One of the Nine to the Tainted,
The abomination and the decayer;
17th March, 3019 T.A, Barad-dur
The Illusionist’s apprentice wandered serenely through the bliss of the vales by the River Numahar, the autumn-sunlight of the far east glowing like a god’s candle upon the rolling hills, the calm waters, the flower-speckled meadows that rippled gently in the wind’s embrace. For five years he had patiently worked under the wise tutelage of his master, his dear uncle Ul Fen Jey, the lord of these vales and a notably mighty sorcerer of the east. As a child, the Illusionist’s apprentice was raised into the arcane arts under his noble father Sen Jey, yet upon his eighteenth birthday, the coming of his manhood and the ending of his apprenticeship under his parent, he decided to learn further, travelling here to his uncle, from his home amidst the Springs of Fog. Though now, for the first time in his life, he was out of education, he felt finally free of all shackles, and anything was possible – he was no longer an Illusionist’s apprentice, but a master. He had resigned to return to the place of his birth and re-establish himself, although before he left he wished to visit the legendary Grass Tombs – the burial place of his blessed ancestors and forebears. He strode confidently up a slow-rising slope, and as he approached the top, he heard a woman singing, and the notes were as clear upon his mind as a fresh breeze in a maddening desert;
‘The flowers of the Numahar;
How sweetly do they scent and bloom! -‘
His footsteps became quicker, seeking out whomever spun such heavenly notes.
‘- A wanderer may travel far,
Through battles and the face of his doom -‘
He was nearly there, the song rising in volume to match his growing anticipation.
‘The forgotten lands that surround,
Their perils will seem so grim and dark -‘
At last, he looked down at the maiden who wove the verse, as she glided amongst the grass and flowers like a goddess of nature intangible to mortal eyes. He was breathtaken, but his voice worked without thought, and he completed her song for her.
‘- But once all is done and all is past,
Take me back to the Numahar!’
She stopped, pausing to look at the man who had stumbled upon her. He smiled at her in friendship, which she seemed to infect. Her name was Elyen, and she was the most beautiful person Ren had ever seen.
The five knights of death stood in a solemn semi-circle, like nightmarish figures carved to ward away intruders. Indur Dawndeath the Outcast, the Betrayer, seemed distant and uncaring, a machine of war that was obsolete out of the battlefield. The Blood Archer shifted his gauntleted feet, apparently anxious – whether it was a desire for mobilisation or fear of his Lord’s anger none could decipher. Hoarmurath the Undying was proud and unflinching, awaiting Sauron’s displeasure like a tower anticipating a costly siege. Khamul the Black Easterling, newly anointed Lord of the Nine, was unreadable, whatever his mind conjured was closed, perhaps even to the Dark Lord. And to the side of them all, the Undying crept, fearfully garbling at their failure upon the Pelennor. And then, within the high chamber of Barad-dur, their overlord materialised before them, a corrupting shade of malice and ancient horror, and his words like the upturning of the earth.
‘Minas Tirith still stands. The Pelennor is lost. The Witch-King is destroyed. If you were not bound to me, I presume that you would have all fled in fear of my wrath. You would have been right to do so.’
A shock of searing red flared across the collected Nazgul’s visions. Their very minds seemed to tumult like a thousand earthquakes, sending them screaming and reeling to the floor. Gathering his strength, Khamul stood, and spoke desperately to the Dark Lord.
‘We were deceived my Lord! We could not have anticipated the enemy would capture the Corsair ships!’
‘All trivial!’ Sauron screamed. ‘Are you not the Nine? Are you not the most feared creatures to walk this forsaken world? You are the harbingers of my wrath – not foolish Orc chiefs! Such a failure is unacceptable!’
A final wave of pain sent the five to the obsidian floor in agony, which they recovered from swiftly, so as to not show any more weakness in the face of their lord.
As they improved themselves, the chamber doors swung open brashly, the clang of cold stone demanding the council’s attention. Sneering at the Nazgul in their punishment, walking with a swagger of high position, the Mouth of Sauron entered, bowing before his lord almost in exaggeration.
‘Thou esteemed Lord Sauron, others have arrived…’
Almost in time with his words, Adunaphel the Once Vain, the Knight of Umbar, entered in typically quiet fashion, followed by Akhoarahil, the Dark Marshal, whose magical vision-gems the Eyes of the Well flared angrily at the sight of Khamul, who turned and studied him in disgust.
‘So, Sightless, you managed to return yourself back here safely,’ drawled the Easterling. ‘How… jovial.’
Akhoarahil maintained his rage for now and addressed soley the Dark Lord. ‘My Lord, the remnants of our Pelennor force has been safely returned to the Morannon, where they now recover, and await your instructions.’
‘Yet they are still remnants,’ spat Sauron. ‘A small victory in a defeat is still a defeat, Marshal.’
Akhoarahil bowed slowly and took his postion beside the other Nazgul as Adunaphel came to the fore, her rasping voice barely audible.
‘My Lord, I have returned from the Battle Under the Trees in Mirkwood. I come with ill tidings… Thranduil’s Elves were not alone. The Beornings and the Woodmen came against us – and the wizard Radagast the Brown – we had to retreat back to Dol Guldur -‘
‘This is incredulous!’ The wrath of Sauron now erupted about the room like the fires of Mount Doom itself. ‘Today, we have lost two of our key battles, and progress against Lothlorien is now slower due to Khamul’s departure. If our enemies are to press us back, they may unite against us and have a chance of victory! It is only Dwar, who even now besieges Erebor, who has not yet failed me! I shall not tolerate your incapabilities again!’
The Nazgul now all felt a cold realisation hit them, more powerful than Sauron’s torture. If they were to lose again, they could be under the threat of death.
‘Now,’ Sauron boomed. ‘Resolute actions must be made in order to safeguard our victory in this war. The Blood Archer shall go immediately to Erebor, and assist Dwar in overthrowing the irritant Dwarves. Adunaphel, you shall travel to and fortify Dol Guldur, before overseeing the battle against cursed Lorien. The rest of you are to prepare and ready the armies of Mordor for renewed attack, and bolster our defences. This time, failure will not be so easily dealt with.’
Ren watched the sun set from his home amongst the mountain town of Ulk Jey Ama, sitting in contemplation on his front porch. Inside the home he could hear the nattering of his beautiful wife Elyen with his children, his boisterous son Fen and his infant daughter Fyen. He thought of the new batch of sheep Elyen was soon to birth, and of the gift he had given her on her birthday last week, a multi-chambered drum of the highest quality, the most favoured of instruments amongst their people. Only a few days had passed, and she seemed to be well on the way to mastering it. But what he thought of most was his new promotion amongst the Illusionists of the Springs of Fog – how he had become the latest Grand Enchanter – a post his proud father had relinquished in accordance of Ren’s impressive skills, shown by the arcane tome he had composed. For so long he had worked on that book, and now he had reaped his reward. The failing sun glowed upon his smiling, satisfied face.
And then a shadow blocked the light from him. Towards his house moved a tall, robed figure, whose presence made Ren feel automatically uneasy. The figure greeted Ren, and pulled back his hood, revealing himself to be an Elf. He said he had become intrigued by Ren’s accomplished arcana, and wished to teach him more, to set him on the road to further greatness. The Elf said his name was Dardarian.
The Tainted stalked the obsidian gangways of Barad-dur, the shadowy recesses and chambers of the maddening tower of chaos unable to be fully explored and mapped – such was its expanse that only its masterful creator Sauron could fully understand its true layout. The Tainted was to leave for the Black Gates soon, but for now he wandered along the walls and balconies, still reeling from the pain caused to his insane, fragile mind by the Dark Lord. As he moved like a creeping fog of poison, he slithered down a gangway to hear two familiar, rasping voices. He followed them stealthily to find a couple of his undead order speaking on a balcony that overlooked the hurrying minions of Mordor below, gathering in preparation for Sauron’s next orders. The two Nazgul were on closer inspection the new Lord of the Nine, Khamul, and the female Adunaphel, the Knight of Umbar. Silent as death, the Tainted leered behind the doorway leading onto the balcony where they stood – spying on the doings of others was a favourite pastime of the insidious creature.
‘Adunaphel, when you go to Lorien, be wary of the Elf commanders. I managed to defeat their cursed master Celeborn in combat, but their Lady has yet to reveal herself -‘
‘I do not fear Galadriel,’ Adunaphel rasped. ‘I have a hatred for her race that her eldritch magics cannot overcome… But it is not for advice on defeating Lothlorien that I asked you here…’
‘Then why?’ The Black Easterling sounded genuinely concerned.
‘Lately… after our crippling at the Ford of Bruinen… something strange has been instilling itself in my mind. At first I thought it was some subtle Elven magic, created from the sorcerous wave that overthrew us, but I have begun to believe it is foresight.’
‘Foresight? For what purpose – the war?’
‘Yes, in a way,’ the Tainted had never heard Adunaphel so fearful, which amused him greatly. ‘I know that we are not going to win.’
Khamul was shocked to his core. ‘How can you say such things! With our amassed might we cannot even think such -‘
‘Regard what we have seen, what has transpired,’ she hurriedly spoke. ‘The coming of the Heir of Isildur and the Rangers of the North at the Pelennor; the victory of Thranduil in Mirkwood despite hopeless odds; the overthrowing of Saruman by the petty Rohirrim. Some higher destiny is working against us when we should theoretically be winning.’
‘What has happened are mere flukes, in what I deem small and insignificant battles,’ Khamul argued. ‘Our next wave of battle shall destroy them all, they have not the sufficient power to stand against us.’
‘That is what we believed before, but look where we stand now! Under threat of death from Sauron, and if not from him, our foes. Look at the Witch-King – slain by mortals!’
‘The Witch-King’s death was well overdue!’ shouted the Easterling. ‘And I will tolerate your pessimism no longer -‘
‘Wait!’ Adunaphel exclaimed, stopping Khamul from leaving the balcony. ‘What about the Ring?’
The Shadow of the East gathered himself, and retorted, ‘What about the Ring?’
‘We still have no clue of its whereabouts. But lately I feel as if it has been close to us. As if it is under our very nose. I thought such a feeling was simply us getting closer to it throughout the war, but now I fear that the enemy is attempting to bring it to the Cracks of Doom themselves. Perhaps we should advise Sauron to put a watch upon the mountain?’
‘Now you are spewing pure nonsense. Firstly to pass into Mordor would be nigh impossible, but to get through the plateau of Gorgoroth, swarming with our forces? No, they will be keeping such a thing safe, I deem, within Minas Tirith.’
‘Please listen to me, Khamul! Listen to what I say, do it because you once cared for me -‘
‘Yes, I once cared for you. And you once cared for me, but I barely remember such a time, and such feelings are bereft of us now. And because we can no longer care for each other, I will not hold it as a reason to do what you ask of me. Now you must go to your steed and make haste to Lorien, for the Blood Archer has already left for Erebor. If Sauron discovers you stalled yourself, you will be severely punished. I hope you will find the strength to destroy the White Lady.’
With that, Khamul left the balcony, leaving Adunaphel more sombre and morose than she had ever been. As the Black Easterling left, the Tainted crept into the darkness, and when he had passed he finally revealed himself to Adunaphel, and his delight in her grief spread like the verminous aura that encompassed him.
‘Greetings, thy Knight of Umbar, thou Quiet Lady, Queen of Sadness,’ he jeered.
She turned, irritated by his sudden appearance, ‘What is your business here, Unclean?’
‘I hast heard our new Lord of the Nazgul hast declined thou offers of romance, and I hast cometh to propose in his stead…’ His sardonic mocking and sarcasm seemed to strengthen the blight of his presence.
‘How dare you insult me!’ Her wrath seemed to send the cankerous aura about the Tainted back from herself. ‘How dare you spy on my meetings! You should be put in your place, you rotting piece of worthless essence!’
Before the Tainted could stop chortling at her, she moved as quick as her anger, throttling the hood where the Tainted’s throat once was with her strong gauntlets and pulling him over the side of the balcony, threatening to drop him over. The Tainted’s chuckles had turned to raging cries.
Whether the Knight of Umbar would enact upon her rashness would never be known, for into the doorway of the balcony strode Akhoarahil, the prideful Dark Marshal.
‘Already our order has descended into anarchy more fitting of Orcs,’ he sneered, as Adunaphel finally noticed his presence. ‘Such a thing speaks worlds of leadership under our new ‘Lord Khamul’…’
The Quiet Lady dropped her victim safely back onto the black stone of the balcony, where he retreated pathetically to the side of Akhoarahil.
‘And you would see yourself to have taken the Witch-King’s place, would you not, Sightless?’ Agressively inquired Adunaphel.
‘Why, who else would you have deemed strong enough for such a task?’ The cold arrogance of the Marshal inflamed the Knight of Umbar’s anger tenfold, yet instead of confronting him she made her way to the doorway, still blocked by him.
‘Out of my way, I cannot defeat Galadriel if you are in path,’ she stated. ‘Unless you would be willing to go against Sauron’s will?’
After gazing confrontationally at her for a few moments, Akhoarahil finally relented and let her pass, watching her go threateningly.
‘I thank thee for thy interference,’ the Tainted purred as he pawed at the tattered ends of the Marshal’s robes.
‘Get off me, you disgusting creature,’ ordered Akhoarahil. ‘It would have been wiser of me to let the woman throw you off that balcony.’
The Dark Marshal too strode away as the Tainted continued seeking out more individuals to eke his misery upon.
‘The plague has hit us hard, just like everywhere else we know. I have tried to find him a healer, but all those who are near are occupied, there are so many sick! And I dare not search wider afield – I do not dare venture too far from his side! Will you not help him? He always spoke such great things of you. I know you can help him, Dardarian.’
Ren lay upon his bed, hearing the voice of his wife Elyen as if it was condensed through a fog, for he was still reeling from the pain and nausea of the plague that had swept through the eastern lands. Yet as he drifted from uneasy half-dreams, where the cold embrace of sleep and the agony of reality blurred into one, he slowly felt consciousness, for he knew that his old master Dardarian had come to aid him, the great sorcerer who had expanded his knowledge of magic far beyond the contours he originally believed they resided in. But for all Ren’s mastery and all he had learned, he was still barely hanging onto life because of a simple illness, and he felt almost ashamed.
‘Do not fear, Elyen, I believe he still lies within my ability. Do you hear me, Ren Jey? It is Dardarian, your old friend.’
Ren lifted his weary eyelids in answer. ‘Dardarian? Have you truly returned?’ His voice was as frail as a shrill breeze.
‘Indeed. It seems as if you have found yourself in a spot of bother?’
In his decay, Ren still managed a wry smile.
‘Now,’ Dardarian took a more official tone now. ‘Just try to relax. I am going to give you a potion that should fight back the plague. It will just take a couple of minutes to prepare…’
The Elf reached inside his robes and pulled out a curious vial, with an amount of sickly-green coloured liquid. Elyen studied the glass intently.
‘What is that? What are you going to give him?’ She questioned.
‘Do not fear, Elyen,’ he spoke, his eyes still fixed to the vial. ‘It is a special remedy I brewed, with just Ren here in mind. Now please, I must provide a small incantation to activate it fully, so please give me a moment.’
Elyen cautiously stepped away from the sorcerer as he began chanting a harsh, ancient language, moving his hand around the vial like a seductive dancer. As he did, the potion seemed to turn into a more yellowish hue.
‘Now Ren,’ he finally spoke. ‘You are going to have to drink all of this potion. Please focus, and do not regurgitate or spill any of it. Are you ready to drink it?’
‘What does it taste like?’ The sick Ren managed to say, which made Elyen smile sadly at him.
‘Not very nice, actually,’ said Dardarian. ‘But luckily for you, your particular illness has taken away your sense of taste. Now, open wide…’
Obediently, Ren drank the whole vial, before again drifting into unconsciousness.
‘He will not be awake again for a day or two,’ Dardarian addressed Elyen. ‘Unfortunately I do not have the time to stay, but please give him my regards when he does awake. And believe me, when he does, he will be right as rain.’
Elyen could not help herself but affectionately hug Dardarian tightly, a gesture the Elf sorcerer had long since forgotten. She then tottered into the next room, and as Dardarian walked from the house, he could hear her exclaim, ‘Children! Fen! Fyen! Father is going to be fine!’
Dardarian tragically heard the ignorant bliss of the family as he felt another thing he had not in a very, very long time. Guilt.
In the deepest, darkest caverns under the Dark Tower of Barad-dur, the fell steeds of the Nazgul were housed, fed and bloated into the monstrosities they were. Of the ten creatures originally spawned there, only seven now remained, for both the Witch-King’s and the Dark Marshal’s had been slain upon the Pelennor Fields, and the original mount of the Blood Archer had been shot down by the Elf archer Legolas close to the Falls of Rauros, yet the beast had been replaced by the tenth beast of the brood. Three stable-posts were empty, showing that Adunaphel and the Blood Archer had already departed, and of course because of Dwar’s absence. It was here that the Tainted now crept, moving across the craggy paths towards the tethered monstrosities, their Orc handlers unflinching at the Nazgul’s approach, for they were now used to it.
Here, the Tainted convened with Indur the Outcast, Hoarmurath the Undying and Akhoarahil the Dark Marshal – the latter of whom was arguing brutishly with the chief Orc beastmaster.
‘Why have you not yet spawned a replacement for my steed, you pathetic wretch?’
‘But my lord,’ retorted the large Orc. ‘The beasts take months to spawn! We cannot breed a new one in a few days!’
‘Are you trying to undermine me, you maggot? I want a new steed as soon as possible!’
‘There are still horses bred to obey the will of a Nazgul available, my lord -‘
‘If I required a horse I would have already asked you for one!’ screamed the Marshal.
The Outcast, the the Undying and the Tainted observed the feud with amusement.
‘I wonder how our arrogant acclompice will feel riding a horse as we all swoop overhead on wings to the Black Gate?’ chuckled Hoarmurath.
The red fury of Akhoarahil turned to the Undying. ‘What did you say? Are you subverting my authority, too?’
‘Look,’ coldly stated Indur Dawndeath. ‘Sightless still believes he is the Lord of the Nine.’
The Dark Marshal continued his opposition on the Undying, knowing him to be the weaker. ‘First, you abandon me to retreat our forces on the Pelennor alone, and now you make snide comments at me?’
‘Stand down, Marshal.’ A commanding voice rose above the rest, resounding in the deep pits. Steadily, Khamul entered the cavern, demanding the authority of all those who heard him.
‘Ah, here comes the fabled Easterling,’ sneered Akhoarahil. ‘Our adored ‘Lord’. Perhaps he has come to demand his trivial rule upon us; maybe he will ask me to polish his boots!’
‘They are a little dirty now, Sightless. Thank you informing me of the issue. Would you care to clean them now, please?’
‘What? You cannot be serious!’
‘That is an order. If you do not carry it out, I will see this as an act of treason.’
‘It is high time an act of treason was carried out on you, my Lord!’ spat the Dark Marshal as he drew his cursed blade, pointing it in challenge at the Black Easterling. ‘I challenge you, Khamul, to a duel! The victor shall take his rightful place as Lord of the Nine, and the loser shall be seen to however the winner sees fit!’
‘Get out of my way, we have not time for this…’ spoke Khamul, uncaringly as he tried to make his way past Akhoarahil to the fell beasts. But wherever he walked, the Marshal blocked, still raising his sword to him defiantly.
‘You will not get past me until you draw your sword,’ said Akhoarahil.
Finally, Khamul yielded, and drew his blade. As soon as it was raised, the Dark Marshal charged, making a grand, mighty stroke. But the Easterling, faster and stronger, easily manoevered out of the sword’s way, and as the Marshal’s weapon clumsily clashed into the earth, Khamul swung his gauntleted fist into the Marshal’s helm, crunching it severely and sending him flailing to the dirt-ridden ground. Before he could react further, the Shadow of the East kicked his sword away and brought his plated boot down on Akhoarahil’s armoured chest, pinning him in the mud.
‘Time and time again you test my patience,’ the words of Khamul were like the rolling of thunder in the cavern. ‘Yet you forget why I am your new Lord! For this boot that now pins you to the ground, this boot you refused to clean in your careless mocking, is attached to a warrior who could destroy you at any second! And if you persist, do not think I will not!’
With that Khamul strode to his steed and mounted it, which the Tainted, the Undying and the Outcast too followed. As the fell beasts began to swoop from the dark pits, Khamul called to Akhoarahil, who ashamedly crawled from the mud.
‘Find a horse and lead the armies of Mordor towards the Black Gate. We will be awaiting you.’
As the last of the rushing wind of the fell beasts circled through the cavern, the Orc whom Akhoarahil had been squabbling with beforehand again approached the Marshal, with a wide smile on his large face.
‘So my lord, shall I get you that horse?’
The Dark Marshal stuck his blade through the chest of the insolent minion, before striding away to the armoury, his broken helm reflecting his broken pride.
Dardarian had returned to the house of Ren. On his travels, he had seen warriors and forts and fire where there had been once fair fields and serenity. It had been two years since he had last been here, to cure Ren of his sickness, but it looked like it had been two centuries.
The old house looked like it had fallen into disrepair. He cautiously entered the homestead, before looking around the darkened front room. ‘Ren? Elyen? Is anyone here?’
He heard muffled footsteps come towards him. Out of the darkness, Elyen emerged, and in two years it looked as if all the griefs of the world had fallen on her face, and her warm beauty had faded like an autumn sun.
‘Dardarian? Is that really you? I thought you were one of the cultists…’
‘Cultists? Elyen what has happened here? Where is Ren, and the children?’
‘Come into a safer room. I do not want anyone to see us.’
The two crept into what was once the dining room, yet was now a cobwebbed mess.
‘It begun after you cured him of the plague,’ said Elyen, gravely. ‘At first all was fine again… but then Ren started to say some strange things.’
‘Like what?’ Dardarian inquired.
‘That he was the son of our sacred mountain Ulk Chey Sart; that he was ‘the Fire King’; that he was ‘the Mountain’s Heart. I thought at first it was just a side-effect of the illness, but then he started descending into madness. I believe that somehow the plague remained and drove his mind insane – but regardless, I searched far and wide for healers to help him, but none could save him. Soon, he left, and made a pilgrimage to Ulk Chey Sart itself. After that, I did not hear of him for months, and I was worried sick. But over the winter, he seemed to gather a group of followers who believed his insane words, and he made war on our nation. His cultists grew and grew, until he proclaimed himself ‘king’. He uses his power of Illusion to create terror in other people’s minds, and shows himself with a rancid aura of death and decay about him. Now he goes throughout the land, purging the non-believers and killing thousands. I remain here, waiting for them to come for me, too.’
‘Elyen… would that this had not come to pass…’ Dardarian now crouched, holding his head in disgrace.
‘Dardarian? What is the matter?’
‘For the first time, I see clearly… I see what I have become. This is all my fault, Elyen. I was sent throughout the world, to search for individuals worthy of nine immortal rings. I have committed terrible deeds, killed so many. There was one man, in Harad, Ji Indur Dawndeath he was called, who I transformed into a heedless butcherer… There was a noble Numenorean prince, Akhoarahil, who I blinded, and turned into a spiteful tyrant. And so many more! And now Ren, too…’
‘What?’ Elyen turned white. ‘You did this to us?’
‘It was in the potion I gave to him, to heal him,’ he muttered grieviously. ‘It was meant to give him notions and ambitions of rulership – but it has turned him mad! What have I done? I have fated the world to be plummeted into darkness…’
Dardarian now stood, composing himself, as if he had reached an internal decision. ‘I shall now go. Thank you for everything, Elyen. You shall probably be the last person to see me again. But Elyen, if you do see Ren again, urge him, with whatever strength you have, when he is offered a ring of power not to take it!’
He grimly made his way out of the house. ‘Elyen, one last thing before I leave. Where are the children? Where is Fen and Fyen?’
Elyen was mixed with sorrow, and now rage at Dardarian. ‘The cultists purge every non-believer, Dardarian. Not even children are spared.’
At that, the immeasurably ancient Elf sorcerer walked from the broken home, to wander wherever his will took him to do what had to be done.
Upon the Morannon, Khamul, Hoarmurath, Indur and the Tainted now perched upon their fell creatures. Recent information informed them that the host of Minas Tirith was making its way to the Black Gate, where Sauron planned to consume them all. As the Nazgul stared across the barren wastes of the Brown Lands, the Tainted anticipated the battle to come, and thought of how he would purge them all from the world. The Mountain’s Heart would destroy all the non-believers, for the appetite of his father, the volcano Ulk Chey Sart, was very great, but soon Ren the Tainted would appease it.<strong><strong>