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Fangorn Forest (RPG) edited by Mathron

Note: The Fangorn Forest RPG was started in Entmoot's RPG forum on December 16th, 2000, by Elbreth of Carhouth. It lasted until February 13th, 2001. Elbreth, Mathron, Lief Erikson, Sauganast, Morkhon, and Xivigg contributed to the tale. It was transferred from the board to an HTML document by Mathron. The line breaks denote a change in player. Enjoy!

The Elven archer sat atop a great stone, Fangorn stretched out behind her. Her feet dangled over the edge of a precipice, below which gurgled a clear river.
"Dania," she heard a deep, rumbling voice behind her. "They are calling the Entmoot now, we should join them."
Dania sighed, "I know Narsh, I'm coming." Sliding herself down from the rock, she straightened the longbow across her back, and followed Narsh to the clearing where some of the Ents had already begun to gather.

Somewhere in the midst of Fangorn, under the murky skies of twilight and under the shadows of the great trees, a figure stepped out of the darkness. It stopped, took a pause, and straightened up, looking about. Had anyone been there to watch, they would have seen a figure, covered in black, with a large widebrimmed hat, a man no more than a silhouette in the dusk. Had anyone been there to listen, they would have heard the whispered words, "Well, that was lucky... no side effects-". Had anyone been there, they would have seen the form stiffen, drop to the ground and convulse for a short while, with muffled curses drifting on the wind. After a while, the figure stopped shuddering, and got back up, muttering something about "delayed reactions", and then, with another glance around, retreating into the muffled shadows of the wood, vanishing from the sight of anyone watching.
But only the trees saw and heard him. Of course, in this place, that was enough...

"You lie!" Unvar grabbed the scruff of the man's shirt and
drew him forwards.

"No! Honestly, my lord, nothing that you've described is in the possession of my master!"

Unvar looked at him for a long moment. "Shall we check?" He asked with a cold smile, "And see if your master is as honest as you claim?"

The guard's eyes flickered briefly between Unvar and the dark hallway as he weighed his options. His master might kill him for having allowed his chamber to be ransacked, but if he resisted, death was far more certain.

"As you wish, my lord," he said, his voice quivering with fear.

Unvar grasped the doorhandle, but the door was locked. Hardly unexpected. This only increased his determination and heightened his expectations. In fifteen seconds, the door was reduced to splinters and he was in. An object as large as the one he was looking for would be difficult to hide. And it would be easy to find if his master was using it as often as Unvar suspected. He started with the largest compartments of the desk, and when this proved fruitless, took the whole desk apart. From there he proceeded to search every part of the room, stopping for neither weapons, battle trophies, nor valuables. In the end he was back to square 1. Nothing.

He cursed, but even as he did his mind started turning over the other possibilities. Obviously Mordin had moved it to another location. That left two possibilities. Either he was moving his headquarters and took it with him, or he intended to give it away.

Unvar's heart filled with doubt with a very definite tinge of fear at that possibility. No. He must not have given it away. Mordin didn't know what it did, but he wouldn't have given something away that was always kept in such value by Unvar's family. Not unless he had run out of options.

But Unvar would take it back. Even if he had to fight Mordin and his men to the death. Only Unvar had real power. Not any of these other petty nobles who had broken the fleet into so many different factions.

Unvar climbed up to the topmost tower and looked out. He could see a dozen different towers from here, the homes that the different nobles held as they struggled to retain their private niches of power. Along the coast were the ships, the Black ships of Umbar. They covered the coast, hundreds of them, dotting the sea. All well equipped forces, ready to pounce on unsuspecting shipping. If only they could find the unity they needed they would do it. And in him they'd find that strength again.

"Here we are."

Morund looked up and carefully scanned the area. "You must be wrong. There isn't anyone in sight."

"No. It's hard enough normally to tell precisely in this open sea, but this is obviously the marked spot. See that coral rising out of the sea there?" The sailor asked, pointing. "Where else in the ocean are you going to find a duplicate of that?"

"Then where are they? Answer me that," said Morund, the edge of scorn in his voice showing just what he thought of the sailor's sea knowledge.

"I can't tell, sir. Perhaps on the other side of the coral," he suggested doubtfully.

Just at that moment, the sea spat out foam, an ever-widening cascade of water moving out from one spot. In the center was a white ship with a pure white sail, contrasting sharply with the black sailed ship, owned by a notorious Corsair of Umbar. As the ship knifed through the water towards him, Morund found his gaze locked on the single person standing at the prow. The man was tall, with a wide brimmed hat and brilliant white clothing. The gentle clunk as the ships touched sides brought Morund to his senses, and he was embarrassed for showing such open-mouthed astonishment. After all, this was the leader of the High Council of wizards in Middle Earth. He could probably pull off a much bigger stunt than he just had with ease.

"I have come a long way to meet you, Morund, my friend. It has taken me a long journey, and yet you promised me it would be worth my while," Saruman said, his voice gently soothing Morund's worries.

"Well, I'm so pleased that you could come. Yes, I promise you it'll be worthwhile. You see, there's this particular object that I think has a great deal of magic in it. I have no knowledge of such things, but you being a wizard, I thought that you could maybe teach me how to use this object. I'll pay you well, of course," He said when he saw the stern look Saruman's eyes. But this second seemed only to make it worse.

His voice lost all pretense of friendship. "I have come on a long journey to meet you, thinking it is something important, and you say that you desire me to test a item that might be magical for you! Don't you think I have better ways to use my time than this?"

"It's more than that," Morund quickly said, trying desperately to appease the wizard, at the same time wondering what different types of torture he might choose to inflict on him as penance. He quickly picked up the item and held it up for Saruman to see.

All wrath disappeared from Saruman's eyes, replaced by a sudden and keen interest. Saruman remained still for several long moments, as Morund waited with bated breath.

"It's a fraud," Saruman announced at last. "Similar to a very powerful magical item that I've once seen, but no, this is a fraud."

Morund didn't know whether to be disappointed or relieved.

"However, I know that it can be dangerous to those who attempt to use it. Give it to me, and I'll test it."

The voice was persuasive, and before Morund knew what he was doing, he'd placed the object in Saruman's hands. The two ships parted, Saruman's ship drawing away from the Corsair vessel as if by magic.

Saruman held the object in his hands, caressing his new treasure. It was the palantir of Orthanc, which had long ago been stolen by a Corsair raid, and presumed lost. Now, it was given back, and it would be used. Oh, yes, this he could definitely put to use.

Dania hurried to her position in the Entmoot. They had conscripted her help, because of her knowledge of what was going on, though she knew little enough of this subject.
One by one each of the Ents took a turn in describing what they had seen or felt, and as the hours crept by, it was obvious there was something amiss. Dark men creeping about where men had feared to tread for centuries, an odd feeling in the general atmosphere, the world seemed to be waiting for something, but nothing good could come of this.
Finally, late into the night, it was Dania's turn to speak. She had been taught some of the language of the Ents, enough to speak haltingly to them, and answer their questions. She told of the seemingly random attacks on Elven patrols, no one was ever really seen, but they were human. It was Dania's theory that they were attempting to make a diversion for something else, and it seemed to her that it was working. None of the other Elves believed her, however, and until now she had gone nowhere with her ideas. The Ents took this news into consideration. Dania was permitted to leave, while the Ents discussed these issues long into the night.

A squirrel sitting a foot away would not have noticed the figure sitting in the dark, watching the ent gathering from the hilltop. Pure chance had let him happen upon them, and even more luck from stumbling into the meeting and being caught. But then, Malagar had always had his share of lucky breaks. Understanding what was being discussed, however, was not one of then. His vast amounts of studies and lore of middle-earth had given him knowledge that ents existed - more than most knew - but little more of their culture.
Upon seeing the elven girl leaving the gathering, he crept along behind her. Few have the skill to avoid being detected by keen elven senses and wariness - but Malagar was one of them. Finally, on one of his many impulsive moves, he decided to introduce himself.
Creeping a bit ahead of the elves, he slips out in front of their path, swirling his garb about, and awaiting them to approach, fiddling a bit with his appearance in the few moments left to him.
When Dania spots him, he will bow deeply, removing a large browed bright yellow hat from his head and flourishing it before him. His cloak - this a bright orange - flutters about him as he straightens and replaces his hat, saying, with a grin, "Greetings, fellow travelers! I am glad to find others about in these dark woods - indeed, I feared I was the only being about save the trees and woodland creatures. If I may make your acquaintance, my name is Malagar D'Orthand - but please simply call me Mal." Mal ends his speech with a charming smile, opening his hands wide in supplication, and also revealing no weapons apparently carried on his form.

Meanwhile, to the south of the borders of Fangorn there was a battle going on. Findaluin y'Citelo and his small army of knights, archers, and spearmen were fending off a group of orcs from a raid that had gone horribly wrong. He had been sent out from Dol Amroth to assist Gondor and Rohan in their fight against Mordor, he and his band would go here and there waylaying groups of orcs. On this particular occasion he had surrounded a group of about 70 orcs and had engaged battle with them when a second group of orcs had come from behind.

Now, he and his army, were stuck on a hill with about 200 orcs all about them. All he had were 19 knights, 20 spearmen, and 11 archers. He had lost 5 knights, 4 spearmen, and one archer so far. The archers stayed on the peak of the hill and the rest formed a ring around them.

"Sir," said Atoile, Findaluin's second-hand, "there is news of a second band of orcs coming near from the east. If we do not do something to escape we will surely be defeated. I suggest--"

Findaluin cut him off, "Yes, I know what you would suggest. That the knights and spearmen break through the orc barrier, leaving the horseless archers here on top. But first we must speak to the archers of this."

And so it was agreed, the archers would stay on top while the rest broke through the barrier. As night fall began the horsemen prepared for the escape. All wearing black cloaks and dark blue capes, they were no easy target to see in the night. So they would not be spotted till they were close to the orcs.

The men crept silently closer to the orc bands, and then the signal was made. A deafening trumpet rang out and the archers let loose their arrows. Findaluin's sword flashed in the fires of the orcs as he decapitated one orc after another. And then they were free and riding like the wind towards the safety of the Fangorn forest.

The orcs raced after the horsemen with a fiery determination. And then, when the Findaluin's army thought they would make they saw the second band of orcs coming from their left to cut them off. About five spearmen broke off to slow the orcs down. They succeeded, but only through death.

The horsemen fled deeper and deeper into the forest and the orcs followed. And then, all of a sudden, they burst through some trees and were in the middle of the Entmoot. All the horsemen stopped and stared.

Dania looked closely at the new, brightly colored, personage before her. An automatic reaction at being surprised, her hand felt for her dagger. But the moment she realized she had done so, her hand dropped again.
"Greetings, Mal. My name is Dania Elfin," she answered with a slight bow of her own. "This is my travelling companion, Narsh." Narsh remained silent, but also bowed his head in respect.
"Is there anything we can do to help you?"

It was night at the shores of Harad Coast. Unvar walked across the beach, his hands behind his back, a frown of agitation on his brow. Tonight was the night when his bid for power went into play. He looked up, staring intently at the string of towers. He saw nothing unusual. Of course. His men were much to careful to allow someone's gaze to detect them. Only if someone knew precisely where they would be would they notice. Unvar's keen vision finally picked up a movement. The thin line of men carefully climbing along the ivy towards the top finally became visible to his eyes. It was probably time that he returned to his tower. It would soon be too dangerous to be walking the beaches alone. He hurried back to his tower and climbed the wall.

>From the nearest tower he suddenly heard a shout of alarm, quickly picked up and repeated by dozens of other voices. Two towers down on the other side, a similar cry went up. Soon the sounds were picked up at every tower in the entire string. An hours later the sounds ended, and then there was only an ominous silence.

"Lovely lady, perhaps you could help me indeed!" Malagar clutches at his arm as if it pains him, then pulls his sleeve up to his elbow, and gives his bare arm to their sight.
"Do you see!?" he cries, in a bit of anxiety, then calms slightly, and goes on, "Or rather, not see... once my arm was adorned with an armlet, a great piece of jewelry, of great value to me. Yet it was lost, long ago, and now I seek it out... In any case, I have determined it found its way into this land, somewhere about these general parts, though I have still not truly pinpointed it. And, being a stranger to these parts, you may be able to help me find my way around to some extent - or at least direct me to one who could help me." With these words, Mal slides his sleeve back down, and gives another charming smile.

"Perhaps I could help you," a deep voice says from the shadows of the trees.

A man steps out, he is dressed in greens and browns that had blended perfectly into the forest. At his hip was a sword and over his back was slung a bow.

"I am Faradin, a Ranger of the north. I have traveled these parts before and have come back recently at the request of my friends the Ents.

I arrived in time to see the Entmoot ending and to see this man leaving from his watch over it. And shadowing you until he chose to make his presence known. Little did he know that he had his own shadow."

Mal gives a shrug and a sheepish grin at Faradin's words, and says, "Tis true, I watched the meeting of the Ent's, though it scarce benefited me, for their language is unknown to me. Still, I hope my behavior can be excused - I found myself in a strange land, little known to me, and was, of course, cautious. In truth, my movements were on instinct, not intentional - that is simply the way I have grown accustomed to moving, and was scarcely putting any effort into it. And I applaud the good ranger here for his skills." And here Mal gives a brief bow to Faradin.

"My lord requests terms for surrender. We are beaten, and grovel at your feet. We beg your mercy, and pardon for having attempted to usurp your true right to the title."

"Tell your lord that mercy will be granted him if he surrenders. He must order his men to receive orders only from me or my lieutenants."

"You are over generous, my lord," the messenger responded.

"Yes, I am. You are dismissed."

Unvar's smile faded as the messenger scurried away. "Now bring in Mordin's messenger," he ordered.

This herald's message was much similar. "And we beg your mercy, as you have given it to the other nobles," he finished.

"I will spare your lives, and even that of the slimy traitor himself, Mordin, on one condition."

"Yes?" the messenger asked, both hopefully and nervously.

"That Mordin give back what he stole from me. That which has been a part of my family for generations. GIVE ME THE PALANTIR!!!!"

The messenger's face paled, and he whispered, "Sire, I'm afraid I cannot do that. Mordin left by ship with this item, three days ago."

"Where did he go?" Unvar asked in a harsh voice, filled with tension and anger.

"He didn't tell us."

Unvar's roar was heard through the double doors, making the guards look at each other and nervously take a couple steps away. The doors exploded open and Unvar went through, a burning fire in his eye.

He turned his gaze on one of his lieutenants. "Ready the ships to sail. We're going on a journey."

The lieutenant stammered nervously and Unvar stormed past him. Then the lieutenant got a glimpse through the double doors. The messenger was lying on the floor, covered in his own blood.
The lieutenant gulped and hurried to carry out his instructions.

"Sir, a sail!"

Mordin frowned. Anyone seeing a single Corsair Ship alone might take the opportunity to eliminate it as revenge.

"A Corsair Ship. It's one of yours!"

For a moment Mordin felt relief. But then the next minute the relief slipped away, leaving only consternation. "What would one of my ships be doing here unless we were in trouble? Unvar may have taken my tower in my absence."

"Not one, sir, there are three ships!"

Mordin looked carefully and soon saw the ships, scything through the water towards him, rapidly catching up. Mordin yelled, his voice carrying easily across the water. "Stop and turn back, your lord, Mordin, orders it!"

The ships did nothing to alter course. As a matter of a fact, they may have sped up a little.

"Turn us around."

"But where will we go sir?"

"I don't care, just go!"

Their ship turned and moved away, gradually beginning to pick up speed, but their pursuers were already in range.
A cloud of flaming arrows and catapult boulders loosed from the ships, a third of them hitting their targets.

"To arms! To arms!" Mordin shouted, strapping on his sword and putting on his helmet and breastplate. A dart glanced off of his breastplate. "Bring our archers and return fire!"

"Get your swords ready, we're boarding her!" Unvar roared. A mad smile darted across his face as he looked at his prey. Just then it's mast toppled, wreathed in flame. The two ships touched sides and soldiers surged into Mordin's ship, Unvar at their head. Instantly he fell upon the first two, of Mordin's men, cutting them down in seconds. He left their bodies and whipped forward toward the upper deck where the enemy archers were picking his men off. Just then, a hail of arrows came from his two other ships, taking out a third of the Mordin's archers in the first flight. Unvar smashed into the upper cabin and quickly glanced around. He gradually began searching, room to room, looking for his target.

Mordin slashed down an attacker and then dashed upwards toward the upper section. He collided with someone coming down and fell back.

Unvar fell back and looked up. He had found his quarry. Mordin saw who it was and knew that running would not help him now. Unvar leapt forwards and struck. Mordin deflected the blade into the wall and jumped backwards down the hallway. Mordin gave a sideways sweep and missed, his sword clunking against the wall. With a swift movement, Unvar pinned the sword with his own and jumped in, grabbing Mordin around the neck with an iron grip. Then there was a fierce flash of pain in Mordin's arm and he crumpled against the deck, Unvar's blade pressed against his neck.

"Now, we can talk," said Unvar in a low voice, hissing between clenched teeth.

Mordin gasped for breath. "I'll answer all your questions. Only don't kill me. Spare me and my men."

"Where is the palantir that you stole?"

"I wanted to understand what it did, so I took it to a meeting place. That Coral outcropping yonder." He jerked his eyes to the side. "I wanted to meet a wizard who could tell me what it did."

"You've explained your reasoning. So you've found out what it does. Now where is it?"

Mordin tensed himself. "I met the wizard. It was Saruman the White, ruler of the high council. We have been deceived! He told me it was worthless, and dangerous to the user!"


"I gave it to Saruman."

Unvar's eyes turned into slits of fury, and the hand around his sword tightened. Mordin knew that this was the end. His good hand seized the hilt of his fallen sword and he swung to the side. But it was too late. Unvar slashed down and then stood. He climbed back up the stairs. The battle was over. He climbed back into his ship.

As Findaluin stood staring at the ents and the ents staring at them the orcs came crashing through the trees in fury. Then the ents and men had an understanding; kill the orcs.

At first, the orcs did not even see the ents and brought there full force down upon Fin's army. The men were nearly helpless against such an onslaught, about half the men were killed before the ents took control. The ents were working the orcs over but there were just too many of them, and the orcs continually assaulted the men. Findaluin was engaged in battle with two large orcs when his horse was slain and he was flung from his horse. And then the orc brought his axe down upon his neck....

Findaluin lay there knocked out since his helmet had flown off when he was launched from his horse, he had struck his head on a rock. An ent was looking straight down at him, Fin scuttled backwards and looked around, his gold helmet was lying beside him and his black cloak lying beside him. His gold platemail was dented and his blue cape beside him. Then he saw it, and struck like a knife through his heart. All his men were dead, he was the last one. At that, he looked at the ent and ran off into the forest.

Faradin looked up at a faint sound.

"Fighting, at the Entmoot!! Follow me!!"

He turned and sped down the path towards the meeting place of the Ents.

Mal looks curiously in the direction Faradin runs off, then cocks his head, listens for a moment, shrugs, and runs after him.
His cloak a bright red flash behind him, he is certainly no longer hard to spot in the woods, as he nimbly dodges around trees toward where the noise has grown louder.

"Sorry, sire, but we can travel no further along the river. It gets to narrow at the bridge. We'll have to continue on foot."

Unvar cursed under his breath, but nodded shortly. "Very well. Prepare a large ground force. If Mordin was telling the truth and Saruman does possess the palantir, it could well take all of my skills and a great deal of military might to convince him to part with his newly found treasure."

"Yes, sire," the captain said and immediately began issuing out the orders.

This would be a hard trek. First they would have to find Isengard. Next they would have to remove the palantir, and that could well mean having to destroy its owner. But Unvar was up to these tasks.

"Sire, we're ready to move."

Unvar snapped out of his reverie and looked out at the baggage train which had assembled and the corsairs, standing in their motley array. Unvar leapt off of the ship and into the row boat. The slaves immediately bent their bags to their oars and pulled the boat swiftly to the land. Unvar sloshed through the muddy water until he reached the bank, and climbed up. After a quick inspection, he saw that the force was ready. After giving some quick orders to the ship captain regarding the fleet, he walked to the head of the army.

"Ready? Good. ON!!!"
And thus, the march began.

Without a word, Narsh and Dania sped after the others down the path, and on the Entmoot. When they arrived, it was nearly too late. What battle there was, was short-lived. No men seemed to yet live, which greatly saddened them.

Dania could hardly even recognize the place she'd left just a short while ago. Bodies of the dead and dying were scattered everywhere, both those of men, and of orcs. Twilight shadows were creeping in through the trees, approaching one of the Ents, Narsh asked permission to clear a place and start a small fire, which he did.

Dania walked in and out through the area, searching thickets for any orcish faces who might have been yellow-bellied enough to hide. She sighed. Finding no one, she began helping remove the beastly bodies from the Forest. The Ranger had started a bon-fire, and was already throwing the bodies onto it. A stench had already begun to fill the air, which the wind had mercifully begun to blow away, along with the oily black smudge of smoke.

Unvar and his men reached the gates of Isengard without a fight or the smallest bit of resistance. However, this merely made the men anxious. The lack of opponents unnerved these men, who lived by muscle and brawn. As they had neared the gates, some of them had begun to whisper to each other of the dangers of approaching the leader of the white council in his stronghold. When Unvar caught word of these sentiments he stamped them out vigorously and efficiently.

Now, he looked up at the tall walls and strong gates in awe. The sun beat down on the back of his neck and sweat dripped down from his hairline. He quickly brushed it away with the back of his hand and peered farther forward. Beyond the walls he could see a pure white tower rising upwards, its walls sheer and smooth, without a dent or crevice in them. Impossible to scale, and probably protected by magic that Unvar didn't know of. This was where his palantir was held. A frown of uncertainty crossed Unvar's face. None of the corsair towers came remotely close to this great. And Unvar didn't have the siege knowledge to take it by force. But Saruman didn't know that.

Murmurs began to grow behind him, as the men shuffled uneasily at their leader's apparent uncertainty. Unvar straightened and drew his sword. He smote three resounding blows against the door, leaving three long white scratches on the polished oak.

"Open up!" Unvar bellowed. "Open, and bring forth your leader!"

For a long moment no response came. But then, a strange and slightly rebuking voice floated out from the battlements. "Who is it that hits so harshly against my door? What offense have I done that deserves an armed force to come and make demands?"

The voice took Unvar off guard, and for a moment he was sorely tempted to apologize. But only for a moment. Then his heart hardened. The voice was strangely persuasive, and made him eager to please. But this could only be a ploy of the wizard. When had Unvar ever apologized to anyone? Or asked forgiveness? He had never even been tempted to say such a thing.

"Your offense is great, decrepit fool! You have had dealings with those who stole from the Lord of the Corsairs of Umbar, and have taken that which he stole. Give back the palantir, and we will forgive your part in the affair. Refuse, and you will be thrown from the highest pinnacle of your tower, as the rest of your castle smolders in ruin around you."

Unvar's men shuffled unhappily at this, but a blazing glare from their lord silenced all opposition from his own men.
Then Saruman finally appeared in person on the wall, looking down on Unvar and his host.

"You are mistaken, my Lord Unvar. This palantir of which you speak is not here. Neither me nor any of my men have had any contact with those who stole it. However I have many friends in many different places, in sky, and ocean as well as on ground. And my spies did report seeing a meeting between one Mordin of the Corsairs . . ."

Unvar's attention jerked back to the speaker.

". . . and Findaluin, an Elven Lord."

Saruman's eyes looked keenly down on Unvar, as he quietly pressed his power against Unvar's wavering and undecided mind.

Unvar's eyes closed as his thoughts struggled for relief against the oppression that Saruman was subtly inflicting.
He slowly opened them again, and looked up at the old wizard, staring down at him like a hawk.

This man was hard to get a hold of, Saruman thought grimly, as he struggled to keep on his hold of the other's mind. All I have to do is hold on for a few moments longer . . .
Then he felt the release.

"Where is this Findaluin?"

Saruman breathed a silent breath of relief. "Last I heard he was personally overseeing an Elvis patrol outside Fangorn, a forest a short ways from here. My men will give you instructions."

He quickly glanced down on his side of the wall and nodded to one of his men. The soldiers unbarred the gate and one of Saruman's servants went out. The man held a brief discussion with Unvar, involving detailed instructions and information, which Unvar's keen mind quickly seized a hold of and memorized.

Unvar and his host began to move away, but as they did, Unvar called one of his lieutenants over.

"Yes sir?"

"Get one of our best spies and have them watch Orthanc. I don't entirely trust the old conniving wizard, and there's certainly a possibility that he's lying."

"Then why are we leaving?"

"Because as you know, our army is in no state to conduct a siege on a fortress like Isengard, and even if we did take it, we could never get into that inside tower of Sarumans. Plus, he is the greatest wizard of the high council, and they hold to a strong moral code, and have a great belief in upholding their own personal honor. No, I think it much more likely that these elves are the ones who took it. They like this kind of magic, and remember, orcs were in the beginning made out of elves. They are crafty and cunning, but this Findaluin will not stand up to our force." Unvar's mouth became a thin line and his eyes narrowed. "He shall pay for this."

Faradin looked around at the scene and then starting pacing and thinking aloud. He found it helpful in situations like this.

"Elves and orcs. There are many more dead orcs so their forces had to be the greater. But what would bring them this deep into Fangorn? They consider the deep forest as deadly to them as Lorien is.

"Survivors!" he exclaimed loudly and heads, both elven and entish snapped up around the clearing. "There have to be survivors somewhere."

"I'm not a sage. I'm not a teacher. I am just a storyteller." Robert Jordan

Findaluin raced deeper and deeper into the forest not caring where he ended up. All his men had died including some of his greatest friends. All this time he had been carrying his cloak and helmet, he put them on, and leapt up into the tree. He had a feeling there were people after him.

Unvar looked down, surveying the battlefield. It had been tidied up a bit since happening, but not well enough to avoid showing that some quick and brutal fighting had taken place here.

"What's the report?"

"There were a few elvish survivors, but it was most definitely an orcish victory. The elves were on horseback and fled into the woods, pursued by orcs."

"I see. Then we will pursue them there. Get the men ready to move."

"Yes, sir."

As the force was gathered from its various positions on the battlefield, Unvar walked over to the edge of the forest. "Where have you concealed my prey?" he asked it quietly, shaking his head.

A branch quivered. Unvar felt the unpleasant feeling of someone being watched, but unable to detect the person who's watching. He scanned the trees carefully. No. There was no one there. He must have been mistaken. He turned to go. But just as he did, another movement caught his attention. No, there was no one there. It was just the same old tree that he'd seen earlier, leaned over towards another tree. Then, Unvar froze. A moment ago, the tree had been a couple feet closer. And come to think of it, it hadn't been leaning either. Unvar stared piercingly at the tree. Now, he could see what almost looked like two eyes. Unvar's eyes traveled down the tree, and now he could discern that the tree actually seemed to have a body. An old, gnarled, wooden body, but it resembled a human one in several characteristics. There was the nose, eyes, mouth, a pair of arms . . .

Unvar stepped back. It was a living tree. And now that he looked more closely, he could see three of these trees, among the normal ones. Unvar walked back to his men.

"Ready to go?" he asked.


"Very well." Then, in a quieter voice, he informed his men of the presence of the living trees. "So be careful. Try not to do anything that will alert their suspicion. I'd hate to have to find out what kind of combat skills those things have.
"All right. Let's go."

"At least one, possibly more of these elves must have survived the attack," Faradin said excitedly.

One of the ents stepped forward. "We have found one helmet among the dead which has no owner."

"One helmet too many," Faradin said. "No one in the thick of battle would take a helmet from the field and bring it with them. That metal cap came off a head. And that person must be still alive in the forest somewhere."

"One more thing," the ent rumbled on. "The helmet was of a fancier, or more ornate type than the others. Possibly from a higher in rank person. None of the dead bodies appear to have been high in rank. It may be that it's their captain who is still alive."

"Quite likely," Narsh nodded.

Suddenly, Faradin stiffened, and leapt sideways into the bushes.

A half second later, Unvar stepped into the clearing. The reaction was immediate, weapons were drawn and eyes quickly glanced around. They were surrounded on all sides by armed corsairs.

Unvar regarded them with interest. Then, when he saw their weapons, a hint of amusement entered his face.

"My greetings to you," Unvar said. "Might I have your names, and reasons for being here? I mean you no harm."

Dania raised an eyebrow and crossed her arms. "Then what is your reason for having us surrounded with armed men?"

Unvar smiled coldly at the impudent elvish girl. "Perhaps I should amend my statement. I mean you no harm, as yet." He glanced around the Entmoot. "An interesting place you have here. Perhaps we should sit down, and all of us can discuss our reasons for being here."

Faradin watched from the woods quietly. This man was a Corsair, perhaps even descended from the Black Numenorians(spelling). He may be telling the truth but Faradin did not trust him.

He slowly drew an arrow from it's quiver and fitted it to his bowstring, if he intended treachery he would be the first one to die.

Mal considered slipping into the shadows when the corsairs approached, but having already met with suspicion for his silent motions, decided against it. With a grand bow and a sweep of his broad brimmed hat, he said to Unvar, "Greetings, good sir. My name is Malagar D'Orthand - though I prefer to be called simply Mal. And as for my reason for being here, why, that is quite simple. I am here, in this forest, because I am new to this region of the world, and found myself a bit lost. I am here, in this section of the world, looking for some lost property of mine."

Obviously a lie. In Fangorn, in the place where a battle had just taken place, and right in the Unvar's path. Unvar looked again at the elves. He had thought that they were more likely to give information than their scarlet clad companion. They were quite possibly even a part of Fingaluin's company. What other reason would there be for elves to be in Fangorn, a forest far away from much and unimportant to many. Unvar glanced back to Malagar, if that really was his name. But he obviously had something to hide as well. This could get interesting.

"Very well." He looked back at the elves. "And you are?"

Sitting in his tree, Findaluin noticed they were rather thick and close together branches. So he decided to climb through the branches back to where the battle was to reclaim a few items he no longer had on him like his shield and helmet. Climbing through the trees branches was a rather slow and tedious job. But as he neared the battle scene he hear people conversing, so he dropped out of the tree to the concealment of the bushes. He crept forward very slowly to the edge of the clearing and eavesdropped on the conversation.

Narsh glanced at Dania, who was looking closely at the stranger. She looked back at him and shrugged. It could do no harm to tell. They couldn't have easily gotten this deep into the forest anyway without learning of the ents existence.

"We traveled to this place to tell the ents of a danger which has come to their country. Men have come and have been invading areas that long were kept hidden, and have been trespassing in areas that long were kept apart. We were sent to warn them."

"Ents?" Unvar asked. Then understanding filled his face and he glanced up with a smile to his lieutenant. "Ah, our tree friends."

A slight rustle of branches caught his attention momentarily and he glanced past the two elves, focusing on the bushes at the edge of the clearing. His eyes quickly looked back to the elves.

"Interesting," he said, leaning forward. "And why is Findaluin interested in the ents?"

Findaluin was having trouble hearing the conversation. The guard force which encircled the people kept him from getting to close, although his half elven ears still could hear a good deal better than most people. The mention of his own name caught him by surprise. Had they been sent to look for him? But by the looks of the men, he doubted that they could have friendly intentions. He'd never heard of Dul Amroth getting involved with people of this sort.

Findaluin pulled himself a little closer, straining to hear better.

Narsh and Dania exchanged glances of puzzlement. "Who is Findaluin?" Narsh ventured.

Unvar's expression hardened. "Don't trouble with denying it. You two are the survivors of this orc attack. But where is your commander?"

He rose to his feet and began to circle them. "I already know what your mission is. Your patrol across the edge of Fangorn. Quite unfortunate that the orcs happened across your path." He looked at them fiercely. "Although perhaps it is fortunate. It is just, at the very least."

What was the corsair talking about? From the blank expressions on the faces of Dania, Narsh, and Malagar, they had as little idea as he did.

Faradin still held his bow at ready, but now he was beginning feel a little curious as well.

"But tell me something," Unvar continued, "Who is your real master. I know that Findaluin isn't really the one. Who is it who is higher up? The one who really has the strength and ability to use it?"

"I don't know what you're talking about . . ." Narsh began.

"Don't lie to me!" Unvar roared, seizing Narsh by the throat and slamming him against the ground.

Faradin pulled the arrow string taut, arrow aimed for Unvar's heart.

Fingaluin strained his ears to hear what was being said.

Unvar yanked Narsh's face up and hissed into his ear through gritted teeth. "I'm going to release the three of you. Go, and tell your master that he has three days." His voice rose to a roar. "And if it is not returned within that amount of time, I swear that I'll never rest until I have killed him!"

Dania glared at this strange warrior as he threw Narsh roughly to the ground again, the leather gauntlet on her hand taut as she gripped the handle of her dagger. It took only one glance to see that Narsh was ok, though he was rubbing his bruised neck rather ruefully.
"Your quarrel is not with us," Dania spoke above the chuckles of the ring of guards. "Narsh and I are independent, we work for no one lord or master. That we have been caught up in this battle was by accident, we heard the sounds of fighting and came to see if anything could be done. The Ents are peaceful, and enemies of no one, should they have been under attack we would have aided them."
Unvar sneered. "Liar!" he hissed. "You know very well what I am talking about. Had I the time, I would punish you for your insolence. But be sure to do as I said, three days. That is all. Your master knows what I mean."

Unvar took a deep breath. He was still angry, but now it was mainly at himself for his abrupt loss of control. Perhaps he had gone too far with this whole thing. He looked back at the elves again. There were two expressions on their faces, puzzlement and anger. The anger most especially coming from the elvish girl. She certainly had a strong spirit to resist. He supposed that was what had sparked him. He had had this pent up for a long time, waiting to explode on his victim. But he'd let it out at the wrong time. And now that he looked again, perhaps on the wrong people as well. There was still a distinct possibility that they weren't linked to Findaluin at all.

Think again, Unvar. It could still be that this entire thing is just a sham of Saruman's. If so, it was dreadfully out of character with the wizards. And Saruman was the leader of them. Still, there was something else behind all of this. Unvar almost felt . . . used.

He saw the elves were still looking at him.

"You may go," he said as he retreated back towards the main part of his host. "Your messenger will find me either at the original battlefield," he thought for a moment, "Or at Isengard. Come, men," he said, starting to move away. "By the way," he called over his shoulder as the elves turned to go. "You show promise, elf girl. It was through spirit very much like your own that I rose to the position I currently own."

Isengard, thought Findaluin, why would Saruman being looking for me? I have done no wrong, and why has he linked up with a person like this Unvar? It makes no sense, I think Saruman is up to something. Not only that, but he has changed, to send some one as rageful as this is not very wise.

And with that, Fin took off into the trees again but was tackled at the knees by a someone hiding in the trees with a bow. Fin was quick to jump to his feet and unsheathe his gleaming long sword with studded gems of red and green in the black handle.

Faradin put his hand to his sword hilt, but resisted the urge to draw it.

"You are the one that man seeks are you not?"

He saw the muscles in Findaluin's body tense and spoke quickly before he could do anything rash, "I have no intention of turning you over to him. I am a Ranger of the North, you should know we bear no love for the Corsairs. But perhaps you should tell us your story."

Taking a chance he turned his back and walked back to the clearing.

"It's not what your doing, but the idiotic way that you're doing it."

The traveler stood next to the captain of the ship
It was strange for the captain cause it was the first time in millennium that he actually take the sea. And he never could have though that he would see the middle earth again.

The traveler breath deeply the fresh air. It's been too long since the last time she'd been on the sea. When was it 2000, 3000, well she had long time ago stop trying to keep tract of the time. It took her that much time to convince Ingwe and Manwe to let her go. And now that she left Aman she already miss the glory of the valar, but seeing again the middle earth was worth almost anything.

She wasn't on a touristic trip, far from it, she was to investigate few strange happening that weren't report by the Istari. Of course at first no question were ask but as the time pass the need for someone else become urgent.

And their she was a proud elven lady born at the very beginning of the first age, going by the name of Syntia for this trip. It would be nice to feel the middle earth again.

Findaluin followed after Faradin calmly and continued past him to where his helmet sat. He picked it up, put it on, and then bolted back into the forest heading north.

The trio were quick to follow after him but soon lost site lost site of him. They stopped for a while to ponder over where Findaluin could of gone.

High up in a tree Findaluin was perched, daring only to breath, but nothing more. Then, when he was sure that his pursuers had ran past this tree and further he came back down and headed off west.

Night fell like a dark shadow across Fangorn Forest, bringing slumber to the eyes of those who toiled within. Unvar paced his tent, his face an image of both anxiety and impatience. He had laid down all his cards, but now he was simply waiting for his enemy to act next. It had turned out that normally the reason he succeeded wherever he put in effort was because of swift movement and hard cunning. First came the making of the plan, and next he hit his enemy as hard and as swiftly as possible, preferably in a dozen different places at once.

The tent flap opened and two people entered.

"Slythre and Ogravigan, I have a new mission for you both."

The figures remained motionless.

"There are two elves in the forest. But it is not them who I desire you to find."

"You already set your hounds on them?" Slythre asked in her low, quiet voice.

Unvar winced. "Yes, those I sent were both capable and relatively experienced. However I'm afraid that's not going to be enough."

"What is it that you want us to do?" asked Ogravigan.

"Someone was watching our conversation in the forest. I'd like you to find out who it was and bring him back to me."

Unvar turned to Slythre. "And I'd like you to find and bring to me a man named Malagar. Or at least that is what he called himself. He's handsome, athletic, and clad in red, although that might have been altered by now. He lied to me at our meeting. Can you find him?"

She nodded silently. "What has he to do with this business?"

"He lied to me, and also . . ." he hesitated. "I believe he might be in league with Saruman. Possibly sent out to monitor the others. Find out about him."

"Yes, my Lord," she said, bowing her head. She wrapped her cloak around herself and slipped out the tent flap.

"Ogravigan, I believe that this watcher is in league with either Saruman or Findaluin. Finding him will help me either way. I know that with your magically enhanced sight, you can spy on people from great distances, and even see through objects."

"Only if I try really hard. It's difficult."

"But it will give you an advantage in your search. That is why I send you and not any other. Go, and do not fail me."

"My lord," he bowed and exited.

As the halfelf was discovered, and then fled into the forest, Malagar watched in amusement. In the confusion as the others chased after the halfelf - obviously the one called Findaluin, thought Mal - he took advantage of the moment to slip away from the elves and ranger, and think over these developments.

Once he deemed himself far enough from the others, who had probably yet to notice his absence in the chaos, he willed his clothes back to black, and as he settled down upon a log, he raked one hand through his long dark hair.
"Why must the simplest things be so difficult?" he rhetorically asked the air. He had hoped it would be simple, and he would arrive right at some long forgotten treasure trove, and could reclaim some of his lost items, and lost power. But, instead, he found himself in a forest, amidst fighting and wrapped up already in the intrigues of others.

"I am getting too old for this," he groaned, and conjectured on another piece of information - the name Isengard. Where he was he still did not know very well, but he did know the name of Isengard - he had very carefully checked what powerful beings still resided in Middle Earth, and the Istari where among them, so he knew a bit on Saruman, the head of the White Council. If his treasure was held by HIM... that would prove slightly tricky. Still, Mal never doubted he could retrieve it - but he was anxious, and not in the mood for challenges, as he had been in ages past.

Suddenly Mal became aware of an approaching figure. Though earlier he had been distracted - and he was still disgusted with himself for the ranger getting the better of him - he actively sent his senses out now, and felt the form silently moving through the trees a couple yards behind him. He felt like applauding her, for she moved with stealth a cat might envy, and had something about her that even blurred her in the way he looked upon her. Still, he left his physical body in a normal position, acting as though unaware of her - as most any mortal would be - and leaned back, stretching, and then affecting a start of surprise as a dagger appeared under his chin.

Remaining calm, but adding a slight tremor to creep into his voice, he said, "Can I help you?"

"Indeed," came the soft response, "My lord Unvar wishes to enjoy your company for a bit."

"Well, let none say Malagar D'Orthand would ever refuse the hospitality of a generous host," he responded, holding his hands out wide to show he was unarmed.

The dagger drew up, and gestured for him to rise, and he complied, slowly rising off the log, and turning to see a slim figure, with a cloak that the eyes refused to focus upon, and long dark hair bound behind her. "Come with me, her low voice said, and Mal went before her to the camp of Unvar, wondering what had gotten him already tied up in other people's problems so soon...

The tent flap flipped open and two dark figures entered.

"Ah, Slythre, I see that you've brought our guest," Unvar said as he stepped from the shadows. "Please, take a seat," he said, motioning to a long bench. Unvar sat down on a chair facing him. "Now, Malagar, I'd like to know exactly what your business in this whole affair is. And doubtless you are also interested in why I am here." He leaned forward. "Perhaps it would be best if we both satisfied the other's curiosity. What were you doing in Fangorn? I'm more than just curious, I assure you. Are you working for Saruman?"

Ogravigan slunk through the forest. He glanced around briefly, his keen vision noticing twelve ents mixed in with the other trees. This clearing seemed to have many more of them than most other places. Interesting. I'll have to mention it to Lord Unvar. He glanced around, staring through leaves as if they didn't exist. Ah. Here is what he wanted. He had come very close to the edge of the clearing. The tracks were light, but for Ogravigan they were easy to see. He followed them a short way and then stopped in surprise. They joined with another set of tracks, and then the ground was marked with the obvious telltale marks of a struggle. But neither had died. The tracks both went back towards the clearing, and then sharply separated. The differences in the tracks were slight, but soon Ogravigan had discerned which were those of his quarry. The deepness that the toes had gone in showed that he'd been running.

Ogravigan strained his eyes, staring through the trees and leaves, looking hard in the direction the tracks had gone. Then he looked to the side, stared for a moment, and then smiled. There he was now, moving westward. It would take a while for Ogravigan to catch up. And once he did get close, he'd have to decide how to get close enough without being noticed. He'd probably have to make a long loop around to get in front of him. A very long loop. And then he'd have to be careful not to kill him in his ambush. He didn't think Lord Unvar would be interested in him bringing his quarry in dead.

Ah, if only he had Slythre's agility and quietness. She could have taken this one down with ease. But Ogravigan had years of experience on his side. He quickly moved forward, quickly gaining on his prey.

The ship was now on the anduin, a small fog and a touch of magic hiding it from the sight of everyone, even the dark lord wouldn't be able to truly understand who was coming, and before he had time to investigate she would be far and undetectable by anyone on the middle earth.

Only few of the maia still living could possibly know who she was and the other could only guess her true power.

In few hours she would again walk the middle earth and if everything went fine in less than a day she would talk with the ents and hopefully learn what's going on.

Malagar drapes himself onto the bench, and leans back slightly as Unvar questions him.

"Indeed, perhaps we can help each other in more ways than one," responds Mal, and continues, "As for myself, I do not serve Saruman, or even know overly much of him, save he is one of those of power still in these lands. From your tone I take it he is not a friend of yours as well, or if he is an ally, one you obviously look upon with suspicion."

Mal stops, and pauses, gazing more upon Unvar, a slight smile touching upon his lips, and then goes on to say, "I feel I can unburden my reasons here to you, for you seem to be an understanding man. Long have I been gone from these parts, but I lost an object of mine, a relic that has great value to me... I have been searching after it for many years now, and my travels led me here. At first I thought it might be in this forest, Fangorn, but now that I am here, I realize these treefolk, the Ents, would have little use for such a thing, and any unwatched item such as it would easily find its way into the hands of, of course, Saruman himself, as he is so nearby."

Now Mal straightens up, and folds his hands across his lean chest, saying, "So now, good lord Unvar, I shall say to you that if Saruman does indeed have the item I search after, I doubt he will willingly part with it, and thus, I will likely find myself opposed to him, whether he knows it or not. Whether you be his foe or ally, I reveal this to you - use it as you may." With that, Mal nods to Unvar, finishing his short tale.

Unvar's surprise flicked across his face only for a moment, but it didn't escape Malagar. "Your story is remarkably similar to mine," he said, straightening in his chair. "And I do not doubt it's truth. I myself am the commander of the Corsairs of Umbar." He looked at the roof for a moment, and then back down at his companion. "Obviously I wouldn't come this far out of my territory for any trivial reason. I owned a magical item as well. At the time I was not in complete control of Umbar, as my predecessors were. An unscrupulous corsair named Mordin stole the item, as he knew that it had magical properties. As I struggled to reconquer what was my own, this corsair met with an unknown person at a specified place in the ocean, between Harad and Middle Earth. The unknown person took the item from Mordin, and brought it back to Middle Earth. Before I killed him, Mordin told me that he'd given it to Saruman. I discovered Isengard, and was informed that his spies had witnessed the meeting between Mordin and Findaluin. I traced Findaluin here and . . ." Unvar's voice dropped off for a long moment.

"But now that I think about it, I cannot understand why I made that decision."

Malagar leaned forward. "Is it possible that Saruman used his magical power to influence you?"

Unvar's brow was creased in thought. "Perhaps. Yes, I believe that is quite possible." His expression cleared. "Yes, I'm almost sure that is what happened." He stood up. "Slythre, inform my captains that the force should prepare to move. Oh, yes, inform them that the chase for Findaluin has come to a halt, and those elves that they no longer have to fear for their lives."

An icy expression of anger flicked across his face as he looked off towards the north east. But it was gone when he looked back at Malagar.
"It appears that we both have business at Isengard. Perhaps we should go there together?"

Faradin looked around the forest and sighed in disgust and disappointment. "He's gotten away from us, and I'm not sure where he is. This is getting us nowhere!"

"I think I know where we may find some answers. I'm going to Isengard and ask Saruman what he knows of these doings. Surely a wizard and member of the White Council will be willing to aid a descendent of the men of Numenor."

Sauron's blazing eye was a beam of red in the blackness of Mordor. The sky was black, but through it, the eye could easily see the shape of a winged creature swooping downwards towards him. Hundreds of thousands of orcs and other evil creatures were camped around and inside Barad Dur. The creature swooped low over them, and glided upwards, landing before the lidless eye. The steed's owner dismounted, moved forward, and knelt on one knee, bathed in the red light of his master.

"Have you notified our servant outside Fangorn, and given him our palantir?"

"Yes, sire," hissed the Ringwraith, his glinting armor and pale, dead eyes, staring up into his master's fearlessly.

"It is a small price to pay, when in the end it shall cause one of our greatest enemies, Saruman, to fall into darkness. He already has begun to slide on his own accord, but this shall twist his loyalties against the Valar forever, and add the Corsairs of Umbar into our ever increasing army of darkness."

Syntia stop moving. She felt a dark presence, the attention of a powerful evil being, gazing toward Fangorn. The presence stay focus for few moment and slowly withdraw. She couldn't possibly have been detected, not yet, but it was unsettling. Important event were soon to happen and somehow the great forest was linked to it. The need to find the Entfolk become a priority. But soon she'll be walking under the mighty tree and the animals will hopefully help her in her quest.

An hours later she was walking under the tree. The forest was just like in her memory, wild, untamed, as it was when the first born awakened so long ago. Being in this place raise old memory long forgotten but still present in her mind. The few bird were signing undisturbed by her presence. Then the path she would take appear before her eyes. No one could possibly see it, it was present only in her mind, a souvenir from a time long gone. The path hasnít been tended in age, but she could see the same rock, undisturbed by the passage of time. Everything was different and yet nothing has really changed. She was walking peacefully in perfect symbiosis with her surrounding.

After few hours she reached her destination, the Entmoot. Of course everyone got their own definition of this place but to her it was only the Entmoot were she had passed day's talking with the Entfolk so long time ago. She slowly goes on her knee and open herself to the forest, silently summoning the Entfolk. As her sense stretch to the far limit of the forest she became aware of every life present within it. Squirrels, bird, bear all living in harmony, then she discern the Entfolk and their huorn companion, few of them were answering her call. She smile as she recognizes one of them. It would be good to talk with him again. Then she detect the other intelligent being present in the forest, two elfs and a human, they weren't very far from her, she would have to be careful. Then her attention was draw outside the forest, a weakened yet powerful being was near. She slowly retire her presence in the forest and then to her. She open her eyes and smile again. Thing could become interesting.

She start to meditate, seemingly unarmed and an easy prey yet really aware of her surrounding. She was waiting for the Ents.

Mal's expression remains implacable, but he nods, and says, "Your tale explains a great many things... and, indeed, the tales of Saruman I have heard do indicate he could easily muddle the minds of even the greatest men."

A thoughtful expression crosses Mal's face, and he glances up, as though peering elsewhere for a moment, than shakes his head, and continues, "Indeed, it seems our paths lie together, and undoubtedly we can both bring our strengths to bear to regain our lost possessions. Still, Saruman has reputedly much power himself, and we shall be wise to take all precautions we can in any dealings with him."

As Findaluin walked west, back to his home land, he had the feeling of being watched, and, if it made any sense, followed. So he made for a set of bushes that were a little over his height and hid in them.

His pursuer came walking by with a look of puzzlement on his face. He had been to worried about catching up with his prey and did not watch him carefully enough to see where he had gone. As he passed the bushes Findaluin jumped out and quick as lightening had a knife to his pursuers throat.

"Who are you and why are you following me?" were Findaluinís only questions.

"I was lost in the woods, and seeing you, decided that perhaps you could help me," Agravigan answered with fear in his voice.

"Do you think I'm fool enough to fall for that kind of ploy?" Findaluin asked. "I've felt your gaze for several minutes now."

Actually, Agravigan didn't expect that ploy to work. But, staring through the bushes a few yards away was Slythre. She apparently had followed after him. Must have accomplished her mission already and been sent here after him. He'd bought her the few seconds of time that she needed.

Slipping up behind Findaluin, she seized him around the neck with one arm, and slashed down on his sword arm with the other. Findaluin recovered from his surprise swiftly, grabbing her right arm with his left and pulling her downwards. Instantly she applied pressure to his throat, squeezing hard.

Findaluin began to see stars. But Findaluin had been trained for combat. A trained soldier, now that it came to this kind of thing, certainly had more practice and knowledge of this than Slythre. He reached for her face with his wounded right hand, and, grabbing her hair, pulled her over him and onto the ground. Her booted foot slammed into his chin, throwing him off. He came up a few seconds later with his sword in his hand. Only then did he really see his attacker.

Her hair had come loose and flowed freely behind her. She was wearing loose green clothing and a silver cloak. She held a dagger in her hand, but was already sheathing it.

Agravigan was on his feet now as well, armed with a short sword.

"No need, Agravigan," she said. "Your mission is changed, that's why I came after you."

Agravigan lowered the sword in disbelief. "Why?"

"It has been discovered that Saruman really was the thief. We're going to Isengard." She brushed her scalp gingerly with her hand, wincing. "You fight like an orc," she said to Findaluin.

Seeing both of his opponents now disarmed, Findaluin lowered his blade, but kept it in hand. "I fought in desperation," he said, as he wrapped a piece of cloth around his wrist for a temporary bandage.

"Come on," Slythre said, motioning Agravigan to follow her. They both disappeared into the woods.

The creature leapt over the wall and landed with a soft thud on the ground. Leaping forward through the night, it cleared the distance across the open territory in seconds. Quickly, it jumped against the wall and began to clamber up the tower of Orthanc, it's feet clutched to the wall, even though it was entirely smooth. Clambering up the tower, it reached the balcony and climbed in. He was in. Creeping along the floor, it entered the chamber.

Saruman wasn't in here. He was distracted on business, talking to his captains about the force from Umbar, and deciding what to do about it.

The creature rose to its feet and looked around. Ah, there it was. The palantir was on the table. It was probably through it that Saruman had discovered about the approaching army. This would mean a fight. Of that, he was certain.

The creature took the palantir from it's resting place, and replaced it with Sauron's. Then, it left the way it had come, climbing down the tower and over the wall. It was just moving away from the foot of the wall when it was spotted.

"Look! There!"

"What is it?"

"I don't know. But it's an intruder. You, stop where you are or we'll shoot!"

As if they could shoot me? the creature sniffed in disgust. It dashed towards the forest, arrows zipping after it. The creature scoffed at the archers inwardly. Fools.

Just then, an arrow dug into it's leg. With a shriek, it fell to the ground, the palantir rolling away in the darkness. Two more arrows connected with the creature, and it lay still.

A silent figure appeared out of the mists and stepped over to the body. It's hand stretched out as it searched the damp soil, searching. No arrows targeted this figure. It continued it's search for a few minutes longer, and then found what it was looking for. It wrapped the palantir in a cloak, and disappeared as quickly as it had come.

"Knowing the type of spy network that Saruman is sure to have, they probably became aware of our army a couple days before we arrived."

Malagar nodded. "That sounds like Saruman. Being the leader of the White Council certainly gives him a lot of authority."

"Too much," Unvar said. He looked out again at the strong walls of Isengard, wondering for the thousandth time how they were going to succeed in the upcoming siege.

Malagar voiced his own thoughts. "Does your force have the experience or equipment to succeed in the siege?"

"No," Unvar said in frustration. His eyes flashed with anger as he looked again at the thick and strong walls. "And it is becoming more and more clear to me that the only way to succeed is by starving them out. And I don't know if my men can wait that long."

"It wouldn't work. He'd signal the eagles and have food transported in that way," Malagar said.

I don't know if I can wait that long either, Unvar thought. All right, this is the time to think and plan. We can't take it by strength, and knowing the force he's likely to have in there, we probably won't be able to take it at all. Very well. I don't care about conquering or holding the fortress. My goal is to take the palantir.

Unvar's brow creased with thought as he leaned forward in his chair. His eyes closed and he was silent for several long moments. Suddenly his eyes opened and he stood. He turned to one of his captains. "Get Slythre and Agravigan. Tell them that they have another job to do."

Malagar swung the rope over his head around and around, gaining momentum. Then he flung it into the air. He heard the grappling hook clank on the stone, and skid a small way. He pulled and it latched onto something and held. Unvar walked over and tugged it a couple times himself. He glanced at Agravigan.

"Anything yet?"

"Not a soul. Your diversion must have worked."

"Either that or it's a trap," Slythre said quietly.

"All the better," Unvar growled as he grabbed hold of the cord. "My muscles ache for a fight."

"Well don't start one," Slythre said. "Secrecy is our only hope for success."

"But how can we hope to have complete secrecy, if Saruman has the pa . . ." His voice trailed off as he caught the angry glare from Unvar.

Unvar seized the rope and quickly began to climb, hand over hand upwards.

Malagar hides a brief smile, wondering what Agravigan almost slipped up and mentioned, then tucked it into his memory and focused on the task at hand. He skimmied up the rope after Unvar, and once over the top, dropped over the brief ledge and onto the top of the small tower they were at. Scanning around, and seeing nothing in sight, he still kept quiet as the other two came over the top.

Now that they were within the actual structure of Isengard, he kneeled to the ground, running his hands across the stone beneath him. At first, he felt nothing, but as the others looked on puzzled, and Unvar, impatient, started to say something, Mal's face brightened, and a large grin grew across it.

Inside, Mal was exultant. It had taken a moment, but he could feel it calling to him, could feel what was once part of him desiring to be a part once again.

Standing back up, Mal turned to Unvar and said, in soft quiet tones, "I believe I can lead us to wherever his treasure is kept. However, we must rely on a bit of luck here, for I know not whether all his treasure will be together, or whether the item you seek will be kept with the item I search for. In any case, follow me, and we must take our chances."

With that, Mal turned, and crept around the top of the tower until he found a door, and went down it and into the corridors and pathways within the tower, and between it and the other buildings in Isengard, avoiding any who where still on alert, and realized the path they were taking was drawing closer and closer to Orthanc, Sarumans personal tower and abode.

Finally they reached the base of the tower. Malagar stepped forward and did something to the lock of the door. They moved swiftly in.

"This is too easy," Unvar whispered. He reached to his side and pulled his sword from it's sheath.

Agravigan's eyes stared through the walls on all sides. "No one yet, sire."

"Your men must be doing well to call such attention to the walls," Malagar remarked.

They passed several doors but Agravigan shook his head at all of them.

"Still higher," he said.

Finally, they reached the top. Agravigan stared through the door and saw the palantir on the table. "There it is," he said excitedly, pointing at the door.

Malagar was plainly nearly as agitated and excited as Unvar. He opened that one as well and they rushed in.

Saruman's eyes widened and he whirled around. "This is a diversion! Come with me," he ordered his troops. A couple dozen troops bearing the insignia of the white hand followed him towards the tower.

Unvar saw the palantir and his heart leapt. Forgetting Malagar and everyone else, he rushed up to it and stared into it's depths, seeking the comforting warm familiarity.

For several long seconds nothing happened. Then, mists cleared, and he could truly see again. He saw the corsairs making their attacks against the walls, Saruman and his men rushing towards the tower. Then he pulled away, staring over Fangorn Forest. Out beyond it was another fortress. Apparently only hastily built. A quick dig in, but still capable of strong defense. Then he soared out farther, whipping past cities and towers, forests and mountains.

But something was wrong. Usually he had complete control, being able to choose what and where he could see. But now he was being slowly and subtly drawn somewhere. This was wrong. His many years experience with his palantir has allowed him to know the feel of his palantir. This one felt . . . different. Darker. Now he could see where he was being drawn. There was blackness surrounding him. The sensation of being clutched came on him. He couldn't pull out now. He was being hurtled through choking fumes and over a black and dead land. Then he saw a castle. He was lifted up. He rose over rampart after rampart and wall after wall. Then he was swept up a tower. And then he saw it. A single red eye, staring into his own.

Unvar gave a scream and felt arms clutching him, pulling him away. He fell to the floor with a thud.

Slythre raced up the stairs from her position. "They're onto us!" she cried as she bolted the door.

A mighty blow smashed against the door and it began to creak on it's hinges and cave inwards.

"Here, my lord," the captain said hoarsely as he placed the pouch on the table. "Your spy has delivered it, as promised."

Racking claws shredded the sack, and the palantir within was lifted up. The flames cast a lurid red glow around the master and the captain who knelt before it. A diabolical smile filled the face of the master, his black hide shifting, making it look even worse than before. It's sharp teeth came into view briefly, glinting in the flame. Rows of orcs and black clad men surrounded the pair, all armed to the teeth.

"Shall we go in and get the Book of Secrets?" the captain asked.

"It's not that easy," said the master after staring into the palantir for a long moment. "Those fool ents won't allow us to take it without a fight. But the hardest part of our task is done. We now know the location. The blind forays into the woods are no longer necessary. The ents have been sleepy and may not realize what we are doing until it is too late to stop us. But I'd prefer to have a safer entrance." The master brushed a hand through the coals, stirring up the flames. The flare of fire briefly illuminated it's grotesque features and the captain trembled in fear. "See to it," the master ordered.

"Yes, my lord," the captain said, bowing and retreating from the chamber.

Faradin slipped into position behind the group. Stupid fools he thought, trying to sneak into Isengard like that, I better make sure they don't get into trouble.

He followed them at a fair distance so that he would not be discovered and saw them enter a room. He heard feet racing towards him, and quickly ducked into an alcove just off the passageway. He saw four men in the uniforms of the white hand race down the corridor and begins pounding on the door. Drawing his bow he took careful aim and fired. His arrow took one man in the back of the throat and he fell, he second took another in the chest as he turned. He drew his sword and charged. The first man fell quickly and he found himself face to face with the last man. A captain by the look of his uniform. This man would not fall as easily as his men did.

Mal saw Unvar head for his bauble, but was quickly distracted. The room was filled with treasures, both those that glowed golden to the natural eyes, and many other items that glowed to other senses, deeper ones. But none of these was Mal concerned with. Crossing the floor, he saw it, shining darkness stretching out from beneath one pile of magical relics. Tossing them aside, he slowly lowered his hand, and grasped it - at last, at last! He nearly cried, in joy and happiness. Lifting it from the ground, feeling tendrils of his old strength running back into him, he paid no heed - did not even hear, or notice - as Unvar dropped to the ground in agony, or Slythre's shouts of warning. All he could do was gaze upon its beauty.

An armband, circular, made of pitch black onyx, it had inscribed on it, in dark runes only visible to those who could see through shadows, ancient, forgotten words. Perhaps it was nothing to compare with other such items forged in ages past, such as those created by the dark lord himself, but in the current day and age, it harbored much power to rival even the greatest still on Middle Earth.

"The first step, to regaining my whole..." whispered Malagar, then slowly slipped it on, feeling it rest into place upon his lean and muscled arm. With a sigh, a gasp, as he felt it reconnect with his inmost self - felt what had once been a part of him become part of him once again, he once more became aware of his surroundings. Turning, he saw Slythre and Agravigan desperately fighting the attackers who were streaming in the doors, the two standing over Unvar's comatose body, with cuts appearing upon the forms as they were outnumbered and outmatched. The door they had came in by was still bared, but another entrance had been opened and from there came the soldiers of the white hand.

Mal laughed, and brought his arms up, and unnoticed to the soldiers of Isengard, the shadows around them began to take form and shape, and tendrils of darkness began to rise up behind the soldiers. Suddenly, Agravigan gave a cry, as his blade was knocked from his grasp, and the soldier facing him lifted his own sword to deliver the deathblow. With another laugh, Mal twisted his hand, and the shadows behind the soldiers twined about the necks and limbs, drawing tight, and cutting off their breath, and screams, and snapping their bones and necks, dropping the dozen guards who had come in upon the ground, leaving their lifeless forms and flowing across the ground to cloak Mal in a mantle of shadow.

Walking out, strolling past the astonished Slythre and Agravigan and into the outside hallway, to see more soldiers charging towards him. With but a thought, they found darkness descend upon them, and a deathlike slumber came upon them, dropping them to the ground, unconscious.

Mal called out, "Saruman! Master of the so called White Council! I name you thief and plunderer! Would you hold MY property from me? Would you keep me from what is mine? Face me, craven fool, and learn my might!" Power thrumming through him, Mal felt once more as though he was close to his former self. What fools, these mortals, to face one such as him! To think, that he had lived for so many years as not much greater than them - to think, that his birthright had been denied him for so long!

Out unto the battlements of Orthanc walked Mal, seeking Saruman, or some other form to vent his power upon. But, before he found any, another found him. A thief is silent, but death is even quieter still, and until a sharp, burning pain pierced Mal's arm, he knew nothing of the figure on the towertop beside him.

The pain! Mal could not cry out, for it stole his breath, and set cold and fire blazing together through his form. Dropping to his knees, Mal staggered forward, trying to turn around, trying to concentrate and bring his newly regained power to bear on whatever foe threatened him - and found the power gone again. Looking on the ground near him, Mal saw his armband lying upon there - still in his arm, which was no longer connected to his body. Mal clutched at his side, in disbelief, and struggled to his feet as blood flowed over his fingers and hand. He looked up from where his arm lay, looked up at the figure standing next to it.

Armored in obsidian mail, with a grinning skull for a face, a figure faced him out of nightmare. Long before the Nazgul where brought about by the Dark Lord of Mordor, other beings roamed the world, and the tales of their dark deeds makes the current fireside tales pale in comparison.

"You!" cried out Mal, fear and hatred apparent upon his face.

"You know the decree of the Valar, Mal. If you choose to meddle in the affairs of the mortals of Middle Earth, you must be as one of them."

A dagger appeared in Mal's left hand, sticky from the blood pouring from his other shoulder, and he hurled himself at the other figure, spinning around him despite his wound, and driving the dagger toward an open spot where the helmet of the figure met its armor.

Quicker than light, faster than dark, the forms hand flew up and seized Mal's remaining arm, halting his movement, then, in one quick motion, threw him over the side of the tower. As he fell, Mal opened his mouth to cry out, but the pain overcame him, and as the wind hurtled past him, he fell into unconsciousness.

Meanwhile, Slythre and Agravigan were doing their best to depart the premises as well. Though more troops were heading towards them, the ones closest had already been dealt with by Mal. Finding an exit, they carried their lord, who was still unmoving, out of the building, and despite their skills, as they ran off into the woods and sought the safety of their army, they did not notice as they passed within a few feet of a crumpled form lying near the base of one of the towers.

Throughout all this, Faradin was unaware of what was taking place within the room, and was finding the captain he faced, a grizzled veteran, and strong, was proving harder to best than he had hoped. Suddenly, however, screams and groans came from the barred room, and as the captains attention wavered, Faradin pierced him through the heart. He found his way blocked by a foe he could not best, however - the door. Despite his greatest efforts, and all his strength, it would not budge, and as the sounds died down from within the room, and more footsteps began to race along the corridor towards him, he muttered, "Then let these fools look to themselves!" and took himself out of the hallway, narrowly avoiding a force of two score men coming into the passage. Frustrated at being unable to discover what had happened within, he made his way, silently and hidden, from the tower. Soon, all the 'invaders' of the tower were gone, and Saruman was left puzzled and greatly worried over the slain men of his, and with no explanation left behind...

Unvar sank to the leaf covered ground of the forest with a groan. He was pale and weakened by the struggle, but still alive, in his right mind, and, amazingly, unharmed. He looked up at his two spies. "What happened back there?"

Slythre took a couple steps forward. "Saruman must have had some sort of alarm system. Anyway, he detected and trapped us in there. Malagar used some sort of magical power to vape most all of the opposing soldiers. We managed to escape."

"And we probably wouldn't have succeeded," Agravigan put in, "If it weren't for a green clad man who followed us in. I saw him cut down the soldiers who were hitting the door. We owe him something for that."

"What happened to the palantir?"

Agravigan and Slythre looked at each other. "It was left behind, sire. We had enough on our hands already . . ."

"It doesn't really matter," Unvar said, brushing the matter aside. "That was not my palantir. But I was so sure that Saruman had it . . ."

Agravigan squatted down beside Unvar. "What did you see in it?"

"I was drawn to the Red Eye of Mordor," Unvar said with a horrible shudder. Memories flashed through his thoughts. "They were attempting to gain control of me in some way. If you hadn't pulled me away at that moment, I could have lost to them." He clutched Agravigan's hand gratefully. "Thank-you. I believe I almost lost more than my life."

"Could Sauron have wrought some change on the palantir?" Slythre asked.

"It would have been easier to replace it," Agravigan said.

"Let's just think for a moment," Unvar said. "If he did replace it, it probably is already inside the Black Land by now. And believe me, my desire for it isn't strong enough to lead me there."

"Sir," Agravigan hesitated.

Both Slythre and Unvar looked at him.

"It may be nothing sir, but while we were leaving, I did see the dead body of another creature. I've never seen this species before. Perhaps it was purposely bred for some purpose. But it was stuck with arrows. Perhaps if we investigated the site we could uncover some clue?"

Slythre laughed, "You think that Sauron sent out this creature, it replaced the palantir, and then got shot down? Saruman would have had the body inspected. They would have found the palantir and the jig would be up for the Dark Lord. Unvar would never had had to go through that experience up there."

"Unless someone else took the palantir from the body."

"That's stretching it rather far, don't you think?" Slythre countered.

"We'll check the site after nightfall," Unvar said. "It's the best option we have left, and we may well learn something from it. But for now, I must order the corsairs to cease their attack. We must head back to camp now." He had a look close to despair on his face.

What hope is there now for reclaiming the palantir? Unvar asked himself. Next to none.

I feel the flare of dark magic from the top of Orthanc. The fall of Malagar, and the shadow magic. Through my dark red eyes, I see my captains shift in fear. They all fear me. And well they might. I existed since the time of Melkor. Few of my kind still exist in this world. Perhaps this creature is an ally come to join me in my struggle? If so, he shall have none of the benefits. It was I who have gone this far, without any of his help. But no, his intentions are different. He knows nothing of the Book of Secrets. I sigh in silent relief. The captains shift, wondering what is going on. I stir the flames again, letting their heat surround me.

As Faradin raced from the fortress of Orthanc he realized he had no choice. He wanted answers to what was going on here and he saw only one way to get them. "Damn them, but I must talk to this Unvar. I dislike a possible alliance with a Corsair," he made the word sound like a curse, "but I have no choice if I want answers."

Suddenly he stumbled and only his quick reflexes saved him from falling. He looked down and saw the armless and unconscious form of Mal laying on the ground. He hesitated, for he did not trust this man, but could not leave him there, helpless and alone. Slinging him over his shoulder he started towards the Corsair camp.

As he neared the camp he lay Mal down and bound his wound. "Sorry, but you're staying here for awhile, you'll only get me caught before I want to be." Sneaking through the darkened camp, he made his way towards the large tent in the center. He saw guards in front of the tent and circled around until he was behind it. He heard the voices of several people, but could make out no words, though he did recognize the voice of Unvar. Drawing his dagger from his belt he quickly cut a hole through the tent and stepped through.

Few Ents were looking at her when she felt it. Some powerful magic have been used near. No mortal could wield such power. She let her mind travel the short distance and see The black spire of Isengard. It could only mean that one of the few Maia remaining has attack Saruman, but why ??
She quickly review the few Maia remaining in the nearby region and then she understand, only one of them could have been as foolish to think he can attack Saruman and get away with it. But then not everyone knew Saruman as she does. Then as quickly as it appear the power get away, broken. a smile grow on her face, overconfidence is one of the most dangerous weakness. Much greater being fell to it and he won't be the last one either. But for now greater concern await her.

The old Ent was looking at her when she opened her eyes. She smile at him, thinking of the last time they've seen each other. they have been both thousand of years younger and it was somehow strange to see him as an old ent while she look just like she did at her 20th birthday. She raise and take her place in the circle and she start the Entmoot. Having much to learn about the change that have take place during the last few thousand years. It would take days maybe even week but she have time and one of her preeminent virtues was patience. Her magic will sustain her for the duration of the Entmoot. She hope that such a trivial use of her power would pass undetected, especially when coming from a magical forest like Fangorn.

Agravigan frowned as he paced back and forth. "But it's useless. How are we going to find any objects in the dead of night? But if we wait for morning, who knows what clues we might find."

Slythre sat down on the same bench that Malagar had previously occupied and looked at Unvar. "It makes sense. We'll spoil any clues that might be there by blundering around after nightfall."

Unvar's hands were steepled and his face was still pale, the lingering effects of his struggle still apparent on his face. "Agravigan has magically enhanced sight. Are there any other tricks to it than long range and ability to see through objects?"

Agravigan stopped pacing and turned towards Unvar. "Perhaps in daylight, but now, I don't think so."

There was a pause. "What you propose makes no sense," Slythre said.

"I know," Unvar said quietly, and with a tinge of defeat in his voice. "I just have a feeling that if we don't go tonight, it won't go well for our cause."

There was a long silence, broken into abruptly by the sound of shredding canvas. The dagger point ripped through the material, tearing a hole, and then a man leapt in.

Agravigan's sword was yanked from it's scabbard and pointed menacingly at the figure. Slythre stood and drew her dagger. Unvar was motionless for a long moment. Than, his fingers parted and he stood up, walking around the chair so that he was facing Faradin directly.

It wasn't hard to see that this man was a ranger, and a Numenorean.

Suddenly, Agravigan's eyes widened in recognition. "Sire, this is the man who cut those soldiers away from the door," He said as he lowered his sword.

"I would like some answers," Faradin said.

Unvar smiled sadly. "Don't we all?"

With a gasp, Mal awoke. "Death's face..." he whispered, staring blankly into the darkness, then his eyes darted about, looking for any who might be watching.

He heard voices, but it was as though they were from a long way away.
"This hurts, dammit!" he muttered, then tried to stand. As pain lanced through his body once more, he crumpled to the ground, only holding back from screaming because it would be too much of an effort.

As he trashed on the ground, however, the nearby voices paused, and came seeking through the brush, hearing the commotion he was causing.

Mal finally managed to control the pain, and twisting into a sitting position, with pain splayed across his face, he looked up into the astonished gazes of Narsh and Dania.

He managed to choke out a short gasp for help, before collapsing to the ground, pain flooding through him once more, and blackness covering his vision.

Swiftly, Dania took over the situation. Kneeling down beside the unconscious Mal, she checked the blood-stained, ragged hole in his tunic where his arm had once been. "Water," she snapped, and the canteen was thrust into her hand. Tearing a few strips from her black cloak, she used one to wash off most of the blood, so the wound could be clearly seen. Soaking the other strips, she held back a wince of her own as she bandaged, very tightly, the raw flesh and bone.
"Should I cut some small trees to make a stretcher?" Came the low, raspy voice of Narsh behind her. The greatest of warriors, he could never stand the sight of so much blood.
Dania nodded, as she rolled up the rest of her cloak and placed it beneath Mal's head, enabling him to breath easier.
Soon the stretcher was built, and between the two of them they lifted Mal onto it.
"We must take him to Fangorn. If anyone, he will know the best way to heal this," spoke Dania, carrying the back of the stretcher. Glancing down at the patient, she noticed he was paler, and he seemed to be in a waking delirium, his eyes open and staring straight up. Without a word, Narsh and Dania quickened their pace.

"If your man would take his sword from my throat I would like to talk to you."

"I am Faradin, a Ranger of the North, and I want to know the real reason a Corsair Lord has left his stronghold and entered the lands of the descendants of Numenor. What is the artifact you seek, and what would drive you into the madness of trying to sneak into Orthanc to take it?"

Unvar's fist smashed into the side of Faradin's head, throwing him to the ground.

"What right do you have to question the Lord of the Corsairs in this way?" He roared. "My affairs are mine alone! What right do you have to break into my own tent and demand answers that are none of your business?"

Faradin rose, his face radiating anger. "Us rangers have made it our business to protect those who are weak, and threatened by evil! Your country has for years sent out ships to slaughter innocent and plunder their possessions!" He regained control of himself with visible effort. "Do you not think that, in view of this, your large army of corsairs would be concern of ours?"

Unvar crossed his arms and took a step back, eyeing the ranger. Perhaps he wasn't such a blustering fool as he'd appeared to be. And now that Unvar thought about it, he remembered the skills of the rangers. This could be a big help to Unvar's plans . . .

"Very well, but if I do give you this information, you must do me a favor in return."

Faradin thought for a moment. "That depends on what it is. I hardly have reason to trust you, you must admit."

Unvar nodded and motioned towards the seats. Then, he began his narrative . . .

. . . When he had finished, Unvar looked at Faradin closely, watching his reactions.

"You want to be rid of me," Unvar said. "And believe me, I would like nothing better than to leave here as well. There are sure to be all sorts of minor uprisings or political turmoil in Umbar over my long disappearance.

"Now, you must fulfill your side of the bargain. Do not worry, I won't ask of you anything against your honor or morals," he added quickly at the look on Faradin's face. "I would simply like your assistance in finding the palantir. I need a ranger's tracking, hunting, and thinking methods on my side."

"Very well, Corsair, you have a deal."

Slythre waited until the moon had sank and it was total and complete blackness outside before making her move. She silently slipped out of bed and dressed, finishing by strapping on her belt, dagger and cloak.

On second thought, I just might need this as well, she thought as she buckled on her sword. She'd not used it in a long time. Never needed to. But this time was different.

Quiet as a ghost, she slipped out of her tent and moved swiftly through the corsair camp. Then, sneaking past the sentries, she disappeared into the gloom. As soon as she was out of sight, she picked up speed, moving across the ground at a rapid pace. She'd have to get there, talk to them, and return before dawn. Luckily Unvar had not begun to suspect her role as double agent yet. If he did, these meetings would be rendered impossible.

Finally she reached it. She banged with her bare fist on the hard, damp wood of the door to the fortress. Not much of a fortress, hastily rigged up, but still in fighting order, and capable of making a strong defense. She banged on the door twice more. Finally it swung open and a dark shape motioned her in.

"I'd like to see Captain Nardran," she said softly.

"This way," the man said, leading her deeper into the complex. They passed through armories, guard rooms and training halls, finally stopping at a room.

"Slythre is here, requesting entrance, sir," he said after knocking.

Nardran opened the door and looked out. "Come on in," he said gruffly, stepping to the side.

She quickly moved past him and entered the room. It was sparsely furnished, lighted by two torches on either side of the wall. She sat down at the table and looked up at him.

He sat down opposite her and smoothed his long brown hair back with a hand. "So what is it that calls you here when I was trying to sleep?"

"All of our previous meetings were held at this hour. It was necessary to maintain my secrecy. But this time is different. I come here not to give information, but to receive it."

He was struck with surprise at the coldness in her voice. "What do you mean?" he asked timidly.

"I know that you're not the commander of this company. And I know that you've been withholding information from me."

Nardran froze. "What information?"

She leaned forward and stared at him with ice in her eyes. "When you sent me out to steal Unvar's palantir from the creature, you never told me how you knew of that the palantir exchange was going to take place. I demand that knowledge now."

"Slythre . . ."

"And another thing. Last time I was here, I overheard two of your men talking about their true commander. I cannot imagine anyone talking with such fear about you. You are not the true commander of this garrison. Bring me to the master!"

Nardran flinched and paled. "You don't know what your saying! Believe me, it would be better for you if these secrets remained secrets. Far better."

"So it's true. These really are purposely with-held pieces of information, not oversight. You tricked me into joining your cause and stealing the palantir for you with promises of using it to gain a priceless treasure to use for the greater good. Now, I discover that you've been using me the entire time. What is your real reason?"

Nardran stood and paced the room, his hands behind his back and a look of terrible fear on his face. "Slythre, I cannot tell you. Please, just leave this castle. Never return again. We can spy on Unvar ourselves now that we have the palantir. You've been a great help to us, but now . . ."

"Circumstances have changed, haven't they?" Slythre said as she stood and raised the point of her dagger to Nardran's throat.

Nardran's face hardened. "All right. You insist on having it your way, don't you. Very well, I'll take you to our master. This way," he said as he led her out the door.

They passed deep into the structure and finally came to a stop at a black door with dark iron hinges.

Nardran knocked on the door with his fist.

It instantly swung open and they passed into a large chamber, lit with the lurid red glow of flame. Fire smoldered on the floor of the center of the room, unchecked, yet not destroying the rest of the black scorched chamber. Slythre squinted forwards into the darkness.

"Captain." The word came from a rasping, deep voice, from somewhere around the fire.

"My master," he said, kneeling down.

"Who have you brought with you?"

"My master, it is Slythre, our spy from Unvar's camp. She forced me to bring her before you, and demands to know all."

"Come forward, human woman," came the voice, full of mocking evil.

She hesitated, feeling a flash of fear.

"You wished to meet the master, did you not?" came the voice.

Slythre hesitated. But she knew that it would be foolhardy to do so. She sensed that she was confronted with an evil far greater than she could face and live.

She turned and dashed towards the door, getting within two feet of it before she was tackled to the ground. Hands seized around her arms, legs, waist, neck, and hair. She was filled with pain as she was yanked to her feet and dragged forward by six large orcs, covered from head to foot in battle armor.

"I'm sorry," Nardran said as they passed him. She was drawn directly up to the flame and held before it.

"Very well, now you shall see the master," came the voice.

Nardran bowed his head, looking at the floor as a massive shape rose from the flame as if rising from the maw of hell.

Slythre stared for an instant and then let out a loud, horrible scream, drowned out by the horrible laughter of her tormenter. The balrog's flaming whip curled around her neck and he dragged her forward.

Arvec looked out from the battlements of the fortress. The sky was bleak and gray, broken by jagged mountains that looked like teeth, ready to cut apart any intruder. The ground was brownish gray, dull and hard, as was everything in this place. The Castle Iron Heart was definitely a place of power. Well chosen for it's purpose. Mining. The black mines went deep into the soil, cutting down into the heart of the mountain. In it's depths slaves worked in toil, sweating and dying in misery. It made Arvec's heart ache, but it was not his decision. It was necessary. How else could the work be done? They had already made remarkable progress, the hidden fortress producing as much raw minerals as half the dwarven mines in existence. The weapon factories produced thousands of spears, swords, breastplates, helmets, shields, and every kind of armor and weaponry available. Enough to equip an army. And that was obviously the plan. Although Arvec wasn't permitted into the high council, his work was definitely noted, and it was recent that he'd been promoted to the rank of head supervisor of weapon construction in the fortress. A high honor indeed. Especially that they'd allow him to have it. He was the only elf in the castle.

Arvec took his hands away from the wall and looked up, seeing a great bat swoop out of the clouds towards him. Arvec bit back a feeling of revulsion. He'd never liked the great, horrible creatures. Many times he'd tried to have them replaced as the messengers, but to no avail.

The creature landed on the wall and dropped the scroll from it's grip. Then it stared at him in through it's beastly red eyes.

"Go on, get out," Arvec said, prodding it with the paper.

The beast spat and flew off.

Then Arvec unrolled the scroll. It read thus:

"To Arvec, with my greetings.

"I am greatly pleased with what I hear of your progress, you have indeed helped to fulfill your duties better than any other I could have assigned. Because of this, I know that you will be up to the task about to be assigned you. I would like you to jointly command the construction of a Blasting Delve with Marondras. I know that he is a little bit strange, and has a slightly uneven mind, but I'm afraid it's necessary. He's the only one who has the ability to complete it's construction.

"Sincerely, Captain Nardran."

Arvec looked up in disbelief. What on earth was a Blasting Delve? And with Marondras? He was the last person Arvec would ever like to jointly command a construction project with. He had more than a slightly uneven mind, Arvec would label him insane. But perhaps he would know what a Blasting Delve was. Anyway, orders were orders.

Arvec rolled up the paper and walked down the stone steps, towards the center of Iron Heart.

When Unvar opened his eyes, he saw a stream of sunlight coming through the rip in his tent wall, flooding over him. He raised his hand to block it's glow and sat up on his pallet. He quickly rubbed his eyes and stood. He always slept dressed, and slept lightly. He'd survived two assassination attempts back at Umbar because of his preparedness. Even though, if it was Slythre who'd been the assassin, he didn't know if even his light sleeping would have saved him. She was a big help. So was Agravigan for that matter, but not quite so much.

Unvar quickly opened the flap of his tent and took a couple steps out. He glanced around his camp briefly and then walked over to the tent that the ranger had been given. Quickly opening the flap, he strode in.

"Looking for me?" came a voice from behind him.

Unvar started and whirled around. "Yes, as a matter of a fact I was. Go get Slythre, I'll get Agravigan. We'll start our search at Orthanc, doing that's our best bet."

"Very well," Faradin said, quickly disappearing in the general bustle of the camp.

Unvar got Agravigan and walked back towards the tent. There he met Faradin.

"Where's Slythre?" Unvar asked.

"She wasn't in her tent."

"Blast. Very well, than time you proved your abilities. Let's track her down."

Faradin scowled, but agreed. They went back to her tent, and after a while, Faradin found her prints. She would have been impossible to track, had it not been for the combined powers of Faradin's experience and Agravigan's eyesight. Soon they'd tracked her to the edge of the camp, and then the prints continued off into the distance, still very faint, but possible to follow.

Unvar was frowning. "What on earth was she doing out here?"

Faradin shrugged. "But at least the tracks are easier to follow. It was nearly impossible in the camp, mixed with everyone else's."

"She'd better have a good explanation when we find her. I cannot have one of my best agents sneaking off into the brush without informing me."

"She would have had to have gone in the night, otherwise she'd have been noticed," Agravigan noted.

But Unvar wasn't listening. He was staring off into the distance blankly.

"My lord?" Agravigan asked.

Unvan snapped out of it. "What? Oh, yes, let's carry on."

"What is it?" Faradin asked sharply.

Unvar shook his head briefly. "Well, when I was gazing into the palantir of Orthanc, I saw all around the camp, the forest, the whole terrain. Well, I just remembered that a few miles in this direction is a castle."

They stared at him.

"A makeshift one, quickly built. That was the only thing out here in this direction."

"So she was probably going to it?"

Unvar's eyes flared in anger. "Yes. Slythre has been operating with both me and another group." A look of cold fury filled his face, and then hardened into a set expression. "Come, let's go back to the camp. We'll have the whole force go with us. I believe that all of our ends will connect at that castle."

His whole being appeared changed, a glint of infuriated obsession filling his features and making him appear as if possessed. His cloak swirled about him as he whirled around and hurried back towards the camp. Agravigan hurried after his lord, but Faradin knew enough. As they walked towards the camp, he fell further behind, and suddenly dropped down in the brush, slipping away from the others, and vanishing in the tall grass.

With a start, Malagar came to.
The pain was gone for a moment, and he fancied he could still feel it, but when he clutched at it with his remaining hand, nothing was there.

With a sigh, he looked up, staring into the face of one of the tree creatures. Standing anxiously by its side was Dania, and by her stood Narsh.

The tree being - the ent - spoke a number of words in its slow, booming tongue, and Dania translated, "He says that you were very lucky to survive the wound, and the fall from the tower. Almost anyone else would have died."

"I've always been lucky," muttered Malagar, but subsumed his anger - these were not to blame, and all things considered, things could have ended much worse, he thought. "My thanks for aiding me, and healing me," and here he nodded to the ent.

Then Mal senses something, from behind him, and though he allowed no indication to show upon his face, he slowly turned about, to stare at the elven lady standing in the woods behind him. No elf of middle-earth, this, but apparently one from the isle of the Valar - and a memory drifted through Mal's mind, for it seemed he may have seen this elf during one of his hidden visitations to the Valar's home.

He shrugged that thought away, and wondered instead why this being was here.

"Greetings, my lady, my name is Malagar D'Orthand. I would rise to greet you, but fear I am still not overly well," and with a chuckle, gestured at his empty sleeve.

Faradin made his way through the forest carefully but quickly. He had decided to head towards the Entmoot and help that someone would be there, maybe those two elves, Dania and Narsh.

As he made his way across a clearing he stopped cold. There was a trip-wire right across the clearing, and he saw that he was standing in the middle of a net.

He stepped back quickly, and just in time for the net snapped up and his right foot was caught just enough to take him off his feet. He rose to his knees to see a sword blade held to his throat. Following the blade he saw that an orc held it. Before the orc could react he spun and kicked out, the orc stumbled back, but did not lose it's grip on it's blade. Sweeping his own Rivendell-forged blade from it's sheath he swung at the orc and felled it. At a sudden sound from his left he whirled and saw three orcs rushing at him. He quickly sidestepped the lead one and kicked at it's back; it flew past him and he swung at one of the other's head, nearly decapitating it. Whirling back to his left he thrust with his sword and took the last orc neatly in the heart. Then he felt a pain in his side and cursed as he stumbled backward. The orc that he had knocked past him had recovered and held it's own blade ready. Faradin, strong with his fury, both at himself for forgetting the last orc and at the orc itself, knocked the orc's blade from his hand and killed it.

He stooped and examined the blade closely. "At least it wasn't poisoned, and the wound is not deep, I will care for it when I arrive at the Entmoot." He kept the blade and grabbed a helm from another of the orcs and continued on his way.

He stumbled into the Entmoot just in time to hear Mal make his statement. "Then get well soon," tossing his tokens on the ground he growled, "there are orcs in Fangorn forest." He stopped and stared for an instant as he saw a vision of Elven loveliness. He dropped to his knees and bowed, "Forgive me my lady, for I knew not that you were here. You are surely one of those that had bathed in the light of the two trees, before their darkening by Morgoth. Will you aid me, for with your aid we will surely be victorious."

Slythre's arms were full of a dull, throbbing ache. Her wrists were clasped in chains against the wall, over her head. A fiery pain filled her whole body whenever she moved, bringing back horrible memories of the balrog. But at last her torture had ceased, and she'd been dragged away from the it's lair. Then she'd been searched and thrown back here, in a cell, out of the way, no longer important and to be forgotten. She was still amazed at her luck in surviving the terrible encounter. Or perhaps it wasn't so lucky. They'd burned her elven cloak, of course, and all her weapons were gone. No one would find her here. Ever.

She frowned. No, she would not give up! That was one of the first rules Unvar had drilled into her when helping in grooming her as his personal agent, with Agravigan. But this thought just sent another wave of shame and fresh pain through her. She'd betrayed her commander. She'd thought she was working for the greater good, doing something worthwhile for once in her life, but no. She'd ended up working for a balrog, and betraying her commander, earning a well deserved hatred.

Slythre lowered her head, a sob bursting from her throat.

The jailer laughed mockingly.

The balrog's red eyes narrowed in rage. "What have you done, you fool! I did not want our presence known of, yet you send orcs into the forest!"

"My master," Nardran said, quivering with fear. "We sent no orcs out. I know not who those were, but I can promise you that . . ."

The whip slashed down, tearing into his back and knocking him to the ground, screaming in agony. The tip of the whip flicked up, slashing across his face as the balrog pulled the whip back.

"Do not lie to me!"

Nardran's body remained crumpled on the ground where it had fallen.

"My master?" came a timid voice from one of his captains.

The balrog's fierce gaze turned on the barracks master, who quivered with fright under the gaze and took a couple steps backward.

"What?" he roared.

"The troops are all accounted for, my master!" the man squeaked. "The orcs still in their positions!"

"Then who the devil are they?" he asked himself quietly, looking into the palantir and staring at the orcs. It was then that he noticed the inhabitants of the Entmoot. He stared balefully at them for a moment, and then his eyes widened. It was Syntia! And also the bloody corpse lying there, swathed in bandages was also recognizable. What were two Maia doing here? Had they gotten wind of his plan? Or were they after the Book of Secrets themselves? Either way, they would have to be looked to. The balrog snarled angrily as the elven lady sensed his gaze and glanced around nervously. He tore his eyes away from the group. That would have to wait. Even now, Unvar and his army were marching at a rapid pace towards his castle. He cursed his bad luck. Why did all his enemies have to be converging on him now?

"Position all of our troops at combat positions," he ordered his generals. "Get every man and orc into a position of the best advantage." His eyes filled with a mad light as he stared off into the palantir, seeing Unvar and his force marching forward. "I want them to feel our wrath."

For a long time Syntia said nothing, a sad look on her face as she'd remember the glories of the elder day, tosing everyone now standing in the Entmoot, a she elven ranger, an elven warrior, the broken maia and now a Numenorean ranger. Something odd was happening here. For a moment she felt as if someone was watching her, then it was gone.

- Old friend, those orcs must be taken care of. Would you do it for me please ??

Those were the first word the two elves and the human hear from her, her soft musical voice was entrancing. Even while she had only whisper, everyone have hear her as if she had been talking directly to them, directly to their heart. In this short moment more has been said than what could be heard. Only at that moment did they begin to guess what power she could wield.

For Mal, the sound of her voice bring back memory from a past long forgotten, to a day when his power could conceal someone from even the great Valar. To a day when he was saved from his cell in Angband by a younger Syntia, but it wasn't her name at the time. Together they done what was though impossible. It was more a circumstantial alliance than something else but at that moment he had felt as if together they could do anything. He realized that she was looking at him.

-Your involvement here puzzle and afraid me Malagar. Are you here for yourself or are you working for someone greater than you are ??

Then she turn her attention to the human ranger. She look at him for a long time and said

-Your knowledge of what happen before the human walk the earth is admirable. *At that point she smile softly* I've learn a long time ago not to involve myself in matter not of my concern. But maybe I can help you, tell what concern you and how you've all end up together, Iíve got the feeling you're presence here isn't just a coincidence.

Dania nodded at Syntia's words, she could feel it too.
"All this seems more than just coincidence, when have such people ever met together before? Hasn't it always been during a time when Middle Earth needs help? Has been in dire trouble?"
Dania could see she'd surprised some of those around her, but Narsh beside her nodded silently.
"We may not trust each other, and probably some of that mistrust has a very good reason. None of us knows exactly why the other is here, or who they work for. I think we all agree though that there is something going very wrong with Middle Earth, and something must be done about it. Could we start there? What are your thoughts?" Dania looked cautiously from one face to the other, some masking their emotions, others as readable as a book. She knew she'd taken a huge chance, and it might turn out to hurt everyone by doing so. She hoped it wouldn't though, because this was her last hope.

The first flight of corsair archers flew into the air, cutting a half dozen defenders off the wall.

"Back! Be more careful you worm eaten slime!" roared their orc captains. "The master will have your heads for your carelessness, even if the enemy don't!"

The second flight only wounded two, and their were no deaths. The soldiers ducked behind their shields as the next flight deflected away without harming anyone. However, the cover was keeping them down, and giving the corsair foot soldiers time to move a battering ram forward. Cut from Fangorn, it was one of the trees that wasn't alive, but even so, it had been very difficult to take it and come back alive. The ents were not pleased.

Unvar smiled as the battering ram smashed against the gates, weakening it's quickly constructed hinges.

Another orc was picked off the wall, and two others wounded. The hastily constructed trench of the corsairs was working for them, and their numbers and experience were getting the better of the inept defenders.

Torches were used to help melt and weaken the hinges of the doors, and in a few more blows, the door was torn off it's hinges and thrown down. The corsairs gave a cry of triumph and moved forward . . . right into the wave of fire that swept down the hillside, sweeping away the attackers.

"Pull back!" Unvar yelled to his screaming force as they fled the wave of fire.

The men scrambled out of the trench just as the fire swept in, making it a river of fire. But it stopped there, and out of the doorway charged the balrog, leading his best warriors. He had used the same strategy in miniature that Melkor had in the great siege of Angband, and it had worked just as effectively. He leapt the trench and lashed the legs of two soldiers with his whip. Then, heaving his flaming sword in both hands, he smashed into the enemy ranks, filling them with terror. His four orc captains came shortly behind him, finishing off the wounded that he left in his wake.

"Reassemble, and target the balrog!" Unvar roared, but, getting no response, he took the initiative himself, getting in the beast's path with his guards. He flung himself at the beast, his sword cutting a chunk out of it's leg, and then ripping a jagged line across it's side. It whirled in fury, catching him around the head with it's whip and crushing the helmet into smoldering shreds. He pealed it off quickly and deflected a blow from an orcish blade, ducking backwards as he did. The balrog's great blade cut a path for it as it pursued Unvar. He didn't make it wait long. Seizing his black shield and roaring in wrath, he lunged at his opponent, slashing and ducking, swerving and dodging. The beast roared in anger, fire gushing from it's main and even flaring from the edges of it's nostrils and mouth. Lunging forward it leapt upon Unvar. His sword pierced into it's chest up to the hilt, and it smashed down upon him, crushing him to the ground.

All he could see was blood, fire and the horrible hide of the beast. Then it disappeared as the beast reared up in agony, clawing at the sword which it had impaled itself on. It ripped the blade from it's body and stumbled backwards. The orcish captains paused and stepped back, fear put into them by the retreat of their leader.

The army of the balrog fell back in dismay. The beast hissed through it's jaws to it's captains, "Retreat back to the fortress."

"Retreat!" the word echoed through the orcish force and they fled.

Quickly seeing their sudden advantage, the captains of Unvar decided to act as they knew their leader would, and soon what had appeared to be a defeat was turned into a great victory as the enemy were cut down as they ran, or picked off by the swarms of arrows that fell upon their force. But soon the enemy had gotten in, and heavily armored pikemen held off the corsairs at the gate. Then, as boulders began to be dropped down from the top, these corsairs were also pulled back, and the army moved out of range.

Unvar opened his eyes and winced in pain. Glancing around, he saw that the battle had ended. The enemy wounded had been slaughtered and those of the corsairs were being dragged away to be healed. If he could judge by the massive losses of the enemy leading back up the charred soil to their own gate, it had a great victory. They had been routed.

Unvar smiled briefly; his captains had done well. Horrible aches filled his body from the crushing weight of the balrog and he groaned. If he'd been underneath for long, he'd have been crushed to death. He staggered back to his camp and stopped at the flap of his tent, where he heard voices coming from.

"I don't know what Lord Unvar was trying to get so hard anyway. None of us really do, we only have our own theories. He's surely dead, and with him, I say his quest dies too."

"How do you know he's dead?" came another voice. "We shouldn't leave our ruler unless we're certain. Only then, will we take the appropriate action."

"But I saw him lashed around the head with the whip!"

"I'm very much alive," Unvar said, entering the tent. He fixed his eyes on the speaker who's face paled. "Scorched and broken, but I've come out alive. I always have, no matter what the odds. That's why you have gathered around me. I am pleased with how you finished the battle, but I will stand for no treasonous talks like the one I've just heard."

"My lord," the corsair fell to his knees, "You see no treason here, sire!"

"You will have a chance to prove it, Ingard. For you shall help me lead our next offensive."

"It will be an honor, my lord!"

"Get up. We have won a great victory today, and I do not intend to have it wasted. Now let's plan our next attack."

As he remembered the short time he had spent with this one, and the service she had rendered him, Mal sighed softly.
It had been there, in the grasp of the Dark One, where he had began to lose his power. It was there he had started on the path that led him hear.

"I am here for me, Syntia, I am simply here for me."
His words were quiet, soft, but what the others did not see or here was the rest of the unspoken connection he sent to Syntia - and gazing upon him, she felt his immense sense of loss and weakness, and the urgent, driving force to regain his lost strength that had become the most powerful purpose in his life.

He turned his head away, closing his soul off once more, uncomfortable he had shown so much - he, once hailed as the Master of Secrets...

When Dania went on to talk, Mal's interest was drawn back to the conversation. What she said... and the presence of the Other atop Saruman's tower... things did, indeed, start to fit together.
As well, there had been rumors, many tales being told while he had been searching for his own lost items... of another who was seeking something lost long ago... and rebuilding his strength.

"The question is," Mal spoke up, still in soft tones, "where are we supposed to be? And what purpose have we been gathered together for?" Mal trailed off, and then a thought hit him, of Unvar and the ranger, and looking up, with a burning gaze, staring into Dania's face, he said, "And we are not the only ones that have been driven by circumstances into this forest of late - where are the others?"

A troubled look crossed Dania's features, but was gone almost before it could be noticed. "I'm not sure, I haven't seen hide nor hair of them for a while. Which worries me. I don't think they are still in the forest, or I would have heard or seen something at least. But they are close, I don't know that Faradin would leave completely without at least giving us an idea of why he was going. He was as concerned as I was about the strange things going on."
Narsh stepped forward, though he hardly ever spoke, there was a good reason when he did, and everyone listened carefully. "It would seem we have a choice," his voice rasped, an effect of the scar across his throat, "we could wait here to see what has become of them, go on without them, or go and find them. We must keep in mind, they may have fallen into the hands of our unknown enemy. Whoever he is, he could know more about us than we know." His piece said, Narsh stepped back into the shadows to await a reaction.

Marondras smiled. "A Blasting Delve, eh? Perfect, indeed perfect. About time . . ." He smoothed his hands over the constructions plans, gently.

"So what is it?"

"There is only one in Middle Earth at this time. And it'll take a long time to make another. But with the massive production capacity of this mountain, it will probably be quicker. This'll take a lot of power. An enormous amount. But it can be done."

"But what is it?" Arvec asked impatiently.

"You can build things using them. Great things, powerful things. I've already prepared for this moment, and have altered the foundations of the mountain."

"This mountain?" Arvec asked in horror.

"No, no, don't be an idiot. I wouldn't destroy the master's castle, that would be stupid."

"I, didn't mean, uh . . ."

"Anyway, I'll get started immediately. Just get me two tons of the blasting powder that you had bought from Isengard, and . . ."

"Two tons!"

"Amazing that an elf with ears like that could be deaf."

"But two tons is almost all that we have!"

"Oh, you have more? Than get the rest of it as well. I'll get started at once. I'll need two hundred of your workers, and . . ."

"What!" Arvec stood up, his face flushed with anger and amazement.

Marondras looked up at Arvec, raising an eyebrow, a look of annoyance on his face. "I intend to get this job done. It's more important than any of your trivial weapon construction."

"Very well, if your going to do this than I'm going to take personal charge of the construction."

"I'm afraid that won't be possible. Your unimportant to the project, only your resources are."

"But Nardran left the responsibility to me!"

"He made a mistake. I'm the only one who is indispensable to the project, and you will simply be a nuisance. That will be all, you're dismissed."

Arvec nearly burst with rage.

"I know where Unvar and his men were headed. There is a fortress near the mountains. Unvar was planning to attack it when I left him. Perhaps we should explore this place ourselves. But not an attack. I was thinking of sneaking in to learn what we may."

"I think," Mal said dryly, "We may have found what we have to do. Or one thing, at the least."

With his remaining hand, he pushed himself off of the ground, and rose to his feet, if a bit shakily.

"I, for one, wonder at what this castle is, and why Unvar has turned his forces against it. I am well enough, I think, to go a-searching for some answers. If any of you wish to join me?" And as he trailed off, his eyes turned to one in particular - Syntia. Himself, and Saruman, and her, and whatever force Unvar was now facing against... surely, so many beings of power so close together was most certainly not chance...

The master had though about this for quite a while. After looking through the palantir, he'd realized where the conversation was headed. He knew all he needed to know.

"General Fildrog, get me thirty of your best fighters and assemble at the north wall."

"At the north wall? With all due respect, there are no enemies over there and it'll weaken our outer defense so much that . . . AH!"

The balrog's whip lashed out, cutting his throat open. The creature turned it's ferocious gaze on a different general.

"Gandarx, will you give the order?"

"Yes my lord." The general bowed his head and hurried from the room.

Soon the force was assembled, and the master was with them. The warriors trembled in fear at the sight of their master. But that was as it should be. Fear was one of the balrog's greatest weapons.

The balrog seized the edge of the wall and leapt over onto the soil. His men followed suit, climbing down quickly and nervously. Then, the balrog lead his men off and away, disappearing into the night.

"What advantages and disadvantages are there to going as one group or in two?" Dania said thoughtfully. Already, plans were starting to take substance in her mind.

"Split our forces? That could be an idea, save we are so few already. Still, I, myself, would be much more suited to entering the fortress through... overlooked... entrances, and scouting. While some, such as out ranger friend here," and a nod to Faradin, "but if others would not be suited for such a task, they could meet up with the corsair lord, and learn what they may from him..."
With this, Mal finishes his short speech, looking winded and pale from simply talking.

Everybody trooped off to Isengard because Unvar realized he was being tricked by Saruman. Saruman found out that they were there and attacked them. Malagar found his armband and used a shadow magic to slaughter Saruman's henchmen. Then he went onto the pinnacle of Orthanc and lost both his armband and his arm to a evil skull head that attacked him there.

Dania and Narsh brought him to the Entmoot while Faradin joined Unvar.

An evil balrog of mine commands a fortress nearby Fangorn. He's trying to get his hands on the Book of Secrets.

Not telling what it does, that's a secret at present!

He tricked Slythre into betraying Unvar and giving him the palantir. Then he locked her away in the dungeon of his fortress.

Meanwhile, other characters of mine are building a Blasting Delve nearby a far away castle called Iron Heart. What that has to do with anything is also undiscovered.

Faradin joins Unvar's team, finds out about Slythre's treachery, leaves him, goes to Fangorn, fights some orcs and enters the Entmoot.

Now everybody is in the Entmoot but me. :(

Unvar reaches the fortress and attacks it, scoring a victory but not winning.

The balrog sneaks off with his best men to who knows where.

I hope you read this debriefing, it would seem a little stupid sitting here in the middle of story for no purpose.
Thanks for your attention, farewell!*

Dania handed Mal one of the leather flasks from her bag, which after a sip cured some of his lightheadedness. While he steadied himself, she continued to speak.
"Well, I thing we have agreed. We will split into two groups, and meet once we are inside. The smaller the group, the less of a chance of being seen, regardless of their manpower. Narsh, Faradin and myself will be one group, and Syntia and Mal would make up the other, if there are no objections?" She looked from face to face, "if anyone has better teams already in mind, feel free."

"Sounds like a plan," said Mal, and the others gave agreement. "But we must go now, and quick - who knows what might be transpiring while we spend time in idle chatter?"

Soon, the groups were on the move, and followed Faradin much of the way toward where the fortress was. When they arrived, however, they split up.

Mal and Syntia headed to the north of the hastily built fortress, and easily found a way up and over the wall, slipping under the eyes of watchers in the darkness of the night. As they entered in through a window, Mal muttered, "I sense something dark and vile pervading this place, and I like it not."

"I sense it too - but I also feel that it is not here right now. We must be quick though, for if it would sense us here, it would surely return quickly," Syntia responded.

With no further words, Mal begin to creep down the hallways of the fortress, trying to find some explanations within.

Yes, there it is. Dania and Faradin leaned over the edge of a bank, they had passed three guard without much trouble, and now had the kitchen's gate in view. Narsh sat a few yards to the right, keeping an eye on the guards. The small door was not guarded itself, but there was a guard on the wall just above.
Pulling out her bow, Dania found her longest arrow, notched it, pulled back as far as he could, and let it fly. The guard's hand flew to his throat, silently he fell from the wall, landing just outside the kitchen door.
No one stirred, the other guards hadn't noticed. Giving the signal, Faradin led the group to the wall and through the door.

A hail of arrows flew over the wall, picking three defenders off the battlements. Then suddenly, off the hillside sprang two dozen of Unvar's best fighters, smashing into the pikemen barricade, and breaking it to pieces. Although everyone in the front row of the attack died almost instantly, their companions jumped over their bodies and cut the enemy warriors to pieces. The orcs and men screamed and fled in terror as the vicious Corsairs of Umbar came on, unstoppable.

Faradin and Dania hurried into the room, shutting the door behind them and sliding the bolt into place. They quickly proceeded down the dark corridor and opened one of the two doors at the wall. Just then, they heard screams, shouts, and the clash of weapons from outside.

For a moment they thought they were discovered, but then they heard the battle cries of the corsairs and knew that as yet they were safe.

As they proceeded deeper into the structure, they began to wonder at the lack of foes or impediments.

"Surely they have better defenses then this," Dania said eventually.

"Perhaps they had greater losses than we thought in their first battle with the corsairs," Faradin suggested. "I saw the markings of the fight on our way in."

Just then, they went down a dark staircase and stopped short. Three orcs were directly in front of them.

Faradin's sword took two of them out in the first blow, and a quick slash from Dania's knife finished the other.

Ahead were a dozen barred and padlocked doors.

"I believe we've entered the dungeons," Dania whispered.

"All the better," was Faradin's response. "A uprising from inside the castle will certainly help in their defeat."

They began moving from door to door, but found no one in any of the cells. Then, they stopped. Finally a cell that had a prisoner. The figure was sagging in chains that held it up, unconscious.

Faradin dealt the door three sharp blows, bringing it crashing to the floor. Then, he stepped into the cell, Dania right behind him. He suddenly started in surprise. Although the person's clothes were in rags, and she was wounded and battered, she was recognizable.

"What is it?" Dania asked.

"This is Slythre, one of Unvar's top agents. But she betrayed him and joined the people of this fortress."

"Well what should we do with her? We can't just leave her here. She doesn't appear to be on their side anymore."

"But can we trust her? Unvar thought he could, but was wrong."

"We don't have to trust her, only set her free. An enemy of our enemies is a friend."

"Perhaps," he said, and got to work.

Mal and Syntia opened a door and ducked inside. A long hallway lay ahead. They quickly moved ahead, but as they neared the end of the hallway, came to a stop. Suddenly, the door in front of them opened and a figure stepped through, followed by a dozen other black armored figures.

Not a match for their two opponents, but still a threat.

"Who are you?" their leader asked through his helmet, raising his drawn sword.

"Enemies, and that is all you need to know," Mal said as he prepared to fight.

"Perhaps you are not entirely correct in that assumption," the figure responded. "If you fight those who rule this castle, than we are friends. We are defecting."

Mal was still suspicious. This could be just a trick to put them off their guard. "Why should I trust you?"

"Why shouldn't you?" the figure countered. "You two are within my power. At a command, you would be instantly killed."

"Perhaps it would be harder than you think," Syntia responded.

The figure hesitated. "Very well," he said from behind his closed visor. "It is proof you want. Here it is."

He raised the visor of his helmet, revealing his mutilated face. A hideous slash wound gaped across half of it, having smashed one of his eyes, broken his nose and ripped away part of his mouth.

"I once was an elf captain, but at the whim of my commander this was done to me. I will bare these wounds to the end of my days, and now live for nothing else but to have my revenge."

"It was an evil weapon that did this to you," Syntia said softly.

"A balrog's whip," the warrior responded with a furious fire flashing up briefly in his one eye. "I will never rest until I have dealt equal vengeance upon it's master."

Syntia slowly remove the hood of her elven cloak revealing her face to everyone present.

-A balrog...she said pensively, oblivious to everything happening around her, the battle, the treacherous soldier, Mal...

The stench of terror was present everywhere and for the first time she truly understand from were it came and that understanding came with a great sadness. The captain was no match for a balrog, nor were Dania and all the other. Mal was too weak to be of any help and the Istari were present for other task. Only she could pose a veritable treat for the balrog and to her knowledge no one ever defeat a balrog and survive the encounter.

Mal was livid the though of facing a balrog in his weakened state was too much for him. She let him know from her mind to his mind that he wouldn't have to face him at all.

-Mal, find the other and help them get out of here safely. I don't want them here when the master return home. don't worries for me Iíve seen worst. She turn to face the elf captain, lead me to the apartment of your master...I have much to learn and so do you.

Nardran stared at her through his eye for a long moment. Than he closed the visor to his helmet. "We have already been there, and the master is gone. His lair is in the heart of the castle, go there if you will. But you'll find no enemy there to fight. My advice to you is to leave him be. I've already seen one beautiful and brave woman stand up to him, and have witnessed her downfall. Do not make history repeat itself."

He looked at her for a moment longer. "Do as you wish, but at least consider my warning."

The master watched through the palantir as the intruding Maia and their allies entered his fortress. Whatever happened there was unimportant now. The victory was in sight. Now if he could only get past these rotten ents! Perhaps the best way was the most direct. It would mean announcing his presence all over the wood, and probably attract the attention of that meddler Syntia, but he was out of time.

The master rose to his full height and let out a great roar that resounded through the air, making the trees quake. Then, he leapt forward, blasting away branches, leaves and roots, burning three ents to blackness in the first few seconds. His men charged to keep up, flames burning into the trees and setting the forest alight. The direct attack was severe and stunning, forcing the trees to retreat in the path of the onslaught. But this only allowed the balrog to gain speed, and right now, speed was everything. He leapt into the Entmoot, burning and deadening the grass in all directions.

Syntia rose her head. She sensed the fight, and heard the ents crying out for assistance. Their fighting skills were far overmatched, and they were like matches trying to put out a raging furnace. Syntia closed her eyes and drew power into herself. Then, she disappeared, soaring out through the sky towards Fangorn with all of the speed she could muster.

The balrog's claws ripped into the soil as his troops struggled to keep the ents at bay. Quickly, he churned it out, throwing mud over the clearing.

Treebeard knew what was at stake and lunged forward, smashing two orcs out of the way with his mighty limbs. The balrog's men fell apart, dead or dying at the attack, but the balrog had found his goal. He reached into the hole and pulled out an iron bound chest. Then, clutching it in a claw, he lunged for the path he'd hacked for himself . . . only to be smashed backwards by a magical blast from Syntia. The chest went flying out of his hands and landed on the ground. Quickly raising a claw, he summoned flames to lick up and surround him, the chest and Syntia, cutting off the ents from interfering.

"So we meet," he snarled, red hot sulfur falling from his black lips as he looked at her through dark, red eyes.

"Sooner than I expected, but the timing is good."

"You shall regret having ever interfered. The book is mine!"

"What book? I've never known balrogs to be interested in literature."

The beast roared and swung his sword down, renting a deep gap in the soil where she had been an instant before. She through out both arms and white light boiled forth, blinding the balrog momentarily. The next blow caught him in the leg, and he stumbled. The next took him in the shoulder, and through him backwards. But he used that as momentum, hurtling around and slashing with his whip, catching her in a coil and throwing her out of the flaming ring and into the trees. But the balrog wasn't interested in a fight, or the destruction of his enemy. All he wanted was survival, and to escape with his treasure. Seizing the chest, he leapt into the branches, which instantly smashed against him with rending strength. He'd never faced the full, tearing power of the ents, and now he regretted having to go through the experience. But, he slashed out with his sword, cutting away the foremost branches. Then, he leapt through the hole left, and dodged into the forest, smashing whatever blocked his path and leaving a trail of blackened carnage in his wake.

As the balrog emerged from Fangorn, he noticed the palantir which he'd left behind during his attack. He thought for a moment, and then decided to leave it.

It wasn't that important anyway, and it would mean that the annoying corsair would get off of his trail, and that would mean one less enemy to fight. The future was uncertain, and although he had succeeded, he'd made more enemies than he needed in the doing.

As Mal felt the feeling of one spying upon him once again, he grew angry. Then, he realized what was going on, as Syntia did as well, and as she vanished he called out to the treacherous captain, "Whether you are friend or foe, I have no time to deal with you right now. If you are a foe of the Balrog, then either flee this place, or aid the corsairs against the orcs they face. Now then, I must find my friends."

With that, he quickly left the elf and his men behind, vanishing down the corridors of the fortress, and listening for any sound of the others. Soon, he heard noise, slight and nearly unnoticeable, to any but him, from the floor beneath him. Going down the stairs, he found Narsh almost shoot him in the chest with an arrow, before realizing who he was.

"You should announce your presence more quickly," said the grim form, but Mal had no time for discussion.
He saw Dania and Faradin untying a figure from bonds, and called out, "We must be gone from this place. The forest is under assault! Quickly, follow me out!"
Saying that, Mal turned and headed out to the nearest exit.

Automatically, Narsh picked up the still unconscious Seltzer, and followed after Faradin, who was right on Mal's heels. Dania took the rear, keeping a sharp eye, and ear, out for anyone nearby.
The doorway, their gateway to freedom, lay just ahead, the light from outside throwing back the tendrils of darkness around them. Dania whirled suddenly, and the gleam of an orcish weapon caught the sunlight behind them.
"Run!" She yelled, following quickly behind. There was no way to out run them, but the doorway was smaller than the passage, and easier to hold a defense.
Just out side the door, Narsh stopped and, handing Slythre to Faradin, prepared to face the orcs emerging from the fortress alongside Dania.
Narsh pulled the great sword from his back, concentration glinting in his eyes. Dania's own dagger, Elven-made, long and strong, was clutched tight in her hand.
The first orc approached the door way, and felled quickly by a swipe of Narsh's sword. The second and third attempted to step over the body of the first, one flailing wildly with his axe as it did so. The other lunging with his sword, the tip managing to cut across Dania's cheek. The edge of the orcish axe caught Narsh on the shoulder, while he'd been busy dealing with the orc who'd cut Dania's face. Dania moved too quickly for the axe-wielding orc to see, stabbing the dagger into his lungs, and robbing him of breath.
There were five more orcs, still inside in doorway, and far enough back that they might make it to the others. Turning suddenly, they ran.

Suddenly, another group of orcs blocked their way. Narsh cut the foremost down, but he was losing blood, and it was having an effect on his fighting ability.

Faradin laid Slythre on a pile of rocks, behind him so that he could join into the fight. Quickly, he slashed away three of the orcs that were attacking Narsh and Dania, and then he attacked again, pushing the others back. But these were stronger, and soon the group was pinned backwards between two stone walls. There was a staircase leading up the wall, but orcs were charging down from it already, sealing the trap.

Four orcs were fighting Faradin at once. He smashed one of their blades, cut the arm off of another, took a step back and braced to fight again. The remaining three charged him, screaming war cries. He cut the head off of one, stabbed deep into the chest of another, and felt his sword get entangled in the chain mail armor of the creature. He pulled, but it was stuck. The remaining orc raised it's blade, triumph in it's eye. Then, it's eyes glazed over as it was split in two by a vicious blow from behind. The two halves of the body toppled and Unvar stepped out from behind it.

"I thought that our paths would cross again, ranger," he said as his men slashed away the orcs and men who surrounded the group. "You fight well, but I would expect no less of a Numenorean." He turned his piercing gaze on Mal. "And you surprise me more and more with each meeting. I thought you'd been killed once and for all in Isengard. But apparently accomplishing a feet such as your death would be an impressive one indeed."

"My lord!" A captain dashed up to Unvar. "My lord, the castle has fallen! Your troops occupy every part of it except for the very inner areas."

"Good. Take those, and search the dungeons as well. If Slythre is found, have her brought to me."

"My lord." Then he bowed his head and hurried back to the troops.

Nardran's heart had taken a cold strength, and he felt as if he were afire in his rage. No more was the humble elf captain, ready to do his master's will and cringe before his wrath. He had taken on a personal quest, an obsession that he knew would lead him to his death. But if that was to be, than so be it. Just as long as he would get the chance to stand over his former master, and be the one to snuff the life from it's evil body.

He looked up the passage as orcs issued from the inner recesses of the castle, and as it drew upon it's last reserves. They could put up a good fight, and could hold off Unvar's forces for at least a week. But they wouldn't, Nardran would see to that. Quickly, he and his band moved forward. Nardran drew his silver sword from it's black sheath with a metallic ring. Swiftly, he and his men moved forward. They could hear the shouts and cries of battle as Unvar's army met their foes. The inner archer holes would be the destruction of them. There was a dark courtyard with an underground door that lead in. On his side of the walls were arrow slits, so that arrows could be shot out, to pick off the attackers before they got close. The darkness would enable the orcs to do this without any substantial return fire.

Nardran gave the signal, an elven battle cry, and his band leapt from their hidden positions upon their enemies. The archers were cut down quickly and efficiently. Quickly gathering his force, he led them up.

"Now!" he cried, and his force leapt up, hitting the orcs and soldiers from the back. Just then, Unvar's force attacked from the front, and soon, between the two groups, the last of the enemy soldiers were exterminated.

Nardran stepped forward and booted a dying enemy out of the way. Then, he walked up to the enemy's leader.

"You have done us a great service today," the captain said.

"More so than you know, but we shall discuss that later. Bring me to Lord Unvar."

Dania sat panting behind the embankment, catching her breath as she waited for the others. It wasn't long before Narsh came stumbling over, and weakly fell to the other side. His side was wet with blood, his face pale with loss of the same. His breath was raspy, and shallow. Giving him one of her herbal draughts, despite his adamant refusal, she managed to staunch most of the bleeding and bind his chest. A large gash in his shoulder didn't want to stop, however, and when she went to wipe away some of the blood, she noticed it felt strangely hot. She bound the shoulder anyway, not sure what to do about that.
Sitting back, she waited for Faradin, Syntia, and Mal.

Slythre raised her head weakly, hearing the noise of battle. How came she here? The last thing she remembered was the horrible dungeon, and her ever oppressive guilt.

She stood up and looked around. The Corsairs of Umbar were attacking! They were just finishing off the last of the orcs and soldiers. She'd been unconscious for the whole battle! Obviously Unvar still didn't know where she was, and she intended to keep it that way. He knew what she had done, that much was certain, and he would probably kill her when she was found. Her wounds were on to serious. This was probably because the balrog had been trying to torment her, not kill her. Quickly, she picked up a cloak from the battlefield and wrapped it around herself. Then, she took a sword as well, and began climbing the ramparts.

She was half the way up when she saw a man walking down from the top. She looked up and their eyes met. It was Malagar, Unvar's ally.

"Well, we meet again," he said, climbing down the steps toward her.

"But how can you be here? I saw you fall from Orthanc's pinnacle." Best to avoid the topic of Unvar for the moment for as long as possible. If he turned her in, she was dead.

Faradin finished wandering about the fortress and headed to Dania and Narsh's resting place. "Well we seem to have everything in hand here, but that spawn of Angband is not here, he must have headed somewhere else when he realized the fortress could not be held."

Squatting next to the two elves he looked closely at Narsh. "Are you ok, my friend. You don't look well?"

"Let us just say luck was with me, as it often is. Not enough, however, to save all of me," and here Mal raised the short stump that was all that was left of one arm, for display.

Placing it back beneath his cloak, he said, "How came you here? Myself, and some of the others your lord had encountered in the woods, heard of the battle he was waging on this fortress, and came here in search of answers. The others were concerned with some orcs that threatened the wood... myself, I am more concerned now that I have learned what ran this place, though it fled away. But how did you end up in its dungeon?" As he finished, Mal cocked his head to one side, and stared Slythre in the eye.

Slythre hesitated, and turned her head for a moment, nervously scanning the crowd of corsairs below. She looked back at Malagar. There was no letting him off. When he and Unvar had created their alliance, she hadn't gotten the impression that it was permanent. And if it was, he would already have turned her in. He also would have returned to Unvar after his wounds were cured, rather than remaining separate. It seemed more likely that he was out for himself, and had entered into the alliance for convenience.

If he was allied with Unvar, telling him her story would at least make it certain that Unvar would know what had really happened before executing her. And if he wasn't, telling him could cause no real damage.

"Come with me," she said, and walked slowly up the stone steps to the top of the wall. She wrapped her cloak a little tighter around her, and then turned to him. "When we first came to this country, I had every intention of helping Lord Unvar, and doing his bidding. Me and Agravigan were his top agents. We were some of the very few who he actually trusted. He sent us on his top missions, and we were personally groomed by him into becoming experts at stealth, combat, and spy duty. Shortly after we made camp at Fangorn Forest, a person visited me in my tent. He was an elf named Nardran, a captain of an army, and one who was attempting to accomplish a great mission, and take a treasure from Fangorn which would help to heal the world of all of the great wounds inflicted on it. He told me that I could help him to discover this treasure."

She sighed and looked out over the wall. "I was deceived. It appears that both of Unvar's top agents had weaknesses. Agravigan's failing is sometimes to pay attention to the job at hand, and he sometimes makes mistakes."

"And you don't?"

She smiled wryly at him. "No, not really. But my failing is even worse than his. I was gullible, and too open to what he was saying. I'd always dreamed of helping in a great and just cause, and with some persuasion, he somehow convinced me to do it."

Mal frowned. This didn't sound too plausible.

"A creature from Mordor stole the palantir from Saruman's tower, and replaced it with another. One to twist him to evil. The real one was taken by this creature, but as it fled, it was shot down by archers from the wall. Using my elven cloak, I went over, took the palantir, and got away without being noticed. Then, I gave it to Nardran at this castle. However, later on, I finally began to suspect. How did Nardran know about the transaction? On one of my visits to the place, I heard to people mention the word 'master' with such fear that I couldn't believe it was Nardran. I commanded him at knife point him to take me to the master, which he did."

Pain filled her face from the horrible memories of the experience. She could almost feel the flames, and the slashing claws again. Already, the physical wounds were beginning to throb less painfully. But the nightmares would haunt her to the rest of her days. Even if she escaped Unvar's wrath, she would never be truly free from this experience.

Tears filled her eyes. "I have betrayed Unvar, and am no longer worthy of his trust. He wants to kill me, and I do not blame him." She bowed her head. "What you do now, is your choice."

A black sailed ship approaching Umbar's coast was certainly not a rare occurrence. However, a black sailed ship with a blazing red eye on the sail was.

"I am the Mouth of Sauron!" a voice cried out over the water from the ship. "I demand audience with your leaders!"

Lord Gordance sat down opposite the creature. "Sir, I'm afraid that our Lord Unvar is not here at present. He's been away for two or three months on business. I'm afraid you only have me and the other lords to speak to." He motioned his hand to the other nobles. "These twelve nobles are all here to see what could be important enough to make such an important person leave Middle Earth and come to us."

"My lords," the creature began. "I have come here with a piece of information for you all. Are you acquainted with the reason for Lord Unvar's journey to Middle Earth?"

"It was private."

"So private indeed that even his top officials shouldn't hear of it?"

They looked at each other uncomfortably.

"The Dark Lord of Mordor has become interested in the affair for personal reasons. However, he did stumble upon one piece of information which he believed would interest you."

Lord Gordance looked at his hands. "Get to the point. What is it that you want?"

"Nothing except your benefit."

"You expect us to buy that?" Gordance scoffed, and the others murmured in agreement.

"Listen. How many of you were friends with Lord Mordin?"

"Three of us," Gordance said.

"He was as good a corsair as any here, was he not?"

"What are you getting at? Mordin betrayed Lord Unvar, and was killed for it. It was Unvar's right, as our ruler."

"But you didn't hear why Mordin turned against Unvar. He discovered how you could all be defeated. Lord Unvar owned a palantir, a seeing stone. He was using it to spot out your defenses, and prepare his strategy in accordance with it. Mordin discovered this, and stole the palantir. Then, he fled for his life, not having time to alert you as to his plight. He hoped that what he'd done would stop Unvar from defeating you, but he was wrong. Unvar sped up his plans, and used what information he already had to defeat all of your fortresses simultaneously, and seize complete control of your territories."

Gordance and his comrades looked at each other, surprise in their faces, but it appeared that they were beginning to believe him. "That explains much," he said.

"Unvar pursued and exterminated both Mordin and the entire crew of his ship. But he was too late, and Mordin had already given the palantir to an agent in Middle Earth. Instantly, Unvar picked up on the agent's trail, and has used fear and murder as weapons to his advantage. Already, he closes on his prey."

The nobles' faces were livid with fury. "He betrayed us all!" one said in wrath.

"Lord Sauron of Mordor suggests an alliance between our two countries," the lieutenant of Mordor said, hardly able to keep the triumph he was feeling out of his voice. "You shall join with us, and we shall help show you rich targets to hit, and, if you wish, how you may take your revenge on Unvar."

The vote was unanimous, and took only a few minutes to procure. That day, Mordor gained a new ally in Gordance, the newly elected ruler of the corsairs.

Narsh looked up at Faradin. Though his face was pale, his jaw had a stubborn set to it.
"I'm fine," he rasped, "it just burns a mite, that's all. That orc must have put some sort of poison on the edge of the blade. No normal wound would burn this much."
Dania looked at his shoulder again, "The bleeding isn't stopping either. Maybe we should let Mal and Syntia know we need to get back to the Forest."

After a moment's thought, Mal responded.

"Well," he said, pausing for a second, and continuing dryly, "I doubt Unvar would take you back into his confidence, indeed. But you certainly do not strike me as the type to willingly side with the fallen one that led this fortress, and your pains are all too evident..."

Mal made a quick decision, and gestured for Slythre to follow him, saying, "Come with me, I will help you out of this place, and Unvar's immediate grasp."

Slythre could hardly believe her ears, but was quickly up, despite the pain, and heading after him. Deeply she wished she could return to Unvar, but she knew, no matter her skills, he would never accept her back into his trust.

Fortunately dusk was well upon the fortress, and darkness and shadows were plentiful. As the pair headed down corridors, and up stairways back to the central level of the fortress, they only encountered one patrol of corsairs, and easily evaded them in a shadowy alcove. A short while later they slipped over one rampart, and crept down to the ground, along a wall that would have appeared sheer to anyone else, but seemed practically a staircase to Mal, with niches and handholds aplenty, and even Slythre in her weakened state easily moved down it to the ground. When the got down, Slythre followed Mal a short distance, until they both were well within Fangorn once again.

Turning to her, Mal said, "I now have a matter to investigate - the fallen one fled the tower and had some business within the woods, and I am quite interested in discovering what it was. It is long gone now, I am sure, but whatever would draw such a one into such a well defended place... well, that intrigues me greatly indeed. As for you, I leave you now to go where you will, but I am sure that, if you are still weak from your travails, some of the others who went into the fortress could help heal you, though you may wish to wait till they are no longer near Unvar's army. I know for sure some of them are most certainly only allies of necessity for him and would help you. Your path now lies in your hands."

As Mal finished his short speech, he gave a brief bow, flashed a grin, and began to slowly stroll off into the woods.

Lord Unvar walked up to Nardran, a smile on his face. "A pleasure it is to meet a warrior so valiant. My captains have told me of the help you gave us within the fortress, and I believe many of my men owe you their lives."

Nardran shook hands with the corsair lord, and nodded. "High praise indeed, coming from one such as you."

"I do thank-you indeed for your help." His face took on a more serious expression. "However, I must inform you that I do not consider myself as in your debt. What you have done was without request, and is thanked for. But you may make no demands of me that I will feel obligated to accept."

Nardran stared at him through his closed visor for a moment longer. "I didn't think that you would."

"So do you wish to join my side? We have won a great victory over my enemy, however, I do not believe that the war is over. The balrog itself still lives, and I cannot believe that we have eliminated all of it's allies here today."

"Indeed not. I had no intentions of joining your side, however, if you do intend to fight the creature, I will willingly join it."

Something in the elf's tone caught Unvar's attention. "Why do you feel so strongly about this?"

The elf captain hesitated. "That is a private matter."

Unvar's arm shot up and knocked his helmet from his head. He looked Nardran coolly in the eye. "Not anymore." He stared at the elf for a moment longer. "Your service is accepted, for as long as we continue to wage war on the creature."

Nardran's emotions were carefully masked. "Thank-you, Lord Unvar."

Unvar nodded and pulled a map of the territory out, spreading it out on the table. "Now we must plan our next move."

Slythre stared after Mal for a moment. Then, she looked back at the fortress. Perhaps she had better follow his advice. She had no better plan for the future, and she still wanted to thank the group which had helped to save her life. She looked at the gates for a while, and at the men coming in and out.

Then, she stumbled over to a rough tree on the outskirts of Fangorn. After making sure that it was not an ent, she sat down with her back to it, wincing as her wounds stabbed pain through her again. Gingerly, she probed the wounds, and bound them with long pieces of cloth, torn from her cloak. A very makeshift bandaging, but it would have to be sufficient for the time being.

Slowly, she rested her head back on the tree trunk, and closed her eyes. After a moment, she drifted off into a deep and dreamless sleep, finally relieved of her pain, even if only for a while.

Mal began to make his way through the woods, and shortly into it, set himself into his full powers of stealth, and despite his injury, not a single being would have noticed his passing for anything more than the shifting of a shadow in the moonlight.

He kept to the outskirts of the wood for a ways, and noticed, as he went on, he was nearing the path to Isengard. Looking up into the skies, he noticed figure take off from the top of the tower, sailing on huge wings over and away from the wood. The balrog? wondered Mal, but while he sensed power from above, it was not malevolent and it seemed weakened or cloaked, much like Saruman in his Istari form had seemed. Mal shook his head, dismissing what passed overhead as it sailed away from the forest, and continued on his own path deeper into Fangorn.

Soon, though, he came to something that concerned him deeply. Looking around as he entered the clearing he had seen the Ents during his first night in the wood, he could scarcely recognize the place. Fire had burnt through many of the trees, and even Ents lay fallen on the ground. Other dark shapes lie strewn about the clearing, and only a few living creatures remained in the place. Looking up from the corpses, Mal saw Syntia and the large ent that had healed him conversing.

He began to step out of the shadows and reveal himself, when he almost tripped over something lying on the ground. Glancing down as his near fall pushed something out of a pile of dirt it lay in, he saw a glittering orb. That's a stroke of luck, thought Mal, as he picked up the Palantir and pocketed it quickly, planning to investigate how it had gotten there at a later time. First, to discover what had happened.

Stepping out of the darkness cloaking him, Mal entered the clearing, and waving his one good hand, hailed to Syntia and the ent. "By the blessed music! What happened here?" he asked, in tones of certain unfeigned wonder at the carnage about him.

"You two stay here," Faradin said to the two elves, "I'm going to see what I can gather to help with the wound. Make sure he gets plenty of water and some food to keep up his strength, I should be back in a few hours."

Faradin left the fortress and as he was leaving he saw Unvar in deep conversation with a elven warrior with a hideous wound. He almost stopped, but Narsh's need was too great for delay. Making his was back into Fangorn he began his search for the necessary plants.

Marondras' arms were raised over his head, and his face contorted. Sweat ran in rivulets down his face, and his wild hair flew loose behind him.

Arvec looked at him in awe. What a man he was. Marondras had never impressed him as a man of power. Often, Arvec had suggested to Captain Nardran that Marondras be removed, and each time, Nardran had been evasive in his answers, side stepping the question. But now Marondras had informed him that the Blasting Delve was nearly completed. At each of their meetings, Marondras had seemed more and more drained. But this didn't stop him from keeping up his work at a feverish pace, often getting up in the middle of the night to go back to the mountain top. Sometimes he worked for days straight, without rest or any nourishment. Arvec himself could see no difference in the mountain top. The only signs that preceded the coming completion of the project were Marondras' increased strain, and the occasional earthquakes that shook the ground.

But these were enough to keep Arvec alert and on edge. He was also growing more and more tense as the days passed, as if something great was about to happen. He only hoped that he'd be prepared when the time came.

Unvar's eyes shifted from Nardran to the ranger who was just leaving. The one who'd left without telling them on the plain.

"Agravigan, follow that ranger. Keep your distance, and don't do anything stupid. They are very good at fighting and at loosing themselves when they want to be lost. If it weren't for your magical enhancement, I doubt that you could keep up with him for two minutes. Just keep an eye on him."

"I will, my lord."

Agravigan quickly followed the ranger out over the plain and into the woods.

As soon as Unvar's attention was focused back on him, Nardran spoke.

"I do have some special information. I used to be one of the principle captains of this garrison, and as such, I was entitled to a higher amount of information regarding the balrog's activities."


"His headquarters is the Castle Iron Heart, a fortress of considerable strength, which lies nearby Helms Deep. I can take you and all of your men to it."

"Interesting. Does it have any surprises we ought to know about?"

"They do own several great bats, who could cause extensive damage from the air. And there is also an insane Istari inside it. Or perhaps not a wizard, more like a cross between one of those and a Maia."

Unvar's lips tightened. This did not sound good. "How do you suggest we defeat such a strong force? You've been there before."

"I used to be under the command of Dul Amroth, a prince of men. While I worked for him, I made several friends in his court. Some of these were dwarves. If their leader is the same, I could get them to help us dig a tunnel into the castle."

"But that would take so much time! And they'd surely notice our operation before we finished, if, as you say, they have bats."

"You could cause a diversion which would take up a great deal of their scouts. Or position the army at a different location from the area the tunnel is dug. I'm sure we can arrange some cover for them to keep them from being seen. Especially if the main fighting is taking place on the other side of the castle. And they don't have to dig down, up and in. They simply have to dig forward for a couple days. With the proper tools, they can be superb miners. I expect them to crack into the place where the balrog issued forth to take possession of the fortress."

Unvar smiled. "It's ironic that the balrog took the castle from that hole, and it'll be taken back from it the same way."

"Yes. And not only the castle. Its life will be destroyed as well."

As Faradin made his way through the woods looking for the plants he would need he felt eyes on him but could see no one. He shrugged it off, he wasn't trying to lose himself, but unless someone was using magic ( ) they could not follow him without being seen themselves. He finally found enough of the leaves and roots he needed and headed back to the fortress.

Hurrying to Dania and Narsh he examined the wound and then began to take out his findings. "Take these roots and make a tea out of them, these will start to combat the poison already in his veins. Grind these leaves," he said taking out leaves of a dark green, "and put them on the wound for about an hour; they will draw out the poison still there. These," he said taking out some dry leaves and another root of a dark purplish color, "can be made into a poultice and should help the wound to close and heal. I'm going back out to see if I can find Syntia and Mal and to see if the Ents know the whereabouts of our true enemy, the Balrog."

"Thank you," Dania replied, taking the leaves from Faradin. He nodded, and left them in the clearing.
Dania set to busily making a small fire, with little smoke so as to not draw too much attention.

The ent turned at Mal's appearance, and boomed out a number of words in its strange language. Syntia, looking tired and sore, translated, saying, "The Balrog's target was here, apparently. I sensed, while with you in the tower, his attack, and came as fast as I could, but many ents had already fallen. He took an artifact that Treebeard says was buried here. Neither I, nor the ents, know any more of what it was, save it is called the Book of Secrets, and was crafted by a craftsman of my land - the isle of the Valar."

Mal's mind raced across his memory, and his knowledge of many, many treasures, but he could not place his immediate mind on what this artifact was. Book of Secrets, eh? His mind grew a bit interested at that name - secrets were his domain... but whatever this was, he could not recall it at the moment.

His contemplation took only a moment, and he said, "The damage the dark one has done seems quite extensive, and he got away with his treasure, it seems. Do you know where he went?"

Frustrated, Syntia shook her head, and Mal could read the same feeling on Treebeard's face. But the ent said a few more words, and Syntia explained, "It is good, at least, that the Balrog will leave this place be, now that he has his treasure. But I fear we must still seek it out, for who knows why it needed this Book of Secrets, or what powers it may give it?"

"A good point indeed," came a voice from behind them, and Faradin, the ranger, emerged from the woods. "And while I know not, as well, the foul fiends location, I do know that the," and his voice stiffened, and grew thick with disgust, "corsair lord, Unvar, has made the acquaintance of a lieutenant who turned on his dark master, in the fight at the castle. It would seem likely that he, if any, may be able to shed some light on the fiend's location."

Slythre's eyes opened and she looked up at the red sky of the late afternoon. For a moment, she just sat there, enjoying it's beauty. But then, the whole of what had happened came back, hitting her like a club.

Seizing the tree trunk for support, she got to her feet. Had the elves and others already gone? And if so, where to? That was a pretty easy question to answer. They'd probably gone to the Entmoot. And even if they hadn't, perhaps the ents which were there would help her find them. She owed her life to them, and she had nothing left. Her life was all past now. She was broken, and hunted. If anyone could help her now, it was them. And perhaps her talents would also be useful on their side.

Quickly, she made her way into the forest, hurrying as quickly as she dared towards the Entmoot, but with all of the stealth that she could manage. Her wounds hampered her, but her experience and abilities were great, making her virtually soundless.

Agravigan's focus on Faradin was distracted by a flash of movement. Quickly, he changed his gaze to that direction. He nearly fell over with surprise when he saw Slythre just outside the clearing.

He'd been highly disappointed when he'd slipped out after Faradin and tracked him through a herb collecting errand. But now, he really had something to report to his master. Also, Agravigan felt personally betrayed by Slythre. He would be glad to see her returned to her master.

Slythre hesitated for a long moment at the edge of the clearing, and then gradually moved away. No, this was not her fight. None of this had anything to do with her. She felt no desire for revenge, and not even any real sense of betrayal. All of these people were up to their necks in desires, reasons, and goals. She had none of these. She lacked purpose.

But no. It was true that she'd made a decision. A bad decision, which had changed her friends into enemies and destroyed her life. But was it possible to make it right again? She'd caused this Book of Secrets which they were talking about to be stolen. Was it at all possible that she set her mistake right again, and alter the damage that she'd done? If so, it was only by returning the book back to it's owners. Or if not its owners, at least its keepers. She had nothing else, therefore this would probably be the best action to take. It would at least partly repair herself in her own vision, even if not in anyone else's.

Straightening, she moved forward and entered the clearing. Its occupants looked over at her, and she walked towards them.

Mal turned, as Slythre approached, and gestured for her to come closer. Turning to the others, he explained, "Slythre was imprisoned by the Balrog, and tortured. She had been serving one under him, deceived as to their motives and means, and when she discovered, the torture nearly killed her. But she might know more of the balrog's future plans, as well, or at least have some hint that could help us. I-" and here Mal cut off, grimacing for a moment, and said, in another gasping breath, "My injury, it seems, still pains me a bit. Forgive me, but I must rest a moment or two."

Pain obviously filled his features, as he left the others to talk with Slythre, and curled up across the clearing by a tree. As soon as he lay down, his back to the others, the pain left his features, and he reached into one of his cloaks many pockets, drawing out the Palantir. Remembering Slythre's former companion, with the magic eyes, he drew his cloak about the orb as he inspected it. He might see through solid rock, thought Mal, but nothing could pierce the darkness of this cloak!

As the others conversed, he inspected the orb. He looked into its depths, slowly puzzling its use, and soon had deciphered the means to operate it. As he looked about the land, he could see from above a clear path of destruction from the forest, and following that line along its course, saw a fortress, not weak as the other, but strong and tough to assail. Nodding at that, he removed his vision from the orb, and began figuring out how it worked - and how he could defend against it. Soon, he pocketed it again, and returned to the others. I do not like being spied upon, he thought, but none shall do so with the likes of this again!

Dania helped Narsh to his feet, although she had insisted on his resting more, they both felt that they needed to get back to the rest of the group. Shoulder bound tightly, the smell of the herbs mixed with the blood to form a nose-wrinkling stench.
Dania checked the clearing, making sure they left no sign of their being there, and no trail to follow. Then together, at a quick pace, they headed back to Fangorn Forest.

"What happened?" Dania's eyes opened widely as they approached the group, charred remains of organic material were everywhere, and she could see even a few Ents were down.

Mal gave a wry grin as they entered the clearing, though it was more a grimace than a grin. "The dark one. While we were off, investigating and attacking his fortress, he was about his business in the wood. He found some treasure he was after, and took off again. That's as much as I know, at least."

"And I believe I know where he might have gone next," Slythre said.

All eyes turned on her. "During one of my times at the fortress, I was brought in on Nardran while he was in the middle of writing a letter. It was addressed to a person called Arvec, at a castle called . . ." she frowned in concentration. "I'm not sure. Iron Soul or something. It was along those lines. Have any of you heard of either Arvec or the castle? Oh yes, a person named Marondras was also mentioned."

At this, she got a very definite reaction from both Mal and Syntia. Syntia looked quickly at Mal. "Marondras? Could it be the same person?"

"Perhaps," he said grimly. "It is possible that he survived. But after the punishment the Valar gave him, I'd be amazed if he was."

"What did he do?" Slythre queried.

"If it is the same person, and I've got a feeling it is, he is responsible for the darkening of the Trees of Valinor."

"I thought that it was Ungoliant and Melkor."

"Yes, they were those who directly caused their destruction. Ungoliant crept into the Blessed Realm from the south, which was undefended. It was Marondras who caused the disintegration of the defenses in that area, for he had been corrupted by Melkor. He gave the cover needed for the giant spider to get right up to the trees, and destroy them. After his treachery was discovered, he was punished by the Valar for his crime, and was presumed dead."

"So now you believe he's returned again?"

Syntia shrugged. "It is possible. And if it is true, it is certainly logical that he joined the Balrog."

"Do you have any idea where the castle is located?" Mal asked.

"No. I was lucky to get what information I did."

Dania looked around at the group, "do you think we could pick up their trail? Or would that be wise? How great of a castle or fortress is this?"

Mal spoke up from the back of the group, saying, "I believe I may know where this fortress is located. If I am correct, this Castle Iron Soul, or whatever it is, may be a fortress I noticed near Helms Deep. Heavily defended, and much better fortified than the one taken by the Corsairs." As the others looked at him, wondering where this information came from, Mal simply shrugged, gave a small smile, and looked away.

"All right," Slythre said slowly. "In that case I guess we should start there. But that is quite a ways away from here, it'll take a journey. Are you sure that the castle near Helm's Deep is the one were looking for?"

Mal gave a shrug, and said, "Truthfully, I could not say. All I know is that I spotted a castle there while... investigating this area. I know not whether it is the one we seek or not, however..."

" . . . I do know that the Balrog's trail was leading in that direction."

None of the party had been with him the entire time, so none could refute the fact that he might have gone off and followed its trail.

Syntia shook her head. "You're awfully sharp."

Slythre nodded. "All right then, I assume that's the way we're going to go. It certainly is worth checking."

Mal bowed to Slythre's compliment, saying only, "I've spent a good deal of time perfecting the art of gathering knowledge."

He continued, "However, as a walker of the woods I am not at my best. While I am sure I could find my way, perhaps the good ranger could direct us in the quickest path to where we seek?"

Faradin shook his head reluctantly, "I don't know that side of the forest well enough. I'm sorry."
Dania looked thoughtful, "I might know what you are talking about. I was through that area a number of years ago... Yes, there is a way. As long as the landmarks are still there, I can get us there in a few days time."

"Hopefully that will be enough time to get us there and stop this dark one before it completes whatever plan it has," said Mal, still trying to figure out what this Book of Secrets was, and what was the key to its importance.

Setting the matter to the back of his mind, once more, he bowed to Dania, and said, "Well then, fare lady, lead the way, and let us make haste!"

The group moved off through the wood, keeping a pretty good pace. They left the forest pretty quickly, and soon were moving across the plain, avoiding the conquered fortress.

Night followed after them quickly, though, catching up with the footsore travelers, and bidding them sleep.

They sat in the cold darkness, not daring light a fire for fear of giving their presence away to unwanted guests. Mal sat against a tree, looking up at the stars.

Slythre stepped noiselessly out from the shadows in front of him, and walked over to him, her cloak wrapped tightly around her to keep out the cold.

"I cannot sleep," she said. "And the memories of what has recently transpired are too great." She sat down before him, hugging her knees. "And I have a question."


"What happened to you on Orthanc? I saw you wield a magic of the like I have never seen, and slaughter our enemies with ease. What was it that defeated you on the tower, and what is the magic that you possessed?"

Mal gave a small, sad smile.
"Let us just say I am a lot more than I appear to be. Once, I was quite powerful - and even what you saw on the tower was a fraction of the power I once wielded. Yet, I fear I made a mistake, one I never would have made of old. I was eager at regaining part of myself, and let loose with my power... and drew the attention of others. I knew my mistake when I sensed the presence of M'ertan, the one you saw fell me."

Here Mal grows quiet, and he wonders why he is revealing this much, but shrugs and goes on. "M'ertan is a servant, no more, a watchdog of the deathlord, and it is his task, apparently, to make sure that my and my kind who remain in Middle Earth are no so open in meddling in affairs."

Mal stops again, and a harsh note enters into his voice, as he says, "But I will serve no one! Not Manwe, not Morkoth, not Sauron - I serve only myself!" He pauses for a breath, anger in his eyes, and then slowly blinks it away.

He stares at Slythre blankly for a moment, as though he does not recognize her, and then closes his eyes. He whispers, "The night grows long, child, and we have a hard travel ahead of us."

Slythre realizes he wishes to be left alone, and retreats to a place of rest. She wondered over his words, but then left that behind as her own demons began to plague her. Few got much sleep that night, amid the nightmares of the past.

By the time the first rays of dawn broke through the clouds, the group had already been on the move for an hour. All of them were strong, in their own different ways, and all were perfectly capable of getting up early. Not needing comfort, and not having many personal belongings with them, they had been able to begin early.

As they moved forward, Faradin suddenly called a halt. "Take cover!" he said roughly, ducking behind a tree.

Quickly the group vanished, as if it had never been.

Slythre peered upwards through the branches to where Faradin had looked, and saw the shape of two large bats, circling the place.

"They must have noticed our movement," Narsh whispered. "All we can do is hope that they don't decide to come down and take a closer look."

Slythre knew that they were easily a match for the two bats, but if their disappearance was noticed, it could put the Balrog and his men on their guard.

One of the bats swooped lower, peering into the trees through its red, vicious eyes. A few minutes later, they flew away, towards the mountains.

"Well that's the first piece of proof that your theory is correct," Slythre whispered to Mal.

"All clear," the ranger said.

An instant later, they heard a loud beating, like on a drum from further away in the forest. The noise repeated itself a dozen times, and then silenced.

"Perhaps not so clear," the ranger corrected himself.

Dania frowned, she hadn't expected quite so much trouble at simply leaving the forest. She'd been counting on the tree cover to hide them for a ways.
"We'll have to move silently, no talking unless absolutely necessary, and then only as low and with as few words as possible. Spread out a ways too, that way we can give each other warning."
The group spread out, Dania up front. Each person was a few yards from the others, and could just see them through the trees. Each keeping those around them in sight, if someone suddenly disappeared, they would know.

"My lord, we sent out a group of soldiers to the Entmoot, but Slythre and all the others were gone."

"Well we can waste no more time on them," Unvar said angrily to Agravigan. "If only we'd gotten there a little bit sooner, we'd have been successful."

He broke off, looking away, towards the far away mountains. "Good work. You did what I asked you too, it's only one of my blundering captains who lost them." He looked over at his generals. "Prepare the troops for a march. I want everyone ready to move within the hour."

They moved on in this fashion for several hours, and finally came to a stop. The mountains appeared to be little closer than they had before, and the band was growing tired. Slythre's wounds were still aching, and sometimes stabbed pain through her, making her stumble, or slow down. For her and Mal, whose wounds were also still painful, the journey was much more draining than for the others. But neither gave any complaint, and when nightfall finally blackened the sky, the group slumped down in the trees with relief.

The day had passed without any attack, but Slythre had a feeling that this would soon change.

As night came over them all, Mal sought sleep, but found it eluded him.

::Why am I even still with these people?:: he thought to himself, lying on his back in the woods, staring up into the sky.

::It must be this Book of Secrets. Yes, that has to be it. I can't leave whatever that may be simply lying around, in the hands of one who knows I am active in this world again.:: Mal nods at the paths his thoughts travels across.

As he rests again, he becomes acutely aware of the presence of something by his side, tucked into one of the many hidden pockets of his coat. Reaching into a space which appeared far smaller then it actually was, he felt the Palantir. Surreptitiously glancing about, and sending his senses out to ensure no one was about, he drew it out.

Looking into its depths, he decided to use the artifact once more, despite what caution told him - but he had always sided with impulse over safety.

As his vision narrowed into a small point, he suddenly found himself looking out over myriad realms and forests, from far, far above. Looking down, he saw a deep and mighty forest, spreading out... and at one end, a tall tower, and towards another, the fortress the sought - aye, this was Fangorn. He sent his senses down towards where he lay, and was amazed at the sheer effort it took - but then, he realized, it must be much easier for those who possessed it by right, according to legend.

Still, he was of the ancient spirits, and bent the globe to his will, to pear about the camp-sight and their sleeping forms. More than this, his pulse quickened, for as he drew closer, he sensed his own person, and his own power about his form.

The implications hit him immediately, and once more he let himself fade back to the far overhead view. Quickly, he began to rapidly soar across the many lands of Middle Earth. He unfocused his vision, and passed over the land at such a speed that to others, the orb simply looked like a blur of moving colors. Mal's senses were stressed to the limit, waiting, waiting... ::there!:: he exclaimed silently, marking one prominent city, and moving on.

Though it seemed an eternity to him, his search was only taking a few minutes in the actual world. Sweat, still, began to break out on his otherwise smooth features, and a strain come over his form. Soon, Mal had marked the locations of all his hidden caches of strength, save one. As he realized where it was, he felt a bit trepid about sending his mind there for confirmation, but once more shrugged off his fear, and sent his mind roaming towards Mordor. As he passed into the very heart of the round, he nodded mentally to himself, as he realized it was, indeed, trapped at the heart of Sauron's lair.

Then, the castles and barren landscape slipped away, and a face filled his vision - one he recognized well, though it was malformed and darkly shaped compared to the beautiful visage it had been when he last had known it. He quickly broke the connection, and though the other mind grappled to hold him, he had always been adept over any others at slipping away from an enemy's grasp.

Giving a visible shudder as the palantir faded to dark, he quickly tossed it back into his cloak. He hadn't been seen fully - thanks to the darkness of the woods and the clouds cloaking the moon overhead - but it had still been close.

::I had heard he had taken up the role of his former master, but had not realized how much he has changed. I must take more care in the future.::

Once more Mal settled in to rest, realizing that much of the night still remained, but despite the exhaustion from using the orb, he found himself unable to sleep. With a silent sigh, he rose up, and began wandering through the woods, taking care to remain unseen and unheard.

Having no expectations of others nearby, he froze when he heard a small sound (one most would have overlooked) from nearby. Reviewing where he was, he realized that he was still fairly close to the camp. Looking into the woods, he saw dark shapes moving through the gloom, but even his eyes could not make them out in any detail.

Quite alarmed, he still betrayed no presence as he rapidly returned to the camp. Arriving in minutes, he quickly woke the others, who were quite disturbed at the trouble.

He spoke in a voice barely above a whisper, but it carried to the ears of all in the party, and was uttered with deep concern and urgency in its tone.

"We must hide, or be away! Others come, and I feel they may mean us ill, for who else would wander in these parts?"

The group quickly stood, trying to ignore the aching of their bones from the hard travel. Quickly, they followed Faradin and Malagar's lead out of their campsite and into the woods.

"We have a head start," Faradin whispered. "They're trying to creep up quietly, and we're just trying to escape. They won't start really chasing until they get to our campsite and find that we've flown the coup."

"How many were there?" Slythre asked. "Could we set an ambush?"

"No, there were too many for that," Mal answered quickly.

Quickly, they headed on in the darkness. However, they never heard any outburst of anger from behind them.

"Either they still haven't found our camping site, or they don't want us to know they have," Narsh said quietly. "It would take a very well controlled enemy to avoid making an outburst of any kind. Obviously this isn't orcs we're dealing with."

"If it is the Balrog," Slythre whispered, "He would know our power, and not be foolish enough to send that kind of fighter against us."

"Do you think that it's Morandras?" Syntia asked Mal in concern.

"If so, he probably has some highly trained fighters with him. They'd send none but their best to deal with us."

The group pressed on into the night, fearing the silence which surrounded them. If they could only hear some marking of their pursuers, it would be a relief.

"We can't afford to lax up," Faradin whispered. "I can't see how they could follow us in this darkness, but it's possible they have. We must retain this pace for at least a mile more."

Suddenly, there was a whistling in the wind, and they heard several thunks.

For a moment, no one understood what had just happened. Then, Faradin's eyes widened. "Arrows! These hunters have night vision!"

Several more arrows whipped past, one nicking Syntia's arm.

Abandoning all attempt at stealth, the group fled full speed into the forest, smashing through bushes and ducking past trees. Syntia raised her arm, and a blast of light raised into the sky, lighting up the forest.

"Come! Now at least we have a chance to fight back!" she cried. "We have no chance at flight!"

Quickly, Narsh and Faradin let notched their arrows, and quickly ducked for cover, their eyes scanning the trees for targets. Suddenly, a black clad figure leapt from behind a tree, black garments swishing about it, and a glint of armor coming from underneath. Two arrows instantly connected with it's chest, and bounced off harmlessly.

The figure's face was that of a skull, and its sword swung down at its enemies. Three more warriors leapt out of hiding places, weapons drawn. Two more appeared in front, swords raised.

Faradin dashed into the first one, his sword flashing. It was quickly deflected, and then the attack was pressed against him, his opponent easily his equal. Narsh and Dania drew their weapons, and quickly began working as a team on another, pressing it backwards. However, soon it also regained control of the fight. The group was pressed backwards into an ever shrinking group, none of either side falling.

Suddenly, Mal and Syntia both stretched out their arms in one direction, and two of the enemy attackers were swept apart, flung into the trees. Quickly, the group lunged into the opening, fleeing for all they were worth.

As the group ran, and some stumbled, through the darkness, they met with a raging river. It's torrent mocking them in the night.
"Can we cross it?" Dania asked. Her voice, though she was nearly shouting, could barely be heard by those around her.

"Not in any normal way!" Mal shouted back, already coming up with a plan. Grabbing a rope from within his cloak, he tossed it to Faradin, knowing the ranger would easily figure out his plan.

Indeed, Faradin quickly tied some large sticks to the end, and then swing it over across the river and onto a tree branch on the other end. Tugging at it, he yelled above the torrent, "It's no good, it will never support our weight without slipping off."

Mal slipped past Faradin, ignoring his statement, and leapt onto the rope, which the ranger barely realized to hold on to. Mal somehow managed to shinny up the rope, holding it with his one hand and scurrying across simply with his legs. Somehow, the weight held, and when Mal got across, he tied it more firmly to the tree.

The others crossed, moving quickly over the river, as they could hear the sounds of the attackers approaching. On the other side, Mal left the rope tied, but frayed it nearly through, and then took off into the woods again after the others.

Many hours later, the group finally slowed their movement, having gone for miles with no sign of any more being followed, and stopped beneath a copse of trees, all of them thoroughly exhausted.

Mal sat by himself, even more drained than the rest, for he had no sleep even before the flight. And that figure, the way he was garbed.

::They were not meant to kill me:: Mal realized with a shock, nearly startled into leaping up.

::Why else appear as M'ertan? Someone must have seen him attack me atop Orthanc... and yet, they fought well. Still, had it been M'ertan, or even his servants, we would all have been dead, and likely none of us would even have known it. Could someone suspect I... no, none could have seen through the cloak of shadows. Yet the attack was obviously directed at me, and they meant to startle me with their appearance, undoubtedly! But why?::

Mal's inner dialogue went over and over, trying to puzzle some reason for the attack, but finally the simple need constrained by his now nearly mortal body wore upon him, and the darkness of sleep covered his vision and thoughts.

Agravigan's keen eyes quickly swept over the scene. The arrows, the signs of the struggle through the brush, and the other signs of combat. His superb vision actually caught a couple linked pieces of chain mail on the leafy floor.

"There was a fight here, my lord," Agravigan said as he scanned the brush. "Quite recent as well," he added after making a few more observations. "They went this way."

Soon, Agravigan had lead Lord Unvar and his men to the river. "They must have escaped on that rope," he said, pointing at the cord hanging from the branch. "And they were too smart to follow them that way."

"Interesting," Unvar said. "Obviously this isn't orcs, otherwise we'd have seen several dead bodies lying around. Dead orc bodies. These attackers were chosen for skill, and brains."

"But not skillful enough to catch their quarry," Agravigan said as he noticed the cut in the rope.

"They had a distinct disadvantage," Unvar replied coldly.

Agravigan decided it was better not to argue the point, and continued to look around, trying to find a way to cross the rushing torrent of water. Finally, he turned away. "We'll have to find a area which is easier to cross. The limbs of the trees look to weak, and this river is simply to strong ford, here."

"We have been catching up with them," Unvar said, angrily. "I won't lose that hard earned lead going a long way out of my way into the forest. It'll give the Balrog more time to notice our presence, and it'll give that rabble band a good, large amount of time to widen the distance that we've struggled to close."

"All right," Agravigan answered. "Are there enough ropes here to swing all of our men across? If we could hook a cord to one of the farther back, stronger branches, we could possibly get a man across and have him secure the other ropes."

"Certainly," Unvar said. "But swinging across won't work in every case. We need to make a rope bridge across the river."

About thirty minutes later, the first rays of dawn shown over the wilderness. That light fell across the exhausted travelers, the determined corsairs and their ferocious pursuers, who were already swiftly catching up with their quarry. They had been foiled once, but that had simply angered them. They wouldn't be stopped again.

The other were sleeping. The last night had drain the forces of all of them. All not really Syntia had wait for thousand of years to live moment like this and had only started to have fun. Up to now she had carefully hid her true power, as well as her impressive fighting skill.
The last day had been exhausting but few hours was all she need to fully recover. She had remove the arrow and drop it in the small fire they had this time. Already her body, with little magical help, was healing. She also cast a subtle spell on the other so that their sleep would be without any stress or fear. And as a last precaution she altered their appearance so that any creature short of a Maia fully searching for them, would see only brushes totally normal in a forest.
It was obvious that Mal was hiding information from them, in fact almost everyone was doing so, even her. But in Mal case it's more obvious, years didn't change him a bit and she also got the feeling that he think of himself as the center of the recent event, possible but unlikely.
She was thinking while taking care of the wounded in the groups. Narsh was in very bad shape, in fact she wonder how he manage to make that far without any help. She quickly neutralize the poison still within him, she smile, he will feel much better in the morning. She tend the wound of everyone, using her magic only when absolutely necessary. Fortunately none present, except for Mal, was injured to the point that even her magic couldn't help them and Mal was different in nature so he will be able to bear his wound for a long time.
After she finished her work she sat and think more of the recent event, wondering were this will lead her.

Slowly, night faded into morning, and the group set off again, much of their strength revived. Although they had expected to be hunted, the sort and intensity of it that they'd had to go through was not what they'd expected. They moved at a relatively quick pace, careful to avoid being seen by anyone's unwanted vision. Mal had checked the palantir that morning, and had seen that Unvar's force were closing in very swiftly. He had urged his companions to equal speed, so that they could maintain their distance ahead of the corsairs. Strangely, last night's attackers didn't show up on the palantir. There were many possible explanations for this, but none of them pleasant.

"Let's go a little faster," he said.

"If you wish," Dania said. "You're the most hurt of any of us. If you can manage it, we can keep up."

The group proceeded to move even faster. The mountains were now a good deal closer, and the forest was beginning to thin out, showing that it was coming to an end.

"Once we leave the forest, we'll have left the last of our cover," Faradin remarked. "The attackers that came at us last night will be able to see us, and Unvar if he's pursuing."

"Then we'll just have to really pick up speed once we leave the forest," Slythre answered.

Just then, they began to see the shining afternoon light from ahead. They soon reached the end of the forest, and looked out upon a broad, grassy plain, at least four miles long, with a gentle, thin river in the middle of it. Beyond that was the mountains, rising tall and gray in the sky.

As they stepped out from the canopy of trees, their spirits grew a bit higher. The sunlight, after the darkness of the woods, was a welcome relief.

Their relief was short lived, however, as a figure sprang out from the trees overhead, landing in a roll a ways in front of them. Obviously they realized that, once on the plains, they would have much less chance of catching the groups. Two more of his companions - all clad in black mail and wearing grinning skull faces, landed beside them.

"We have to get past them!" called out Dania, and the group charged towards them, catching them off balance, and driving them back, so that the fight was under the sunlight above, and out of the darkness of the woods.

Soon though, the warriors recovered, and as three more dropped down behind the group, things looked greatly worse. The warriors moved with expert precision, and betrayed no sound save for the strikes of their blades against those of the party.

The dire, and silent, fight was soon to come to a bloody end, when relief came from an unexpected quarter. A hail of arrows fell over all of them, but where from a distance Awaís, and failed to hit any of them. Still, the distraction helped, as Unvar's corsairs charged out of the woods towards the fight.

The leader of the masked figures gestured with one hand, while still fighting, and the three at the back of the group turned about and charged into the corsairs.

Soon, the odds began to even, for Faradin and Narsh were able to hold of the two warriors remaining, with the help of the others, while Syntia was engaging their leader in a tremendous show of skill, with a blade she had brought forth from some hidden place.

Still, the glimpses behind them showed no hope, for the other three warriors were ripping through the corsairs, and though Unvar was holding off one of them, soon they would be able to return to the stalemate just outside the woods.

Mal tensed up, angered at this turn of events.
::Is it time?:: he thought, and drew his blade back, preparing himself, but before he could do whatever action he planned, a gray shape blurred out of the woods and into the warrior Narsh was fighting. The form slammed into the chest of the figure, and they tumbled away from the fight in a heap. When it came to a stop, the blur was revealed as an immense gray wolf, now standing atop the corpse of the skull faced foe.

The other enemies saw this change in the conflict, and leaving the dead and dying corsairs behind them, charged back into the fray. The wolf leaped out, silent as death, and ripped one of them open with its claws - claws that tore straight through the powerful armor! Then, it and the other two circled each other warily.

Narsh leapt to the side of Faradin, lending his aid, and together they began to press their foe backward. Syntia, however, encountered a difficulty. Stepping back from the one she faced, she mouthed a few words, and waved at its chest.

Stunned, she barely managed to deflect his blade as he charged towards her, unaffected by whatever powerful magic she had hurled at him! She recovered quickly, but he had managed, while she was shocked, to draw a small cut across her arm, and though she still fought, her blood seemed to burn at the cut. She knew it was not poison, for she had long since been immune to such things, but it still bit and flared within her, an agony of pain racing from the one small scratch. Only once before had she known such pain - when injured by a captain in the service of Melkor. Her foe wielded a blade forged in Angband!

Mal jumped to her side, now confident the party could prevail on its own. He did not even try and get through the guard of the one he faced, but his purpose was otherwise. In a flurry of motion and a dazzling spinning of his blade, he leapt about and over the figure time and again. His goal was not to harm his foe, but keep it occupied and unable to bring its might to bear upon him or any of the others.

It did, shortly catch on to his plan, and jumped past him, swinging its blade toward Slythre, who was throwing daggers at the remaining warrior facing the wolf (the other having been torn apart already.)

Slythre spun to the side, and the figure lunged at her again, when it froze, and staggered, looking down at the long blade emerging from the front of its chest. It slid off the sword and fell to the ground, revealing Dania standing behind it, breathing heavily.

The last two of their foes were taken out nearly simultaneously, one falling with both Faradin's and Narsh's weapons embedded in him, and the other having it's throat torn out by the gray wolf.

Mal hurried over to their leader, who still barely lived, despite the hole in its chest. As he approached it, the skull it wore for a face flickered and melted into another shape - a deformed and twisted mockery of a human face. Mal pointed the dagger in his hand at the twisted visage, growling, "Who are you, and why were you sent?"

The voice that emerged from the creature was a foul and sibilant whisper. "Weee are the waatchers, foooll!"
With these words, it hurled itself off the ground, with the last of its strength, and Mal tossed his own self backwards, leaving the figure to collapse, dead, on the ground.

Turning, with the rest of the party, to look to the woods, he saw that the corsairs had fled after their tremendous losses. As well, the wolf aimed one glance at him, and then took off into the woods as well. Also, all noticed the form of Syntia, in obvious pain, resting on one knee.

Hurrying to her side, Dania asked, "Are you alright? Where did they harm you?"

Syntia responds, with a wan smile, "I will be fine, soon. Their blades were made with a special substance that is harmful to my kind. The weakness will pass soon, and I can bear it until it does."

"If that is the case," said Faradin, "Then we had best move as fast as we can, in our state. Their may be more of these... watchers, or whatever they are, about. As well, this commotion certainly could draw the attention of those we do not wish to alert to our presence."

He turned, and headed off across the plains, and the others, somehow mostly unharmed, hurried after him as fast as they were able.

Only Mal spared one look back, wondering how the wolf had ended up in this part of the world. He then dismissed the thought, like so many other things, from his mind, and continued on.

It wasn't long before Unvar halted the retreat of his men. The skull faced creatures had struck terror into them, but they still were loyal to their commander, and once away from their horrible adversaries, they regrouped around him.

"Come," he said. "Agravigan tells me that our attackers have been slain, and we have now more than one reason to follow them. They have stolen the palantir, and Slythre is also with them." Unvar's eyes blazed in anger as he looked out at the plain.

"Our losses have not been too great, as most of our troops were still in the forest when the enemy attacked. Even those fighters cannot destroy an army by themselves. The traitors have been weakened, and though they bear magic with them, I believe that now is our one great chance to take them. I want them alive, if possible, but if necessary, the magical ones you may kill."

He looked out at the group, and said, "I expect them to cause us trouble, and they may kill a great number of us before they die. But they will lose. Come, follow me."

Then, leaving his wounded in the forest, he led his fresher men out to meet them.

Unvar and his men quickly closed in on the wounded and fatigued group. They moved warily, keeping an eye on the trees, for fear of a reappearance of the wolf.

Unvar stood out on the plain, a black figure standing out in the golden grass, leading a large force of corsairs.

Seeing that running would be of no avail, as they'd be shot down while trying to cross the river, the group came to a halt as the corsair leader came to meet them, followed by several of his strongest warriors. The rest of his men stayed at a respectful distance from the groups, but close enough to intervene if need be.

Unvar walked forward, Nardran and Agravigan at either side.

As they came to a halt in front of the group, Nardran crossed his arms. This ought to be an interesting encounter. Nardran's eye paused momentarily on Slythre. He was surprised that she'd survived the past few days. But this wasn't the first time she'd surprised him. Now what would really surprise him would be she managed to survive this meeting.

Unvar looked hard at the different members of the band, his gaze skipping over Dania and Narsh quickly, but slowing as it came upon Mal, the ranger, and Slythre. When he looked at her, her eyes turned to the ground, and she didn't return his angry look.

He turned his gaze slowly onto Mal, who appeared to be the leader of this band.

"Strange how history repeats itself," he said with a cold smile. "This scene vaguely reminds me of one that we shared in the woods together. All of us. Perhaps one might ask why he is betrayed by all of those that he considered to be on his side at one time?"

"Betrayal? A harsh and heavy word, and one not to be thrown about lightly," responded Mal, rising up to his full height, from where he had leaned against a tree.

"Yes, we met earlier, and we met to discuss a mutual nemesis at the time - Saruman, who was our enemy merely because of what he had stolen. Together, we got into the private sanctum of one of Middle Earth's most powerful beings. You got what you sought, though it was not what you wanted - and I, I got this." Mal gestures to his right side, where the lack of an arm is readily apparent.

"Then, once more, we seemed to be on the same sides, when you assaulted the dark one's fortress. A mighty task, but one your forces accomplished. The dark one was, and is, a foe of both of us."

Mal points at Unvar, a swift gesture that causes the corsairs to involuntarily step back. Mal's voice rises, an element of anger entering into it. "And yet, you follow us, with harmful intent! You chase at our heels, and plague our passage! Who is the betrayer, indeed!"

Unvar, enraged as well, bellows back at him, "You would claim you have not betrayed me, yet you harbor one who did!" And here, he glares at Slythre, who continues to avoid his gaze.

"Slythre made a choice, albeit a bad one, and now has to live with that decision." Mal's voice calmed, then grew louder once again. "She is now under our protection! Leave her be, and in return, we will aid you against the dark one. He is a menace to all, and perhaps he has the item you seek, as well..."

Unvar looked taken aback at this suggestion, and then his eyes narrowed, wondering at the offer.

"Well, lord Unvar? What shall it be? A fight now, to the harm of all of us, or an alliance once again?"

"I wonder what the ways of your people are, where one may steal from another and still claim to be their ally," Unvar said, his voice full of anger.

"You joined with a ranger, who was actually stealing information from me, you steal my palantir, you join a traitor to my cause, and you say that you wish join us again? How much of a fool do you think I am?"

Unvar's eyes flashed with anger, and he drew his sword. "I will give you one more chance to explain yourself. Do it well, or many will die today. And those that do will not be only ours."

The troops moved closer, and several arrows were put to bow strings.

Mal's eyes narrowed, as he looked at Unvar, and as he spoke, one of his hands started slowly twirling about, as though grasping something. "Explain myself? I have no need to explain to one such as you."

Unvar's eyes widen at the audacity of Malagar, and he prepares to scream the order to fire upon them, prepared to regain his palantir at any cost.

A harsh voice drifts out before he can speak, however. "I wouldn't do that, if I was you."

Turning, Unvar sees a figure standing a ways from the fight, holding an immense bow at full extension, aimed directly at Unvar's heart. Glancing at his men, he can see that all of them - as well as the others they had cornered - were taken by surprise by this figure.

He glanced at this new adversary before responding, taking his measure. Garbed completely in gray, wearing a hooded cloak over well worn leathers, the face within the hood was that of a young man, but his eyes - eyes dark as night - were ancient. Though his features were young, his hair and beard were both gray as well.

The figure spoke again. "Now then, let us put aside our weapons, and discuss this like gentlemen before... someone... gets hurt."

A slow, cold smile stretched across Unvar's face. "Both this and a magical wolf? What surprises will you come up with next, Malagar? These assistants certainly could have been helpful to you when you lost that arm."

His grip tightened on the sword, and he brought the blade up, pointing at Mal's chest.

"I would like nothing else then to see you die, Corsair," Faradin said hoarsely, "but this is neither the time nor the place." Stepping forward he interposed himself between Unvar and Mal. "As a Corsair Lord you most likely have some of the blood of Numenor flowing in your veins, remember that heritage, and the fact that our common ancestors fought the same being that we are fighting now." Reaching out he touched the blade and slowly lowered it, "Now is not the time for anyone to die."

"Agreed," said Mal, slowly relaxing.
"Come now, do we need threats or violence among our sorts? We fought together before, and we know that whatever would result from a battle would benefit neither side."

A note of exasperation comes into his voice as he says, "Now then, what is it you seek from us? Slythre and the ranger are our friends, and I will tell you frankly that surrender of either of them is not an option for us. And what is this 'palantir' of which you speak? I can say with plenty honesty I have taken nothing from you or your men."

Unvar lowered his sword arm the rest of the way as a thought struck him. "Perhaps I have done you an injustice. I realize now that I never told you what the treasure I went to Orthanc for was. It was the Seeing Stone that I went for, the palantir. You were fighting the Balrog and his followers. If you took the palantir from it as your portion of the spoils, then well for you."

Most of the anger had disappeared from his face, as he realized that Mal had thought it was the Balrog's, not necessarily something owned by Unvar.

"I was mistaken," he said after a moment. "But now you know what it was that called me from the coasts of Harad to take. It was stolen from me by Saruman, and from him by the Balrog. Now the circle is almost complete, as it was taken from him by you.

"Now you know what it is that I desire, and it is time that you proved if you are what you say, a wronged friend, or if you are a deceptive enemy."

Mal's eyes widen in realization, and a slow, "Ahhhh," escapes him.

"This item you refer to, it is this, perhaps?" Mal reaches within his cloak and pulls out the palantir, which gleams in the bright sunlight.

Unvar's face gleams nearly as bright as he looks upon his goal at last, and says, "Aye, that is it!"

Carefully, with a solemn face, Malagar approaches Unvar, and hands the orb over to him, saying, "Then let this settle all between us. From what I have seen of it, it is a treasure indeed, especially if such as Saruman and the dark one were after it."

Unvar took the palantir from Mal, and nodded. "Very well."

He glanced at Slythre, and then looked back at Mal. "You have chosen something deceitful and evil to protect, but now that is your business. I give Slythre to you now, to do with as you will. If she ever leaves your protection, though, her life will not be spared, as our customs condemn traitors to death. And I have no desire for those customs to be changed."

Faradin's face hardened as he saw the ancient treasure of his race being handed from Mal to Unvar, but controlled himself, knowing that this was not the time to argue over the rightful owner of the Palantir, for while it may have been Unvar, by right it belonged to those that made it and carried it with it's six sister stones to Middle-Earth when Numenor fell.

"Perhaps we should talk to our new friend? I want explanations."

"I don't know if I would classify us as friends," Unvar said with a cold look at Faradin.

"You yourself just said that you wanted me dead. Keep your questions to yourself, you will find nothing from me but a steal blade. My business in Middle Earth is ended."

"No it isn't," came a voice from behind Unvar, and the group shifted to look at the speaker.

Nardran continued, "Wouldn't it be a dishonor to you if your enemy survived your attacks, and you left your ally to fight it alone?"

"Don't try to draw me into your personal struggle for revenge," Unvar said, pointing a finger at Nardran.

"It would be said that the great Lord Unvar of the corsairs was beaten, and fled in retreat from Middle Earth," Nardran continued in a mocking tone of voice.

"It's not true!" Unvar said angrily, moving toward the speaker.

"That he was afraid, and the one foe he never could beat was one skulking in the mountains with a band of rabble in a rock castle. By such as this, the great Lord Unvar was turned away, hiding behind petty alliances for fear of his own doom."

Unvar was now very close, his eyes fierce with wrath. Nardran remained where he was, not shifting a muscle.

"You know that this enemy is more than you make him out to be," Unvar said, coldly.

"But who else will?"

Slythre was shocked by the impetuousness of the speaker. Who he was, she could not imagine. But whoever it was was obviously a complete idiot.

"You claim friendship with this man, but will not help him against his enemies," Nardran said, pointing at Mal and then lowering his hand.

"My duty in Middle Earth is done!"

"Your duty never called for what you've done now. You've abandoned your subjects, in chase of a magical rock. You abandon both your subjects, and your allies. What will be next, great Lord Unvar?"

Unvar's gauntleted fist smashed into Nardran's chin, throwing him back, and he sent a swift second into the elf captain's gut, dropping him to the ground.

"So you have some will to fight back after all," the elf said, as he looked up at Unvar's infuriated face, and the dagger he held above Nardran's own.

The others were too surprised by the sudden confrontation to say anything. And indeed, it didn't seem their place to.

Finally, after a long moment of silence, Unvar released the captain's throat, throwing him back to the ground.

"You are trying to make me fight the Balrog," Unvar said quietly. "You're trying to arouse my pride, even at the cost of your own life. You know that I have a much better chance of killing the Balrog than you do, so you're even willing to sacrifice yourself to get it done."

He shook his head in wonder at the captain. "How deep does your hatred go?"

"Deep, sire," was the response. "Deep."

"You may leave me," Unvar said. "Go and join these in your quest against the Balrog. I will have none of it."

He looked over at the others, and then, with a nod to Mal, he walked back towards his men, quickly ordering them to make camp for the night. The sky quickly darkened into blackness.

As the groups separated after the near fight, they noticed the disappearance of the gray cloaked figure, who had apparently only stayed around long enough to insure that a fight did not occur.

As darkness came down, Mal drifted away from the rest, finally stopping many yards from the others, under a small copse off trees near the river. Sitting with his back to the tree, he sat, waiting, until he felt a steel blade rest across his throat.

"Did you save me only so you could have the privilege of killing me yourself?" asked Mal, not even moving from his position of rest.

A cold, harsh voice floated through the air back to him, "I never though to see you again upon this land."

"It has been long, hasn't it?"

"I recognized the elf lady with you as well, though I do not think she knew me."

"You should be glad she didn't, I would think."

The voice behind Mal grew bitter, very bitter, as it laughed, "Ha! Would that she knew me for what I was, and could release me from my misery."

Turning his head to look up at the gray-bearded, grizzled face above, Mal asked, "Are you so eager for death, then?"

The blade at his throat fell away, and the figure turned in the heavy moonlight, stepping away, his back to Mal. "There is nothing I desire more."

Mal gave a sigh, nodding to himself. "I have learned that Sauron has stepped into his Master's shoes here in Middle Earth." He spoke calmly, not responding as the figure in front of him seemed to convulse, dropping its blade and clutching its head. Though Mal was behind him, he knew that the man would be struggling to not scream into the air his rage and anger. Mal gave another sigh.

"You've saved my life twice now, Sandor. You can return to your solitude - the debt between us is done."

The figure turned around, a wild and feral look in his eyes, and said, "Not Sandor. I am Harnauro now."

"And is there nothing left of the Sandor I knew?"

Another laugh, and the response, "Enough to repay old debts, at least."

Mal remained in shadow, his features unreadable as he said, "Your debt to me is paid, then."

The glint of teeth in the moonlight grew brighter as Harnauro grinned. "So eager to be rid of me? No, my debt is not done. I hardly saved your life against the Numenorean. If anything, I made it worst."

"You truly have changed. I always used to be the impetuous one."

"When one cares for nothing, caution seems a waste of time."

Mal sighed again, once more leaning against the tree, and staring out across the plains. "So, then, have you made these woods your home?"

"One of them, at least. The ents leave me be, when they notice my passing. Which is rare, even for them."

"Your voice sounds hoarse, my friend."

"I have rarely spoken in centuries. I am surprised I can still speak. Look! Lo and behold, a wonder - an animal that speaks the tongue of man!"

Mal's rebuke was sharp, crackling, "You are NOT merely a beast."

Muffled laughter, almost sobs, echoed back at him. "No. I am something much worse."

Mal moved to cross his arms over his chest, then remembered, and sighed. He remained silent, letting the darkness grow greater. A few clouds passed overhead, dimming the moonlight.

"I watched the Fallen one when it attacked the ents. You are going after it, aren't you, Mal?"

"Aye. Do you know ought of what it took?"

"Treasure, as always, drives you, I see. Nay, I knew something was buried there, but I had no concern for it."

"It is called the Book of Secrets, I learned."

Harnauro's voice took on a mocking tone. "What? Could the great and mighty Malagar be jealous? Does something threaten your power?"

"I don't know. I don't like not knowing."

"Ahhh... so that is why you pursue this Fallen."

"And you, I suppose, are now planning to accompany me?" Mal turned, tilting his head towards Harnauro.

"As I said, I still have a debt to repay. And perhaps the Fallen is on an errand for Sauron..."

"It was always treasure for me, but vengeance was always first in your mind, wasn't it, Sandor?"

"I am Harnauro!" The cry hurtled back towards Mal, and his companions face grew furious, teeth bared in a grotesque fashion.

"So be it.. Harnauro."

Harnauro turned away, his words drifting on the wind towards Mal as he walked off towards a place where the river narrowed. "I will scout ahead of your party's path. I will rejoin you tomorrow, on your march. You can introduce me then." As the last words reached Mal, his friend was already no more than a speck in the darkness.

"I don't think you will fit in well, Sandor." Mal's voice was quiet and soft, and only his own ears heard it. Mal closed his eyes, sighing at memories, than began walking back towards camp.

Meanwhile, across the river, if any were watching beneath the heavy moonlight, a wolf could be seen bounding across the plains, stealth and death given form.

Faradin watched the conversation between Mal and a gray form that he could not make out from a distance too far to hear the words that were said. He did not wish for Mal to discover, and while he did not trust the strange man, spying on his allies was not why he was out this night.

Turning away from the conversation he headed out into the plains of Rohan towards a spot he knew from his last journey here. He had left something buried in this land that he had hoped he need never wield again, but this monster they fought would be a dangerous foe, and he did not completely trust all of his companions. Reaching the spot he remembered too well, but wished with all his heart he could forget, he began to dig with his sword. Soon he heard a soft thunk as the blade hit wood. He continued digging and then pulled up the lid on a wooden box. He looked upon the bones that shone softly in the moonlight and then with a sigh picked up the object that the skeletal hands held. "I wished that you might lie in peace, Lady of the Horseman, Love of my life, but I must disturb your rest, and take from you what I placed in your safekeeping. May you and the Valar forgive me if this unleashes a greater evil upon the world than that which I struggle to defeat."

Putting the object into his cloak he hurried quickly and silently back to the camp and into his tent.

The moonlight shown in flickering patches, as it a dark cloud crossed over the bright orb. Long shadows of complete darkness filled the camp, the flickering moonlight coming eerily in the blackness.

The two sentries who guarded Unvar's tent were seated in the shadows.

One of them scratched his neck. "Something's wrong tonight. I can feel it in my bones."

"You probably just got the shivers," his companion remarked. "But I agree with you, this night's as spooky a one as ever there was."

The guard looked at him in surprise. "You've helped in the taking of ships before, what's this I hear about spooks?"

"Nothing more ridiculous than what you just said," his companion said defensively. "About your old cranky bones."

The other didn't bother with fending off that remark, and the pair fell back into their uneasy silence. They never came close to sleep, as the penalty for that crime on sentry duty was severe, especially when they were guarding their lord's tent.

However, someone else had plans that they would sleep that night. And all the nights afterwards.

The dark, cloaked shape didn't bother with cleaning its dagger, and proceeded to open the tent flap and step into the inside darkness.

Even though the person's eyes were adjusted to the dark, the blackness of the inside of the tent was so complete that for a moment, the person stopped. But it wouldn't do for someone to see him. He entered, and stumbled briefly as he bumped into a table. Two of Unvar's maps fell to the floor, and the man froze, holding his breath.

Unvar's eyes flicked open, and he looked quickly around. But the blackness was absolute, and nothing was visible. Something had disturbed him, and it felt as if something was not right. Another of his hunches, but was he just imagining things?

A slight breeze of cool air touched his face, and he raised his hands, wiping the sleep out of his eyes. It took him a few seconds to realize, and then it struck him. The breeze! Through the darkness, he could see the tent flap, partially open, the cords unfastened. And against the vague light outside, he could just see something else, an arm, was it?

The thing suddenly moved to the side, blending with the rest of the darkness of the tent. Silently, Unvar climbed out of bed, shivering slightly with the cold against his bare chest. Quietly, he crawled to the side, and reached out, gently easing his belt off a chair, and with it his dagger.

He just barely heard a slight movement, the vague rustling of a silent footstep.

Suddenly, he heard a ruff tearing noise from behind him. Instantly, Unvar rose from the floor, drawing the dagger and leaping for the bed in one quick movement. The assassin ducked to the side, snatching his knife out of the mattress as he did.

But this extra movement cost him dear, and Unvar's body smashed into his, throwing both of them to the floor. Unvar gave a cry and stabbed. He was rewarded by a scream from his assailant.

But the victory was short lived, as a moment later he felt a sharp pain to his side, and knew that his enemy had just struck back. He seized his opponent's arm with his left hand, holding it at bay as he slashed viciously with his dagger. Twice he stabbed, and then the arm he held went limp, and he drew his weapon out of the body.

The tent flap whipped open and he saw the vague shapes of two of his soldiers rush in. An instant later, there was the flare of a lantern, and he saw four of his corsair guards and a captain.

Then, he looked down at the scene.

"Kvdon," he said with surprise as he saw the identity of the would be assassin.

Unvar's first stab had taken him in the thigh, and his next two blows had finished him, both piercing his side.

"Who is it?" asked the captain.

"One of a corsair lord's lieutenants. He, along with all of the others were left back at Harad."

"Treachery!" the captain said, his tone easily expressing his surprise.

"A traitor who traveled and stalked me for many miles, and over seas," Unvar said. "I never did anything to madden him against me, unless he was still sore at me for conquering his lord in the first place. He must have not been alone in his treachery."

Unvar suddenly realized he was still holding his dagger, and dropped it, wiping his bloody hand on his pants.

"My lord, you're wounded."

"It isn't deep, I've felt much worse," Unvar said.

"What are we to do about this?" the captain asked.

Unvar thought for a moment, and then looked at his captain. "Take the body and go, all of you. And get me Malagar, Nardran and Agravigan."

Mal had returned to the others, and was settling down, preparing to get some rest that even he needed, when he heard the approach of the corsair's soldiers.

When they arrived, saying only that Unvar called him, he gave a deep sigh, mouthed a silent curse to fate, and went with them. Upon arriving in Unvar's tent, and seeing Nardran and Agravigan already there, talking with the lord, Mal got a bit more serious, especially seeing the obvious signs of a struggle in the room.

He only spoke two words, as Unvar looked up at his presence. "What happened?"

Faradin paced restless in his tent and then, not able to rest, he left it and headed to Dania and Narsh's; of all his companions these were the two he understood and felt he could trust the most.

Calling out he was invited into their tent. "I need to speak to you. I went out into the plains tonight to, think," he said hesitating on the word, "and I felt eyes watching me. I have felt this twice before, both while in Fangorn. Once before we first joined the Corsair; the other while searching for plants to help with your wound. I believe someone or something is watching us. I don't know who it is, but I believe we must discover who."

Unvar looked up at Mal's arrival and motioned him to come inside.

"What happened?" Mal asked as he entered.

"I'm going to need a new mattress," Unvar replied, motioning to the slashed one.

"Lord Unvar faced an assassination attempt a few minutes ago," Agravigan said.

"The assassin was a fellow corsair, but it was one that I left in Umbar," Unvar said. "I looked into the palantir, to find out what was happening with my subjects at home. I found my tower had been pulled down, and saw none of the troops I'd left to guard anywhere. After searching nearer to home, I looked at the Castle Iron Heart, to which we are going. And there, I saw a large corsair army, three times as large as the one I currently possess. My subjects have betrayed me, and come out after my hide, so that there will be no revolution to their control, and no one will resist, as their true leader is dead."

"Are we going to go back to Umbar because of this?" Agravigan asked.

"No," Unvar said. "Because, if I survived their assassination attempt, that is where they'd assume I'd go. But no, I'm coming after their leader, who is with their army. They have allied with the forces of the Balrog, at Iron Heart."

He turned to Nardran and Mal. "Which is why I summoned you two. I wanted you to both know my decision, and that I have reconsidered both of your point of views. I will join with you both to take down the Balrog, if you will also help me in the destruction of these traitors."

Mal bowed low, saying, "Well can I understand the desire to seek vengeance upon those who betray you. If these men have allied with the dark one, it is sure to make the assault upon it more difficult, but I believe it can be done, nonetheless. Your aid, now more than ever, shall be needed."

Rising back up, he took a step back, passing his hand over his face in weariness, and said, "This night has been a long one, and I have rested little in the nights before. If I may take my leave, I will inform the others of your decision in the morning."

Unvar nodded, turning back to consult with his men as Mal headed back to rest in the time still left before daylight.

Morning light broke over the camp, and Unvar woke from his sleep. The discussion last night with Nardran and Agravigan had gone well. Agravigan had set out several hours before on a fast horse, to get a head start and scout out the enemy positions. It was Unvar's opinion that he Nardran was well pleased that the assassination attempt had taken place. He now seemed more energetic then usual as he helped to waken the drowsy corsairs.

Unvar pulled away a blanket and got up, picking up his shirt, and putting on the chain mail armor. He had gotten used to almost constantly wearing it underneath his clothing, and it had protected his life more than once.

Quickly he finished dressing and went outside. The troops were already gathering, and the tents being taken down. They were almost ready to go.

Malagar, despite his desperate need for sleep the night before, found himself waking earlier than the others, yet still totally refreshed.

Laying on the ground, staring into the sky, tinted red, but still mostly dark, he simply sat and thought for a while. About companions, both new and old.

As he thought over the upcoming events, he gave a silent groan, and rose from the ground. For a while he simply wandered about the camp, observing the others, until they too awoke and rose up. Soon, all were ready, and they met with the corsairs to move on.

As they set out, Mal mentioned, "I have a friend who shall be joining us later today, by the name of Harnauro."

Unvar's eyes narrowed as the corsair lord walked beside him, saying, "And from where comes this friend of yours?"

"He has lived in Fangorn of late. When he noticed me passing through, he followed. You saw him, briefly, during our little... misunderstanding."

Recalling that this person had aimed a bow directly at his chest, Unvar was not greatly relieved. "Can he be trusted?"

"More than any. But I will not speak more of him until later in the day, when he shall return to us. He is spending this morning scouting ahead, to make sure our path is open and clear of enemies."

Unvar nodded, and walked on, making a note to remain wary of this newcomer. Already, there were far too many strange companions in this alliance.

Marondras lowered his hands, sweat covering his face. All about him and the mountain was the smell of ash and sulfur, and heat radiated from the place.

Marondras finally sent the last energy into the pit, and then crumpled to the ground beside it, sweat streaking his face, and his eyes wild.

The explosion that followed rocked the mountain, sending tremors through the ground for miles in every direction. Rocks clattered to the earth, and a blackness filled the sky around the mountains, darkening the land.

A strange red light flared up, and glowed from the mountain.

Unvar and his army came to an abrupt halt as the ground shook, and blackness pierced the sky, darkening it and eating up the sun's rays. The darkness covered the territory around Iron Heart for twenty miles in every direction, and a red glare came from its center.

Nardran's face was white, and a look of horror filled it. He trembled briefly. It was done, after all. He had hoped that they would get there in time to stop it, but it was too late.

The Balrog sensed the completion of the Blasting Delve, and turned towards it, a wide smile filling his horrible face.

Mal stumbled across the ground at the explosion, staring in the direction of the castle. Spinning around, he made sure all were unharmed.

"Does anyone know what that was??" he cried out, never liking confronting something he knew nothing of.

The Balrog opened the Book of Secrets. A wave of light shot out, blinding him briefly. But he peered forwards through it, looking at the words.

"The Blasting Delve," Nardran whispered as he stared off in the direction of the mountain.

Suddenly, he came alive, energy given by fear. "Come on! We must get there before he has finished!"

"Who? Finished with what?" Agravigan asked.

"The Blasting Delve, you fool!" Nardran shouted. "He's finished it! This, and the Book of Secrets! Don't you understand?"

Syntia and Mal realized at the same moment. "A Blasting Delve," Syntia whispered.

"And they have the Book of Secrets! They know how to build them!"

"What's a Blasting Delve?" Agravigan asked.

"There was only one in existence," Syntia said. "And that is the Crack of Doom, in Mordor. They can be used to build the Rings of Power, or almost any of the other magical objects of the past!"

"And he won't waste any time," Mal said. "Especially not if Marondras is with him."

Unvar beckoned to them. "All right, come, let's go!"

Sudden resolve appear on Syntia's face. In a quick ,graceful move she remove her cloak and everyone present could see her delicate armor and magnificent sword. As a true lord of her people she commanded respect from everyone present.

-I'm going ahead and try to held them for as long as I can. She turn to look at all of them. Please be quick.

Mal try to held her and say.
-If you do it alone you'll be kill.

-I know... was the only answer he got before she vanish.

Arvec saw the flame and red glow from the mountain, and a horrible feeling filled the pit of his stomach. What had he gotten himself into?

Quickly, he put on a shining breastplate and helmet. Then, he hurried up to the wall.

"Wait," Faradin called as everyone flew into action. "I have this that may help us. He drew from his cloak a bracelet of black metal studded with jewels. I recovered this from where I buried it on the plains of Rohan many years ago. It is an object of great power, but not one that I can use fully, perhaps one of you can use it to help us defeat this menace."

Mal stared in at the bracelet in wonder and then stepped forward. Taking it from the hands of the Ranger and putting it on awkwardly with only one hand he stood still for a moment and he felt some of his lost power reenter him.

Mal breathed deeply, and the others stared at him for a moment at the look on his face. He shuddered for a moment, then blinked his eyes, looking back at then.

His familiar grin spread across his face. "I think we may be much more than our foe is prepared for."

"Much more indeed," a voice calls out from the plains ahead of them, and they see a figure walking forwards towards them - the Grey cloaked figure they saw a few days before.

As he approached, Mal's grin grows larger, and he turns to the rest. "This is Harnauro, an old friend of mine. He bears a great deal of hatred towards this dark one, as well as all of his ilk, and has offered his aid to us."

As Harnauro walked forward, his face inscrutable, he breathed an inward sigh of relief. The elven witch wasn't present, and none of the others would know what he truly was. Once more, he inwardly cursed what had been done to him - but none of his inner turmoil showed upon his face.

"Where did the elven lady go?" he asked, his low voice rumbling.

Mal's grin faded for a moment, as he said, "She went ahead, via her power. To distract the dark one for some time. He has found himself a way to forge ancient artifacts, powerful ones."

Harnauro's eyes strayed to the bracelet upon Mal's wrist. His eyes narrowed. Had he revealed ... no. His eyes rose back up to Mal's face, doubting that Mal even realized he knew his secret.

Unvar stepped forward, tossing a scowl at the new companion, and said, "We have no time for idle chatter! We must move, and as fast as we can!"

Nodding, and moving once again towards the mountain in the distance, Mal said to Harnauro, "I will introduce the others as we march."

Harnauro said nothing, simply turned and walked beside Mal as they began to speed their pace towards their goal.

The Balrog's black hand opened in the air, and a finger stretched out, drawing a circle of fire in the air. Then, he concentrated.

He glanced down at the book before him, reading the ancient script. Then, he prepared for the next step.

Syntia materialized out of thin air on the black mountain, and hurried up its edge. The drop was one of over a thousand feet, and below her she could see the army of traitor corsairs, spread out on the ground below. All were in battle ranks, with their weapons out. And there was some kind of magical power covering and protecting all of them.

Quickly, she hurried up the edge, searching for the opening, or cave that she knew she would find.

Marondras sensed her, and a mad smile creeped across his face. He quickly hurried out of the opening in the rock to meet her.

He soon reached her and came to a stop, a wild grin covering his face.

"We meet again, Syntia," he said.

Syntia snarled as she raised her weapon. "To kill you, once and for all."

"You found out in Valinor it's hard to get rid of Istari," Marondras said. "And you underestimate us. I am more than I was before, and you Maia taught me an interesting lesson. I must hide myself, and harden, and my power will grow. I've done that for a long time, but now it will be vented."

A flicker of fear crossed Syntia's face, replaced quickly by firm determination.

Marondras raised his arms, and an explosion of light filled the sky, lighting it up with the flashes of their combat for miles around.

The group had entered the mountains, and now were moving at full gallop across the ground, tearing towards Iron Heart.

Unvar looked up as the explosions filled the sky, brilliant flashes of blue, red and white light. Energy filled the air.

Nardran turned to him. "Sire, we cannot hope to defeat the forces that we will meet. They'll have thousands more than us. But I have an idea. This is meant to have an intricate mining system built in. If we could free the slaves that are inside, we could both bolster our ranks and gain a foothold in Iron Heart, all at the same time."

Unvar nodded. "All right. But you're the one whose going to go in and lead them in this revolt."

"Would they listen to a one eyed man who used to be one of the leaders of their slavery?" Nardran asked.

"No. Agravigan, come here!"

Agravigan quickly rode up.

"I want you to enter Iron Heart and free the slaves. You can use your magical vision to see where the enemy warriors are, and will be able to take steps so that they don't find you that no one else will."

"Yes, my lord," Agravigan answered, and quickly sped off at a gallop in a different direction.

Arvec looked hard at the group that was emerging from the mountain range. It appeared that corsairs were about to fight corsairs. Perhaps he wouldn't have any fighting to do after all.

Nevertheless, he called his soldiers to arms, and positioned them at the walls. Quickly he drew out the main amount of his warriors from the mines, and positioned them as a backup force for in case they got through the gate.

They would probably never even get this far. But if there was one thing he'd learned in his life, it was never to underestimate or get on the wrong side of Maia, or Istari. And he'd gone and done just that.

Few minute pass but to both fighter it look like an eternity. No one succeeding to win major point, they were both powerful beyond the imagination of most human and this display of power was a first since the last day's of the first age.

-You're getting old Syntia. You cannot win, Iím powerful enough to crush you without any help.

-You're forgetting something fallen one. I for one never lost my power and...I have allies.

-You mean those pathe...

-NO I mean's the Valar, Iím their special messenger here and now. In their name surrender yourself to their judgement or be destroy...


-So be it...

The battle intensity raise one step. The power used here was enough that EVERY people of significant power will know something is happening here. And to those knowing the party involve they will know who was fighting. Every low ranking apprentice wizard to the major power of the land, were they good like Cirdan and Elrond or evil like Sauron of Mordor. For as long as the battle continue they watch and await the winner.

Marondras' eyes flitted slightly, and he let the power fill him. Quickly he released it all at her, striking with everything he had, seeking an early end to the battle.

But this didn't seem like it would happen. The energy flared, and the ground around them for several yards in every direction was seared black. The ground split, and a red glow came from the blackened rock.

Flames appeared around the combatants.

"I endured the torture of the Valar!" Marondras screamed, flecks of saliva appearing at the sides of his mouth, his eyes flashing wildly. "If I can face that, I can face you! Die, you assistant of the tormenters! I will rid the world of you!"

The rip in the ground widened, and flames sprang out.

They proceeded, now dangerously close to its edge.

"Your evil cannot win," Syntia said, her hair matted and her face soaked with sweat.

She raised her blade again, and he leapt at her, his eyes flaring with a red glow. Searing beams flashed from them, piercing her magical armor. The being leapt at her, his fingers curling like claws.

She moved her blade to intercept, but the wizard cleverly avoided it, one hand clutching her sword arm and the other tearing into her shoulder, ripping through the armor as if it were straw.

With a scream of agony, she fell back, at the very edge of the chasm. Struggling wildly, she fought his incredible strength. His wiry body compensated, and heaved her towards the edge. Desperately, she reached out with her wounded arm, clawing at his face.

For an instant, he released his grip on her arm to tear away the hand. Swiftly, she brought up her sword blade and stabbed him.

He shrieked as his blood spattered on the stones. Then he leapt upon her, uncaring of the sword that impaled him, and caught her by the throat.

In that instant, both were thrown off balance, and plunged into the void.

With a crunch, their bodies were caught on a narrow outcropping of rock.

Marondras pulled himself up by one arm, and took a deep breath. Blood filled his throat, and he choked. His whole body was racked with agony, and he desperately used what little magic he had left to repair his breathing system so that it was usable.

Then he turned his head towards his companion. She had fared little better, and was lying like a crushed thing beside him.

The flames licked up around the ledge, blackening its edges.

"Well," he said in a rasping and choked voice. "At least I have had my revenge on one of you."

Syntia looked back at him, blood dripping down her face from a wound on her head. "But you have killed yourself in the end of it."

Marondras gave a weak laugh. "What was life, after you Maia stole it?"

"You betrayed us."

Marondras struggled for a moment, and then put his hand on the hilt of the sword that was driven through his chest. "Yes. Perhaps this is an ending that I deserve. I was weak. Not in my fight, but in my mind. Morgoth terrified me into betraying you all. Yes, this is a proper and deserved end for me."

The ledge shifted slightly as the rock continued to melt at the edges.

The jarring shook both of their broken bodies.

Marondras winced and spoke once more, each breath now a horrible effort. "But it is not a just end for you."

His eyes stared into hers, and then she felt herself lifted. Her body cleared the chasm, and landed at its edge. She looked down, supported on one of her wounded arms, and stared into his eyes. He had a look of contentment on his face. In that second, she realized that it was into the eyes of an Istari that she now looked. Not an evil madman.

Then, the ledge crumbled, and his gray cloaked body tumbled with the melted rocks into the flame.

Once again, she cursed Morgoth. The one who had twisted so many, and caused the death and destruction of millions. This was but one of many. Even though he was locked away where he could do no more harm, his evil still continued to rip apart the world.

Then, her face dropped against the stone, and she lost consciousness.

The group cautiously crept among the ridged paths of the mountain, silence and caution maintained with every step. Unvar walked at the forefront, anger visible upon his features. Lest the main enemy army discover their ruse, he had been force to leave many of his men behind, to serve as a distraction. They had no hope of survival. They, at least, had remained loyal.

As one of Unvar's remaining men stepped upon a loose rock, and barely retained his balance, they all froze as the rock when clattering down the mountainside, fearing discovery.

During their pause, they did, indeed, hear a sound coming from the distance. Not one of armed men charging towards their hidden position, no, it was the sound of a large melee.

"The slaves," whispered Dania, and yet more grim determination appeared on Unvar's face, hoping his loyal man, Agravigan, had not already perished in freeing the slaves.

"We are almost there," said the ranger, as he peered down the pathway ahead of them. Looking up the slope, Mal did see a small opening in the mountain side, a black mouth gaping at the oncoming party.

Once more silence descended over them, but they increased their rush towards the entrance. Soon, they were within the blackness of the mines.

At lengths, they emerged into the dimly lit area of the main corridors of the fortress. Yet even the small light and stale air was a welcome relief, after marching for what seemed like an Age through the narrow, dreary mines, with barely a smidgen of light to see by, and only dust to breathe.

Their relief would be short lived.

Gordance strode down the corridors, watching as his men finished off the last of the slaves in this area. His eyes were grim, for the slaves had practically hurled themselves onto the corsair's swords, blood crazed madness in their screams.

A sound seemed to echo through the hallway, and Gordance signaled for his men to stop in their places, and prepare themselves for battle. He had only three score with him, certainly enough to deal with slaves, but this sounded like something else.

As Unvar and the rest walked around one corner, they froze, confronted by many armed corsairs. Unvar's eyes narrowed at who led them - one of his once faithful fellow corsair lords.

Gordance spat at his former ruler, "So, I see we were right in our actions. Allying yourself with elves and rangers shows how much you have sunk, Unvar."

"You dare accuse me of betrayal!?" shouted Unvar, as he drew out his weapon, pointing it at Gordance. "You are the one who is the traitor, and I will avenge my honor with your blood!"

His men rushed out of the corridor and into the room they were in - still a confined and contained place for a battle - and soon the time for words was done, and blades rang against blades.

Mal spun about, Harnauro at his side, but saw that a number of corsairs had come upon them from the rear, and the elves and ranger were hastily battling them.

Spinning back around, he dashed into the room, seeing a small doorway beyond a block of three corsairs. "Help clear me a way," he whispered to his companion, who only grunted in response. Diving under blades and through the swirling melee, they slammed into the three foes. Mal's dagger took one in the throat, and Harnauro simply slammed the other two aside, tossing them halfway across the room. Then, the doorway loomed in sight, and Mal slammed through it.

Spinning around, he looked for Harnauro, but found only empty space. Looking into the room, his face paled, for Harnauro turned to face another corsair, and ripped his chest open with one shuddering swipe.

Mal turned away as the curse completely overtook Harnauro, and prayed the wolf would be able to tell friend from foe in his shape.

Leaving the battle behind him, he sprinted down the corridor.

Agravigan and his new helpers finally released the last slave in the deep mines.

"Come on," he said as he drew his sword. "The battle's up there, and if we don't help in it, this freedom I've given you won't last long."

The slaves quickly armed themselves with pickaxes and other mining tools, whatever they could find. Then the group hurried after Agravigan as they made their way to the top.

Eventually, the sounds of battle faded behind Mal, and as he carefully tracked his way through the twists and turns of the castle, he stopped often, as though listening to some inner sense.

Finding a small archway from which flame and shadow danced within, he slipped, silent, inside.

Inside, the Balrog grimaced as it slowly intoned words not spoken for centuries. Before it, a fiery circle rotated in the air, and he felt power surging between him and it. Once more, he looked down at the book, making his way through the last page of ancient runes.

A dagger flew across the room, embedding itself in the pages of the book, and tearing across its surface, ripping through the words before the Balrog could read them. From the tear, a black light pulsed, surrounding the book, and soon only ashes remained of the artifact.

The Balrog let out a shriek and then the failed ring in the air shattered apart, mental agony piercing the Balrog's mind. Staggering about, it finally banished the pain, and looked up at the interference.

Mal stood in the archway, calmly looking at his foe, letting his black cape flutter from the unleashed power that flew out behind him and dissipated in the air.

The Balrog's mouth curled in a scowl of utter hatred, as it lifted up its whip and sword.

"Do you know what you have done!?" he cried, hurling the whip towards Malagar.

Mal's hand came out, clutching an ebony short sword, and whipped through the air three times. The whip fell apart before reaching him, and the Balrog dropped the now useless weapon.

"I know very well what I have done, fool. And now that I see you, I understand quite well - you were the one called Y-taran, weren't you? A coward and a weakling, who fled the forces of the Valar before Melkor's final battle even began."

The Balrog surged to its full height, flames leaping out and shrouding it. "You dare!?"

"Aye, I dare. Did you not realize that, had you succeeded, the creation of the ring would have utterly destroyed you? And wouldn't Sauron be happy, a powerful ring for him to pick up, with the trapped soul of one of his former companions in it. You have been a pawn all along." So saying, Mal gestured his hand towards the Balrog, his bracelet flashing, and darkness cloaked the monster's form, its flame abruptly snuffed out.

The Balrog shook its head, denying his words, and charged towards Mal. Its blade sailed out, blocked to Mal's left by his sword, but driving him backwards.

Again the Balrog's blade thrust down, at Mal's blind side... but this time two blades caught the Balrog's, and hurled it backwards.

The Balrog stumbled back to its feet, and then froze. Mal clutched a short sword in one hand, and a long dagger in the other.

"No! I saw you atop the tower!"

Mal laughed, mockingly. "I say it again, you are a fool, Y-taran. Yes, you saw that, didn't you, and so did many others. I even fooled M'ertan."

Shaking his head, he cried out, "Have you forgotten who I was? Master of Shadows, Keeper of Secrets! I was the darkness in the night, I was the one never seen! You saw only what I wished you to see."

Giving a scream, the Balrog tensed its legs beneath it, and hurled itself across the room, a shadowy blur, its monstrous sword aimed for Mal's heart. Mal stood there, mockingly, unmoving.

As the Balrog hurtled through the air, it felt itself slow. Finally, the blades tip an inch from Mal's chest, it stopped in midair. It struggled with all of its might, but couldn't move.

The Balrog tensed itself, but its own body fought against it!

"You are a creature of fire and shadow, Y-taran. The fire is gone, and I am the Master of Shadows." Laughing, Mal flicked his hand, and the Balrog hurled through the air across the room, pulverizing the wall behind it. It felt the agony as every bone in one wing shattered, and as it stood up, it limped upon one leg. Looking at Mal, still standing there, laughing. Fear in its eyes, it fled through the broken wall, down the corridor beyond it.

Mal turned away, knowing that the path would take it to the rest of his companions, who likely where finishing their fight with the corsairs. In its weakened state, the Balrog had not a chance. Mal had other concerns. This battle, as well as Syntia's, had surely alerted both M'ertan and the Watchers, whoever they may be.

Walking away, he began to await and hunt the hunters.

Slythre crept carefully through the passage, holding her dagger at the ready. The fight wasn't over, but stealth was her advantage. Quickly and silently, she moved in, her weapon poised to strike. The first orc fell without a sound, and his comrade went down an instant later. Quickly wiping the bloody dagger, she searched their bodies and quickly came up with the keys.

Then, she proceeded from dungeon to dungeon, unlocking each. No more would these people suffer the same fate as she had. Quickly they came out, and she led them to the armory, which she'd found earlier. These men were stronger. They were the ones who'd resisted the Balrog's seizure of the castle, but were too obstinate to work, and too important to kill.

"Come," she said. "And try to make no noise. The battle's out there, and with your help, we can break the slaves out of the underground. Then, there will be no stopping us taking this castle."

Quickly taking a sword and small shield from the wall, she joined the other warriors, and led them swiftly towards the tunnels.

The Balrog's movements went along a different course from that which Mal thought they would. Even if he would have been a pawn, he wouldn't now be it. Or anything else that the impudent rat thought he would be. He made his way directly to his chamber, and thrust the tip of his whip into the flames. Instantly it flashed up anew. Then, the Balrog buried himself in the fire, it flaring up around him, the heat healing him and bringing him back to full power. He'd been caught by surprise before, and without his power. The Book of Secrets was gone, and with it his last chance for world domination. But he wasn't finished yet, and Mal had been a fool to let him live. Now, he was purged, and the energy and flame roared up inside him.

He now had a mane of fire, and the rippling flames rolled from his eyes, and mouth. He was a horrible creature, built for the hunt. In his element, and healed, the impudent enemies couldn't survive. Marondras would deal with Syntia, and then both of them together would destroy Malagar, who he knew couldn't hope to defeat both of them.

But at that moment, he felt Marondras' destruction, and cursed. Perhaps it wouldn't be so easy after all. But even now, he was wild in his despair. He roared up the tunnel like a blazing fury, his weapons flashing a fire so bright that even the shadow magic couldn't stop them now.

Nardran turned his head, as he felt the power of the Balrog as it moved forwards. He now, in some deep sense could feel it. The creature's vision and thoughts for an instant became his.

Quickly, he shook the feeling off, and, shifting the hilt of his sword in his hand, stepped down a side passage.

Gordance was quickly pressed back by Unvar, towards the wall. Swiftly, he ducked to the side, just in time to avoid a slash that left a long white mark on the wall where he'd stood a second before.

Quickly raising his own weapon, he attempted to put on an offensive. Almost instantly he was forced back again, put sharply into a desperate defense. His former leader had a furious glint of hatred in his eye, and Gordance saw his own death in it. Gordance ducked a blow and flung himself away from Unvar, scooping up a second sword from the battlefield as he did. Then, with a cry he flung himself at the corsair lord, using both of his weapons, swinging sharply and desperately.

Unvar was pushed back for a moment, and then again the tide turned, in his favor. Nothing could stop him.

With a quick movement of his sword, he twisted one of Gordance's swords to an awkward position, and then slammed down, severing the hand at the wrist.

Gordance screamed in agony, and started to fall backwards when Unvar's weapon came up again, slashing him viciously across the face. Then for a third and final time, Unvar's sword moved, stabbing directly through the traitor's heart.

Unvar held his blade there for a moment before drawing it out of his enemy's pierced breastplate.

As Mal walked through the passages of the castle, he stopped for a moment, feeling the shudder pass through the place as the battle between Syntia and Marondras. He nodded at the outburst of energy, knowing they would come now like flies to honey.

He entered a long corridor, the door behind him softly closing as he entered, and, looking down its length, knew M'ertan was here.

The hallway was long, with a number of frail wooden doors lining the sides. At the end was only a pool of inky blackness. Out of the darkness stepped M'ertan.

The skull's face that masked M'ertan's visage stared out at him, seeming to float disembodied in the air. The form beneath it was cloaked in black, even the armor seeming to absorb the very light around it.

Though no movement showed on the skull's face, M'ertan's voice resonated in the air, stiff and cold as death.

"You deceived even me, Malagar."

"Aye. That I did. Come to fix your mistake, O hound of Mandos?"

Though no expression showed, Mal felt the anger from the other figure. "The Valar made a decree! You violate it with your every action, and I have no choice but to stop you!"

Mal shook his head, a sad smile showing on his face, and in his eyes. "No choice? That is the difference between us, brother. I was never satisfied to serve. From the very beginning, I set out on my own."

"You served Melkor willingly enough!"

Mal's look hardened, feeling his own anger build. "I served no one!" His tone was harsh, rebuking. "I performed services, yes, for both Melkor and the Valar. I chose no sides, Ďtil Melkor turned against me. I very well might have perished then, had it not been for the aid of another."

"Whatever your past actions were is inconsequential. I have my orders!" It was strange for the voice, as chilling and emotionless as death itself, to become tainted by emotion and anger.

"And do they apply only to me? What of this dark one, Y-taran, flitting about and toying with powers he has no concept of? Or of Sauron, rebuilding his power as I have heard."

"The Valar shall deal with their kind as they will. They have seen, all too often, what comes of direct confrontation. Do you plan to join the ranks of those others, such as your old friend Sauron?"

Mal laughed. "Sauron's friend? He was the one who convinced Melkor to betray and imprison me. A threat, he saw me as. His powers of persuasion never succeeded upon me - if he could not control me, he had to destroy me. An alliance between us is impossible."

M'ertan drew his blade out, a gleaming sword that seemed to possess no color, and looking at it was as though one looked into the very void itself. "The time for talk has passed, Malagar. I will do as I must."

Malagar let out a sigh, and slowly drew his own blades. His power encased him, not in a foolish blaze or flashy display, but a simple field of power about him, soft and deadly. In one hand he held a short sword that had shadows leaping up and down its length, and his other hand sported a long dagger that glittered and shone with an inner light.

Mal tensed his muscles, feeling his power building within him, and saw M'ertan doing the same. The corridor seemed to vibrate with deathly menace, as though the very air trembled between the two. Mal's gaze flashed down the corridor, meeting M'ertan's bony visage, and Mal ever so slowly aimed his blades, as M'ertan did the same. No sound came from either of them.

Suddenly, the doors flew open, and ten black armored figures dashed in, grinning skeletal grins, and their leader, seeing Malagar, shouted out in triumph, "Now you are ours! The master will be plea-".

As the figures landed in the corridor, and in the time between a single syllable uttered by the leader, Mal and M'ertan MOVED, power and will driving them at speeds beyond any mortal potential. The two nearest Mal didn't even see the dagger and sword that stabbed through their eye slits, withdrawing before the motion he started had been registered. As he shoved off from the floor, flying into the air, M'ertan was also in motion, blade flying even faster than Mal's weapons, decapitating one and splitting another in two even as he began his own leap towards Mal.

The next two closest to Mal had time to lift their blades a fraction of an inch before both his feet lashed out in midair, snapping both of their necks. In the same mili-instant, M'ertan blasted his sword through another, while his other hand lashed out, pulping another's head against the wall.

Mal and M'ertan slammed into each other in mid air, blades clashing while the two remaining warriors began to turn their heads to look at the fight directly between them. Mal and M'ertan finally flew apart, finally returning back to the ground, their blades slicing through the two distractions on their sides as they spun to face each other once more.

Silence filled the air as the first corpses began to fall to the ground.

Neither Mal nor M'ertan so much as acknowledged those that they had just so blithely torn apart. Their gazes met again, and then they flickered into motion again, M'ertan's blade a shining arc that tore through the walls about them like slicing through the very air, the only thing able to stop it Mal's own weapons. Mal's blades glanced off of M'ertan's armor time and again, while M'ertan's sword met either Mal's parries or caught only air.

Finally they both came to a stop, still weaving their blades warily through the air.

Mal spoke, soft and quiet. "What would I see if I removed your mask, brother? Would their be anything there, or simply an empty void, a suit of armor, unthinking, unliving, only fulfilling what it has been ordered to do."

M'ertan's body shook at the emotion racking him, and his voice, no longer cold and stiff blocks in the air, now nearly agonized words hurled across the air, shook with his pent up response to Mal's accusations.

"I serve the Valar! That is my role in existence, my part in Eruís Creation!"

"And do your actions here follow serve the Valar?"

"I have my orders - I enforce the decree of Manwe himself!"

Mal laughed, softly, bitterly. "Do you? Did you not see Syntia here?" M'ertan looked back at him, no recognition on his face. Mal continued, "She had another name upon the western Isle. One of Manwe's finest, she was. She is. So why is she here, now? I am sure you sensed the fight between here and the rogue Istari, Marondras."

M'ertan's response was hesitant and unsure. "She may have come of her own will..."

Mal shook his head. "She was sent by Manwe, surely. Perhaps not openly, perhaps the Valar still proclaim non-interference, but they have their own agents here all the same. I doubt Syntia was meant to be as open as she had been, and likely was sent in the same role as the Istari, to be a silent and steady force to oppose the enemy, but who could have foreseen what she would have to face?"

M'ertan was silent, doubt plain to Mal's discerning eyes.

"Go back to Mandos, M'ertan. Go back to your lord, the doomsman. Go back to the isles of death. Middle Earth shall live on its own. I have made my choice, and Middle Earth is my place now. It is not yours, brother. You have no part here any longer, decree or no decree. Your time here is done."

Silence filled the corridor. M'ertan stood still, unmoving, and Mal tensed, wondering whether he had succeeded or not. Then, without a sound, M'ertan was gone, as though he had never been there. Slowly Mal leaned against a wall, breathing heavily, letting the anxiety he had felt show now that M'ertan was gone. He eventually sheathed his blades, and fell back into calmness.

He went in search of the others, hoping they were still alive, and behind him he left the corridor, still filled with dead bodies, and the tangible feel of the power nearly released there mere moments ago.

Agravigan and Slythre's separate groups soon had cut away the last troops between them, and the two forces faced each other.

Slythre and Agravigan faced each other in the dark passage, their men behind them.

"I'm sorry," Slythre began. "I . . ."

"There'll be time enough for explanations later," Agravigan said briskly. "Right now, we will fight together, as we did before."

Slythre motioned her group forward, to join Agravigan's.

"Then you have the lead," she said, and drifted back amongst the others.

Agravigan swung his arm forward. "Follow me! There is still much to do before this is ended."

The Balrog tore into the room with indescribable fury and power, his claws tearing apart Unvar's men before they could even start to make a defense.

Unvar fell back before the racking claws, and everyone who stood in its way was incinerated.

His sword flashing, Unvar leapt at the creature. It instantly batted him away, claws ripping into him, and only his chain mail armor saving him from being destroyed. He tumbled to the floor, blood and fire spattered about him.

Counting him among the other dead, the Balrog left the chamber, moving up to join its other hosts above.

"Men! Gather in the courtyard! Everyone off the walls! Quick!" Arved shouted frantically at his men, beckoning to them and ordering them quickly to prepare for the fight against the escaping slaves that he knew would be coming.

He wiped his hand across his forehead, getting rid of the sweat. Then, the first of the men jumped from the tunnel, swarming out at his soldiers.

Too many! He moaned and stepped back from the battlefield. Most of his men were off the walls, and what few remained were already climbing down to join the fight.

Then, Arvec had an idea. Quickly climbing to the top of the walls, he shouted out towards the corsair army below. "Come and join us! The battle's in here!"

The corsair commanders quickly took charge of the situation, sending a couple squads up as they collected the rest of their men.

Harnauro bounded down a corridor, claws slamming into the back of the corsair fleeing away, and tearing through the armor time and again, rending the flesh beneath until the form beneath it was no longer recognizable as having once been a man.

Turning, the wolf began to wind its way back to the battle, having gone far in its pursuit of the fleeing one. Before it found the fight again, however, it began to shudder, and convulse, and in moments, Harnauro stood up, eyes closed in pain, blood and remains scattered about his gray cloak. Looking back down the corridor, he sees the still corpse, and hopes it was one of the enemy, and not of Unvar's. A deep growl rumbles from his throat, and he walks back down the corridor, soon finding the room the battle had been at.

Entering in it, he was assailed by the heat and smell of dying and burning bodies. Could he have - no, this was the work of another. Almost breathing a sigh of relief, he looked throughout the room. The elves and ranger were gone, and must have gone off while the corsairs battled each other. He began to leave the room, when he saw a form twitch across the room. Hurrying across, he easily lifted the large form of the corsair lord from the ground.

After Unvar was left propped against a wall, the corsair blinked his eyes, returning to consciousness to see Harnauro looking for any other survivors among the bodies.

"Are any..." Unvar trailed off.

Harnauro turned about, shaking his head. "Unless they fled, all here are dead. One of the Fallen One's servants?"

"Nay, the Balrog itself."

Harnauro nodded to himself, for that would easily explain the destruction. "Then let us find others still fighting against its forces." He walked away, and Unvar managed to summon strength and hurry after him, though pain flooded his body with every step.

"Block the gates!" Agravigan shouted as soon as he realized that corsair reinforcements were coming through.

Quickly, he raised his sword and led his men through the enemy, in a desperate charge for the gates. Finally, they broke through and got there. Seizing the sturdy door, Agravigan heaved it shut, just as two other men slammed the other. They swiftly grabbed the plank of wood and heaved it into the slots, bolting it tight.

Next moment, he was pinned against the gate with his men, facing a desperate counter-attack.

If we don't get those doors open, we'll be destroyed! Arvec drew his sword and led his men towards the enemy. Soon, he found himself fighting with a strong corsair, who appeared to be their leader. If he was killed, the resistance here would probably fall apart.

Swinging his weapon, he slashed down one of the slaves and stepped over the body. Next he moved on Agravigan, sword slashing.

Agravigan quickly parried the blow and sent in one of his own. Arvec blocked and swung in a downward curve, only to be blocked again. Arvec was quickly pressed back by a fury of sword blows from his opponent. He was unused to the corsair style of fighting, but he caught on quickly, and soon was able to press the attack against his enemy.

Agravigan stumbled over the body of the slave, and his defense slipped. Instantly, Arvec stabbed through the opening. But the stumble was a fake, as Arvec soon found out.

Agravigan pulled his bloody sword from his opponent's chest, and knocked the body to the ground with his hilt.

A moment later, he saw Slythre coming out of the crowd of fighters, wiping a bloody sword. "It's all over, here."

"In that case it's time we dealt with the corsairs."

The hunter sniffed the air briefly. The smell of burnt stone and flesh filled his nostrils, and he wrinkled his nose. But he was indeed on the right track. The burnmarks on the walls and ground further confirmed it.

His sword was loose in his hand, and Nardran proceeded quietly after the creature. But he knew the castle well, just as his former master did. But his master was in a mad fury, and Nardran could guess where he was going. Quickly, he moved through a side passage, opening a door and stepping out into another hall. The scent was stronger now, and a grim smile filled Nardran's face.

He knew he was walking up to his own death, but he would take it with him.

He took a powerful bow from his back, and with a massive exertion of strength, bent and strung it. Then, taking a long and razor sharp arrow from a quiver, he held it gently in one hand as he sheathed his sword. Then, he opened the pouch that on his belt, and dipped the barbed point of his arrow into the pale green goo which was inside it. Then, careful not to touch the tip, he put the weapon aside and poisoned another arrow as well. Then, he put one to the bow string and crept after his terrible quarry.

The corsairs at the gate were unprepared for the furious force that smashed into their ranks. The slaves slaughtered the front rank without any losses, and ripped apart the second as well. But swiftly the corsairs recovered from their surprise and began to fight back, forcing the slaves back into the gate.

Suddenly, a hail of arrows cut down into their ranks from the walls. The deadly barbs thinned the corsair ranks greatly, dropping dozens to the ground.

"Force your way through the gate!" shouted one of their captains. "Hurry, or those arrows will finish us before we even have a chance to fight back!"

The Balrog exploded into the next cavern, decimating the enemy around him with ease. The slave force that was collecting weapons in the armory was killed to the last man.

The Balrog left the room in melted tatters as he prowled up higher, soon reaching the mountain's peak. Looking down, he saw the enemy had taken the walls, and his allies were struggling to break through.

The cold up here affected his fire, and the Balrog searched into his inner strength, replenishing it until it was as strong as ever.

But his enemies were hunting him. He saw Harnauro come out onto the tower edge as well, followed by Agravigan and Unvar. Hadn't he killed the man?

Agravigan whispered something in Harnauro's ear, and the man nodded.

Swiftly ducking behind a boulder, the Balrog surveyed the terrain in which he'd be fighting. The tower stretched up for several dozen feet more, and around it was the catwalk. On one side of the catwalk was a large open space, in which several large boulders were lodged. Behind one of these, he was hidden. This fight would be hard, and the weather was against the Balrog. But he was confident that he could overcome all three. The two corsairs would be easy. Their companion would be a little bit more of a challenge, but after a quick magical probing, the Balrog saw that Harnauro wasn't any match for him either. They might have had a remote chance if they'd caught him by surprise, but they had certainly not done that.

He ducked low behind the boulder, preparing to spring.

Nardran reached the tower's top, and looked down upon the ground below, and the narrow rock walkway around the tower. Behind the boulder, on the open ground, he saw his quarry.

He crouched behind the wall and put his arrow to the string.

Just then, the Balrog sprang. Fire exploded outwards as the creature lunged, moving with incredible speed that was barely matched by the wolf that suddenly intercepted it, slashing a wound in its side before passing. The wolf scrambled to a stop at the cliff edge, twisted, and leapt again, fangs ripping.

In an instant, it was caught by the throat by a flaming hand, and the great sword of the Balrog swung . . .

. . only to be blocked by Agravigan's sword, throwing a shower of sparks and throwing the corsair back. Unvar's black blade stabbed deep into the Balrog's flesh an instant later, and then with a swift second, sliced another deep wound.

The Balrog's fire gushed forth, flaring from it's mane. The fire forced Agravigan and Unvar back, both scorched.

The wolf suddenly slipped out of the Balrog's fist and whipped away, slicing another wound in his leg as it went.

They'd been prepared for his attack; that was the only explanation. But the wounds were not serious, and the Balrog was far from defeated. His fire roared to life, and the Balrog leapt forward, claws flashing.

Unvar and Harnauro both took it, each from a different side, with Agravigan in the center of their three prong formation.

Suddenly, there was a sharp and piercing pain, lancing through the Balrog's body. He looked down in disbelief at the arrow that quivered in his chest. Snarling, he ripped it out and looked around for the archer.

"How can you believe that an arrow will stop me!" he roared. "Fools, you grow more desperate by the moment!"

But even as he spoke, a sudden pain seared through him, and it felt like his heart had turned to ice. Desperately, he used his magic and put a stop to the growing coldness. But in the next second, another arrow pierced him, stabbing into his shoulder and freezing his blood.

His enemies moved in, each now wearing a smile on his face.

The Balrog clutched at himself as his insides seemed to freeze. Then, he lunged to fight his attackers, summoning the fire to consume them.

But the fire would not come. The cold continued to seep through him, and the flame was becoming more and more difficult to reach by the second. Without it to help him, he felt helpless.

He struggled down, into his deepest self, digging up the flames with all of his strength and magic. The effort filled him with pain as he fought against the hardening and strengthening cold.

The fire came, and he lunged. Caught by surprise, his two enemies fell back, forced onto the catwalk. The Balrog's flame flashed out, and the Balrog went with it, smashing into the edge of the catwalk and ripping out its seams. Then, a hole exploded in the catwalk and the ice and rock melted, leaving a great opening where once solid rock had been.

Then, a third arrow struck the Balrog, and the cold seemed unbearable. All of his fire, and much of his strength with it were unreachable. Leaping for the door, the Balrog smashed through it. Then, he dashed up the stairs towards his tormenter.

Nardran put down the arrows and quiver, then he laid the bow beside them. He took off his cloak, and drew his sword, dipping it in the green poison as well, from tip to hilt. Then, he raised it, and looked out calmly towards the trapdoor. The time was come.

The trapdoor exploded into splinters, and the great black creature was up, red eyes wild with fury and pain.

"Now you will be brought back to the Hell from which you first arose," Nardran said, a raging fire in his one eye.

Then he swung his sword, moving with incredible speed and with the all the wrath that was pent up within him. His strokes were with nearly superhuman strength, and he fought the Balrog, blow for blow. The Balrog's whip curled out, but Nardran ducked both it and he great sword, lunging up within the creature's defenses and ripping into it's hide.

Pain filled the Balrog, and more of the accursed icy cold froze his joints, making him stumble. With the proper time, he'd be able to combat it, and regain his strength. But this wasn't the place. Now he knew. If he fought Nardran now, he would die. Even if he killed the elf, the poison would kill him soon after. His only chance was to get down to his lair. He began to fight his way back towards the trapdoor, trying to get inside.

Nardran saw what he was doing and danced around him, sword keeping the Balrog from moving too much in any direction. In an instant, he was between the Balrog and the trapdoor.

Now, Nardran's skillful sword thrusts were swiftly beginning to outclass the wounded Balrog's clumsy movements. The Balrog began to feel death creeping through his veins, and a look of triumph filled Nardran's face.

Then, anger filled the Balrog, and he summoned his last strength. He was a Maiar, and had lived since the world began. Now, he drew from all his past experience, all of his last strength. With this, he lunged at the elf, ignoring his sword and letting it drop. His arms widened, and his fire returned, for one brief instant. The creature's arms folded around Nardran, and the elf's sword pierced its heart. Then, the beast's momentum carried it through the wall, pulverizing the stone and sending it flying away in melting fragments.

The two hurtled out into the air in a death embrace, gradually dwindling in view until they hit the ground, far below.

Unvar, Agravigan and Harnauro quickly hurried up the ladder and looked down over the edge of the tower.

Agravigan squinted down, wondering whether he was seeing correctly.

"What is it?" Unvar asked.

"It's Nardran, sir. He . . . He is smiling."

"Then he died happy. A warrior's death, and a vengeance achieved."

Agravigan nodded and lingered for a moment longer before following the other two out of the tower.

Harnauro limped back inside, following the corsairs, relishing in the pain. He felt so alive! It had been centuries since he had been hurt... mortal blades and weapons usually slid off of him without harm, and the last time he remembered injury had been a face off against an elf wielding a glowing sword.

He followed the others inside, and they soon met up with the rest of the corsairs forces, and the newly appointed leaders of the ex-slaves.

Unvar approached them, and learned that, after the death of the enemy commanders, and the demoralizing defeat of the Balrog, the enemy had either fled, died, or surrendered.

"It looks like," Harnauro said dryly, "We have succeeded quite well."

He glanced up as Slythre approached then, a worried look on her face. Unvar scowled at her, and then turned and barked orders to his men to begin taking note of casualties.

Turning back, he said, "Aye, and if I discover that more traitors await me in Umbar, I know have a force and fortress with which to plan my vengeance!"

Slythre spoke up, hesitantly. "Before you plan ahead so far, I have one wonder... where is Mal, and what happened to the elves and the ranger?"

"My lord," said one a corsair as him and several other men brought in a stretcher, with the broken body of a terribly wounded woman on it. "The ranger Faradin helped us to find her, and so we brought her back."

"Very well," Unvar said as he looked down at the body. "She is alive?"

"Yes, my lord. Though I know not by what power that is so. One with such wounds as these would normally have been killed in the first instant."

"If she is yet alive, then it is likely that she survive. Someone find Malagar, for I think it is indeed possible that he find some way to take care of this."

Then, Unvar turned and moved away, Agravigan at his side. He didn't go far, and soon stopped in a darkened hallway. There, he drew out the palantir and set it on the floor before him, looking into its depths and staring out, towards Umbar. Agravigan quickly realized what he was doing, and stood beside him, watching as a frown formed on Unvar's face.

Unvar rose in silence, and Agravigan followed without asking what he'd seen. He would learn of that in time.

Mal stalked down the corridors, anger filling his features. Turning a corner, he encountered a full unit of Unvar's still loyal corsairs, who raised weapons and called for him to halt.

He ignored them, continuing down the hallway, only stopping when a spear was leveled at his chest. Turning, scowling, he seemed to finally notice them, and barked out, "Take me to Unvar!"

The hardened corsairs step back, unnerved by his tone, but after a few glances amongst themselves, bring him to their lord.

As Mal approaches Unvar, he slows, seeing the crumpled form of Syntia being tended. Unvar turned towards Mal, then froze, seeing him whole. "What happened to your arm?"

Mal responded curtly, "It got better."

Unvar wondered, a bit suspicious, but had other concerns at the moment. "Syntia was discovered like this, and we do not know if she will live. As well, though my men are still searching out the fortress, we have yet to find the elves or the ranger."

"You won't find them."

Unvar cocked his head. What did Mal know that he didn't?

Mal said, still staring at Syntia's form, asked, "Do you remember the foes we faced right outside of the woods?" At Unvar's nod, he went on, "I encountered a number of them while here."

"Where are they now?"

"Dead. But I found some more of them, dead, and signs of a struggle - where I had last seen Dania and the others. I fear they were taken somewhere."

Unvar scowled. Who were these mysterious figures?
Shaking his head, he asked, "What of her? Can you help her?"

"No. But I can take her to those who can. Not right now, but later ... I need to prepare. Are there any rooms in this place where I can find solitude?"

"Certainly. Follow me. Guards, bring Syntia."

He led Mal through the burnt out tunnels, and past the bodies of the dead slaves and corsairs. Soon, he entered a room, one that used to be Arvec's, and motioned his men to lay Syntia on the bed.

"She is in your hands," he said.

Then, he walked off with Agravigan. As soon as they were outside of earshot, Agravigan spoke.

"My lord, do you intend to help against these creatures?"

"No, it is none of our concern," he said with a frown. "And now there is neither an annoying elf captain nor an assassin to change my mind."

"Then what do you intend to do?"

"My concern is with Umbar, but I have my hands tied! You and Malagar want me to go off questing again, this time to rescue Dania and Narsh from enemies that could defeat those who slaughtered many of my men out at the plain. I have an army, a small one, but it is in existence."

"So we will return to Umbar."

"Not immediately." He sighed. "I looked into the palantir, recently, as you know. I saw Umbar, and I saw the towers. They have not only corsairs, but now many of the towers have, beside their black flag, the one bearing the red eye of Mordor! They have orcs in their kingdom! I lack ships, and I lack men. Those who I left behind, that were loyal to me are surely all either dead or prisoner. This new goal would surely lose me at least as many men as I lost here, and now especially, I cannot afford that!"

Agravigan nodded wearily. His commander's logic was irrefutable.

"They have one Maia at least with them, and I'm almost certain that Mal is one as well. Some of the rescued slaves will help them, and Slythre will surely journey with them as well. They have a good chance of success, and they will probably pick up other allies on the way."

"Yes. You're right. So where will we go, to await a good time to strike?"

"There are other men of our sort in this country, and with the proper questions in the proper places, I think we will be able to find them."

He looked at Agravigan closely. "You seem disappointed with my decision. Do you wish to join these others as well? If you do, I will understand."

"Perhaps a little, my lord," Agravigan confessed. "But I will continue with you. Now is the time for the paths to break."

"Very well," Unvar agreed. "I will go and inform the Maiar of my decision. Inform the troops that they may rest for what is left of the day. We will leave tomorrow morning."

Faradin stumbled through he corridor clutching at the wound in his side. Though the pain was great he kept himself going, for he must tell someone what had happened. Suddenly he came into a room that held a familiar form, Mal.

Stumbling forward he grasped at Mal's arm, "they took Narsh and Dania, we must follow them." Feeling weakness begin to overwhelm him he slumped to the ground; the last thing he remembered thinking before falling unconscious was that somehow Mal was no longer missing his arm.

Mal sat upon the small bed in the dim room, beginning to marshal his strength. Closing his eyes, he breathed deeply, focusing inward, upon the power so recently returned to him.

A harsh noise echoed down the hallway, and suddenly Faradin staggered into the room, the door flying open. Mal's eyes shot open, and he stared, almost curiously, as the ranger breathed out his message and dropped to the ground.

For a moment, Mal was out of sync with what just happened - then he shook his head, and rose from the bed to inspect Faradin's body.

His body was covered in nicks and scratches, but what drew Mal's attention was a gaping hole in his left side, where a sword had apparently thrust in, just missing his heart. Mal shuddered, realizing how close Faradin was to death, surely why the 'watchers' hadn't finished him off. In truth, Faradin would be dead by the next morning, unless something was done...

With a sigh, Mal brought the body to lie at the back of the bed, alongside Syntia's crumpled form. Taking two would be harder, but there was no other way to save the ranger. And though Mal knew the ranger hadn't trusted him at the start, Mal also knew what a sacrifice the ranger had made by giving up the treasure that had Mal's power in it; for when Mal had placed it back upon himself, it had not just given him his power back, but he had caught snatches of memories from those who had carried it over the years.

Shaking his head to clear his mind again, he walked over to the door. No more interruptions was what he needed. He began to seal the doorway with shadow magic, then frowned at himself. Conservation and subtlety, those where codex he had once lived by. He brought out some tools from within his cloak, and sealed the door by more traditional means.

Returning to his place upon the bed, he once more fell into a trancelike state, searching for his inner strength. His eyes closed, his body tensed, and then relaxed. The light in the room - coming from a few lit candles - dimmed to a dull light.

Mal's eyes flickered, and the candles flickered, the light dancing about, shadows curling all about the walls. One deep breath, and then he let it out, slowly. The candles winked out, and the room was cloaked in darkness.

::In the beginning, all was darkness. All darkness was one.::
The thought flittered through the void that was now Mal's mind, all other thoughts cleared from it.
::One shadow and another are but one.::
Mal felt the energy begin to build about him, and kept it focused, kept it contained until released.
::All it takes is one.... short... step::

There was no flash, no cloud of smoke. But, in the space of one instant of time, Mal, Faradin, and Syntia were in the room at the castle - and, in the next, they were not.

When Unvar forced the door open and found the room empty, at first he felt surprise and anger. But a moment later, he shrugged the matter off. If Malagar wished to leave without any consultation with him, he was perfectly free to do so. He obviously had used his magic to do so. The door was locked from the inside, and there was no window.

He walked down to the room he'd claimed for himself, and prepared for sleep. He was very fatigued, after a long day's battle, and his wounds still ached. One of the Maia must have at least partially healed them, though, for otherwise he would not have been capable of fighting the Balrog at all.

He stretched out on the bed and pulled the blanket over him. All of the future difficulties with Umbar and Sauron would have to wait until tomorrow. Right now, he needed sleep.

A sharp light pierced Mal's closed eyelids. He slowly forced them open, pain piercing through him. By Eru, the pain! It had never been so bad before - but then, he had never traveled so far, nor with two others.

Forcing himself up, he noticed that he had been leaning against a stony wall. Turning about, he saw he was in a small rock alcove, and Faradin and Syntia were still lying behind him, unconscious.

He slowly walked out of the alcove, and his first notice was that he was on a mountain. The mountain. And then, he looked out upon the entire Isle. His breath caught in his throat, and the pain about him seemed to melt away.

He stood, entranced, at glimmering lands of green, clouds beneath him drifting over the land he looked down upon. Majestic sky all around, and sparkling water at the horizon. Looking up, the mountain stretched even higher. Peace and warmth seemed to emanate from it down throughout the island. Mal arched his body up, basking in the calm and beauty radiating from all around him. How easy it would be to stay! How perfect life here was. His eyes closed, as he reveled in the temptation to stay.

A melodious voice shattered his peace - a beautiful voice, but spoken harshly. "Who disturbs the peace of Valinor?"

Mal turned, his calm fading, and he shook the temptation from his mind. His eyes found the figure who addressed him, an ancient elf, but still in the full of his life, with perfect features and two blue eyes blazing out at Mal.

As Mal turned, the elf's eyes widened in shock and recognition. "You! What do you here?" His eyes immediately leapt to the forms lying near Mal's feet, and his breath caught as he saw Syntia. "What harm have you inflicted upon such a noble soul, foul villain? If she is harmed, I warn you, you shall not escape punishment!"

Mal shook his head in despair. "Blind, you are blind, like all the rest! It was not I who harmed her, but a traitor long known to the Valar - one driven to more evils from their own 'punishment.' I brought her here for healing, fool, or why else would I have come?"

The elf seems taken aback by Mal's words, and steps forward to the body, wariness in his face, but no longer outright distrust. "The disturbance felt a day ago - this was from that?"


The elf nodded, reassured, and bent down to lift up Syntia's fragile form. He froze in the midst of his task, however, as he made out the form of Faradin. He quickly stepped back, gaping in anger again. "You break the decree of the Valar, shadowmaster! What have you done? Mortal man is forbidden to come to this sacred realm!"

Mal laughed, bitterness in his voice. "The Valar themselves seem to be taking their own decrees lightly, of late. I only brought this man - a soul easily as noble as your own - for healing from his mortal wound. He shall remain unawakened, and once healed, I shall bring him with me back to Middle Earth, fear not, and he shall never know of his stay here, save in his dreams."

The elf continued to look upon Malagar with disgust, and then abruptly strode forward, looking over Faradin's form. "Step back, shadow weaver, and I shall tend him."

Mal did so, once more gazing off the mountain side and over the Blessed Land. A sigh almost escaped him, but he kept it within. He felt a warmth upon his back, and saw the elf leaning over Faradin, a glow emanating from his hands, and the ranger's injuries fading away.

Looking up, weariness in his visage, the elf spoke to Malagar. "Quickly now, begone from this place. I shall see to Syntia's recovery - pray the Valar do not judge you as harshly as they should, and shall send none after you for what you have done."

Mal's voice was nearly a whisper as he walked over to Faradin's now whole form. "They have no right to judge me - for good or ill, I am beyond them now."

Before the elf could respond, he grabbed up the ranger and strode back into the darkness of the cave, delving deeper into the shadow itself, his power enhanced by the realm behind him - the realm which, as he left, he did not let himself look back upon.

Exhaustion permeated his visage once more as he found himself once more in Castle Iron Heart, in the small bedroom Unvar had lent him. He noticed the door had been opened, but had no care for it. Laying Faradin carefully on the floor, he struggled to the bed and dropped into it, falling into a deep and dreamless sleep.

Slythre wearily turned over in bed, her body still aching from the fatigues of the day before.

After a moment, she got up, moving her long hair out of her eyes.

She quickly dressed, and then strolled over to the window. Light filtered in through it, filling the room with the rays of morning. She'd slept late, not that that wasn't perfectly understandable. She looked out on the courtyard for a while. The traces of the previous day's battle were largely cleaned, and there were corsairs moving on the stone ground below.

She stood there in the sun's warmth for a moment longer before leaving the room. She walked quickly down the stairs and nearly ran into Agravigan, who had been just going up.

She took a step back in surprise. "Sorry, I didn't see you."

Agravigan looked uncomfortable, and just stood there, looking out of place, before speaking. "Uh, yes. Well I'm afraid I just forgot why I was going up at all."

He looked up at her for a moment, rubbing the back of his neck with one hand. "But there are things to say, between us. Yesterday, you were about to explain why you had left Unvar's command. I still would like to know."

She lowered her gaze. "I never meant to join the Balrog. I thought that I was allying with elves and men, who were on a noble enterprise. I can offer no excuse for my actions other than that I was deceived."

"I guess that, knowing you, that's probably the truth."

She broke into a relieved smile. It felt as though a part of her burden had been removed. "Thank-you, Agravigan."

"Well . . . Oh yes, I just remembered why I was going up here. I have to wake up those lazy men in the upper barracks. Perhaps I'll get Mal up while I'm up there. I haven't seen him downstairs at all, yet."

He patted her shoulder. "And you'd better get some breakfast, if you intend to have any at all."

He pushed past her and walked up the stairs, from room to room, awakening the troops. When he came to the wreckage of Mal's door, he stopped in concern. He walked in, and was puzzled to see Faradin and Mal both sleeping soundly, Faradin with his wounds miraculously recovered.

He shook Mal's shoulder, drawing him from sleep. "Wake up. What has happened here? Syntia's gone, and your door is in pieces!"

Mal blinked repeatedly at Agravigan, trying to make some sense of his words. Slowly, he leaned up, and looked at his door. "So it is."

Looking back at Agravigan, he said, slowly, "I took Syntia to a place where she will be healed. I assume someone broke into my room while I was gone."

He stood up, unsteadily, still feeling as though the energy had been drained out of him by his activities of the night before. Yet, he felt his strength returning, and released how much having two of his sources of power returned had aided him. Taking a deep breath, he looked down to see Faradin lying asleep on the floor. Nodding to himself, he walked out of the door, past an astonished Agravigan, and sought out some food - though his energy was returning, the drain had still been great, and a ravenous hunger filled him.

Faradin awoke from dreams of peace and contentment to see Mal departing the room and a startled looking Agravigan standing nearby. "I was in a land of joy and peace," he mumbled, and then everything rushed back into his mind. Groping at his side he felt unmarked flesh where a gaping hole had been. "I should be dead, but somehow I am healed. How can that be?"

Getting to his feet he felt something familiar on his back. Turning slowly he smiled slightly at the Corsair who was staring at him. "So you were the one watching me." Turning he exited the room before the look of amazement had even fully formed on Agravigan's face.

Agravigan followed after the other two, and soon they arrived in the hall. Great tables had been put there, and many were eating. Soon they seated themselves, and although the food was far from nice, it was satisfying. Soon after their dinner, they gathered in the courtyard.

Unvar turned to Malagar. "So I assume that you are going to proceed in hunting down and rescuing Dania and Narsh?"

Mal nodded. "Among other things, yes."

He stretched out his hand and clasped Mal's. "May long life and fortune favor you."

Mal smiled slightly. "They already have," he said, but he shook Unvar's hand, and made the correct response.

"We are going a long way from here. Into the Blue Mountains, nearby the legendary Grey Havens. That is a place very out of the way, and if you desire our help, or somewhere to stay if you enter that region, you're more then welcome to visit us there."

Mal nodded. "Thank-you, I'll remember that."

Unvar ignored Faradin and Slythre, and mounted his horse. "Come, loyal followers of Umbar! Our journey begins!"

Mal ate ravenously, replenishing his depleted reserves of nourishment in his body. Eventually, though, he finished his meal, glancing with a small smile at where Faradin and Slythre were staring in astonishment at where the piles of food he had put down had been.

The smile faded as he thought of where he must go next. These strange 'watchers' obviously knew something he did not... try as he might, he could not puzzle out their connection to him.

He had spoken with Harnauro earlier, on his way down to breakfast, and his old comrade had said he had not heard of anything of their kind, and was just as puzzled. Harnauro had been hesitant, but had agreed to accompany him, though not openly, for reasons of his own. Mal hadn't questioned, simply thanked him and continued toward the dining hall.

Giving a sigh, he turned to Slythre and Faradin. "We have defeated a tremendous foe here. Yet, another foe apparently still exists. I plan to go after him, and find out why he sends these warriors after us, continuously - and what has become of Dania and Narsh. You are welcome to come along, or go your own ways. I will leave this evening, at the front gate of the castle. If you wish to accompany me, meet me then, there."

Darkness settled gently across the sky, and as it did, two dark clad figures joined Mal at the gate.

"I am glad you're coming," Mal said as he looked up at the sky.

"We'd best be going," Slythre's voice came from beneath the hood of her traveling cloak. "The enemy have enough of a start on us already. Although one adventure is over, another is just beginning."

The three dark clad figures left the stone castle Iron Heart, and slipped away into the gathering gloom.

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