Campaign of the Month: August 2014
The Concord of Ashes
The dear, departed husband of Iulia, this spirit eventually revealed himself as an ally to the Concord. He was a fast ally for years, but he fell into a Harrowing from his wounds during the Great Sack of Constantinople, and has not returned.
George was initially revealed to Maude as a shapeless shade, obscured by his funeral shroud. As his power and knowledge have grown in recent years, he has gradually coalesced into a form more similar to his appearance in life: A tall, emaciated, wan old man with a groomed beard and long white hair clad in the robes of a Byzantine noble man, with a blue cloak that always seems to be billowing in some breeze unfelt in the land of the living. He has a sabre belted at his side. His eyes glow with a pale, fearsome light, belying his ghostly state.
A scion of the broken Anatolian military nobility, George Davras was raised in the beautiful port city of Attaleia, capital of the embattled theme of the Cibyrrhaeots, which lies in the ancient land of Pamphylia. Surrounded by Seljuk Turks and cut off from the wider land empire for years, the nature of Attaleia’s people had become resolute, ruthless and extremely patriotic over time. They held their strategic city long after the rest of the Theme, and indeed nearly all of both Anatolia and Cappadocia, had been over-run by the Sultan of Rum.
The Davras family have served as leaders of the region for centuries, and were spared the worst of the sundering of the Anatolian nobles by their isolation and sterling record for loyalty and competency in the naval defence of their Theme’s capital. They have never reached the heights of Byzantine noble power, but have inter-married quite heavily with the powerful Arianites family, and through them the royal Comneni dynasty. As an extended family, the Davrasi have links to the a number of the ruling and formerly ruling noble families of Macedonia, Strymon, Thrace, Cyprus and Chaldea.
George was born in AD 1122, a tumultuous time for the empire. Through skillful campaigning, Emperor John II had reopened the land route with Attaleia (and through it, the Crusader states farther east), but the city was on a constant war footing. Strategos Theodokus Davras, realising early on that George had prodigious mental talents and considerable charisma, spared no expense in seeing the boy, his second son, was raised with an appropriate education. Loyal to a fault, Theodokus knew that the Comneni needed strong and competent men, willing to do whatever was necessary to see the empire restored, and he instilled the same values in George.
When he was ten, George was sent to Constantinople to serve as a page in the court of Emperor John II Comnenus. There the boy quickly earned the favour of John and his youngest son, Manuel, who was 4 years George’s senior. Like Manuel and his older brothers, George accompanied the emperor on his campaigns against the Danishmendid Turks in the 1130s, learning military theory and political practice in the saddle. He also learned a great deal about statesmanship, including when to choose between the velvet glove or the iron gauntlet. Indeed, the Comneni were masters in the conduction of instructive violence, and the young Davras became experienced in hardening his heart against the pain, even torture, of others when other boys were still learning to master their letters and numbers.
Despite his youth, he served Emperor John II with distinction in the Cilician Campaign of AD 1137-38, and by the time George was 17, he was already known for his brilliant adaptations of the Seljuk tactics, which were used to improve the fighting skill of the Byzantine mounted archers, known as the Vardariotai. Throughout the course of his service with these partially assimilated Macedonian Magyars, he developed a fascination with their modality of fighting and their semi-nomadic lifestyle. He had also become extremely wealthy for a young man due to his share of the booty from the sacking of Tarsus, Mopsuestia, Adana and later, Hama and Kafartab in Muslim Syria. During the Syrian campaign, he also gained a healthy distrust for the motives of the Crusader potentates due to the machinations of Raymond of Antioch and Joscelin II of Edessa. As a trusted katepan he was also a witness at the emperor’s death bed in AD 1142, when the poisoned John bequeathed the empire to Manuel instead of his older brother, Isaac.
George would serve Manuel for the rest of his life, and became known for his political acumen, courtly manner, romanticism, and ruthless patriotism as much as his battlefield skill. During the march of the Second Crusade through Byzantine territory in AD 1147, his advice was instrumental in assisting the young Turkish commander Prosouch in his successful attack on the unruly German Crusaders that had commenced raids on Thracian settlements. The humbled army of Conrad III, King of the Germans, was soon convinced to move on, where they met disaster against the resurgent Suljuk Turks at the second battle of Dorylaeum. The French army of Louis VII and the Sicilian Norman army and navy of Roger II were much more inclined to behave themselves in the wake of the German defeat.
His last military foray as the strategic right hand of Emperor Manuel would be in the successful Serbian and Hungarian campaigns of 1150-53. Having spent fifteen of the past twenty years on campaign, George then conceived of a desire to live in peace. Manuel acceded to his wishes and demoted him to the rank of Kritis (judge) of Adrianople, a still not inconsiderable station, as it meant he was one of the foremost civil administrators in the city. He also advised George to marry, and offered a daughter of the prominent Palaiologos family as his bride, only to laugh knowingly when the Anatolian said that he was uninterested in a marriage of state, even if only a little one. No soft, vapid aristocrat could win his heart.
The romantic in George needed a lover, not merely a wife. He did his duty in Adrianople wisely and well for ten years, unknowingly avoiding and simultaneously intuiting the subtle supernatural influences that were at work around the court. This he did by dint of leading a rather paranoid lifestyle (a healthy habit for a Byzantine courtier) and surrounding himself with men of a similar temperament, thus making him a hard pawn to manage directly by the Lasombra prince, Marcus Licinius.
Eventually, Manuel’s ambitions on Hungary grew stronger, and he decided that the knowledge and rudimentary cartography that he had of the rival kingdom’s borders were entirely too symbolic and militarily useless for his purposes. Knowing his mastery of the Magyar tongue, he secretly elected to send his old friend on a scouting mission of the various passes through the Transylvanian Alps and the Balkans, knowing that George would conceive of a way to find him accurate information. In AD 1160, George retired from his duties in Adrianople, accepted a generous pension for his past service, and quietly took to travelling the frontiers of the empire. He became well acquainted with the lands of Croatia, Bulgaria, Serbia, Sirmium and the independent Vlach counties between the Danube and the Carpathians. While investigating the newly established Saxon townships on the other side of the Turnu Roşu Pass, he happened to pass into the lands of the Magyar Ispán Velek, some miles west of the settlement now known as Weissenburg, but then called Belegrada.
Velek was a brute and a fool, overfond of wine and remarkably unobservant. However, he was charged with the defence of the border between the wild wastelands of the Transylvanian wilderness and those of the more settled and civilised Hungary, so George decided to make use of him, using his station as a fellow nobleman to take the ispán’s hospitality over the new year of AD 1162.
Like many of the border lords of what Stephen III had begun to style ‘Greater Hungary’, Velek was no true noble at all, but rather the descendant of a soldier who had been awarded the fief in return for assisting in the subjugation of the native Vlachs and their count, who had refused to bend the knee to the will of the Hungarian king and accept the Latin rite. Indeed, Velek proudly boasted that a number of his slaves were in fact the descendants of the count. After weeks of informative bragging upon the part of the ispan and his equally brutish sons, some very useful ‘hunting trips’, and numerous tours of both Velek’s land and the settlements of Belegrada and Hermannstadt, George happened to dawdle in a meadow and returned later to the ispán’s estate than he had intended.
There he surprised a young woman mucking out the stables. Under the mud and filth, she was clearly a beauty. Furthermore, the intelligence and defiance in her eyes entranced him. Rather than flee or scream in her surprise, she held the pitchfork with steady, if inept, hands, ready to defend herself against the unwanted advance that she was clearly expecting. He was struck dumb by her courage, deserted by his glib tongue and courtly grace, as she slowly backed away and left the stables. The Anatolian could not move for many minutes, spent many more committing her features to memory, and knew that he was in love.
George delayed his leave-taking from Velek’s estate, hoping in vain to see the girl once more. He did not speak of her to the ispán and his family, sensing that they were the likely reason she was so fearful for her virtue, and kept herself in such a state. Days turned into weeks before he found her again, filthy and furtive about her chores late in the afternoon, after Velek and his sons had fled the approaching night into their keep to take solace in their fires, their dogs and their wine. His heart racing, he apologised for his rude interruption in the stables, stated his honourable intentions towards her virtue, and asked if he might speak with her after her chores. He asked her many questions that evening, some few of which she answered in guarded tones, and quite at a loss he spoke at length of the world and the many places that he had seen, hoping to impress her. Finally, as she fled from the encroaching nightfall, he asked her name. " Iulia," she said with a flash of a defiant smile, " daughter of Anton, of the house of Gyula."
George knew that she was making no idle boast, and he sought out Anton the next day. The Vlach bore a curious mixture of dignity and defeated resignation in his character, and George knew that he would give anything to not see the defiant spirit of Iulia brought to the same state. George liked Anton nonetheless, and was pleased at the pains that the lowly slave had taken to teach his daughter as much as he could. After another week, he made Anton an offer for her hand- he would buy her from Velek, who should not be able to legally own a Christian anyway, and then release her with an eye towards making her his wife. He was 20 years her elder, but he would make a good husband if she would have him, and she would be a lady of the empire. A pragmatic man, Anton accepted, knowing that sooner or later, even the dull Velek or one of his sons would see through his the filth and take Iulia to his bed against her will. George offered Velek a good sum of silver for the girl, and still unaware of the treasure in his possession, the ispán took the money and gave over the slave.
As soon as George and Iulia had safely left Velek’s land, George saw that she was bathed, scented and clad in the finest dress that he could find in Belegrada. He then informed her that she was free, but that he loved her and wanted her to be his wife. If she did not want him, he would see to her prosperity anyway, and would give her whatever she needed to make her way in the world. Overcome with the depth of his emotion, Iulia accepted his hand and the two were married as soon as they could return to Adrianople. His new wife was overjoyed at the fact that Vlachs lived free in the Byzantine empire, and that many had settled in Bulgaria, Macedonia, Paristrion, and Thrace.
George’s mission was also a success, and the Emperor Manuel’s army cut deeply into the Hungarian heartland, humbling the armies of Stephen III in the campaign to come. The Byantine armies were victorious, especially at the Battle of Sirmium in 1167. They seized a great deal of loot, and gained the territories of Dalmatia, Syrmia and Bosnia. George was called upon to lead troops throughout this campaign, which lasted for nearly four years, but his master was kind enough to allow him to return to his young wife a number of times. At the successful conclusion of the campaign, Manuel awarded George the rare honour and station of Monostrategos (single-general) and Archikritis (chief-judge) of Bulgaria, making him a doux (duke) with autonomous command of the Themes of Bulgaria and Paristrion, which had become increasingly rebellious with the wars in the west. All strategoi, katepanoi, and kritai would answer to the duke until the provinces had returned to pacification. He soon moved Iulia and the children to the castle-town of Preslav, former capital of the old Bulgarian Empire, and bolstered by his loyal vardariotai the duke got to work.
He was a popular ruler in the eastern quarters of his themes, not least because he had a Vlach for a wife, and he saw the value in making her a positive symbol of his benevolent rule. Soon Iulia had become something of a celebrity in Sophia, Tarnovo and Dorostolon. In other quarters, however, George was not popular, and the resurgent Bulgarian rebel chieftains often sought to raise unrest throughout the region, particularly when the strategos and his vardariotai were busy chasing Cuman raiders along the borders.
Determined to live in peace and enjoy his family, against his better judgement George sought peaceful resolutions to these problems, believing in the old Byzantine sentiment that if good and reasonable leaders could be co-opted (bribed) into accepting the greatness of Byzantium and the prosperity it had to offer, then they would be doing their own people a service. He looked at his family and held hopes for a happy future. His son George was so bright, and was his very image, while Daphne had her mother’s beauty and grace. Iulia’s happiness and growing poise was an inspiration, though he always suspected in his heart of hearts that she bore some hidden yearning.
Eventually more concerted unrest arose in the hills east of Skopje, and George’s officials failed to the discern the obvious difference between a bandit tribe and the seeds of an insurrection. Mihailo Lazarov, a clever Vlach soldier who had once served as an officer under George during the Hungarian campaign, was the leader of the rebels. George liked Mihailo, and attempted to deal with the matter through several diplomatic channels, including the offer of pronoia to legitimise them as subjects. Too late he discovered that his kindness and generosity had been taken for weakness and lack of will. After one of his own subordinates, Constantinos Polchos, the governor of Skopje, threw his support behind Lazarov, the rebels gained a significant boost to their numbers and legitimacy, causing the unrest explode into a popular revolt in AD 1175.
Duke Davras, now 53 years of age, took to the field with his armies for one last campaign. He was determined to put down the rebellion swiftly, which had grown to dangerous proportions and harmed the stability of the empire for which he had worked his entire life. He knew that an example was needed to keep the Bulgarians down, as the empire was threatened once more by the Sicilian Normans and could ill afford another rebellious province. After months of chasing them, and ruthlessly punishing the settlements that harboured and fed them, he cornered the Bulgarian army in the Macedonian hills, brought them to battle, and defeated them. Mihailo Lazarov and Constantine Polchos were among the captured, and George chose especially elaborate and painful public executions for they and any of their surviving lieutenants.
He decimated the people of Skopje, Vranje, Štip, Prilep, and the many villages around those towns, forcing every group of nine men to execute a tenth chosen by a lottery amongst themselves. The men of Resen and Ochrid that were denounced as traitors were also blinded or executed. When the final cost of the rebellion was tallied, more than 3000 rebels were dead on the field, 4200 more had been executed and 3900 men were blinded for their crime of rebellion. The example was made, order was restored and Bulgaria was once more quiet. Emperor Manuel sent his compliments, and Bulgaria and Paristrion returned to business as usual.
George knew that Lazarov and Polchos had given him no choice, and that his duty was clear, but he was ashamed of his actions and his health suffered due to his guilt. The fact that more lives were saved in the end by the strength of his example was cold comfort indeed. He took some solace in his family, but he grew old and noticeably frail and sickly over the next few years. The idea that Iulia and his children would one day be confronted with the magnitude of his cruelty worried away at him, and he suppressed opposed writings of the rebellion as best as he could. He knew that the Bulgarians, Vlachs, Cumans, and Pechenegs of the region would never forget what he had ordered, but hoped that years and distance might dilute the horror. Whispers eventually made their way back to him through his spies that he was now known as the ‘Sorrow of the Bulgars’, and he prayed nightly for the souls of those whose blood stained his hands, as well as the salvation of his own soul and that of his family.
As his guilt weighed ever more upon his conscience, he grew distant from his wife and children, instead spending more time touring the border forts. While visiting a kastron east of Dorostolon in the spring of AD 1178, he fell ill and swiftly succumbed to pneumonia even before word of his sickness reached his family. His last thought as blackness overtook him and he felt himself sinking (into Hell, surely?) was that he had failed them somehow: John, Manuel, Theodokos, his ancestors, his children, but most importantly, Iulia.
The way George has told the tale to Iulia and Maude, he awoke to a thick, rubbery skin, his cawl, being torn from his face. He was in a shadowed land, devoid of colour and hope. A ghostly Byzantine soldier with a bright smile and a vicious, gaping wound where his eye should have been helped George to his feet, explaining that he had been waiting for him to die. “Yes, you are dead,” he remarked wryly, “but you’re not in Hell. At least, not yet. Kyprios is my name.” The deathly soldier explained that he had been sent to claim his soul for the Legions of the Empire of Stygia. Kyprios led George away from Bulgaria quickly, explaining that there were a “great many lemures that would love to repay Duke George Davras for their bloody executions, and that Constantinople, and John II, needed him too much to let his soul go to waste.” George was confused and bewildered, but he focussed on the knowledge that John Comnenus was in this land too! Hope was not lost!
He applied his brilliant intellect to his state, and took Kyprios’ lessons on board quickly. He could not affect the physical world, at least not without training in something called Arcanoi, but he could see the land of the living out of step with the Shadowland, this land of the dead. He insisted that before they go to find Comnenus, Kyprios show him his wife, so that he would know that she was well. Soon enough they came to Preslav, and he saw that Iulia was utterly striken with grief, unable to rise from her bed. Through Kyprios’ instruction and sheer force of will, George managed to stroke Iulia’s hair while she slept. Her stricken brow relaxed, and she smiled for a moment before drifting off into peaceful slumber.
George and Isaac then left for the ‘Necropolis of Byzantium’, where he was formally inducted into the Hierarchy of Stygia as a lemure, adopted into the Legion of Fate, and entered once more into a friendship with the man who had given so much purpose to his life.
He was reluctant to give much more information about his time as a wraith, save that he was briefly imprisoned by a vampire necromancer (Carmine), and he believed that the Giovanni are all slavers and villains. He was aggrieved that all of the sacrifices that he made to resecure Bulgaria for the empire were in vain, as his successors were poorly chosen and weak of character. Peter and Ivan Asen threw off Byzantine rule, and so many good people died for nothing. Finally, George revealed that he was allied with a number of other ghosts who wish to see Byzantium restored, both in the land of the living and the land of the dead.
George eventually managed to reunite with his wife, whom he has watched over since AD 1185. He was deeply distressed to discover that she had become a vampire, but resolved to help her in her schemes to bring freedom to the Vlachs of Transylvania. He now realised that such was her hidden hope and sadness in all the years of their marriage, and the least he could do was watch over her and help her bring justice and goodness to her people. Once she established herself as the prince of Weissenburg in 1198, he remained at her side as her hidden asset. Maude’s instruction of his wife in the rudiments of nigrimancy allowed her to perceive him, and they became as close as they could possibly be given the gulf that lay between them. Any new ghosts that he came across, George directed to Weissenburg, where he hoped that they could establish a Byzantine-friendly bastion against the dangers of the Underworld. Maude and Iulia both devoted time to helping these wraiths settle any unfinished business, and George attempted to tutor them in the Arcanoi that he knew.
Over the coming years he did his best to be a moral compass to her increasingly detached pragmatism, and encouraged her to heed the advice of those few Cainites he had observed to be humane, such as Maude and Durga Syn. He approved of their schemes and aided them when he could. The other members of the Concord of Ashes knew George to varying degrees, but he revealed none of his history or efforts in the Shadowlands to them. He despised Bernhard Billung, believing that he would sacrifice anyone in pursuit of his ego-maniacal delusions of grandeur, and that his heart was far more savage, treacherous, and cruel than he let on to his companions. The fact that he observed the Gangrel trafficking with the Giovanni only confirmed George’s suspicions. Veceslav Basarab also bothered him, but George believed that the Tzimisce’s retiring and unassuming nature at least made him predictable. George liked Sir Conrad and admired his honour and piety. He often looked in on the knight when he was in Constantinople, and he and his fellows sometimes aided the Lexor Brujah without their knowledge. Following those threads, his discovery of the Covenant of Three caused him to make an intense study of the vampires of the capital.
He travelled certain hidden ways between the growing necropolis of Apoulon and the bastion at Constantinople, where he aided the schemes of his friend and master, John Comnenus, as well. He also looked in on his children Daphne and George in Dorostolon and Adrianople whenever he could do so without having to risk travel through the Shadowlands of Bulgaria. Both of them came to have large families of their own, and seemed to be prospering without supernatural influence. The existence of a wraith is very much a joyless one, but it brought him much satisfaction to see their lives unfold in happiness.
As the series of disastrous events surrounding the 4th Crusade’s arrival at Constantinople mounted, George spent very little time assisting his undead wife and her machinations. After the Concord arrived in the Queen of Cities, they learned that he and his allies among the Dead had spent many years preparing for the disaster. Having failed to prevent the fated arrival of the pilgrims in the Skinlands, they now prepared to protect the city in the Shadowlands from the worst. Appearing before Iulia and Maude, George told them that the worst storm to ever roil out of the Tempest occurred when Rome fell for the last time in AD 476. Called the Great Maelstrom, the storm almost destroyed the Underworld realm of Stygia. The Dark Republic of Iron stood on the brink for years amidst the blinding, howling, corpus-rending gales, battling vast hordes of spectres and other, nameless things that boiled up out of the Void. With great gravity, George impressed upon the two necromancers that the very souls of countless wraiths were swallowed up by Oblivion in the Great Maelstrom.
Seers among the Legion of Fate had suffered through visions that if the city fell, the possibility of a Second Great Maelstrom might occur; one to rival or even exceed the last, and they feared that if it struck, the cost in souls could be incalculable. George had spent years preparing for it, and now he asked his wife and his friend, Maude, to do all they could in the Skinlands to help, as he and his bent all their efforts to the same on their side of the Shroud. Months passed. Plans were formulated. Some succeeded, most failed. None averted the doom that awaited the Queen of Cities.
Despite the best efforts of all, Constantinople did indeed fall. As the city burned and the Latins looted, raped, and murdered for three days and nights, the death count mounted beyond number, the misery was untold, the destruction horrific. Across the Shroud, a maelstrom of terrible proportions gathered as the local Legions of the Risen manned the walls of Theodosius and those of Constantine; thousands of wraiths powerless to affect a change in the Skinlands now prepared to defend their haunts in the lands of shadow. And defend them they did, as many times their number of spectres churned out out of the seething Maelstrom and surged against the necropolis. For days they fought, until eventually the Sea Walls were breached in the lands of the Dead, just as they were in the lands of the Quick.
As hell raged around them, the Shroud weakened and flashes of the devastation of the necropolis of Byzantium became hazy visions to some, but quite clear to those with the gift of Auspex. Shortly after they destroyed Stanislav and broke his Chosen of Calomena, the Concord spied George in the Forum of Constantine, leading hundreds of his fellow legionaries in battle with an inhuman mass of monstrosities birthed by the most horrid of nightmares. With her Mortis enhanced vision, the last that Iulia saw of her beloved was when the defenders were being overwhelmed by their spectral enemies. Their eyes met across the Shroud, and in his gaze she saw bleak despair as he ordered his company to fall back.
Miraculously, although the city of Constantinople fell, the Necropolis of Byzantium would persevere. The wraiths of the city still talk in wonder of the beam of light that exploded from the Hagia Sophia hours later, as the defences were failing. They say it was almost heavenly, that it turned night into day for a few moments, and that it struck the heart of the growing Maelstrom. In the wake of the light, the storm broke, and the hordes of the shadow-eaten fled back into the Tempest. The Risen of Byzantium do not know what caused the miracle, but thankful wraiths still speak of it in reverent tones.
But of George Davras of the Doomed, of Axouch of the Sickly, John Comnenus of the Unfortunate, and countless other legionaries that fought to hold back Oblivion, they held little hope. Laid low by the enemy, thousands of the defenders were sucked down through nihils into the Labyrinth, there to suffer dreadful Harrowings. In 1213, Axouch returned to the Skeletal Legion, changed and scarred by the experience, but he is one of few.
So far as Iulia and Maude are aware, her husband has neither undergone Transcendance nor suffered Oblivion, but he cannot be summoned to his rescue by their deathly arts. That means that after so many years he is still below, in the Labyrinth, in his own private hell.