The March of Time

41: Seeds of Darkness

Disclaimer: All rights go to JRR Tolkien and Peter Jackson, respectively. Anything you don't recognize is mine.

Quick A/N: Suffice to say, this chapter came out a lot earlier than I had planned, and part of that I owe to seeing the teaser trailer yesterday (I'm still trying to find the shattered fragments of my soul), and the other part from y'all's encouragement! Hopefully I can continue spitting out updates like this, because now we're crossing over into territory I've been looking forward to for MONTHS, and these forthcoming chapters are what inspired me to write this in the first place! I'm PUMPED!

(This isn't really quick I know, but bear with me).

Also a huge thank you to reviewers Guest and Miriel Tolkien because I can't respond to their reviews by PM (Miriel, you're a special case :) ) But thank you so much!

Enjoy!

Chapter Forty-One: Seeds of Darkness

Pain. Grief. Sorrow. Anguish.

This was all Kíli felt, all he could feel, as he kneeled upon lifeless stone, veins of spilled blood running around him as silence heavier than the weight of the world pressed down on him, all sound extinguished save for the hoarse, ragged breaths scraping in and out of his own mouth.

Complete carnage lay before him; corpses, in all different shapes and sizes, crowded and piled on top of one another, disparate in terms of appearance; but death had claimed all of them, and that was one similarity they all shared in the end. Death had no favorites.

Pain.

Kíli didn't know how he was still alive. Everything in his body screamed, from his fingertips clutched by his sides, to the gaping holes that had been punched through him as he looked down and saw the three arrows plunged into his torso, the tips searing inside of him as his torn muscles and shredded organs clawed torment within him.

He was aware of his heart, beating madly to keep him upright, to keep him alive, but the cold was sinking in, burrowing icy hooks into his skin and bearing him down, closer to the edges of blackness that had begun to creep in his vision.

But that could not compare to the ice he was feeling in his core.

Grief.

Kíli didn't know why there had been a battle, and he knew even less why he was somehow involved in it, why he was dying from it. He felt as if he should know about it, though, as some faint memory attempted to come back to him, but it stayed vindictively out of his reach.

There were so many dead before him; so many.

Kíli wondered what they had died for; what he was dying for.

Sorrow.

He wasn't entirely sure yet, but Kíli felt as if he had lost something important in this battle, something significant.

He didn't know, but whatever it was, it hurt like hell, almost more than the wounds claiming his life, scorching his lungs with every breath, twisting his soul in agony until he could feel tears burning his eyes, feel the skin of his palms breaking as his fingernails sank in deeper.

He had lost something. And with the way his heart was curling up and shrinking away from the prospect, he suddenly knew that whatever it was, he might not have the time to figure it out.

And he wasn't entirely sure that he wanted to.

Anguish.

This last emotion was triggered when Kíli lifted his head, his eyes focusing in on a figure stumbling towards him through the wreckage and lifelessness of the battlefield, shrouded in the gritty smoke and ashy snowflakes that hung in the air. He was unclear of the reason, but the figure was making the pain - both physical and mental - almost too much to tolerate.

He barely registered when the figure came to a stop before him, but when a warm hand touched his cheek lightly, he flinched, bringing his eyes back up as what remained of his breath caught in his throat.

"A - Alison," he croaked, as he took in the mortal girl crouched at his eye-level.

She said nothing, just smiled gently, her lips curling upwards and pulling into the uneven smile he had begun to know all these months, her green eyes pale and soft, like dew drops on a leaf, and seeing those eyes made him lean in to her touch, something he had been craving to do for weeks now.

"What... what happened here?" Kíli managed to say, but the girl before him did not answer; instead, very far away, he dimly heard a voice, a voice that was achingly familiar - but it did not issue from the mouth of the Alison before him; it was coming from somewhere far, far beyond him.

"Kíli," Alison was saying - no, pleading. "Please, listen to me, you're going to be all right; just focus on me, focus on my voice. Please, look at me, you have to see me, Kíli..."

The way her voice sounded seemed to punch the air right out of Kíli's lungs; it was raw and desperate and... frightened.

This had the most profound effect on Kíli, and he stared at the still-smiling Alison before him, his blood turning sluggish and slow in his veins, and he managed to choke out, "Alison... please, tell me what - what's happening?"

Darkness was beginning to close in on Kíli, but he struggled to keep his focus on Alison, refusing to go into the darkness without an answer to his question, fighting to stay with the girl before him, smiling and looking at him with all of the beauty she possessed, every quirk and flaw and inevitable perfection he had tumbled so hard for over the months, he realized now.

"Oh, Kíli," she finally spoke, but he looked up sharply at her tone; despite her benign features, her voice dripped with coldness and sarcasm, and he only stared, his heart beginning to thump out a wild beat, as her smile turned into a sneer, and her touch grew frigid on his cooling skin.

"W - what is g - going o - on," he ground out, as his body began to tremble uncontrollably, his muscles twitching and protesting under his skin. "S - speak."

The Alison before him continued to sneer, and Kíli watched in horror as she blinked, and when her eyes re-opened, they were no longer the pale green he had become accustomed to, but a hard, obsidian black that was hauntingly familiar.

"Can't you see, Kíli?" she said in a lilting, sardonic tone that was so wrong it made Kíli's gut clench painfully. She leaned in close to him, those black eyes boring into his own as her lips brushed his ear, cold and soft, and she whispered, "You are losing, my little prince."

She drew away, until her face was looming directly in front of his, so close he could see every lash surrounding her twisted eyes and every freckle that clung to her skin, and he shivered involuntarily as she hissed, low and dangerous, "You are mine now."

And with that, the blackness at the edges of Kíli's vision swirled in on him, and before he was dragged under by the darkness, the last thing he saw were Alison's unforgiving black eyes as the shadows closed in, and he knew no more.

There was a certain sense of grim excitement and savage pleasure as Johnathan strapped on his new armor, the black iron plating conforming snugly to his body, non-bulky and responsive to his movements, just as he liked it. Freedom and mobility were his key points in battle, and it was this thought that caused a small smile to grace his features as he reattached Anddrilri to his waist with a flourish.

War was coming, and, as he had promised Alison, it would consume all, which sent a surge of energy into his veins, making him come alive as he finished his preparations. He had always imagined himself as eager for a fight, living for the thrill and rush it would bring; but Johnathan realized now that he did not revel in war.

He was bred for it.

Satisfied with his appearance, and assured that he had everything he would need, Johnathan made his way to the lower levels of Dol Guldur, his feet carrying him down the razed corridors until the snarls and howls of laughter began to echo around him, sharp and guttural, with the palpable air of expectation that he felt humming in his bones at that moment.

He came out to a crumbled balcony overlooking the lower levels, his eyes immediately straying to his right, where the familiar hulking form of Azog stood, pale eyes narrowed as he surveyed the masses gathering below them.

The Pale Orc's nose flared when Johnathan stepped onto the balcony, and he turned to face the Hero as he strolled to his side, inclining his head slightly.

Azog returned the gesture gruffly before turning away, and Johnathan smirked to himself.

Though the Defiler was barbaric and brash in his methods, he still held some respect to the domineering Orc, who seemed to be one of the only ones that had a shred more intelligence than a rock in this place. But he was not here to dwell on the Orc's usefulness; he was here to set up the last stages of the game, and then proceed to move it forward.

He came to the balcony's railing and placed his gauntleted hands on the cracked stone, looking down at the amassed Orcs and wargs below him; except now, he realized, they were not just a giant coalition of creatures.

They were an army, thousands strong, and would continue to grow when the goblin reinforcements from the Misty Mountains joined with them on their march.

They were an army, under his command.

The thought sent a rush through his fingertips.

At his presence, the buzz of the soldiers ceased, and Johnathan surveyed them all, a smile curving his lips as he took in the eager, expectant gazes, the dripping leers of anticipation, the tightening of their grips on their weapons.

It was exhilarating.

"Agor. Aaps. Gor." He began, raking his gaze over the assembled army, and the Orcs roared in approval as he allowed himself another small grin. "Az-narg hakht ommurg?"

The Orcs went positively wild at this, banging their weapons on their shields, their breastplates, on other weapons, roaring and shrieking with the lust for blood and destruction in their eyes.

Just like you. The voice came without provocation, making Johnathan wince at the sound, a sliver of pain embedding itself into his heart.

Shut up, he snarled at the disapproving voice, shoving it away as her memory struggled its way to the surface, forcing it back with everything he could muster, letting the blank slate take over again as he brought his attention back to the army before him.

"Sh-esh kom!" he bellowed. "Har!"

Well, cousin, Johnathan thought, as the Orcs mobilized, pouring out of the ruins as they bashed their weapons and shields and chanted things that went past the term 'gruesome,' marching forward under the banner of the dark sky above. Ready or not, here we come.

"So, enlighten me," Alison panted between breaths, the exertion from holding down a thrashing and struggling Kíli in her injured state taking a toll on her already exhausted and battered body. "How exactly do you plan on healing him with that?"

She jerked her head towards the kingsfoil in Tauriel's hand, as the she-Elf set down a bowl of boiling water out of the reach of Kíli's flailing leg and then began unwrapping the bindings from his wound, her fingers moving swiftly and assuredly.

Tauriel did not look up from her task, instead directing her words to the soiled bandages on the dwarf's leg as she said, "The same way I healed you from the water-sickness." When she glanced up and saw Alison only staring at her with a raised brow, a tiny, tense smile graced her lips. "You may be descended from the First Hero, Alison Ashburne, but Elves have been around much longer than your bloodline," she said. "And thus, we know a few more things about the world."

Alison rolled her eyes to keep herself from looking at the festering wound on Kíli's thigh as Tauriel discarded the bindings. Bloody Elves and all their stupid mystery, she thought to herself. Their egos are almost as big as Thorin's.

She was pulled from this amusing thought, however, when another spasm racked Kíli's body and he cried out, Alison's chest constricting at the noise.

He had been growing steadily colder under her hands in the past five minutes alone as Tauriel worked almost feverishly, and her fear was mounting higher when she saw the shadows under his eyes deepening and his pupils being swallowed almost entirely as his irises became darker and darker, a sharp contrast to his rapidly paling skin.

"Keep holding him down," Tauriel instructed to Alison, Fíli, Bofur and Óin, who were each pinning a separate limb as Bard's children watched from a reasonable distance, their eyes wide and their faces pale, though it was nothing compared to Kíli's stark-white pallor. Alison wondered again where Bard was before she was distracted by Fíli's voice.

"What do you think we're trying to do?" the older prince grunted from his place opposite Alison, on Kíli's other shoulder as his brother continued to thrash on the table between them.

Tauriel did not answer, and Alison watched as the she-Elf closed her eyes and picked up the kingsfoil, crushing it into her hands and dropping it into the bowl of water, creating a paste while her lips moved in silent words.

When the kingsfoil had become a thick, cloying salve that Alison could smell, her nose curling at the combined stenches of the medicine and Kíli's oozing, poison- and blood-infested wound, Tauriel slathered some onto her hands and began to chant, her voice becoming powerful and forceful, something almost otherworldly, as the words echoed around the room.

"Menno o nin na hon i eliad annen annin, hon leitho o ngurth," she intoned, more and more forcefully as she pressed the salve onto Kíli's wound, never faltering in her words even when the dwarf roared in pain, arching his back and jarring Alison's own injuries as she struggled to maintain her grip on him.

"Menno o nin na hon i eliad annen annin, hon leitho o ngurth," Tauriel repeated, and as the she-Elf worked, Alison felt the words wash over her, bringing her a sense of peace, almost, as the spell continued to work its way through Kíli.

Alison thought nothing was happening at first, but after what seemed like an eternity, Kíli's struggles lessened and his screams subsided into soft, pitiful moans, his blank eyes fastening onto the still-chanting she-Elf before they rolled back in his head, only the whites showing as he slumped in Alison's hands, his head almost striking the table hard before she reached out and caught it, setting it gently on the tabletop before turning to Tauriel, who had stopped chanting at this point.

"What's happening?" Alison demanded. "Is he healed?"

Tauriel removed her salve-stained hands from Kíli's wound, and Alison barely caught the she-Elf's whispered, "Le hannon," before she moved quickly to her side, bracing herself for the worst as she looked down.

"Holy - " Alison muttered, her eyes widening as she stared at the place where Kíli's wound had been; only now, instead of a deep, ragged hole in his flesh where the skin had been graying at the edges and his veins stained black, there was a clean, shallow puncture - still a wound, as she noticed the red blood seeping out of the hole, but it was obvious; the poison was gone. Now it was nothing more than a normal arrow wound.

Alison shut her eyes briefly as everyone else crowded around to get a good look, muttering shocked and relieved exclamations as she felt a weight heavier than that of the world lift from her shoulders, and she uttered a silent thank-you to God or the Valar or whoever had watched over Kíli.

Her eyes burned when she reopened them, and when her face started smarting and twitching again, she realized that tears were streaming down her cheeks, the sudden emotions churning her gut as she comprehended; she had almost lost Kíli.

This thought was almost too much to bear as she looked to his now-prone figure lying on the table still; but it was not just the fear of losing him that was making her break out into a cold sweat. It was the fear of knowing that if things had gone badly, if Tauriel had not chosen to stay, and if Kíli had succumbed to the Morgul-poison - it would have destroyed her.

If he had died, taking with him every last, crooked smile and cheeky smirk shared, every inquisitive, soulful brown gaze that had searched hers, every bark of laughter, every grimace of pain, every touch that seemed to set her nerves on-edge and veins ablaze -

A feather-light touch on her shoulder yanked Alison out of her haunting, jumbled thoughts, and she looked up, startled, to see Tauriel standing beside her, her expression as neutral and composed as ever, though Alison noticed how her skin seemed a little wan and her eyes were unusually tight with strain, something that shocked her; she had never expected to see an Elf bordering on the edges of exhaustion, but she figured that working that spell had taken a lot out of the she-Elf as Tauriel gestured to her.

"You are hurt," she said, and Alison looked down, taking in the stiff, bloodstained material of her jacket from the cut on her left arm, and the apparent throbbing and swelling of the many bruises and abrasions on her torso, chest, and, most evidently, her face. At least her nose had stopped bleeding.

"Yeah," Alison agreed, clearing away the scratchiness from her voice as Tauriel glanced away politely for a second so Alison could compose herself, gently swiping away the tears from her swollen face. "I guess I am."

"Then we should change that," the she-Elf said, and Alison's mouth twitched at the almost-sarcasm in her tone as she turned to face Óin, who still hovered by Kíli's side, checking his wrist and chest for vital signs before he looked up at Tauriel's gesture and made his way over.

"Do you have supplies for her?" she asked, gesturing to the healer's medicine pouch and then to Alison as he looked confused for a second, but then he nodded once he understood.

"Of course," he said, but when Tauriel reached for the things he was pulling out of his bag, he waved her hand away. "I can handle her, lassie, don't you worry," he said to her, not unkindly, and Tauriel's lips curled in amusement. "You go sit down; you look like you need a seat."

Alison nodded in encouragement as the she-Elf looked to her, and after a slight hesitation, she dipped her head and moved away into the living room, stepping over rubble and bodies they hadn't had time to remove yet before shifting a broken rafter off the couch and sinking down gratefully, closing her eyes and entering into a sort of meditative state.

Óin shook his head as he removed a clay jar of salve and bandages from his bag, muttering, "Elves," but Alison smiled at the new tone of respect and awe underlying the statement, though she quickly stopped when her face throbbed in protest.

"Well, aren't you a sight for sore eyes," the healer dwarf said wryly as he turned her head from side to side and picked up her cut arm, inspecting the extent of her injuries.

"How bad is it?" she said apprehensively.

"Nothing you can't recover from," he said reassuringly. "It's hard to tell right now, since I haven't cleaned you up, but so far there's a nice gash on your left forearm, I think your bottom lip is split, and your nose has suffered a slight break. You'll be sporting some lovely black eyes for the next few days."

"Great," she mumbled. "What about my nose? Are you going to have to... you know, fix it?"

"If by 'fix it' you mean 'realign it,' then yes, I am going to fix it," he said, giving her a small smile when she squirmed uncomfortably. "If you want, we can do that first, get it out of the way."

The thought made her squeamish, but she nodded nonetheless, just wanting the stupid pain to end, though she watched anxiously as he put down the medical supplies in his hands and led her over to the kitchen counter.

"You might want to sit down for this," he suggested lightly, and Alison hopped onto the counter as he said, "Miss Sigrid, dear, could you get me a cold cloth, please?"

Sigrid, who still looked on the verge of collapse as she stood with her brother and sister out of the way of everyone else, snapped out of her daze momentarily and nodded, doing what Óin had said as the healer looked over Alison again, clucking his tongue disapprovingly.

"I'm guessing you took on the nastiest brute, too," he said amusedly, but Alison could still see the tension in the old dwarf's gaze.

"Feels like it," she replied. "But that was Tauriel, actually."

Óin nodded slowly, looking over at the still and silent she-Elf before his gaze flickered back over the unconscious Kíli, flanked on either side by his brother and Bofur, looking like sentinels standing guard before the healer turned back to her as Sigrid walked over with the rag in her hands.

"I've heard tales of the wonders of Elvish medicine," he said in grudging respect, taking the cloth from Bard's daughter with thanks. "But that was a privilege to witness."

Alison only nodded, too wary of the dwarf's hands hovering near her nose now to say anything else, and she heard him chuckle under his breath before saying, "All right, I'm not going to lie, lass; this is going to hurt quite a bit. On the count of three; ready?"

Alison nodded again, gripping the counter tightly as he said, "One - "

There was no time to brace herself, for just then he jerked her nose back into place with a sharp crackling of bone, and Alison had to bite down on a scream just as a flare of pain shot through her head, searing so badly she had to grasp her face as she slumped forward, gasping -

There were thousands of them, marching in uniform lines as two figures watched from a high vantage point, one massive and scarred and pale while the other was shorter, slighter, and clothed entirely in black armor, a morbid depiction of light and dark as they watched the mobilized army march on -

"Alison?" Óin was saying in concern, as the image faded away and she found herself kneeling on the floor, her head in her hands. "Alison, are you all right? I apologize, I did not mean to hurt you so badly - "

Other faces were peering down at her, but Alison waved away the dwarf's apology, her heart stuttering in her chest as the full brunt of what she had just seen hit her; though how she had seen it, she did not know. But she recognized it for what it was nonetheless.

"It's happening," she said, meeting the group's gazes one by one as they huddled around her in confusion and concern. She swallowed thickly, the faint metallic taste of blood still lingering in her mouth as she forced out her next words. "The army. They are coming."

Bilbo narrowly avoided being impaled by one of Smaug's spear-like claws as he ran for his life, away from the dragon that he had managed to severely enrage.

Thank the Valar he was still invisible, but he was beginning to retract that statement a little as Smaug seemed to keep steady pace with him, his nose following the hobbit's trail now instead of his eyes.

"Thief!" Smaug hissed, lashing the ground with his tail and causing Bilbo to stumble from the shockwave, but fortunately he stayed on his feet, sprinting full-speed as sweat slid down his back and face and his heart hammered madly in his chest, pounding against his ribcage like a fist on a door. "Come back and face your punishment for slinking around in my halls, you sneaky little rat!"

Not likely, Bilbo thought, as he ducked around a huge pile of gold and spotted the staircase he had descended from earlier just ahead of him, and he put on a burst of speed as the air turned stifling and crackled around him, a sure sign the dragon was about to breathe another bout of fire at him.

Bilbo rolled his eyes internally, vaguely thinking that the Arkenstone was definitely not worth this much trouble as he leaped behind an extravagant mound of treasure, ducking his head as the acrid stench of flame took to the air and a loud roar of wind issued, making Bilbo's eyes tear as the fire billowed over him before dissipating.

He stayed where he was, breathing heavily, knowing Smaug was waiting for him to start running again, but he wondered if the dragon was patient enough to out-sit him in his rage as Bilbo kept his back to the treasure pile, waiting.

As he sat, hunched on the floor with his back to the treasure, Bilbo could hear Smaug beginning to stomp around again, the dragon's nostrils issuing sounds of snorting and snuffling as he sniffed for the hobbit once more.

There was the cacophony of cascading coins somewhere on his left, and he imagined Smaug's tail sending the gold flying as the dragon growled, "Don't think you can escape me, little thief. I have what you need - and something you want before someone else gets it."

This last part struck Bilbo as quite odd, and he sat rooted to the spot as Smaug, obviously picking up on the ripples of confusion he was sending out, chortled low in his throat, purring, "Oh, yes, Barrel-rider. I have seen what it is you and your pining dwarves desire in my slumber, the close second to that blasted King's Jewel: a ring."

Bilbo's blood ran cold at those two words, and he hardly dared to breathe as Smaug went on, continuing his search around the treasure piles.

"And not just any ring, mind you; but a Magic one, a Lesser Ring the dwarves have kept hidden here for centuries. How rude of them, don't you agree, little thief? Especially when you're looking for it, seeking it out so you may hide it from others who wish to wield it. Am I not right?"

Bilbo said nothing to the dragon's words; he had a sneaking suspicion that Johnathan Ashburne was somehow involved in the great snake knowing of the Lesser Ring within the Mountain, but he was through playing games; he wanted out of this chamber, Valardammit!

So instead of replying, he sucked in a deep breath and then made a mad dash for the staircase; he glimpsed Smaug out of the corner of his eye as he ran, a lot farther away than he had realized, but still too close for comfort as the dragon reared his head, his yellow eyes narrowing to slits in the direction Bilbo was in before beginning to slink towards him.

Bilbo hit the stairs and took two at a time racing up the stone steps, wishing his legs were longer so he could go faster as Smaug drawled from behind him, "Leaving so soon, little thief? A shame; I thought you could stay for dinner. It's been ages since my teeth have sunk into something so... fleshy."

Bilbo's stomach curled with this last sentence, but after puffing up a few more stairs, he found himself on the last stretch of landing that would take him back into the main corridor he had first emerged from; and he thought he was going to make it, too, before he crashed headlong into something very hard and solid and was sent reeling back, the ring on his finger slipping off and making him visible once more as he hurriedly scooped it back up and scrambled to his feet, ready to flee if need be; but he abruptly stopped, astonished, as he realized what he had run into. Or, rather, who.

"Thorin?" he said, as the raven-haired dwarf scowled down at him, rubbing his chin where Bilbo's forehead had smashed into it. "But - I thought - you were waiting outside with the others - "

"Aye," the dwarf said, raking over him with one scanning look of his blue eyes. "But our plans never exactly go smoothly, do they?"

Bilbo thought he had been struck dumb; Thorin Oakenshield, making jokes? Maybe Smaug's fire-breath carried some sort of hallucinogen that was warping Bilbo's definition of reality.

"Why are you gawking?" Thorin said, and Bilbo shut his mouth and glared at the dwarf's comment as he looked back towards the hall he had emerged from. "C'mon, we need to get back to the others."

Bilbo just nodded, padding to Thorin's side as he turned back to face him.

"Um, I think we should hurry, though," Bilbo said, his throat going dry. "You see, there might have been, er, a slight problem - "

He never finished his sentence, however, as suddenly a violent shake rocked through the landing under their feet, throwing both of them forward, and it was only by Thorin's quick reflexes and strong grip that kept both of them from being pitched off the sides to the chamber below as Bilbo opened his eyes to see his head hanging over the edge before scrabbling back.

"Thorin," Bilbo squeaked, as a large, looming shadow began to make its way toward them. "Thorin, I think we should go - "

Bilbo stopped speaking, though, when he looked over and saw Thorin still on his hands and knees, his drawn sword lying forgotten beside him, and a chill passed through Bilbo when he noticed that Thorin's eyes were on the piles and mounds of treasure in the chamber below, the blue irises roaming almost... hungrily over the bounties.

"Thorin," Bilbo repeated, though more uncertainly, as the dwarf gave no sign of hearing him or even acknowledged the slinking shadow moving closer to them across the chamber, his eyes fixed solely on the gold with an expression that could only be described as greed beginning to cloud his features.

"Thorin, snap out of it!" Bilbo whispered harshly as Smaug slithered out of the shadows, and he gave the dwarf's shoulder a sharp push; Thorin blinked - once, twice - before his eyes finally focused on the hobbit again, though he looked dazed and distant, as if trying to drag himself out of a torpid dream.

Before either he or Bilbo could speak, Smaug's hissing voice boomed around the chamber, making the stone tremble with the resonation as he snarled, "Oakenshield."

Smaug's terrible laughter rang out, sounding like a thousand snakes chorusing with one voice as Thorin stared, his mouth slightly agape, and Bilbo wished the stupid oaf would pick back up his sword as Smaug dragged himself closer, his underbelly skimming the gold coins beneath them, and Bilbo noticed Thorin's fists clenching at this movement as Smaug sneered.

"Here comes the worthless maggot," Smaug crowed, his lantern eyes narrowing as he locked onto Thorin. "Crawling back to its wretched, festering little hole to settle its claim once more. My, my," Smaug's voice turned sickeningly false-sympathetic. "You dwarves just don't know when to give up, do you? How many more of you do I have to roast before you understand that you will never claim ownership over this treasure again?"

Thorin had remained motionless during the entirety of Smaug's monologue, but at this last sentence, Bilbo saw the muscles stiffen in the dwarf's back and shoulders, and in one swift motion, Thorin was suddenly back on his feet, Orcrist in his hand once more as he glared hatred at the dragon, his scowl twisted so deep Bilbo thought his face would stay like that forever as he, too, got to his feet.

As if on some unspoken command, there was a chorus of battle cries from their left, and Bilbo and Thorin turned to see the rest of the dwarves charging out of the main corridor, weapons raised as Smaug loomed over them, his eyes now mere slits as he took in the dwarves that now fanned out on either side of Thorin and Bilbo protectively.

You stupid, foolish, absurd, reckless, mad dwarves, Bilbo thought with affection as both sides sized one another up. Moronic, all of you.

"Well, then," Smaug growled, and Bilbo gulped as he saw the dragon's chest beginning to glow and sizzle. "This just became much more interesting."

"Go," Bilbo urged the dwarves, as the temperature spiked and the smell of roasting ash permeated the air. "Run! Now!"

"This way!" Thorin shouted, running for the opposite side of the landing, and the dwarves and Bilbo followed him without hesitation, more than willing to let him lead since he knew these halls better than anyone else, even Balin.

They jumped from the edge of the landing and began to skid through the hoarded sea of gold on the other side, just as Smaug released a torrent of fire from behind them, so close Bilbo imagined he could feel his skin bubbling and boiling as he rolled down the gold, the others' shouts and yells sounding around him as they passed through a doorway, half-buried, and came out into a room about the size of Bilbo's living room and entry hall combined, though twice as wide.

The dwarves and Bilbo stood clustered together in the center of the room, panting, when they suddenly realized they were short one person.

Bilbo was about to ask where Thorin was, when suddenly the dwarf came rolling in through the doorway, his coat smoldering with flames as Smaug roared furiously from the chamber on the other side.

Immediately, Thorin ripped off his coat and stood up, helping Dwalin stamp out the flames, and when he turned around, Bilbo was relieved to see that the dwarf was unharmed - in fact, he didn't look fazed at all.

"Come on," he grunted, and made for the other side of the room, where Bilbo could see another doorway branching off into a corridor, but beyond that, he couldn't tell where they were or which level they were now in as the other dwarves followed after him.

"But - " Bilbo stuttered, struggling to catch up with them. "You were just on fire - "

Thorin paid him no attention, though, holding a finger to his lips as they exited the doorway, swords and axes hefted and eyes searching as they crept quietly from the room.

They padded down a shorter, narrower corridor, but they soon came to a stop as Balin gestured for all of them to gather round.

"Why are we stopping?" Dori whispered. "We've given him the slip! We should keep moving!"

"No," Dwalin muttered, his grey eyes flicking from side to side warily. "He's too cunning for that."

"So where to now?" Bilbo asked, subconsciously checking to make sure the ring was still in his pocket as he looked around imploringly.

"Wait," Nori said, as if just realizing Bilbo was there. "Have you got the Arkenstone?"

Bilbo hesitated, meeting Thorin's suddenly unreadable gaze as he shook his head and whispered, "No, I don't. But I saw it. It's here."

The others traded significant looks, their expressions hopeful, but Bilbo saw Thorin look away, his jaw working as if he were trying to refrain himself from asking why Bilbo had failed to retrieve it.

There was a tense moment of prolonged silence, before Thorin finally said, in a slightly offhand voice, "We'll worry about that later. Right now, let's just get away from this blasted dragon reek."

"But where are we to go?" Balin reiterated. "There's no way we can make it back to the door unseen."

"Then we won't go that way," Thorin answered simply, before looking around at them all and meeting their gazes one by one. "We'll make for the western guard room. There may be a way out."

"We'll never make it!" Balin protested. "It's too high!"

"We'll have to try," Thorin insisted, and Balin stayed silent, though he still looked troubled. "We have all made it this far together," he continued. "Let us keep our faith for a bit longer."

And with that, he led them into the dark and cold labyrinth of Erebor.

Author's Note

"Agor. Aaps. Gor." - Black Speech; "Blood. *Flesh. Death." *Aaps lit. means 'meat'

"Az-narg hakht ommurg" - Black Speech; "Need I say more?" lit. 'want I speak more?'

"Sh-esh kom! Har!" - Black Speech; "It is time! March!" lit. '[It] that time. Travel/move.'

"Menno o nin na hon i eliad annen annin, hon leitho o ngurth" - Sindarin; "May the blessing that was given to me send from me to him, let him be released from death."

"Le hannon" - Sindarin; "Thank you"

So, if you're wondering where in the heck the Kili/Tauriel scene is, never fear! Chapter 43 is a chapter dedicated entirely (so far) to our friends in Lake-town! (Have your Life-Alerts on standby, is all I'm saying).

And you guys are so eager for J-Ash's POV, so I thought I'd throw in that little section ;)

Anyway, thank you for all of your reviews/favorites/follows! My first chapter back felt amazing, but your response to it was ten times greater! So thank you for that. And if you wouldn't mind dropping a review for this chapter, you know the drill: anything you liked, disliked, are looking forward to? Let me know!

Thanks again, lovelies! Until next chapter...

PS: I changed my Tumblr URL from dr-watsonn to booty-boggins, so just a heads up on that. Also, I'm thinking of starting a page for this story, so if you want to drop an opinion on that (or the recent change in cover art), then please feel free to do so!

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