Author's Note: Again, I must apologize for the delay in posting. First I was on vacation, and then I totaled my beloved vehicle. *breaks down in tears* For the record, I was not at fault, and luckily I wasn't hurt too badly, but oh my goodness there are so many things to do after such a severe accident, and even though it feels like it's been forever, we're still not done dealing with the insurance company, and we haven't even figured out a replacement vehicle yet. All that to say that things have been crazy, and I do have every intention to see this story through to the end. Thank you for your patience; enjoy the latest installation!

As the coughs began to grow in intensity and quantity, the Fellowship quickly banded together and rummaged through their packs. Frodo was shaking in fear, and that impeded his ability to don his hazmat suite as quickly as he had practiced. He did, however, manage to put it on, secure his helmet, and pull on a few pairs of gloves before the coughing grew too close.

Aragorn and Boromir moved to pull closed the doors to the sterilized room, but just as they did so, syringes flew out of the darkness and imbedded themselves into the door just inches from Boromir's head. The men quickly pulled the doors to the room shut and backed away, readying their weapons and preparing to hold their breath. A loud screeching filled the air, and Boromir shook his head in disgust.

"They have a cave bat!" he murmured, though it was hard to make out what he said through all his personal protective equipment.

Loud bangs now sounded in addition to the multitude of coughs. The doors quivered and shook, and Frodo knew they wouldn't last long. His hands—shaking even harder now—grasped his uncle's sword, which was dripping with the disinfectant he had just dowsed it in. The blade glowed brightly, and he held it forth and set his jaw as a final loud blow brought the door off its hinges.

The bows of Aragorn and Legolas sang, and the battle cry of Gimli railed against the incoming coughing, but the sight itself was so sickening that Frodo was unable to charge forward with his companions. Orcs of many sizes and shapes rushed into the room, all with pale faces and dark circles under their eyes. A few had disgusting respirators strapped over their faces, though from the state of the equipment, Frodo doubted that they were being aided much in their breathing. There was an obvious change in temperature as the mob of sick orcs blasted into the room, and Frodo knew that they were all running high fevers.

Just as Frodo had recovered from his shock, an ear-piercing screech filled the air. Frodo found himself involuntarily falling to his knees and putting his hands over his ears, fearing for a moment that one of the Nazgûl was about to enter the room. He anticipated a throbbing in his shoulder wound, but then he looked up and noticed that the source of the sound was a tiny bat, weakly flapping into the center of the room. Then it set its sights on him.

"A bat!" he yelled, flailing backwards and pulling himself further away. He was fairly certain the fangs of the bat were dripping with disease, and it fluttered in his direction. "KILL IT!" he screamed, waving his sword in its general vicinity.

There was a sharp twang from Frodo's left, and the bat gave its death squeak as it plopped to the ground like a cast off shoe, an arrow lodged in its side. Frodo, despite his hyperventilating, turned to see Legolas roll his eyes and lower his bow before reengaging in the main fight.

Finally the Ring Bearer found his courage and joined his companions. The orcs' ability to pose a serious threat in battle was severely hampered by their sickly state, and the Fellowship made quick work of them. In only a few moments, the coughing had finally ceased, and all the orcs were motionless on the ground. Although the air was still highly contaminated, Frodo felt a bit of relief fill his chest. Until more coughs started to echo through the halls of Moria.

"To the Bridge of Khazad-dûm!" Gandalf cried, leading the party out of the once-sterile room and back into the main passages of the mines.

The desperation to get out of the infected tunnels and into the clean wide world caused each member of the Fellowship to run as fast as he could without giving thought to a rest. Their speed seemed to be greater than that of their coughing pursuers, but they never quite lost the sounds of the orcs who pursued them until suddenly all other noise was drowned out by a loud, guttural rumbling. Gandalf pulled up and turned to look back in the direction from which they had come, and his face was grave with concern.

"Don't tell me it's more bats," Frodo gasped, clearly not being well-educated on the nature and characteristics of bats.

"A balrog," Gandalf corrected very seriously. "A demon of the ancient world."

"Oh!" Frodo exclaimed, breathing a sigh of relief. "Shadow and Flame, right? He'll probably kill the virus that the orcs are carrying. Should we wait up for him?"

Gandalf glared sharply at the hobbit, but Frodo could tell that the other members of the Fellowship were sympathetic to his idea. "He is a servant of Morgoth, Frodo; do you truly believe he would disrupt the virus caused by Sauron, who is himself one of Morgoth's lieutenants?"

Frodo's temporary calmness faded in an instant, and he nodded towards the exit to urge Gandalf to resume their flight. The wizard seemed even more eager to run than Frodo was, and in no time at all, the Fellowship was sprinting as fast as they could toward the Bridge of Khazad-dûm. The hot breath of their run made the wearing of masks even more miserable, and Frodo was finding it difficult to breathe for lack of oxygen when they finally caught sight of the bridge directly ahead. Based on the sounds coming from the room behind them, it was safe to bet that the balrog was now very nearby.

"Over the bridge!" Gandalf instructed forcefully, staying back until all the members of the Fellowship had begun to scurry across the narrow path. "Fly!"

Just as Frodo reached the other side, collapsing onto his hands and knees as he desperately tried to get air within his hazmat suit, the walls behind the bridge broke forth in a spray of fire and rubble. Standing taller than any building the hobbit had ever seen stood the balrog, opening its great mouth and roaring in intimidation. The heat of its body was easily felt even though all the PPE Frodo was wearing, and he was briefly comforted by the thought of the virus in the air suffering because of it. But then the Balrog pulled a long tube out from some kind of bio-hazardous chemical canister that was mounted on his back, and Frodo's heart failed him.

"You cannot pass!" yelled Gandalf, who Frodo now saw was standing in the middle of the bridge.

"Gandalf!" Frodo screamed, his eyes alighting on the toxic waste emblem which was boldly engraved on the balrog's canister. This could not end well.

Gandalf started attempting to frighten off the balrog by listed some of his own titles and drawing his sword and staff. Unsurprisingly, the balrog was not impressed, and Gandalf became desperate. "You shall not pass!"

The balrog took a step nearer, hose in hand, but the bridge crumbled beneath his feet. He seemed to fall in slow motion with no small amount of dramatic flair, letting out a last roar for good measure. Gandalf let out a "humph" and turned to proceed towards the Fellowship, but then a horrifying sound of spraying filled the air. It was hard for Frodo to even tell what was happening; it looked like a geyser had opened up somewhere in the bottomless pit beneath them, but the stream of liquid was angled directly at Gandalf. The wizard cried out and tried in vain to shield himself from the toxic substance, but it was no use. He was soaked within a few seconds, and even when the spray ceased and the balrog was gone, the damage was done.

Gandalf was going to catch the virus.

I'd love to hear what y'all thought of this chapter! Reviews are good motivation for someone who is engaged in an intense battle with writer's block! :)