January 25, TA 3019.
The Istari Olorin, more commonly known as Mithrandir or Gandalf, was exhausted. How many hours, how many days, had passed since his battle had begun? Long ago he had lost all sense of time, his mind focusing ever more on simple survival. He had fallen through fire and water and crawled through the darkest pits of the world, gone through trials no mortal man, and indeed most elves, could ever have passed. But still his battle continued. Now, climbing the Endless Stair, he could feel his body finally starting to give out. Even a Maiar had limits. Soon, he would reach his.
With any luck, so would the Balrog. The Bane of Durin's fire seemed to be slackening, its movements slowing down. The Beast of Morgoth, horrible as it was, still had a body at least partially of flesh. But the Istar had little hope in victory by attrition. The Beast was still more dangerous than a thousand mail-clad knights, and its flame hot enough to melt iron. No, the one known as Gandalf would have to fight, and be victorious.
Mithrandir did not fear death, not in the sense that a mortal man would. Death, to him, was just another step in life. What he did fear was leaving the Balrog alive. Such a force, if put in service of the enemy, would be devastating. He feared what it could unleash upon Eregion and the other lands of the north. The Beast of Morgoth could easily accomplish what the Wizard had feared of Smaug, the great Dragon that had taken the Lonely Mountain. The Dragon had been defeated, yes, but at terrible cost. The Balrog had to be defeated. The wizard knew that much.
And so he continued his pursuit. Climbing up the Endless Stair, he followed the Balrog, striking at its heels, forcing it towards the peak. With every strike, he could feel his body giving out, but the battle was not yet over. After what seemed to be an eternity, they reached Durin's Tower, at the summit of Zirakzigil. Here, their battle continued. All around them, a ferocious storm raged, as if the mountains and skies themselves were trying to slay the two combatants. With everything they had left, the Istar and the Balrog fought on.
The one known as Durin's Bane was enraged. This little one, who had seemed at first to be no more than another mortal man (albeit one very funnily dressed), was clearly much more. No one, man, elf or dwarf could have survived preceding days and weeks of combat. And yet this one was still defiant. Their cloak was torn; a hundred wounds bled or blistered; their bones were cracked and broken. But their sword still struck out against the dark; their staff remained unshattered. And the Balrog, despite its power, was not invincible: the fall and the water had smothered its fire (although not extinguishing it), and even the endurance of Durin's Bane had been tested by the climb up to the peak. Its body was scarred, wounds carved into its mass of flesh, shadow and fire.
The Demon screamed, and advanced again. This one, who had defied them for so long and through so much, would fall, and would fall now. The battle had gone on long enough. With nowhere else to go, the Balrog pressed forwards, driving back the Istar, its hatred and rage pushing its flames ever hotter. It's flesh began to boil and burn, and the snow of the peak turned to steam below its feet. The power of Morgoth ran through the body of the Demon, and now that power welled to the surface as the Bane of Durin struck again and again.
At this moment, the Istar's body failed. The mortal frame, pushed far beyond its limits, crumbled beneath the onslaught, and the one called the Grey Pilgrim was forced to their knees. Their defenses were cracking. The fury of the Balrog's assault continued, pushing the Wizard further and further down, the Power of Morgoth threatening to extinguish his light. Finally, the Istar's guard was broken. The ancient sword Glamdring was torn from his grasp. His staff was broken and thrown aside. The Demon moved in for the final blow.
But the Wizard was not yet defeated. The power of the Valar flowed through the Istar as the power of Morgoth flowed through the Balrog, and now that power was unleashed. The one known as Gandalf, his mortal frame broken, called upon every last drop of this energy. Normally, the Istar was not meant to match strength with strength: they were meant to guide and lead the world, not fight the world's battles. But now, Mithrandir was out of options. The Balrog could not be allowed to threaten the world, no matter the cost. The one called the Grey Pilgrim, long limited, was now unleashed, and the powers of a Maiar of Manwe and Varda were unbound.
And when the Light of Manwe met the Darkness of Morgoth, the world exploded.
The Istari Curumo, also known Curunir or Saruman, had no warning. One moment, he had been reviewing production quotas, scouting reports and other trivial, but necessary matters. He was thinking of how to speed the breeding of the Uruk-Hai, where to put a new forge to increase armor production, how many more trees he would need to cut from Fangorn to fuel his war machine.
The next moment, he was on the floor of his study, screaming in pain. He felt as if his very being was being torn apart, his soul being ripped from his body and thrown into the unknown. Through the pain, he barely noticed the Tower of Orthanc, one of the sturdiest structures in all of Middle-Earth, shaking like a child’s plaything.
All around the Tower, a furious storm raged. Lighting stuck down from the heavens, striking the shoddily constructed Orc watchtowers that had been thrown up around the base of the tower. The shaking of the earth collapsed these flimsy constructs, taking many orcs with them. Below the ground, the pits and forges of Isengard were subjected to the same tremors, and in the places where expediency had trumped caution during construction a bloody price was paid. Machines of war and industry, built for efficiency (not safety), collapsed, taking many orc workers with them.
After an what seemed an eternity, the quaking stopped. In his study, Saruman slowly pulled himself off the floor. Idly, he wondered if this was how Gandalf felt after having too much of the Halfling's leaf, or Radagast after too much mushroom stew. Exactly what he felt he couldn't exactly describe, but if he had to try it would be something along the lines of having an Oliphaunt jump up and down on his head for several hours. He was also unsure of exactly what had happened. He had felt a massive disturbance in the Great Music, to be sure, as if a percussion player had dropped a cymbal on top of a timpani during a flute solo. It had originated, he thought (or rather, had felt), somewhere to his north, further up the Misty Mountains. That blasted fool Olorin had probably done something stupid. He certainly had it in him.
Pulling himself into a chair, Saruman took stock of his situation. He began to notice the damage done to his study. Vaguely, he remembered the floor shaking beneath him as he had writhed in pain. An earthquake, then. The White Wizard frowned. In all the time he had occupied the Tower, there hadn’t been any tremors. Certainly, none that had been powerful enough to notice. Thinking about it (as well as he could with an Oliphant tapdancing on his skull), he realized that the disturbance in the Great Music and the earthquake might very well be related.
In the back of his mind, the Wizard thought about the earthquake: the damage to his forges that it had no doubt done, and thus the repairs that would have to be carried out, the replacement workers that would have to be trained. But at the forefront of his thought was the disturbance in the Music. That was the key, the question around which everything was centered.
Doubtless, the palantir would have answers. Climbing higher into the Tower, Saruman meditated further on events. There had been a storm, he thought. Not that Isengard didn’t have storms, but rarely did they come so suddenly. Yet another question in need of answering. Approaching the Seeing Stone, the Lord of Orthanc began going through theories on what had happened.
None of them was anything close to what he saw in the palantir.
Galadriel, the Lady of Lothlorien, had been through many things in her life. She had been there when the sun had first risen, after Morgoth poisoned the two trees. She had marched out from Valinor with her kin the Noldor, following behind Feanor as he had led them into Middle Earth. She had survived that journey, through the grinding ice floes of the far north and down into the now long-gone lands of Beleriand. She had survived all the battles of the ages, those that had claimed her brothers and so many of her kin. She endured in Middle Earth when even more of her people had returned to Valinor, through the second age and its trials. She wore even now Nenya, the Ring of Water, using it to conceal and protect her small corner of the world. She had driven out the Necromancer from Dol Gurdur. And now the One Ring itself had found its way to her doorstep.
The Fellowship had arrived little more than a week prior at the edge of her wood. There was eight of them: a Dwarf, rugged and strong. An Elf, Thranduil of Mirkwood's son. The men, a ranger from the north that had passed through her woods many times before and the Captain of the White City, both so devoted to their duties, but yet so far from the same path. And of course...the Ringbearer and his kin, so small, yet so much stronger than their frail forms would suggest. Perhaps not the likes of Beren, Elendil, Gil-Galad and the other heroes of old. But for this day and age...perhaps enough.
Yes, Galadriel had done much. But not since the Second Age had she felt as she did now. Even now, mere hours after the event, reports were trickling in, claiming that anything recognizable east of the Anduin had vanished, the fields and plains beyond replaced by foreboding mountains. They spoke of the lightning that had struck almost unceasingly, of wind that had uprooted ancient trees at the edge of the wood, of the shaking of the ground that had split solid stone. Galadriel had felt this all herself. But what she felt most had been the tearing, as if her very soul had been being ripped from its spot and thrown in a violent maelstrom to somewhere unknown. She felt torn, as if the fabric of her being had been sheared away and knitted into a new and unknown tapestry. The calling to the West, which she had felt since she had first set foot on Middle-Earth, had been dimmed, as if smothered beneath an oversized blanket.
For the first time in centuries, nay, millennia...Galadriel felt afraid.
Bilbo Baggins hadn’t been around as long as Galadriel, but he had still seen much in his life. He had faced the great dragon Smaug alone, and come through unscathed. By similar methods of hiding and staying away from anything that might kill him, he had survived the Battle of Five Armies. He had outsmarted both hungry trolls and the strange creature Gollum, as well as his own nefarious cousins, the Sackville-Bagginses.
That was all in the past. Bilbo was old now, and his body wasn’t as strong as it had once been. He had wanted to go on one last adventure after leaving Bag End; to wander Mirkwood, maybe, or perhaps see the Lonely Mountain once again. But nowadays he couldn’t climb a steep hill without having to pause and catch his breath halfway up. He’d barely made it to Bree before he felt like his legs were about to fall off.
In the end, he had stopped at Rivendell. The sanctuary of the Elves made nice enough final stop, he decided; the people here were always good to him, and the food...Still he had hoped for more in his final days. Perhaps he was being unrealistic. After all, what was he now? 120? 130? He could hardly remember himself some days. It was a fool’s dream to believe that he had any adventure left in him.
At least, that’s what he had started to believe. But then the storm had come, more vicious than any that Bilbo had experienced in several decades. The earthquake, too, was something that the old Hobbit couldn’t say he had been through before. Their effect together, he decided, was similar to the time during his first adventure when, passing through the Misty Mountains, he and the Company of Thorin Oakenshield had gotten front row seats to a sparring match between a pair (or perhaps a trio) of stone giants.
Like back in that cold mountain pass, it seemed like forever before whatever was happening passed by. When it did so, Bilbo got the distinct sense that something was afoot. The physical damage to Rivendell itself, protected by Lord Elrond’s enchantments (and, unknown to Bilbo, Vilya, the Ring of Air), was slight, a few of the more delicate structures needing repair and a handful of brushfires around the outskirts that were quickly contained, but the mental and spiritual health of Imladris had taken a beating.
Bilbo heard the rumors and stories, about everything beyond the Bruinen being unrecognizable, of the elves feeling as if their spirits were being ripped from place and hurled into a violent maelstrom, of the diminishing in the Call to the West. Lord Elrond was doing all he could to placate his people’s fears, sending out his own twin sons, Elladan and Elrohir, to scout into the lands that had seemingly changed. Bilbo himself, along with Elrond and his daughter Arwen, now poured through old records and ancient tomes, searching for answers to what had happened. Despite everything, Bilbo couldn’t help but smile to himself.
Maybe he’d get his Adventure after all.
Grimbeorn the Skin-Changer wanted answers. In normal times, the son of Beorn had little worry for the world outside of his home (excepting, of course, when the dwarves needed him to clear the Carrock or the High Pass of orcs and wolves; then he gladly took their money [or whatever else they used to pay his tolls] but such interactions were increasingly rare). He hunted, he farmed, he killed any creature that was brave enough or stupid enough to enter his territory without his permission. In normal times, Grimbeorn the Old was troubled by little.
These were not normal times. The storm that had blown through had ripped apart trees older than he was, winds and thunder howling louder than anything he had ever heard, lightning shattering stone and igniting wildfires. The earth had shaken as if the whole world was being used as a dice in some giant’s game. By the time it had dissipated, there was fire seemingly everywhere, eating away at the shredded remains of the trees and undergrowth. The rain, at least, made it so the fire wouldn’t destroy everything, mainly by flooding anything that wasn’t burned or broken.
And so Grimbeorn was left with wrecked lands and no explanation of what had happened. The first order of business would be to rally his people, whatever was left of them, and find somewhere to regroup. Staying in Mirkwood might not be a good idea; doubtless, the storm would have stirred up the various dark creatures that stirred within. This wouldn’t normally worry him, but these times were decidedly not normal. From that line of thought, and idea occurred to him: who better to turn to in not-normal times than the least normal entity that Grimbeorn knew of? And going to them had the added benefit of perhaps finding some answers. The Skin-Changer hadn’t spoken to him in months, if not years, but from what he remembered, Radagast the Brown was, for all his eccentricities, was one wise.
Surely, the Wizard would know something.
At the other end of Mirkwood, King Thranduil was worried. The storm and the earthquake had done much damage to his kingdom. Fires raged across his lands, many barely controlled; trees had been uprooted by the winds, tearing apart some of the outer defenses; the tremors had wrecked some of his halls, wounding (or worse) many therein; the rains had flooded many of the lower chambers that hadn’t collapsed.
What was worse, though, were the reports coming in from the western borders. The creatures of Mirkwood commonly prodded at the edges of his domain, but usually could be driven off with little effort. But now, with his kingdom in crisis, Thranduil’s borders were vulnerable. Already, dozens of spiders were spilling over his borders, his guards barely holding them back. The storm seemed to have stirred them up. In all likeliness, more would be coming.
The news from the east was somehow even more worrying. Apparently, everything and anything familiar beyond the eaves of the forest had been replaced. The Lonely Mountain was gone, replaced with unfamiliar country. All the elves had felt the disturbance in the Great Music, the sense that they had been torn from where the stood and thrown...somewhere, but this...this was unprecedented. But for now, Thranduil couldn’t afford to worry about it.
He, and his people, would have to survive long enough to do so.
THE LONELY MOUNTAIN
Disaster and despair had come to Dain, son of Nain, and the Lonely Mountain. Not since Smaug the Dragon had driven Thror out centuries prior had the Dwarves of Erebor suffered so much within their own keep. The storm had done harm, the lightning shattering boulders and throwing out deadly fragment and the downpour causing landslides that blocked a few secondary vents and passages, but much of that was only superficial. The real damage had been done within the Mountain, caused by the earthquake.
The mines and halls of the Mountain were sturdy and strong, reinforced over the centuries to withstand the constant mining of the dwarves, each tunnel strengthened so that digging more shafts would not cause the old ones to weaken. But the builders had never considered what had happened a possibility. The earthquake had made the very roots of the mountain tremble, shaking Erebor from its lowest vault to the highest peak. The mines and chambers of the mountain were designed to withstand tremors, but nothing like this.
Dain II Ironfoot, King Under the Mountain, surveyed the damage. Dozens already known to be dead, crushed as their ceilings had come down on top of them. Hundreds more were injured, struck by flying debris or pinned as the walls around them had fallen in. Three mineshafts had collapsed outright: it was yet unknown if the entrances were merely blocked or if they had completely caved in, killing all that had been working there. Many chambers and passages in the lower levels had flooded out, the rains seeping through the cracks in the mountain. Such a disaster had never been faced by the younger generation of dwarves, many of whom were frozen by grief or fear. The casualties continued to mount; not since the Battle of Five Armies had so many wounded lay within the halls of Erebor.
Dain had immediately sent out for aid from the men of Dale, but his riders had yet to return. For now, this calamity was squarely on his shoulders, and those of his kinsmen. But he would need to bear most of the weight. His people were shaken, doubt and fear filling their minds. Now, more than any time since the Mountain had been reclaimed, Erebor needed its King. There were dwarves in the lower halls, trapped beneath the weight of the mountain, pinned in the flooding caverns. There was the question of what had caused the quake, but now was not the time to answer it. Rather than a lore-book, Dain instead grabbed a pickaxe and a shovel.
It was time to get to work.
In Dale, King Brand had problems of his own, but not structural ones. The city had been struck by the storm and the quake, but much less damage had been done than in Erebor. The stone of Dale had stood up to the winds and the lightning, and while the earthquake had been damaging, most of the city was intact. In fact, all in all, Dale was in rather good shape.
No, what concerned him was the fact that, whenever he looked south, he recognized nothing beyond the spokes of the Mountain. The River Running, instead of curving southeast near Ravenhill, seemed to continue westwards instead, its course disappearing behind the south-southwestern spoke of the mountain.
He was not the only one to have noticed this, of course. There was a certain tension in the air, the people of Dale wary of whatever had happened. In a sense, he was relieved when the riders from Erebor arrived. He felt grief for the dwarves, of course, and empathized with their plight. He himself would lead whatever men he could find in the aid of their old allies. But secretly, he was somewhat glad for the distraction, terrible as the cause for it was. He was in no hurry to face the unknown; the people of Dale were laborers, not scholars, and their King was no exception. The whole of the court of Dale was unlikely to have any answers for Brand’s concerns. No, better to bury himself in productive work than concern himself with something that he couldn’t understand.
Besides, what could have possibly happened?
Faramir, Captain of Gondor, was frightened. He was not so prideful as to say he was not. Even as he presented to his man an air of calm and discipline, internally he was as scared as a small child. There had been nothing to indicate that the day would be anything out of the ordinary. He and his men were encamped near the Morgul Vale, carrying out pestering attack against the orcs in the area; business as usual for the Ithilien Rangers.
The storm had caught his men unprepared, lighting striking down around their small, hidden camp, winds tearing apart their meager fortifications, the earthquake taking out whatever was left. When the maelstrom had finally passed, it was apparent that they could not stay. Fires burned around them, consuming what little cover there was and exposing their position. It was obvious that the Rangers could not stay in the open. If this were normal times, they would have gone west, back into Gondor. Back towards home.
Even in the hardest times, the times when the Rangers had botched an ambush and found themselves forced to retreat, dragging their wounded with them and forced to leave the dead behind, the men of Gondor could look to the west and see the White Mountains, knowing that the White City stood at their base. They took comfort from seeing their homeland and the knowledge that they were doing their parts to defend it. They took much of their resolve from this, and whenever the times grew dark, the Rangers would look to the west, and remind themselves what they were fighting for.
But now the White Mountains were gone, in their place a far more foreboding and unfamiliar range. The Great River was gone, only open plains taking its place. The Rangers despaired at this, their fear and uncertainty beginning to gnaw at their courage. In their hearts, they were all terrified, their Captain no less than any other man. But Faramir could not let his fear show. He had a duty to his men, which for all he knew were all he had left, and he could not let them down. Faramir decided on going north, towards the sanctuary of Henneth Annun, main base of operations for the Rangers, where they could presumably link up with the rest of the the men of Ithilien. Whatever had happened, the Rangers would face it at full strength.
And they would face it with their Captain leading them.
Here, the storm raged on. Above the peak, lighting cackled and thunder roared. The blinding snowfall and howling winds continued unabated. If one could have looked through the encircling clouds and hail and discerned the peak itself, they would have noticed that the Tower of Durin was no more. What was left appeared to have been cleanly sliced off, as if a massive axe had cloven the Tower from the mountaintop. If they looked closer, they would have seen a small figure in tattered and burned robes, lying still on a cliff some distance below. And if they could have listened through the wind, they would have heard two very distinct noises.
The screech of an eagle, and the roar of a demon.