The Northern Wastes is the name given by the Meritocrats to north Asia, approximately mapping onto the area covered by Russia east of Moscow in our world.
The area is said by the Meritocrats to be all but uninhabited by sentient races, subject to the ravages of terrifying Wild Magic, and marauded by bloodthirsty mega- and gigafauna. Those that dare to venture across that landscape in airships often disappear without a trace, or return, changed forever. However, the area is not as uninhabited and godsforsaken as the Meritocrats claim.
There is indeed wild magic abound in this region, but though powerful and seemingly unpredictable, people on the ground have co-existed with it for millennia. Sometimes babies born in the area touched by the wild magic are mutated in unusual ways [the in-universe explanation for tieflings], and they are accepted in their communities with no prejudice. One group, the Ursans, utilises the wild magic to feed their giant, clawed behemoth upon whose back their city stands. Other megafauna roam the land too, and one travelling on foot may see their tracks or silhouettes in the distance.
The wild magic thins the veil between the planes, and those seeking resurrection or to commune with their god may find such things possible here in a way that is not possible elsewhere. The wild magic is often signified by the presence of the beautiful Aurora Borealis, chiming ethereally as it obscures ones vision. Tales from airships of strange happenings and indeed disasters in the Northern Wastes are usually as a result of passing directly through the aurora, where the concentration of the wild magic is at its highest. The crew may suffer mutations, bodyswaps, or magical slumber; the ship may gain sentience for a while, or its parts revert to their previous states (planks growing roots and leaves, for instance), or be painted myriad hues.
The area is populated by many different sentient races (orcs, elves, humans, goblins, and halflings to name but a few), and the cultural practices share similarities with those of north America.
Moscow is a very small outpost on the very edge of Meritocratic lands.
In the Into The Wilds Patreon-only special, a group of researchers in the Northern Wastes comes across a gigantic bear carcass, from which several buildings have apparently fallen. [Although this happened in a Patreon-only special, the events are discussed by the players on the main feed in episode 176.]
Ursa Major, so-called by Hamid, is a mountainous area with not one, but many many gigantic bear skeletons on the mountain peaks. The bears are around 20-25 storeys high, and are nothing but bones.They look like they have weathered extraordinarily fast. One of the bears appears to only be 12-18 months dead but has become nothing but shining bones; another older one is already crumbling.
The Ursans' city
A dense city aboard the back of a giant bear.
The buildings are mostly timber and occasionally stone, built on top of a horizontal palisade, made of large tree trunks strapped together. The city’s almost all alleyways, with walkways built on top of each other. There are “park” areas with no palisade; fur pokes through these. The city is crowded because of the city’s density, not because of any overpopulation. It’s actually a fairly small number of people using a limited amount of space as efficiently as possible.
The majority of the population is human, but not by much; there are a decent number of elves, as well as smaller numbers of orcs and halflings. Additionally, some of the population has pure white hair, dotted randomly. There are also many humanoid plants and animals walking around; they look like they’re Awakened (a rare spell that grants sentience/sapience to non-sapient things.) They don’t seem to be doing anything different from the rest of the population. Most people are wearing simple (eg. tunics) but colourful clothing (eg. bright yellows, greens, reds.) The culture is druidic, with resurrection and eagle shapeshifting an integral part of the culture. The town functions on a soft barter/gift economy, with no set currency.
People and goods are transported up to the city with a 30x30 foot wooden platform suspended by thick ropes. The ropes are pulled through a large timber crane, and there are big blocks of stone acting as a counterweight. There are docks beside the city, so that passengers on the platform may get off.A small 'gatehouse' is set upon the bear's head, connected to the city by a walkway. the 'gatehouse appears to be spooling a strand of the aurora towards it and into the bear's skull. The weather above the bear also appears to be unusually pleasant.
The ritual hall
Located at the centre of the city. A round thatched building, made primarily of timber with plaster on the walls, and an open centre. The building is in the exact centre of a town square. It’s not large, but appears so because it’s the only building that stands apart from others, with no other buildings built on top of it. It has large double doors. Attendants here wear grey shapeless robes, similar to habits.
Outside the hall, the ground is of timber, with non-awakened trees, benches, and urns (that appear to be water sources) dotted around; it seems to be a space for quiet contemplation, and there are a few people sat around.
Inside the hall is very light, given the open space in the roof. There is a surrounding corridor with space for paraphernalia (eg. torches, incense.) In the middle is a large, sanded circular space; there are no markings, but it has a slight mound to it, and sunlight streams into it.
The party is offered accommodation post-ritual in a communal bunkhouse, in which they can rest, eat, and meet. Although there is space for the whole extended party, the living quarters all appear to be communal and rather crowded.
Azu and Kiko go to a public park of sorts for a date. the park is surrounded by gift-economy stallholders, and due to the city being on the back of a giant bear, there are no trees or grass; rather the vegetation is provided by potted plants. Fur seems to poke through the park area too. There are small tables and chairs dotted around, such that people can share food, conversation, or a game.
The council chamber
The Ursans' council chamber is a conical building set in a square less built-up than the rest of the Ursans' city. The building appears to be constructed from tarred wood, and the doorway is hung with furs. Totemic depictions of a bear in various poses or doing various actions adorn the outside of the building. Inside, steps lead downwards, opening onto a chamber on the back of the bear itself. The fur has been cut low and the body heat of the bear can be felt from below. It is a ceremonial space, where druidic representatives of the various gods of the Ursans meet to discuss matters of import.
The Garden of Yerlik
The Garden of Yerlik is a hallowed space in the culture of the Ursans. Its name is an allusion to the real-life god of death and the underworld, Erlik, in Turkic and north Asian mythology. It is situated in a cirque in the mountains nearby the Ursans' bear's lands (most likely the Ural mountains, given the Ursans' culture and names are partially drawn from the nearby Khanty-Mansi okrug). The 'garden' appears to be made consist of trees of all ages, where the saplings are the size of normal trees and the veteran trees are many times larger. The trees are blue and many are flowering with blue petals. There appears to be something akin to the aurora winding through the garden, although it is blue-hued and causes the garden to glow blue at night. The Garden is where the bodies of deceased Ursans are taken; blue veins, or roots, growing on the corpse, is a sign that the person has been accepted by the garden and that their spirit is free to wander there. Each tree appears to represent a person, although this is not clear. The Garden is formed of the spirits, and serves the spirits. Those of the living that choose to wander in the garden may treat it as an oracle of sorts, learning truths- although not always the truths that one sets out to seek. Only the representative of Yerlik (currently the druid Sumutnyerl), and those of their choosing, may enter the garden; representatives of other beings in Ursan cosmology may not enter. Upon walking in the Garden, one may encounter the spirit or essence of someone known to them, even including remembered smells and touches. The faster one moves through the garden, the stronger the manifestations of that person will be. It is recommended that one takes the time to sit and contemplate. Few outsiders have visited the garden although it does happen occasionally; prior to the party's experience there, the last outsider to enter was 'Nik' (Nikola Tesla) a few years previously, who stole a seed from the garden in an act of betrayal, desecration and violation.
For the past three years (i.e. since about a year before the campaign started), there has been a growing 'blight' in the centre of the garden, characterised by the trees losing their blue colour and appearing grey, although retaining their blooms. The blight grew suddenly around the time the campaign started, and by the time the party reaches the Garden it is a significant problem. Malevolent spectres move in the trees and are particularly active at night, and within the blighted are itself, tears in reality allow through evil interplanar creatures, some similar to those seen in Rome. At the centre of the garden are crowds of silver plants that emit a gentle ringing-bell sound and petrify those that inhale too much pollen. These flank three gigantic flowers, which appear to be portals of come kind to London, Svalbard, and somewhere in North America. Various creatures and beings (including Svalbardian dignitaries) appear to have been pursued through these portals from their homes into the centre of the garden, where they have been petrified by the silver bells. Sumutnyerl is crushed and horrified by what they find at the centre of the blight; it is a violation beyond words.