They traveled carefully for several hours. It was a roundabout route, but thanks to the sun they could keep their direction relatively straight. They came to the first break in the branches and the pirates leapt to the branch below pretty as you please. Ana, still shivering at the height they were forced to travel at, couldn’t make the leap. Artemis nodded his understanding, and while she had her eyes closed, lifted her bodily and threw her down to the pirates. She screamed, eyes tight shut, tears flowing. Claremont and two other pirates caught her, settling her down on the branch. Artemis leaped down after her, and when she landed Ana began shouting at him.
“How could you, Sir Artemis! I could’ve died! You know I’m afraid of these heights!”
“Aye, but it was either that, or carry you on my back and risk both of us falling. This seemed safer. Besides, the pirates caught you.” He grinned at her.
“Oh, you horrible man!” she huffed at him, turning away and refusing to look in his direction.
They continued once she got to her feet, having to repeat that process several times as they came to the ends of branches. A few times they had to go up to get to the next branch, and Artemis carried her on his back as he had when they’d jumped from the airship. She still hadn’t forgiven him for throwing her without warning, but none of the pirates were willing to carry her, so Artemis was her only hope in these situations. Eventually they came around the bole of a tree and spied the Highreach.
The ship was in very bad shape. It was caught by several branches, forming what appeared from outside to be a sturdy platform. Ana sat on a branch near the trunk of the tree while the men boarded the crashed ship, not able to consider getting on that creaking and broken jumble of timbers and machinery. They crawled all over the ship, gathering anything that wasn’t broken. By some miracle there were several small tankards of oil that were unbroken, as well as several casks of liquor. Much to Claremont’s dismay, Artemis talked him out of bringing the spirits along. The last thing they needed was drunken pirates falling out of trees and taking valuable supplies with them.
There was still a good store of food, and this they divided up among the party. It was mostly dried meat and hard bread, travel rations of the utmost simplicity, and they didn’t expect to be stopping to cook very often until they were out of the forest. That could take anywhere from days to weeks to months, depending on how close to the border they were. They might have to do some hunting, and hoped that there were enough birds or edible plants growing this high up to keep everyone from starving.
While the rest of the pirates were doing this, Claremont and Artemis made a special trip down to the engineering deck to retrieve the magic crystal. The cradle was shattered, a mess of glass and warped metal. The crystal, however, was unharmed, and Claremont lifted it lovingly from the wreckage. It was about the size of a human hand, and he placed it in an interior pocket of his shirt with a reverence Artemis was surprised to see in the impertinent pirate.
They also gathered up as many weapons as they could. This included bullets for the pistols, swords, knives, and some of the men took a few harpoons. Claremont and Artemis were gathering up the last of the flintlock ammunition when they heard a crash and cry from outside.
One of the men shouted, “Captain! We’re under attack!”
Another scream resounded, and the two rushed from belowdecks up to what remained of the main deck. A monstrous hooting shook the trees, and when they emerged from the broken stairwell they saw what looked like a giant monkey, holding one of the crew in its massive paws. It raised the struggling pirate to its jaws and bit him in half, blood and entrails spilling down to the planks of the broken ship. The other men screamed and ran in all directions as the thing devoured their shipmate, some of them having the wherewithal to fire their rifles at the creature.
Its nostrils flared, and it dropped the lower half of the bifurcated crewman, beating its chest with its great paws. It shouted again, and Claremont and Artemis had to cover their ears for the sound. They nodded at one another and rushed in, Claremont firing with his revolver, Artemis running between its legs in an attempt to hamstring it with his bastard sword. The creature was distracted by the Captain’s shooting, and as his men rallied around him and began firing at the great beast, Artemis dove and rolled to come up behind it. He swung his blade at the thing’s Achilles tendon, severing it. The monster screamed, trying to turn on the Hunter.
It’s leg gave out, and it collapsed on the deck. Claremont’s men had reloaded and were firing again, putting the full force of their wrath into the creature’s face. The thing tried to stand again, and failed, falling again to the ruptured ship. Artemis had dodged out of the way of its fall, running around it well out of reach to rejoin the pirates. They heard a great cracking, and looked around in alarm as the ship began to tilt to one side.
“To the trees, men!” Claremont shouted, and they ran towards where they’d left Ana.
The giant ape tried to follow them, but when it shifted its weight the cracking redoubled, and the ship began to slide into the abyss. They managed to get to the branch before the whole thing collapsed, but only barely, leaping to safety as the deck fell away. They watched as the ape hooted and hollered, trying to come after them, then falling into oblivion as the entire ad hoc structure collapsed from underneath it.
Artemis wiped the sweat from his forehead with the back of a gloved hand, not believing what had just happened. In all his years of killing monsters, he’d never heard of giant apes. If these were the kinds of things that lived in this forest, getting to the border and escaping to Ashkian might not be as easy as he thought. He considered Claremont’s insistence on quiet, and thought the advice wise. He was about to suggest that they get as far away from this place as possible when a voice rang out behind them.
The voice was old, cracked from disuse, high pitched, and had a twang to it that Artemis had never heard in all his travels. It said, “Had some trouble with one a them Hanumins, didja?”
They turned slowly, and saw a wiry old fellow in tattered clothes standing next to Ana, hands clasped behind his back. His garb looked to be about sixty years out of date, and his beard looked like he’d been growing it for that length of time as well. It stretched down nearly to his waist, and his broken teeth shown through it in a grin. His face was wrinkled and weatherworn, but not unkind, and his eyes twinkled with a mischievous glint that Artemis wasn’t certain he much liked. His feet were bare, and looked about as tough as leather, and on his head he had a ridiculous straw hat with a wide brim. He began stroking his beard, chuckling to himself over some joke only he knew.
Artemis wasn’t inclined to trust this old man who’d appeared out of nowhere, and pointed his sword at him. “I’ll thank you to step away from the lady. She is under my care, and if you harm her, I will end you.”
The old man nodded sagely, looked from Artemis to Ana, and shuffled a few steps away from her. “That be enough, young’un?”
“A little further, if you please.”
“Kids these days,” the old man huffed as he shuffled again, moving several feet away from the young priestess. “Is ya satisfied now?” He flapped his arms out in an exaggerated shrug, sighing deeply.
“Better,” Artemis nodded, and lowered his sword. He did not, however, sheathe the blade, and placed his other hand on his brace of pistols, grasping one. “Now who are you and where do you come from?”
Claremont had taken up a position near Artemis, and was covering the old man with his revolver. His men formed up behind him, loaded their rifles quickly, and followed suit. After that giant ape had bitten one of their number in half, they were not about to take chances in this forest again. The old man saw this, but was nonplussed. He looked like nothing much bothered him, and if he lived in this forest for as long as he seemed to have, that was unsurprising.
“Oh, I’m nobody in particular. Name’s Entwhistle, if ya needs a handle to call me by.” The man grinned at them, his beard splitting to reveal his yellowed teeth. For all his shabby personage, he seemed amicable enough. “S’far as where I come from,” he spread his arms around, indicating the forest, “I been here long as I can remember. I gots some recollectin’ of a airship crash, but it’s been s’damn long ago I might as well a been born here.” He laughed, a thin, reedy sound that grated on Artemis’ nerves.
“I’m the old man a the forest, I reckon,” Entwhistle continued, “and I don’t means ya no harm. I just come to see what all that commotion was. Y’could hear it for miles around, no wonder that Hanumin done come an’ et up your friend.”
Ana spoke up, “I don’t think he’s dangerous. He appeared while you were in the ship and kept me company.” She smiled at the old man. “He seems a very kind old fellow.”
“I do what I can, missy,” Entwhistle chuckled. “But speakin’ a that big monkey, we should prolly be moseyin’ on. There’ll be other things comin’ after that crash, an’ we cain’t have them findin’ us ‘ere. Y’all are more’n welcome to stay at my place for a while, if Sarah don’t mind, that is.” The old man let off another reedy laugh, seeming very pleased with himself.
He began to toddle off, finding the edge of the branch and leaping down to a lower one on another tree. He was surprisingly agile, and the pirates marveled at his ability to do something that had caused them considerable trouble over the past few hours. Entwhistle turned to look up at them, and waved an arm, gesturing for them to follow him. He pivoted away and began walking off down the branch, not looking over his shoulder again.
Artemis sheathed his blade, and heard the pirates stowing their weapons as well. He turned to Captain Claremont and said, “Well, what do you think?”
The Captain rubbed his jaw and said, “I think that we have only half an idea where we’re going, no idea how to find food in this forest, and we’re completely clueless as to what kind of other monsters are lurking around here. The old man might be helpful, even if he does seem completely crazy.”
“That’s about where my analysis ended up,” Artemis agreed. “So we’re following him?”
“Unless you’ve got any better ideas, we’re following him.”
The group gathered up their valuables and supplies and took off after the old man. The pirates had little trouble following him to the lower branch, but Artemis had to let Ana ride his back down again. They landed on the branch, and found the group had already moved on. Straightening their belongings, Ana and Artemis followed the group following the old man into the darkness of night in the Forest Sea.
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).