The ruins of the Tormented Necropolis were charred and smoking. The limp, motionless bodies of the Quicksilver Companions littered the landscape, bristling with arrows, many of which were being methodically and efficiently removed by the Night Dwarves. Each arrow gave up its place in their flesh reluctantly with a loud thunk.
The Night Dwarves never wasted anything.
Medrun sank gratefully to the ground and pulled off the Gauntlets of the Veil. It was over. They had won. “Thank the Legless Gods,” Medrun whispered into the dirt. “Thanks be to the Legless Gods, and to the Leg-Armed Gods who stole their Legs in the first place, for our deliverance from the Seething Hordes.”
Medrun’s companions gave a ragged, boisterous cheer. The grace of the land would come back. The people would return, slowly at first, but then trickling in from the Cloistered Wastes in greater numbers by the day, until the valleys and the canyons sang once again with the sound of bellsmithery and children playing. The people would return, and the land would flourish.
Medrun gave a brief twinge at the memory of the skinthieves at the Altar of Ennoblement. It would be a long time before Medrun would forget that day, or the skin they took.
Ror’foin came up from behind and clapped Medrun on the back. “Think no more on the skinthieves, lad,” he said. “You have that distant look in your eyes. Today is not a day for sorrow, or remembrance. Tomorrow we will bury the dead. Tomorrow we will mourn. But tonight we feast. Tonight we light a fire that will rival the fires of the triple Hells. Take off your helmet at last, and rest.”
Medrun swayed in relief. To remove the helmet…It had been so long. They had fought, and winnowed, and lied, and hatched, and swarmed, and burrowed, and hacked for so long now. What would be left underneath?
But Ror’foin was right. The time for the helmet had passed. Surely all could be revealed now.
Medrun gingerly lifted the helmet up and saw Ror’foin’s eyes go black with shock and amazement as her curls spilled free.
“A female gamer…” he stammered hoarsely. Medrun managed a smile.
“I could not tell you before,” she said, “for fear of being left behind, but know this: the Medrun who fought beside you at the Waterfalls of Blood — the Medrun who saved you from the lovers of the dead who crawled in the darkling wastes of the Forgotten Catacombs — is a woman.”
“And,” she added bravely, “a woman who loves you.” She dared not look up for a minute. There was silence.
“What have you done,” Ror’foin whispered in horror. Medrun looked up, and saw fear blazing across his countenance.
“I–” she stammered. “I thought you would not accept me if I traveled with you in my true form. I knew I could prove myself. I knew I would not be a burden–”
“You fool,” he whispered hoarsely. “You beautiful, brave, idiot fool. Thought you we forswore female gamers from our band because we think women cannot fight? That it was a choice we made for our own convenience?”
Medrun nodded dumbly. “I thought–I thought perhaps you simply did not know the strength of women. Or that you just wanted to…do guy stuff,” she finished lamely.
“I have seen the strength of women,” Ror’foin growled. “I have seen it and been succored by it many a time. This band is for male gamers only because for a woman to set foot in the Necropolis means certain death.”
“No,” Medrun whispered. “No.”
“Have you not heard the prophecy? ‘When woman foot of woman born/Makes tracks upon the Lands of Thorn/The Priestess of the Dead shall wake/And all the living slaves she’ll make.”
“That is but a children’s rhyme,” Medrun said. “A lullaby told by fathers to their children to keep them in their beds a’night.”
Ror’foin shook his head sorrowfully and pointed to the strange, unwavering light that had already appeared on the horizon. “Lass, lass. You have signed our everlasting fate. It was to save the world entire that we asked for male gamers only. It was to save you that we asked for only men. Now we cannot even hope for death.”
By now the surviving Night Dwarves and Companions had noticed the light too. The ground felt eerily cool. The pillars and the columns of the Necropolis took on a pearl-blue sheen and began to hum at a violent volume and frequency that put Medrun in mind of a thousand bees glommed onto a tree on a hot summer’s day. A scream went up from the Dwarves. “The prophecy! A woman! The prophecy! A female gamer is among us! We are lost!”
Medrun felt her face grow hard. “And there is nothing to be done? What if I were to leave this land–or fall upon my own sword? Would it slake the bloodthirst of the Priestess?”
Ror’foin looked at her. There was no fear left in his face, only infinite sadness and compassion. “No,” he said. “No, there is no sacrifice that you can make now. No hero can save us, male or female gamer though it may be. Soon the Priestess will be here, and we will be her undying corpse-slaves. She will call upon the eldest bones, and the watchtowers of the deep will froth up from the murdered oceans, and the world will drown under her mad rule.”
Medrun sat down heavily. “Then we are lost, and the fault is mine. Had I but let the male gamers take on the quest of Wartune, we might all live in the hope of an honest death and rest thereafter.”
Ror’foin sat down beside her. The camp was now frantic with activity, as men and dwarves and Half-Wastlings either fled in a vain attempt to save themselves, or took up their swords to make a valiant, desperate, useless final stand. There was screaming in every direction; then total silence, although Medrun could still see their lips moving.
“Then we will be lost together,” Ror’foin said. “You and I, female gamer. Let us face our undeath together, while we still live.”
He took her hand, and his eyes were wet with tears.
“Would that we had had more time,” Medrun said. “Would that I had heeded the prophecy, and never joined this band of male gamers.”
“Do not speak now, Medrun,” Ror’foin said. “Let us hold each other, and wait.” She held him.
The light grew steadily brighter on the horizon, and he buried his face in her chest. Medrun breathed deeply.