The warrior unleashed a scream of fury, thrashing its massive body back and forth, its tail swinging violently behind it. The fight with the enemies had been long and fierce, draining the warrior’s strength. And though the weapons they had used did not penetrate its armor, one had managed to slide a silver blade between the ridge of its hind limb and tail. The wound burned like fire, but that enemy had paid with its life. The warrior had knocked it down and crushed it underfoot.
But there had been others. Too many others. The warrior had managed to struggle through the first group it had encountered, but more had come. And when it had tried to fight them, still more had arrived. It had stained the corridor red with blood, and yet still it had not triumphed. And now, driven back completely against its will, it was cornered. This place was dark enough and warm enough for a suitable crèche, but the only way out was the way the warrior had just come. The corridor that, at any moment, would be filled with enemies.
The warrior was all alone. There was no Queen here. No brothers and sisters to help and comfort. Nobody to lick the burning wounds and praise its efforts.
The warrior screamed again, not bothering to hide its presence from those enemies who could sense it. It could tell that its rages were hurting them, and so it cast out every malicious thought and emotion it felt, battering them relentlessly.
A loud crash sounded in the distance. The warrior froze, seeing the flicker of light far down the corridor. They were coming, in overwhelming numbers. The warrior could fight, but it was a fight that it would not win. Without its brothers and sisters, it had no hope of victory. It was trapped. The warrior screamed and thrashed again, striking the stone walls with the serrated tip of its long tail. Everything was absolutely wrong. It should have been. . .
And then it froze. Its tail had struck something on the wall that was not stone.
The warrior turned, approaching the square section of wall that was not stone, but planks of wood stuck together. After a moment, it raked its talons along one edge, and the wood fell away, revealing a black square hole.
Not just a hole. It was a passage. A passage upward, square and musty. There was barely enough room for it to wedge itself through.
By flexing and twisting its sinewy body, the warrior was able to slide into the passage. It heard enemies enter just as it managed to pull its tail out of sight. Very slowly, it began to climb upward. It could hear the enemies speaking. Searching. Every door was being pulled open. Shouts sounded as the crèche was discovered. And yet still the warrior climbed.
For one breathless moment, the warrior was forced to pause as it heard enemies approach the hole, and sensed them peering up into the darkness where it hid. It remained absolutely still, its great strength holding its position in the vertical shaft.
And then, the enemies had gone, leaving the area of the passage to search elsewhere. And the warrior started moving again. Through dust and dry, staled air it climbed, the chaos below fading to silence. Soon, all that could be heard was the soft scraping of its armor against the rough stone all around it as it moved steadily upward.
Finally, the warrior’s taloned hands touched a solid wood blockage. It completely barred the way upward. Hissing in annoyance, the warrior pushed its domed head against the wood, and grunted in surprise when it felt the blockage shift easily.
A few more moments of steady pushing lifted the object above it enough for a small slit of light to appear along one edge. Grunting in confusion, the warrior continued to push, until the slit of light turned into a square hole the same size as the one it had squeezed itself through to enter the shaft. With difficulty, it managed to slide itself slowly through the hole and out onto the shining stone floor of the much larger room beyond.
Once its bulk was clear of the hole, the warrior released the wooden box-object, with the result that it fell with a crash to the extent of the rope holding it in place in the shaft. A couple of fat rats darted out of the box and disappeared into the shadows of the room.
But the rats were the least of the warrior’s concerns. It turned sharply, silvery teeth bared, as the sounds of fast approaching footsteps echoed in the vastness of the otherwise empty, but very cluttered room. More enemies. It was absolutely maddening.
The warrior had only a second to react. Summoning some of the last of its strength, the warrior leapt upward and latched on to the side of a rough stone wall. Its boundless instinct seemed to have decided to reveal at that moment in time that the warrior had the capability to scale sheer walls much like a lizard. Thick, heavy beams of wood criss-crossed the base of the domed ceiling, and it was to them that the warrior reached. Up here, the darkness was absolute. The torches and lights the group of enemies that entered only a few seconds later were carrying did not reach it here. It crouched there, frozen, waiting for the room to clear once more.
The enemies below it were much different from the ones it had recently fought; the warrior sensed the difference almost immediately. They were more scrawny, and fear flooded from them in waves. Their voices were high-pitched and shaky, and they remained in the room only long enough to determine it was deserted. One seemed to glance momentarily up into the rafters, but it was in a different direction from where the warrior crouched. And once they were seemingly convinced that all was well again, they left.
Once the warrior was certain that there were no enemies in the immediate area, it slowly climbed down from the rafters and exited the room, sliding out into the warmer, more lit, soft-carpeted corridor beyond. Despite its massive size, its movements were completely silent, every sense attuned to the environment. It would not be snuck upon or surprised again.
But as the warrior walked along the corridors, it started to realize that things had become much different among its enemies. Instead of hostility and confusion, the warrior sensed only fear and deep sadness. Of the enemies that could sense its presence, one was almost completely incapacitated, and the other was so distracted by sadness it was not even bothering to sense for it. From out of the ashes of defeat, the warrior was beginning to feel a glowing sense of victory.
With growing ease, it continued on through the deserted corridors. Nothing was interrupting its progress. Nothing even wanted to try. It was the new master of this strange place. Those that were once its enemies were now only prey. All unease that had grown with the realization that the warrior was alone was gone. It was now far more than a warrior.
A sudden smell of wet, fresh air caught the warrior’s attention, causing it to turn. It hissed its curiosity, tail swinging slowly back and forth. There was an open door a little ways along, which it approached. Within the new room, a steady drip of water fell down into basins beneath a gaping hole in the ceiling. Bits of wreckage and debris littered the floor. The warrior entered, raising its long domed head into the drip, letting the water trickle down across its armored face.
What had caused this impressive damage? The top of a great green plant was visible at one edge, and some of the branches hung down into the room. It smelled like wet and age. Whatever it was, it was old, and very large.
Curiosity overcame the warrior. Wandering over to a wall, it climbed up to the ceiling and, with more care, scuttled towards the hole and slipped out into the fallen plant’s thick green growth. Why it had not realized before that it had the ability to do this, it did not know. But that did not matter now.
Up here, the world was very different. Once free of the growth, the warrior stepped into something very new. A sea of green growth was all around. It stood on the roof of a structure that blended into the natural terrain, hidden from outside eyes. To the northeast, a river flowed, twisting its way around and—at one point—directly underneath the structure before snaking off to the distant mountains.
The warrior suddenly felt the weight of exhaustion settle upon its shoulders. The battle had left it dangerously depleted of strength. But no longer was there a threat of being hunted—it was sure of that. Though perhaps not in a way it entirely preferred, it had ensured that no great hunt would come for it again. One or two hunters, the warrior would deal with easily. Broken spirits and heavy hearts ran rampant in its new kingdom. No threat anymore.
With less care than it had shown before, the warrior leapt down through the hole once more. The thud it made on landing was clearly audible, but no reacting commotion sounded. Grunting in satisfaction, the warrior wandered over to an unusually textured object shoved up against the far wall. The object was thoroughly inspected. It smelled of the enemy. Perhaps it was what was slept on. Curious, the warrior stepped onto the bed, ignoring the straining noises it made as its great weight settled down. Although forced to have its tail and most of the length of its legs resting upon the floor, the warrior found this a most comfortable position.
The warrior allowed itself to drift off to sleep, the sound of the dripping water fading into silence. It would dream of victory. The prey had tried to usurp their predator. They must all be punished.
When it was rested, the warrior would make them all pay.
* * * * *
Maida’s world had become nothing short of misery. She had been shedding tears of sorrow for hours, watching in speechless horror as the bodies had been carried up from the lower levels. And so many more had been injured. Soft wails echoed through the throne room, cries torn from the wives and the families of the deceased. Moans from the wounded mixed with them, joined by whispers from those attempting to comfort the suffering and the voices of Aliana and Lilídae, who were softly singing ancient songs of sorrow and grief. All together it created an atmosphere so depressing it tore Maida’s heart to pieces.
Trying vainly to wipe the fresh tears from her cheeks, Maida turned to where Thranduil lay, his many wounds expertly tended. But the mighty Elf-king had not yet awoken. Amalindë sat on the floor, Thranduil’s head in her lap, her hands cradling his head as her tears fell unimpeded. Nearby, Haldir also lay in unconsciousness, Rumil trying to stem a still-bleeding wound at the base of his throat. Orophin sat nearby, his leg badly broken. The rest of the Marchwardens—save for Thendril, who was helping Legolas—had been slain.
If the sheer casualty number was not enough, Lady Galadriel’s incapacitation was the final blow. Maida had not witnessed the great Lady’s fall, for she had been under mental assault from the creature as well, and thoroughly distracted in the chaos. But from what she had been able to gather, Galadriel had used her power to shield Maida from the onslaught when she had started bleeding from her nose and ears. Suffering the full attack, the Lady of Lórien had been overwhelmed.
There had been no further strike from the creature since; no contact at all. And Maida was in no way interested in looking for it. Right now, she wanted to fool herself into thinking that it had gone, lost interest. That there would be no more deaths.
Maida looked around. Legolas had come up behind her, a grim expression on his paled face. Thendril stood to his left, his gaze back on Haldir. Galadriel had not been brought here from her rooms, but she had ten of the remaining soldiers guarding her door. Her maids had only come to the throne room to pay their respects to the dead.
“Maida, do you sense anything?” Legolas asked. “The scouts said they found a nest, but the beast has vanished.”
This was already generally known. Maida trembled, and she slowly shook her head. She was not really trying, because she did not want to try. Not only had she sensed the beast during the attack, she had sensed the agony of those it had slain. It was taking all of her self-control not to fall to the floor and curl up into a ball. Legolas gripped her hands.
“Try again,” he urged. “Is it still in the lower levels?”
Maida swallowed, silently pleading with her cousin. However, his expression did not change. Finally, she sighed in defeat and closed her eyes. Immediately, her subconscious was assaulted with the grief and fear of everyone else in the room. Strong hands gripped her as she gasped, forcing her awareness further away, beyond the pain of her immediate surroundings. Guards patrolled the corridors outside, but even they were radiating fear. But there was nothing she could not recognize. The soldiers protecting Galadriel were edgy and alert, startling at the slightest noise. A couple of large rats were hiding behind a decorative cabinet, scared out of their minds. . .
Maida’s eyes snapped open. Without a single word of explanation, she turned away from Legolas and Thendril—the Marchwarden had been the one holding her—and walked through the throne room, towards where the dead had been placed. She approached a quivering butler, who jumped when Maida neared.
“You just came from the kitchens?” she asked.
“Y. . .yes,” the butler replied.
“Did you see anything?”
“No. Well. . .we heard a crash, but we thought it was just one of the pots falling off the wall.”
“What about the dumbwaiter? Was it moved?”
“No, Milady.” The butler’s eyes were wide with fear. Maida’s own heart was threatening to break through her ribs. “We. . .we did not actually inspect it, but there was nothing out of the ordinary.”
“But it leads down into the dungeons. Where they found the nest.”
Complete silence had fallen in the throne room. All eyes were staring at her, the heavy layer of fear growing. Legolas and Thendril had approached, and she turned to them, her voice falling to a whisper.
“The dumbwaiter. . .” Tears trickled from her eyes. “It is somewhere up here.”
A wave of terrified gasps and cries echoed around them, but Maida was not paying attention. Her gaze was focused on Legolas, whose eyes had narrowed in grim determination.
“If it is up here, then there is no place for it to hide,” he said. “We will corner it, and we will kill it.”
He turned around, raising his hands to quiet the crowd.
“Nobody is to leave this room. You are safe here,” he declared. “This time, the beast will not escape.”
Maida felt Thendril move closer, his voice comforting as he whispered into her ear.
“Do you know where the beast is hiding?” he asked.
“No,” Maida replied. “It is concealing itself again.” She paused. “We should have Lady Galadriel brought here. That way, we can split her guard between your hunt and protecting the rest of us.”
Thendril nodded in agreement, but before anything else could be spoken, Maida gasped again. She turned around, scanning the room. But two faces were no longer part of the crowd.
“Where are Aliana and Lilídae?”
* * * * * *
Aliana was now well aware of the fact that leaving the throne room without an escort was a foolish idea. She and Lilídae had gotten turned around in the quiet corridors of the palace, and they were now quite lost. At first, they had wanted to simply call out for help, but their sheer fear had kept them silent. There was no way of knowing where the monster was, despite assurances that it could not have gotten to the upper level. Aliana gripped Lilídae’s hand.
“Let us keep going,” she whispered. “We will find something familiar soon.”
Lilídae nodded, but her skin was ghostly pale with fear. Aliana gripped more tightly, and led the way down the new corridor. Everything was quiet down here, save for a steady drip of water. Aliana gasped. Lilídae jumped.
“What?” she whispered fearfully.
“I know where we are.”
Swiftly, Aliana walked to a slightly open door a little ways down the corridor, pushing it open further to reveal the damaged bedchamber. A stream of moonlight shone down through the hole in the ceiling, casting the rest of the room into complete shadow. Lilídae sighed.
“Praise the Valar,” she breathed in clear relief.
Together, the two stepped into the moonlight, enjoying the sight of it, for it relaxed their weary nerves. A good deal of color was returning to Lilídae’s skin as she calmed.
“Come on,” she said finally. “Lady Galadriel’s chambers are only a few corridors down. . .”
BANG! Both she-Elves jumped at the sound of the door slamming shut. Aliana turned around, desperate to see who had shut the door. But nothing was visible beyond the circle of moonlight. Nothing was moving, and nothing sounded save for the drip of water onto the floor.
But. . .not all of the drops that Aliana could hear belonged to the drips from the ceiling. She began to shake, hearing a low hiss echo from the darkness.
“Aliana?” Lilídae whispered hoarsely. “There is something he. . .”
A strange crackling thud sounded, and abruptly Aliana felt a large quantity of warm, sticky liquid spray across her back and shoulder. At the same time, a loud cold hiss echoed right behind her.
Aliana did not turn around. She remained where she stood, shaking in absolute terror. Tears fell from her eyes. She did not want to know what had happened to her dear friend, though she could see the blood staining her dress sleeve. A low moan escaped her, breaking into a sob halfway through as she heard Lilídae’s body being thrown aside. A cold, wet breath blew across the back of her neck, sending a chill down her spine.
“Valar, help me,” Aliana whispered, sobbing as she watched, out of the corner of her eye, a long black taloned finger slide slowly over her shoulder.