither on the vine, only be plucked and savored. Brilliant men and women lived there, and one of them had put the mist under the land with an invention. Another fashioned a golden ram horn that let them talk directly to the gods. Another detected dreams, steering Arcadia like a ship to find the people who needed its lush serenity the most.

Then perhaps it was there for her. The grape stomper stood and rushed forward, to the misty edge. She looked down and saw that it had never stopped moving. In an hour it would be gone, off somewhere else. Her only opportunity was sliding by as she mulled it over, profoundly foolish given that the only joy she experienced in her daily life was squashed between her toes.

With determination filling her massive soles she leapt, with much more flourish than was necessary, from ordinary field into extraordinary. That one impact alone changed her. A weight was lifted, ripped out of her against its clawing will by the breeze of Arcadia and tossed over the side, back to cruel mundanity.

She couldn’t explore it yet though. She had to watch the edge and make sure none of her family came by and boarded. It was her dreams that brought it, of that she was certain, and that certainty burned inside her as a white hot rage. If any of them, mother, father, brother, tried to run and jump on she would push them back. They didn’t deserve it. May all their wine grapes be stomped by a goat that walked through its own waste from that point on.

None of them did come to check, at least not in time. A mountain chain she had never known was so close slid by, blocking out the sun so she could see more of her new world. Each step was heaven, grass caressing her ankles so much that it tickled. Her bare feet sensed that nothing under them would harm them, no stinging bugs, no thorns. She was walking along a pleasant dream after all.

Eventually she had found the Arcadians, come from all across the city-states, joined by longing. They welcomed her in without hesitation, replaced her spent filthy rags with purple robes. With the indefatigable vegetation of the land they had plenty of use for her specific skill, and she was more than happy to provide.

Now she had stomped her way through more than a decade worth of Arcadian grapes, and the work had only become more engrossing. That was probably why she hadn’t noticed when everyone else had left, not some snickering trick of theirs. After all, she didn’t even keep track of which region Arcadia was passing these days, and at that very moment she had no idea where their country was.

Pompeii. The city of Pompeii was their current, albeit extremely temporary neighbor, and the volcano known as Mount Vesuvius was theirs. The mountain had been stewing for some time, and it was no coincidence that the smartest land in the world, at that time anyway, was present, but most assuredly at a safe distance.

When the peak gave way to a pyroclastic explosion, creating an immense ash cloud that would soon cover everything, but not before the meteoric debris had its go first, all the grape stomper knew of it was the sound. It was like a bang, but one in which all of the air outside and inside her ears was subject to the detonation.

She thought shock threw her into the grapes, but it was in fact a shock wave, a physical oddity so rare in her time that she’d never experienced even a mild one before. The wave ruptured something beneath her, and the harvest started to drain, taking her with it. A wine whirlpool was also new to her, and she didn’t know if she should hold her breath when it sucked her below its surface.

For once the grapes stomped back; the strange sensation overwhelmed almost everything else. The only information she could gather was that the surface had indeed been in the old rotunda’s third floor, because the sinking sensation lasted too long to have been anything lower.

Finally she tumbled out on a wave of fruit, through the ruptured face of a wooden wall that had been decorated with nothing but a wine nozzle moments before. This was where all her work had been intended to go, though certainly not this quickly or in such a volume. Her entrance made more than a mere clatter, yet it was only enough to turn a few of the many heads in the governing council’s meeting chamber.

Most of the politicians were staring out, through an open wall and into the countryside, into the city of Pompeii beneath them just as it was struck with the first of countless fireballs. The haze of black smoke and red lava created a wave of heat, distorting the details, warming their faces even from that distance, but there was no mistaking the broad strokes, especially the sweep of a lava brush across the entire market district that occurred in seconds.

What are you doing here?” one of the governors, a gray-haired woman, demanded of the stomper as she picked herself up and plodded forward, hypnotized by fear and a sense of devastation. She didn’t answer, but did notice the woman was still holding a goblet full of her efforts. “We dismissed all of you! You should be down there.”

There was only one ‘down there’ the woman could have been referring to. The truth dawned on the stomper, and even her powerful feet couldn’t bear it, so she dropped to her knees. Her friends and family were down there, turning into specks of steam as the eruption flooded each and every street.

Often they stepped off Arcadia to bring gifts to less fortunate people. The governors had used this, sending them out in celebration, and had apparently known full well what was about to happen. The three people who had found her, those years ago, wide-eyed and hopeful and tiptoeing on foreign soil, were already petrified in front of her, too small to see, but not to be felt in her heart as a piercing emptiness, like the tip of a hollow lance, a hypodermic meant to aggressively and voraciously suck out her soul.

She could not form words, so what came out of her was just a suffering howl that eventually choked itself out. One question continuously tried to rise, but the sight of a fresh blanket of lava destroyed it every time. Why? Why had they done this? There could not possibly be a point to this catastrophic suffering and death.

They already had paradise. None hungered in Arcadia. There was no disease. They had long lives and the gods often spoke to them in their dreams as if it was mere conversation between two people as they washed their clothes. They had transcended the need for money by letting the land itself weed out the unworthy. Only those willing to contribute had dreams that could summon the misty country to their side.

The grape stomper realized something. She’d been told a thousand times that it only came to those with something to offer and the desire to offer it. She’d never needed to worry about her manipulative useless family making it aboard. If they had tried they would’ve been sucked down into the ground and expelled out the bottom like waste, like worms falling from the clumped dirt under a plant as it was repotted.

They never said anything about a requirement of good intentions though. There should have been, even more so than the requirement that was there. The fact that it wasn’t meant that Arcadia’s corruption was not recent. It had been there from the first person who set foot on it, intent to misuse it slowly, indirectly, until it built pressure and became the conflagration eating thousands under them, like a salamander eating sparks that tried to leap out of the fire pit.

It should have been her feet that reached this place first. She would’ve dropped all of Arcadia on top of the volcano like a lid if it had even the slightest chance of giving the people in the commoner city time enough to escape. That was the Arcadian way, the will of Demeter who would never see a full crop of her disciples go up in flames like this.

Demeter will claim you,” the stomper seethed at the governors. “She will dry all of you out! Hang your shriveled wailing heads in bundles on her wall!”

We’ll be long gone before she catches wind of any of this,” the gray governor claimed with a bitter huff of a laugh. “Look. We’re rising already.” She was right. Pompeii was getting smaller, and the sky was taking them in. An unseen force pushed smoke and ash out of the way, refused them entrance to Arcadia.

What’s happening?” the stomper asked as the mists beneath the land expanded into great plumes like cloud-trees. “We can’t leave them! Where are we going!?”

To Babylon!” the woman declared, which was picked up and repeated by all the other governors. “To Babylon!” Then they dared to drink to their success. The stomper spun and kicked the goblet out of the woman’s hand and mouth, taking one of her traitorous teeth with it. She screamed and panicked, chasing after the tinkling white nugget on all fours as it slid toward the precipice.

She might have caught it, but at the moment it fell something else rose, knocking the woman backward as it trailed smoke. The thing landed behind her and unfurled, screaming. A man, but he was partially consumed by the petrifying fires of Vesuvius. One side of his body was ablaze, and as he suppressed the gasping flames with smacks the stomper could see that he was half-destroyed, but those parts were still moving.

He must have had a godly blessing upon his flesh, but not one strong enough to withstand the full force of the mountain. It must also have given him the strength to perform a truly divine leap, out of the city and onto the rising platform that was Arcadia.

The governors retreated as the man roared and flailed, with it entirely unclear how much he understood about what just happened, or what just happened to his own body. The only thing he did know was who was responsible.

You fiends!” he cried. “I’ll kill every last one of you for this! I’ll have my revenge!” The half-petrified Vesuvian’s revenge would have to wait, because he was still steaming, and it still hurt. He went from swiping at the air around the governors to staggering past the stomper, eventually throwing himself into the mound of grapes she’d come crawling out of.

Their pulpy juice helped to extinguish his heat, and with the one eye that wasn’t submerged in purple globes he scanned the chamber. He was checking to see if he was alone, or if anyone else was on his side against the corrupt murderous elite surrounding him. His gaze didn’t find much, just the grape stomper, and one other form passed out in the corner, wrapped in silks and bathing in a puddle of spilled juice.

He was an uninvited guest, but nobody there had the power to physically remove him, as the snoring hulk was a satyr over seven feet tall, and fatter than a rhinoceros. Perhaps when the party animal awoke he would be on their side, but that was still only three. There had to be more. Arcadia was more than that one building, so surely there were at least a hundred others out there that refused to visit Pompeii despite being encouraged.

The governors refused to share any more information with them, but they couldn’t keep them from observing Arcadia’s journey into the sky, although it couldn’t be called the sky exactly, not after they penetrated the first layer of clouds.

The stomper stood as close to the edge as she could, constantly checking over her shoulder to see if any of the governors might attempt pushing her. She felt the moisture of the clouds on her cheeks, but there was another sensation she couldn’t put her finger on. Something strained to keep the air from thinning; it pushed to keep water levels under control, to keep out harsh light and let through only the most delicate rays, and to keep the very systems inside her body pumping, flowing, and blinking as they tended.

When they finally broke through it came with the revelation that this was not the sky of the Earth, nor the skies of Mt. Olympus. They were somewhere else: a where that couldn’t even be placed on a map without the map spontaneously combusting, skipping flames and going straight to ash.

Among the mountainous cloud pillars there was only one landmark. To the grape stomper it looked like a castle, but as they approached she realized it was far larger than anything built by man. Arcadia was a mere clump of moss at the foot of its drawbridge.

Its curved walls were a soft reddish-brown, and she could not find a single seam in the fired claywork anywhere, as if it were an idea brought to life rather than something actually crafted. There were openings all over: drains, windows, and balconies. From them countless giant plants, mostly ferns and succulents, draped over the side and trailed down into the sea of clouds without an end in sight.

The vegetation was bright, as if lit from the inside, each leaf so plump that it looked moments from rupturing. This place was bursting with life, and the stomper sensed that any explosion that did occur would just spread fertile seedlings as shrapnel.

She felt shame, because she knew these plants were greater than any work of Demeter. These gardens were beyond the gods themselves, and she immediately longed for them, suspecting that a return to Earth, even its most lush jungles and forests, would be like dropping into a desert devoid of even bones. She might take her own life if that happened, and all just from glimpsing the hanging gardens of Babylon in that foreign sky.

Before long the country of Arcadia docked on one of the balconies, and every living being on it felt that strange maintaining force shift so that it compelled them to disembark. All their livestock joined them, as well as every confused burrowing rodent that was smelling sky for the first time. So too came the birds and butterflies, moving as one colorful mass, none of the birds taking the opportunity to eat the insects. There was no need for any of that anymore.

Even the plants moved. The grape stomper watched, her eyes barely able to perceive, as fields of grass and full forests stepped over the balcony’s railing, roots daintily avoiding the stunned people as they journeyed into the heart of the gardens to look for a nice open spot to plant themselves for the rest of eternity.

When the migration was complete Arcadia was nothing but disturbed soil and empty buildings. There was a great and terrible cracking sound as the mists beneath it dissipated and it broke up into several pieces. They fell, like a pinch of grit pulled out of a shoe, and Arcadia was no more.

Soon the grape stomper would come to understand what had happened. Using pilfered Olympian magic, the governors had sacrificed the citizenry to convert them into steam and add them to Arcadia’s propelling mists. Such a sacrifice was the blood toll to holy Babylon, where the few would be living out the lives of the many, and then all the rest.

Arcadia had ascended, but its people had not. She cracked the knuckles of her strong toes. The stomper wouldn’t stand for it.

Terms of Community Conduct

It was difficult to have an argument in the middle of a game, even if it was just a practice match. Handzy didn’t even have her team with her; she was in a game lobby with total strangers. That information might have hurt her position with her sister though, so she kept it to herself and occasionally pretended to shout something at Plusplus, Granslam, or Flippers over the microphone.

Her younger sister by two years, who went by her pen name of Holmes Handerly, wasn’t watching the screen, but she could still see it out of the corner of her eye, because everything could be seen at once in the absurdly small apartment that they shared. It had but one bedroom next to the tiny living area, and they’d only barely gotten twin beds in there along with the desk that held up Handzy’s gaming rig.

It was all exactly as they had agreed with their parents, but that didn’t stop it from being irritating from the moment one of their alarms, which disagreed about the exact time by seven minutes, went off or when one of them insisted they needed a reading light at two in the morning. Still, it was better than not taking their parents’ offer.

Both had silly ideas about their futures. Handzy wanted to be a professional gamer, and Holmes, who looked much like her sister except for her rounder face and more ashen hair, wanted to be a video game industry journalist. Both prospects sounded empty and absurd to Mr. and Mrs. Handerly, but they sensed their children would resent them forever if they didn’t at least give them a chance.

That chance constituted a single year, four months of which had already passed by, in which they would allow the girls to pursue their passions while paying their rent, food, and utilities for a shared apartment. When it was over the flow of money would cease, unless Handzy and Holmes came to their senses and decided to enroll in universities. The eldest had pushed her luck significantly more, as she had already taken more than a year off from planning her future with nothing to show for the time but a part-time job serving smoothies.

Can’t you just interview them on the couch?” Handzy asked between shots with her firework bow. “I’ve got headphones in; you’ll never even know I’m here.”

Come on Jenny,” her sister whined. “I’m going to record this and I can hear your clickety-clacking keys everywhere in here. Just step outside and take a walk for one hour.”

You might as well ask me to jump off a bridge,” she answered without a hint of sarcasm. “Time is tight. There’s a tourney match in two days. We’ll compromise. I’ll just sit here and review match videos. Minimal clickety-clack okay?”

My source is super nervous. If she sees that there’s another person here she might bolt like a fox.”

She dresses like a fox, but she isn’t one literally. You do know that right?”

Yes, but some of them sometimes act skittish okay!? It’s an apt comparison. Although I don’t think she’s a fox. All her pictures online look like a rat… with a rainbow tail.”

Well you are expecting her to rat somebody out, so that fits.”

They’re giving me an account. I’m not a cop. Although something tells me this guy is going to get arrested someday, but not before I bust him wide open. This is going to be my big scoop. I’ve already got an offer from that site Hudwaters. They say if I can get his legal name they’ll sign me as a contributor for at least a year.”

Why? I thought this guy was a total has-been. He was on every goblin’s podcast for six months and then everybody was done with him because he said that thing about rape victims-”

-that they suffered no trauma worse than getting a tetanus shot. Yeah. That’s classic Mangst Breadslaw for you. His dick is simultaneously a powerful elephant’s trunk and a harmless little needle. Whichever suits him and all of the manosphere best.”

How did he ever come up with such a stupid handle?”

On his early diatribes he played it off as a self-deprecating character, like a guy pretending to be super manly. It evokes anger over his various positions in society. He’s upset because men aren’t treated fairly. He’s upset because he’s so poor he has to eat stuff with horrible bland names like bread-slaw.

When people bought into it he started acting like it was a more serious persona. It stopped being satire and started being politics. He would put the Mangst spin on every bad opinion, wrapping up the shit in his wrapping paper before leaving it on our doorsteps. Ooh that’s good, I should use that.” Holmes made a note on her pad since her phone was busy running the tape recorder app.

Yeah so he’s a jackass on the internet who hates women. I’ll be sure to tell all the guys in this game, who tell me I’m bad as soon as they hear my voice, that they need to watch out for him.”

He commanded a large audience for a while. They harassed people and sent a lot of death threats Jenny. Accountability is a thing. I don’t care if he’s not internet-famous anymore. I’m going to catch him, expose his true identity, and I think that’s a thing worth doing… and apparently Hudwaters does too. Think about it: he’s out there somewhere, living his normal-ass life, maybe working a normal-ass job, and nobody knows how vile he is.”

There was a knock at the door. Holmes swore. Her source was early and there was no time left to even argue about whether or not Handzy should step out. Luckily the game had just ended, and her sister did the courtesy of closing the program and swiveling around in her chair. She could sacrifice an hour of practice to pretend to be an editor or something, since they were both in the same tightening financial vice. She pulled out her phone, kept it angled up so the match videos she watched on mute would seem like nothing more than E-mails.

Holmes got to her feet and smoothed out her blazer, the most professional looking item of clothing she owned, which still had a good deal of cat hair on it despite the only cat she ever came into contact with belonging to their parents’ neighbors. She took three deep breaths as she made the same number of strides, which got her to the front door. She opened it.

Hey, you must b- Oh. You’re in your full… regalia.” There was a gigantic rat with cartoon eyes standing just outside, velvety gray fur overshadowed by a striped rainbow tail, which the creature’s giant paws twisted back and forth nervously.

I did say I wanted to remain anonymous… didn’t I?” a young woman’s voice said, from somewhere behind the black screen in the back of the rat’s throat. Holmes looked past her, which was difficult to do since her ears were the size of vinyl records. The rat had driven there in a tiny black car, which was parked just on the street. Holmes suppressed her first question, regarding the difficulty of driving in padded paw boots and gloves.

Yes, you did, but I assumed that meant you didn’t want me to publish your real name. You don’t need to worry. You can take that off if you want; I won’t take any photographs. I promise.”

I’d rather leave it on if that’s alright.”

Sure. Come on in. I apologize for it being cramped in here.” The rat’s ears bent back as she came through the door, stopping when she noticed Handzy sitting just in the other room. “Relax. She’s just my assistant.”

Assistant editor,” her sister falsely corrected, grabbing a pen and chewing on the end of it the way she imagined editors did.

Do you also promise not to tell anybody about me?” the rat asked.

I wouldn’t even know where to start,” Handzy answered honestly, but crossed her heart with the pen to confirm. Holmes was about to ask if she wanted to sit on the couch, but she waddled forward and took a seat on the edge of one of the beds of her own accord. Holmes sat across from her on the other bed and readied her supplies.

Okay, so, what would you like us to call you for now?” she asked the rodent.

Squeak is fine,” she said. Her massive head tilted, which might’ve been a glance at Holmes’s phone. “Are you recording?”

I am now,” she said, quickly tapping the screen. “It’s just for my records. Nobody but the people in this room will hear it. Are we ready to start?” Squeak nodded. “Okay. You told me in that DM that you had information about the person calling himself Mangst Breadslaw. Did he or his fans harass or attack you in some way?”

Well, no, not yet anyway.”

Not yet?”

He’s… sort of threatening to… but not me specifically. Our community.”

Furries?” Handzy couldn’t stop herself from asking. She paused her match video.

Yes. I mean, not all of us, just us that are going to Pinecon.”

Pinecon, what is that?” Holmes asked, nodding constantly as she made notes, even when she didn’t have anything to write down.

It’s a furry convention. It has a theme where your fursona has to be something that might live in or around pine trees, so you know, pine cone, Pinecon.”

Is the rainbow-tailed rat native to North America?” Handzy asked, barely dodging a venomous glance from her younger sister.

You can embellish however you want,” Squeak said without missing a beat, “as long as you’re embellishing something real and appropriate.”

It is definitely not my intention to offend, but some people would say your whole deal is inappropriate. Not me! I’m just wondering if you tried to tip anyone else off first and they ignored you because you’re…”

An adult in an animal costume?” Squeak finished. Holmes nodded. “Yeah, I tried telling a couple sites. You guys were the only ones that replied. We’re not freaks you know. We just like this, and we’re just being ourselves. Nobody gets hurt.”

I’m pretty sure it’s the sexual element that puts people off,” Handzy noted.

It’s only sexual for some people!” Squeak defended, without mentioning if any of those some were in that room currently. “For others it’s just fun, or comforting, or whatever other reason that doesn’t actually matter because, again, nobody is getting hurt. I’m here because somebody might get hurt. All because one of the people in charge of Pinecon thought it might raise the event’s profile if they invited Mangst Breadslaw to attend.”

Woah,” Holmes said, trying to simultaneously slow Squeak down and write faster. “This person wasn’t overruled?”

The panel that runs it has a policy against exclusion, as long as the person hasn’t committed a felony. Technically, if a member of the panel invites you to come present or speak, then you’re in, no questions asked.”

Mangst is a self-proclaimed fascist and misogynist. Plus, he’s not even one of the popular fascists anymore. How does inviting him raise the event’s profile?”

I think that’s mostly just an excuse,” Squeak theorized. “Normally furries are super nice and inclusive people, but just like everything else, every once in a while there’s a shithead. Mangst isn’t even a furry. I have to think the only reason he even agreed to come is that he’s so desperate for attention now that he’ll take any invite.”

So naturally you’re worried about the possibility of violence when he shows up to waft whatever garbage is in his presentation,” Holmes reasoned. “This is big, as far as the story goes anyway. If he shows up it’ll be the first time he has shown his face publicly. I’ll be there to get about a thousand pictures.”

That might be a problem actually,” Squeak said. She was wringing her tail again. “Pinecon is furries only. If you’re past the ropes, you’re wearing a fur suit. If he actually comes his face will be covered.”

By a weasel head I bet,” Handzy said.

I didn’t even know who he was before he got invited. Afterwards I looked up some of his articles. If the world was run according to him I wouldn’t have the right to vote, my father would pick who I married, and I’d only be allowed to have a job if I was sterile.”

And you can probably find him saying all of that in one rant,” Holmes told her sister, trying to impress upon her how vital her journalistic mission was. “We wouldn’t be living on our own writing and editing if he had his way. Squeak wouldn’t have her suit.”

I’d honestly probably kill myself,” the rainbow rat said. “I’d jump into the first mousetrap I found… That was a joke.”

And it was hilarious,” Holmes said without laughing, “but I want to assure you that I take all of this very seriously. I will be acting on your tip. I’m going to figure out who he is and expose him. After that he’ll be much less likely to keep writing what he writes. These guys are like roaches. You shine a light on them and they scurry back under the fridge to suck on old ketchup stains. They have no conviction, which is super weird for fascists, but you know, that’s the internet we live in now.”

Yeah… That’s all I have for you,” Squeak said, suddenly embarrassed she hadn’t brought a container of baked goods to sweeten the paltry amount of information. There were no pockets on her suit, so she pulled a written note out from behind the tiny jewelry pillows she had converted into buck teeth. “This is the where and when, plus I know some people, so there’s a coupon to get your ticket half off.”

Excellent,” Holmes said, taking the note, making sure not to unprofessionally file it away as a bookmark in the romance she was reading until after her guest left. They both stood. “Thank you so much for coming to meet me. I promise I’ll do my best.” She shook Squeak’s paw and escorted the rat out, catching the closing door just in time to keep it from catching her tail.

Wait until I tell Mom you’re going to become a fur trapper,” Handzy mocked, swiveling in her gaming chair, head and hair hanging over the side.

Don’t you dare. They already think I’m useless. If they knew I was spending,” she glanced at the note, “twenty bucks to wade into a sea of kinky mascots, they’d never let me live it down. Mom would be on her deathbed, gasping for air, still reserving a little to ask why I would do such a thing.”

At least you’ll get it half off.”

Twenty is half off,” Holmes groaned, the weight of the sound bending her head toward her sibling. They both stared at each other in a general lack of desire to lift their heads. Holmes produced a pouting lip.

No way.”

Please?”

I’m not lending you money for bestiality sex show tickets. I don’t know where the line is, but that’s somewhere past it.”

Oh come on! It’s just a convention. Art for sale and presentations and live music. If it gets out of hand I’m sure somebody will call animal control. Please? Like… please?”

Wow, you really don’t have a better argument than that, do you?” Holmes’s lip pouted even more, threatening to split like an old sofa cushion. Handzy acquiesced and started digging around the desk in search of the wad of singles she kept for whenever they were deciding how much to tip the guy who delivered their Chinese food every other Friday. Some of the bills were almost as greasy as the wontons at that point, but presumably still counted as legal tender.

Yes, thank you. I promise I won’t let you down.”

Don’t do that,” Handzy said, holding back the money. “That’s what we promise Mom and Dad. That’s what I promise my team. We’re not doing that with each other. I’m not going to take anything away from you if you don’t get this guy. No promises, okay? I know that you know what to do.” Holmes nodded, bolstered, until her sister handed it over. “Besides, I have to see what you look like.”

What are you talking about?”

You heard the rat; Pinecon is furries only. What are you going as?”

Holmes made a sound like a sheep hit upside the head as she realized. Handzy bested her barnyard impression with a pig-snort laugh.

continued in part two

One thought on “Tourney at the Hanging Gardens (part one)

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