The fluid ran out under their boots, and the creature, shot through what amounted to its head, floated down to the deck and was still. Artemis grimaced. This was incredibly distasteful to him, but he didn’t know enough to argue with the Captain. As the thing died, alarm klaxons rang out, and the ship lurched to one side, throwing Claremont and Artemis against one of the engines.
They recovered, and ran back to the doorway where their pirates were engaged in battle with some Elfs that had found them. Thankfully the Elfs had expended most of their forces boarding the Highreach, and there weren’t many more defenders to try and stop them. Artemis did note that two of the pirates were wounded, bleeding out on the floor. There was nothing to be done about it, however, as they couldn’t help them without endangering themselves.
The group fought through back to the deck proper, the ship listing badly at this point, and they ran to the higher railing. Claremont looked over, laughed, put one hand on the rail, and leapt. Artemis was shocked, thinking the Captain had suddenly gone suicidal. He rushed to the railing and looked over, and saw Claremont swinging down one of the ropes attached to the harpoons. The other pirates followed suit, catching ropes in gloved hands and sliding down to the Highreach.
Thinking that this was an astoundingly bad idea, Artemis followed suit. He clamped his hat tight over his brow, the wind rushing past him as the deck came up to meet him alarmingly fast. Thrusting out a hand, he managed to catch one of the ropes and twirled around it, sliding down to the ship. He could feel the friction heating up his gloves to intolerable levels, and was glad that he wore them at all times. He would be losing skin right now if not for the well worn leather. Tightening his grip, he tried to slow his descent, but realized he wouldn’t be able to stop before hitting the deck of the Highreach.
He observed the pirates sliding down, reaching the deck, and letting go early to roll to a stop and come up more or less unharmed. Not having any better options at the moment, he let go about ten feet from the deck and tucked in, rolling as he impacted. He felt the deck hit his shoulder like a giant’s hammer, but a bad bruise was the worst he’d have. It might be his entire side that was bruised, but at least he didn’t hear any cracks as he landed. Coming up, he saw the pirates cutting the harpoon ropes, and Claremont waving his hat like a madman, laughing hysterically.
The Elfin ship was going down, and it was clear that it would hit hard. There was smoke pouring from the portholes, and Artemis could see Elfs jumping from the railings and floating down to the forest, where they would be unlikely to survive. He’d heard rumors of the monstrous beasts that roamed that forest, and Artemis didn’t envy the survivors. The ship crashed into the trees with an echo of snapping timbers and the cries of the hands.
He turned to look at the pursuing vessels, and saw that they were coming around broadside. Claremont was next to him at the railing, still laughing like a maniac as he watched his enemies fall to their doom. Artemis spied cannons popping out of the sides of the ships, and he tapped Claremont on the shoulder. When the diminutive man looked up, Artemis pointed at them and asked, “Are we out of range of those?”
Claremont’s eyes widened, and he stuffed his hat back down on his head, calling out, “All hands, evasive maneuvers! We’re being fired on!”
The cannons of the Elfin ships boomed, and Artemis saw the cannonballs flying through the air at them. They were most certainly not out of range. Many fell short, but several did not. One flew through the sails, tearing a great rent in them. Another hit the wheelhouse, exploding it to kindling. A final ball punched into the side of the ship, and Artemis heard a great crash that sounded suspiciously like important equipment. The ship lurched violently, and Artemis had to grab the railing to keep from being tossed over the side. Claremont was not so fast and went over, but Artemis caught him by the collar and hauled him back up to the main deck.
The Captain re-affixed his hat, looking indignant for a moment, then remembered that his ship was crippled and listing. He ran off, not sparing a moment for Artemis, and scurried belowdecks to check the damage. Artemis followed, and when they emerged on the engineering deck he saw that the cannonball had hit in one of the worst places possible. The magical engine had been blown completely through, and the cannonball was lodged in the other wall, damning them with its very existence. The tube containing the magical crystal was still intact, but it didn’t do them much good without the engine that transmuted its magical energies into the spells which kept the ship aloft.
Claremont turned to Artemis, saying, “This isn't. If we go down in this forest, it’ll be the end of us.”
“Isn’t there anything you can do?”
“That damned cannonball,” he pointed an accusing finger at the offending object, “just destroyed our main engine. We’d have to rebuild it from scratch, and we don’t have the time or parts right now! We need to prepare for what’s about to happen.”
“Is there any way we can float to the edge of the Forest Sea?”
The Captain shook his head, peacock feather waggling. “We’re days flight from the edge, there’s no way we can make it. But we might be able to get close.” He turned to one of the pirates, and told him, “Run to the wheelhouse and tell them to steer the ship as best they can towards the border of the forest.”
The pirate he’d addressed just shook his head, splaying his hands. “But the wheelhouse’s been destroyed, Captain. We can’t steer the boat!”
Claremont’s face fell as reality sank in on him. The Captain started making plans. He yelled out at his crew to get the grappling hooks and climbing spikes ready, and prepare to abandon ship. “Grab everything that isn’t nailed down, especially the food! We’ll need it if we’re going to make it out of this!”
“What are we doing?” Artemis asked.
“We’re going down, and we’re going to wind up in the Forest Sea. If we want to survive, we have to prepare while we still have time. You might want to see to your charge, Cromwell. Shame if something happened to her after all this.”
Artemis started at the mention of Ana, and ran off to find her. He came to the crew cabin, throwing open the door to their quarters. Ana was sitting on the bed, hands clasped to her breast in prayer. She started as Artemis barged in, asking, “What’s wrong?”
“We’re going down. Gather your things. We need to get ready for a rough landing.”
To Artemis’ surprise, she didn’t argue, didn’t protest fate, or lose her composure. She merely stood and began packing, taking only the essentials. He gathered up his own belongings, which were few, throwing them into a pack he could comfortably carry over one shoulder. They finished their preparations and made their way to the main deck.
The deck was in chaos. Pirates were running all over, gathering supplies, readying grappling hooks, preparing themselves for the inevitable. The ship was creeping closer and closer to the tops of the trees, and the taller ones were beginning to scrape the hull bottom. Captain Claremont came out from belowdecks, a great pack on his back, a grappling hook and rope in hand. He ordered everyone to the railings, telling them to wait for his signal.
Someone passed Artemis a hook, and he put his arm around Ana’s waist. She looked up in surprise, but he just winked at her and began searching for a good branch to throw his hook at, saying, “Hold tight, girl.” Ana put her arms around his neck and clasped her hands, holding on for dear life.
“Now!” Claremont shouted, and as one the pirates and passengers leaped from the sides of the Highreach, grappling hooks flying out to find purchase on branches. Several pirates lost their grip and fell screaming to the forest floor thousands of feet below. Artemis, still holding Ana by the waist, felt his hook catch. The rope went taut, the shock almost breaking his grip. As it was they merely slid for a few feet before coming to a stop, dangling above the forest floor that was out of sight in the darkness.
Ana’s arms were digging into his neck, and he knew he couldn’t take this much longer. He began climbing, one hand over the other, until after much straining he reached the branch. Artemis hauled them up onto the massive timber, Ana collapsing into a shaking heap, refusing to go anywhere near the edge. The Hunter was winded, and lay on his back trying to catch his breath. His arms burned, and he would need some rest before they could continue, wherever they were to go from here. He wasn’t so sure. He’d heard many stories about the Forest Sea, and none of them were good. Most of them involved people never escaping, or being devoured by the massive wildlife that stalked the trees. He said, more to himself than anyone, “This is a fine position to be in.”
Ana responded, a quaver in her voice, “W-what are w-we g-going to d-do?”
“Finding that damned pirate would be a start.” Artemis sat up and cupped his hands around his mouth, shouting, “Claremont! Where are you? Get over here so I can wring your filthy neck!”
“Calm yourself, Cromwell!” The call came from a neighboring tree, about thirty yards away. “We’re still alive, which means we can get out of this! We just need to make it to the ground! Is your charge all right?”
“She’s fine! How do we get to the ground?”
“The hell should I know? You ask like I’ve been in this forest before! Hang on, just sit tight! I’ll see if we can find you, then we can work out a way down!”
Artemis laid back down on the branch, figuring that it wasn’t worth arguing about until he could get Claremont in his hands where he could see him. Ana had lost some of her nervousness, and was now sitting up and looking more composed. She was, however, still sitting in the exact center of the branch, and not looking too keen on moving. At last the pirates found them, although it was a much smaller group than Artemis had been expecting.
When the pirates landed on their branch, not even bending it with their combined weight, Claremont, Artemis, and Ana sat down and began to strategize. The Captain didn’t seem too distraught that his force had been reduced by over half. When Ana questioned him about this, he responded, “Nothing we can do about it, lass. If we find them, we find them. If we don’t, then that’s just too damned bad.”
One of the pirates spoke up, “I saw a lot of ‘em lose their grips on their ropes, boss. Don’t think we’ll find too many.”
Claremont shook his head and shrugged. “Cost of doing business, lads. You all knew what you were signing up for. But we can make it out of this, we just have to be careful. I’d also recommend not making too much noise while we do. This forest has a reputation for nasty beasties.”
“Like what?” Ana asked.
“Well I’m not exactly in the mood for story time, but the forest stretches for leagues, and some of the trees are over a mile tall. Gods only know how far down it is to the forest floor. And certain stories have been told about giant creatures seen from above, but nobody’s been able to say whether that’s true or not. I’d prefer not to find out, myself.” Claremont sighed. “But we need to get out, and there are two ways of doing that. We can try to traverse the tops of the trees, firstly. That would be better for direction. It doesn’t appear that the sunlight reaches the forest floor.”
They looked down over the side of the branch, and he was right. The giant trees sank down into nothingness, just an utter blackness that was about the most foreboding thing Artemis had ever seen. He didn’t like the idea of trying to leap from tree to tree like some kind of ape, but he liked the prospect of the forest floor even less. In that lightless domain they would have to carry torches just to see their hands in front of their faces, and light down there would most certainly attract unwanted attention. Gods only knew what dwelt down there, but Artemis, and indeed the rest of the companions, didn’t want to find out.
“Or,” Claremont continued, “we can use our hooks and ropes and descend to the forest floor. We’d need to build a fire first, and make torches. Unless some of you boys brought a tankard or two of oil, I don’t think we’ll be able to do that just yet.”
A devastating crash distracted them, fifteen heads whipping around to the direction of the noise. There was a plume of smoke rising above the trees, and Claremont wiped a hand down his face in exasperation. “That’d be the Highreach,” he said. “Finding her final resting place. Or near enough.” The pirate Captain looked at his crew, disregarding Artemis and Ana for the moment. “Well boys, are you ready?” The crewmen all nodded at him, and he smiled, standing. He placed his ridiculous hat, which he’d somehow managed to keep through all this, firmly on his head.
Artemis got to his feet. “Wait, wait. Where are you all going?”
Claremont shot him a cocked eyebrow over his shoulder. “Isn’t it obvious? We’re going to the wreck of my ship. If nothing else I need to recover my crystal. There might be some leftover supplies there as well. The men couldn’t carry everything on their backs. I’d wager the ones who tried were them that fell.”
“But that ship could be on the forest floor by now!” Artemis protested.
“Oh, I doubt it. The branches of these trees seem fairly strong, don’t they?” He stomped the one they were standing on for emphasis. “Besides, the ship was traveling in the direction we need to go anyway. I don’t see a problem with stopping by and seeing if we can salvage anything useful.”
“I suppose that’s fair,” Artemis relented. “So shall we get started?”
“Don’t see why not.” Claremont turned to Ana. “Are you gonna be able to keep up?”
Artemis responded for her, “I’ll carry her if she can’t. We don’t want to be too hasty here. No reason to take risks we don’t need to.”
“Then let’s be off!” Claremont said, drawing his cutlass and waving it in the direction of the crashed Highreach.
This story is part of a series of stories about the professional monster hunter Artemis Cromwell. If you would like to read more of his story, here are the links to The Hunter (story 1), and The Gypsy Queen & The Ranger (story 2).