Posts Tagged ‘The Apprentice’s Tale’

The Apprentice’s Tale

The City of Vance, by Chris Huth

The City of Vance, illustrated by Chris Huth

“The Apprentice’s Tale” is my exploration of the world of Cavaliers of Mars. It tells the story of a young girl taken from her broken home by a cavalier and raised as his apprentice. As she recounts their years together, we see the world they live in.

Here are links to each part in order:

The Apprentice’s Tale: The Lost Places

This concludes “The Apprentice’s Tale,” a serial exploration of the world of Cavaliers of Mars.

As I was saying, during my recovery, we began to plan an expedition to the lost places. We traveled to Chiaro. We took up lodging in a tent city in Chiaro-that-is, but within sight of our goal: Chiaro-that-was. Chiaro-that-is is a reasonably hospitable place. Poor, but the basic necessities of life are available. Oases within the city space provide food,  along with some yumocs raised for meat. We were just two more would-be tomb robbers spending our last chits on the chance of a fortune.

At night, by blue flames, we would stare out at Chiaro-that-was, silhouetted against the stars. Staring out at what the First Martians left behind.

In that epoch, the world was filled with life. Plants, beasts, and sentient creatures all thrived and multiplied. The First Martians built grand cities along the azure seas, yet still pushed back the many-colored jungles only a little. They even built cities under the oceans, protected by crystal domes from the water and from the great leviathans of that impossible age.

In Chiaro, as in a few other places, they left monuments of unimaginable scale. Here were the pyramid-tombs that must have housed their kings, and sphinxes with their eyes towards heaven. Why they built on this scale is hard for those of us who remain to imagine, but I think they did so simply because they could.

Now, these places are abandoned. No throngs fill the city streets, no worshippers gather at the feet of the pyramids or in the eyes of the sphinxes. Many of the treasures of the First Martians lay untouched, as they have since times undreamt of. Not that that’s ever stopped anyone from dreaming of the treasures themselves.

The First Martians are so long gone that even their ghosts have likely scattered on the winds. Yet their treasures still have guardians. The tomb stalkers are strange, tripodal machines that move quietly through the ruins. Their voices are keening and creaking… I only heard them from miles away, and still the memory makes me shudder. They sweep the abandoned streets of all life, sparing the occasional beast only so that it can chase intruders into their paths.

In Chiaro, I was told many times that those tomb stalkers that can be seen within the ruins are only a fraction of their number. Many more, I was told, lie slumbering beneath the sand.

Of course, the ruins of the First Martians are not the only forsaken places on the Red World. Lesser peoples have risen and fallen, leaving their own abandoned cities and degenerate remnants. These so-called dusk cities lie empty, or inhabited by small, cult-like populations who cling to the homes of ancestors they can no longer comprehend.

All of these lost places are tempting targets for graverobbers and treasure hunters, such as my master and I. We spent weeks in Chiaro-that-was, hunting for an untouched tomb, for a cache of relics no one had yet dared plunder. We carried blue flames to keep the tomb stalkers at bay… perhaps they worked.

Perhaps we would have found our treasure there. But one evening, as the blue star rose and we made camp, my master’s coughing was a little worse than it had been. His body seemed a little more bent than the day before, and it had seemed a little more bent the day before that. As the twilight dwindled, he told me stories about my father. I don’t know if they were true; I hope some of them were.

He talked, and he sang, a little feebly. Old soldiers’ songs, maybe learned on the steppe in his youth. He told me of the end of the world, of the days when the atmosphere processors would breathe their last, of desert winters that would last forever. He kept asking me to refill his cup; when there was no more liquor, I filled it with water. He didn’t seem to notice. And as the ice of night fell around us, my master died. His final words were simple, affectionate, and then he closed his eyes forever.

I packed up our camp. I could hear the tomb stalkers, and had no desire to take any chances. In the icy night, I began my walk back towards the blue lamps of Chiaro-that-is.

And so, in the lost place, I left the man who found me.

Warfare on Mars

This continues “The Apprentice’s Tale,” a serial exploration of the world of Cavaliers of Mars.

Warfare

My master was not alone in living by the sword. Indeed, he was slower to draw it in anger than many of those he associated with. In this world, everything of value must be protected with force, whether by fending off desert raiders and canal pirates, or marching across the desert to defend an oasis town. While we are not by nature murderous, we are often driven to violence to protect what is ours and take what we need from others.

Most warfare is conducted at little greater than arms’ length. Knives and spearpoints are made from bone. When I was fifteen, I offended the honor of a young gentleman. Or, rather, I refused both his advances and his demands for my food. Ringed by his friends, we fought a traditional duel. I slew him. After all, I was hungrier. But afterwards, I retched for hours.

We left town under something of a cloud, but when we next reached civilization, my master gave me my first steel dagger. Metal weapons are valuable indeed, for quality steel comes only from Surtur or the forges of far Deimos.

Our most common firearm is the flintlaser, which is slow to reload but deadly and reliable. My master insisted that I carry at least one flintlaser ready to fire at all times, a practice I have not abandoned.

Many sorts of beast are employed as cavalry mounts. Flying terros and their landbound cousins, the ostoros, are difficult to tame but highly prized. My master was a peculiar breed of cutthroat, a cavalier who could ride all manner of beast. Cavaliers keep their methods close to their chests, but more than one has found employment training the army of a city-state or hill-tribe in the mastery of a particular mount. I learned riding from my master as I grew to womanhood and we spent more and more time on the road. Someday, I think, I shall teach another, provided the world lives that long.

Illium and Zodiac both possess flying ships, based upon a secret anti-gravity element. When I was fifteen, my master and I were caught in a bombardment by Illium’s forces. We spent the entire night lying flat on the floor, hoping that no bombs would fall upon the hovel we had commandeered. I didn’t sleep a wink, between the explosions outside and the cooling body of the homeowner lying next to me.

The capability to unleash such horrors make most cities afraid to challenge Illium or Zodiac on the field of battle. Fortunately for the rest of us, the long enmity between the two states prevents either from reaching too far.

Wars between the city states are sudden and short. At nineteen, I fought alongside my master in one of Vance’s mercenary companies. In that year as a soldier, I probably learned as much of the world as I did in the entire six previous. When the war ended, we were once again unemployed, and took to guarding caravans for a while. Truthfully, we rarely had to draw steel. Most of the bandits were people we had fought beside in the war.

Still, from time to time, we were forced to kill former comrades. He never told me aloud, but I believe that is why we soon left the caravans to seek our fortunes in the lost places.

Medicine

The other reason we left guard duty was that I took a nasty cut to my sword arm. My master always told me that he needed me to watch his back. By the time I was 21 this was actually true, and I needed a good arm to do it.

Our physicians are well educated in anatomy, and skilled at the ugly art of surgery. Like most drugs, their anesthetics are dangerously strong, and difficult to dose safely. However, they are well-known and widely available, provided the physician’s price can be met.

My cut was treated with a peculiar gum derived from trees in the canyon-forest of Wyeth. Wyeth gum is antiseptic, and firms quickly when applied to a wound. It acts as a coagulant, stopping bleeding, yet is porous enough to allow drainage. Wounds treated this way heal quickly and leave only light scars. My arm recovered swiftly, though it still aches from time to time.

If a wounded person is treated quickly enough, they can often return to at least light physical labor within hours. I have heard soldiers boast that with a vial of Wyeth gum and a pitcher of liquor, they can fight until the end of days.

Next: Our story concludes in the Lost Places!

Cavaliers of Mars: The Peoples of Mars

Mars

A world of strange peoples and stranger vistas

Mars is home to many peoples. The most numerous are the Red Martians, of which I am one. We are the common people of the Red Cities, and I suppose I must admit that our rulers are of the same descent.

We share our history with the Greens, though you’d hardly know it to see them. They are giants, of whom my master fought not a few. The Greens stand over a dozen feet, with four arms. I would not have believed that every one of those hands could hold a sword, but I have seen it with my own eyes –and been lucky to survive. Their eyes are large, their hair black and spare, and their mouths sport two small tusks.

Like us, they are the descendants of desert nomads who survived the drying of the seas and the fall of the cities of the First Martians. Unlike us, they choose to reclaim these cities. Of course, there are not many of them anymore – the First Cities are dangerous places, as is the open desert – yet they live in small settlements among rebuilt ruins. I have heard them called a savage race, but my master often said that we are no less savage. For, if we were not, how could we survive in a world which also contains them?

We Reds and Greens are not alone, of course. The Zaius, sought after as physicians and wise men, resemble the apes even more than we. The women of Wyeth are as much plant as animal, and much-feared as warriors. The Skarrans have survived where most other lizards have died, evolving to generate heat within their own bodies. And there are others, smaller, stranger peoples who might be found in the bazaars of Vance or their own lost cities.

Whence came so many peoples and the fragments of culture we share is unknown to me. I’ve heard it said that we were created by the First Martians, each with some purpose in a grand design. Some astrologers claim that we were seeded from distant stars, that the First Martians themselves were survivors of some earlier, more beautiful world. My master, though he could wax philosophical given enough drink, dismissed these questions as the domain of scholars hunched over books and bones. I myself think that when our world truly lived, it was simply abundant in all things, thinking creatures included.

During my apprenticeship and in the years beyond, I have never met a man quite like my master… yet I have met many who share the same wanderlust, the same greed, and the same passion for reckless adventure. I have met these among all the people I have encountered on our Red World. For some, there is no place in life but that carved with the point of a sword.

Next: Warfare!

You can read previous installments of “The Apprentice’s Tale” here.

Cavaliers of Mars: The Red Cities

The City of Vance, by Chris Huth

The City of Vance, illustrated by Chris Huth

What to say of the cities? After he bought me, my master brought me to Vance, where we lived modestly in a room above his favorite tavern. Despite his occasional protestations, I can think of no better place to have grown up. In Vance, the canals divide into a spiderweb of streams which serve as the city’s streets. At night, a thousand colored lanterns light the channels. The city refuses to sleep. In those late hours, a handful of chits can buy almost anything, though one must watch one’s purse closely. My master would often say that Vance is a city of thieves, yet I could say the same of any other city we visited. Perhaps it was the company we kept.

The Red Cities number some two dozen. Every one is located near some source of water. Thus, most are located along the canals, as Vance is. Yet there are a few outliers. Star-ruled Zodiac is an oasis within a great bowl of rock, which somehow traps the water from the pole with no need of canals. There, it even rains. In Ziggur, a place I shall shun and curse all my days, the people are rationed water that condenses within the atmosphere processor.

In any city, the majority of construction is stone and mud brick. Sometimes, this construction can be quite shoddy… my master told the story of being thrown through a third story wall in Chiaro.

Daily life is a struggle for all. No one is well-heeled enough to be certain where their next skin of water will come from. Every hand toils to earn food and water, whether attached to the arm of a laborer, a scribe or a sellsword. Still, better the cities than the sort of town I grew up in.

Traveling between cities can be difficult. Hire a boat down the canals, and you risk pirates. Desert thieves say the water pirates are soft; the two missing fingers on my master’s left hand put the lie to that. Travel overland, and you risk the desert thieves, not to mention the desert itself.

Yet for all that, the journeys are worth it. Few of the city-states are truly self-sufficient, and anyone who can trade or steal commodities in one to sell in another stands to earn more than their share of water.

Ah, but how to buy that water, or the knife you need to earn it? Each city manufactures its own money, backed at some level or another by rations of food or water. Most use ceramic coins or chits, treated in some way as to challenge the skills of counterfeiters. In Vance, for example, an iridescent glaze is applied; a similar technique is used in Zodiac. Illium’s coins give off a radium glow; I’ve used one to lure a mark down an alley on a dark, cold night.

The greatest quantities of both money and resources are naturally controlled by the upper classes, our supposed betters. Different cities have different aristocracies, ranging from Vance with its nobility of merchants and thieves to the theocracy of cursed Ziggur. Yet the divide between rich and poor is razor-thin, a fact of which every one of us is keenly aware. Thus, some of the wealthy are given to acts of extreme generosity, in the hopes that we will visit the same upon them should their fortunes turn.

In general, the people of Mars are given to grand gestures. We are keenly aware that we live in our planet’s last days, and so we weep and curse and love openly and with abandon.

This is true of no one more than the rogues of the Red Cities, a fraternity of which I have sometimes been a member. Gamblers curse their luck with the names of forgotten gods, while bravos seek satisfaction of one another in the streets and taverns. A slight against a hired sword can find a man with a handspan of steel protruding from his back. These rough characters inhabit the lower class portions of town, but are sometimes hired by the upper crust as bodyguards and assassins. Many times my master was hired by a young noble to fight a duel in his place.

Next: The Peoples of Mars

Today’s lovely illustration comes courtesy of the incomparable Chris Huth. Chris is doing a couple of pieces for Cavaliers, of which this is the first. You can find previous installments of “The Apprentice’s Tale” here.

Cavaliers of Mars: Sand and Sky

Mars

A world of fading sunlight and haunted storms

Continuing “The Apprentice’s Tale,” for Cavaliers of Mars.

We live upon an old world, and you can find that in every aspect of life and death. My master often spoke of the world dying. As a child I imagined I could hear its groaning sighs on the wind. As a grown woman, that is not a fancy I have entirely left behind.

My first voyage across the desert began the day after my master bought me. Or, as I’ve come to think, bought my freedom. Clad in long desert robes and silk breathing masks, we set out beyond the borders of the square mile in which I had lived all my life. The desert, then as now, was temperate by day, frigid by night, and extended forever in all directions. Though we followed an ancient track, no one could have seen it who had not learned it by heart. Master to apprentice, as it was with me.

My master often said that the sun no longer looms as large as once it did. Certainly, it no longer warms the planet with the same intensity. While the air itself is thin, it is thick with dust, creating the strange scarlet skies. As the sun rises or sets, the dust gives it an eerie blue halo. Like many, my master was superstitious about night and the color blue. Twilight lasts an hour or more at both at sunrise and sunset, and at that time you can clearly see the blue star called Earth.

Dust storms are common, and can cover huge regions. We were fortunate not to encounter any during my first desert crossing. A few times a century, a storm will rise out of Hell’s Basin and engulf the entire world. A planet-wide dust storm can leave behind an epidemic of the maddened and possessed. It had fallen to my master sometimes to put such people to the sword.

Bodies of water are few, and rain is rare and precious. Some parts of Mars have not seen a drop in thousands of years. Sometimes I’ve seen ice clouds in the coldest, highest parts of the sky, giving it a violet hue. This ice can be harvested by intrepid flyers – one of the thousand ways Illium maintains its flowing fountains and generous water rations. Other water comes from ancient wells, or is processed from layers of ice beneath the sand. The marsh people of the old sea beds distill their water from the muck. Indeed, I have been forced to do so myself, and can say that the results are musty and unpleasant, but as life-giving as a drink from any other source

Yet Mars’ greatest waterworks, those which sustain our remaining societies, are the canals. The canals are the final legacy of the First Martians, miraculous channels which melt water from the polar cap and irrigate large sections of the planet. Nearly all of the Red Cities depend on the canals for water and trade, and repairs to the canal network are one of the few subjects which can bring our feuding rulers together in cooperation.

What travel and survival rules do you enjoy in RPGs? I’m just starting to design these for Cavaliers of Mars.

Next: The Cities of Mars!

Cavaliers of Mars: The Apprentice’s Tale

Mars

A world of dusty little towns and mysterious wanderers

“I have lived a long life,” my master used to say. “Soon it will be my turn to die. And not long after, the world’s turn.” And then he would order another drink.

When my master took me in, I might as well have been an orphan. He bought me from my mother for a handful of ceramic chits laced with the radium of Illium. They were worth a dozen rations of water, but he might as well have handed her his flask of liquor directly. I know he was carrying one.

Why my master did that, I don’t know. He told me, at various times, that my father had been his brother-in-law, or that they had served together in the war. There were other stories, too. Any or all of them could have been true. I often suspect that he took me on because he pitied me.

Whatever the case, he raised me from the age of 13 as his own child.

He died three years ago.

The master was a man of wild stories. He had been across our Red World a dozen times or more. He told me of hard-fought battles, of daring deeds, of the love of princes and princesses. He talked most often when we were practicing with swords. I think he talked to teach me how to fight while distracted. He told me his stories, and he told me that one day I would have as many of my own.

From the time he adopted me until his death, he made his way as a fencing instructor and a hired bravo. He made little money this way, but always enough to keep him in his cups and to keep me well looked-after.

This book is our world as he saw it, the world he lived and died in. I am giving you his words, as honestly as I can, and with care taken not to reveal certain indelicate secrets. I am giving you the words of a dying man on a dying world. I am giving you Mars.

The Desert Towns

I spent the first 13 years of my life in the desert. It is, as anyone will tell you, a hard life, harder even than in the cities. We were fortunate… we had an old well, an artifact of the First Martians that plunged deep into the permafrost and sucked out the water.

The desert brigands merely collected dues from our village; we were spared the seasonal ravaging that came to so many others. My master told me about the brigands. He told me that no man joins them by choice, that they are bands of outcasts driven farther away from society than any others, save perhaps the lost inhabitants of the dusk cities.

He never said whether he fought with or against them.

Without walls or buildings, the desert towns are also subject to the full fury of the elements, including the dust storms. When those great red clouds come rolling out of the desert, they bring scouring debris. Worse, though, is the dust itself, fine as smoke. It will seem to suck the moisture from your tissue, and you must try desperately to hold your breath, lest you be taken by a ghost. Storms give voice and motive power to the dead, who can otherwise travel only on the wind.

Still, there are reasons to stay. Overland trade can support many a community, as can the rare operating mine. Some take the difficult path of raising meat animals, and bring in a measure of prosperity in selling them to the larger settlements. Some few are even located on oases, where vegetables can be grown and water is not quite so scarce.

Desert towns aren’t precisely hospitable, but they can be good places to go to ground. I can vouch for this from experience. More than once, my master and I were been hunted across the desert by those would have our water. Some towns will hire wanderers as protectors, to ward off desert raiders, or even to enforce the law.

A few of our ill-omened expeditions into the lost places began in towns like the one I grew up in. Despite the danger ahead, I was never tempted to stay behind.

And here begins a series exploring a red world of strange adventure. Stay tuned.