Work Header

The Ashes After

Chapter Text

In his hand, the Palantír grew hot. Intensely, the blistering heat burned Talion’s hand just as a flash of light- blinding enough to be painful, exploded from the core. Talion ducked away, shielding his eyes away from the searing light in an attempt to spare his vision. Under breath, he hissed as his eyes clenched.

Despite his efforts, his eyes were still filled with the unforgiving light until his eyes burned from it. That, as well as the pain of his singed hand which still held the Palantír, felt numb compared to the pain inside Talion’s breast.

The knowledge was only just settling. The Wraith was gone.

Celebrimbor was gone. In battle with Sauron, they had fought, and the Dark Lord prevailed. Together as one, now and forever until Sauron’s unlikely demise.

Talion peered into the orb again, as if will alone would create a new image, a new truth. Perhaps if he hoped enough, a miraculous turn of events in a place too far away from his intervention even if not his sight would occur. The artifact, cooling already in hand, only showed one image.  An eye, fiery and slit like a drake’s. The pupil skittered in every direction, never in one place, even as the color flashed. Orange one second, only to be overtaken by blue, then back again. It was as if Talion held a true eye now, alive and active. For all that the new state of it now, to Talion the stone was little more than an oversized polished trinket. The stone would not show him what he wanted.

Talion replaced the Palantír on its pedestal, and walked away with static growing in his ears.

Exiting the castle, Talion paused on the steps as the large door swung closed behind him in an eerie and final thud that echoed oddly in the green tinged air. Talion breathed, and tilted his head to the sky, eyes searching for the stars, only to close when there were none to be found. The enchantment light surrounding Minas Morgul had drowned out the night sky. On the air, Talion could taste blood and evil on the air, fresh and old.

Swaying in the still air, surrounded by silence inside and out, reality came to him. In a wake of horror, Talion choked on nothing.

“It is done,” Talion gasped, and opened his eyes “Celebrimbor is no more.” he told the empty air. In his body, the vacant spaces rung, suddenly empty after so long.

Talion knew the silence should feel natural to him. No body was designed to house two souls as his had been forced to do. No soul was meant to become entangled with another until every vibration could be translated as easily as emotion on face. Yet it only scared him.

Never had he’d ever been so alone since the Black Gate. His body was quiet, empty of another’s presence, of a song that only souls produced in an undeniable sign of existence. This- this sensation felt unnatural. In his mind, Talion likened it to the feelings he had heard many old soldier’s complain of. The ones who had lost an arm or leg in battle. The sensation that something was missing, yet you could feel it still as well and presently as any limbs that remained. A phantom limb, incurable and untreatable. Or in alternate cases, a phantom pain- to feel from something that existed no longer.

Except this was so much worse. Even in his mind, Talion could not hear false notes of melody, the ghostly instruments of Soul Song. Celebrimbor was gone, and it could not be denied. This was pain. This was abandonment .

He hadn’t given himself time to think, Talion acknowledged, or to process what had happened in the mad rush of  a day that had occurred. He hadn’t wanted to. Yet there was nothing left to be done. Celebrimbor and Eltariel had gone to fight Sauron, they had lost. Talion had survived the Bridge and reclaimed Minas Morgul. There were no more Nazgúl to fight, no more fortresses to take. The Bright Lord army had been amassed and had been successful in pushing back the Dark Lord’s own. There was nothing left to do. Nothing left for Talion to focus on and escape time. Now It came for him, creeping all around him like black smoke until he suffocated on it.

The murmuring of the ring on his finger made it all the worse to Talion. The dark mutterings malicious and poisonous. It had been doing so since the moment he had put it on. Already despair clawed at his consciousness.

Celebrimbor had betrayed him. Over a disagreement, the Wraith had turned against him. Pawning away the Ranger as if Talion had meant nothing; as if all worth had been lost the second Talion did not fall into line.

This is not the end I have fought for!’

Eru, what a fool he’d was. To think that he would not be alone in trying to achieve a fragile peace in the bloody war. The price of that now was Talion’s solitary station. How he wished for Idril’s perseverance, or her heart.

The strength in Talion’s legs fled, and it took great effort to not go tumbling forward off the stairs like a swooning maiden. He fell back, ungraceful and fumbling as he half tripped and half sat on the steps he stood on. His legs kicked out, knocking one heel painfully against stone in full extension while the other jarred as it landed flat on one step down. Talion leaned forward and buried his face in his hands. Unbidden, Talion could feel his shoulders begin to shake, even as the serpent’s hiss of Isildur’s Ring remained constant in its lies.

The testing tendrils of darkness that slipped from the tainted thing that now kept Talion pulled away from eternal rest twisted thoughts into light until they screamed.

Left to die, they squalled. Alone and betrayed, they scratched. Considered lesser then slaves or dirt, they said. They hurt, every single one that the Ring pulled into existence hurt. Talion could not think of anything but them.

It all inspired an agony in his breast.

By the Valar, more than anything and as poisoned as they were, those thoughts hurt. Celebrimbor’s betrayal was like no other because Talion had thought that perhaps they were friends. They had suffered together, battled impossible and trying odds together. They had died countless gruesome deaths until they each grew weary of it and the darkness of their existence called for a coward’s end. Times between them had been shared, in the rare and quiet spaces of their days; memories, thoughts, wishes and ambitions- though there were hardy anymore of those. Their undeaths had tied them together, bonds of which eradicated boundaries completely between them. In one body they shared, cramped and uncomfortable until they had adjusted. It had been strange at first, to feel Celebrimbor’s essence and hear his Song even when the projection of him spoke to Talion face to face.

Talion had thought that intimacy would have created an understanding, a fundamental agreement or at least the inclination of consideration. It had not, and that is what caused Celebrimbor’s betrayal- (‘Rejection!’) Isildur’s Ring hissed- to strangle Talion. It was as if a ghostly fist had reached through his ribcage, gripping his heart so tightly the organ struggled, and slowly twisted.

Talion wanted to be angry (‘He left you to die!’). He wanted to be furious actually, under the mind numbing shock that held his tongue when Eltariel had taken the Ring. Except Celebrimbor was gone, forcefully taken in by the Dark Lord to be one with his enemy. How, in what good conscience Talion had left, be angry for the betrayal when Celebrimbor suffered such a fate? Caught in eternal conflict, never to escape?

Talion’s hands slid up his face until the heels of his palms rested in the dips of his eyes, digging in with pressure until colors burst behind his clenched lids. He breathed a little harder, as his shaking worsened. “Eru, what have we done to be forsaken by you?” Talion whispered to nothing, like a prayer of a deadman; wasn’t that what he was?

(‘Forgotten, left behind. None shall come for you, Talion of the Black Gate!’) Isildur’s Ring sang in malice.

“What in our lives have we done to deserve these fates!”

(‘Nothing, Talion, nothing! Only He will give you peace. Go to Him, serve Him!’)

Talion ignored the taunts. No, Talion was sickened by the suggestion- he would not serve the one who had caused such suffering! That had caused his current suffering! By Celebrimbor’s leave a gaping wound had been opened in Talion’s essence. There was an absence of Song in his head, the vibrating rumbling of waves breaking on shore and the musical chimes of stars shining through the night sky- it was a constant melody that had always been there; reliable and comforting. It had spoke to Talion in ways Celebrimbor’s voice had not. Now it was gone. It was an undeniable sign that Talion could not ignore. He was alone. There was no Soul Song, and there was no constant mutterings, dark humored quips nor was there silver-tongued words to turn Talion’s attentions.

Talion soundlessly gasped. Nothing, there was nothing . The space where the Wraith had taken, hard won and forcefully made had grown used to the pressure, and equally so had Talion’s soul- now there was only an unsettling void! The silence and that space- like an infected wound, the utter wrongness festered under the Ranger’s skin. Talion felt sundered. His being torn in half to be stretched across the plains of Mordor (‘It is, it is! He did this to you!’) The Ring crowed, latching on the thought to poison.

“What was that Wraith,” Talion muttered “to hurt me more than when Ioreth and Dirhael were slaughtered in front of me?!” how was the knowledge of Celebrimbor’s loss capable of paralyzing him when his family only propelled him into revenge? Had the Wraith sunk so deeply into Talion’s utter being that he could not stand the absence of him? He had to, Talion thought, as he chuckled humorlessly, for he felt like a shell of the man he’d once been. The deaths of his wife and son had not been so painful as to do this to him. How could he feel like this? They were his family , precious and all that he had loved- he was unworthy of them if he could not honor them with even proportional sorrows. Celebrimbor should not have inspired such agony as to overcome his family. He did.

(‘Changed you! Celebrimbor changed you!’) Isildur’s Ring vibrated, the sentient energy pulling at his hurts until they bled more deeply (‘He did not allow you to grieve them as they deserved! He pushed you to chase revenge the minute you could stand!’).

“He changed me..” Talion echoed, hollow and tired, ignoring the pleased quiver of the Ring “On the Black Gate he had changed me to be this- I cannot even accept death. His drive of revenge has infected me.” (‘Yes! Yes!’).

Talion hissed in pain as the Ring on his finger- a condensed nightmare of his choosing grew energized. (‘He had changed you! He had ruined you, Celebrimbor betrayed you!’) it chanted (‘He did not recognize your value- did not value you, Talion! He left you to die for that elven woman!’)

In vain, Talion clasped his hands over his ears. It did nothing to dampen his burden. The Ring only grew louder.

(‘Go to Him, Talion! The Dark Lord will give you peace under his service. Join the Nine, realize your purpose!’)

“I will not!”

('You will, you will you will! Only He can ease your pain, it was He who took away the source!’)

“Shut up!” Talion wrenched his hands away, intending in full to pull the cursed ring off his finger to throw it and it’s venomous words far away from him. He only just stopped himself before he did it, stilled with the knowledge that if he did, then he would die; bled out on the stairs of Minas Morgul.

With the Ring still humming in it’s uncanny joy in the back of his mind, Talion deflated as he sighed. He closed his eyes as he hung his head, allowing his hands to fall between his knees.

How far had he fallen. Once he had been a respected Captain of the Black Gate, now he was little more than a cowardly wretch. Three times death sought him out, and three times was death denied. Not even now, when it would be so easy, could Talion bring himself to do the action that would seal his fate.

(‘You cannot accept death, Talion. So much to do! Too much to do!’)

It seemed a spirit looked over the Ranger, for how unusually well life hung onto him. The Black Hand at the Gate, Shelob and now Celebrimbor. The Black Hand had succeeded, however Talion became host to Celebrimbor. Shelob had failed, though she did not mean to kill him, so perhaps she succeeded. Then Celebrimbor, the Wraith had succeeded. Talion was sure he had died, only to be revived by the power of will alone or maybe Shelob. He had been dry of blood, and yet still he grasped at undeath with unholy stubbornness, chaining himself yet again to an unnatural existence of deathlessness. Did Talion know nothing but his stubborn refusals of death? Of Morgoth driven desperation did he choose to be so careless in how he did it?

The very weight of his decisions weighed heavy on his hand and mind. Refined evil, created by Annatar and Celebrimbor under the guise of lies now wrapped around his finger more prettily than a jeweled serpent. He could feel how the smoky presence of it reached into his mind. Memories darkened, his thoughts soured. One by one all that made Talion was beginning to fall it’s under influence.

Stubbornly, Talion pushed away that smoke, wincing as the Ring lashed back in displeasure though it thankfully receded. “I was a fool…” Talion admitted, grimacing at the rapidly developing migraine cause by the Ring’s retaliation. A reward for his resistance and a price for it’s standstill. “I am a coward…” (‘Go to Him! Find power in Him! Serve Him!’) Isildur’s Ring chanted.

Tears slipped down his face unbidden, and Talion clenched his eyes. He curled as he sobbed, choking as his breath stuttered. Perhaps Celebrimbor was not the only Soul to be imprisoned in a never ending war. From the moment Talion grasped Isildur’s Ring with the last of his waning strength he had resigned himself to a fate of torment. A truly cruel fate he had chosen over a restful death.

Talion, for the first time since the Black Gate, was alone. There was no Wraith or Wraith Ring to fill the cracks of his soul. Celebrimbor’s own had done that. Either in part or whole, but at least always there. Isildur’s Ring was not what Talion found himself wanting.

“I did not want this. By the Valar, this is not what I wanted!” Talion sobbed, body shaking under all that he repressed “I have lost my family, and now I have lost my Wraith! Am I doomed to never keep anyone close?!”

(‘Celebrimbor was not yours! The Dark Lord had claim, and the Dark Lord has taken what was his!’) The Ring screeched, remarkably angered (‘Celebrimbor did not want you and you should not have wanted him!’)

“He was all that I had left!” The Ranger snapped “No matter what Celebrimbor had done, he had given me a chance at revenge! He gave me the ability to avenge my family!”

('He used you. Now he is being used. A price worthy for his crime’) Talion shuddered at the vile slip. The Ring was pleased at it’s Lord’s success. (‘The Wraith deserved his fate. Rejoice in his suffering.’)

Except the dark words began to twist in Talion’s mind. Already he was being saturated by the very darkness of Isildur’s Ring, until it began distorting his world around him. Talion could strain no further against it. Now the suggestions turned into something different, veering away from what the manipulations were intended.

“Celebrimbor- he was taken.” Talion hissed, tears drying tacky on his face “He was taken from me.”

('Yes, yes!’)

Talion fisted his hands, gritting his teeth as he stared at the stone. A fire began to simmer in his gut, like a Balrog’s whip until it began climbing his throat. It writhed like a serpent. The smoke of awakening darkness, the Ring’s and his own, spiralled down until he should have tasted it, until it should have been all he could smell.

The silence of his body- it rung through him with sickening clarity. There was no stability of another’s presence. Of Celebrimbor’s presence. The hole gaping in his chest- it was as if an olog had punched through Talion, leaving a void that could not close.

All that was wrong in him, all that was being poisoned by the Ring; it came to head.

There should have been an audible crack when Talion finally seized under the strain.

“Celebrimbor was mine!” Talion surged to his feet. His fiery eyes flashed even as the eerie green mist of his powers- Nazgúl, not Wraith, Talion was a Nazgúl- climbed his arms. A plan began to form, borne of possession and desperate hope. “Celebrimbor was not Sauron’s to take!”

Isildur’s Ring began to rally, but Talion drowned it out “He was stolen from me.” the Ranger growled “He betrayed me! I should have decided the price, not Sauron! I held claim, I held the right!” 

(‘It is too late! They are one and the same! Never shall you see Celebrimbor again!’) Isildur’s Ring snarled, a snapping, clawing beast. In confusion the sentience writhed. Something had changed in this man! Where there had been something to grab and twist, suddenly it was like mirrors- there was nothing to bend into breaking. It was as if a force equal to the Ring stared back at it. It was small, just a seed that suggested a potential for immensity. It was growing however, and curled in malice.

Silenced, the Ring did not interrupt Talion’s thoughts as a planned formed.

The Palantír- the Eye of Sauron- they had shown Talion an impossible possibility.

It changed colors, from Sauron’s flames to Celebrimbor’s light, it changed and continued to change. There was no harmony in that display, it spoke of a battle of wills, a resistance in existence. Without harmony there was no possibility of fusion. It was not possible for Celebrimbor and Sauron to have yet become one- until a force was subdued, there would be no singularity, no blurring of two.

Bonds- Talion blinked rapidly- bonds were still being established. Bonds could be broken, as Talion had experienced. It only took something to break them. An instrument, a tool. There was no Ring tying Sauron and Celebrimbor together, there was nothing to remove but Celebrimbor himself but Talion would not be able to invoke his Wraith into appearing so that he could take him away from that dark place; a tool, he needed something to make those bonds visible. Make them vulnerable.

How could Talion do that though? Sauron would not let Talion take Celebrimbor back after finally defeating the elven lord! Talion had no hope of that, he would have to force Sauron to submit.

Domination. Talion had to dominate Sauron .

The New Ring, Talion realized. In that disastrous battle, Celebrimbor had used their Ring, and had brought Sauron to his knees! The New Ring was pure of Sauron’s taint, it had no loyalty for him. It had showed that it was powerful. Under it the Dark Lord kneeled.

Unable to keep still, Talion descended the steps to pace the stone path. Forward and back, like a guard walking his post. It was a comforting, familiar routine.

The New Ring, it was the key, the tool that Talion needed. Where had it gone? From Eltariel’s hand it was severed, like a cheap rendition of Sauron’s own defeat an age ago, but never had Talion seen the Dark Lord go to it. There had been no interest in grabbing it, not a single glance at all. It was as if, to Sauron, the Ring had been but a trinket- useless and easily forgotten.

“Not a trinket.” Talion frowned “A weapon, a proven weapon- the Ring would not be forgotten. Sauron is no fool, he would hide it away.” he told the air, coming to a stop in his pacing, staring at nothing ahead. For a moment there was silence, until Talion realized he had been waiting for a clipped response. He shook off the crawling wrongness. “Sauron would know that Ring had no loyalty for him.” If anything, the Ring would be repulsed by the Dark Lord. Celebrimbor’s life force had been poured into its forging, as well as Talion’s; though whether or not Celebrimbor had been aware, the Ranger was not sure. Celebrimbor had been mortal enemies with the Dark Lord. All of Talion’s suffering had been caused by the Dark Lord. There had been no love lost, and all hate gained between them. The Ring would sooner jump away to be lost in a cavern then be used by the Dark Lord, of that Talion was sure.

The Ring would be useless to Sauron, at least for as long as Celebrimbor resisted him. Sauron would first have to subjugate the Wraith. That did not discount the Ring’s power. Sauron was no fool, loath as Talion was to admit it even to himself. It would not be left where it landed, but hidden away- and what of Eltariel? The elven warrior was just as deadly a threat; her abilities blessed to her by the Lady Galadriel had proven time and again that the Nazgúl could be pushed back, and beaten for bought time. That alone would be considered an inexcusable annoyance. Would Eltariel even be alive?

“The Dark Lord would want to gloat.” Talion realized “He just won a prize he had been fighting for. He would not pass the chance to make Eltariel realize her failures, he would want to bring her to the lowest. Why pass off the chance of making your enemies suffer?”

There was no reason. Sauron would be assured in his victory over Celebrimbor. The arrogance spawned from it might have even made Sauron generous.

Perhaps he would keep the elf and Ring close. To him and together. If that was so, then Talion could act! Orcs always talked about a good prisoner. Eltariel would be far easier to track than the New Ring. Talion frowned, feeling a little sick in his stomach when he realized that meant that he hoped Eltariel was being kept prisoner. He had seen Celebrimbor’s time with Sauron; the arm wrenching chains, the torture, the beatings and Celebrimbor’s family. Sauron was cruel. He played with his food. Eltariel would be suffering a similar fate if she was kept prisoner.

Talion shook his head. No. Celebrimbor- the New Ring was his concern. He needed the Ring, even at the cost of Eltariel.

Isildur’s Ring began to murmur again, curling around that thought. (‘She encouraged Celebrimbor’) It whispered (‘She above all deserves her fate!’).

His stomach rolled uncomfortably. He wouldn’t wish that on his worst enemies. No one deserved being held captive by the Dark Lord (‘She help Celebrimbor betray you! She took the Ring and left as you died!’) but she had betrayed Talion all the same…

Talion shook his head, rubbing a hand against his face as he winced. That didn’t mean she deserved to be tortured! (‘Who, if not her?’) She was doing what she thought was right (‘She should have known better’). 

“Yes, well hindsight is always clear.” Talion muttered, bittered by that. In the end, no good intentions seemed to end with good results. Celebrimbor himself had felt the cost too many times over. The Rings, crafted beautifully under the lies of bringing power to the land’s leaders only to enslave nine, and bring hardship to seven. Only the three elven Rings escaped the wrath, and that was a small number. Now this- in pursuit of his revenge, Celebrimbor had fallen to the siren’s songs of power until he had finally paid the price. All while under the banner of restoring balance to Middle-Earth. Eltariel had simply grabbed a thread of hope that snapped under weight.

(‘Should have known better, she should have known!’) Isildur’s Ring insisted (‘To think Sauron would fall like a Nazgúl! She above all should have realized that masters are not their servants!’) then, in honeyed voice the Ring continued (‘She deserves to reap the folly she had sowed. Her rash actions have hurt you the most- left to die on the Bridge, she couldn’t even bare to look at you to see the consequences. She left you to die in dishonor, taking Celebrimbor with her!’)

There was truth in that. Eltariel had left him- couldn’t even wait the minute it would have taken to face Talion’s death. She had left him, had run away while Talion looked on as he choked on his own blood.

Fire bloomed in Talion’s gut, as he was suddenly seized by anger. What coward was she, to turn her back on him?! Had she not taken the Ring with knowledge that without it and the Wraith that Talion would die?! She had to have, she hardly flinched at the slice that had cut across Talion’s neck!

Talion growled, ignoring the gleeful shivering of Isildur’s Ring. If Talion had been so meaningless to her, then he would return that regard in kind. Talion would not save her- he would leave Eltariel to her fate. A small price for what Eltariel’s interferences had costed Talion!

Talion snarled into the air, poison green mist wavering into the air from his hands. He would find the Ring. Without it, Talion would have no way of dominating Sauron- Isildur’s Ring was loyal to the One and by association Sauron. It already radiated uneasy displeasure at Talion’s growing plan. It would not assist Talion in his endeavor, but the New Ring…

Talion had seen it work, bringing Sauron to his knees and turning those evil eyes a dominated blue; a blue those eyes would have stayed had Celebrimbor’s arrogance not overtaken his vigilance. Sauron was not invincible. He was a being that could be chained, subjugated, even if complete destruction was impossible.

Talion squared his shoulders, a new purpose igniting him in vigorous energy. His eyes burned, piercing the night even as they glowed darker than Eru’s most forgotten star as the Ranger promised the empty, listening air.

“I will come for you, Celebrimbor…” the air shivered, and the mist of Talion’s power crepted up his shoulders, wafting away like visible aura “I will not stand leaving you with Sauron as he obliterates you. All of Middle-Earth will not stop me.”

Talion clenched his hands, glaring into the distance as his enhanced vision easily picked out the flashing Eye of Sauron countless of miles away. “Nothing will stop me from taking back what is mine, no matter the cost.”

Above, beyond the mortal plane the Valar heard. They, in their business could not ignore the voice of a mortal that drifted through their halls. It caused each to pause, stunned by the implications. Nienna cried for him, adding to her rivers the sorrows of the Ranger’s plight as she realized what weight the man bore. Eru Ilúvatar heard the mournings of the Vala and looked on, and the Great One contemplated. For all of his omnipresence, Eru would watch the fate of his Children. Unawares of what he had done nor the attention he had gained, Talion only sneered into the distance.

The Ranger had a task, and nothing would stop him in doing it.