Ard Patrinell crouched behind the steel wall that was his hiding place, watching the Druid Walker crawl deeper into the maze. Ahren Elessedil was huddled to his left, Joad Rish on his right, and the three Elven Hunters behind him. There was something desperately wrong with all this—a trap, he felt, but nothing seemed to happen. Walker continued on, unobstructed, making a faint shuffling sound as his robes brushed against the metal floor.
A glint of iron caught Ard's eyes, and without warning, bolts of fire hurled themselves at the Druid, trying to cut him apart. He saw people from the other groups rush to Walker's aid, only to be burned themselves. But Walker continued on, shouting in vain for everyone to stop following him, stepping past the walls which had begun to move until he reached the obelisk in the center of the maze. The fire threads continued to try to hit the Druid, but by then, he had disappeared, leaving the deadly bolts to strike at the others—including the people that were still fixed in their hiding place.
The former Captain of the Home Guard saw another wall that they could hide behind, and pointing at it, he shouted, "Run!" before sprinting towards it. He heard the three Elven Hunters close behind him, and further back, the Elven Prince and the Healer were trailing. Fire on metal created smoke, filling the square, reaching towards their small group. There were screams now, not only from the fire, but from something else as well. Ard Patrinell felt Ahren stiffen beside him, gasping. "What is it?" he hissed, before he, as well, realized what was coming. Creepers! The word echoed in his mind, a promise of what was to happen to them all. The scrape of metal sounded behind him, and they all turned, bringing out their weapons in the same movement.
A creeper materialized from out of the gloom, one gleaming pincer instantly swiping down onto the Elven Hunter to Ard's left, leaving him a bloody mess, but still somehow alive. Joad Rish rushed to his side, seeing if he could in any way aid him, looking to the Elven Prince for help. Ard and the other two Elven Hunters rose, bringing their weapons up defensively, protecting the prince and the healer.
Clawed pincers crashed down from out of nowhere, crushing yet another Elven Hunter, killing him instantly. Rage welled up inside Patrinell, and he began to fight back, two people, made out of flesh and blood, against so many, indestructible machines created from metal. Somehow, Ard and the other Elf withstood the attack for a moment, forcing them back, blocking the pincers that sought to crush them. The haze hindered their view, luring them towards certain death had they not been Elves.
Then, suddenly, shockingly, the creepers froze in place, leaving Ard to look around. What he saw was horror. The Elven Hunter by his side was injured in a dozen places, half-dead. Joad Rish, the Healer, was still hovering over the first fallen Elf, motioning for Ahren to help him, when a fire thread lanced out from the deadly maze, striking Joad's head, covering everything with a sheen of red. Ahren's scream pierced the air, a haunting noise, chilling to the bone. "Ahren!" Ard shouted, but the Elven Prince had already dropped his sword and fled, experiencing a nightmare that had come true. Patrinell yelled out his name again, but was only greeted by the sound of pincers coming closer.
Stupid! Ard Patrinell had let his guard down, and in doing so, might have foolishly given up his life. He dredged up all his battle tactics from the deepest corners of his mind, fighting to stay alive. A pincer reached for him, and he futilely tried to force it back, metal against metal, but to no avail. The former Captain of the Home Guard could feel the cold claws wrapping around him, knowing that he was fighting a losing battle, still stubbornly hacking at the creeper. Strangely, the metallic claws did not squeeze him to death, but carried him with an unusual gentleness. As if it didn't want to hurt him. As if it wanted him to live. But why…?
A greenish haze appeared around him, making his eyelids droop. He fought to keep them open, to see what was happening, trying to determine what was going on.
Don't close your eyes!
But the haze was persistent, and in the end, Ard Patrinell fell asleep, still cradled within the creeper's pincers.
When the former Captain of the Home Guard woke up, all he saw was a deep, persistent black. Shaking his head wearily, he realized that his eyes were still closed. He tried to open them, but they stayed shut, as if glued together. Open up! he screamed at himself, not thinking of how ludicrous it sounded. But his eyes remained closed, and try as he might, Ard Patrinell could not open them. There was an oddly detached feeling to his body, as if he wasn't connected to the rest of himself. That's ridiculous, he chided, but remained unsure. Something seemed to be surrounding him, a liquid, perhaps, and he tried to determine what it was. He wondered how he was still alive if there was no oxygen to draw on. Maybe I am dead, he thought, but I just don't know it.
He decided to use the time to think. While his eyes were closed, he was defenseless anyway, and thinking would hopefully make him understand better.
Ard's mind drifted. He thought back to the time when Walker Boh had first arrived in Arborlon, seeking able people to go with him to find the lost treasure. Helplessness welled up inside him as he recalled the reason for why he was to go. Kylen Elessedil had wanted to get rid of him, blaming him unfairly for Allardon Elessedil's assassination. In a way, Ard did believe himself responsible, turning taciturn and sullen, but he knew it could have not been prevented. Kylen had not announced it out loud, but Ard could read it in the way the new king looked at and acted towards him. The former Captain of the Home Guard had been stripped of his title, reduced to next to nothing in the eyes of the ruler and the Elves. But the Elven Hunters and Trackers accompanying him on the Jerle Shannara still believed in him, or at least a few of them, and he took heart in that. He had trained them still on the long voyage, keeping them in fighting condition, doing his best to make sure they would be prepared when they reached their destination. Ard had trained Ahren Elessedil as well, the king's brother, the Elf who was so unsure of himself. He had fought with him when the sun was highest, making it a point to the other distrustful Elves that he was not favoring him, that now because he was not a Captain of the Home Guard he no longer had any close ties with the prince.
But Patrinell was still friends with the youngest Elessedil, acting as his mentor and companion, using their break time to talk about things that had been, purposely avoiding the present and the future. He recalled the battle between himself and the creepers, seeing in his mind Ahren throwing down his sword and running away, haunted by images of a headless Joad Rish. It hurt Ard deeply to see his student fleeing from the face of danger, abandoning his friends when they had needed him most. Ahren's scream still pounded in his ears, a scream that spoke of terror, fear, frustration, and anger. He wondered suddenly what had become of Ahren Elessedil since he had fled, then almost instantly afterward wondered what had become of the others from the airship.
Walker Boh. Ard decided to think of him, the leader of the group, possessed of Druidic magic and powers. He was willing to bet that no one had seen the Druid since he had disappeared behind the obelisk with the curious red lights. He was an enigma, a person that could not be trusted easily, always shading the truth. Ard remembered the way Walker's pale face had tightened upon entering the maze, a mask of determination. He believed that the Druid would survive. Patrinell had seen some of the magic before, and he thought that it would get Walker past whatever warded Castledown.
His mind shifted again, jumping from topic to topic, finally landing on one, a silver-haired girl with purple eyes. Ryer Ord Star. It seemed clear enough as to why she had come. The girl was a seer, channeling her visions to Walker. Walker and Ryer—they had seemed very close, ever since the poison of Shatterstone's plants had damaged the Druid. From what Ard had heard, the seer had used her skills as an empath to relieve Walker of the pain, healing him better than Joad Rish could have done. It was amazing as to what a mere girl could do, how she had saved the Druid from the lethal poison. Ryer Ord Star stuck like glue to Walker, a dog following its owner, always there for him. The last Ard had seen of her was when the first fire thread had lanced out, making Ryer shriek in alarm, sprinting towards the Druid in a futile attempt to save him. He remembered a boy following…
A boy. Bek Rowe. He perhaps was one of the greatest enigmas of all, even though it didn't seem like it. The reasons for his coming were still unknown to Ard and the rest. He was the cabin boy, a person barely at manhood, nothing marking him as anything special. Yet he was the boy that had guided their airship past the Squirm, the grinding pillars of ice that had threatened to crush them all. The Jerle Shannara's cabin boy had used some sort of magic in navigating their ship safely through, though what had been used was uncertain. The boy had also retrieved the third key from the large island of Mephitic, seemingly alone and unaided, when no one else from the group had been able to do so. Bek had made quick friends with Ahren and Rue, Elven Prince and Rover, two people on opposite ends of the spectrum. Walker had mentioned that Bek had been adopted, that he wasn't really a Leah, but someone else altogether.
Which would in turn mean that the Highlander wasn't really his cousin. Quentin Leah. Besides the Druid himself, Quentin was the only one with any palpable magic, the wielder of the magical Sword of Leah. Everyone had seen it in use before on the island of Flay Creech, when Walker and Quentin had descended the ship in an effort to retrieve the first key. The giant eels that Ryer Ord Star had seen in her visions had attacked, and the magic had flared to life, fighting them off, until the crew of the Jerle Shannara could pull them up to safety. The thought made Patrinell's mouth twitch upward in a small smile. If he hadn't been training Quentin on the long voyage, the Highlander would have died on Flay Creech. At the beginning of the journey, Quentin had been a nearly hopeless swordsman, but practice and training from Ard had shown a dramatic improvement in his skills. He had been a good student, eager to learn how to wield his sword properly. His newly acquired skills and the magic would probably save him later, for the Highlander had a brash determination and courage, two things that would help. Ard had not seen him at all since they had separated.
He remembered the Rovers, who had been left on the Jerle Shannara to act as guardians for the ship. Rovers were the best at flying airships, whether anyone admitted it or not. Ard thought of the captain and his first mate. Redden Alt Mer and Rue Meridian. They were brother and sister, both with flaming red hair and diverse personalities. The former, everyone claimed, was the best captain in the world, aided by his skills and his luck. The claim seemed true, or at least some of it. He had gotten their airship through numerous storms, had managed to navigate it through the Squirm with Bek's help, and had even once saved Walker and the Elven Hunter Kian from the poisonous plants of Shatterstone by pulling them up without getting hurt himself. That was Alt Mer—the man who could get past anything. Rue was very similar to him, a little sister looking to her big brother. She was known as Little Red, while Redden Alt Mer was known as Big Red. But there was nothing little about Little Red. She was a fierce young woman, charging into everything, as wily as Rovers went. Rue had constructed a wall around herself, blocking everyone from her with the exceptions of Big Red and Bek Rowe. She seemed to like the mysterious cabin boy, which surprised Patrinell. And although she was a girl, everyone knew that Rue was every inch as dangerous as her brother was. They were easygoing people, but when threatened would have a dagger at the would-be threatener's throat. That was how they had stayed alive all this time.
There was a whirring noise suddenly, and Ard Patrinell cut short his thoughts, listening intently. The former Captain of the Home Guard realized that during all this time, his mouth had been open as well, like a fish. He tried to close it, but like his eyes, it was frozen. For the first time since he was captured, he wondered in alarm what was to become of him. If whatever caught him had wanted him dead, he would be so already. Maybe it wanted information. Maybe it wanted to use him.
The thought made him cold. Use him. It was a frightening thought, and Ard quickly pushed it out of his mind, but it lurked still within the corners of his consciousness, a snake ready to strike.
Ard listened on. The whirring noise sounded again, a bit louder this time. What is it? he thought, but could not place it. It wasn't anything familiar to him.
Something snapped without, and Patrinell's eyes opened, finding himself looking at a small room with complex machinery whirring all around. Old World technology, he knew, but the fact did not help. There was a wall of something around him—glass, he thought—and apparently there was no way out. He tried to concentrate his hand on touching the glass, to feel it, but nothing responded. Bubbles rose around him, confirming the fact that he was submerged in some kind of fluid, still living somehow.
Ard cocked his head slightly, trying to turn his head, when something else caught his eye. It was laying on a metal platform, still and unmoving, and it made him want to choke.
It was a body he recognized, headless and with only one arm.
Ard Patrinell panicked then, seeing something that was part of him, yet wasn't at the same time. The glint of his dagger could be seen in his boot, where he had tucked it upon leaving the airship. His sword was sheathed somehow, firmly in its leather scabbard, seemingly untouched. The arm that was still there, his left arm, was straight, at his body's side, its fingers clenched in a fist.
No! It can't be!
Ard studied the body, trying in vain to find a way to prove to his eyes that it wasn't his own. But he saw the golden medallion that had marked him as a Captain of the Home Guard, shining brightly, its single blue ribbon hanging limply against his clothes.
Even the clothes were the same, the dark green cloak that had shielded his brown tunic and pants, camouflage for the forests. The soft leather boots were still on his feet, bloodied from the battle. Where the right arm would have been the sleeve lay flat against the table, having nothing to fill it up. Blood soaked that sleeve, its source the part where the arm connected to the shoulder. There was blood at the tunic's collar, as well, oozing out of the stump of a neck. Nothing was being done to stop it, and Patrinell had the feeling that there was no need to do so. His body had died long ago.
What could have done this?
He closed his eyes against the grisly sight, trying to sort things out in his mind. How could his head still function, the brain, eyes, ears, nose, and mouth, without his heart? It didn't seem possible. But from what he had seen, the Old World technology could do nearly anything.
That would mean that whatever operated these things, these revolving wheels, these mysterious probes, would be from the Old World as well, something that had survived for over a thousand years. Ard no longer disbelieved. If the thing that had caught him could do this, then it could certainly have lived for a very long time.
But where was his right arm? Patrinell forced himself to open his eyes again and to scan the silver room.
He saw it, suspended in a glass case separate from his, floating in a clear fluid, fingers moving frantically, muscles tensing then relaxing.
So it was still alive. Strangely enough, there was no hint of blood in the case, no leakage at all. Somehow, the blood had continued to circulate within his arm, never leaving its boundaries.
What could have done this? Ard Patrinell asked himself a second time. What?
As if anticipating his question, something flashed inside of him, a single word emerging from out of the darkness. He grabbed at it, desperate for any explanation, snatching at the word and then holding it.
He had begun to look around the room then, searching for an escape route that had to be there, when he felt the eyes on him. No, not eyes, he corrected himself. It was something that could see, but not with eyes. It used something else. It was Antrax, and it was capable of anything.
Ard stopped moving his head around, waiting for the mysterious sight to go away, focusing his eyes on a single rotating wheel. The wheel had jagged edges, made out of metal, and at its center was a blinking red light. It could not have been fire. Fire gave off a yellowish light, and did not blink. This was decidedly not yellowish. More Old World technology, he thought wearily. Ard was sick of it. Old World technology was dangerous. It could move walls around effortlessly. It could emit different colored lights. It could find a target and destroy it with fire. It could control creepers. It could kill people without a second thought. And worst of all, it could steal someone's soul and never let them die. That, he sensed, was what had been done to him. Antrax was a disgusting, heartless thing, and it did not care about anything else besides itself.
Patrinell forced himself to look at the ruins of his body, the flesh already beginning to decay, the blood turning slowly black. He wondered why it hadn't been cleaned up yet. Ard turned away.
Suddenly, small doors opened all around the perimeter of the room, and little metallic things filtered in. Everything seemed to be made of metal around here. Sweepers, he thought on a whim, naming them just as Ahren Elessedil had done, far away. Some mopped up the blood, while others dragged his body from the counter and through the largest opening in the wall. They scrubbed the floor and table until it shined, and it looked as if nothing had ever been there at all.
No! the former Captain of the Home Guard thought frantically. He didn't want his body to be dragged somewhere where he could never see it, much less reach it, again. Ard stared at it, memorizing every detail, from the badge that had marked him as a Captain to the dagger in his boot. He could feel tears welling up in his eyes, but the droplets quickly mingled with the rest of the clear liquid. He blinked once, and then his body was gone, towed from the platform and through the dark opening to somewhere else. A dump, probably. After the last sweeper skittered out, all the doors closed. Patrinell felt all hopes of escape slowly leak away from him. He was doomed.
Antrax was still watching him, watching him without eyes, and he continued to fix his gaze on the revolving wheel. Ard Patrinell did not know why Antrax was waiting to do whatever it wanted to do to him, making him then wonder what it had in store for him in the first place. Ard closed his eyes, shutting out everything but Antrax's inexorable presence. He did not want to think about it. He was almost frightened to.
Not almost frightened, he reasoned, changing his thoughts. I am frightened.
For the first time in Ard Patrinell's life, he was afraid.
Ard opened his eyes again after feeling the presence of Antrax leave. He wondered why he was not tired. He blinked, staring fixedly at the metal platform where his body had once been, and tried to think things out.
Antrax clearly wanted him for something. Or at least, it wanted some of him. And that was only his head and sword arm. The question was why.
He thought suddenly of the creepers, made of flesh and metal, and shivered inwardly. The thought of himself being grafted onto bits and pieces of metal and used as a killing machine scared him. Ard had never heard of a creeper with human parts before. It was a disgusting thought.
Patrinell turned his gaze to his right arm, floating in a glass container to his left, fighting down the feeling of repulsion that swept through him. He concentrated on it, trying to get it to respond to him in some small way. Nothing happened. His arm and his head were two separate things now.
He stared at the end of the arm, where it should have connected to the shoulder, when he noticed the tubes. They were clear and small, and Ard would have missed it if not for his keen Elven eyesight. There were about five of them, and all went straight into the arm, plunging into the bone and blood. He had no idea as to why they were there. He had no idea as to anything. Ard felt helpless, trapped in some glass container. How long would he stay like this? Was he just something for Antrax to look at?
He quickly stemmed the flow of questions, not wanting them to overwhelm him. He had no answers to them. All Ard knew was that he was here, alone with Antrax, and quite possibly the only person still alive. If you could call it that. He imagined that it would be rather easy for Antrax to kill off everyone else.
All of a sudden, the doors from which the sweepers had come in through opened again, gleaming rectangles of steel rising up against the wall, screeching as metal rubbed against metal. Odd-looking things with precise, sharp pincers scurried in, wheels creaking on the floor. They were bigger then the sweepers, but Ard supposed that they could still be called that. Some of the larger sweepers, Patrinell realized in horror, had surgeon probes. Antrax would wait no longer. It was going to do something to him. Something horrible.
One of the sweepers, this one with a thin, cylindrical body and two slender hand-like things protruding from it came up to him. It was carrying something that looked strangely like an eyedropper. Without warning, the sweeper rose, getting taller, smaller cylinders popping out from inside the biggest one, until it reached the rim of Ard's glass case. It's going to set me free! Ard thought in elation, his mind so desperate for freedom that he had considered something like that. Then rational thoughts took over again, and he discarded the possibility. He craned his neck upwards, trying to see what the sweeper was doing. Ard saw the the thing it was holding—which was indeed an eyedropper—clearly now through the fluids that surrounded him. There was some sort of a green liquid in there, bubbling slightly. He watched the drops fall down, one by one, painstakingly slow. Then finally the eyedropper was emptied, and the sweeper shrank to its normal size again. Ard cocked his head. What was that green liquid? He ignored it, not feeling anything happen to him yet, and looked at the other sweepers. They were laying out metal pieces at one end of the platform, organizing them carefully. A few of the parts looked roughly like human parts. Fear surged within Ard Patrinell, and he once more looked away, remembering the green liquid again. He didn't think that it would be used to kill him. It seemed pointless. After all, what was the point of dissembling his body and keeping some of it alive when Antrax wanted to kill him? It could have easily done so when the creeper had caught him.
But Ard wanted to die. He felt so miserable, being confined in a glass box not doing anything. And Patrinell had a feeling that it hadn't reached the worst point yet. There was more to come. Much more.
And when it came, he would be helpless, slave to Antrax, spending all of eternity in a cage.
A greenish veil fell over his eyes, causing him to blink sleepily. Ard identified it as the liquid that the sweeper had dropped into the case. All his senses became strangely numbed, fading away slowly yet surely, robbing him of his touch, his sight, and his hearing. He strained his ears, trying to fight against it, attempting to make out the sharp clatter of the sweepers, and failing. When his hearing disappeared, his sight began to as well, the gray and silver tones becoming duller with each passing second, getting darker and darker until it faded away to black. The feel of the fluids surrounding him vanished.
I hope this is temporary, Ard thought rather ironically. But maybe—if I'm lucky—this is death.
In seconds, the former Captain of the Home Guard was asleep.