If Legolas had been asked to describe the atmosphere in the throne room at the moment, he would have been sorely tempted to call it restrained chaos. Thranduil had ordered every inhabitant of the palace to gather here, and now they all stood together, talking loudly in trembling voices. The story of what had happened down in the wine-rooms had spread to every ear, and the general feeling of fear was only being boosted by the story Aliana was being forced to tell over and over again.
“What exactly did the creature look like?” Haldir asked the maid for the fifth time. A group of scouts had just arrived, and they were eager to hear her description.
“Massive,” Aliana replied, her voice strained and her eyes brimming with tears of stress and exhaustion. “It was crouched on top of the barrels, and when Thendril started climbing towards it, it hissed and thrashed its long serrated tail. I saw it when I heard it hiss. As the stack collapsed, it jumped away and disappeared through one of the doors on the other side of the room.” She paused for a moment. “It was black and shiny, with long arms and legs, and a long domed head. It must have been about ten feet tall.” Aliana paused again, sighing deeply. “It looked like a monster.”
A wave of murmuring swept the hall. Legolas glanced around for a moment, then turned back. He stood next to Thranduil, who was sitting on his throne at the head of the hall. Amalindë sat nearby with an arm around Maida, who was still drenched in wine. Thranduil had refused to allow anyone to return to their chambers. Thendril was gripping the back of her chair, wincing slightly while Galadriel treated the wounds on his back. He, too, was soaked in wine.
After several long moments, Aliana bowed her head and pressed her face into her hands. Lilídae immediately went to her side, gripping her shoulders in an attempt to offer comfort. Thranduil, who had been in deep thought until then, stood.
“I want a census taken,” he declared firmly. “Make absolutely sure that everyone is here.”
This process took several long minutes. Finally, it became clear that everyone had been successfully gathered together. Everyone, except. . .
“Has anyone seen Réyis lately?” Thranduil asked loudly, his brow furrowed in anger. “Where was he the last time he was seen?”
“I saw him a little while ago, my King,” someone said. Legolas could not see who. “I believe he was heading down to the lower levels.”
Maida gave an audible gasp, to which everyone else started murmuring. Thranduil cursed heatedly.
“If that wretched old fool is still down there. . .” he said darkly, mostly to himself. Legolas nodded, not wanting to finish his sentence. Thranduil turned. “Alright, we are going to deal with this right now. I want all of the men to arm themselves and divide into groups. Close off every access into the lower levels. That creature must not be allowed to escape.” He beckoned to Haldir. “I wish for you to accompany me. We will lead two groups down to the lower levels and find Réyis. Once he is safe, we will organize the hunt. I will see that beast dead by nightfall.”
“As you wish, King Thranduil,” Haldir said, though Legolas saw him glance at Galadriel. Once the Lady nodded her approval, the Marchwardens immediately moved off to obey Thranduil’s orders.
Once the groups had been organized, Thranduil again called for attention.
“Everyone is to stay here until we have the lower levels secured,” he said. He then turned to Legolas. “My son, I wish for you to stay here and stand guard. I cannot be absolutely sure the beast did not escape the lower levels.”
Legolas nodded and settled his hand on the hilt of his sword. Thranduil gripped his shoulder for a moment, then turned and followed the groups out of the room. A wave of whispering followed them out, and Legolas saw more than a few fearful faces in the crowd.
“Milady, is it nearby?”
Legolas looked around to see Aliana gazing at Galadriel. She looked up, casting her maid a small smile.
“I do not think so,” she said quietly. “But I cannot be sure. The creature was hidden from me even while I was standing in the same wine-room.”
Though her expression remained calm, Legolas felt a shiver run down his spine. There was a definite note of fear in the great Lady’s voice.
“But you did sense something, Milady,” Aliana said almost desperately.
“I only followed what Maida sensed,” Galadriel replied.
There were several confused stares. Maida suddenly cleared her throat.
“I felt it,” she said, brushing locks of wine-damp hair from her face. “With every step I took, I felt as though I were getting closer to my doom. Everything inside me was begging me to run.” She paused. “When Thendril and I found it, the fury was. . .I cannot describe it.”
There was silence for a long moment. Then, Maida blinked, seemingly having realized something.
“It is not an animal,” she breathed. “No animal could express so much rage, or hide its presence so soundly.”
“Not an animal?” someone asked. “If not a beast, then what is it?”
To this, it was very clear Maida had no answers. However, Legolas understood what she was trying to say. The monster, whatever it was, possessed intelligence near equal to their own; the ability to think and plan, and to tell the difference between a threat and a potential victim
Almost an hour passed without any further widespread conversation. Galadriel had moved to sit beside Amalindë, and her maids stood nearby. Maida was trying—albeit fruitlessly—to wipe the dried wine from her skin with a cloth. Thendril was whispering sympathetically to her, but it was clear that he was just as uncomfortable as Maida. Everywhere else there was restless shuffling and soft mutters.
Finally, Thranduil reappeared, followed closely by Haldir and a few members of their search teams. The Elf-king had a very grim expression on his face. Legolas’ thoughts immediately turned to the missing Réyis.
“Did you find him?” he asked, striding forward to meet his father.
Thranduil cast him a dark look, and Legolas paused.
“Yes, my son, we found him,” Thranduil replied softly.
Before Legolas could say anything in reply, Thranduil turned to the rest of the gathered.
“The lower levels have been secured,” he declared. “Nobody is to go down there for any reason. However, the upper levels and the grounds are safe, so you are free to return to your business. I will pass on any more updates as they come.”
A great wave of murmuring swept the hall at these words, but nobody questioned Thranduil. Slowly, the throne room emptied, until only Galadriel and her maids, Maida, Thendril, and Amalindë remained. Thranduil approached them, and Legolas followed. Haldir and the search party members also gathered.
“What about Réyis?” Amalindë asked, breaking the dark silence that had descended on the throne room. “Did you find him?”
“Yes,” he said. “Actually, it was Haldir’s party that found him. I was only able to identify him because he was the only one missing.”
Legolas saw Maida bite her lip and grip Thendril’s hand. She already seemed to know what Thranduil was going to say. And Legolas could guess what was coming.
“The creature found him before us,” Thranduil finished. “He is dead.”
Amalindë gasped, and Maida let out a squeak of horror. Legolas bowed his head. Réyis had proven time and again to have been and old fool, very prone to overdoing his drink, but he had served the court since Legolas had been an Elfling. He and Maida had known no other healer.
“The hunt will begin within the hour,” Haldir said. “And there are four guards to each entrance to the lower levels. Everyone up here should be safe.”
“Unless it managed to get up here somehow,” Lilídae murmured softly.
Everyone turned and gazed at her for a moment. Thranduil slowly nodded in acknowledgement.
“That. . .is always a possibility,” he said. “But we did learn a few things about the beast from Réyis’s death.” He pulled a cloth from his pocket, unfolding it to reveal an amount of thick clear fluid. “This is the same substance Maida found in the wine rooms, and it was scattered across the floor where Réyis was found. We believe the beast leaves a trail of this wherever it goes.”
“And we found this,” Haldir added, holding out what looked like a snake skin, though Legolas was quick to see it had come from a creature with limbs. He stretched it out slightly. It was clearly shaped like the creature Aliana had seen. “It grew from something small enough to live inside a small girl to a monster ten feet tall.”
“In one night?” Amalindë asked, her tone shocked. “How is that possible?”
“How it happened does not matter,” Thranduil said grimly. “What is important is that it must be destroyed.” He gripped Amalindë’s hand as he shifted his gaze to Galadriel. “Lady Galadriel, may Amalindë and Maida remain with you during the hunt?”
“Of course,” Galadriel replied. “And I suggest we return to my bedchamber now, before Maida and my Marchwarden Thendril start trying to tear into their skins.”
Legolas stayed back as Galadriel led the others out of the hall. He felt a hand on his shoulder, and turned to his father.
“Legolas, I want you to stay with Amalindë and Maida,” he said. “Stay on guard until I return.”
For a moment, Legolas was tempted to protest. But the look on Thranduil’s face was final. So he nodded and obediently followed the others to Galadriel’s rooms. But as he did so, he turned his head back.
“Be safe,” he said.
Thranduil nodded in reply, and Legolas turned away, closing the throne room door behind him and leaving the Elf-king to prepare for the hunt.
* * * * * *
Maida sighed as she scoured her skin with a rough cloth, relieved to finally feel herself clean. She was forcing herself to focus only on her diligent scrubbing, forbidding her thoughts to wander to the hunt, and to the feeling of gloom and danger that had settled over the palace. But with every passing minute she failed over and over again.
The hour that had passed since leaving behind Thranduil in the throne room had very nearly been the longest of her life. There had been no word from anyone, no rippling sense of what was happening in the floors below. Was everyone still safe? Was her uncle on the trail of the beast, or was it on his? Who was stalking whom?
She bit her lip, closing her eyes and forcing her wandering thoughts to return to her labor. The skin of her arms and shoulders were still retaining a tinge of crimson, despite her efforts. And her hair was also refusing to return to its original colors. But just as quickly as Maida had set her mind on the problems of her hair and skin, it returned once more to the wider picture. Why did she care if her skin and hair were a little stained? The ones she loved were in danger. An unknown beast was threatening the entire palace, and the routines of every soul within it had been derailed. Maida could sense fear everywhere, so strong it was nearly maddening.
Maida turned. Amalindë was standing at the door, a concerned look on her face.
“Is the wine coming off?” Amalindë asked quietly, approaching. “Thendril just returned, and a good portion of his skin is still stained.”
“As is mine,” Maida admitted, showing her aunt her hair. “But I am not concerned about it. It will fade in time.”
Amalindë smiled slightly, but did not reply. Maida knew she was thinking about Thranduil as well.
Maida continued scrubbing herself until she was satisfied that at least she no longer smelled like wine. Then, she dressed and followed Amalindë out to where the others waited. Legolas and Thendril were standing guard at the door. Galadriel and her maids sat on armchairs near the fireplace, but when she and Amalindë approached Aliana and Lilídae quickly stood and offered them their chairs. Maida sat down, shaking slightly in her worry and agitation. Galadriel glanced at her.
“Peace, Maida,” she said gently. “There is nothing more we can do at the moment.”
Maida sighed, and started to reply to Galadriel. However, before she could utter a word, her mind was suddenly swamped with a feeling of immense surprise and fury. She knew at once what was going on. The creature, whatever it was, had dropped its guard for some reason. Now, both she and Galadriel could sense its presence plainly.
“What is it, Milady?” Aliana cried. Galadriel had slumped over slightly, though Maida could sense it was because she was trying to gain a stronger grip on the alien presence filling their minds.
Maida felt a surge of rage, then pain and terror that was neither her own nor the creature’s. She cried out, feeling hands grip her shoulders.
“No!” she screamed, her entire body twitching under the overwhelming stress. “No! Stop it! Stop it!”
“Stop what?” she dimly heard Thendril shout.
“Attack,” came Galadriel’s shaking voice. Another pair of hands suddenly settled on her.
“The beast is attacking again.”
* * * * * *
Thranduil had led his hunting party deep into the maze of the lower levels, near to the dungeons. His idea to track the creature by the trail it left was becoming increasingly difficult to implement. Not because there were no trails to follow, but because there were too many to follow. Now that he was on the watch for it, the slimy substance seemed to be everywhere. Twice one of his party had slipped and fallen, though nobody had sustained injury.
Pausing near to a junction of corridors, he turned and glanced back at the others. Every face was tensed and alert and every hand was settled on a weapon.
“Look for any clue,” he said. “Leave no room unsearched.”
Turning back around, he took a step towards the junction. Then, he froze in shock as, at that moment, a monstrous creature appeared from around the corner.
For one second, both sides stood in shock of one another. Thranduil stared in horror at the creature, for it was nothing like he had ever seen before. It was as black as midnight, with wet, thick armor that reflected the light of the lamps and torches. Long muscled legs held a thin body, broad chest, and a long serrated tail that whipped back and forth. Its head was cylindrical and domed, thick ropes of drool falling from its slightly open mouth. From between silver teeth hissed a smaller fanged mouth on a thick, muscular tongue.
Thranduil recovered his wits first. Raising his sword, he beckoned commandingly to the others. His mouth was set in grim determination as four arrows flew through the air towards the beast, which roared icily in fury.
But then, everyone—including the creature—froze again as all four arrows struck the creature’s black hide and bounced away, clattering noisily to the floor. Even the arrow that had struck in the forehead did no more than leave a small dent. The creature hissed, baring its teeth. Thranduil unsheathed his sword, but for the first time in his life his heart pounded with true fear.
“Bring it down!” he shouted, hearing more swords slide from their sheaths. “This beast dies tonight!”
And Thranduil charged, bringing his sword around as the beast, with a bone-shaking roar, surged forward to meet them.