My name is Klaudius Korvallis. I am a Knave in service to the city of Steinkreis, born in Webster's Landing, raised in the wilderness, grown in prison, and I will die in this uniform.
I'm not being dramatic. I'm just too damned tired to re-define myself again.
Being a Knave is not the worst. Yes, I sleep in a barracks, and yes, I wake, work, and rest for nothing save my city. But I get three meals a day and at least I -have- a place to sleep. There are men not so lucky.
I've had my struggles, mundane, mortal, and beyond. Things are awful complicated right now, but on Thain, everything is complicated. Making money is complicated. Settling down and starting a family is complicated. A routine patrol of the roads always gets complicated. Walking a half day to a farming village usually turns out complicated. The farming village itself is a mess of complications mushed together into one big complicated heap. Hell, just dying and staying dead is complicated.
Where I came from is best told as a short story. I hear tell my twice-great-grandfather was as good a swordsman as any adventurer this island had ever seen. Carried medals delivered by Kampfer's hand himself. Buried with honors when age caught up to him. His son was slightly less glorious, taking a role with the Stone Circle and eventually passing due to illness. His young son, my distant grandfather, was a court official that had two children at a late age. They made the duo Karmine and Kaleb. The first would follow in legacy to become a Kreis Knight and sergeant of the watch. The second would try for the Brotherhood twice, get rejected both times for trouble with drink, and turn to poaching on the outskirts of civilization.
I'll let you guess which of those men was my father.
My childhood was not glorious. I learned to hunt and skin from my father. I was fetching booze for him with our meager earnings before I could talk. That was all he taught me; he might have known a few more tricks but one day I noticed he wasn't emptying the bottles I was bringing home. Curiously, this was the first time I technically killed someone. I know it wasn't my fault, so I'm not really conflicted over it, but it's a fact that probably gets joked about among the other Knaves.
Of course I got right to work in the family business, that is to say I continued poaching deer and running with other questionable youths. Started drinking young and got into the trouble kids get into. Except the other kids didn't have a watch sergeant as their uncle. To sort me out, I got chucked into a prison cell for a few days. Then my crabby old uncle went and died in combat, so I got lost down there. For a long time, I thought he did it on purpose.
Fifteen years passed down there, or so I'm told. I lost count eventually. With the death of Lord Kampfer, a resultant shakeup in the bureaucracy meant the only thing carrying my name was my father's old quiver that got tossed in lockup when I was first brought in. They kicked me out onto the street with the quiver and a change of clothes.
I was no better than a savage for awhile. While I was out picking pockets and skinning hides off wild dogs, I stumbled across a little girl that had run off from the Landing. I took her home, and found out her father was Brotherhood. I expected to get mistaken for a child-napping wild man and stabbed to death the minute she got inside. Instead, the man looks me up and down, reads the brand on my neck, shrugs his shoulders, and invites me in for dinner. It tasted better than anything I'd ever charred to semi-edibility over a small fire, or bought with scavenged silver. And this isn't a 'warm fuzzy feeling' thing. I mean it was genuinely the best meal I had ever eaten.
Before I kicked the drink, I had a funny dream. Not funny like ha-ha that's amusing but funny like banging on a mirror while another you runs around causing mischief.
I had only been in the Necropolis once, as a lad, back when my father was still alive. Myself and a few of the younger lads got it in our heads that if we went in as the dawn came, while it was still a little dark but the dead were tucked in their sleep, we could pilfer up some grave goods for whatever flight of childish fancy they could be pawned for. We were there all of eight minutes before the stirges showed up and chased us off.
But I remembered the place in my dream, fifteen years after my prison time and I still remembered. And I heard stories of how it looked at night. Green and black fog that does not welcome light, that seeps into your torches and it keeps them from holding flame. Dead bodies pacing in the mist on rounds that no one comprehends. And that night, in that dream, I was in there.
Not dead. I was hunting. In my ragged garb and with my flimsy bow, creeping around the gravestones like I was looking for something serious. In fact, I knew something serious was there. But now that I'm sober I couldn't tell you what that serious business was.
It was then that he showed up. I know it was a dream because he came from the sky, some fella in a cut-purse hood and shining armor that befits a fella who cuts down dragons and rescues maidens. He pointed at me and he spoke, but words aren't words in dreams. He spoke emotion and I heard it flawlessly. He pointed at me and he had questions, wanting to know who I was, and where I came from. What I'd done, and what I'd done wrong.
It took hours, even in the dream, hours, but I told him. Word for word like I was before the judge's bench. And as I told him, I felt this black smoke seeping out through my teeth, from my eyes, from my ears and from my skin. It rose up before him like he called it out of me, and then he cut through it with a sword. He cut smoke. I didn't know you -could- cut smoke.
And then I followed him. This man in armor I don't know led me through the graveyards, farther than I've ever seen and on into places I've only heard stories about. A few of the Blackstone prisoners had seen it: graverobbers who got themselves in too deep, but even they never got past the first floor.
We went deeper.
Skeletons and zombies were in our way and we smashed through them like heroes of fable. Some moments I had my rickety old bow and I loosed arrows like I could actually aim. Other moments I had a sword, the very sword he was waving around awhile before, and I hacked and slashed my way through rotten bodies and brittle bone.
More skeletons. More zombies. A headless beast with a sword made of cold I felt through my dream like a snowstorm running wild through my ribcage. I heard more words I can't understand but I feel these emotions of enthusiasm, vigor, zeal, and other words you see printed on silver medals for brave soldiers. The armored man spoke them to me as we went and I drank up every word.
We reached the darkest depths. A lady in the shadows was waiting for us, shouting spells as we ran down the seemingly endless bridge towards her.
But we slowed down. The sword in my hand was too heavy. That black smoke was pouring out of me again, a bleak and grim reminder at the worst possible time that my soul isn't clean. The man in armor faltered too, as if my hesitation affected him twofold.
She points. A specter leapt from her hand as our eyes got white hot with pain. Ghostly claws ripped through me and I felt a loss of air to match a hangman's noose. My knees hit stone. She laughed. I choked. That sword fell. I'm tried to exhale, and all I felt is that ichorous smoke dumping across my tongue. Blood dripped down my fingers too hot to belong to anyone but me.
I got a brief feeling of disappointment from those words I couldn't translate. Like someone expected more... but in the end they understand. I'm wasn't ready yet. I'm forgiven.
I fell sideways and backwards at the same time, and slammed into a rock that was far too solid to be fictitious. I spat blood and found my eyes where they got knocked back into my skull. My hide armor was ripped to shreds. My bowstring was snapped and my boots and hands were covered in a sludge that took boiling water to remove. My hair was matted with blood from a head wound and my breath was rank with the stale aftertaste of moonshine.
I felt like a man returned from death. And then I saw it.
Planted in the ground not a yard from my horrific state of being, there was a sword. Not a gold-handled artifact, not stuck in stone waiting to be drawn for the future of a lost people. Just a sword, like a hundred others I'd seen and never bothered to pick up. What was I gonna do with a sword? I was an ex-criminal, a failed poacher.
I asked myself what business I had with it even as I picked it up. I asked myself what business I had with it as I turned it over in my hands, looking at my reflection in the dull iron surface.
My training with that sword was a farce brought to life. I don't carry it anymore -- damn thing is probably rusted into the scabbard now, for how good it is. I eventually got my hands on a decent blade care of an infamous gnome merchant, but that's not the story I'm telling today.
See, I trained with that sword so I could take the next step of my own reformation. The name of my family got a little less glorious with every generation, and split courses with my father and uncle. With my uncle gone, I got this insane notion in my head to pick up roughly where he left off. I made my peace with his grave and I put in my name for the Knaves. There are better choices, but recruitment doesn't exactly soar around here. There's more money and glory in adventuring and there's less chance of getting killed if one takes up civilian life.
I can't presume to know what goes on in Commander Rittermark's head. But he asked me only two questions. "Can you lift a sword?" and "Can you support a proper suit of armor?" Not once did he ask about the brand on my neck, or the manacle scars on my wrists. I told him yes twice, and he gave me my first marching orders.
Which went disastrously. Ettercaps damn near killed my patrol partner and I in the field. We both came out alive but she's still got a limp and I got to see what the Knight-Commander looks like when he's upset: exactly the same, but his eyes cause physical pain to anyone caught in the glare. Which was me. For five minutes. He just had me stand in the corner of his office and he would occasionally look away so I didn't break apart into dust. Then he repeated the marching orders and sent me out again. I took a bow that time and it went better. Instead of running into battle like the mad swords-ghost in my graveyard dream, I practiced the one skill I've had since childhood. I slung arrows and I ran. We made it through the patrol with injuries, but we made it.
I was given the armor of a Knave and a bed to sleep in. The open mockery simmered down into muttering behind my back. I didn't have to work harder than the rest of the Knaves because of my background. No, the officers were equally merciless to every single one of us. And just when we thought we got reprieve, then it was time for assignment outside of the city. Defending the Grey Iron Mines against constant goblin attack beside the Knights. Patrolling the war-border of a road that passes the Crossroads. Enduring the adventurers wherever we go.
I mean, not all adventurers give us hell. And I can say my early attitude towards them didn't earn me any favors. Sometimes they make it too damned easy to hate them.
Now, I'm not what you might call a shining example to the rest of the order. I consort with questionable characters. I ditch patrols to follow adventurers I find suspicious (read: all of them). I hire mercenaries to clean out monster dens so I can pursue some tidbit of intel that fell into my lap. And yes, I deal with merchants outside of official channels. Doing these things has earned me a reputation of sorts: I'm lazy. I'm rebellious. I'm potentially corrupt, just waiting for a purse big enough to fall in my lap. I'm a reckless liability. I'm a jackbooted thug enforcing the laws I feel like issued by a tyrannical dictator. I'm a bully just looking to work someone over for kicks. I'm not even good at my job.
Steinkreis law is not as oppressive as one might think it is. Formally, reigning from the days of our 'youth' as a settlement of warriors fighting out of a ruin (the 'stone circle'), there are only four laws of the land: “There shall be no theft.” “There shall be no murder.” “There shall be no false testimony.” And of course: “Obey the law.” The courts have their licenses and edicts and regulations but as far as the Knaves, the Knights, and Knight-Commander Rittermark are concerned, those are what we enforce alongside our standing orders of ‘defend Steinkreis against all threats’. ‘Obey the law’ refers to us, and the people comply because since its conception, Steinkreis has been under martial law. We are fighting an eternal war from the center of our little 'stone circle' and we will be attacked on every side until one of two things happens. Either our many enemies will be utterly and completely destroyed, or Steinkreis will fall. The first won’t happen so long as adventurers exist, and the second won’t happen as long as the Knights exist.
Officially, my first crime, and the one I was jailed for, was poaching. Just poaching. Yes, I had my youthful indiscretions while running the streets of Lowtown with my crew of other young ne'er-do-wells, but the city guard (my uncle the sergeant, more like) only took offense to the poaching. I resisted arrest as vigorously as a boy of fifteen could against two hulks in iron plate, and I was also moonshine-drunk at the time, but it is my understanding that wherever my processing papers got to, they read "theft: poaching" as my offense.
Of course it was only a few months before I committed my second crime, against humanity and the city. That is to say: murder. The guards in Blackstone do not care if you've never seen the person in your life. If you kill another prisoner, even one who tries to shiv you with a rock, that's murder. I don't know if it was added to my papers. My papers, as I've said before, were lost to the special corner of the Hells that steals legal documents.
Now, I of course had to complete the set of offenses before I saw daylight, so I worked in a 'false testimony' charge a few times because I wouldn't tell the inspectors who I was or why I was in prison. My sentence extended off of this one purely by my own damned mistake; had I told them sooner, they might have let me go sooner. I just assumed Uncle Karmine was so embarrassed to share my blood he genuinely wanted me to die down there.
And so, fifteen years since the crime and two since release, I find myself serving the very city I wronged on all three counts of our ancient law, writ by the ancestors of Lord Kampfer himself. Rest his soul too.
Of course, since my release I had to go and prove that old adage; once a criminal, always a criminal. My first acts in the world were theft: food, my first bow, a quiver of arrows, one small bag of silverware, and a doorknob. I took it from the house of a ranger who prefers to travel abroad, so I don't know if he even noticed, but it's still theft. I did other things to survive, too, when I was looking for work. I ran messages for Krel Twistback, I ferried drinks for the Poisonwood spies in the Flying Mug, and I robbed graves for the necromancer, Muris.
It was the grave-robbing that got me back in touch with my uncle, after all. While fumbling around trying to find a Dagger of the Afterlife for the bone-polishing necromancer son of a dockside whore, I ended up unearthing the grave of a Kreis Knight. I can't read, but I know my name. I know the inscription on his mangled armor read "KORVALLIS" and I know my uncle. Killed in battle, they say, before he could drag me back out of prison and ask if I learned my lesson.
I still took the dagger from him. I'm not proud of it, but I did. And so, theft. Small and large.
I’ve cut ties with the majority of my underworld contacts since I joined the Knaves, and told them not to ask about me or come looking. To this day, I’m fairly certain that Thain’s enemies have no idea that the filthy scavenger of a man and this foul-tempered Knave are the same miserable bastard.
I’m still a thief, mind you.
The difference is who I steal from. By the laws of Steinkreis, I’m relatively clean. I ‘steal’ from monsters, and take great pains to confiscate valuable contraband whenever in the field. I have to give it up for resale in order to pay off adventurers, of course; my military wages couldn’t pay for a damned scribe, let alone a team of experienced troublemakers.
That’s where the ‘relatively’ plays in. There are times that gemstones or a few hundred coins don’t make it into the resale or get reported to the quartermaster. I won’t accept money from an adventurer for going off patrol, but there are times that my expeditions into enemy territory are more self-serving than they are supportive of the Steinkreis coffers. Even if I was turning in fire opals, I have a feeling they’d wind up on gold rings for the city council rather than fund an armor refit for the Knaves.
Is it unprofessional of me to think they’re bastards?
Murder took awhile to revisit. Like the last time, the official story is complicated. I killed in the line of duty several times before the incident, mostly monsters or a few bandits, but there came a day when a street patrol turned up a small workers' riot. I forget the reason. Something to do with messengers and postmen for the city protesting their living wages being less than that of the construction workers at task in wake of that plague so long ago. It was early, so ground patrols were limited on Fletcher's Way that morning.
In steps Klaudius Korvallis to 'keep the peace'. Orders to disperse from one Knave with a longbow do not come across with a lot of weight. The workers saw me as a vulnerable part of the establishment. Unfortunately, this happened -after- my training with the Que Vive and a year of fighting adventurers and monsters on every corner of this damned island. Meaning, I wasn't as easy of a mark as they thought.
I was outnumbered, surrounded, and a little panicked. I'm not an adventurer. I don't scoff off the prospect of getting stomped into a sack of broken bones and torn muscle by an angry mob. I killed five men before the rest fled into the alleys. I killed five men whose only crime was discontent. There were no more riots. My superiors never said a word. It was ruled as self defense, but the Que Vive didn't just teach me how to summon up magic arrows. They taught me that the archer, and his bow, must be of one mind. Even in the heat of the fray, even attacked on all sides, neither can fight without the other. To kill, one must aim. And to aim is to choose where your arrow flies. It is not an unconscious process. Every moment, from reaching to one’s quiver to the final impact of the arrowhead, is chosen by the archer.
I could have taken the risk of being more injured, but only wounding the instigators. I could have taken the risk that the mob would have dispersed for injuries instead of deaths. I didn't take those risks, because at my core, I am a survivor.
I chose to kill those men, and so, I murdered those men.
1.7. KONFESSIONS: "THERE SHALL BE NO FALSE TESTIMONY."
It may be unsurprising, but as I am still a thief, and I am still a murderer, I am still a liar. And, as before, my deception only does me harm. At this point, I'm uncertain I care.
Now, not all of my reports are fabricated. Lies by omission are most common. As I am illiterate, and lack the patience to learn, I rely on scribes that I have to keep on rotation. Their silence is expensive. A few Lowtown opportunists found out that betrayal is expensive too, but not for me. Arrows are cheap, after all.
I keep things in the dark for many reasons, the core of which is survival. My own advantage. Why would I report to my superiors that I abandoned my watch post to track an adventurer team going into some monstrous hell-pit? "Gathering intelligence" is only appreciated by the Regent when it leads to something directly. Our information net is laughable, at least to my perception. Once, we had Spymasters. Once, the Black Merchants brokered secrets to protect the city. If either still exist, they've chosen not to reach out to a shifty, dirty excuse for a Knave who lurks around the island's shadows like some opera cliché.
My superiors do not know I walk the roads of Raven's Watch by night. My superiors do not know I combat the horrors of Thain's Underdark. My superiors do not know I visit the outer planes that surround our island. My superiors do not know that I treat with the foreigners, both righteous and ruthless.
They do not know because they cannot know. If they did, they would see the changes wrought by an island constantly at war. They would see the scars earned in battles outside our walls. They would see a man that is not simply a Knave and they would ask "if he is not entirely Knave, is he not entirely loyal?"
You like my trick? I can talk fancy when I feel like it. Comes from fifteen years under a drama house and thirty of talking to myself. I was a quiet kid. Funny story, and this one is ha ha funny, you know the first time I saw an opera, I made this big (entirely fake) fuss about how no one wanted to guard a Feywood dignitary at the opera house. Sergeant Weller told me "you just volunteered, Korvallis!" and I got my childhood wish. Cue starry eyes and my heart gettin' a size bigger and then I spared a man whose crime was minor enough so he could go be with his family.
Shut up, you, quit laughin'. I know you are. Where was I?
Oh right. My trick. Talkin' fancy.
I mean, my real voice is what it is. Hoarse, ragged. Sarcastic. But serving in the Knaves has taught me to play a straight face and keep my voice level. Don't let them know what you're thinking, or where your heart is at. It's human nature to fear, but it's a knight's job to keep that fear invisible. The training for that applies to more than just putting up your chin and staring death in the face without giving an inch. It makes me a better gambler. It makes me a better negotiator. Hell, just holding still and not fidgeting makes me a better archer, too.
I'm not one of them word-artists. I can't sell you your own farm and I can't talk a market merchant down so much as a penny. And for all the untruths I weave into my reports, I'm a terrible liar face to face. When it comes to actually -telling- the lie, I get all twitchy and choke.
Life is always getting more complicated, you know. You try to keep it simple, stay out of fights you can't win. You do your duty and you try not to let it get to you when good men go down.
Knave Ganns Bartley died today. As in just today. Three veterans of the Brotherhood too. And six of their less distinguished fellows. They died at the hands of Richo Darkscale and Tadeg Enbolle. Richo is a new threat, but a bull-headed one. He won't stay off the roads. This island is his, after all, and we should make way for him. And Tadeg has been murdering guards and blowing me up with fire and acid since the day I took the badge, for no reason other than the badge itself.
On a simple day I would bury the dead. On a good day I would let it go. It isn't something I can change.
Today was not a good day.
Today we fought them.
Today they lost.
Against all odds, two Knaves, assisted by two adventurers, took revenge for our brothers killed in battle.
Richo and Tadeg went to Blackstone. Richo and Tadeg were to go beneath the torturer's knife. Richo and Tadeg would have suffered down there just beside the cells where I once suffered. The torturer who carved the name of that pit into my neck would have done the same to them. As Richo said: "I would have gotten a brand new bright big and shiny badge".
The shadow gem breaks
Men disappear into the dark
Shouting, screaming, confusion
"The shadowdancer is loose"
"How did he get loose"
"The chains should hold him"
The chains do hold him
But they don't hold me.
When I look up at the Watch, the rain stings my face. I have no expression. Show no fear. Show no weakness. This is the dragon's den, Korvallis, and this is where you must go. Because of the curse. Because of the war. Because it didn't serve any purpose to let those two die down there, no matter how many or who they killed.
My badge lies upon the stone of Steinkreis prison. When the darkness faded it was all that remained of Klaudius Korvallis, Knave of Steinkreis, fifth-son of his line. As the crimes of the past were visited again, so too was the beginning.
My lord Kampfer forgive me for all that I must do. When I am called beyond the Stones, know that it was done for you.