It is a city within a city, walled and guarded. The walls are not to keep the world out, but to keep the inhabitants . . . or at least their playthings . . . in. It is the Wizard's Quarter, but everyone calls it the Zodiac.
It is an area of winding streets and irregular stone-floored plazas, running around and between a wild miscellany of buildings. Around it are high walls, pierced by twelve gates - one for each sign of the Zodiac.
The Zodiac is inhabited by wizards and alchemists, and by those who serve them . . . bravoes, rogues, booksellers, dealers in strange ingredients and doers of strange deeds. During the day its streets are crowded with customers, supplicants and sightseers. It's fairly safe, even picturesque. The city guard keeps the peace, backed up at need by the might of the wizards themselves.
At night, things are different.
The great gates of the Zodiac swing shut at dusk. The guardsmen leave, and with them go the laws of the city, and the laws of nature as well. By night, the Zodiac is ruled only by the will of dozens of very willful wizards. It may rain in one street, while the moon shines brighter than day in another. Wizardly creations gibber and moan in the streets.
Meanwhile, the rogues and bravoes of the city play out their own games, testing wits against swords, light fingers against heavy blows. Some seek the wizards' favor . . . others hope to gain wealth . . . others simply enjoy being free to brawl and intrigue, to live or die as the fates will. In the streets, anything goes.
When dawn comes, the guards open the gates, and the scavengers slink in to loot the bodies. There are usually many to be found, but rarely are they worth looting.
Some of the wizards have no interest in the lesser mortals that crowd the streets of the Zodiac. Others choose to walk among the thieves and sell-swords, observing their fights and intrigues - and even encouraging them. Some say it's just for amusement; some say the mages are working out their own plots, with human tools. Others say the wizards are practicing, or even advertising their skills to potential patrons. There are elements of truth, no doubt, in all these theories.
This wizardly meddling takes many forms. Bits of treasure . . . gold pieces, weapons, even potions . . . appear on the streets at night, ready for the taking. It's bait to draw the greedy, and it works.
There are other enchanted places within the Zodiac . . . such as the magical pool in Fountain Plaza, whose waters never have the same effect two nights in a row. Perhaps these are wizardly experiments. Perhaps their creators just enjoy seeing their visitors puzzle them out. Perhaps it's something else.
And many of the wizards deal directly with those who brave the dark of the Zodiac . . . offering help or advice in exchange for various services. Some, like Red Sean and the alchemist Dr. Megiddo, appear in person. Others, like the Man of Stone and the Purple Flame, are known only through the golems or simulacra that they send to represent themselves. (Of course, wizards are mysterious. Perhaps Dr. Megiddo is really an illusion, or a lifelike golem; perhaps the Man of Stone is a real wizard who has turned himself into living granite. Who knows?)
But the greatest game of all, the one that drives the pulse of the nighttime Zodiac, is the Game of the Keys. Each of the twelve gates requires three identical keys to open. The keys are marked with the symbol of their gate; the Libra Gate can only be opened by Libra keys, and so on. Everyone who stays in the Zodiac when the gates are closed will find one key in his pocket. If you can get two more . . . the right two more . . . you can open a gate and leave. And the first one to escape the Zodiac, each night, is well rewarded by the wizards.
Violence is common, after hours in the Zodiac. But wits are as important as a ready sword. After all, when a good bargain is struck, both sides come out ahead. In a battle, even the winner may be wounded, becoming easy pickings for another. Those who forget this rarely last long. But those who cannot fight at all had better be able to run very fast.
The shops and taverns - those few that are open after dark - are more or less peaceful, to the extent their owners choose to enforce peace. In Saucy Jack's, for instance, fighting is not permitted at all.
The wizards' towers are inviolate, of course; woe to the rogue who enters uninvited. And attacking a wizard is a creative form of suicide. But they don't lower themselves to crush anyone who has not annoyed them. (Still, "annoyance" is relative. The Lady in Blue has been known to turn people into toads for cursing in her presence.)
But they come. They come every night, to risk their lives. Some for the gold, some for the love of slaughter, some just to test their wits in the greatest game of all.
Welcome to the Zodiac. Life is cheap here . . . but death is absolutely free.