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38: The Corruption of Beauty
It was Talmavar, Tulkas and Nessa’s Chief Máya, who brought news of the first hint that something was amiss. He was wont to spend much of his time when not attending to his duties roaming the fields and forests of the continent in which Almaren was situated. Once the island had become habitable the rest of the planet soon followed suit. In a short period of time, as the Ayanumuz measured it, wide grasslands and deep forests began to spread across the continent while in the Sea small creatures began to swim.
Talmavar was wandering in the north where the light of Illuin was stronger. The cooler light was more to his liking and he rarely wandered southward past Almaren. Ormal’s flame was too hot for his taste. The Máya enjoyed wandering the land, allowing his hröa to soak in the physical sensations that were yet new to all of them — the warmth of the air caressing his hair, the tang of salt in his nostrils as he combed the white sand beaches, the taste of clear water soothing a dry throat, the sound of his feet rustling through the underbrush and the delight to his eyes of the color green in all its manifold shades.
It was now some time after the wedding feast of his lord and lady. Talmavar stopped in contemplation of that event, having climbed a low ridge of hills that led towards soaring mountains further on. A wide valley stretched before him where a small stream ran merrily between high banks. Lady Nessa had held his allegiance from the very beginning and he and his fellow Máyar had sorrowed that none of the other male Ayanumuz had elected to follow them into Eä, for it was well known that Lord Ulmo had no interest in binding himself to another and the others were either already espoused or nearly so. When Lord Tulkas arrived, however, Nessa’s Máyar regained hope and were pleased when their lady showed interest in the newest Ayanuz and that he reciprocated her feelings. Thus, when the two Ayanumuz made their vows there was much rejoicing among Nessa’s Máyar and Talmavar gladly led his fellows in giving their allegiance to their new lord, as was only proper.
It was while he was staring across the plains below him, thinking about that particular Oath-taking, that the first sign of something amiss penetrated his consciousness. It was a small thing and he would have dismissed it under other circumstances, but he had been this way too many times and knew every rock and tree and this should not have been there. He frowned and made his way down to the valley and strode purposely towards the stream. Rushes normally lined the banks, their golden-brown heads swaying lazily in the breeze, but here they were lying limp and listless and some of the plants were obviously dead.
Plants died, of course. He had seen the cycle of life and death and re-seeding on countless planets throughout the cosmos, but this was something different, something intangibly wrong in a way he could not say. He mentally marked the spot and forwent his original plan to continue northward, turning around and heading back to Almaren. Why he did not simply think himself there he could never afterward say, but something told him to continue the journey in hröa and so he did.
He took a slightly different route on his return journey for he hated to repeat himself and there was always more to see and experience. Thus it was that not far from the ridge of hills he had been climbing earlier he came down into a woodland area. The trees were young yet, barely twice his own height for the most part. It had been some time since he had wandered in this direction but the woods had been green and healthy and thriving.
He stood in stunned disbelief when he reached the outer edge of the forest to find trees barren of any leaves or needles, their trunks withered, their sap gone. He felt as if he’d been struck with one of the energy bolts of the Úmáyar and could only stand there in a daze until an errant breeze brought a rotting scent to his sensitive nostrils and to his horror he found himself gagging, struggling for breath. The shock of it was so great that he instantly went incorporeal. He felt nauseous and his usual golden-orange aura was muddy with splotches of deep violet that made him shudder in disgust.
It was only then that he thought himself home, falling into his beloved Ravenni’s embrace before losing all consciousness.
"He is still incoherent," Irmo said as he reported to the other Ayanumuz, "but we managed to lift the coordinates that were foremost in his mind. He would not let us treat him until I assured him that we had the coordinates."
Manwë nodded, looking grave. "Oromë, will you and Námo check out the woods? Yavanna, I hesitate to send you but I think under the circumstances...."
"I will go with her," Nessa said.
"As will I," Tulkas added, his expression almost as grave as Manwë’s.
Yavanna looked relieved. The thought that something terrible had happened to her beloved plants made her pale and she dreaded having to face whatever was there alone. Aulë was away with Ulmo checking out the Lamps, making sure they were still stable and she did not want to take her younger sister with her. Vána was more sensitive than most realized and Yavanna wished to protect her from anything... vile.
In seconds the two parties thought themselves away, with Námo calling Eönwë to accompany them at the last moment.
Námo, Oromë and Eönwë emerged to find a woods that looked as if it had been blasted by warfare. Everywhere trees stood naked of leaves or needles, their trunks scabrous with sickly looking lichen clinging to them in parasitic union. The undergrowth was equally rotted and there was a sweet sickly smell in the air that caused them to gag. Eönwë actually sicked up, much to his horror and embarrassment. Námo had to hold him through the heaving.
"Breathe through your mouth, not your nose," he told the Máya once Eönwë had recovered somewhat from vomiting. He was still pale and felt weak, but he nodded to his lord and there was a dark look in his eyes, one of determination not to disappoint his lord again.
"You are not a disappointment, Eönwë," Námo said, divining the Máya’s train of thought, "nor are you the first of us to become ill in such a fashion."
Eönwë glanced up at the Ayanuz in surprise, his eyes widening in comprehension as Námo nodded.
Námo and Eönwë looked towards the forest as they heard Oromë’s warning shout just in time to see something large and monstrous come crashing towards them from within the woods. Námo had a confused impression of something horned and for all its lumbering size, very swift on its feet. He thrust Eönwë out of the path of the thing barreling down on them and just managed to leap out of its way, tumbling into the bracken. Oromë was beside him in an instant, lending him a hand up.
"Stay here," the Ayanuz commanded, "and keep an eye out for other such creatures. I’m going after this one." With that he took off at a run after the creature that was now crashing through the high grass of the meadow. Námo went over to where Eönwë was just rising from where he had fallen when Námo had pushed him and gave him a hand.
"Are you well?" the Ayanuz asked, concern written all over him.
Eönwë nodded. "I just had the wind knocked out of me is all, lord." He glanced around to see what had happened to the monster but both it and Oromë were gone, apparently disappearing behind a fold in the earth. "Wh-what was that thing?"
Námo shrugged. "I have no idea. Come. I want to investigate further." He turned and strode purposely into the woods and Eönwë reluctantly followed.
The forest, which normally should have been green and full of light, was dark and perilous looking. The further in they went the worse it became. Eönwë studiously kept his eyes on Námo’s back, his very fëa shriveling at the putrid air around them, the sense of darkness and... yes, evil that permeated everything. Námo, oddly enough, seemed unaffected by their surroundings as he continued walking deliberately through the woods... that is, until he happened to turn around and Eönwë saw his expression. The Máya actually quailed at the sight of those amaranthine eyes blazing with a dark fire of their own and Námo had to visibly shutter his emotions, grabbing Eönwë by the arm.
"Steady now," he said solicitously. "Come. I think I’ve found the center of the darkness here." Without another word he turned and continued on and Eönwë had no choice but to follow.
The noisome scent that was everywhere now grew stronger and they were both holding their hands before their faces in a vain attempt to filter out the smell. Deep within the forest was a pool, or what had once been a pool of clear spring water. Now, they saw, it was choked by weeds and slime and there was a rotten smell emanating from it.
"Sulphur," Námo said. "The water is full of it."
"How can this be, lord?" Eönwë asked in bewilderment.
Námo merely shook his head, not bothering to answer. Instead, he made his way along the banks of the pool, stopping with a cry of disgust as he rounded an outcrop of rocks to come upon a scene of complete horror. Eönwë gasped in dismay at the sight. Before them lay the rotting, half-eaten carcasses of several animals, many of them as monstrous in their forms as the one Oromë was chasing, but there were others that were more normal in shape or would have been had they been alive. The decaying offal and rotting flesh were apparently seeping into the pool, polluting it even more.
"This is... wrong," Eönwë said in shocked disbelief.
Námo nodded. "I’ve seen enough," he said quietly. "I want to check with Yavanna. Come." With that he gave Eönwë the necessary coordinates and they thought themselves away.
They found Yavanna kneeling beside the stream weeping. Nessa was trying to comfort her. Of Tulkas there was no sign. Námo and Eönwë came upon a scene out of nightmare. In the short amount of time since Talmavar had come this way the stream was turning into a fen, the water running sluggishly, rank and poisonous. There were strange black flying insects never seen before that buzzed annoyingly around them. Námo found himself swatting the air to rid him of the noxious little beasts.
"What is happening, Námo?" Nessa asked when she saw her fellow Ayanuz approach. "What evil has corrupted the beauty we only recently created?"
"You said it, Nessa," Námo replied shortly. "Evil. This stinks of Melkor. Where is Tulkas?"
"He went further north to see if he could trace the source of the corruption," Nessa answered. "Where is Oromë?"
"Hunting," Námo said but he refused to elaborate. Instead, he knelt beside a still weeping Yavanna and put his arm around her shoulders, giving her a hug. "Hush, now, sister. All is not lost. We will find Melkor and remove his taint from this world once and for all. I promise you we will. The Children will not come into a world full of grief and sorrow but full of joy and wonderment."
He stood and brought Yavanna with him. "Come. Let us return to Almaren and give Manwë our report. Tulkas and Oromë will follow in due time. Eönwë, gather the Máyar. They must hear this as well."
"It will be as you say, lord," the Máya said with a bow and then they were all gone, glad to be rid of the dreary scene of corruption slowly spreading southward towards Almaren.
They arrived in Almaren to find Oromë already there, the carcass of the beast lying before him as Manwë looked on dispassionately as his fellow Ayanuz gave his report.
"....a difficult time catching up with it," Oromë was saying. "If I’m going to be hunting more of these fell creatures, I will need transportation of some sort."
"You could always follow unclad," Varda suggested, refusing to look at the carcass. Other Ayanumuz were gathered around them and the Máyar whom Eönwë had summoned were beginning to appear in twos and threes, their expressions one of shock.
Oromë gave the Queen of Stars a grin. "What’s the fun of that?" He shook his head as he toed the monster. "It gave good sport but meeting it on foot was not the best way to kill it. I will have to think on it some more." His expression turned pensive.
Manwë, meanwhile, looked up to see Námo approaching with a wan Yavanna. Estë had seen her already and was helping him to support her. "What did you find?"
"Horror and corruption," Námo replied tersely as he released Yavanna into Estë’s care. He then went on to describe what they had found, leaving out Eönwë’s reaction to the stench, for which the Máya was eternally grateful.
Manwë frowned. "From the north? You are sure the source lies there?"
Námo nodded. "Yes. Somehow Melkor has managed to sneak by our sentries...."
"Or he’s had help," Tulkas said even as he emerged amongst them, his expression dark and forbidding.
"Possibly," Námo conceded, refusing to voice his own suspicions with the Máyar listening. He turned to Tulkas. "Did you find anything conclusive?"
Tulkas shook his golden head. "No, but the corruption is even worse beyond the mountains. There are monsters breeding there, great lumbering things. Some appear harmless enough, for they feed on plants, but others are flesh-eaters and they are staining the earth red with their ferocious hunger."
There was a great sigh among them and many closed their eyes, looking defeated. The last war had taken much out of them and their fëar were still recovering from that. Now, it seemed that even worse horrors were being perpetrated by Melkor and his servants and many of the Máyar shuddered at that thought.
"We need to find him," Manwë said, "and I want to double the watch on the Lamps. They are more vulnerable to attack than we."
"If it pleases thee, my lord, I would go and guard Illuin."
Námo looked up to see Aulendil stepping forward, giving the Eldest his obeisance. He frowned, not sure what it was about the Máya that set his teeth on edge.
Manwë nodded. "It is well."
"Perhaps I should go and check on Ormal, lord, for I had a hand in the making of it." Curumo stepped forward to stand beside Aulendil.
"Very well," Manwë said, "and if you see Lords Aulë and Ulmo tell them I wish for them to return to Almaren. For some reason they have both closed themselves off from ósanwë. I think it must have something to do with us being incarnate."
The two Máyar bowed and in an instant were gone. Manwë dismissed the other Máyar and ordered Oromë to get rid of the carcass while the other Ayanumuz drifted away, each lost in their own thoughts of what they had learned. Nothing could be decided until Aulë and Ulmo returned and were advised of what had befallen. Námo, now standing next to Oromë, whispered in his ear. "Something about this does not sit right with me, but I cannot say what it is."
"I feel the same way," Oromë said as he hefted the dead beast onto his shoulder and started away. "Keep your eyes open. I fear we are in for more shocks."
Námo did not dispute him.
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