This story bears the appreciable influence of Innocence by the brilliant AzureSkye23, for whose birthday this story was written. :)

x

Folklore says that scorpions panic when surrounded by fire, then sting themselves to death.

x

" 'What has happened since we came back to this grim place in the grey morning?'

'A struggle somewhat grimmer for my part than the battle of the Hornburg,' answered Aragorn. 'I have looked in the Stone of Orthanc, my friends... I am the lawful master of the Stone... It was a bitter struggle, and the weariness is slow to pass. I spoke no word to [Sauron], and in the end I wrenched the Stone to my own will. That alone he will find hard to endure.'

-Aragorn to Legolas and Gimli, 'The Passing of the Grey Company'

"Perilous to us all are the devices of an art deeper than we possess ourselves."

-Gandalf to Pippin, on the palantíri

"And he fell back into evil, for the bonds that Morgoth had laid upon him were very strong."

-"Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age," on Sauron

x

"The descent to hell is easy, and those who begin by worshipping power soon worship evil."

-C.S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love

x

I find myself in darkness, always; in the strange, sad places where stone and ash devour light. At times I think the shadows follow me, wither the living land like consumption. Nothing remains but wheezing lungs and brittle bones.

If I am an artist, charged with painting Arda's fate, I am an artist who paints in darkness, and whose works are of blind, tangled strokes, and look like dead things. Mordor is a dead thing, and it leers in at me from Barad-dûr's high windows.

I never leave the Tower now- haven't left it in centuries - (Morgoth never left the Hells of Iron, and- No. Stop), and I listen to my goblins' crude machinations that clink and clank and clatter like shackles, and I pace and sit and pace and ponder, and do not descend. I start to see bars on the windows.

The bars come now and stripe and segment my line of vision. I sit with my legs crossed on the cold floor and embed my fingertips in my brow; I (the Great pretentious Eye) close my eyes for a moment. Escape is singular for me: the Ithil-stone. It is before me, veiled (I cannot bear to watch the bright world all the time, nor bear its watching me). My inhale slices the silent air before I open my eyes and make use of my fingers to uncover the stone.

A day ago my stone confounded me: I spoke with a quailing Halfling, some poor captive of Curumo, I assumed, who had my gold prize and a deal of misfortune. But the Wraiths said otherwise, and I paced and did not descend. (Of what use would it be?) And now I engage the palantír; I'll search for something and watch my black paint coat the world.

I look up compulsively to be sure I am alone, remember the door is locked, then turn my gaze to the cool black orb beneath my cool, scarred hands. I grip it tenuously, gingerly coaxing the seeing-fire from its smouldering depths. The palantír has yet to fail me - a better artist crafted it than I - and now all of Eä wheels beneath my fingers, cast in blue and green and black, not yet whelmed by a golden Ring.

For a moment the world dances in the stone, before the spectacle tunnels, and I feel like a bird falling from heaven. I fall past mountains and over seas; in a blink Aglarond glitters before me; one blink more, and a grey pair of eyes arrests my gaze.

Beren, Pharazôn, Elendil, Isildur. Shrewd grey eyes in pale and hardened faces. But no. Smears in the background of my victory's masterpiece. No?

"Greetings, stranger-" I effuse the thought as a purr. "-I would send my thought to Aman and back, yet the sight of you distracts me. Speak your name and purpose before impatience calls me hence." Never mind that Aman is the last place I would look. The words are swift and fluid, a seamless violet line across my canvas.

No response. A shadow crosses his face, and it isn't me.

"My enemies fascinate me," I muse, goading. "First the Halfling, now a lordly stranger - Saruman's assortment of captives must be strange." The glint in his eyes and the angle of his jaw (not to mention his location at the Glittering Caves) make it clear he is no prisoner. He is stone-silent, and something in me curls into a doubt.

"Come, stranger, is this the silence of fear? Shall I shatter you, then, like the Halfling?" I bore my eyes into the stone, into him beyond it. His consciousness is my canvas, and the face of the stone; I place two bright gold circles in the middle. "Your. Name."

His lips are a pale horizon, unyielding. His thoughts are a stone wall; I reach to breach it- And he paints roiling turquoise. Seawater rushes into my skull, peels my hröa off me. Westernesse crumbles and falls, but flays me in its ruin. For a moment. I close my eyes and sketch reality behind them; I open them, and the stranger stares up at me once more. He means to wrest the Stone from me.

"Sadly," I remark, with a dramatic mental sigh, "our Stones' link doesn't dissolve in water." Silence. "So secretive." I tsk. "As if your looks did not betray you, it's now clear you're Númenórean." Silence and a Sword.

Narsil severs the palantír so suddenly that I start backwards. My right hand throbs on the margin of my awareness. Anor and Ithil - Arien and Tilion - Laurelin and Telperion blaze up at me. I never saw those Trees (I was in the darkness far away), and now I never shall (I'll always be in darkness). Now their light burns me and I bite my lip.

"Elendilion." And the Quenya trips off my tongue before I register its meaning. "You'll-" I stammer, "you'll come to darkness, too." How menacing. "So it is your Stone. But, see, I rather fancy it, and how many stones can one crownless vagrant really use?" I barb the next three words and thrust them into him: "Give it up."

But his grip only tightens; our mental link convulses at the impact of his resolution. I smile at him - maybe that'll be unnerving - but no matter, I will keep what's mine. Stories and pictures are the battleground of a palantír; in this also he and I are two artists, sharing one palette, one canvas. The stronger's vision shall prevail.

With Curumo and the Steward, I met with defensive resistance and cowed each with the distorted present. This king-to-be, though, strikes offensive blows, and his weapon is the past; I'll use it in turn. We both dip our brushes in the spectrum of history; he, in songs and tales; I, in memory.

So I paint a zigzag of mountains, pewter-grey; a stark black line for Barad-dûr; figures struggle at its feet, and I crush Elendil, extinguish the light of the Valar in his blade. I hold the image for a while, letting the scene repeat and repeat. Each of my ancient blows should splinter our link, if Elendil's heir is like his fathers.

Nine times I draw the scene anew, nine times smite Elendil and shatter Narsil, refracting dying Treelight before the shadows of Mordor return, until the scene charges forward, and Isildur lifts the hilt-shard. In one swift stroke he clutches my burning finger and the blow is deeper in my fëa than my sinews. The digit and the screaming of the severed nerves are little grey smudges beside the crimson splotch that is my severed essence.

This is the venom of my triumphs; each is laced with drops of agony. (You see, I am a blind artist, and I find myself in darkness, always.) Isildur's Heir has the strength to force the fact upon me; I will paint with that in mind.

I stir my brush in the palette of three Ages and draw it out olive, painting the squiggle of Gladden as the River rushes into the Stone, green beneath my taut fingers. It rushes and babbles and hurries between the reeds, but Isildur's plashing strokes stunt its rhythm. We are next to him in the water, beside that invisible form more transparent than a ghost. The goblins on the bank cackle and yammer; their crossbows creak as they are loaded.

"Foolish tark," I gloat over the water and my creatures' hooting. "Did he really think my Ring voiceless?" It slips from his finger, the bows twang, and there is blood in the water.

"This is what becomes of those who place a claim on what is mine." I let the blood seep across the stone. "Isn't this what you mortals call corruption? My power was too much for him, and it seduced him, and it slew him." His grip recedes like a vice loosening on my mind, and the red dominates the stone. I press the image further, imagine forcing blood down his throat.

"Have a care what you desire, Elendilion." My tone warps, and I'm nearly singing. "And remember that I will be a little piece of death in you." I am always a little piece of death. Before I can stop it, a black handprint stamps itself across the stone which is a canvas and the blood, its crimson paint.

At once he leers down at me in Angband, squeezes the purple flowers of the bruising on my neck as if to wring the blood out of the contusions. His other hand works deep into the lacerations on my arm.

"Do you realize how easily I could find another just like you? Another who will break his fëa at my feet and become my finger in the world without? You are nothing, and I-"

It's in the stone, and my hands are shaking. I shut my eyes and grope for anything else, anything to fill the stone, before the Númenórean -

He paints a white bridge over a swirling black current, the rubble of Minas Tirith in the background like broken bones jutting out of the earth. Huan's breath, smelling of iron, is hot in my face before his fangs reembed themselves in the seeping wounds to my throat. My fána gushes vermillion, which stains my silver fur, then my golden scales, then my pale and fragile skin.

Lúthien's figure over me is black against the stars; I scarcely hear her insults over the blood pounding in my ears. The hound's claws are in my shoulders, and the flavor of copper and salt creeps red into my mouth. He'll kill me is my single thought; Elendil's heir thinks I mean Huan - so he doesn't understand why an answering No, he won't, convulses my body with fear. (It's because the he I mean only gives you a little piece of death, an egg which hatches into a vulture in your heart, which eats you bit by decaying bit.)

The hound's teeth are what keeps me from screaming, plunged into my neck like the pins holding fabric together before it's sewn; my vocal cords are all but inutile. Lúthien approaches (sees me powerless), even bends toward me. Through the red tunneling my vision, though, I notice: she looks more like Elrond than herself.

She looks more like Elrond. The fact is a silver lifeline, glimmering before my eyes, weakening the image before me. I grip it slowly with both hands, begin climbing up and out from beneath the hound. His jaws grow slack as I climb further, and the rope becomes a thread woven in between the grooves of the Númenórean's mind. I trace the thread until I find its root, a thudding heart and a fair, immortal, female face. Love has ruined enemies before. (Gorlim the Unhappy's unhappy face briefly darkens the stone.)

I start to paint a phantom: the grey, thin strokes of a waning frame; the raven black hair sparse and brittle as a fishing net encrusted with salt; the reedy voice lamenting love lost - but my brush sticks and the paint is watery, and nothing appears. The image snaps back on my mind like a taut bowstring being cut. The palantíri cannot lie. (Damn you, Fëanáro.)

So I take the black instead, and Gorlim screams in the darkness. "I'm sure you know this story," I hiss over him.

"Never! Never," gasps the prisoner from the camp of my servants, but his voice and his will are splintering alike. "I will never breathe a word to you of Barahir."

But his flesh is broken by the lashes; his spirit, cowed by grief. He is a shattered man by the time the goblins return to Tol-in-Gaurhoth, fling him at my feet. His eyes blaze up at Gorthaur the Cruel with such a fire that my grip on the palantír for a moment falters.

Undeterred, the Maia in the stone crosses his arms and crosses his legs and smiles knowingly. "Name your price," he says, or something like it.

"Freedom," sputters Gorlim, and a drop of blood lands at his captor's feet- "for Eilinel and for myself."

"Such a small fee for such a great treachery," remarks Melkor's lieutenant, who is me. "Say on." I bore my eyes into him like a pair of golden lances. His bleeding lips contort, and then he speaks.

I take a moment and rejoice in the simple knowing, twist the information into a noose in my mind and fling it toward the palantír and Elendil's heir behind it. "In time," I point out, "I see everything. Your stone stays where I need it, and it looks only to me."

Yet the Maia in the stone grins like a gargoyle in Angband and whispers, "Eilinel is dead." His dominant thought: Won't Melkor be delighted?

Gorlim kneels on the stone floor, flesh hanging off his back in red ribbons; he fixes his gaze on the ground, bearing the death already upon him in silence. For now. Shame clings to him like a burgundy aura, but after some time it disappears, replaced by wretched, undignified sobs and the name Eilinel piercing the air at intervals like a comet. He's given me everything for nothing in return. Won't Melkor be delighted?

For I watch the man in the stone, and I watch him die three Ages ago, and I begin to see my own broken fána at the Bauglir's mercy afterward. He stood above me, smiling just like the Maia in the stone, who is his shadow. My Master loves anything mangled. And oh, how mangled is the Maia grinning over Gorlim.

The Master's voice at once resounds in my mind: "I'll twist you until you look like me." Gorlim and me - each coerced down the path to the dark, feeling the cost in our bodies, feeling the poison in our hearts.

"Eilinel!"

"Stop it." My voice is feeble, disintegrating. "Stop it."

The palantír slips, and I feel Narsil's resurrection sawing at our link, prying open the narrow space between my mind and the pictures in the stone. Too much weakness - I've faltered and given him a foothold. The stone falls from my psychic grasp, and I scramble to catch it, reeling like Gorlim. I cling to it, force my power over it like a bridle, and stab the sword back toward my rival. Quickly, quickly. And I'll try to be strong.

I blot the glass with smoke and raise up Morgoth's temple: obsidian walls, tarnished dome. Númenor kneels before the altar, and I am securing the sacrifice's bonds. My rival perhaps won't notice how I don't look down to meet its eyes. My words are what ought rivet him - before I make a martyr.

"In your presence, Melkor, Lord of Darkness, Lord of Gif-" No; no, not gifts. Annatar is not the Bauglir- not, not, not- "greatest and wisest of the Ainur, we offer you upon this altar a blemish among us, a traitor to the great Ar-Pharazôn-"

The people chant as one: "May his star shine forever in the West."

"We pray that by this criminal's obliteration we all might be purified; indeed he represents ourselves. We all lay down on-" My breath catches then and now. Your altar. "We all offer up to you every part..." Of ourselves. "Sh-shape us, mold... mold us, y-yes-" No no no no no.

My hands are shaking, eyes are prickling. (I didn't mean to paint the mortal this.)

"We want to be like you - " My fëa screams and writhes and bows its head to its knees. " - ...want... us to be." I can't. My voice is breaking. I can't keep on. "Give us life and bless the King," I mutter, rushing to finish and bowing my head.

"May his star shine forever in the West."

"My lord Zigur," one of Pharazôn's vipers croons quietly from beside me, "are you quite well?"

"It's the smoke," I mutter. "Stings the eyes."

My hold on the palantír remains intact; tenuous now, perhaps, but intact. I rush to reinforce it, steadying my hands and lifting my knife for the critical moment. But my fingers tremble, and the victim looks up at me. My rival takes the stone.

I drop the knife, fingers nerveless; those eyes shine up at me, sad, calm, defiant. Kill my body, they dare me, take my body, but know my heart and mind are mine alone.

It hits me like a blow, and the stone spins into darkness, out of my hands, out of Elendilion's. We both fumble for it, but we reach out too late.

"Mairon." He runs a finger down the side of my face: in the beginning, in my mind, in the Stone now. "Would you not rather master the world with me than try to shape it on Aulë's leash? You'll never please him, but you please me as you are. Mairon. Won't you serve me?"

"As I am?" The shaking of my shoulders begins to subside. "But I am... He thinks I'm - "

"I don't." Oh, but you did.

And his fingers are in my neck, in my back, digging into the burgundy scabs with sharp nails in flesh burnt onyx black. His breath is hot in my ears, and baited with the word worthless. He plants a cavity in me, which rots and spreads until much of me falls into its nothingness.

I grit my teeth and hear them grind against one another like rocks sharpening rocks; my lips quiver from the effort to keep them closed, until at last they fly open (for his fingers are like slow, salty knives in the wounds). I scream, yet no sound emerges, scream silently and catch my throat on fire with the air slicing through it. The cavity widens.

Elendilion enters it and runs his hand and his sword through what remains of me, groping for the palantír. He reaches it, uproots it, pulls the Orthanc-stone out of me like an onion bulb. Its roots leave a net of lacerations where they were but now are not. Aragorn Elendilion's face crosses the stone a final time, and his lips curve upward in something like a smile. He disappears, and all swirls red and black, a storm churning under my fingers, reeling. Mountains, rivers, cities, seas - all flash into the stone in a spinning succession too quick to register.

Then white. No longer the tranquil ivory of a blank canvas but the stark argent of a blazing star, the palantír burns. With the light in my eyes I can barely claw for the stone's black covering, but I find it and I grasp it and I slam it onto the radiant orb with force that jars the bones in my hand.

A cloud from Orodruin must have covered the tower in the hours past, for the red light of the Mountain is gone. I fold my knees to my chest and let my hair fall across my face. Elendilion. You have my stone and soon my Ring, but I can't credit you with my ruin. My shadows follow me; my shadows break me. I find myself in darkness, always; in the strange, sad places where stone and ash devour light.