The Second Coming
It was night when the elves finally cleared a path connecting the havens with the untouched land near the western border. Thranduil wasted no time gathering up troops to ride with him; with specific instructions to his advisors in case of a possible attack in his absence, he set off into the darkness of the woods.
The ride was long. Through the darkness, the elves' keen eyes did not fail to observe the destruction of the forest. The black muck lay everywhere, leaving its traces long after its onslaught. Thranduil could not feel magic permeating from the shadow any longer, however; whatever the monster had been, what lay all around them was now nothing more than an abhorring evidence of greasy pollution, of what had once resembled river water.
At the head of the troops rode the king and the injured elf who had first arrived at the castle. As skilled as the elves were in tracking, there was little to guide them, as everything around them were covered in black as far as the eye could see. Therefore the elves moved slowly, following the lead of the injured elf, who rode with half-lidded eyes, calling upon the vague memory of his semi-conscious flight that day.
Finally, after an eternity of silence, he stopped. The company quickly divided in squads of three, and scattered.
Thranduil and two other warriors took the direction to which the injured elf pointed, an untraveled path that led toward the south. It was one of the only paths that the escort team failed to search before losing track of each other and collapsing with fatigue and despair, one by one trickling back into the castle.
The two elves halted when the young king tensed, halting his mount. There was a subtle scent of magic here. It was too insignificant to even be noted as sudden. How long had it gone unnoticed?
Turning back toward his companions, the king silently motioned for them to reassemble at the path. After a curt nod, the warriors galloped back toward the center of the path, whistling shrilly into the air. The king remained still as he heard responding calls, signaling that they were once again on standby. The king's eyes flickered toward the ground, estimating how much black muck was still on the road. Not much, but enough to make the horses cautious. His eyes moved slowly as he calculated the time it would take to rush back to the castle. The bushes surrounding him were wild, dark. He could barely see above them, even on horseback. He swiftly scanned the surrounding area, untouched and untamed, taking in the formation of the trees and ground levels.
And then, it came.
The magic erupted like a volcano, surging from all sides in a frightening rush of black. His horse bucked in panic, screaming. Gripping the reins, Thranduil made a sharp turn, and began to run.
The black waves rushed at him with an avenging roar, crashing against the ground behind him. Raising a hand to his mouth, he gave a shrill whistle, a pitch high enough to be heard above the roar of the wave, ordering the rest of his troops to head back to the castle. When horse hooves began to beat against the earth in the distance, he gritted his teeth, and took another sharp turn. He was heading away from the sanctuary.
His eyes narrowed as they observed the grime-covered trees whip by, the darkness threatening to swallow him from behind. It was near. Thranduil's eyes darted around, recalling the landscape he had memorized earlier.
A large tree loomed in a distance. His horse turned left.
He had detoured here.
The darkness lapped against his horse, and the animal neighed in fright. Its breathing became ragged, pounding against his body, and it swerved sharply to the right. The great black stallion and the fair-haired elf, merged as one, leaped over a crevice on the plateau, landing on the other side of a narrow stream.
He had crossed this river.
A low branch of the great tree neared, shadowing their path. And the waves were gaining on them, faster and faster –
The king suddenly swerved, breaking off to the left. He rose on top of his horse, instructing the animal to keep running to the left. And then, he leaped onto the branch.
The black torrents roared around him, angrily licking the tree as he swiftly climbed higher. The path was once again flooded with vengeful tides of black.
The young king watched, silent, as the black river swam around him, gradually receding. Daylight was fading, and oily bile clung to leaves heavily on their path. He sighed.
The path that way had no more trees. Surely his Greenleaf would not have chosen that path – would he?
But then, there was green grass in that direction as well. No more of the black bile if one continued southbound. Closer to Dol Guldur.
Narrowed eyes still on the blackened path, he slid out a black bow from behind his back. This territory was an uncharted land. He could not take chances.
"There they come!"
The elves scurried out of from the castle, running out to meet the galloping figures in the dark. And then, someone screamed.
Behind the desperately running figures wavered a looming shadow. The black menace. It was closing in on them, tauntingly, as the elves urged their horses to go faster, not daring to look back.
"Open the gates!"
The laboring elves outside the gates threw down their equipment and hurried toward the castle, and the great gates swung open. Radiant blue light shone upon those who scampered into the courtyard. And the returning elves were coming, so close – so close.
"The king is not here!"
The horrified exclamation hit the population like a deathblow. They stood, frozen, as the warriors came nearer. They could not close their gates without the king safely in the havens. But the shadow was coming. It was coming to destroy them all.
With a cry, the galloping hooves pounded through the threshold, as elves spilled into the courtyard. Teeth clenched, the healers stood by the warriors, eyes glowing in concentration, as they murmured chants under their breaths. And the gates began to close.
Cries of dismay resounded against the sky as the gates creaked shut, a breath before the black shadow crashed against them with a deafening roar. The ground shook. Elves screamed, fell onto the ground and covered one another, covered their ears, shut their eyes – as the land moaned, and twisted beneath their feet.
Thranduil stood at the same clearing in which his child stood, not many days before. His arrow drawn, his eyes darted around. Where did he go from here?
Then, he sucked in his breath. From between the dark foliage he could see a figure, a motionless figure shimmering white. The old man was smiling at him, an unfathomable expression in his ancient eyes.
The king quickly lowered his weapon. He bowed deeply.
The old man held a light smile on his lips as he approached. His staff tapped soundlessly against the dewy grass.
"You let down your weapon and bow to me," he said, amused, "while you do not know who I am."
The elf looked up, eyes sincere. "You are an Istar."
The old man did not seem fazed at this comment. He tilted his head, seeming more amused than before. "Your decisions are swift, my friend."
"Yet I am not mistaken." The king's voice was sure as he bowed once again. "Forgive me. I had taken you for an enemy."
With a soft laugh, the old man waved his hand dismissively. "I have been threatened with an arrow not many days before," he mused, scanning the elf before him. "And the bearer of the arrow was a brave child, with surprising semblance to you."
Knuckles paled as they clutched the black bow. "Know you which direction he took?" the voice was low, fevered.
An indiscernible smile played upon the old man's lips as he pointed toward the southwest. "That way."