The black fog clung to me with small hands and smaller whispers, but I presented Aeglos, and spoke once more the word "shibboleth" and pressed through. Behind me, the passage closed, and ahead there was a crimson glow, a bloody effulgence that gradually replaced the inky dark until I found myself blinking on an open promontory. A jut of stone overlooking a fall into the viscous blood of Orodruin. This was the heart of the dark realm of Mordor, its living, pulsing power. Dry, hot air blasted up around the promontory along with an unending cataract of smoke. All light came from the burning below, and none above, for the heavens could not look in upon this place.
At the end of the promontory was an altar, a solid brick of onyx metal, the same as Orthanc and the outermost wall of Minas Tirith. Upon that altar lay Frodo, as if asleep, and before it was Legolas. The Wood Elf looked as if he had fallen into a nest of blades. If it were not for the dreamlike tenor of the scene, I would have been horrified by the condition of his body. In the moment, it all seemed as distant as a story.
Moving forward, all I could hear was the voice of the mountain, a ceaseless grinding and gashing that in its extremity travelled up the very stone of the promontory to be felt in my shoes. Avoiding the sight of Legolas, I saw Frodo was physically unharmed. Some spell of this place, or the darkness of the tunnel, had overwhelmed him. But then why was he set sp deliberately upon the altar, and what had happened to Legolas? There was no sign of any mechanical trap or defender living or unliving. I looked behind me. Kurkar had not followed through the tunnel. Was he not able or not willing?
"Sam?" I called. "Where are you, Sam?"
There was nowhere for the Hobbit to hide, not unless he wore the One Ring, and even then I would know it. Frodo was cool to the touch despite the volcanic atmosphere, his breathing shallow but unmistakable. Also unmistakable, the absence of the Ring and the chain from around his neck.
A crunching, clanging noise briefly overrode the grumblings of the Crack of Doom, and a great claw gripped the lip of the promontory from below. I swayed back, holding Aeglos before me. Gripping it pained my left hand, but I clenched my teeth and prepared for whatever was to come.
The claw was bright gold riveted to mobile plates of brass, and it was followed by a tremendous serpentine form, a vast and intricate clockwork dragon, complete with canvas wings and topaz eyes set into the deep sockets of an actual dragon's skull that had been dipped in molten gold. As its bulk continued to maneuver onto the stone promontory I looked into those topaz eyes and knew that this was no mere automaton. The possessing spirit was grander than the form it held, a flickering, rhythmic song of ice and fire.
My gaze wandered, searching for weaknesses, and indeed, the joints seemed likely targets, but any lunge I made would open me to attack, and I would end my days like Legolas with little gained. Was the soul of this thing housed somewhere, a crystal heart? If so, I did not see it. In the exposed throat of the machine there was a set of reeds and pipes and small bellows like a musical instrument, and with these it spoke.
"You have come a long way, my Nightstar." The voice was melodious, wholly unsuited for the bestial countenance that housed it. "I have been waiting."
"What are you?" I called upon the rings, willing my strength increase, and demanding Kurkar show himself. Boromir slipped around the altar, and the Hawk wraith slid from my shadow to that of the clockwork dragon. I bid it search for a heart.
"Not what," said the dragon, "but who. For I have been called many names by your kind and mine, and all of them were less than I deserved. Abomination. Gorthaur. Mairon. The Enemy. The Dark Lord. The Eye. Sauron. All these are titles really, not true names. I fear I do not have a name for you to bind me with, dear Star of Night."
This was Sauron? He was terrible, to be sure, but I was not overwhelmed. I had half expected his mere presence to drive the sanity from me, instead, he felt familiar. The basic sense of his spirit was not so different from Mithrandir's. They were nothing alike, and yet much as two people can be nothing alike and still both be human, those two were of a kind.
"I was expecting more," I said.
"Ah," Sauron casually waved a claw that could have snatched up a horse, "this old thing. I lost my body with the fall of Numenor, you know, but the ire of Iluvatar opened my eyes to a new way of existence."
"You had a body at Dagorlad," I said. "My father saw you."
"He saw my construct, yes, like this one, but in the rough shape of a man. An old habit, long since abandoned. I find this archetype more suitable to my nature when appearances are no at issue." The voice piped out of his throat without assistance from his jaws, but here they sagged open to reveal rows of teeth each as large and sharp as the tip of Aeglos. Legolas's doom was made plain.
Kurkar burst from the dark tunnel, sprinting with his huge mace held up beside his head. He reached the clockwork titan in moments, leaping, aiming for its skull. The tail, like a long woven whip of iron, snapped out and struck him in the side, sending him careening over the edge of the platform and down into the fires below. It happened in a blink.
"He'll be fine," the dragon said, but I was already lunging, the snow-point of Aeglos angled for the instrument that allowed Sauron to speak. In the same moment, my wraiths acted, the Hawk expanding to freeze the joints that it could reach, and Boromir dashing forward to cover its face and make it blind.
The dragon stiffened, and Aeglos punched into his throat, seeking whatever spirit drove it there. The reaction was immediate.
A single stroke of golden talons rent the shade of Boromir so that he dissolved into the heat and smoke of the vast chamber. My Hawk was expelled from the clockwork physiology in a gout of steam so forceful that the wraith was reduced to tatters that melted like snowflakes. I ripped Aeglos free of the contraption, which gave a sad wheeze, and stabbed back again, deeper, until I connected with the construct's silver plated spine.
A snap from the tail took my feet from under me, and left my spear quivering in the dragon's throat. Sauron reared up, preparing to smash down on me with the full force of that titanic metal body, and then it locked in place, rocking slightly, the flickering light of its topaz eyes fretting and going out.
I got up, searching for the spirit behind the juggernaut, but sensing nothing. Kurkar had remained loyal after all, waiting in the tunnel to strike when the moment seemed right. I would have to find a way to reward him when this was over.
"Lady Arwen?" The voice did not belong to Legolas, but to Sam. The disturbing state of the Elf's remains, along with the elven cloak the Hobbit had been bequeathed in Rivendell, had served as a disguise.
"Is it over?" There was blood on him, but not his own. "Please, can we take Frodo away now? He isn't well."
"Of course, Sam. But first we have to find the Ring."
At the expression on the stout Hobbit's face, relief flooded me. I could parse the truth as easily as if he had spoken it aloud.
"You have it," I said, "well done. Give it to me. Then we can go home."
"Home?" Sam said, taking a small step back toward the edge of the promontory. "I'm not sure what home is anymore. What happened to the Shire after we left? Orthanc isn't my home, never was, nor Frodo's."
I held very still. "I'll take you wherever you like, Sam. Brave Sam. Samwise the Hero. Look at you, preserving the Ring in the very heart of darkness and fire, preserving it for me. Did you lay Frodo on the altar?"
"No." He had something in his fist, and it occupied most of his attention. "I didn't. He was resting there when I came in. Saw him running in the tunnel I did, and then he was laying like that asleep. Didn't seem right, but I picked it up. I picked it up to finish what we were supposed to do."
"Sam," I said, bending all of my will upon him, "give the Ring to me." What he contemplated could not be, not when ascendency was so near. But the Hobbits had all proved uncannily proof against manipulation, whether by the Ring or any other power, and my attempt to shape Sam's mind alarmed him so much that he took another pace backward, nearly at the edge.
"Don't!" I stretched forward without thinking, and Sam took that as a final threat. His jaw firmed, and he slung his fist back over the drop, opening it, and out flew the Ring. My mind was empty, and all my will molded to one purpose, either the Rings or mine, desire seized me in the instant his arm moved, and my feet were as light as wings, carrying me to the verge so that the moment his hand opened I was already there and reaching, reaching.
The cool metal was wrapped by my fingers, and triumph filled me. But I had knocked Sam aside in my haste, and gone too far, stretching almost horizontal, balanced on the edge of my toes. The red-yellow refulgence of the Crack of Doom loomed before me, and it grew and grew as I fell.
There was a creaking, the cry of iron and steel, and the whoosh of vast canvas wings. A heartbeat I fell, and another, no more, before golden talons plucked me from the air. The clockwork dragon dove over the jut of rock and curved under it, more than enough heat in the pumping thermals to grant lift to its wings. Its flexuous body completed the arc under the promontory and climbed back over the opposite lip, carefully cradling me in one claw.
I was deposited before the altar where Frodo slept and Sam cowered, fearing either me or the dragon, likely both. Sauron, alive again in the flickering topaz, ripped Aeglos from his own throat and dropped it to the ground as if it were of no consequence.
His voice filled my head, no longer the melodic piping of a device, but the booming organ of his forge hot soul.
(BEHOLD YOUR OWN HAND, LUTHIEN.)
"Why do you call me that?" Even as I questioned, I did as he said, my fingers clutched tightly around something, not the Ring, but a little pebble, smooth and cool, but of no consequence.
"What is this?"
(A NECCESITY. I COULD NOT RISK THE ring ON SUCH A GAME)
"A game? I don't understand."
(LUTHIEN. MY LUTHIEN. YOU WILL UNDERSTAND SOON ENOUGH)
His voice was the striking of hammer on anvil. I held my head against the ache.
(AH. YES. MY APOLOGIES.)
"Is this better?" Frodo said, sitting up, and Sam gasped with wonder.
"Master!" Sam cried in joy, climbing the altar himself to take hold of his friend. Frodo responded by striking him with the back of a hand, sending the other Hobbit sprawling on the stone. "Silence," he said. "Your companion is no more."
"What? Frodo? Why?" Sam was scrabbling back up, too confounded to take offense, until Frodo glared at him again and the soft pools of his eyes changed into hard yellow stones with crimson hearts.
Sam fell back as if this had been a blow harsher than the first.
"Is this better?" Sauron asked me again.
"In a manner of speaking." I was at a loss. If I went for the spear, he could just possess the dragon again, at best I would only kill Frodo, and I still didn't know where he had hidden the Ring. If Sauron was to be beaten, it was not Aeglos that could be the means, but only as a contest of wills, and whoever held the One would be the stronger. Trying to divine its location, I sued for time.
"Why did you call me Luthien?"
"Because names are no more or less than titles, as I said, mere reflections of the truth. You were made in the image of her whom I loved, and so I call you by that name."
"Loved? The Abomination does not love." Where was it? Could it have been lost in the darkness of the tunnel? Did Legolas take it up before they entered? I eyed his body, where might he have stowed it if he had?
"It was a different age," Sauron said. "And I admit, when I had her in my grasp I thought only of making a present of her to Morgoth. It was later, much later, when I made the Ring for her and she rejected me."
"You don't need to search for it," he said, "it isn't with the Silvan." Frodo-Sauron reached into his mouth and produced the Ring as if by parlor magic. It flared white in the glare of the Heart of Doom.
"It was always for you."
"That isn't right," I said. "Luthien gave up her immortality for Beren Erchamion. She died a mortal long before you tried to trick Celebrimor."
"Tried to trick?" Frodo-Sauron was amused. "Is that how they tell it under the eaves of Imladris? He didn't keep the forging of the Three to himself because he suspected Annatar of treachery, he did so out of Elven greed, his lust for the craft. None but him could have a hand in the creation of his masterpieces. The Rings of Mortals and Dwarves he left to others, and I was free to meddle. But the One Ring, that I had created in part in a previous Age. Ring Lore has been within my purview since I was an apprentice under Aule. It isn't as if I forgot the craft under Morgoth, but Elven poetasters do not write songs of the exploits that are not pertinent to their kind."
"But you made a ring for Luthien?"
"Not a ring; the Ring. This Ring." He held it up. "It has been improved by its connection to the others, but it was always central to my power, and I kept it with me. She was unequalled among the First Children. Her voice, unrivalled among singers. I wanted her for my own, but she loved a Mortal, and would not be swayed. Like so many of your kind, she saw the Shadow as the Enemy of, rather than a complement to the Light."
"You are going to tell me you are not evil?"
The smile fell away, and there was something like regret in the terrible radiance of his topaz eyes. "No. I have no intention of lying to you, Undomiel. What I desire cannot be brought about by lies. Not any longer. If it is evil to corrupt the intent of Iluvatar, then I am evil. If it is evil to torture, to murder, and to plunder; then by that measure I am evil as well. I sometimes take joy in the suffering of my enemies, not always, but I sometimes do. And I have laughed at the downfall of those higher than I. Whether or not I am evil is no concern to me, all that concerns me is whether you will accept my Ring."
I swayed, unsure. "You are offering it to me?"
"I am," he held it out. "Take it. It belongs to you."
The lust that had nearly cost me my life was no longer in evidence. The Ring burned white in his hand, and the soul of Sauron extended out from Frodo's little frame like a golden cape that fell down over the altar and the end of the stone outcrop.
"Why do you offer it to me?"
"Because you are ready. Because it is yours. I wore it myself in the last Age because there was no one worthy of standing at my side. You are everything that Luthien was not. All her beauty and art, and more, your heart knows the rhythms of Discord. It will all be different this time, our kingdom will sweep out over Middle Earth, and then the true work can begin."
"The true work?"
"I sent you the knowledge in dreams. The map in Barad-Dur is real. The Burned Man stands against me in the East, but he is only an obstacle, like Gandalf and Gondor in the West. The true foe of all creation, of the Shadow and the Light, exists further to the south."
"Ungoliant, the Hunger."
Okay, so I'm just going to go into the whole thing.
I dropped out of high school, and a couple of years later I was in prison for robbing banks. It wasn't until I was in my twenties that I was diagnosed as bipolar and started seeking and participating in treatment and taking medication. After nearly 13 years in prison, I was granted a conditional pardon by the Governor of Virginia, and my sentence was reduced to time served.
While I was incarcerated, I was published by REED Magazine, CURA, and the Carolinian. My work appeared in several PEN Anthologies, and I was awarded seven different prizes in various categories by the PEN Prison Writing and Justice Program.
I'm currently working with Shadow Alley Press to publish my Gamelit novels, and I one day hope to be able to support myself through my writing. Until then, I work at Subway.