The mountain was heaving beneath their feet, to the point that they toppled. He opened his eyes, and all about him was nothing but ash and flame. The red walls soared high above them, and the throbbing, seething river of scarlet and fire rippled far below. He clawed for purchase, and slowly climbed to his shaking legs, inhaling, and gagging on the lung of smoke he had just breathed. Through his bleery eyes, he could see the small form, erect, alert, and tormented at the lip of the stone. The Ring-Bearer had his back to him. Even through the haze, Smeagol could see his pale face, now glistening with tears and sweat, was twisted in anguish and rage, his lip curled into a snarl, and his eyes both eerily focused, and waxing over with pain. The Ring Bearer held one small hand out over the boiling red, the gold chain slipping, link by link through his slack fingers. Smeagol winced, and recoiled when he felt the flame leap up to kiss the gold. His spirit was so interwoven with that cursed band of gold, that he felt the searing pain as the Ring hissed and wafted away from the flame. The Ring-bearer himself flinched and leapt back, as if he had been burned. Tears were pouring from his soot-clad features, and Smeagol wretched his eyes away from the Ring to peer long into the face of his Master. The Ring-bearer fell to his knees, and clawed at his temples with a shrill, choked scream, his fist clenched and flailing but never releasing the Ring.

My sweet Smeagol

He whimpered at the sound at the cursed voice. The Ring had been silent during the long months that they had crossed the dark mountains, though it called to him in his dreams. He remembered that voice...so soft, so promising, and gentle, like sunlight on his face, and water through his fingers.

My precious...

Memories, unwilling, and unbidden flooded back to him..the sweet days of his youth, when he had frolicked about the river as a lad, and the fresh scent of flower, and bread, and home...

My precious Smeagol, I remember your sacrifice...

Smeagol whimpered, as the torturous images filled his mind..the cursed day his once and only friend Deagol had waved high a ring at the river's edge, where it shimmered like a star that had fallen from the heavens...and its brightness had pierced his heart with its allure...

I know your suffering...and your grief...

Unbidden tears welled up as he recalled the horrible day when he became corrupted beyond redemption...

Deagol was gaming about, flaunting the ring before him. Teasingly, he had flipped the golden orb in his hand the way a drunken hobbit might flip a coin, and Smeagol shuddered every time the ring was tossed into the air. Deagol laughed when Smeagol cried out, and merrily tossed the ring into the river's muck before shoving it into his pocket with finality. Deagol, amused by Smeagol's pleas for the ring, merely chuckled and tormented the hobbit until the darkness fell over the water, and the sun's last rays had gloamed into night.

I know what haunts you...

After enduring hours of the taunts, and the jeers from his only friend, Smeagol had lowered himself to his knees, and clasped his hands together in the most abject position he could muster, and then, in halting tones, and tears, begged. Deagol, unmoved, but greatly amused, dangled the ring carelessly on one finger, and with the other hand, toppled Smeagol with a blow to the cheek.

Quivering, Smeagol rose to his feet as he saw Deagol amble away, the chuckles trailing him like unseen ghosts...

I know what you did...

Smeagol snarled, and rammed himself into Deagol's broad belly, slamming the shocked hobbit to the ground. Deagol writhed beneath him, as Smeagol's hands arched, and latched onto the thick throat...

I know why you scream in the darkness, my precious one...

Deagol had struggled, flailed, and Smeagol only dug his fingers tighter, until the nails were ringed with blood and Deagol's head lulled..

He remembered little, other than the sickening stillness that gripped Deagol's body, and the abyss that filled his glazed eyes as they rolled back into his skull.

Smeagol had stood over his friend, in the silence, eyes agog, jaw slack and tears rolling, in shock and in grief, as he hunched over and vomited

In the stillness, he wept,and staggered blindly away from Deagol's corpse...

I know why you cry, my precious.

He saw the glint of gold as it lay in Deagol's splayed fingers, and he snatched it up, intending to hurl himself and it into the rippling current and drown...

He stood, with his arm raised over the writhing water, and his knees bent to leap, but found himself unable to move. It was as if everything in his being had perished, and had left behind a body heedless of his will. He strained, he whimpered, and cried, but he found himself unable to move...

I saved you from destroying yourself, Smeagol. We are one, my precious, forged by flame, and unbroken...

Smeagol wailed and clutched at his temples, when he saw the agony of the Ring-Bearer, for he felt the same anguish. Indeed, the memory of that old torment was replayed over and over in his mind's eye until he no longer knew if the thoughts in his skull were his or the Ring's.

I was with you in the darkness...

Smeagol remembered fleeing. He had gripped the band of gold as he recoiled from the sun as it splintered in fragments on the breaking waves. He had run into the shadows of the deep, and he had burrowed into the darkness like some animal that had buried its own grave. And there, nestled in the dripping wet and the black rocks, and the shadows, the Ring wove its song of lust and promise and brokeness. And Smeagol, alone and forsaken by the ravages of time, was corrupted. He grew twisted and gnarled, like a poisoned plant, unnatural, forgotten, and dying.

He festered, his once hobbit face now fixed into a mask of rotten flesh, and his pink fingers growing into webbed claws. And, as he decayed, he gladly forgot that he was once a hobbit, and he willingly adopted the memories that the Ring sang to him in the lullaby of whispers...

I freed you from the light...

He remembered Master, who spoke to him with a soft voice, and touched him with kind hands.

He almost remembered being something like Master, in that murky time before the Precious. He remembered Master's promise of redeeming Smeagol, if he would but guide them through the dark mountains that jutted around them.

He remembered how Master had staggered brokenly to this chamber of fire, and how the hobbit, with a choked whisper, had sworn to rid Smeagol of the terrible voice.

And now, Master was on his knees and sobbing, as he clutched the Ring as if embracing it.

And as I have shown you mercy, my precious, free me from this darkness...

The flames roared over their heads as the Ring-Bearer lurched to his feet and staggered over to the lip of the cliff. Smeagol howled in pain as the Ring pleaded and screamed for mercy...

The Ring-Bearer raised his fist, as if to hurl the Ring into the fire...

Smeagol rose to his knees, then to a crouch, preparing to leap...

The Ring-Bearer was still, and the flames leapt back from his hand, as if in welcome. His fingers were arched, and his face taut and resolute and despairing as he slowly drew back his hand, with the Ring carefully cradled in his palm. Lovingly, he caressed it, as a slow smile curled about his bleeding lips.

Smeagol wailed... "Master, no...not the Precious...Master must lets it go, if he's going to free us..."

Heedless, the Ringbearer turned, away from the fire, and raised the Ring in triumph.

His eyes, once so broken and filled with tears, were now glowing with some joyless mirth as he slowly unfurled one hand, and gently, slid the band of gold on his finger.

"The Ring is Mine." It was a whispered hiss, a mutilated shadow of how gentle Master's voice was...Smeagol shuddered in anguish. It was the voice of the Ring he was hearing, not Master.

"But Master promises us to set us free from the Precious!" Smeagol choked out, as he heard the chuckle of the Ring reverberating through his skull.

The Ring-Bearer didn't answer, but merely smirked, as he raised his fist like a banner, with fingers aloft, flaunting the band of gold.

You cannot destroy me, Smeagol. If I can darken the heart of this once pure creature, how much more have I corrupted you!

Smeagol recoiled. "The precious lies! Smeagol was once like Master, before the Precious! Smeagol remembers!"

The Ring-Bearer pivoted sharply, his eyes now yawning holes, eerily lit by the flames.

"Fool," he spat. "You once had a pure heart, and yet you slew the innocent for me. This creature that I claim once waged a mighty battle against me, but his will is no more. He is mine, as are you."

Smeagol groped, pleadingly at the Ring-Bearer's knees, and whimpered, "Master, you must remember Smeagol, and his promise!"

The Ringbearer snarled, and sprang back from him, but not before Smeagol saw the flicker of pain darken his face, and a plea choked forth...

"Smeagol..." It was a desperate word, in Master's voice. Smeagol bit his lip, and sobbed.

"Master, we remembers, we hears you!"

Then the darkness suddenly cloaked the anguish as if a mask had been slid over the Ring-Bearer's burning face.

The Ring-bearer glared down at Smeagol, and raised the Ring. "Perhaps, now, fool, you will truly understand that the Precious answers to no one and serves no master but me."

His voice rose to thunder off the cavern's walls, and echoed far above their heads.

Smeagol lowered himself into a crouch, and slid away. "Forgives us, Master...forgive Smeagol, and remembers him..."The Ring-bearer paid no heed to the cowering form as he caressed the band of gold, enthralled by the power that filled him. There was a look of rapture on his face as he raised the ban of gold over his head, and laughed.

Smeagol, panting, gathered what little strength he had, and rose on quivering limbs to feel the fire at his back. He glanced at the vast ocean of churning fire and melted rock below and shuddered, before turning back to the Ring-Bearer. He drew one last breath, and launched himself into the Ring-Bearer, toppling them both to the rocky floor beneith them. The Ring-Bearer quivered in shock benieth him, before erupting into a virtual storm of flying fists and teeth. He had clawed Smeagol viciously in the face before he flung Smeagol aside with ease. He rose, towering over the battered Smeagol, with fire in his eyes, and a smirk, before he caressed the ring, and gazed down at him.

"I will grant you this last act of mercy, Smeagol. You may look one last time upon the Precious that you so willingly sacrificed all that you had to possess." Mockingly, the Ring-Bearer unfurled his hand inches from Smeagol's bleeding face, and laughed as he saw Smeagol's burning eyes follow the Precious's teasing flicker.. In that second, Smeagol flipped over onto his back and gripped the Ring-Bearer's fist with both hands. The Ring-Bearer's face contorted with rage as he hissed out some dark curse that caused Smeagol to choke in agony. Smeagol squealed in pain, but held his grip as he wretched the Ring-Bearer's fist to his jaws. Snakelike, he worked his mouth over the extended finger, and with finality, bit through flesh and bone.

He heard the Ring wail in shock as he spat it from his lips and clutched it in a trembling hand.

He heard the piercing wail of the Ring-Bearer as he fell, and curled his maimed hand to his chest, gore and scarlet blood even more bright than the flame pouring from the wound.

He tasted salt-tears and blood and gall on his lips as he spat out the Ring-Bearer's finger, still adorned with the Ring.

He felt the fire from the pit rising at his back, and the cold band that now lay at his feet beside the writhing Ring-Bearer gleaming..pleading...waiting..

Smeagol, almost swooning, staggered over to the Ring, and knelt at the Ring-Bearer's knees, his eyes filled with so much sorrow and regret that the Ring-Bearer, gazed up at him, panting, and quivering. Smeagol reached out, and with infinite gentleness, caressed the Ring-Bearer's marred

and bloodied fist. "Forgive Smeagol, Master." He whispered.

And, with his failing strength, he groped for the Ring, and carefully set it in his palm. He hunched over it, guardingly, as he turned back to gaze one last time at the Ring-Bearer. Wheezing and quivering, he staggered over to the churning fire at the cliff's edge. He fell to his knees, but crawled the last few inches, sliding on his belly, until he collapsed at the edge. Torpidly, he turned his face to stare long into the flames, before he slowly dangled the ring over the fire. He turned torpid eyes back towards the Ring-Bearer. Master was heaving, and sobbing, cradling his wounded hand against himself and rocking. The movment of shadow upon shadow flickered in the corner of his eye, and his head shot upward in terror. The Ring-Bearer's eyes fell upon Smeagol, as he shot a quick glance at the churning lava at the chasm. Through the ash, and haze, the Ring-Bearer winced with sudden understanding, as Smeagol's face...so long contorted with greed, and loathing relaxed into a smile that haloed his face. Through the gloaming darkness of the belching ash, Smeagol looked...like a hobbit.

Before the Ring-Bearer could even call his name, Smeagol finally stood on quivering limbs, with the Ring burning white against his palm. He paused, for a moment, as the Ring-Bearer met his eyes. "Forgive Smeagol, Master."

Smeagol flung himself and the Precious off the chasm's edge and into the flames.