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Inferno

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Chapter 1

 

Thorin could see nothing but fog.

The grass beneath his palm was damp as he pushed himself to his feet. All around him, the area was concealed by a pearly gray haze, and he could see no more than a few feet ahead. The sun, hidden by a layer of gray clouds, cast only a dim light.

“Bilbo?”

He spun around, scanning the mist, but his companion was nowhere to be found. Thorin raised his voice, called out again, but to no avail.

Where had the portal dropped them?

Something moved in the fog, shadow-like and gone before he could identify it. Thorin put one hand on his sword and continued on, hoping to come across some sort of landmark with which he could orient himself.

A cool wind passed over him, raising the hairs on the back of his neck, and Thorin spun around. The shadow passed by again. As it moved, he caught a faint, hissing whisper.

Cold be hand and heart and bone…

He drew his silver sword, scanning the fog and trying to shake off the chill that crawled up his arms. Whatever creature was stalking him had to be some sort of specter.

...never more to wake…

A dark shape materialized from the haze. Thorin had been right—the creature was a kind of wraith, its body a flowing black form with two luminous, cold eyes. 

“... till the sun fails and the moon is dead…”

The whisper seemed to cut through the air, spreading a chill through his limbs. Thorin raised his sword and realized with a spike of panic that his movements were slowing. The chill intensified. Pale, bony claws extended from the dark folds of the wraith’s body. 

With a low growl, Thorin pushed himself back into motion as the claws lashed out at him. Thorin sidestepped and brought his sword down in a diagonal slash. The creature hissed as the blade made contact and darted back into the fog.

...the stars shall die… ” 

Thorin pursued the specter, following its whispering and the faint trail of chill it left behind more than its actual appearance. All monsters, even barely-corporeal ones, had a place to which they would return when they weren’t on the hunt. Following this one back to its lair would hopefully give him more information on where he was.

His jaw clenched as he thought of Bilbo. If the portal had sent him somewhere else, or if the specters had attacked him, if he was—

He cut off his train of thought there. It was no use speculating and distracting himself from the task at hand.

Finally, a discernible shape loomed in the fog. Thorin moved towards it, still keeping one ear focused on the wraith’s whispering, and came across a stone pillar. It was about eight feet tall, carved with patterns that were indiscernible after centuries of being worn down by wind and rain. He placed a palm on the cool, damp surface. The pillar had been placed here by someone in ages past, though he couldn’t tell whether the land was still inhabited.

More pillars came into view as he walked, jutting from the ground like the worn teeth of an old animal. Up ahead, the specter darted between two tall spires of stone, and as Thorin focused his eyesight, he was able to make out a glowing green light through the mist.

“... over dead sea and withered land …”

The whispering grew stronger again, as did the chill on his skin. Thorin crept forward, his sword ready. Just beyond the two tall pillars was a large stone structure from which the light was emanating. He took in the crudely carved doorway and the faintly glowing markings around it, and guessed it to be a tomb.

The markings were indiscernible, their glow half-drowned out by the eerie green-blue light spilling from the mouth of the small cave. Thorin reached the entrance and peered inside.

...never more to wake…

The whispers and light crawled up the walls of a crudely made staircase, seeming to beckon him into the depths of the tomb. After failing to make out anything at the bottom, Thorin moved forward again.

...in the black wind…

...here let them lie …”

...over dead sea and withered land…

The whispers seemed to draw in closer, though he saw no sign of the wraiths. Thorin pressed onwards, eyes darting towards every shadowy movement.

The strange light began to fade as he neared the bottom, and the adjacent room was in almost complete darkness. He paused for a moment to let his eyes adjust, and his attention was drawn to the solid shape in the middle of the room. It seemed to be an altar of sorts, and a person was lying on top of it.

...cold be sleep under stone …”

As he drew closer, Thorin was able to make out more of the person’s features—the short stature, the curve of his nose, the few tufts of curly hair above his forehead—and knew instantly who it was.

“Bilbo.” He started forward, his heartbeat quickening, but before he reached the altar a pair of glowing lights appeared just above it.

Thorin cursed as the figure of the wraith revealed itself. In the darkness of the room, he hadn’t even noticed the creature was there.

It lunged, claws outstretched, and Thorin slashed it apart. If this was the tomb inhabited by the specters, it would also be their source of strength. He needed to get Bilbo out before more wraiths appeared.

One more stride sent him to the edge of the altar. He reached out, one thumb brushing against Bilbo’s cheek, and his heart stuttered to find that his skin was cold.

...here let them lie…

“Bilbo.” Thorin gripped his shoulder and shook it slightly. The chill from the tomb filled him, rising in his lungs and pushing the air out in an unsteady gasp.

...the stars shall die…

A small groan escaped the halfling’s lips, and his chest shook slightly with the motion. Thorin breathed out a sigh of relief, his shoulder sagging with the motion.

“Bilbo, can you hear me?”

The halfling only groaned again, brow furrowing slightly. Whatever the wraiths had done to him, staying in the tomb would not help.

...till the Dark Lord lifts his hand…

The whispers crescendoed behind him, and Thorin spun around in time to cut down another wraith. All around the room, more shadowed eyes winked into existence.

He swore and sheathed his sword, then turned to scoop Bilbo into his arms. Another one of the wraiths lunged, and Thorin swiveled his body to dodge the blow. Its claws scraped against his pauldron, and before the specter had time to attack again, Thorin was running for the stairs.

The wraiths pursued him up the steps, their whispers growing louder until they were echoing off the narrow walls. One of their claws snagged his boot with enough force to nearly throw him off balance. Thorin let out a low growl and pushed himself to sprint up the final few steps to the exit of the tomb.

As soon as he was outside, he adjusted his grip on Bilbo and spun around, one hand extended towards the entrance. Three wraiths crowded out of the tomb, rushing at him with their ethereal bodies flowing behind like black ink.

Thorin cast Igni, and all three were caught in a burst of flame that sent them backwards with a shriek.

He didn’t wait and see if the fire had destroyed them or simply slowed them down. Making sure Bilbo was still secure in his arms, he turned and ran from the tomb.

...till the sun fails and the moon is dead…”

His footsteps never slowed, and he kept listening for the whispers. In his arms, Bilbo was still limp and cold. It was only some time later that Thorin realized the whispers had faded into silence, and he slowed his pace.

Eventually, the sun revealed itself, and the fog began to clear. Thorin waited until he had left stone pillars behind before stopping and setting Bilbo down. They’d ended up in a green, hilly area, though Thorin still had no inkling as to where they were.

He put a hand against Bilbo’s forehead, and was relieved to find that he had warmed up a little since leaving the tomb. At his touch, the halfling stirred a little, letting out another soft groan.

“Come back to me.” Thorin brushed his fingers gently through his curls. Though the danger of the wraiths was behind him, his heart was still pounding, and he knew it wouldn’t slow until he knew Bilbo was all right.

Slowly, his eyes opened, and he blinked a couple times. A moment later, awareness lit his gaze and he turned his head slightly. “Thorin?”

A sigh of relief escaped him. “I’m here.” He moved his hand to check Bilbo’s temperature again. “You’re safe.”

With Thorin’s help, he sat up and put his face in his hands, massaging his forehead. “What happened?”

“You were captured by wraiths.” He glanced back the way they had come, but the last traces of fog had disappeared from the hills. “I managed to find you before they…” The rest of his sentence died in his throat. Had he been delayed but a few minutes, he might have been entirely too late.

“I thought I’d dreamt that.” Bilbo took his face from his hands, his brow furrowing. “I don’t remember much after we stepped through the portal. We ended up in someplace foggy, didn’t we?”

Thorin nodded. “The portal must have separated us a short distance.” He took the key from his pocket. The glowing runes of travel magic had faded, leaving behind simple black metal.

Gandalf had promised it would take him back to the place where he had left, which had been just outside of Bree. The area still didn’t look familiar, though.

“Can you walk?” he asked. “We need to get moving, find out where we are.”

“Yes, I think so.” Bilbo brushed a bit of dirt from his trousers. “I’d like to get as far away from those wraiths as possible.”

Thorin took his arm and helped him stand, then surveyed the area. Judging by the position of the sun, they’d moved north away from the wraiths. Hopefully, as they continued in that direction, they’d come across some mark of civilization.

“So, what’s next?” Bilbo asked as they began walking. “If we’re truly in your world, where do we go now?”

“We head for the Blue Mountains, where my kin live. We’ll need allies and supplies before we make for Erebor.” And he would have to explain his plan to his sister, he thought with a suppressed grimace.

“I should like to look at a map of this land at some point,” Bilbo said, shoving is hands into his pockets. “Then I’ll have a better idea of where everything is.”

Thorin turned and looked him over. A small measure of uncertainty crept over him, and it took him a moment to find his words. “You don’t regret coming, then?”

He shrugged. “Well, I wouldn’t say our arrival was too pleasant. But I haven’t forgotten the reason why I came in the first place.”

The soft, caring look on his face was enough to make Thorin turn away, cheeks heating slightly. “I’m sorry. Being kidnapped by wraiths is hardly a pleasant introduction to my world.”

Bilbo smiled. “Well, I quite liked the part where I was carried to safety by a handsome dwarf.”

The heat on his face flared to the tips of his ears. “I’m just glad you’re all right.”

He let out a small chuckle and reached out to take his hand.

Thorin accepted it and squeezed his fingers. No matter where they’d ended up, he was grateful to have Bilbo by his side. After years of traveling alone, he had forgotten the reassurance and joy that came with journeying with another.

The sun had started its descent by the time they came across a wide dirt path. Thorin scanned it from the top of the hill, then let out a sigh of relief. He recognized this way, having been on it several times—this was the Great East Road, and the thin trails of smoke to the east must have been from Bree.

It seemed Gandalf had only been slightly incorrect in his estimation. The portal had dropped them close to Bree, but within the bounds of the Barrow-downs, the haunted lands of what had used to be the tombs of men.

From here, it would take them about three weeks to reach the Blue Mountains. The thought of being so close to his kin after ten years sent a thrill of both eagerness and anxiety through him.

“Do you know where we are?” Bilbo asked, bringing him back to the present.

“Aye.” Thorin started down the hill, heading west. “We’ll be in the Blue Mountains in a few weeks’ time.” He glanced back at Bilbo as he followed. “The road will take us through the Shire, where the halflings of my world live.”

His brows raised at this last comment. “Is that so? Well, I’ll be interested to know if they’re any different from my kind.”

“I don’t believe you’d fit in with them.” At Bilbo’s curious, slightly accusatory look, Thorin added, “The people of the Shire are rather...insular. They’re not overly curious about the world outside their borders.” He sent him a meaningful glance. “I highly doubt any one of them would go on a dangerous journey with a witcher.”

“And I’m about to do it a second time,” Bilbo said, looking far too proud of himself. He winked. “It seems there are exceptions to every rule.”

“Indeed.” Thorin smiled down at him, wishing for a moment that they were in a private room at an inn instead of out on the road.

Their journey through the Shire was rather uneventful, though they garnered several curious looks from the residents as they passed. With his travel-worn appearance, Bilbo would not have been able to blend in with a crowd of Shirefolk, but he often went unnoticed as the majority of the attention was drawn to the dwarf with yellow eyes and two swords on his back.

Thorin was used to drawing stares no matter where he went, but as they drew closer to the Blue Mountains, his anxiety grew. To have strangers look at him in such a manner was something easily forgotten, but the thought of his kin wearing that same look of distrust and fear was painful.

Bilbo asked him about it one night as they settled down in an inn in the northeast corner of the Shire. The innkeeper had glanced nervously at his two swords when they had asked for a room, but since his establishment was on the main road, he was likely no stranger to travelers. If nothing else, the halflings were not likely to barge into his room at night with clubs and torches.

He still kept his swords by his side of the bed, though, from habit if nothing else. As he shed his armor and outer layers, Bilbo spoke up from the other side of the bed.

“You’re nervous.”

Thorin finished undoing his vambraces and turned around. “What?”

“Something’s bothering you.” Bilbo was sitting cross-legged on the covers, having already taken off his much lighter outer layers. “Are you nervous about going home?”

He sat down on the bed and bent down to undo his boots—in part to delay his answer. To have the worry in the back of his mind was one thing, but now that Bilbo had brought it out into the open, he was not sure how to express what he was feeling.

“I don’t know how my family will react to this,” he said, eyes still focused on the floor.

“What do you mean?” The mattress shifted slightly as Bilbo moved closer. “Didn’t you tell them what you were planning?”

Thorin straightened. “I wrote to my sister before I left. But the wizard made it clear there was a short period in which I would be able to travel to that world and back. There was no time to consult my kin on the matter.”

When he turned around, Bilbo’s eyebrows were raised slightly. “I see. So you don’t think they would have approved?”

“Many of my kin have become...complacent with their new lives in the Blue Mountains. They would not risk it to see Erebor reclaimed.” So much of their family had been lost to war and violence, and he could not blame Dís for wanting to preserve what little of it she had left.

“I imagine they wouldn’t want to see you in danger, either,” Bilbo said, a measure of sympathy softening his expression.

That was a thought that had kept him from sleep more than once. If he had died in a different world, his kin would never have known as much. They would have spent years wondering, looking for his return, as he had done for his father. And the leadership of their people would have fallen to Fíli, a burden that he did not want to see placed on his nephew’s shoulders so soon.

“My people could stay in the Blue Mountains. Many of them would be happy. But there is no choice for me, Bilbo. I will reclaim Erebor or die trying.”

“Well, let’s hope you don’t. Die, that is.” Bilbo moved closer and reached out to squeeze his shoulder. “I think what you’re doing is very brave. And your kin will recognize that, too.”

“That is my hope.” He let out a small sigh. Speaking about it had helped release a small measure of the worry he carried. He leaned in, grasping the back of Bilbo’s neck and pulling him in for a kiss. “Thank you.”

Bilbo smiled and kissed him again. “Good night, Thorin.” With that, he turned and settled down beneath the covers.

Thorin watched him for a moment, then leaned over to blow out the candle by the bed. Though they’d had plenty of opportunities to do so, Bilbo had never wanted to go much further than simple kisses and caresses. And although Thorin would have liked to, he was content to respect the halfling’s wishes.

As he lay back and stared at the dark ceiling, his thoughts strayed once more to his kin to the west, and his home to the east. It was a long time before either left his mind long enough for him to find sleep.