The Barrows hawk soared above the grey mists covering Castle Whitefall, looking for new hunting grounds. She had been driven from her nest a few days ago by an army of creatures, creatures that she did not understand. They were unnatural, and she did not want to be near them. They were large, grey-skinned monsters, and they drove before them in their steady march northwards all of the small rodents that the hawk normally preyed upon, and they left behind them a wake of decay and putrefaction that could not support life; where the creatures trod, the grass turned black, tainted with disease. So the hawk flew further and further north, seeking out new nesting grounds, and better game to hunt. But it was getting harder to find food, and last night for the first time, she felt the chill of winter in her bones. She was not made to live this far north, but she was too weak to return south without more food. Through a hole in the fog, she saw a flash of movement – a small, scrawny mouse that be barely worth the effort. She dove, and too late realized that the mouse was less than five feet away from one of the awful grey-skinned brutes. It stared at her with a dull, lifeless look in its eyes, massive wooden club in its hand. The hawk screeched and flew away as fast as she could, dropping the now-dead mouse in fear. It was time to fly north again.
The creatures were the grey reavers, and the army was the White King’s. He was coming to Castle Whitefall.
The grey reavers. They were, by all normal definitions, quite unsettling. Neither dead, nor really alive, they left one feeling as though a great emptiness had passed by when they approached. They were the bodies of the White King’s citizens, reanimated after their death to serve their liege in battle. It was the uneasy contract that all implicitly signed when they were born; it was the price of the relatively easy life that most lived in the Kingdom.
Reanimated by the Tao, the grey reavers lost any indication of who they were before their deaths. They possessed a limited intelligence, but seemed utterly without purpose. They would follow orders ruthlessly and without question, yet were content to stand motionless for months or even years at a time, waiting for their next instructions, their dull grey eyes staring straight ahead, unblinking.
Over time, as they aged (for lack of a better term), the grey reavers lost all traces of their humanity. Something in the Tao reanimation process caused the bone matter to start growing again, sometimes doubling or even tripling in size. The largest and oldest of the reavers stood taller than the trolls, nearly twenty feet tall. The Tao preserved the flesh, keeping it from the rot of death. The hair and nails of the creatures continued to grow at a steady pace, and the skin stretched tight, sometimes rending and tearing from the pressure of the now-enormous skeletal system. Their strength increased as well; the muscles of the body, kept from atrophy by the Tao, in fact grew many times stronger than they were in life. They could hurl boulders great distances and carry enormous weights on their shoulders; a small group of them could tear a castle’s gates off its hinges.
They wore no armor, as they felt no pain, and would continue to advance on an opponent even after the loss of all its limbs. The only way to kill a grey reaver was to decapitate it. On the battlefield, they were always accompanied by a small contingent of Warlocks, who could, with the help of Tao, possess a reaver at will, taking control of its body, and seeing through its eyes. Once established, this possession link would not deteriorate even when the reaver and its master were separated by thousands of miles. Thus, they made excellent scouts and messengers, as well. They were the perfect soldiers; utterly loyal, completely obedient, enormously strong, and nearly impossible to destroy. Despite their unsettling appearance, they had never once acted against orders, or assaulted a denizen of the White Kingdom.
Never, that is, except for a certain night sixteen years ago when Evelyn Diamadre disappeared from the world. That night, at the instant when Josiah Burroughs began his mad journey into Death’s lair, a group of grey reavers on patrol twenty miles from the University went berserk. They stormed across the grasslands to a nearby city, and stampeded through the streets, howling madly with vocal cords that had not been used in years. They set fire to buildings and slaughtered the citizens without mercy. The city militia fought against the reavers with all their power, but they were losing. They were losing badly. It is highly likely that had not a miracle occurred, the town would have been razed to the ground by the reavers.
Fortunately, a miracle did occur; ten minutes after the start of their onslaught, about the time that Robert Mariner broke the otherworldly connection between Josiah and Evelyn, the grey reavers stopped dead in their tracks, staring stupidly at their own hands which were in the process demolishing the city. The remnants of the militia quickly descended upon the now-complacent reavers; the militia obliterated the reavers, massacring their bodies, hacking off arms and legs and heads indiscriminately. The reavers made no response, no attempt to defend themselves at all; they simply allowed themselves to be destroyed. They had no orders to the contrary, after all! In a great bonfire, the terrified people burned the reavers’ bodies to ashes.
The survivors of that horrific night would later report that they had seen a spark of angry life in the grey reavers’ eyes, as though the original owners of the bodies had returned, and finding their bodies in the service of another, went mad.
No such event had occurred before, nor has a similar event occurred since. Yet that singular occurrence was enough to sow fear and distrust of the grey reavers in the hearts of the King’s citizens for eight long years. The backlash was so severe that the King was forced to send his Warlocks to morgues and hospitals around the kingdom to claim the bodies of the dead before they were cremated by their loved ones who did not wish to see them condemned to the fate of the grey reavers.
Tensions escalated, and a rebellion began against the White King, defying all of his attempts to bring it under control. However, when the Chimerae (creatures even more fearsome than the reavers, if such a thing is possible) appeared for the first time eight years ago, butchering the White King’s people with no mercy or remorse, all thoughts of rebellion vanished. Citizens in the first cities attacked by the Chimerae brought the bodies of their dead in droves to the King, begging him to reanimate their loved ones to keep them safe from the terrible onslaught. A few, in fact, despairing of life, and thinking they could serve their King best in death, killed themselves and donated their bodies to the war. For what could stand against the wrath of a Chimera except the unrelenting, deadened strength of a reaver?
But even so, the White King was reluctant to use the reavers, except in the front lines of the war against the Chimerae. His advisers could not explain why the reavers had lost control, and if such an event were to happen a second time, he could lose his throne and his life. In fact, the battalion of reavers currently marching across the Moorlands to Castle Whitefall were the first reavers seen away from the front since the war against the Chimerae began. But then, these were unusual circumstances.
The White King himself rode in a covered pavilion at the rear of the column of reavers. He sat and listened, and contemplated how eerily quiet the reavers were when they walked. They did not speak, did not breathe, and every step they took was made with perfect precision. If not for the clip-clop of the accompanying horses’ hooves, one could be within a hundred yards of the army and not know that it passed by.
The White King was an old man, but he played the part of monarch well. His long, tangled hair and beard were chalky and colorless; he wore a brilliant white vest and robe that was scrubbed immaculately clean each evening by his innumerable servants, and on his head rested a thin circlet made of purest silver, and set with three large pearls. His left hand bore an enormous platinum signet ring, and his right clenched a long, diamond-crusted scepter. Even his very skin seemed to lack any pigment; not a mole or blemish could be seen anywhere on his body. He looked frail and weak, with deep wrinkles creasing his jowls and brow, but it was clear when he spoke – in a high, ringing tenor – that there was no weakness in him. Next to him, within easy arm’s reach, was a heavy two-handed sword in a shimmering mother-of-pearl scabbard; the handle was well-worn with decades of use.
In all, the White King looked very similar to the White King before him, and the White King before him, and the White King before him. However, the current White King suffered one crucial difference from all of his predecessors: he was the first White King in the history of the kingdom who was not a Warlock. The Tao weed gave him nightmares and made him ill; he could do no magic. Despite this, the White King was a strong ruler – perhaps the strongest the Kingdom has ever had. Once, when the White King was younger, a junior member of the Royal Parliament rashly asked him how he was able to overcome his deficiency so that he could govern his people well, and the White King famously responded, “The inability to use Tao is no deficiency; in fact, it is my greatest strength. For if I could use Tao as the Warlocks do, I would not be aware of the fools in Parliament who question me.” He then promptly ordered the man excommunicated from the Parliament, and threatened him with execution were the man ever to speak in the White King’s presence again.
As the army halted for the night (for the benefit of the humans accompanying it; the reavers needed no rest), the White King summoned one of his Diviners to him. “Summon for us Ser Robert, mage,” the King ordered. The Diviner bowed low, and took two leaves of Tao and lit them on fire, breathing deeply of the sweet incense. The King held a damp towel to his face to keep out the fumes.
The Diviner began to softly chant, and after several minutes of his low, thrumming voice, the smoke from the leaves began to coalesce into the form of Ser Robert. The smoky revenant turned and bowed low. Ser Robert’s voice, sounding flat and dim, as though it came from a very great distance away, said “My Liege.”
“Give us your report,” the King commanded.
“As you know, the three traitors have been apprehended, my Lord,” Ser Robert’s voice said. The smoky figure moved its lips in an approximation of speech, but somehow the sound and the movement did not mesh. “I have informed the Duke of your arrival, and preparations are under way. Whitefall will be ready to receive you when you arrive.” The White King nodded his approval, and Ser Robert’s voice continued. “I personally have been studying the journal of the Physician, so that I might understand his motivations, as well as to determine how he broke free of his conditioning. To the former I have some theories, though they will best wait until you arrive. As to the latter, I am afraid I do not know.”
“Very well,” murmured the King. “And what of the Chimerae?”
“I have seen no recent signs of their presence, my Liege,” the smoke-Robert responded. “It is possible that the prisoners were of little importance to them after all. Or they are biding their time, watching our actions. I have posted wards in a twenty-league perimeter around the Castle, however. If the Chimerae come near, we will know it.”
“Good,” said the king. “And what of yourself, Robert?”
The Robert-figure hesitated. “I… am managing,” it said. “It has not been easy, seeing my old friends in this position. But my loyalty is first to you, my King.”
“You have done well, Ser Robert. In three days’ time we shall be there. And may the gods have mercy on the traitors when we arrive, for it is sure that we will not. Be at peace, Robert.”
The White King motioned to the Diviner, and the smoky effigy faded away. The Diviner called servants in, who began to clear away the Tao smoke with large fans so the King could breathe freely again, and the Diviner left the tent, leaning heavily on another servant, the Tao-sickness beginning to set in. And in the night, not ten yards away, the slitted eyes of the Chimera watched every move that was made in the White King’s camp.