Saruman and the Blue Wizards

Where the Stars are Strange

Amid the deserts of Harad, which stretch for league upon league like a great ocean of sand, the lone traveler can soon become as lost as a sailor plying the waters of an unknown sea. So it was with Curunir the White. He had wandered the lands for eight years – south, ever south – searching this way and that in a vain effort to find the stronghold of Alatar and Pallando. He had hoped to hear rumor of their whereabouts, and thus find them quickly, but those hopes had been dashed. As he passed out of the steppes of Rhun into those of Khand, the land had become ever more desolate. Men were known to dwell in these lands, yet of them he could find no sign. And at length he passed out of Khand, and so into the wastes of Helcar.

Year in, year out, he searched fruitlessly, living on such meager game as he could find and catch, relying on his hardy steed to find by smell oases and their precious wealth of water and dates. His skin had been burned dark by the Sun, his body had grown as lean and taut as that of his mount, and his ragged clothes were stained dark brown by years of wear and dust. Had any traveler come across him, they might have thought him as a Southron himself, an exile perhaps, or a lone nomad who had strayed far from camp and kin.

Only in the night did he find any comfort; for then the breezes were cool, and he could gaze up at the ever-clear sky to the shining stars, which in time took on new forms and shapes the like of which he had never seen before. He mapped and catalogued these Southern stars in his mind, determined someday to write a treatise on them, when he had succeded in his quest. This determination at least helped him keep up his hopes, which otherwise would long since have faded like the dew of morning before the rising Sun.

One morning he awoke yet again to the brilliant light of dawn streaming over the eastern dunes. The Sun, which soon lay directly overhead, blazed like an angry golden eye, scouring the land, and blasting all who dared its wrath as if they were in a searing oven. Curunir ate his remaining handful of dates, sparing a few for his steed, which eyed him mournfully, and then took a swig from his flask of water. Eight days it had been since the last oasis he had encountered; he knew that if he did not find another today, he would have to turn back and retrace his steps, or else soon face the death of his mount and perhaps of his own mortal frame as well. To spare his weary steed his weight for time, he took it by its reins in his left hand, relying on his staff as a walking stick, and led the beast on foot. As they walked over the burning sands the pony's nose began to twitch, and it made a dry rattling sound from its throat that could have been a neigh; but Curunir was too tired and absorbed in his own grim thoughts to pay any heed.

Then, reaching the crest of yet another of the seemingly endless chain of dunes, Curunir stopped suddenly, hardly believing his eyes. As his pony pawed the sand and neighed hopefully, he began to laugh, a harsh, rasping sound that had not issued from his throat for many moons.

A mirage! An illusion that could afflict the eyes of a mortal. He had read of such things, but did not think to be the victim of one himself. Yet here was one before him; at the base of the dune, the sands of the desert came to an abrupt end, and beyond them, for league upon league to the southern horizon, stretched an endless sea of emerald green reeds, dappled with the blue waters of countless meres. How could this be real, when for years he had seen no water beyond tiny, shallow pools, no green, growing things beyond the handful of reeds and date palms that grew beside them?

He led his steed down the slopes of the dune regardless, curious to witness the false image dissolve before his eyes. Yet, as he neared the base of the dune, his nose and ears began to aid his eyes. He realized then that what he saw was not a mirage, but the living truth. He had at last reached the end of the desert!

He began to run towards the nearest mere, his steed breaking into a canter to keep up with his pace. The smell of green, growing things, mixed with that of something he could not recall, filled his nostrils, and his ears took in the low buzzing and chirping that emanated from the marshes, the sounds of countless frogs, and insects, and birds and other beasts. Surely, there was water and food here, enough for a king!

Reaching the flat sands by the edge of the marshes at last, the pony broke from his grip and plunged its dusty snout into the nearest muddy pool, drinking the water with deep, eager gulps. He was tempted to join the beast, but knew well enough not to trust unknown waters. Removing the saddle and its back from the steed, so that it could frolic in the pool for a time if it chose, he opened his saddle bag and took out a rag of cloth he had long since torn from his robes. This he used to filter the water from the pool into a brass drinking bowl, so that at least it was no longer stained by mud or filled with tiny writhing pond-creatures. Then, making a pass over the water in the bowl with his staff, he murmured a few words that would withdraw any remaining taint from the it, and slowly quaffed the clear fluid, as dear a draught to him as the finest wine of Dorwinion served to the King of Gondor in a golden cup.

He looked up at his steed, which had refreshed itself by rolling on its back in the waters of the mere, and was now shaking itself dry.

"Well," said Curunir. "There are still some hours of daylight left. Let us ride forth, and see if there is some patch of higher ground in yon marshes where we can camp for the night. Though even a sodden bed of reeds would be welcome after so many hard years in the barren desert."

That night, Curunir found himself sitting crossed-legged on a bed of reeds, a rare high spot in the flat expanse of the marshes. His steed stood some feet away, nibbling on fresh green reed-shoots as the marsh water lapped at its ankles. He could no longer see the dunes of the desert, merely gently waving reeds that stretched to the horizon under the pale light of the rising Moon.

He had managed to catch a lone waterfowl and boil it in a small brass kettle using dried reeds for fuel, and filtered water from the marshes for the broth; a spare meal, but the best he had enjoyed for many weeks. The smoke from the fire had drifted for some distance into the air, but Curunir was too hungry and tired to care whether it betrayed him to any onlookers. Thus it was that he first failed to notice his pony's sudden uplifiting of its head, its ears twitching, its nose sniffing the air for hidden dangers. It whinnied nervously, but he ignored it, his dark eyes closing as he began to drift into a deep, dreamless sleep.

Then he heard it – the splashing, from all around, as if many small stones had been dropped into the water of the marshes. His heavy eyelids opened, and he saw ripples across the water of the nearest mere, flowing toward him and splashing against the reed-bed on which he sat. He frowned as the pony edged towards him, trying to climb up beside him. It was almost moaning, and he could see the whites of its eyes as it looked this way and that, searching desperately for – what?

Creo-ok. Curunir jumped to his feet, staff at the ready. The noise, which had come from the reeds to his left, sounded like the hinges of a rusty iron gate. The pony was silent now, trembling with fear.

Creeech! Now it was coming from his right! The pony screamed, and then leapt off the reed-bed, crashing through the water of the mere and into the reeds beyond.

"No, wait!" he cried after it – it screamed again, but the cry was cut short suddenly. He more water lapping, but the steed did not answer his calls.

Crowlllk! Now he heard another ghastly noise, louder, from behind. He whipped round to face it, only to hear another, and another – more and more, until the marsh was echoching with the harsh, sinister rumblings, like gravel sliding down a mountainside.

Curunir narrowed his eyes, prepared for battle. "Come forth!" he called, his deep voice echoing across the marshes in reply. "Cowards! Come forth and show yourselves!"

A high-pitched tittering was interwoven with the cacophony in reply – almost a mocking laugh, as if the hellish creature that made it knew his Voice had no power over its kind. The reeds all about the mere were rustling now, and Curunir stood still as a statue carved from marble, his staff gleaming under the rising Moon.

Then the reeds parted, and he saw them. Dozens of them, flopping through the reeds on their soft, flabby legs, their wattled grey flesh wriggling with each movement like jelly, their luminous, pale green eyes glaring at him with evil intelligence as their wide, lolling mouths hung open, displaying rubbery black tongues and hideous yellow fangs. Like giant frogs or toads they were, as large as boars, but hideous and fungoid. No natural creatures of land or water were these, but unclean beasts whose forebears were surely bred in the pits of Utumno during the Age of Darkness, when Morgoth ruled unchallenged the forsaken lands of Middle Earth.

Curunir's nostrils twitched at their foul stench, which now surrounded him – like mud, and filth, and things dead and rotting. He felt his own guts heaving, but devoted a portion of his will to steadying the frail nerves of his mortal body. His mind was focused entirely on his foes.

"I know you understand my thoughts, if not my speech, in you own foul fashion," said Curunir, his voice harsh and ominous now. "That is why you have not yet attacked me, as you attacked my poor steed. You fear me – and well you should." The creatures hissed and snapped their jaws, open and shut, as the heavy air pulsated with their unnatural croaking.

"Yea, well might you fear me!" cried Curunir. "Flee this place, or you will taste not Man-flesh, but your own deaths!"

Their croaking subsided for a moment, as they glanced at each other with their leprous, glowing eyes. Then one of them began to titter hysterically, and soon its fellows joined it – a chorus of mockling laughter. They had let the prey speak its vain words – let it taste the fear of its own death, before they tasted its sweet flesh!

"So be it!" cried Curunir. Even as they leapt through the air, their thick legs springing them forward with tremendous power as their gaping mouths hung open and slavered for his blood, he spoke a Word of Power, smashing his glowing staff into the water with all his strength.

For an instant, the light of the Moon was darkened, and the waters glowed a ghostly blue. Then, with a titantic clap of thunder, the water crackled and surged with fierce lightning! Great blue bolts shot up from the water at the creatues in mid-flight, and surged forth, far out into the marshes, arcing over their fellows who remained within the reed-beds, snaking over the waters as far as the eyes could see!

The creatures' tittering was transformed at once into a chorus of ghastly wails, as they spasmed in agony under the deadly caress of the lightening. Then, before they could reach Curunir, the creatures in mid-air exploded in a sickening, putrid rain of seared, oily flesh and rancid guts. As the foul rain spattered over his face and robes, and he recoiled in disgust, he saw their fellows still in the water scream their last, steam pouring forth from their mishappen nostrils, before they turning on their backs and floated, belly-up, in the boiling, turgid waters of the marsh.

The thunder echoed across the marshes, and then died gradually, until there was a utter stillness and silence. The Moon's pale light once again illuminated the marshes, and revealed to Curunir's eyes that not one of the creatures still drew breath. The air was bitter and acrid now, and its texture singed his nostrils more than the stench of the residue that carpeted his clothes.

At length, with a weary sigh, and a blessing for his poor steed, he picked up his saddle-bag, swung it over his broad back and, using his staff to test the waters, plunged into the marshes, heading southward. He could endure a night without sleep if he must – for now he wished only to put as much distance as possible between himself and the ghastly scene of carnage.

The Moon stared down at him palely, full of pity to see a being of Curunir's dignity and power reduced to such a low estate. But He remained as ever mute.

Days passed into weeks, and still Curunir waded tirelessly through the marshes, once so welcome, but now so dismal and dreary to his sight – south, ever south. His hair and beard were tangled and matted, his feet were sodden and sore, his clothes now but tattered rags, filthy and nearly rotten. He no longed sought for game, but lived off the stringy flesh inside the marsh reeds, which he learned contained both food and clean water enough to sustain a Man; though not enough of either to satisfy his gnawing hunger, or the thirst that increased as the air grew ever more hot and steamy, even more uncomfortable than had been the dry, searing air of the desert. The flies became thick as he went farther south, until he was ceaselessly tormented by their buzzing and biting, day and night.

Yet Curunir put aside all thoughts of his physical torment, for one obsession alone burned within his mind – to find Alatar and Pallando, and bring them to justice for their treason. That thought now consumed all else, until it seemed to his mind's eye that he was no longer a Man in body, but a great, gleaming scythe, sweeping down on the Blue Wizards, hurrying them to their inexorable Doom.

Thus it was with these dark thoughts in his mind that he did not at first notice when his feet pulled up from the waters of a stagnant mere and stood, not on yet another bed of reeds, but on soft, dark soil, covered with broad ferns and delicate bright flowers. Then the burning Sun ceased to beat down on his head, and dappled shadows traced across the loamy ground. He looked up, his dark eyes blinking for a moment before he took in the sight – a forest of giant trees, their smooth trunks soaring more than two-hundred feet into the air. Their high upper branches formed a canopy of broad, shiny leaves, and their trunks were netted together by a luxuriant network of vines, laden with heavy flowers that breathed strange perfumes. He could hear the songs of many birds, and more faintly the strange calls and cries of beasts unknown to him.

Far Harad, he thought to himself. And far have I come indeed.

He looked about, and to his surprise saw a broad path, some twenty paces to his left, marked by trampled underbrush and crushed flowers and ferns, which led from the forest toward the marshes. He walked towards it, and noted that it ended in a large pool of brown marshwater, pungent with some musky odour that he could not identify. There were deep depressions in the ground, as if made by the feet of some beast – but a beast of unfathomable size and weight.

Straightening his shoulders, and proceeding cautiously now, he turned and followed the trail into the dark forest from whence it issued. He was soon plunged into deep shadow, for beneath the forest canopy the light of the Sun was forever muted. Yet he could see clearly enough as he wound his way along the broad path. The trunks of the giant trees upheld the canopy of leaves like mighty pillars supporting the roof of a castle. The understory was full of tangled vines, of giant ferns, of huge, strangely scented flowers of curious shape, and all manner of birds and lizards, insects and serpents, all brightly-coloured and swift-moving. The air was damp and heavy, pungent with the rich, exotic scents of the forest. If Aiwendil were here, he would think he had found the greatest paradise in Middle Earth, thought Curunir absently.

Drops of water dripped here and there, as if it had rained within the past day or so. Little rivulets were everywhere, gurgling merrily as they wound their way north towards the marshes. Here and there the huge tracks trampled into the mud of the path had filled up with water, and Curunir had to step around them as he followed the trail.

At length, after climbing a low hillock, he reached a turn in the trail. There the trees parted into a clearing full of bright sunlight, permitting him to see for many miles southward. The forest sprawed before him, stretching without interruption toward the horizon, which was marked by a line of low, dark hills. He gazed at these hills carefully, his eyes straining with the effort, until –

Yes, there it was – smoke! A great stream of smoke, surrounded by the flickering tongues of many lesser smokes, issuing from beyond the hills. Only a city of Men could have produced so much smoke from countless fires, visible from such at distance.

"At last, my friends," said Curunir, smiling for the first time in ages as his dark eyes flashed keenly. "At last, I have you!"

Laughing quietly, he strode rapidly down the slope of the hillock and across the clearing, determined to make as much progress as possible toward his goal before the night set in.

Evening found Curunir encamped by a fallen, moss-covered log, as the silvery moonlight gave the forest and unearthly air, and a cool breeze through over the treetops. He had managed to catch a few small lizards, which were palatable enough after roasting over a slow fire, and was preparing to sleep for the evening. Yet, he did not lie down, for some current in the air kept him awake. He sat and listened, staring at the dim reflection of his bedraggled appearance in a shallow pool of water, and waited expectantly.

Then, he saw the water begin to tremble. Ripples stirred the surface, in a steady rhthym. He leaned forward and placed his ear to the ground, listening.

Footfalls – of that there could be no doubt. And of a single beast, by the sounds. Yet what sort of beast could possibly tremble the earth, from such a great distance? Cautiously, Curunir poured a handful of water over the last smoking remnants of the fire and crept behind the mossy log, carrying his staff and saddle-bag with him. He crouched there, waiting, as the sound began to echo through the air – thump – thump – thump – thump – like the beating of a heavy drum from afar, each sequence of beats louder than the ones before.

After some minutes, the noise of the beast's footsteps nearly deafening now, it turned a bend in the path and strode past Curunir. His jaw dropped as he stared upward at the creature, which trampled over the path like a living mountain of grey-skinned flesh, its tiny red eyes fierce and alert, its massive ivory-tusked head and sinuous trunk swaying from side-to-side as it strode towards the distant water hole.

Oliphaunt! Curunir recognized the beast now, having read of it in a musty scroll in the archives of Minas Anor. Mumak, it would be deemed in the tongue of the Southrons. Yet unlike the wild Mumakil of which he had read, this beast's craggy back was surmounted by a castlet of wooden planks on which stood several swarthy Men, garbed in robes and tubans of crimson and azure, wickedly curved bows held ready in their hands. One of them steered the beast by means of a tiller to which were attached iron chains that descended from the castlet, and were attached by hooks to holes pierced in the Mumak's broad, thin ears.

"What mischief have you been up to now, my friends?" whispered Curunir – not quietly enough, for in an instant the beast came to a shuddering halt, let out a deafening roar, and then wheeled about, its trunk sniffing this way and that as its angry red eyes glared suspiciously into the underbrush. The Men on board the castlet sought desperately to restrain the beast; evidently, they were still new to its mastery.

Realizing that he could not hide himself for long, Curunir waited until the Far Haradrim (for such he assumed them to be) regained control of their giant mount, and then choose to reveal himself to them. Slinging his saddlebag over his shoulder, he leapt atop the log and called out "Greatings, my friends!" in the Near Haradrim dialect he had learned from an ancient scroll at Minas Anor.

"Ho! An intruder!" cried the Men – Curunir could understand their words with some difficulty, for their speech had grown apart from that of their northern kin in the deserts near Umbar. "Hands up!" they shouted. "Stay where you are!"

"Now, now, my friends," smiled Curunir, addressing them in his smoothest, most mellow tones, gesturing subtly with his staff. "I mean you no harm. I am merely a humble traveler through these lands."

The Haradrim where silent. "Merely a humble traveler…" said one of them, after a moment.

"Indeed so," confirmed Curunir. "I wish only for…"

He never completed the sentence. The Mumak, which had been glaring at him with its angry, suspicious eyes, suddenly lashed at him with its trunk, unleashing another deafening roar as it did so. Curunir, at once stunned senseless by the blow, was thrown some thirty feet through the air, landing with a dull thud amid a large fern. His staff and saddlebag landed some feet away.

"Merely a humble traveler…" repeated one of the Men doubtfully.

"What kind of talk is that?" asked another gruffly, shaking his head – evidently, he was the man's superior. "Our lords have ordered us to fetch all outlander spies that we find, and bring them to Tibasht forthwith. And they said that should we see any outlander who is of like kind to the Blue Masters, we should be most cautious, and not fetch him tither unless it be in chains, and his staff separate from him. Now we see one of like kind to the Masters, and lo! He is flat on his back, and we can make our move. A fine reward we shall receive for him!"

"Jubal! Argasht!" he shouted. "Climb down and clamp yon vagrant in irons, then bring him here. Be sure to claim his staff, and to keep it well away from him!"

Grumbling, Jubal and Argasht set about their work and soon did as they had been ordered, hauling Curunir and his staff onto the castlet with the aid of ropes. Then, with a cry of exhortation, their officer urged the Mumak forward, steering it back down the path from whence it came, toward the hidden city of Tibasht.

Curunir's eyelids flickered open and shut, briefly, as he began to regain his wits. He first sensed pain, for his body was bruised and battered by the Mumak's assault. Turning some of his powers towards rapidly healing his wounds, he then opened his eyes again, blinking several times in the harsh sunlight before he became fully aware of his surroundings.

He was lying on his back on a hard, hot surface of rock, the Sun beating down on him from a bright blue sky, dusted with puffy white clouds. The heat was magnified by a great flame which rose from a brazier of carved bronze that lay to his right. A gentle breeze of cool air brought only slight relief from the heat of Sun and fire.

Curunir sat up, looking about, and realized that his arms and legs were shackled together by chains of iron. He looked about, turning to his left, and saw that he was not lying on the ground as he had first thought. The brazier was mounted atop the flat roof of a vast, sloping, four-sided pyramid built out of large, closely-fitted and shaped boulders of black basalt. Steps carved into the basalt led down the side of the building, a good three-hundred feet, to the city and encampment that sprawled below. The pyramid sat in the middle of a large square, flanked by smaller structures of similar type, and was surrounded by many hundreds of simple square houses and forges – though they seemed abandoned, for they no longer stained the sky with ribbons of smoke.

Beyond the stone houses was a vast grassy field that looked as if it had been trampled by many Mumakil, and which was littered with strips of canvas and stakes of wood, as if a large encampment of mounted soldiers had also been recently abandoned. On the far horizon Curunir could see a long line of low, jungle-clad hills; presumably, the very same hills he had seen before his capture, from the other side and looking south. In that case he was now looking to the north, and the Sun was rising in the east.

Before his capture. Curunir stared down at his iron chains again, astonishment at war with shame for mastery of his passions. How could he, Curunir the White, have been captured by mere Men? True, the accursed Mumak had been responsible for the deed, and the Haradrim had taken advantage of his weakness. But to have been reduced to the low state of a captive of mere mortals, and of heathen barbarians at that, was a severe, intolerable blow to his pride. Why, they had even taken his staff, the symbol and instrument of his office and his power! Curunir felt his shame ignite into a slow, smouldering fire of anger that burned deep within his breast.

"How goes it with you, Curunir the White?" intoned a rich, mellow voice that came from somewhere behind him.

Alatar. Grinding his teeth, but maintaining an impassive expression, Curunir slowly and awkwardly turned around, until he was sitting fully upright and facing toward the west.

He saw Alatar, and to his left Pallando seated atop low-backed chairs carved of ivory, and inlaid with ebony in intricate patterns. Their azure robes were sleek and well-tended, their skin rosy with health and vitality, their deep blue eyes shining triumphantly. They no longer wore their peaked hats, but allowed their long black hair to flow freely in the wind. Each bore his crystal staff in his right hand, upright and mounted firmly on the ground, as if it were the scepter of a mortal King. Their lips were curled slightly, though whether in pleasure at the sight of their captive in chains, or disgust at his filthy, disheveled appearance, it was hard to tell.

To their left, robed entirely in black, stood several curious figures. Tall and thin, with shaven pates, their visages were like to those of the Haradrim; but their eyes were grey, and they had about them an air of lingering nobility that belied their rude surroundings. One of them held up a pole to which was affixed a banner - a black serpent, on a field of red. Black Numenoreans of Umbar, thought Curunir, instantly recognizing the design from his studies. Another of them, the tallest, dared to hold Curunir's smooth ebon staff in his own right hand, as if he had taken possession of it. He stared coldly at the White Wizard, as his thin lips twisted into a mocking smile.

"Come now, Curunir my friend," offered Pallando, in his high, reedy voice. "Have you nothing to say for yourself? You were so loquacious when last we met, and spoke so many fair and wise words. I am astonished to find you are now mute." His smile then became openly mocking, like that of the Umbarian who held Curunir's staff.

The White Wizard leaned forward slightly, his chains clanking as he did so.

"The Blue Masters; so I have heard you called by the Haradrim," Curunir replied at length, his voice deep and sonorous. "Tell me, of what have you gained mastery? Certainly not of wisdom, though you could well afford to add to your scanty store of it."

The Blue Wizards both frowned now, though the Umbarian who held Curunir's staff retained an impudent smirk.

"And thou," said Curunir, turning to the Umbarian, and rudely using the familiar form of address, "dost thou think that by clutching my staff, like an errant pupil who has stolen the schoolmaster's rod, thou shalt be spared from justice? Truly I say thy judgment lies upon thee, mortal."

"Fool!" spat the Umbarian, his dusky face contorting with rage. He replied to Curunir's jibe in his Southron dialect of the Common Speech. "Dost thou think I am mere dross, like the soldiers who captured thee? My wisdom and power are greater than thou knowest. Yea, I know that without thy staff, thou art little more than an ordinary Man, for through it thou wieldest thy power. Now, I shall use it to wield my own power in thy stead Thou hast failed in thy mission, and now thou art but a lowly captive. Verily it is thee who shalt soon taste the fires of judgment!"

"Peace, Ibal," replied Alatar, whose features were now calm and serene, though his eyes flashed dangerously. "Curunir is our honoured guest, though he may not appreciate his status. It is unworthy of us to reply in kind to his ill manners."

"I beg pardon, my lord Inzullor," replied Ibal, bowing his head slightly, though his knuckles blanched white as his grip on Curunir's staff tightened.

"Inzullor," repeated Curunir. "That is your name amongst these scum, is it Alatar? It rolls off the tongue more readily than Aral-Rakan, I suppose."

Alatar said nothing, but his counterpart smiled grimly. "You never cease to amaze me, Curunir the White," replied Pallando. "Here you are, humbled before us, and yet still you presume mastery. Your pride is truly your greatest weakness."

"And your stupidity is yours," replied Curunir.

Pallando's eyes flashed with anger, and he stiffened in his chair, as if ready to leap up and smite his captive. But Alatar placed a warning hand on his arm, and he relaxed into his chair once again, though a dark frown now marred his face.

"You are as tiresome as ever, Curunir," replied Alatar evenly. "But, before you meet your fate, I am sure you would like to hear my report on what I have accomplished amongst these Haradrim. That was, in the first instance, why you sought me out as well as dear Pallando. Is that not so?"

"By all means, report on your progress. I am most curious," replied Curunir dispassionately. Apparently, despite his cool demeanour, Alatar was not above boasting about his achievements any more than Pallando had been.

"I thought you would be," replied Alatar, playing along in mock-politeness. "You have of course inferred my designs, along with those of Pallando?"

"Naturally," sighed Curunir.

"Then you will not be surprised to hear that I have also raised an army. An Army of the Southrons, just as Pallando had mustered an Army of the Easterlings."

"Did you not use that army to attack Umbar, thirty-five years ago?" asked Curunir.

"Of course," nodded Alatar. "That was but a probe of Gondor's defences. The attack had some success, thanks to our friends amongst Umbar's citizenry." Ibal smiled knowlingly.

"But ultimately it failed, since we had not sufficient troops to defeat Gondor's army," acknowledged Alatar. "While the Haradrim have spent the last decades skirmishing with the Gondor-men, I have focused on resolving the problem of our numbers. Now our army is vast indeed. And we have even tamed the Mumakil, such as the one which brought you here. They will serve as awesome engines of war, once we assail Umbar in earnest."

Alatar smiled, absurdly pleased by this discourse on his own cleverness. "We had meant to invade Gondor on two fronts, East and South. That would have brought the war to a swift and favourable conclusion for us." Alatar frowned. "But thanks to your meddling in Pallando's preparations, our Army in the East has dissolved into a quarrelsome rabble."

Pallando muttered under his breath, and glared even more fiercely at his captive.

"Yes, Pallando was most aggrieved by that. I do believe he holds a grudge against you, Curunir." Alatar smiled again. "But, I am happy to report that working together, he and I have built up our Army in the South beyond our fondest dreams. One-hundred thousand Mumak-riders of Far Harad, mounted on ten-thousand of the great beasts, and two-hundred thousand horsemen of Near Harad and Khand, are now at our command. Yes, three-hundred thousand Men in all. That is twice the number that are found in the entire army and navy of Gondor combined, if my memory of Gondor's archives and records serves me well and they have not since increased their forces."

Alatar smoothed a crease in his robes, and continued. "Not as great an advantage as that for which we had hoped, to be sure. And now the war will last somewhat longer than would otherwise have been the case. But the end will be the same. With the element of surprise to our advantage, and with our wizardly powers and the skills of dear Ibal and his friends deployed against the Gondorians, we shall bring the line of Sea-Kings to an end. Then our era, the rule of Men by the Istari, will begin."

"I see no army," observed Curunir innocently.

"Yet you see its deserted encampment," replied Alatar, gesturing to the north. "Already our army rides for war. The last few legions that had remained at this camp departed early this morning – indeed, you were caught by one of our last patrols. Umbar shall be our first objective. Once we have taken it and secured our flank from attack by sea, nothing will stand beween us and Osgiliath itself. Alas, we have had to wait some hours for you to gain wakefulness, so that we could offer our parting words to you." He stared at Pallando briefly, and then returned his attention to Curunir. "Pallando, and our Umbarian friends here and I shall join our brave soldiers forthwith, once you have been dealt with," concluded Alatar.

"Fascinating," replied Curunir. "But are you sure you have prepared for every obstacle?"

"There are no obstacles, beyond Gondor's army and navy," replied Alatar. "And once Gondor's army is smashed and its land occupied, its navy will soon wither and die. Our plan will not fail."

"The line of Sea-Kings in the North, in Arnor, will still exist," noted Curunir. "And they will have the aid of the Elves, should you go to war against them."

"The Elves!" laughed Alatar. "A fading people, whose time passed long ago. They are of little account. And Arnor exists in name only, as well you know. It has dissolved into a patchwork of petty dukedoms, and its so-called Kings hardly control any lands beyond a day's ride of their tower at Fornost. When we are done with Gondor, the armies of Arnor and its Elvish friends shall fall before us like ripe grain before a sickle."

"Most impressive," acknowledged Curunir. "But, what of Mithrandir and Aiwendil? Surely they will stand against you."

"Aiwendil the Brown is a fool," scoffed Alatar. "And he is by far the least of our Order. What use can he be to Gondor? Will he tell his precious birds to attack us? Order his beloved trees to assail us?" Alatar laughed at the thought. "That leaves Mithrandir the Grey. Perhaps there is some power in him, but he will not be able to withstand the combined strength of the Blue Wizards for long. Nor need you threaten us with the shadow of Sauron; he has lost his precious Ring, and now our powers far exceed his."

"You have indeed thought of nearly everything," confessed Curunir, nodding sagely. "I am almost tempted to salute you, if I could salute while confined by these chains. But, I must confess, there is one very serious obstacle to your plan that you have overlooked entirely."

"And what is that?" sniffed Pallando.

"Me," smiled Curunir. He turned to Ibal, and cried in a suddenly deep, commanding voice, "Take up my staff and release me!"

Before the Blue Wizards had finished leaping out of their chairs, Ibal, a far-away look in his eyes, had already pointed Curunir's ebon staff directly at the White Wizard's chains. And before they could ready their own staves, Ibal had already spoken one of the Words of Power taught to him by Alatar and Pallando.

There was a bright flash, as a narrow beam of light shot out of the staff, hitting the chains. Their locks sprang open, and as they clattered to the ground Curunir was already flying through the air, his long arms snatching his staff from Ibal's grasp. Before the Blue Wizards had finished uttering the words of their own spells, Curunir had dashed out Ibal's brains with a quick backstroke of his stave, and whipped it toward his enemies, uttering the words of the counter-spell.

Twin flashes of blue fire shot forth from the Blue Wizards'staffs, only to be met by a tongue of red flame from Curunir's. There was a blinding flash, a deafening roar, and all three Wizards were knocked flat on their backs! The brazier of fire was picked up and thrown on its side by the mighty explosion, rolling down the sloping walls of the pyramid with a heavy rumble as it spread a long trail of oil-fueled flames in its wake, tumbling across the square and amid the squat houses of the city beyond.

After some minutes, Curunir stood to his feet. His rags were now in tatters, his skin bruised and battered, his eyes blurry and ears ringing. A tricle of blood ran down from his nose, losing itself in his matted beard. He realized with surprise that for all the force of the explosion, the pyramid was still fully intact; it must have been built with much greater solidity than had been Pallando's shattered keep at Aral-Kerulen.

Curunir looked down, and saw Ibal's broken, twisted corpse sprawled on the uppermost steps of the pyramid. "Posturing neophyte!" spat the White Wizard. "The power of my Voice is enhanced by my staff; it does not depend on it. For you, a little knowledge of my arts proved deadly."

He then spared a quick glance down the steps of the pyramid. He saw Ibal's companions, their robes torn and bodies scarred and bleeding from the explosion, yet one of them still bearing the Black Serpent banner, running for their lives across the broad stone-flagged square. To poison men at feasts; to stab them with daggers in dimly lit alleys; to afflict them with curses and illnesses that brought infirmity and death; to sacrifice bound and writhing captives before an altar of flame – at these things they were proficient. To fight against the unbound White Wizard, possessed of his Staff and the terrible power of his Voice, was a challenge they would gladly leave to beings greater than themselves.

Feeling a flicker of pleasure at their retreat, Curunir then turned his full attention to the Blue Wizards, who had now risen unsteadily to their feat. Pallando's eyes, now a pale shade of blue, were wild and desperate, while Alatar's dark azure eyes were cool and focused.

"I see your friends have deserted you," observed Curunir smoothly. "Though you have poor taste in friends indeed, meddling with sorcerers of the Black Serpent cult. They have ever served Sauron in their hearts."

"They are but pawns," replied Alatar, his staff leveled at Curunir. "We control them entirely. The Haradrim serve the Cult of the Black Serprent, and the Cult of the Black Serpent serves our will."

"Perhaps," replied Curunir. "And perhaps not. Who knows what power Sauron exercises through his minions, even today? I perceive more of their deeds than you know. Was it not these Black Numenoreans, these devotees of the Black Serpent, who first whispered designs of war and conquest into your ear, Alatar? Was it not they who persuaded you to bring Pallando into the scheme? And was it not through your study of their scrolls of Sauron's lore, which the Black Numenoreans understand not in their entirety, that you enhanced your own powers?"

Pallando frowned, though Alatar's expression remained impassive. "I know such scrolls exist," continued Curunir, "for I found fragments of them during my travels in Mordor. Undoubtedly an acolyte of the Black Serpent cult could have access to an intact scroll or scrolls, hidden in secret places. Was it not through your meditations on Alatar's teachings – that is, through Sauron's darkest arts, preserved in the scrolls of his followers - that you learned to soar through the air on your cape like a bird, Pallando?"

Pallando appeared ready to answer, but Alatar gestured for him to be silent.

"And yet to study the Black Art must surely be perilous," goaded Curunir. "Who knows what what effect such study might have on one's mind? It may open a door through which Sauron can reach, subtly and secretly bending the mind of the student to his own dark will. Verily, both of you may even now be nothing more than Sauron's unwitting pawns."

Pallando then stepped away from both Curunir and Alatar, his pale eyes flicking desperately between them. But Alatar stood firm, and returned Curunir's gaze with his own.

"Peace, Pallando," he said. "Do not panic, and do not listen to Curunir's words! He seeks to use the power of his Voice to place even you under his command!"

Pallando blinked, shaking his head. Then his eyes hardened. He also leveled his staff at the White Wizard.

"A fine trick, Curunir," spat Pallando. "You almost had me, for a moment. But your Voice cannot command those who are aware of its full power, and possess the strength of will to resist it."

"Perhaps not," replied Curunir evenly. "But you know my Voice is merely one of my powers. And unless you accept the offer I am about to propose to you, then you shall taste the full extent of my strength, and of my wrath."

"What offer?" replied the Blue Wizards, warily. "Speak to the point, Curunir," finished Alatar. "We will not give you another chance to ensare us with your fine words."

"Why listen to him at all?" hissed Pallando. "I have heard more than enough from this posturing buffoon, who exceeds us only in his arrogance and ill manners."

"Do not mock me!" cried Curunir, in a deep, booming voice, his dark eyes flashing with anger. The Blue Wizards stepped back from him, staffs held at the ready.

Curunir pointed his own staff toward them, his face dark and grave. "I speak now as head of our Order, and Emissary of the Valar," he said somberly. "Both of you were given tasks to perform, and both of you have failed them utterly! Repent sincerely, surrender your staffs into my custody, command your servants to lay down their arms, and then follow me into the West of this Middle Earth. In time, should you ever regain my trust, I may find new uses for you, so that you can repair that harm that you have done."

"And if we refuse?" inquired the Blue Wizards tonelessly.

"If you refuse," frowned Curunir, "I shall break your staffs, expel you from the Order, and dispatch your spirits to the Undying Lands to face the stern judgment of Manwe our Lord."

Alatar smiled grimly. "So you threaten us openly, then? Think you that you can best us together as easily as you bested Pallando alone?" Alatar's eyes narrowed. "Pallando was taken by surprise, and I was not there to aid him. But we have long expected you, and have long been prepared for your arrival. You escaped your chains more easily than I had envisioned, but you are indeed a fool if you underestimate our own powers."

"Is that your answer?" asked Curunir, with an ominous tone to his voice, now hard and cold.

"My answer is this," replied Alatar, raising his staff. "You gave us two choices; to accept or to reject your offer. I listened to your offer, for it amused me to hear you boasting, unaware as you are that your doom hangs by a thread. I now choose a third course - Curunir the Unwise undone by his own Wizardry, and then slain like the lowliest outland captive of the Haradrim."

"Aye, and afterwards his bones dumped into the offal-pit, for the delectation of vultures and jackals," sneered Pallando, raising his own staff, as both staves began to glow with an eerie blue light.

Curunir waxed wroth, his face twisting with a terrible scowl, his dark eyes blazing with anger. "So be it. You have chosen your doom!"

With a blinding flash of azure lightening, and a terrible clap of thunder that shook the pyramid to its foundations, it began; the Duel of the Wizards, of which no tale is told in the lands of Men.

The flash of lightening faded away, and Curunir's eyes widened, as he stared at the bizarre scene in which he found himself. Where a moment before he had been standing on the peak of the pyramid, it seemed that he was now in a narrow corridor carved of grayish stone, bent by twists and turns as if it formed part of a maze. The sky above was no longer bright blue, but a dull, pale violet, as if the light of the Sun had been dimmed by an invisible veil. The Blue Wizards were nowhere to be seen.

An illusion, thought Curunir. But this was unlike the illusions he had seen Alatar and Pallando create in the past. It did not simply confound his perceptions of the material world; it had displaced his perception of it entirely. Curunir felt as if he had been stranded in another plane, transcending the world of bounded space and time. He knew that was impossible, that it was only his senses which had been fooled…yet the feeling was ominous, never the less.

He placed his hand against the wall, seeing if the illusion was merely one that affected the eyes. But his hand pressed up as if against solid stone. He frowned, for he knew that illusions that took solid form were rooted in spells as complex as they were powerful, and that finding the counter-spell could be a difficult matter indeed.

Thinking carefully, Curunir decided at last on the most appropriate counter-spell. Lacking knowledge of the precise formula the Blue Wizards had used to create this illusion, Curunir knew that he could only guess at the best choice of words, and test his choice through a process of trial and error, guided by his reason and judgment. Such a course could take a very long time, and could tax his powers to the utmost. That Alatar and Pallando must be hiding in the maze, and could launch an attack on him at any time, made Curunir's work all the more urgent. He could not afford to exhaust himself trying to escape the web of illusion, only to find himself vulnerable to the combined assault of the Blue Wizards.

Having selected the counter-spell, Curunir spoke the Words of Power, gesturing with his staff as he did so.

Silence. Nothing happened at all. Frowning, Curunir took a step forward, and leaned heavily on his staff as a wave of weakness passed through his mortal flesh. "What was that?" he whispered to himself. Surely he could not already be nearing the limits of his power, after casting a single counter-spell?

Focusing his mind, he selected from his memory another counter-spell, one that was more sweeping in its scope, even though it would consumer more of his power to use it. He spoke the Words…

…and fell to the ground, stunned. It was as if the breath had been knocked out of him by an invisible blow. A wave of weakness washed over his legs, and his head felt faint and dizzy. He lay on the ground for some minutes, battling his fatigue, before he could find the strength to pull himself to his feat, legs wobbling unsteadily, as he supported his weight on his staff, like an old Man now in truth.

With a trace of that feeling lesser beings might have called fear, Curunir began to understand the trap that the Blue Wizards had cunningly set for him, and cursed his overconfidence and carelessness. This was not simply an illusion on a broad scale; it was also a mirror, one that reflected his own power back at him. The more powerful the spell he cast, the more severely he would injure himself!

Alatar and Pallando had planned all too well their confrontation with him, should they be forced to face him in an open duel. They had reflected on his strengths, and learned how to turn them into weaknesses. Where they had gained knowledge such a mighty skill, Curunir was not certain, though he could guess that Alatar's inferences from the scrolls of Sauron's lore might have provided him with the inspiration for this deadly Wizard's Trap.

Hobbling forward slowly, Curunir began to seach for his foes. He knew that there was no way out of this maze now, unless he could somehow defeat the Blue Wizards, and force them to break their own spell of illusion. His only solace was the possibility that somehow, Alatar and Pallando might also be limited in their ability to use their powers within the maze, so that the contest with them would be one of strength and staff-play.

After following a trail in the maze for some minutes, turning this way and that, and beginning to feel a trace of strength returning to his legs, Curunir rounded a corner – and found himself staring face-to-face with Pallando.

With a sudden snarl, Curunir lashed out with his staff, a lightening-fast move that would have dashed out the brains of an ordinary Man before he could ever have hoped to react. Yet Pallando just stood there, smiling – while the staff passed clear through his head without leaving a scratch! As the false image of Pallando faded from sight, a high-pitched, mocking laugh echoed throughout the corridor, and Curunir ground his teeth in frustration.

"So this is what you are reduced to?" cried the White Wizard, his deep, resonant voice echoing down the corridors of the maze. "Cowards! Show yourselves, and let us end this here and now! If you dread my wizardly power, then let our knowledge of stave-dueling determine our fates! Do you truly fear me so much as to run and hide, when you are two against one?"

For some moments, he received silence in reply. Then a rich, mellow voice said "Should not two leopards fear to face a lion in open combat, Curunir? Indeed they should…unless they wait until he is old and toothless. Then let him fear their wrath!"

The walls of the maze were not real, yet they felt solid enough, and it seemed the air between them obeyed the laws of sound. Curunir gained a sense of where the sound of Alatar's voice had come from, and began to follow the twisting corridors of the maze toward his objective; now advancing forward, now diverted back, but in time coming closer and closer to his tormentors. He stumbled more than once, and felt as if he were walking downhill, even though the maze seemed to stretch over level ground.

Curunir turned another corner, and had walked down a corridor until he had nearly reached its end when he heard the shuffling of many booted feet, both behind and ahead of him. Willing his body to remain strong, he held forth his staff, ready to parry attacks from ahead or behind.

Then, he saw them – a dozen copies of Alatar, staves at the ready, walking down the corridor towards him, and as many from behind. Although I cannot be sure they are all copies, he realized. Taking the initiative, and summoning his remaining reserves of physical strength, he sprang forward, facing the doubles that were walking toward him head on. He swung his staff this way and that, but the staff passed through the images as if they were made of thin air. They walked through him until they joined their fellows, and turned and faced him again, perhaps a hundred paces away. Curunir leaned now on his staff, glaring at them in frustration.

Then, one of them smiled.

Curunir barely managed to leap clear of the corridor and around a turn as a torrent of blue flame surged toward him, scouring the walls with its fierce heat, its displacement of the air knocking him flat on his face. So their own power is not mirrored by their trap, thought Curunir, a pang of disappointment shooting through him as he realized now how dreadful was his position. He was caught like a fly in a spider's web.

While he lay on the ground, exhausted, Curunir heard the echoes of a cold laugh. "Come, Pallando!" said the voice. "The once-mighty White Wizard is at the end of his strength. Let us join together, so that we may both have the pleasure of ending his misery!" A harsh cackle echoed from afar in reply, and Curunir now heard two pairs of booted feet striding down the corridors of the maze from opposite directions, converging on him.

Though he was torn between anger and, yes, fear, Curunir willed himself to remain calm, coolly assessing the wizardly paths that still lay open before him. He concentrated his thoughts on the spell of the illusory maze, rather than the utterly mysterious spell of mirroring with which the Blue Wizards had afflicted him.

He had not time enough to guess the counterspell that would banish the illusion, and allow him to see things as they were. Nor, in his weakened condition, would this have saved him from the Blue Wizard's assault even if it were possible. However, he recognized that while the spell of mirroring inflicted grave injury on him with every use of his wizardly powers, it did not render those powers utterly ineffectual. If only he knew the right counter-spell, he could still banish the illusion of the maze, no matter that it would cost him dearly, perhaps bring him near death. But if banishing the maze would be fruitless in any case, what was he to do?

Then, a last, desperate hope occurred to him. He had inquired into the various wizardly arts studied by all members of the Order, and while he had spurned those of Radagast the Brown as beneath his further attention (unwisely, he had since realized), he had gained some fluency in those powers used by the Grey and Blue Wizards. Though he had not done so before, he could delve into the Blue Wizards' arts to cast a spell of illusion of his own – a simple spell, hardly above a conjuror's trick, a spell of so little power that the mirroring spell with which he was afflicted could not reflect his power with such force as to destroy him.

Or so he hoped. At any rate, it was his last chance. Curunir's staff began to glow with a pale aura as he chanted the Words.

There was a sudden flash, and then he fell into darkness, and knew no more.

Pallando strode down the corridors of the maze, eager to destroy his victim now that he and Alatar had had the chance to gloat over him. He had lusted for revenge ever since the humiliation Curunir had inflicted on him eight years before. It was for this reason that he had urged Alatar not to kill Curunir at once, when fortune had unexpectedly laid the White Wizard at their feet, insensate and deprived of his staff. Alatar had felt it was for the best that they would no longer have to use the wizardly trap they had long prepared for him, and could kill him swiftly and simply instead. But Pallando had insisted that his vengeance would not be complete until Curunir had suffered his own bitter humiliation. Let Curunir first know that the Blue Wizards were had utterly defeated the White, before destroying him…to a being as proud as Curunir, that would be the ultimate torment.

Alatar had smiled at the prospect of the White Wizard lying abased before them, aware of his own failure, and had then approved of Pallando's plan of first tormenting their captive. Curunir's subsequent escape from his chains had been unforeseen, and the loss of their henchman Ibal had been unfortunate, but no matter. The Blue Wizards had simply sprung their long-planned trap. Indeed, Curunir's escape had proved fortuitous for the Blue Wizards, since now he had learned not merely that he had failed, but that was truly less of a Wizard in strength and skill than his erstwhile friends.

As Pallando smiled at the thought, he rounded a corner into another corridor, and nearly shouted for joy at the sight before him. Curunir the White, garbed in shapeless, filthy rags, his hair now turned as white as his robes had once been, his features aged and drawn, his gnarled hand still clutching his ebon staff, lay sprawled on the floor as if dead. His breathing was shallow and irregular, and it was plain that only a trace of life remained within him.

Pallando was tempted to dash out his brains forthwith. But, he knew Alatar would wax wroth if he were denied the pleasure of a common kill. Not wishing to incur the wrath of his more powerful counterpart, Pallando waited for Alatar to appear from the opposite end of the corridor. He could hear his footsteps and his clacking staff even now, closer and closer by the moment.

There was a slight shimmer in the air, and Pallando blinked. His blood ran cold as he saw that Curunir was not yet finished! He had lept up from the ground, dark eyes blazing fiercely, his lips soundlessly forming a Word of Command as he leveled his ebon staff at the Blue Wizard.

Instantly, Pallando raised his own crystal staff in defense. He had not time to ponder how Curunir dared to defy the spell of mirroring in order to cast a lethal attack spell against his foe. Ignoring the nagging voice at the back of his mind, Pallando felt a thrill of anticipation leap through him as his own staff discharged its fiery missle before Curunir's could respond in kind…

Alatar walked down the corridor, his staff clacking on the stones as he prepared to bring this business to a close. He would have killed Curunir long before, when the White Wizard was a bound and helpless captive, but he had decided to humour Pallando's request for a more elaborate scheme of vengeance. And, he had to admit, Pallando had been correct. Witnessing Curunir's humiliation, his awareness that he had failed, that he was weak, had indeed been most satisfying.

Alatar thanked himself again that he had closely studied the Scrolls of Sauron. Penned over a thousand years before in Sauron's own hand for the benefit of his most favoured mortal worshippers, the King's Men of Numenor, those scrolls were the most highly prized treasures of the Cult of the Black Serpent, which kept them hidden in secret shrines in the desert. Alatar had learned many strange and terrible things from those scrolls, and he had inferred from them many things beyond the imagination of Sauron's mortal acolytes. Combining Sauron's knowledge with his own, he had forged new powers for himself, and even taught several new skills to his weaker counterpart Pallando. Without the knowledge he had gained from Sauron's writings, Alatar had to admit, he and Pallando could never have defeated Curunir the White. For while White was the strongest power within the Order, Black was in truth the strongest power of all.

Turning his mind back to the here and now, Alatar reflected that the game of cat-and-mouse he and Pallando were playing with Curunir had at last drawn near its close. He would derive some further satisfaction from delivering the final blow, but then he and Pallando had to move quickly. Already their army was more than a day's march away as it surged toward distant Umbar. And already, Alatar's thoughts were drifting from this wizardly duel, to the defeat and subjugation of Gondor by the Blue Wizards, the new Lords of Middle Earth.

As he turned round the corridor, he stopped and stiffened with alarm at the sight before him. Curunir was not lying on the ground, as he had anticipated. He was standing again on his feet, pointing his staff at Alatar, speaking a Word of Command in a thin, strange voice.

Then Alatar's alarm turned to stark, naked fear, as he realized what was happening. Too late, he tried to speak directly into Pallando's mind, to warn him…

As the missle of blue flame from Pallando's staff struck Alatar squarely in the chest, the spells of illusion and mirroring they had forged together dissolved at once. In an instant, the Blue Wizards were revealed to be standing in the stone-paved square at the base of the pyramid. Curunir lay sprawled on the ground between them, insensate, suspended between life and death by the insidious effects of the mirroring spell that had nearly destroyed him. Thus he never saw the terrible consequences of the spell of illusion he had cast in the duel, his simple conjuring trick.

Alatar's skin was at once immolated by the searing jet of blue flame. As he fell on his knees, screaming in agony, his terrible cry was echoed by Pallando. For the Blue Wizards had ever been linked in their powers and essences, two sides of the same coin. That was both their greatest strength, and their greatest weakness. For Pallando to have unleashed his full power against Alatar was to have it hurled back in all its fury. It was as if he had unwittingly cast a mirroring spell against himself.

As Alatar's physical agony reached its climax, he lost all control over the power trapped within his mortal frame. Even as his lifeless body dropped to the ground, his crystal staff, the symbol and instrument of his power, exploded in a whirwind of a thousand tiny, jagged shards, each reflecting the sunlight as if it were a gleaming gem before falling on the ground in a rain of dust.

Pallando's staff, bound to that of Alatar, exploded in the same instant and in the same manner. Pallando let out a last, terrible cry, his hands clutching his withering face that bled from ears and eyes and nose, before he too dropped to the ground, lifeless as a stone. As he and Alatar had been bound together by their power in life, so their power had bound them together in a common death.

The corpses of the Blue Wizards, one burned beyond recongnition, the other drained of all vitality, swiftly crumbled now that they were no longer sustained by the life force of the spirits within. Even as the flesh dissolved entirely, leaving nothing but dessicated bags of skin and bone enshrouded by blue robes, two tall, shimmering strands of azure mist arose up from their remains. The twin mists soared into the air, twirling around each other, glowing faintly from within as they sought vainly to summon enough power to form new mortal bodies for themselves. Then a sudden gust wind from the West, swift and cold, swept over them. As the mists dissolved into nothingness, two long, lingering sighs echoed between the pyramids, and across the empty square.

How vast and empty was the Void, thought Curunir. He no longer had eyes to see, nor ears to hear with. There was nothing but the darkness, black as pitch and cold as ice, stretching into infinity and sweeping into eternity. How Curunir was aware even of his own existence, when he no longer possessed substance, he did not know. He only knew that he was utterly alone, far beyond the reaches of bounded time and space. There was nothing but the Void, and his awareness of the Void.

So this is what death means to a mortal, thought Curunir. The words formed silently in his consciousness. He had always assumed that should his mortal body die, and his spirit be unable to remain within the Circles of the World, then he world return to the Timeless Halls of Eru Illuvatar. In those Halls he had been been formed from the thoughts of Eru, immemorial ages before, when the World was as yet undrempt of save in the mind of The One alone. And who can know the mind of Eru? So even the Valar asked themselves. Thus, Curunir realized he would never know why Eru had denied his return to the Timeless Halls, and instead had cast his spirit into the Void. He knew only that he had tried his utmost to fulfil his quest, but that he had failed. It seemed Eru was not inclined to reward him for his failure.

For uncounted aeons, ages and ages of length unfathomable even to the immortal Elves, Curunir was suspended in the Void. Then he became aware of a subtle, yet growing change. The Darkness was no longer emptiness. It had taken on substance – vast, cold, menacing, full of malice. And it was aware of him! Curunir was consumed by terror as he felt himself under the merciless, penetrating gaze of an all-seeing Eye, an Eye that had no form, yet was the very essence of the Darkness.

At length, the waves of pure hatred that scourged Curunir's consciousness changed in pitch and subtlety. There was no sound, yet it was he could hear them nonetheless. The Darkness was laughing at him! Yes, it was laughing; a laugh so cold, so deep, so terrible, that Curunir wished nothing more than the peace of oblivion, rather than to endure such horror for another instant.

But it was not to be. The laughter was fading now, and in its place was a voice, as deep and cold and terrible as the Darkness itself.

"You fool! The Easterlings and Southrons have awakened, and they have grown stronger than ever! The Orcs multiply in their caverns, fell beasts stalk the woods! You fool, you have come too late!"

Curunir awoke with a start. His body, frail and in pain, gasped for air. The sky was dark and cloudy, and it was raining heavily, round drops that beat endlessly against his flesh. His throat was parched, and so with effort he rolled onto his back and opened his mouth, drinking in the water as it tricked between his parched lips and ran down into his gorge.

For some hours Curunir lay there, the hard stones of the square that lay before the great pyramid digging into his back, as he fought to restore health and vitality to his mortal body. He knew not how long he had been insensate before awakening – hours, days, weeks. He had lost all sense of time. When he looked down, he could see that the strands of his long beard and hair had turned from dark to white, as if his mortal body, which ordinarily was preserved from decay by his spirit, had been greatly aged by its ordeal.

He was cold, he was hungry, and he was in pain. All these things could be remedied. Yet he could not shake from his mind the echoes of that terrible voice, as if it were still whispering mockingly into his ear. You fool, you have come too late…

With a sudden burst of effort, Curunir sat upright. He realized he was still clutching his staff in his long, thin hand. Using it as a crutch, he slowly rose to his feet, and stood for some minutes, his legs wobbling unsteadily, as he reflected on the fate of the Blue Wizards. There was nothing left of them but some ragged scraps of skin and bone, wrapped in sodden azure rags that had been covered by a fine sheen of white mildew. He realized his own rags had almost disintegrated, yet that did not quench the spear of pity he felt piercing his heart.

"Why did you do it, my friends?" whispered Curunir. "To what purpose? You were trusted by the Valar, trusted by us all. Was power over these fragile mortal Men really so important to you? Did your study of the Black Art enslave you totally? Did you really fail to realize that Sauron used you as his pawns?"

As he spoke the name of Sauron, he thought of that mocking laugh, that terrible voice. You fool…All pity was quenched in Curunir's heart as a wave of anger surged up from within. Sauron the Abhorred! For a thousand years that demon had been without form, and yet everything that had transpired here had been his doing. Through his Black Serpent cult and his scrolls of lore, he had used the Blue Wizards as his unwitting pawns. And thanks to him, the Order of the Istari had been reduced from five to three, and even now a vast army of Southrons was bearing down on Gondor, bent on reducing the mightiest bastion of the Sea Kings to ashes.

Curunir waxed wroth, as he remembered that mocking laugh in the Void. "Do you really think you are more powerful than me, Sauron?" cried Curunir, his deep voice echoing across the square. "Do you think you can mock me with impunity? We shall see!"

And yet his own power, he knew, had been nearly bested by that of the Blue Wizards, merely by their applying Sauron's Black Art against him in a duel. Should Sauron take form again – no, when he took form again – would Curunir truly be able to defeat him, even though he no longer possessed his legendary Ring? Was White truly stronger than Black, or was Black stronger than all?

In his heart, Curunir knew the truth now, and despaired. He realized bitterly that unless he could access the power commanded by Sauron himself, and turn that power towards the service of good, then he had precious little hope of defeating the Dark Lord of Mordor. Without equaling the Dark Lord's own power, he would never be able to save Gondor from…

Gondor! Willing himself to be calm, Curunir turned away from the pitiful remains of his erstwhile friends, and turned his gaze to the leaden skies that lay to the north and west. Their Blue Masters had been destroyed, and yet there was no doubt the chieftains of the Southrons, doubtless unaware of the fate of their Masters, would spur their forces onward in their drive to capture Umbar. Curunir resolved that he must search through the empty stone barrack-huts of Tibasht to find what he needed to heal, feed, and clothe himself, obtain a mount, and then fly towards Umbar with all speed. The King would need his help, if Gondor were to defeat the vast menaceunleashed by the treachery of the Blue Wizards.

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