A/N: Fair warning: updates will be very slow. I've been debating whether to start publishing when I still have so much left to write, but I figured... what the heck. I hope you enjoy the story.

Chapter 1: The Lost City

It was late in the afternoon of a cold, blustery day, and Merry was tired. He and the rest of the Fellowship of the Ring were traveling through the Misty Mountains, heading for a passage to the east. According to Gandalf they were still in the foothills and not the mountains proper. Merry did not find this heartening. Hills they might be, but they were still high and steep, and it was only at some arbitrary point that they would be high and steep enough to be called mountains. Merry cast his eyes over the snow-capped vista before him and shivered. He was not looking forward to ascending Caradhras. The monstrous peak was waiting for them in the distance - tall, white, and forbidding.

An icy wind gusted through the company, and Merry bent his head to avoid taking the blast in the face. The wind caught his hood despite his efforts and tossed it back, and Merry was soon snatching for it with both hands. His hood had been blowing off all day, and he had learned to be quick in pulling it back into place. The weather was growing more aggressive as the terrain rose, and the air was getting colder, too. Merry's hood was the only protection he had for his ears, and they began to ache if he left them exposed to the wind.

The Fellowship was traveling in daylight now, for traversing the foothills at night was perilous. Their path was rough and it would be all too easy to take a spill in the dark. They could not afford delays to broken bones, but neither could they allow themselves to be seen by spies. Many black birds were circling over the land and the company had been forced to hide whenever the flocks drew near. The need for stealth had drastically slowed their progress. Merry thought of how long it had been since lunch and sighed. Would this day never end?

A loud sniff from Pippin drew Merry's attention. His cousin was huddled into his cloak, not looking any happier than Merry felt, but when Pippin saw Merry looking, the two of them shared a smile of commiseration. Merry's spirits lifted a little. He was not enjoying this phase of the journey, but it was heartening to remember that he was among friends and kin.

Friends and kin. Merry glanced around at the rest of the silent company, surreptitiously gauging the collective mood. He sensed weariness in nearly everyone, particularly in Frodo and Sam, but neither hobbit voiced a complaint. Merry knew they would not; Frodo trusted Gandalf to call a halt when the time was right, and Sam trusted Frodo. Boromir and Gimli were tired, too, but they were hardy folk and could walk for some distance yet. Both of them wore grim expressions, likely due to having to endure the wind all day. Gandalf also showed signs of fatigue, but Merry recognized the look of determination on the wizard's face. When he set his mind to something Gandalf seemed quite capable of ignoring any obstacles in his path - including his own body. Aragorn and Legolas were probably ready to walk forever as usual. They did not seem to take as much notice of the disagreeable wind as the others did, perhaps because they were constantly scanning their surroundings. They traded the position of rearguard between them, but neither of them seemed to cease watching even when they were 'off duty'.

Merry squared his shoulders and tried to forget his weariness. Comparing himself to the others was a habit he had fallen into. He hadn't forgotten that Lord Elrond had not chosen him to be a part of the Fellowship. Merry had been selected in the end, but that was only because he had argued for the right to come, and he was determined to be thought worthy by the others. Weighing himself against them was often discouraging to him; the Big Folk were all seasoned by traveling or fighting, and the journey did not strain them as much as it did Merry or the other hobbits. Merry often felt himself to be terribly soft in comparison with them - particularly Aragorn.

Merry started in surprise at the feel of another hand closing around his. He looked sideways and found Pippin smiling sympathetically at him. Merry squeezed his hand and smiled back, wondering if his cousin could read his mind. It was not the first time they had shared such a moment. They had not spoken of it since leaving Rivendell, but each knew they were in the same boat; Pippin had not been chosen by Elrond, either, and he seemed to know when Merry was dwelling on dark thoughts.

Merry knew why Pippin had lobbied for a place in the Fellowship. Pippin's reasons had been the same as Merry's: they had both come for love of Frodo. They - and Sam too - had always intended to accompany Frodo for as far as he needed to go, regardless of the destination. Frodo needed warriors to protect him, and he had them in the five Big Folk, but none of them had ties to Frodo's heart the way the hobbits did. Merry was convinced that Frodo would need help of their sort as much as he would need strength of arms. If he had not believed it he would not have pressed his case to Elrond, not when someone as mighty as Glorfindel might have had his place.

"It is time to halt," Gandalf said, breaking into Merry's thoughts. "The day is growing late."

"Making camp and preparing a meal are not easily done in the dark," Aragorn called from the back of the line. Merry was surprised to hear a slight strain in the Ranger's voice. If Aragorn was weary, then perhaps Merry wasn't quite as soft as he had thought himself to be. "Have you found a suitable place to stop?"

"See for yourself," said Gandalf, gesturing before him. "I think this will do."

Merry promptly forgot his chilled body and clustered around Gandalf with the rest of the Fellowship. They stood at the lip of a small vale that nestled like a bowl between the slopes of two foothills. The rock provided sufficient protection against the wind for scrubby pines to have grown around the edges. Merry was familiar with the sight of such trees by now, for little else seemed to grow at those heights. The vale was large - at least five hundred hobbit-paces across by Merry's estimation - and strewn with boulders. A small stream trickled down the eastern edge of the clearing. The landscape was sparse in comparison with the thick forests far below, but it was positively lush for mountainous terrain.

Frodo and Sam huddled close to Merry and Pippin. Both of them looked as eager to halt as Merry was. "It has water," Frodo said approvingly, looking at the stream.

"And shelter," Boromir put in. "We can make camp among the trees."

"The trees will also fuel a fire," said Gimli. "Our rabbits will go to waste if we don't cook them soon, and we'll see little more game at this altitude." He tugged at the line on his pack for emphasis, and the four slain rabbits on the other end twitched.

"I think we could all do with one more hot meal before we reach the snows," said Gandalf. "We have made good time today, and we will start the true ascent in the morning. What say you, Aragorn?"

"A fire would be heaven," Pippin sighed.

"You'll have ample opportunity to sit close to it, seeing as it's your turn to cook," Merry jested.

Pippin made a face, but Aragorn spoke before he could make a vocal retort. "It looks well to me," the man said. "The trees will help conceal our smoke, and we need not fear the birds after dark." He looked sideways at Legolas when the elf murmured something. "You disagree?" he asked.

"Not about the fire," said Legolas, "but there is more to this place than your eyes have seen." He raised one hand and pointed into the distance. "Look there - back where the two hills meet."

Everyone looked. At first Merry saw nothing beyond the rock and the trees, but then something tugged at his eye. He gasped softly when he realized what it was.

"It's a hole!" exclaimed Sam.

"Not a hole," Gimli said excitedly. "A doorway! Look at the edges. Do you see the decoration of the stone?"

"It is a doorway," said Gandalf in mild consternation. He did not seem pleased by the discovery, and Merry thought he knew why. Gandalf made no secret of his dislike for surprises, particularly when they could interrupt one of his errands.

"The designs look dwarvish to my eye," said Gimli, squinting at the dark, distant rectangle.

"They must be," said Gandalf. "None but Dwarves have ever lived in this rough country, but that was long ago."

"Very long ago," Gimli agreed. "My people have not dwelt in this region for many a year - save for Balin and the dwarves he brought back to Moria."

"Moria," Boromir muttered darkly. "It lies below these mountains, does it not?"

"It does," said Gimli. His eyes suddenly widened, catching the late afternoon light. "Durin's beard! Could this be a second entrance?"

Merry shivered involuntarily. He did not know much about Moria beyond what he had heard in tales, and those had been filled with darkness and danger. Even Bilbo hadn't known much about the place. Bilbo might be called 'cracked' by most hobbits, but he was still acknowledged as one of the most reliable sources of lore in the Shire, especially regarding the outside world.

Nobody reacted to Gimli's speculation with overt pleasure; Moria, it seemed, was a name that was known to all. Gandalf did not seem concerned, but Aragorn's eyes had narrowed and Legolas was grimacing.

"I highly doubt that this doorway leads to Moria," Gandalf said. "The Mines had but two entrances that I knew of: one in and one out. The doors of the western entrance were some miles from here and far below us. Still, the Dwarves have ever been a secretive race. I suppose it is possible that they might have constructed exits known only to them." He harrumphed as if to say that he did not think much of people keeping secrets from wizards. "Still, there is no door here. It is only an empty portal. I cannot imagine the Dwarves leaving an entrance to Moria so unguarded, even a secret one. They would have fashioned stone gates as they did for the other two."

"Wherever that doorway leads, we must investigate the interior if we are to stay here," said Aragorn. "The servants of the Enemy are everywhere these days - even in the most remote places. Who can say what secrets the heart of a mountain may hide?"

"It may hide Balin and my kinfolk," Gimli said stoutly. "They have been at work in Moria for many years now."

"Yet there has been no communication from Moria in some time," said Aragorn. "Am I not correct?"

"It is not uncommon for dwarves to spend years at a time unheard from," returned Gimli. "We are an industrious race. If we are truly engrossed in a project, we heed not the passage of time."

Aragorn shook his head. "I hope this is not a secret entrance to Moria. I would like to be wrong, but I doubt that Balin's expedition met with success."

A long moment of silence followed Aragorn's words. Gimli's mouth had closed in a thin line. Gandalf's brow was furrowed in thought. "Well," the wizard said at length, "this discovery has not changed my mind about camping here tonight - not yet, at any rate. I don't expect that we will find anything of note on the other side of this doorway."

"I agree that this entrance likely does not lead to Moria," said Aragorn. "It is too far from the main gate and too exposed, but we may still find something beyond it that we do not like."

"Let us cross that bridge when we come to it," Gandalf said calmly. "Agents of the enemy are just as likely to be here in the open as within the mountain." Aragorn nodded, accepting this logic, but it did not appear to relax him. Gandalf strode forward again, and the company fell in behind him.

Pippin made a noise that sounded like a suppressed giggle. Merry knew how his cousin felt; excitement was building inside him, too. Gandalf's lack of concern had banished fears of Moria from Merry's mind. And even if the wizard was wrong, they were many miles from the heart of the Mines. Knowing this, Merry felt a keen desire to explore the hole in the rock. At the very least it was something new and different. There had been precious little in the way of curiosities out in the wilderness. Still, Merry fought to keep the full magnitude of his interest from showing on his face. Aragorn hadn't been satisfied by Gandalf's words, and Merry had too much respect for Aragorn to show excitement openly when the Ranger was uncomfortable. Looking around, Merry saw that Frodo, Sam, and Boromir seemed to feel as he did; such was their trust in Gandalf that they were no longer worried about Moria, either. Smiles tugged at the corners of their mouths and were quickly suppressed. Gimli's eagerness was unrestrained, and Gandalf seemed calm, but his eyes betrayed a mind hard at work. Aragorn and Legolas were grim-faced.

As they drew nearer to the doorway, Merry could see that the carvings around the edge were geometric in nature, all straight lines and angles, and very intricate. Merry eyed the detailing on Gimli's cloak, helm and axe-blade and decided that Gimli had been right. The designs were indeed Dwarf-like. Merry supposed they could reflect the taste of Men as well, but he had seen little of their style except in Bree. Whoever had done the work, Merry felt sure that they had not been Elves. Rivendell's architecture had taught him that Elves could not do without curving lines.

They halted in front of the hole in the mountain. The sun was setting behind the peaks, casting everything in shadow, and they could not see more than a few feet into the interior. The hobbits squinted intently but glimpsed only a flat, dusty floor. Merry could not find any evidence that doors had ever hung within the stone frame.

"Legolas?" asked Gandalf.

The elf peered into the gloom within. "It is not a very large a chamber. I see nothing inside except dust and shadows. There are more doorways leading out of it, all carved around the edges as this one is. Beyond that I cannot see; the darkness is too deep."

"And sound?"

Legolas shook his head. "I hear only the echo of our voices. If anything is lurking in there, it is not near the entrance."

Gimli had wandered near enough to the doorway to touch it. Gently, almost reverently, he ran his fingers across the carved stone. Merry had never seen the dwarf so transfixed. "Dwarves lived here," he said softly. "These carvings are very old. See how they have weathered? And the designs themselves are ancient; these patterns haven't been used for generations. Patterns go in and out of fashion," he explained, seeing the quizzical looks on the others' faces, "and some are unique to particular families."

"In that case, we can safely assume that an extensive network of rooms lies beyond this doorway," said Gandalf. "Dwarves don't go to the trouble of carving into a mountain unless they mean to stay there along with their extended families."

"Rather like hobbits, then," said Frodo, flashing Gimli a smile.

"I suppose so!" laughed Gimli. "You hobbits have ears that are as pointy as an elf's, but your dwellings are very nearly Dwarvish."

Merry glanced at Legolas. The elf rolled his eyes skyward at the mention of 'pointy ears', but he held his tongue. Pippin caught Merry's eye, and the two of them shared a knowing smirk.

"Let's make camp quickly then," said Aragorn. "I want a look inside before the hour grows too late."

A flurry of activity followed this directive. Aragorn wasn't the only person who wanted to see what lay beyond the doorway. A campsite was chosen in the shelter of the craggy hills, just outside the hole in the rock. Gimli, Sam and Boromir began constructing a firepit from loose stones while the others gathered wood and water or unburdened the pony.

A discussion surrounding who was to enter the ruins began, and it was soon apparent that Boromir and the hobbits were every bit as interested in exploring as Gimli was. Legolas did not want to go, but Aragorn desired the elf's company as a watchman. "I will feel much easier if I have your eyes and ears with me," he said, and Legolas reluctantly capitulated.

Aragorn wasn't keen on the hobbits going until he had confirmed that the underground halls were clear, but Frodo argued convincingly for the right to come. "There is no reason to exclude us," he said. "The chance of meeting danger there is as great as it is here, really. I know you disagree," he added, seeing the look on Aragorn's face, "but the fact of the matter is, we all want to come. You taught us how to use our weapons yourself; trust us now to take care of ourselves, if it comes to that."

"We'll keep our wits about us, and that's a promise," Sam put in.

Aragorn unenthusiastically agreed, much to the hobbits' pleasure, but then he reminded them of something they had all forgotten. "Whose turn is it to cook?" he asked, looking straight at Pippin.

The hobbits had been grinning triumphantly at each other; now they froze. Merry's eyes slid sideways to his cousin. He could see that Pippin was looking for a way out, but he knew the effort would be fruitless. Not ten minutes ago, Merry had pointed out that it was Pippin who was on the hook.

"Oh, fine," sighed Pippin. "It's my turn. But I'll need help," he added brightly, "seeing as Strider wants to start off so soon."

"I must leave at once before what little light we have left fails," Aragorn said gently. "If there are enemies within, I want to encounter them while we can retreat back here - and still be able to see them."

Pippin blinked at Aragorn. For a moment his mouth worked silently, but then he exclaimed, "You mean you're going without me?"

Aragorn sighed. "I know you want to go. But the meal must be started, and I cannot wait. I will go back with you after supper if you wish."

"But you'll have made all the discoveries by then!" cried Pippin. He looked wildly around the group. "Legolas doesn't want to go. Maybe he could take my place and -"

Aragorn shook his head. "I am sorry, Pippin."

"Gandalf?" Pippin pleaded, turning to what was surely his last resort.

"Don't fret," said the wizard, laying his hand on Pippin's shoulder in what was likely meant as a comforting gesture. "You will still get your chance. I will go with you after dinner; I want to see the place myself, but not yet. Right now I want a pipe and a chance to think."

Pippin exhaled in a slow, defeated way. "But…."

"Prepare yourselves if you are coming," said Aragorn, with one more apologetic look at Pippin.

Gimli and Boromir exchanged excited smiles. "I thought we might have need of torches at some point," said Boromir. "I have oiled cloth in my pack."

"Excellent!" said Gimli. "Now all we need are a few sturdy branches." They moved off, talking animatedly between themselves.

Pippin turned to the other hobbits, and Merry braced himself. He knew what was coming: Pippin was going to ask them to stay behind, too. Yet the truth was that Merry was itching to go. He didn't want to stay and cook. He dreaded telling Pippin that he was not going to wait for him - but Pippin's words surprised him.

"It's all right," Pippin said resignedly. "You three go, and I'll go later with Gandalf or Strider. I'll get my chance, like they said."

Merry exchanged stunned glances with Frodo and Sam. That was all? He had expected his cousin to plead his case to them, or at the very least to tell them that it wasn't fair.

"I know you're disappointed," Frodo began carefully, but Pippin forestalled him.

"It's all right," he repeated, still glum-faced. Lowering his voice, he added, "It feels awfully hard, and that's the truth; but what's the point of arguing? Dinner does have to be started now; it's just bad luck that it's my turn. Besides, I don't want the others to think I was too young to come."

Like Lord Elrond did, Merry finished mentally.

"Oh, Pippin," Frodo said gently. "Are you really worried about that?"

"Yes," Pippin allowed. "Sometimes I am."

"Don't be worrying over nothing, now," said Sam in bracing tones. "No one else thinks you shouldn't be here. And don't forget that Gandalf vouched for you back in Rivendell."

"That's true," said Pippin.

"Sam's right," said Frodo. "I'm proud of you, cousin. It's a shame that it's your turn to cook, but I didn't know you would react this way. It's quite grown-up of you."

Pippin sighed. "Pity me, Frodo. It's a cruel, cruel sentence to have to cook tonight."

Frodo patted his cousin's arm. "Don't worry. I really don't think we're going to find any lost treasure or the like. You'll see exactly what we do, only a few hours later."

Pippin proffered a wan smile. "I suppose. Still, I rather hope you do find something even if I can't discover it with you. It would be so much more interesting than finding nothing."

Despite Pippin's show of maturity, Merry, Frodo and Sam felt compelled to soften the blow as best they could, and they did it by helping Pippin get started. They completed the firepit and kindled a blaze while Gimli and Boromir fashioned torches, Aragorn conferred with Gandalf, and Legolas scouted the vale. They had collected water and skinned two rabbits by the time everyone had regrouped. Three torches were lit and passed around - one to Aragorn, one to Legolas, and one to Boromir.

"We won't be gone long," Aragorn promised. "And we won't pass out of calling distance, though we may skirt the edge of it." He looked at Pippin. "How long until the meal is prepared?"

"An hour, I'd say," said Pippin.

Aragorn nodded. "Then expect us back within an hour. We can return later if need be," he added when Gimli started to protest.

"We will be waiting," said Gandalf.

With this, the group was off. The hobbits each hugged Pippin before leaving the camp, wanting him to know that they were not forgetting him. Pippin's smile grew a little with each embrace, and when Merry whispered a few parting words in his ear, Pippin actually laughed. He gave the startled group a wave and turned his back on them as he fixed his attention on the stew. It seemed that he did not mean to watch them actually pass through the doorway. For himself, Merry thought this a wise idea; Pippin was feeling better, but he was still disappointed.

"What did you say to him?" Sam whispered as the party approached the door.

"I told him that if something like this ever happened again, I'd take his turn at cooking dinner," Merry replied, and Frodo and Sam chuckled.

Merry, Frodo and Sam clustered together excitedly as they stepped across the threshold. The torches seemed to flare more brightly in the sudden gloom, illuminating a chamber that Aragorn could have crossed in ten paces. The walls were thickly carved and perfectly flat, but they leaned inward slightly as they rose to the ceiling. Three doorways led out of the room and into a dark corridor. There was nothing to see in the room beyond the stonework and the other doorways, but the seven companions looked around with great interest.

"This is the anteroom," murmured Gimli, peering closely at the carvings. "The designs are the same as those around the doorway."

"The floor is so dusty!" said Sam, rubbing at his nose to keep back a sneeze.

Aragorn lowered his torch for a better look. "That is well for us. It means that nothing else has passed this way for some time - except a few animals." He pointed, and Merry saw the tracks of a wolf. The prints were dusty, and it did not look like the creature had ventured any farther than the first room.

"Don't let your guard down just yet," Gimli warned. "There may be other entrances to these halls that we have no knowledge of."

"Have no fear," Aragorn said dryly. "My guard is most assuredly up."

"Does anyone else feel that draft?" asked Boromir.

"I do," said Frodo. "It makes my skin feel clammy."

"Cave air feels warm in winter and cool in summer," said Gimli. "In fact, the temperature of a cave is near-constant all year; they only feel warm or cool in comparison to conditions outside."

On his left, Merry could see Legolas nodding. Merry understood why: the stronghold of the Elves of Mirkwood was itself a series of caves.

"You will not feel the full effect until we progress farther in," Gimli continued. His eyes roved ceaselessly over the carvings as he spoke. "Here at the entrance, the air is mixed and not as warm as it will be elsewhere. But still… it smells right." He drew a deep breath and sighed. "Ahhh. Long has it been since I breathed the scent of earth and stone."

"We only have one hour," Aragorn reminded them. "We must choose a path. If you have any insight to offer, Gimli…?"

"The middle way will lead to large common rooms," Gimli said confidently. "Left and right will lead to living and working quarters. If you take one of those paths, you will eventually find corridors that lead back to the middle way. You may also find paths that lead away from the common rooms and deeper into the mountain."

"Then it may be easy to lose ourselves in here," said Aragorn. "Are there signs or carvings to direct inhabitants, or does one need to know the paths by heart?"

"Most rooms will contain markers for guiding," said Gimli. "They will tell you which way is north, south, east, or west."

"Well, we are facing east now," said Aragorn. "West will lead us out. I will keep to the central path as much as possible."

Boromir scraped one boot against the floor with deliberate force. "If everything is as dusty as it is here, we will be able to follow our own tracks back," he observed.

"Perhaps," said Aragorn, "but I will be glad for the markers, if they exist."

The company formed a progression with Aragorn in the front and Legolas at the rear. Eager to see what was ahead, Gimli kept close to Aragorn, and the hobbits kept to the middle with Boromir and his torch. The tall folk lifted their torches as they stepped through the second doorway and into the passage. The ceiling was lower than it had been in the anteroom, but the walls were just as heavily decorated.

"Is everything going to be carved like this?" Sam whispered.

"Some rooms will bear more stonework than others," Gimli replied. "It is normal for chambers near the entrances to be quite ornate, for those are places that visitors see."

"Yes, but still," muttered Boromir. "It must have taken your craftsmen…."

Gimli chuckled. "Perhaps not quite as long as you are thinking. Many dwarves would have labored here."

"Sssh," said Aragorn. "The passageway is ending."

The company fell silent. Aragorn thrust his torch through a new doorway, looked around, and stepped through. The others followed and found themselves in a room even larger than the first had been. Its edges were lined with carved doorways. A quick examination showed that they led to small side rooms with no exits. Only the doorway at the far end of the room led out. Carved stone pillars on either side of each doorway mystified Merry until Gimli explained that they were torches for lighting the room. "Oil and wicks were set upon them," he said. "See how they are curved, like bowls? But they have been empty for some time."

"It is so… vacant," said Boromir. "There are no furnishings or possessions to be seen. I would have expected that at least the remains of furniture would be here."

"Maybe the dwarves carried everything off when they left," said Sam.

"Through these hills?" said Frodo. "I can't see that."

"It is possible," said Gimli. "We dwarves are hardy, remember. But some furniture was undoubtedly left behind, and if it was wood, it has rotted away. We have ways of controlling the humidity in our dwellings, but much time has passed since anyone lived here. Age would have destroyed any wood as surely as moisture would. And in the centuries since dwarves were last here, raiders may have entered to remove what was left."

"Where is the directional marker?" asked Aragorn.

Gimli searched the walls for a moment before pointing to the top of the entryway. "Raise your torch and look there. Do you see that rune in the middle? The one surrounded by the square?"

"Aye."

"That is 'west'. I cannot see the far door from here, but it should bear a rune in a similar location that reads 'east'."

Aragorn raised an eyebrow. "You are sharing Dwarven secrets with us."

"Not many," said Gimli, sounding slightly defensive to Merry's ear. "I can see the need for you to know these four signs in this place, but I will not teach you how to say 'north', 'south', 'east', or 'west' in my tongue."

The three hobbits exchanged a knowing glance. From Bilbo's tales, they knew that the Dwarves were a secretive race that did not readily share knowledge with others. The Dwarven language was one of their most closely guarded mysteries.

"What is the penalty for revealing your secrets to outsiders?" asked Boromir. "I have heard that your punishments can be severe."

"For teaching you those four runes? Nothing," said Gimli. "But if I were to teach you our language, I could be cast out of society - or worse, in an extreme case."

Sam blinked. "Really? For teaching us words?"

"That, or the secrets of building and structure," said Gimli. "It has happened before, though such cases are rare. If I taught you forbidden knowledge and other Dwarves learned of it, I would be judged by the Elders. My fate would be entirely within their hands. Nay, we do not teach others our tongue. Not even Gandalf knows it, and he is better at winkling secrets out of people than anyone I ever saw."

"It is difficult to keep secrets from wizards," Legolas observed quietly.

"Aye, it is," said Gimli, uncharacteristically agreeing with the elf. "Fortunately for us, he works for the good of all the free peoples and not for himself. I think that if he were to discover our language, he would not pass the knowledge on to others, but still, I cannot teach him. It is not permitted."

"Onward," said Aragorn. "Time does not stop with us."

They pressed on, and this time Aragorn set a quick pace. He only allowed them to stop and look around when he himself wished to investigate a dark corner or shadowed doorway. By the time they had passed through three rooms and corridors, all vestiges of daylight were completely gone. The passages sometimes contained sharp bends, and the door to the outside could not be seen. Fascinating as the place was, Merry found the dark to be oppressive, and he kept close to one of the torchbearers at all times. The lack of light had never felt so heavy in a smial. Frodo and Sam seemed to feel it, too; they grouped with Boromir or Legolas whenever Aragorn went off to scrutinize something. Only Gimli was able to drift away from the light on his own, and he did not seem at all perturbed by the darkness. Still, Merry did not feel frightened, not when he had the others with him and there was so much to see.

Room after room passed by, all of them decorated with carvings but devoid of almost anything else. They occasionally found stone tables and benches, but no furniture of any other kind was visible. Nearly everything was constructed in straight lines. Even the connecting corridors did not curve but rather changed direction at a clean angle. Some rooms were small and some were large, and one was very large indeed - bigger than the great ball-room in Brandy Hall, which itself could hold a few hundred hobbits. The ceiling soared overhead, supported by two rows of columns that seemed to grow out of the floor. Boromir wondered aloud how such architecture had been managed, but Gimli only smiled pleasantly and referred again to "the secrets of the Dwarves." Gimli claimed that far greater wonders lay within Moria, but Merry could scarcely imagine what the dwarf described - a ceiling that was too far overhead for the light of their torches to penetrate, with supporting columns stretching away into the darkness.

"What a place this is!" said Boromir as they strode through yet another cavernous space. He raised his torch, trying to cast light into the dim corners. "How many more rooms can there be?"

"More than we will have time to see," Gimli answered. "I think several hundred dwarves lived here. The great hall alone is proof of that."

"How much farther, Strider?" asked Frodo. "I am getting hungry, and I think we might be reaching the edge of that calling distance you were talking about."

Aragorn stopped walking and turned. "Legolas?" he asked.

Legolas nodded. "Frodo is right. If Pippin or Gandalf were to shout for us now, I would still be able to hear them, but the echo would make their words difficult to interpret. Besides, we should be turning back soon if we wish to return within an hour of leaving. Are you satisfied that there are no enemies to be found in here?" There was a slight edge to Legolas' voice; it was obvious to Merry that the elf did not want to be in the cavern any longer than was necessary.

"Nearly," said Aragorn, who was already heading into the next passage. "Only one or two rooms more, and we will go."

The company followed Aragorn into the corridor, and Merry immediately felt that something was different. The way was narrow, scarcely wide enough for two people to walk alongside each other. The ceiling seemed strange, too, and with a start, Merry realized that it was arched - not flat or peaked as the others had been. What was more, the corridor was curvingin a gentle arc. These were the first curved lines that Merry had seen in the entire place.

"This is new," Frodo observed curiously.

"Aye!" said Gimli. "The style here is unlike anything we have seen before."

"I was beginning to think that dwarves did not use curves in their architecture at all," said Boromir.

"Oh, we do," said Gimli. "Geometric designs always dominate, but it is unusual to see straight lines alone. For whatever reason, the builders of these halls elected not to use curves - until now. I cannot imagine why, except that the room at the other end of this must be..." He exited the corridor with Aragorn and trailed off. The others crowded in behind him and stared in wonder as men and elf raised their torches.

Special, thought Merry. That's what Gimli was about to say. It was obvious that this room had been intended for some particular purpose. Intricately carved walls leapt out of the shadows, every last square inch of them adorned. The domed ceiling stretched up and up, its apex far above their heads, and not a column to be seen. There was no other doorway leading out of the room. There were no furnishings in the chamber, no benches; but in the very center stood a marble plinth heavily wrought with runes and gems. Lumps of dusty stone were scattered around its base.

"What is this place?" asked Boromir, his voice hushed. No one replied; no one seemed to know. They walked slowly into the room, spreading out a little, looking around at the walls and up at the ceiling. The crunch of their feet on the gritty floor was loud in the quiet.

"The thing that stood on the column – it's broken," Sam observed, pointing to the bits of stone on the floor.

"What do you think it was?" Merry whispered. "One of those missing lamps, maybe?" Sam only shook his head; he did not know the answer.

"What do you make of this room, Gimli?" said Aragorn.

"It had some ceremonial purpose, I deem," Gimli said in a hushed voice.

"But what?" wondered Frodo. "It's not large enough to hold many people, and there's nothing here but dust and this broken… thing."

"And them," said Legolas.

Everyone turned to look. Boromir and Aragorn stretched out their torches to illuminate the back half of the room, and Merry saw three skeletons lying on the floor, covered in dust. A chill rippled down his spine, and he unconsciously moved closer to the other hobbits.

"Dwarves," said Aragorn after a long pause.

Merry glanced at Gimli. The dwarf was frowning in concern.

"They've been here a long time," said Frodo. "They're just as dusty as everything else!"

"I do not like this place," Legolas said flatly. "There is a wrongness in the air. Something is not what it ought to be."

"You're letting the shadows get to you, lad," Gimli rumbled. Legolas' glare was sharp enough to cut, but Gimli had bent over to peer at the chunks of rubble and did not notice. "Would you lend me that torch?" he asked Boromir. The man nodded and handed it over. Frodo crouched down to study a piece that rested near his own feet.

"What happened to them, I wonder?" said Sam.

"Maybe they were hurt," said Frodo, "or attacked."

"I see no signs of a struggle," said Aragorn. "The dwarves bear no weapons but small throwing axes, and those were still hanging at their belts when they died. Look – the leather is nearly gone, but the metal tooling and links are still there."

Like Gimli and Frodo, Boromir had squatted down for a closer look at the debris on the floor. "If they were already injured, why would they come here to die?" he mused. "There are no beds, no chairs, nothing to rest on."

Legolas whispered something to Aragorn in Elvish. Merry did not understand the language, but he thought he knew what the elf wanted. Legolas sounded anxious. Aragorn made no reply, but Merry thought he looked uneasy, too.

"I don't think this is stone," said Frodo, stretching out one tentative finger toward a dusty sliver.

"Nor do I," said Gimli. "There is a shine to it. It looks like…."

"Like glass," said Frodo.

"Yes," agreed Boromir, curiously turning over a piece of the object.

Gimli reached down and picked up the fragment he had been studying. He brushed some of the grime away with his thumb as he straightened, revealing a black, glossy surface beneath. "Like obsidian," he said. "Like…."

Everything seemed to happen at once. Gimli's eyes rolled back in his head and he collapsed, striking his head on the floor. Aragorn leapt to his aid just as Sam cried out in fear: Frodo had dropped to the ground, too. Legolas let go of his torch and pressed his hands against his temples. The branch tumbled away, and the room grew darker as the flames were extinguished. Boromir wobbled in his squatting position, startled by the others' sudden fall; his hand came down on the floor, and his body pitched forward as if he had no control over it. Sam crouched beside Frodo, calling his master's name. When he seized Frodo's shoulders, Sam's tongue was stilled in mid-cry and he fell limply over Frodo's body. Before Merry could utter a single word of warning, Aragorn had grasped one of Gimli's arms. The man crumpled when he touched the dwarf, falling as if his bones had melted. His torch bounced and rolled on the stone. Legolas had already gone to his knees, but he was still moving under his own power. In seeming dizziness or pain, he reached out to steady himself with one hand; the other was still pressed against his head. But an instant later his body slumped to the floor as the others had, and he did not rise again.

The room was still except for Merry, who stood staring in horror. His eyes flitted to each of his companions in turn while his mind tried to make sense of what had just happened. His shock and alarm were so great that he could scarcely hold his thoughts together.

"Frodo?" Merry gasped. "Sam? Strider?" He had to fight for each breath. He called weakly to the others as well, but none of them stirred. A sudden, terrible thought struck him. What if they were dead? He could not tell whether they breathed.

Gandalf! Merry thought desperately. I've got to find Gandalf! He reached down, picked up Aragorn's fallen torch, and turned to run.

Merry's foot came down on something sharp. He felt the pain of the cut and instantly forgot it as a crushing blackness descended on his mind. He didn't notice when he dropped the torch, didn't feel his body's impact with the floor. Darkness closed in on him and consciousness fled.