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Dark Knight of Karameikosby David Keyser
This novel is another Mystara logo release that uses the Karameikos Kingdom of Adventure box set as its source. The author is Timothy Brown, who started at Games Designer Workshop before moving to TSR and becoming co-creator of the Dark Sun setting. I consider this to be an above average fantasy novel that gets dragged down a bit by a few flaws, some of which are caused by the TSR marketing department. This is Brown's first and I believe only novel.
The book itself is a medieval military war story with emphasis on larger scale combat engagements, from platoon-size up to well over a thousand troops participating on all sides in the final battle. It has a bit of Band of Brothers vibe, a story about a leader of men and the ordinary men under his command who make that leader successful. The story is focused on a knight and his fellow men-at-arms, but the D&D fantasy trappings are still here and magic isn't downplayed even if it doesn't always jibe with magic from the game. In fact, there are a few amusing nods to the limitations of having mostly a company of fighting men plus one cleric. Early in the story they try to find a secret door that they know is there because the trail they are following leads them right up to the wall of a stone ruin. But with no elf, dwarf or mage in the group, they can't find it, so they proceed to excavate their own door from the wall to enter the passage. As for magic, I count one single successful saving throw versus spells in the entire novel, every other time, magic wins.
The book is very close to the setting in some ways, but diverges in other ways. Only the most general knowledge outside the Karameikos set is used, so this is clearly a 2E box set Karameikos with green orcs from the Monster Manual rather than drawing on multiple sources from the gazeteers like Son of Dawn did. As an example, people from Ylaruam are referred to as Ylaruamites rather than Ylari or more properly Alasiyan. There is a heavy emphasis on Traladara for Traladarans with Thyatians viewed as corrupt nuisances at best and enemies at worst.
The story is primarily told through the eyes of Sir Grygory, a Traladaran knight in the service of another Traladaran, Baron Yushchiev. There are no Traladaran barons in Karameikos as of 1012 AC. The novel never references a date except for one brief mention that Stefan is "twelve years on the throne." Since he was declared king in 1006 AC, that means the year is 1018 AC, which is reasonable for a wealthy, ambitious, politically adept Traladaran to move up from a minor lord to baronial status. However, I doubt this was Brown's intention. Twelve years makes me think he meant to line it up with the Karameikos box set of 1012 AC, mistakenly assuming that 1000 AC the year of the Gazeteers was the year Stefan became king. So first error of the novel and it makes the book a better fit.
The prologue occurs twenty years before the present in 998 AC(or 992 AC if you prefer) when Grygory is twelve years old. The village lies in the Foamfire valley which would be somewhere north of Verge, and it had both elven and Traladaran inhabitants although it is mentioned that there are few elves left now and humans have moved into some of the elven tree homes. Grygory and his best friend Mikhail are the only survivors when the village is attacked by orcs. The two boys get a good look at the leader, a knight dressed all in black plate armor and riding a skeletal horse. Mikhail is crippled in one leg by an orc blade.
The point of view does occasionally switch to the dark knight of the title, and we gradually learn more about him as the story unfolds. Even in the prologue it is clear that something else other than simple raiding and pillaging is afoot, as the dark knight is followed by a strange purple orb which the orcs fear but the dark knight refers to as an old friend.
The early chapters, which involves a mission tracking down a valuable amulet stolen from the baron, do an excellent job of establishing Sir Grygory's character as well as that of his henchmen(one young squire and four men-at-arms), especially his old friend and master-at-arms Yuri. Grygory holds up the ideals of chivalry fairly well, is a skilled warrior, takes his responsibilities seriously to a fault and values honor above all else. When Thyatians try and pick a fight he keeps a cool head, neither taking the bait nor backing down out of weakness. He does have limits to his patience and can take on foolhardy risks when angered, and we see that when it comes to orcs; Sir Grygory grants no quarter.
Once the amulet is recovered from an old dwarven ruin in the Achelos Woods not too far from the Shires border, our band of six return to Mirros first passing by Radlebb Keep and the town of Luln. Yuri relates a time before Grygory was a knight, when the two came to Radlebb Keep in the service of Baron Yushchiev. The two got fed up with one obnoxious Thyatian soldier named Marcus who led a group called the Kobold Hunters. When the Kobold Hunters prepared for their next hunt, Yury and Grygory went out into the woods a few miles where a wizardess lived in a cottage, and paid her to transform their appearance in some way to look like a couple of (human-sized) kobolds. They proceeded to follow the Kobold Hunters until Marcus was separated from the rest, at which point they jumped him and proceeded to beat the crap out of him. Yuri wraps up the story with the leader screaming outside Radlebb Keep about giant kobolds.
In Mirros we meet Baron Yushchiev, his daughter Anastasia and a few others, including another knight Sir Leonid who receives the amulet as a gift from the Baron for being the protector of his northern villages. During the celebration there is mention of elven magician acrobats providing entertainment, which brings to mind elven mime artists(see B12 Queen's Harvest). There is some downtime covered next in the winter as Grygory concentrates on training his squire and life at the Baron's estate. This chapter is weakened unfortunately by Brown's handling of Anastasia's interest in Grygory and his awkward attempts to avoid her. The Baron seems to approve of the match and we never get a reason why Grygory isn't interested. It is a plot thread that gets dropped and is never resolved.
Some weeks later while it is still winter Grygory is summoned for a personal audience with the Baron. Yushchiev explains to him that he has been colonizing the Upper Rugalov Valley, building logging and farming villages that have prospered. This would be north of the village of Rugalov but south of the Lake of Lost Dreams. Grygory learns that Yushchiev is building a region of Karameikos where Traladarans can be free from Thyatian masters. King Stefan does not yet know the extent of this project. Yushchiev tells Grygory that he had dispatched Sir Leonid with twenty men-at-arms weeks ago to protect these villages upon receiving reports of marauders. He opens a bag on his desk to reveal the amulet once again, smashed and its gemstones gouged out. Leonid and his men are dead. Yushchiev is gathering another twenty men-at-arms from his own guard and allied lords and Grygory will lead them along with his personal retinue.
Next we see Grygory visiting a St Kruskiev monastery in the Old Quarter. Despite the name, there is no mention of any link with the Church of Traladara. Brown simply filed the serial number off the real-world medieval Franciscan or Dominican monks and dropped them into Karameikos as monks of St Kruskiev. Their holy symbol is a dove and a sword and they sell candles to make ends meet. Here we find Brother Mikhail and Grygory tries to recruit him. This conversation has happened before, with Mikhail refusing and pointing to his crippled leg, and Grygory countering that he can still ride a horse and his clerical magic is needed. While Grygory can't persuade him, the baron makes a substantial donation and the abbot forces Mikhail to go on the quest.
A total of twenty-seven men depart the Yushchiev estate in Mirros in small groups under the cover of darkness and pass through the north gate to Krakatos rather than directly to the east. This is done to avoid Thyatian suspicion as well as prevent any potential spies from learning Baron Yushchiev's is sending a second force. Unfortunately, as we learn later, the Dark Knight knows very well whose villages he is attacking, and has some Thyatian spies waiting for just such a reaction. Sir Leonid nearly won the day with his small band against a vastly superior numerical force, and the Dark Knight plans to take no more chances. His spies have enough gold to hire ogre mercenaries and a few mages.
Despite Grygory's precautions of a forced march north and then east crossing the river and camping in the forest, the ogres and mages find them and launch a dawn attack. What follows is a rather chaotic defense of the camp and mule baggage train as Grygory's men separate into two lines to defend themselves on both sides from what they think is a random attack by ogres. Grygory defends one flank and we lose sight of the other flank. When the ogres are routed on their side Grygory and Yuri come upon the other defense line and find the soldiers first fighting among themselves and then all joining the ogres. Grygory and his men are forced to take cover from arrow fire and the knight decides he has to charge his own men. The combat takes a vicious turn as the last ogres are brought down and soldier fights soldier. Grygory is forced to kill his own squire.
In the aftermath Grygory sends the wounded back to Mirros with an escort, including two of his own men, leaving only nine under his command to continue to Rugalov, including Yuri and Brother Mikhail. While the situation appears to be hopeless Grygory still has a large amount of silver provided by the baron, and hopes to be able to purchase some help from the Rugalov Keep garrison. However, when they reach Rugalov Village, they find an enormous number of mercenaries lounging around town. Apparently rumors of need for mercenary companies all brought them in from Thyatis, which is admittedly convenient. The sheer number of them clearly overwhelm the town militia, and realistically are probably too much for the Rugalov Keep garrison.
Here the book takes a rather jarring turn in scenery if not mood. Grygory and Mikhail are seeking out a mercenary captain at the Fish and Shark Inn and Brasserie when Rugalov garrison troops arrive to arrest everyone. Before anyone can really react, a sleep spell hits everyone and knocks them out. Grygory wakes up on a cart being ferried across the river to Rugalov Keep, and before he can get anyone to listen he and Mikhail are told that since the dungeon is currently full, they will have to wait "in here". And they get shoved through a magical gate.
They end up on another plane that consists of many tropical islands floating in the air above and below like sand-colored clouds, and hundreds of suns shining in the sky above and below as well, some the size of candles and others the size of lanterns, but all very bright and hot. Birds are riding the air waves and at one point three enormous dragons swoop overhead. Mikhail explains about other planes of existence and other worlds, and suggests this may be the Elemental Plane of Air. They find the the hull of a wrecked ship elsewhere in the sand with metal gears and a wide butterfly wing-like sail. I am not sure if this is alluding to a spelljammer ship or something from Planescape, although this place reminds me a bit of the former Alphatian homeworld detailed in M1 Into the Maelstrom and mentioned in Dawn of the Emperors.
This chapter really strikes me as out of place for the novel, which has portrayed the setting as more gritty and low-key fantasy up to this point. It also strikes me as out of place for the setting, since Rugalov Keep is just a small border fort holding one of King Stefan's understrength divisions in GAZ1. Having a huge plane serve as your extra jail seems way over the top for such a place. It is just within the realm of possibility, however, if this is somehow a reference to old Alphatia and Brown noted that Terari, the former Alphatian emperor known there as Tylion, has been serving King Stefan the last few years. If anyone decided to create magical gates for each Karameikan fortress, it would be Terari. Part of the reason for this scene is to make the ending not seem completely out of left field, but it just makes this chapter feel like it is coming out of left field.
The redeeming feature of this tropical island setting is that it introduces my second favorite character, the Alasiyan warrior Khalil, and it provides the backdrop for one of the best verbal and physical altercations in the book. A lot of other mercenaries have been tossed onto this planar island and are waiting in the queue to get processed. With so many people present, food and water are scarce, so there are now two groups, the haves and the have-nots...aka the "newbies". Khalil is the commander of the mercenary company the Fangs of Jallah. They are the haves, and everyone else are their slaves. Now Khalil is admittedly a walking Islamic stereotype but I find he has a number of redeeming features. He has some solid one-liners, can verbally as well as physically match Grygory, demonstrates a different set of alpha leader traits, and gets his moments of dignity.
Grygory and Mikhail are forced to work as newbies, and when Khalil returns to camp, Grygory shows a remarkable amount of restraint, waiting a whole three minutes before he beats up the nearby guards and looks ready to take on everyone else with a makeshift spear. Khalil finds the whole thing amusing but when Grygory challenges him he has no choice but to accept. Khalil has his men set up a make-shift arena called a taj, and they lay burning embers from the campfires into the sand in the shape of a letter M with an additional line bisecting it. The fight is a bare-handed brawl and the match is close, but Khalil is more experienced at unarmed combat, and while Grygory is a big guy at over six feet tall, Khalil is closer to six and a half. Even as Khalil lifts Grygory up and slams him down into the fire, Grygory has the wits to stiff-arm and keep his whole body out of the flame even as his hand starts burning.
Fortunately for Grygory, Rugalov soldiers show up at this point with crossbows. Everyone is brought back through the gate and Grygory eventually gets an apology from the Rugalov garrison commander but no help for his quest. Meanwhile, brief glimpses of the Dark Knight reveal more about him. He hates orcs and doesn't trust them going up against trained soldiers, but he finds them ideal for what he needs done, slaughtering everyone they can find...for even evil men object to killing women and children. The purple orb seems to grow larger with each death, and at one point it comes over him and rejuvenates him, restoring his youth like a potion of longevity. After this it is diminished, and starts over. The elite orcs wear white wooden masks that depict the carved hideous face of a hag, and when one of them notices the Dark Knight looks younger he gets killed for the observation.
Grygory rejoins his men-at-arms upon getting back from his "island vacation" as Yuri puts it. He decides his only remaining chance is to use Yushchiev's silver and seeks out the Fangs of Jallah. They get Khalil's attention with a dramatic and reckless ride through the mercenary company's camp right up to Khalil's tent, Grygory and Khalil just manage to negotiate an agreement. The Fangs of Jallah, consisting of one company each of archers, pikemen, spearmen and swordsmen, (each company consisting of 70-80 men(or demi-human) from various nations of the Known World) march to the north under contract for several days. Grygory and his remaining men-at-arms are the only cavalry.
Later the mercenary company is ambushed by a large tribe of hobgoblins who attack the flanks toward the rear of the marching column, getting between the swordsmen and the archers. In reporting to the Dark Knight of what is approaching, a spy helpfully informs his employer that he took the liberty of spreading his gold among the "degenerates" that live nearby. Grygory and his men are up near the front of the column so we only see a chaotic melee well under way by the time they reach the battle. Khalil is happily slaughtering hobgoblins while being isolated from his men, so Grygory has to scramble to buy time for the archers to disengage and bring the spearmen into battle. The fight is soon won with Grygory and Khalil carving a path to each other through the last of the hobgoblins.
Grygory is furious, however, that Khalil focused on personal glory to the exclusion of command. Neither can swallow their anger, insults give way to threats and soon a second duel starts amidst hobgoblin corpses as both the mercs and Grygory's men-at-arms start placing bets. Thanks to the earlier fight we actually get some tension and this fight with weapons and armor is just as close as the last one. At one point Grygory grabs a knife to use as a second weapon which ends up saving his life. This time Grygory is the victor, and when Khalil agrees to yield in exchange for his life, the Alasiyan quits the company leaving it in the care of Grygory and Marl, Khalil's second-in-command. It isn't clear if the Fangs of Jallah will actually follow the knight until the Traladaran finally catches a break. A Darokin mercenary discovers the hobgoblins all have gold coins on them, and Grygory promises there will be more for those who follow.
We next get a scene where a powerful orc shaman is summoned by the Dark Knight's orcs to raise an undead army. The Dark Knight observes the ritual magic not quite knowing what to expect. The magic used is powerful, for an undead host is animated close to the location of the Fangs of Jallah. It is night and Grygory is put under some enchantment that has him sleepwalk his way out of camp. Yuri notices and quietly follows him, not quite sure what to make of the situation. Grygory is attacked by some undead warrior and only survives thanks to the timely intervention of Yuri. The creature is largely immune to their attacks until they disarm it and Grygory strikes it down with its own blade. The two make their way back to camp to find it under fire from about fifty skeleton archers on each side manning improvised embankments of brush and fallen timbers. Yuri and Grygory split up and each go after one group and by achieving surprise are able to help to destroy enough of the enemy for a sally by the Fangs from camp. Marl and Mikhail return shortly after with the majority of the company, having engaged an even larger undead force successfully, not realizing the contingent they left behind in camp soon came under fire.
At last they arrive at the first village in the valley, to find it has already been ransacked and the survivors starving and in shock. Interviewing the villagers, Grygory learns for the first time that the raiders are led by the black knight. Despite their long association, Yuri never heard how Grygory was orphaned, so Mikhail relates the story. As they search the area and spread their men out to pick up the orc trail, a scout comes back reporting that orcs are pouring out of the forest and assembling into ranks in the fields just outside the village.
We get to see the viewpoints of both commanders as each knight madly scrambles to get their battle lines in order before the other. The battle is touch and go but despite being outnumbered the Fangs discipline helps them build and keep an advantage. Grygory is charging in on horseback wherever he is most needed when he spots the black knight engaged at the front against the pikemen and swordsmen. An error creeps in here when a minor merc character is slain by the black knight only to be alive and well after the battle. Grygory starts charging his horse toward the black knight but is shocked to see Mikhail has left the safety of the rear and is racing toward the knight on horseback. Mikhail is just getting into position to turn undead, and what follows is a spectacular explosion that disintegrates the skeletal horse and knocks everyone on the battlefield off their feet.
Grygory and the Dark Knight cross blades, and it is quickly apparent that Grygory is the better fighter, but the Dark Knight's magical armor has no opening or weakness and Grygory can't wound him. The Dark Knight manages to retreat as their personal duel gets mixed up with the press of bodies in the larger battle. The orcs break and flee, but as Grygory catches up with the Dark Knight again he sees the man's final play. Khalil, nearly dead, is hoisted up onto a wooden pole and surrounded by masked orcs ready to fire arrows to kill him should the victorious army pursue any further. The Dark Knight flees into the forest. What happens next ensures the Fangs seek bloody revenge on every surviving orc.
Grygory gathers his companions and pursuit of the Dark Knight continues through the night. Grygory keeps a stash of coins enchanted with continual light to make this possible, that is one of my player's favorite tricks too. They come upon another village that was wiped out. This is a combined human/elven village with elf tree homes similar to Grygory's home village...presumably the elves were Alfheim refugees. They spread out to search and Grygory is separated from the others up in a tree home when the dark knight cuts a rope bridge. Here the two knights come to blows and once again Grygory can't score a wound. In a desperate grapple he manages to pull off the Dark Knight's helmet, and in one final fast exchange of strikes he beheads the man. When Grygory's companions reach the spot, all they find is the body of a naked old man.
Grygory finds himself wearing the black armor and wielding the Dark Knight's sword somewhere...else. As the scene unfolds we learn he is in the Nine Hells and a pit fiend set up the dark knight and dozens of others like him, sending them out to worlds on the prime material plane to kill as many as people as possible. Each is linked to a purple orb which absorbs the soul of every kill and brings them to the pit fiend's domain, where they become lemures regardless of which plane they should have gone to when they died. This is so the pit fiend can rebuild his army to get back to the Blood War.
Frankly, there is way too much exposition here, though at least he didn't call out the Blood War by name. From a setting standpoint it is disappointing that of all the villain choices for Mystara they make this story a Planescape subplot. From a novel standpoint, however, the story still holds up fairly well with how the pit fiend is portrayed and with the earlier chapter first introducing us to other planes of existence. Some of what the pit fiend says is quite chilling, but other times he sounds like a midwit rather than a genius intellect. When portraying something like this less is more, and we just don't need technical exposition on why the pit fiend needs to raise an army. Planescape fans already know why, while everyone else can easily figure out this is Hell and dragging souls here is SOP for devils. The TSR marketing department problem also shows up here, because they weren't satisfied until the other campaign settings got dropped into the conversation."So, which world are you from? Kara-what was that you called it?"
"Never heard of it."
"Karameikos isn't a world, it's a country. My world is called-well, many things. You may know it as Mystara."
"Mystara, eh," the beast repeated. "No, never heard of that...Oh, wait. That's not that strange hollow one, is it?"
"Not that I know of."
"No matter, I suppose. I'll send you where I need you anyway." The beast snapped its fingers, and a gigantic tome appeared in its hands.
"Let's see...that desert one's pretty much empty these days...Maybe the one with the asteroid."
"I don't understand."
"Of course you don't. Toril's got lots of souls, but I might make that wizard angry again."
Grygory's confusion at the mention of Mystara being hollow is an error. When Claransa the Seer released her book in 1010AC, it caused a huge stir in Karameikos as well as many other places. Grygory would be well aware of this controversy as well as the fact his king sent an expedition to try and find the Hollow World. In any case, the 2E Mystara setting is firmly ensconced in Planescape cosmology.
To reinforce the pointlessness of the above conversation, the pit fiend send Grygory back to Karameikos. The final chapter is very brief, showing a scene where Grygory is confronted by his closest companions. It has been two weeks since the Dark Knight was slain, and once Grygory rejoined his men and the Fangs, he had set them to work killing every last ogre and hobgoblin they could find in the area. But now his men are balking at his next order, to go through all the rest of the villages and seek out collaborators who betrayed their fellows to the orcs and put them to death for treason. It is clear they know he has changed, his horse won't let him near it and he wears the black armor and wields the weapon of the dark knight.
Grygory attacks them and falls back, with Mikhail pursuing on horseback. The two face off and when Grygory's blade strikes the upraised holy symbol of Mikhail, there is another flash of light. (Being a cleric in a Timothy Brown campaign is more flashy than being a wizard.) The two are hurled apart, but the dispel evil works, for Grygory is now himself again. He turns and sees the purple orb, and strikes at it with his weapon.
And finds himself back in hell. The pit fiend is very unhappy with the situation and tries to dominate Grygory's mind a second time, but we finally see that successful save. So the last fight is on. The pit fiend should win this one but he lets rage cloud his thinking...and in hindsight he really should have built in a fail safe to the armor and swords he issued to his dark knights.
The last line of the book has a nod to Wrath of the Immortals, which came out when TSR was either keeping demons and devils out of the books or renaming them. While the AD&D system went with names like baatezu, RC D&D kept things simple. After this adventure Grygory was known in Karameikos as the Fiend Slayer.