The wind swept over the broken battlefield; snow had been falling for several hours, and a faint white layer covered the ground, hiding the horrors that had taken place there that day. Bodies of men, Chimerae, reavers, and monsters, covered by the snow, formed small mounds across the landscape, as though thousands of tiny hills had suddenly sprung up from the ground. There was little movement. A deer, cautiously at first, but growing steadily bolder, began to make pick its way through the bodies, nosing along the ground looking for food.
As the snow continued to fall, some other signs of life could be seen, as well. Wounded men were crawling slowly towards the remains of the castle to escape the cold and to seek out healing. Inside the Castle, the Duke Edmond (who had lived) began organizing what was left of his men to search the battlefield for any who might still be alive; he did this to put out of his mind thoughts of his wife, the Duchess (who had been killed as a stray blast of Tao energy had collapsed the roof of the house in which she hid). A makeshift hospital had been set up in the courtyard of the Castle, where the many wounded were being tended to by the few physicians who were available to help.
Percival cautiously came up from the prisons, where he had hid after destroying the ghola. He looked around him, shocked by the devastation that the war had brought. No one seemed to notice him. Unsure what to do, he decided to go to the pigpen and see how his piggys were doing. They had all been killed, crushed by a giant Dragon foot. Percival sat down in the slop and shed a few great, snotty tears for them. It seemed to him that the pigs deserved a better end than that; he wasn’t sure if being slaughtered and eaten by humans was really a better end or not, but he didn’t think about it too hard.
After a few minutes, he got up and took a shovel from a nearby toolshed, and began to dig graves in the pigpen for his pigs. The earth was frozen and hard, and he broke his shovel trying to force it through. He went to get another, and continued. As he completed each one, he lifted up the pig which was to go inside it, and set it down tenderly in the cold earth, he patted each one gently on the head, and said for the last time, “Good piggy.” When he had completed his task, he rested the shovel on the fence of the pen, and sat down, wondering what would come next.
Slowly, more and more people began to arrive at the Castle. The women and children from the town of Whitefall came looking for their husbands and fathers. There were many joyful reunions that day, but there were many, many more tearful goodbyes.
Idriys himself miraculously was unharmed; he had wandered the battlefield for many hours, looking for the wounded, and healing them as best as he knew how. He finally had returned to the castle, exhausted, and was now collapsed on a cot in the hospital, deep in the thrall of Tao-sickness brought on by hours upon hours of extended use. He would recover, but it would take time. He kept moaning in his delirium, “Josiah… Cameron…” He did not notice when the twitching, one-legged figure of Josiah was brought into the castle by the Duke’s men and set on the cot next to him, nor would he notice for some time. Josiah was covered with scrapes and bruises, but other than the loss of his leg, had suffered no serious injury.
The morning dawned on the scene of the battle, the blood-red light from the sun cutting through the smoke, snow, and haze that filled the air. The Duke’s men took torches out onto the battlefield, and began assembling the corpses of the dead combatants into mass funeral pyres, and lit them. The light from the fires glowed like great beacons, visible for miles. The body of the Dragon was left alone.
Early in the afternoon, Idriys awoke from his sickness; he had a severe headache, but the hallucinations and fever had left him. He got to his feet, and then sat back down again quickly as the blood rushed from his head. He waited a few moments and tried again, more slowly this time. Once sure that he would not faint, Idriys looked around him. For the first time he saw Josiah, and rushed to his side. He did a quick, but thorough examination, and when he saw that Josiah was alive and had suffered no further harm, he breathed a sigh of relief.
Josiah’s eyes twitched open, and looked up at Idriys without feeling. “You’re awake,” he said to Idriys. “I was afraid you were going to sleep all day.”
Idriys said nothing.
“We won,” said Josiah. “We killed the bastard, and took his throne from him.”
“At what cost, Josiah?” Idriys responded despairingly. “All this death… All this could have been stopped, if we had done things differently. If I had gone to Ser Robert… if we hadn’t brought the Chimerae…”
“Don’t blame yourself!” snapped Josiah. “If it had not been us, if it had not been today, it would have been somewhere else. The Chimerae were not about to give up and go away. They would not rest until their Father was dead or until they were – and likely it would have been the latter. We waited too long. The old King was nearly too powerful, even now; if Cameron had not distracted him, I think we would have all been dead.”
At the mention of Cameron’s name, Idriys leaned forward. “Cameron! Is he…”
“Dead, Idriys. The plucky little bastard clung to the back of that Dragon and waited until the Dragon brought all his attention to bear on me before diving into its mind and shaking out the White King.”
Idriys took the news hard; he sat down hard on the floor, deep, wracking sobs coming up from his chest. Josiah sat awkwardly watching, unsure what to say. Several minutes passed, the only sound that of Idriys’s wailing, and the moans of the wounded on nearby cots. Finally, Josiah said, “Cameron and I never did get along; we were too similar in too many ways. We were both terrified of being caged, of not having control of our lives. But I see why you were friends, Idriys. And I am sorry for his death.”
Idriys made no response, but looked sadly at Josiah. Finally, he asked Josiah, “And what of Evelyn?”
Josiah looked down, resting his head in his hands. “The creature that attacked us on the battlefield was not Evelyn. She died sixteen years ago, soul taken by some creature from Death’s realm. You tried to tell me this before, but I did not listen. I was foolish.”
“So… you had not brought her back?” Idriys asked.
“No. The creature we fought was what the Chimerae referred to as a ghola. I do not understand well how it works; somehow the remnants of the spirit and the body are able to rejoin, through the power of Tao. The result is a creature like what we saw – a strong and powerful magic-wielder, but one with a single desire: to kill everyone it – she – knew in her former life. The ghola exists in a state of great pain, and seeks to inflict that pain on everyone else.”
“How do you know all this?”
“Sub-nakht-re explained it to me one night in the Chimeraen camp in the mountains. I confess Cameron was right about me; I had learned – don’t ask me how – that I could not control the powers of Death well enough to successfully bring someone back from that land, and I thought that perhaps the Chimerae, with their great knowledge of Tao, would be able to assist me. I was wrong.
“Sub-nakht-re told me that what I sought was an abomination against nature, and that it would be impossible. He told me of the gholas, told me that Evelyn had already been brought back as one, but I did not believe him. I thought that there would still be some way to save here. But I was wrong.”
Idriys paused thoughtfully. “But if you did not bring her back…” he said, voice trailing off.
“I believe, as did Sub-nakht-re, that in the White King’s desperation for power, the link between our world and the world of Death was strengthened. At some time, or perhaps at many times, portals such as the one you saw tonight may have been opened, allowing Evelyn to come through. And perhaps many other gholas as well. Sub-nakht-re indicated that she was the only one they were aware of, but others may have slipped through the cracks.”
“What can we do about them?” Idriys asked worriedly.
“The same thing we did with the Evelyn ghola,” Josiah said. “Send that big stupid troll after them.”
Idriys cracked a slight smile, and then they were both laughing, almost forcing the mirth out of their bodies in an attempt to stave off the terrible reality they had been a part of for the last many hours. Soon, the other wounded men were also laughing, though they had no idea at what. It felt good just to laugh.
The hours turned into days, and the Castle slowly began to rebuild itself. The news of the battle and of the White King’s death quickly spread around the Kingdom, and soon hundreds of people had invaded Whitefall to see the giant Dragon carcass, and to help rebuild and repair the city and the Castle. Idriys found himself extremely busy tending to all of the wounded. A few of his patients died, but many more of them lived through their injuries thanks to his expert care.
As the person who had killed the White King, Josiah found himself a bit of a celebrity. He endlessly recounted the tale of the battle, embellishing it slightly more with every retelling, as though it were not impressive enough already. People seemed to completely ignore or forget about the fact of Josiah’s past life as the Eagle, and praised him as savior for killing the White King and keeping the Dragon from destroying the world – or at least, for preventing the White King from killing any more of his citizens for his own personal gain.
The Duke Edmond, acting on his authority as ruler of Whitefall, absolved Josiah and Idriys of whatever crimes they had been imprisoned for. While this made Percival slightly unhappy (he had been looking forward to having some more prisoners to attend to), many other tasks were found for Percival to complete that kept his mind off of the lack of prisoners to yell at.
Weeks turned into months, and the Kingdom began to rebuild itself, as well. As the White King had no heirs, the question became who would next inherit the throne. The White King’s sister (the one who had rescued Percival) and her husband were vocal supporters of their son, but as her choice in children was worse than her choice in husbands or in Dungeon Trolls, the vast majority of the people were not in favor of this plan. A number of other people stepped forward from different parts of the kingdom, including a brash, outspoken young knight named Ser Thorup, who had served as leader of the White King’s castle guard for several years, as well as several of the old White King’s Warlocks (who were not popular among the people, due to their support of the White King’s practices). Idriys’s name had also been mentioned in some circles as a possible contender, but these rumors were quickly quelled after he quite openly declared that he had absolutely no interest in becoming King, and that he would serve the new King loyally (if it was a King he liked, after all), but the gods themselves couldn’t make him rule. However, the most popular candidate for the throne throughout the kingdom was the Eagle himself, Josiah Burroughs.
After many weeks of deliberations by the Royal Parliament, it was finally decided that there was no clear answer to the question of who the next King would be, and so the decision would be made in the same way that such things have always been decided – by a tournament of champions.