The vast cloud of primeval darkness coalesced in the Great Hall of Barad-dûr, gathering itself into the form of a powerful, broad-shouldered giant of a man with skin the color of obsidian and veins of fire, flowing ebony hair, and catlike eyes which glittered like twin flames. A kingly crown crafted from solid gold and studded with glittering diamonds sat atop the regal head. Lord Sauron the Great was marvelously garbed in brocaded robes spun of cloth-of-gold and studded with fiery rubies and other rare and precious jewels, treasures from the vastness of the earth itself.
As He passed by them, His robes swirling, a multitude of courtiers, servants, thralls and creatures of the night bowed before Him, hailing Him as Master and Lord. He paid no heed to them as He glided up the stairs of the dais. Turning, He sat down with an elegant flourish upon the Dark Throne, His robes flowing about Him as He settled into the thick black velvet cushions. His blazing eyes flickered over the empty thrones of the Nine, which were arranged in a semi-circle around the Great Throne, but at a lower elevation. A low growl escaped His throat and the mighty fist clenched in an iron grip over the chair arm.
Sauron's six personal bodyguards, creatures of ancient craft who had been seduced by Melkor in the time before the Trees, rose to their feet and saluted the Dark Lord. Grim-faced, each was armed with weapons of incredible destructive capabilities. Crafted upon the forges of black magic, these ancient weapons were almost invincible, forever preserved by sentient sorcery. Incredibly loyal to their Master and bound to Him by oaths of ancient thralldom, they gripped their fearsome weapons, preparing for some unknown assailant to threaten their Master. Only when a sign from the black hand told them there was nothing to fear did the mood of the unholy assembly lift.
Though all of His minions, from the lowliest orc men-at-arms to the highest ranking ancient spirit, were relieved at Sauron's reassurance, still they all quaked at His wrath. After they had hailed Him, they were silent, waiting for their Master to speak. His fiery eyes met those of the Black Lieutenant, who tried to bear Sauron's piercing gaze but was forced to look away. The tension in the Great Hall began to rise like the powerful surges of magma beneath Mount Doom, and Barad-dûr trembled. Sauron said nothing to any of them, for He had urgent matters upon His mind, matters so important to the future of His plans that He would let no one know what they were until He was ready for their unveiling. Trained through long use to remain virtually motionless, not so much as a muscle moving, the minions waited until the Great Lord was ready to speak. They would wait an age if necessary.
"Heir of Isildur," His devious mind thought as it contemplated His great advisory, "how thou lusteth after the throne, wishing to rule that which thy ancestors once held! What art thou, though, My weak mortal, My crownless king? Thou art nothing but dust! But I could allow thee to rule as My vassal, although thou art not the only son of Númenor who longs to wear the crown."
Unfortunately for the Dark Lord, Aragorn was far from Sauron's direct influence. If only there could be some communication between them, there might be a meeting of the minds. Perhaps a treaty... There would be the yearly pledges of loyalty and the matter of tribute, which would have to be paid. Such things were necessary, not only to raise the needed monies to maintain a standing army and help pay the expenses of the vast kingdom, but also as a constant reminder of the debt owed to the Lord of Mordor for His generosity. Then there would be oaths sworn, and Aragorn and all his allies would promise that never again would any of them take up arms against Mordor. Such a modest proposal...
Though Aragorn was far from Barad-dûr, there were paths by which he might be reached. The heir of Isildur possessed the stone of Orthanc which could communicate with Sauron's own palantír. Perhaps He could play with his mind, molding it like clay, shaping his very thoughts, as He had done with Denethor. In order to snare the crownless king, though, Aragorn had to gaze into the palantír.
Drawing the seeing stone from the wide sleeve of His magnificent robes, Sauron turned it to the west and willed Aragorn to look into the globe. Today was a favorable one for peering through the palantír, for once the seeing stone's range of vision passed over the desolation of Mordor, the landscape was bathed in sunlight. If only Aragorn would choose this moment to gaze into the Orthanc stone, Sauron might gain his soul forever.
"Come to Me, heir of Isildur," the Dark Lord purred, His silky voice the essence of seduction. "Thou wishest to end this useless slaughter on the battlefield and see peace encompass all of Middle-earth. I could give thee the tranquility which thou desirest so much... I could give thee thy crown and restore to thee the kingdoms of thy ancestors... It would be a new golden age for Gondor... peace and plenty would reign over the land. Canst thou not seest all this before thy eyes, heir of Isildur?"
Nothing. Just endless leagues of nothingness, abandoned lands left to the care of ravens and wolves. Slowly turning the palantír, Sauron gazed upon unplowed fields which had never greened that spring; burned cottages and destroyed towns; bones of men and animals bleaching in the sun. He saw women and children in tattered rags, weeping for husbands and fathers who would never return; looting bands of outlaws who made profits off the tragedy of others; grim-faced warriors who stared at each other across enemy lines. A malicious smile spread over the Dark Lord's black features when He viewed the lands of His enemies torn by war and blighted by lack of sunlight in the spring. The palantír showed Him many scenes, but He did not see Aragorn.
On the verge of frustration, the Dark Lord shifted the palantír northwest towards the Gray Havens. Although it was unlikely, perhaps Aragorn had taken sanctuary there under the protection of Círdan. Perhaps even as Sauron viewed the palantír, Aragorn was secreted in some hidden chamber deep within the ancient elf lord's house. Sauron saw a few Elvish ships along the coast, where fishermen cast their nets into the sea. Obviously, Aragorn was too well hidden for Him to observe. A gray mist blew over the harbor from the West, clouding Sauron's vision. He made a minor adjustment in the line of orientation, and His view changed to bright sunshine reflecting off the blue sea.
Though the palantír did not move in His hands, Sauron felt a wrenching pull similar to the force of a powerful divining rod when it detects water and is drawn inexorably towards the source. The Dark Lord cursed and grasped the palantír in both His hands and turned it back towards the war-torn lands of the south, but the sight of the barren mountains and plains was obscured by a thick haze. Sauron set His mighty will to redirecting the palantír on its rightful course, but the stone was heedless to His commands.
When the curtains of fog parted at last, He could see seagulls flying over a calm sea and great sea beasts rising into the air above the surface of the water. He snarled at the palantír and looked around the room, but no one was watching Him, for if they were, He would have broiled them alive with one gaze from His fiery eyes. The visions in the globe became fuzzy, barely perceptible, and Sauron could not interpret what the sphere was showing. Then finally after passing over great expanses of water, He saw land, a bright green land crowned by a high hill which seemed uncomfortably familiar. His great black hand went to His temple and He pressed hard against His forehead. The palantír now seemed to be in full rebellion, and the alignment of directions seemed to move of its own accord without Sauron's ever having to turn the Ithil stone.
The great, silver-domed Temple loomed up out of the mists that swirled inside the palantír. A figure of splendor, far more handsome than any Elf or Man, sat upon the black throne. His hair flowed in a rippling cascade of flame down His shoulders, and His golden amber eyes were alight with mirth. His mighty frame shook with peals of laughter as He wondered what He would do now that His hated enemies were at last destroyed.
Sauron gripped His head more fiercely until His clawed fingers drew blood. A terrible bellow tore from His throat, a wrenching cry of agony and despair. He saw the Great Eagles, those terrible birds, against a sky stained with blood. Beneath Him, the ground shook as He struggled to regain control of the seeing stone. With an exertion of physical and spiritual strength impossible for anyone except one of the Ainur, Sauron had almost managed to reorient the palantír. Then He saw a great wave rising up in the West, moving at unprecedented speed towards the island, and then washing over it in a giant, cataclysmic deluge. He could feel Himself being drawn down, down, down into the depths of the raging sea, tumbled and buffeted by churning waves and the broken pillars and beams which had once held up His great Temple.
With a howl of rage, Sauron threw the palantír from Himself. The flying globe struck a hapless orc in the head, killing him instantly, but the wretch's death went unnoticed and unmourned. The minions assembled in the Great Hall recoiled in terror from their Master, shielding their faces from His burning gaze, for His visage had become terrible to behold. The Dark Lord's immense frame trembled in wrath, and He felt an explosive fury welling up inside Him. His mighty fists clenched, the talons digging into the flesh of His palms and drawing blood which oozed like lava to hiss and sizzle upon the adamantine arms of the Black Throne. Once again, the Others had made sport of Him!
The plateau of Gorgoroth shook and trembled with a mighty roar of earth grinding against earth as magma surged upward in the great chambers of fire which lay beneath the plain. The twisted, gaping fissures which scored the plateau widened, and the shuddering ground broke open with new rents. Steam and gas poured out of the chasms, and streams of liquid fire splashed into the air like breakers crashing against a rocky shore.
Smoke boiling out from its summit and sides, Orodruin churned with pent up fury. In the five days since the eruption of June 30th, molten lava had continuously bubbled up from beneath the surface, forming a massive, smoking dome in the midst of the massive crater which crowned the mountain's summit. With a thunderous roar like Melkor's mighty cry when Ungoliant attempted to wrest the Silmarils away from Him, Orodruin convulsed in a spectacular eruption which could be heard and seen for miles and miles. Massive amounts of molten rock, pebbles, cinders, and ash were hurled skyward as the dome shattered, fragmenting in untold fiery pieces. Borne upward by the strength of the explosion, a great column of swirling ash and tephra rose into the heavens, mounting higher and higher. Fire flickered in the filthy gray and black clouds; great forks of lightning surged from the billowing smokes. Thunder crackled and boomed, and explosion after explosion rocked the plains of Gorgoroth.
As it rose ever upward, the colossal eruption column began to widen and spread out until it resembled the flaring cap of a mushroom. Beneath the massive head, condensation rings surrounded the spire of smoke. A great rain of rocks fell from the skies, and lava bombs pelted the sides of the mountain. Destabilized by the earthquakes and the eruption, part of the southern side of the mountain gave way, and an avalanche of stone and debris surged down the slope. With a thunderous crash of exploding rock, a wave of lava burst forward and surged down the slope in blazing ropes. Above the fiery rivers billowed great clouds of ash which rolled down the sides, burying everything in their path.
Pandemonium reigned in the village of Stazmûlkrak. Much of the squalid settlement had been leveled during the earthquakes or from shockwaves from the massive explosions. Many of the residents were injured or dead; those who still lived were in fear for their lives. Other shanties had caught fire when panicked villagers dropped lanterns on the straw-strewn floors. The flames had caught, quickly spreading to engulf whole sections of the town, and the smoke of their burning rose black against the leaden clouds. The roads were filled with people escaping from the fury which they feared was to come. Fights broke out and people pushed and shoved, heedless of others, trampling them in their haste to flee from the burning town.
At fifteen miles away from Mount Doom, the village was in little danger of being buried beneath layers of suffocating ash or consumed by the lava; however, many villagers were terrified of the volcano and could only guess at its true power. Would this be the day that the Dark Lord finally turned His fury upon Stazmûlkrak? No one knew. The more stalwart decided to stay with their homes and rebuild what they had lost, for they had survived years of volcanic eruptions, some worse than this one.
The mother cat who had moved her kittens during the most recent earthquake was nowhere to be seen. Days before, frantic with fear, she had fled far from the village to find a protected burrow in a rock formation which sheltered her and her kittens. Strangely enough, few animals of any kind were to be seen on the rubble-filled streets of Stazmûlkrak. Perhaps some highly keened sense, unperceived by the village residents, had warned them that there was danger to come.
As the slave caravan traveled on its southward journey that morning, its progress was halted by tremors in the earth and the sounds of distant explosions. Both captive and captor alike beheld in wonder and dread the gigantic mushroom-shaped cloud which rose seventeen leagues to the north. "It is times like these," Ganbar told Inbir, who rode by his side, "that nothing will do except a good, stout drink."
"And perhaps a long, leisurely puff on the hookah," Inbir added, wishing it were permissible to partake of the narghile while on duty.
"The Lord of the Mountain must be offended about something," suggested a wary Khaldun, whose gray gelding skittered to one side as another eruption sent a tremor coursing through the earth.
"Maybe it is the Dark Lord who needs the hookah. Calm Him down some," Ganbar laughed, his face twisted into a wry grin. "From the sound of it, He has a royal case of indigestion, and His bowels are in an uproar."
The discussion came to a halt when the chief slaver, concerned about the darkening sky, ordered the column to move faster. The order was unnecessary, however, for the ominous black cloud that was looming to the north was slowly being forced towards another destination. Still, though, both the captives and their keepers were glad to put as much distance between them and the belching volcano as possible.
Far away in the West, the Nazgûl felt their Master's wrath searing their minds as harshly as if they were standing before the Black Throne. All Nine, from the strongest to the most cowardly, trembled in sore dread. Udu clasped his Mordor Special Mission Flying Corps medallion, his good luck charm, as though the amulet could somehow protect him from the wrath of his Master. Rut, ever sympathetic to his friend's fears, offered him a drink of Dushûrz-Gabhîk, Minas Morgul's own potent brew, and together they toasted the coming end. Always a nervous, high-strung fellow, Krith, the Ninth, bit his fingernails to the blood and moaned over and over, "O woe is me! O woe is me! Everything is lost!"
Khamûl fell on his face and did oblations to the Dark God whom he worshiped. When his legs stopped shaking, he rose to his feet and slashed a knife across his chest, begging for the Mighty One's forgiveness. Zagbolg, the Fourth, taking the lead of his companion, bared his chest and ripped the knife bone deep into the flesh of his torso. Splattered with blood, the two wailed and shrieked, tearing at their long, dark hair, pleading for mercy for whatever offenses they might have committed.
Krak, the golden barbarian giant, looked up from the writhing body of the woman with whom he had been sporting, gave a hard, deep thrust, and in spite of the fact that his brain was reeling, finished the job which he had started. After that final effort, he fell to the floor and despaired that he would ever be forgiven for all his sins. Gothmog, infuriated with the insolence of an uruk, had just plunged his lance through the wretch's belly and out his back, ripping out his spine and skewering him like a kebab with the weapon. Savagely, he jerked the point out, grinning at the black blood that gushed from the gaping wound. With a laugh, Gothmog jumped his horse over the mangled body, but then stabbing pains struck him in both the head and heart, and, trembling in the saddle, he halted his steed. The Master was displeased, and He would demand a high price from them all. How the Third Nazgûl wished that there were some place to hide, but his secret kasbah was too far away, and even there he was not safe from the gaze of the Eye.
His head feeling as though it would explode in pain, Skri shrieked in agony, momentarily dropping the reins of his fell beast as he tore at his hair in misery. Swerving through the heavens, he forced himself to fly onward towards the western front, where he would deliver the Dark Lord's missive to Angmar.
The Morgul Lord looked to the east, his jaw clenched in grim fatalism. He wondered if he had time to order the evacuation of the civilians of Minas Morgul, lest Gorthaur the Cruel turn His fury against them. Tormented with memories of the Conquest of the Ninth Ring and the destruction of all that he held dear, the Morgul Lord wondered what terrible price that Sauron would exact from him this time.