Year 2996 of the Third Age
‘Great battles he had fought, wise deeds he had done,
Rest now in peace, Halatakh of Lurmsakun.’
Amur bowed his head as he said the scrap of verse he had thought of for his great companion and friend, who like Ghurlasab had been covered in a long robe and had their weapons stuck in the sands just before their heads as marks of where these warriors now lay.
‘It is all I can think of,’ said Amur. ‘Yet I do not think a whole song could do him justice.’
‘It was very thoughtful,’ comforted Jerra as she compassionately held her son. ‘Halatakh would have liked it.’
‘Now we have even greater need to press on,’ stated Valakar, ‘for the sake of Halatakh’s and Ghurlasab’s honour.’
‘Or if one of those nasty beasts shows up again,’ said Tuor, still bitter that Amur had used the last of his liquor to defeat the Great Scorpion that had robbed them of their companions.
‘Then perhaps we should go now, for both reasons,’ finished Belzagar, as he, Tuor and Raukazan began eagerly walking towards the daunting figure of the ziggurat and Amur, Jerra, Khulgana and Valakar bowed their last farewells to their fallen friends and turned to follow.
The dawn had already belched forth the uncaring sun when the company had reached the great structure. Despite Tuor’s fears, there had been no further opposition on their travel, and now they stood at the entrance to a pass-way standing some metres from the base of the ziggurat itself, unmarked but for the emblem of an assassin’s dagger facing downwards.
After agreeing that this portal would most likely lead them down into the chambers below the construction, they one by one cautiously stepped through the narrow passage and down a claustrophobic flight of stairs filled with sand due to the past desert winds. Valakar led the way, carrying a flaming torch from their travels through the night, whilst Raukazan had the rearguard, also holding a brand, and they both looked to and fro about the space with curiosity and anticipation.
The stairwell led them at length to a sizeable chamber, yet on each wall stood another passageway, all three flanked by un-ignited brands, which Valakar quickly set about lighting and passing to those who did not yet carry a torch. As firelight drowned the subterranean crossroads, it became apparent that the strange headstone at the centre of the crypt was a carven image of the Shadow Queen, yet her true name was Adunaphel – the Quiet, the Once Vain, Knight of Umbar, seventh among the Nazgul.
At her sight Raukazan almost bowed on instinct alone, her deathly visage sending memories of his days in the Hasharii Order flooding back to him. As Amur looked upon her he felt as if the figure was alert, alive somehow, her eyeless gaze cutting into him like a knife. Like Raukazan he too gave into his nature for a moment, groping in the dark for his mother’s hand. It seemed the Shadow Queen’s image had an effect on all of the company, all, but for Valakar. The Captain strode up to the idol, glaring at her like a contesting foe, and to Amur in that moment he seemed like a mighty commander of old – gone was the friendly and courageous man, in his place was a king, perhaps not a tyrant, but one of highest glory.
‘There she stands,’ he spoke, his words like a sword parrying the influence of the figure. ‘Adunaphel the Shadow Queen, lady of the Haradrim Cult of Sauron and matriarch of the Hasharii Order, mistress of this ziggurat. Irony, how in millennia past it was she who aided to cement Sauron’s tyranny on Harad, and it will be by her possessions that shall undo it. Come, let us be free of her presence.’
Tall and proud he strode from the chamber, taking the central route, and none of his brigade hesitated to follow.
Amur had thought days had passed as they wound through the corridors of the ziggurat. Innumerable rooms branched off from the paths, either eerily empty, or filled with weapons ancient beyond repair, or holding much store unidentifiable or useless. All of the company were deadly quiet; Valakar was leading with focused attention, Belzagar and Raukazan were both moving as if poised on a spring, expecting some deadly foe to beset them at any time, Tuor was peering in every nook and cranny for a coin or a gem, Amur and Jerra were moving softly beside one another, comforted by one another, and even the cheery demeanour of Khulgana was shadowed.
‘I would expect such a cursed place to have many bodies,’ said Belzagar breaking the silence, but his words were barely whispered.
‘I deem this place to have been built in the Second Age,’ replied Raukazan. ‘In which case it would be over three millennia old. Even the bones would have fallen to dust. Though, it is strange there is no trace of them at all…’
Yet after finding so many unfruitful chambers, through one of the passages a faint glimmer caught the company’s eye, and Tuor immediately burst into a sprint. Amur and the others moved into the room to find masses of gold, and Tuor stuffing as much as he could onto his person.
‘There must surely be enough here to bargain for half of Harad!’ exclaimed Khulgana.
‘The Shadow Queen and her advocates have always been highly influential,’ said Raukazan. ‘This must be the wealth she had gathered over the years, until this place was abandoned.’
‘I do not care what past a coin has had,’ stated Tuor as he continued to grope at the riches. ‘Wealth only has future.’
‘Do not overburden yourself, we do not know how long we shall still be travelling for, or what else we have to carry,’ advised Valakar, though he already suspected his words would fall on deaf ears.
‘And leave all this for all of you?’ Tuor scoffed. ‘I think not, Captain.’
Jerra and Amur cared little for the gold – they had once been royalty, and had long been accustomed to life without luxury, but it was clear several others of the company were torn between avarice and containment.
‘Why do we not leave a trail of coins and then return here once our objective is done?’ offered Belzagar.
‘Ha, we are rich enough to use money as breadcrumbs!’ smiled Khulgana.
‘We are not rich yet,’ Raukazan reminded. ‘Do you not think it is strange that such wealth remains here, despite the fact that surely others must have found this place before us?’
‘Do what you will, but I will still take mine with me,’ Tuor said with finality.
The company could only conclude that their discovery was bringing them closer to the central chamber of the ziggurat, where evidence for the Hasharii goddess’ allegiance to Sauron would most likely be found. Amur and the others found the endless labyrinthine passes highly disorientating, even as Belzagar dropped a coin every now and then to mark their path, and only through Valakar were they led onwards, for his will and determination alone seemed to work like a compass. Only then did Amur truly realise what it was they were doing. For the weeks they had been ceaselessly walking, words like ‘heroism’ and ‘glory’ had been bandied about like books in a library, but it seemed to Amur, as he watched the resolve on his Captain’s face, that only now did he truly understand them. Just to imagine what they could achieve thanks to today – to liberate Harad at last from all tyranny – was overbearing, and orchestrated by a man like Valakar such dreaming could well become reality soon enough.
At length they at last came to a dead end – at least, an end to the mostly central and linear path Valakar had walked. Now in front of them stood a solid wall, upon which was a great carven image of an eye, all-seeing and unstoppable.
‘The Eye of Sauron,’ muttered Valakar in disdain. ‘This should be proof enough that the Shadow Queen is a puppet of His will. Take heart, for at least this is a sign such other incriminating artefacts remain.’
To the Eye’s left and right were two passages leading into different chambers. Raukazan immediately opted to take the left direction, as the others took the right.
‘Keep an eye on him, will you Amur?’ asked Valakar. ‘Skilled though he is, four hands are better than two, eh?’
Obediently, Amur followed the renegade Hasharin, though he knew the ulterior motive behind the Captain’s order was to try and create some amount of bond between the two – the shadowy rogue and the adolescent had never seen eye-to-eye, and so Valakar had always attempted to close the gap. Amur did not know whether to be irritated at his ploys or not.
As Amur entered the room, he soon noted that this must have been some kind of throne room, though all but a large stone chair at the back of the chamber had gradually eroded over time. Suddenly, for a second Amur thought there were two others in the room – Raukazan, and another, swathed in black robes, silver armour and a curious mask, oval shaped yet sharper towards the long chin, with two menacing eye slits. He suspected the mask was once white in colouring, but had faded along with everything else in the ziggurat. It took Amur some moments before realising the unnerving figure was not alive – although it stood perfectly still in the centre of the room, and was not held up by any prop.
‘Do you know who this is?’ rasped Raukazan, to which Amur shook his head. ‘This is the Numenorean who came out of the ruins of the long-forgotten Kingdom of Ciryatandor, to become the right hand and the lover of the Shadow Queen before her flesh became one with the twilight. Legend remembers his name as Sakalthor, the first head of the Hasharii Order, the Myr Unghal – the Black Scorpion – a title we still use to this day.’
‘I have heard of the Myr Unghal before,’ stated Amur, thinking of questionable yet chilling tales he had been told.
‘Each one receives the armour and the bearings of him who ruled before, so that the essence of the first and every Myr Unghal becomes one but also many, and so his avatar shall never die. Yet it seems Sakalthor kept the original garments for himself – yet more lies to add to the Hasharii Order.’
‘Do you think it will work, Raukazan?’ asked Amur, the thought suddenly coming into his mind. ‘The Captain’s plan?’
Iaman Raukazan sighed heavily before turning to the young man. ‘I cannot say. For my part, I allow him to give such definite hope, but in my heart I know that it will be down to chance, as such things are. Can a few ancient artefacts bring down tyranny in Harad? I think not, but I still hope so. Sometimes I do not press on for glory, however, I press on at the mere thought of the Lords of Umbar, the Hasharii and the Cult of Sauron tearing themselves apart…’
Raukazan trailed off, as if he was suddenly aware he was letting out a stream of consciousness to a boy he did not care much of, and made himself to look like he was continuing to search around the chamber.
‘I mostly think it will work, because in my head I think of Valakar of such a great man,’ said Amur, obviously oblivious to Iaman’s detachment. ‘But sometimes I have moments of doubt.’
‘It seems to me,’ said Raukazan, with far less care than before, ‘that your idea of Valakar and our mission are tied together, and so if you doubt him, you doubt the plan, and I think you are only doubting him because you are unsure of what to think about him becoming closer to your mother.’
Amur looked at his companion wide-eyed, yet Raukazan continued. ‘Do not seem so surprised that I know. I see it as clear as the sun in the desert sky – a passing glance, a finger almost touched, a hearty sigh. Him, a renegade Captain of Umbar, she, a runaway Queen of Lurmsakun – the romance is simply bliss…’
Though Amur did not much like Iaman’s sarcasm, he knew him to be true. ‘You sounded like Tuor for a moment then.’
‘Of course I did not, did you hear me mention anything about money?’
Raukazan even offered a faint smile as he said this, before falling back into his sombre and moody self. ‘To me, this room looks like an antechamber, where Sakalthor held his seat. I suspect the Shadow Queen’s main quarters are where the others have ventured. Come, let us go.’
The assassin strode from the room. Before he followed, Amur made a passing glance at the silent figure of Sakalthor the founding Myr Unghal, and thought how strange it was that it too had not fallen into dust; and yet as he turned, he felt the hairs go up on the back of his neck, as if there was something dormant, yet malignant and restless, watching behind the cold slits of that once-white mask.
The right passageway by the Great Eye first led into a smaller chamber, unmarked, though halfway across the floor lay a carved chasm in the stone, relatively deep and wide, yet possible to leap across with effort, which Amur and Raukazan both did.
‘What do you suppose that is for?’ inquired Amur after they had crossed.
‘Perhaps an old service channel, but nothing seems as it should be here. It is as if everything is bent to sinister purpose…’
Through this room they walked, going through another passageway until they had found the room they sought. Belzagar, Tuor, Khulgana and Jerra already busied themselves moving about the space, whilst Valakar still stood and inspected the entire chamber, filled with what seemed like awe, but more like awe at what they could now accomplish.
At the end of the large room was a high obsidian black throne, flanked by four pillars leading to it, two on either side. From the walls hung depictions and glyphs, and shelves of idols and trinkets showing the merging of the Shadow Queen and the influence of Sauron. Their quarry had been found.
Valakar, noticing the presence of Amur and Raukazan, immediately walked, almost ran, up to his old friend and clasped his shoulder firmly. ‘Can you truly believe it? After years of searching, my friend, here it is at last – the central chamber of Adunaphel, where all that we seek can be found!
‘And you, son of Varnam,’ said Valakar, addressing Amur. ‘Are you ready to become the youngest hero to arise in Harad?’
As Belzagar and Jerra began to load a sack with the most applicable objects they could find, both Raukazan and Amur could not help but feel Valakar’s infectious joy fill them up with satisfaction.
Very soon their work in the central chamber had been done, and the company began to walk from the room, Valakar enthusiastically carrying the bag of artefacts as Jerra and Amur spoke to one another.
‘Why do you think that the objects are still intact, even though they should be dust?’ he asked.
‘Valakar told us that the whole room is bound by a spell of sanctuary,’ his mother replied. ‘Apparently, they will only break with determined force, which I doubt any of us would dream of doing soon.’
As she looked at her son, Jerra let out a sigh, realising that this was the first time for a while that they had properly talked, or at least, had the opportunity to. ‘Amur, I must admit something to you. Recently, I have been experiencing kindled… feelings, towards the Captain.’
‘Yes. I know, mother,’ Amur replied. ‘I saw you both on the shore, looking out into the Bay of Sudu Cull.’
‘I know it may be very confusing,’ she said, half guiltily. ‘You should know, however, I do not wish to tarnish the memory of your father -‘
‘I know,’ he interrupted. ‘I know that you would never wish Varnam harm. But since he is gone, and you believe that you need to feel something like you shared with him again, then I can think of no better man than the Captain Valakar.’
Jerra beamed at her young son, but then to her in that moment he was no longer the boy she had ridden with from the gates of Mikarin Peh to an end she could have never foreseen, but was a man – a man of stature and glory enough to stand with Valakar, and the proud memory of King Varnam himself.
‘Now this is strange indeed,’ said Khulgana. For, as Amur and Jerra came back into the others, they found they were all looking down at the strange gorge they had passed – now, indeed very strangely, filled with water.
Cautiously Valakar drew to the edge, and let fall a single coin into the murk, which as it hit the liquid steadily lost all colour, and turned black, and had already begun corroding before it had hit the bottom.
‘The water is cursed,’ said Valakar. ‘We must take care not to touch it as we jump over.’
‘Jump?’ exclaimed Tuor, suddenly fearful.
‘It would seem there is no other way,’ stated Belzagar.
‘Unless you would lie down as a bridge for us to walk across, Tuor, though I deem even you are not tall enough to reach to the other side,’ Khulgana joked, though there was grim thought behind his words.
Raukazan leapt across first – a feat of apparent ease to such a swift man, followed by Khulgana, his background as a scout giving him honed agility. Belzagar went next, yet he was a man stronger than he was lithe, and Raukazan had to quickly grab his arm before he safely crossed. With a long run-up Jerra too passed safely, and taking the large sack of artefacts Valakar went over, mighty enough to get to the other side even with much weight.
‘Tuor, throw your gold over first then cross!’ the others offered, yet Tuor did not trust their motives. With a shout he leapt, yet such amounts of coin had he robbed that it weighed him down, and with a crash he fell into the water. He pawed and groped to find the other side, but the life drained from his face before his hand could find it, and he dropped down into the murk.
Suddenly a rumble went through the ziggurat, shaking the company to their hearts. Something had been activated – or rather, the ziggurat had at last awoken. Ancient cries and moans echoed about the chambers, and the company drew their swords in fear, but from the tainted water ghostly figures began to emerge – hands and wailing faces, waving in a corporeal breeze to grasp the warm flesh of the living.
‘You must jump, Amur, it is now or never!’ shouted Valakar. Taking a deep breath and pacing backwards, Amur ran up to the edge of the water, and leapt, leapt like he had never done before, like a fleet deer escaping the clutches of a predator. When he opened his fearful eyes, he felt a surge of joy, for he had reached the other side! But hastily he remembered their current plight, and the dead, drowning face of Tuor, and with a bolt the company were away, running with all the energy left in their legs.
Thanks to the coins dropped by Belzagar they could easily find their way through the mazes of the ziggurat, though every now and then they would see some spectral form in the corner of their eyes, and everywhere ghastly wails permeated through the passes.
‘The shapes of men are following us,’ said Valakar with horror. ‘Adunaphel’s malice has arisen here once more. O, Tuor, why did you not throw your forsaken gold first?’
The corridors were long and winding, but their Captain’s orientation guided them through, and before long they found themselves in the entrance chamber once more. But as they entered, they saw that the shadowy idol of the Shadow Queen had an unearthly aura of taint around it, and in some ethereal vortex figures and phantoms wheeled about her, spitting curses and hacking with their rusted blades. At once they came towards the company.
Raukazan and Belzagar thrust and slashed with their swords, foundering the phantasms into smoke – only for them to take shape once again before their very eyes. And even as the companions fought desperately, Amur watched helplessly as out of the shadows came a horrifying figure, swathed in black robes and wearing a faded mask. The wraith of Sakalthor the Myr Unghal had awoken, drawing a deathly sword of Westernesse that had long forgotten its noble descent.
‘Run, run! Go to the exit!’ cried Valakar even as he rent through the form of another spectre. Battling through the sea of shadows, they at last ran up the sandy stairs towards the exit, but the dawn that hung in the sky on their arrival was now gone into night, though each of the company was relieved to be out of the ziggurat – apart from Valakar.
‘It is night,’ he said, with a hint of direness and finality. ‘The shades will be able to follow us across the desert.’
He then looked at each of his company, and only slowly did they each realise with dread what he was about to do. ‘Goodbye, my friends. You have all been like a family to me. Go now, for the future of Harad.’ He looked at Raukazan the longest, but at Jerra he sadly smiled. Then he turned, running into the passageway and kicking the support of the ziggurat’s entrance, weakening now in the sorcerous tumults.
But even as the sand and stone began to fall behind him, Jerra cried, ‘Valakar!’ and raced to his side even as the passage was crushed behind them. The last time Amur ever saw his mother or the great Captain was them both side by side, their blades drawn against the oncoming malice of the wight of the Myr Unghal, and then the pass was closed.