Entwhistle’s shack wasn’t much, but it was large enough for all of them to fit in comfortably. Apparently the old man liked his space. When you’re the only person around for leagues I suppose you can build your house however you like, Artemis thought. The place was very cozy, with a fire pit in the center of the room, over which hung a pot in which some concoction was bubbling merrily to itself as the pirates filled out the benches. Artemis had to admit that it smelled delicious, though that might have been hunger talking.
Entwhistle checked the pot, replaced the lid, and said, “T’ain’t quite ready yet, lads. Give ‘er a little while.”
“Thank you for taking us in, Mr. Entwhistle,” Ana said from her seat near the fire.
They weren’t quite to the forest floor, Entwhistle had built his shack in a few sturdy branches, but below the canopy it was cool bordering on uncomfortable. The little old man turned to her and a grin split his beard. “D’oh, think nothin’ of it, young’in. Gets lonely out here. I’m grateful for the comp’ny. Lucky for y’all I made a lot of food today!”
Captain Claremont, hat on the bench next to him, sighed and said “This is all very nice, old man, but how do we get out of here?”
“Door’s right over there, sonny.” Entwhistle gestured vaguely toward the entrance, leading out to his porch and a good ten meter or so drop to the forest floor.
Artemis spoke up before Claremont could let his temper get the best of him and offend their host, “I think he means the forest, sir. How do we get out of the forest?”
“Oh, that!” The old man giggled. “Well, there ain’t no way out!”
Groans of despair rang out from the pirates. Grateful as they were to the old fellow, they didn’t relish the idea of staying in this forest until they were as old as he appeared to be. Claremont wiped a hand down his face, growling under his breath. He stood and walked over to Entwhistle, planted his hands on his hips, and leaned over the old man, saying, “There has to be a way out. You got in, after all, right?”
Entwhistle giggled again, and Artemis was beginning to suspect that he was a few spears short of a phalanx. “Sonny, I been here near enough my whole life! My ship crashed when…,” he trailed off, scratching his head and biting his lip, “I couldn’t have been more than fifteen summers. If there were a way out I’d’ve found it by now, I figure.”
“Surely we can simply walk, or travel the branches near the canopy,” Artemis reasoned, begging the old man for any way out.
Entwhistle looked at him, dubious of the younger man’s suggestion. “Well, I suppose y’could, but it’s a long way, and there’s a lot of dangerous creatures out there.” He laughed again. “Though I don’t have to tell y’all that! Y’already met one a them Hanumins, an’ there’s more where that’un came from!”
“Then the forest floor? Can we go that way?” The Captain was reaching the end of his patience, and looked about to strike the obtuse old man.
“Sure, if y’wanna get yourself lost and eaten!” The old man’s unhinged laughter rang out again. “There’s big ol’ monsters down there too, sonny! Most of ‘em wouldn’t think twice about gobblin’ you and your boys up!”
“There has to be some way out of this damned forest!” Artemis was also nearing the end of his patience. He stood and began pacing, one hand behind his back, the other rubbing his jaw as though he were trying to start a fire. The rest of the pirates were no real help in this. None of them were planners, or schemers, they were the ones who did what they were told.
Entwistle was about to check the pot again when a noise sounded from outside. Hissing, and the clashing of metal on wood. Artemis and Claremont spun to look at the door, drawing their weapons and wondering what fresh hell was about to be unleashed on them.
The old man noticed as well, and flung his spoon down on the floor, saying, “It’s them damned lizard-men again!”
He strode over to the door and flung it open with authority, walking out onto the porch as if some neighborhood child had thrown a ball through his window and broken a plate. Artemis and Claremont followed, and the remaining pirates trailed after them, wondering what in the gods' names the old man was going to do.
Entwhistle stomped to a covered structure, larger than a man, and tossed back the patchwork oilcloth, revealing a cannon. He looked to the pirates and said, “Bring them torches!”
They complied, and soon the porch and the area for several meters out was well lit enough for them to see Entwhistle’s unwelcome visitors. On another branch stood a group of ten creatures, shaped like men, but very obviously not. They were covered in scales, with clawed hands and feet, and high-domed heads coming up to points. They were dressed in tattered clothes, with rusted and ill-kept weapons. Their shields were makeshift, pieces of wood cobbled together with only the barest knowledge of metalworking used in their construction. But the most disturbing thing about them was their eyes.
Their eyes were giant, lidless orbs, taking up a significant portion of their faces, and as the light struck them they covered their faces and hissed in pain. Entwhistle laughed at this, snatching a torch from one of the pirates. He turned the cannon to face the primitive creatures, and put the torch to the fuse.
“Cover your ears!” he cried, plugging his own.
The crew clapped their hands over the sides of their heads just as the cannon fired, and Artemis watched as the shot spread out and many of the monsters were hit. Those hit by the old man’s grapeshot fell off the branch to crash to the floor below. Those spared scrambled quickly away into the darkness. Entwhistle’s laugh followed them, and he whooped and hollered, waving the torch above his head.
“That’ll learn ya!” he yelled after them. “Teach ya to come to my home causin’ trouble!”
Claremont looked at the old man with a newfound respect, and asked, “What did you hit them with?”
“Rocks, mostly,” Entwhistle replied with glee, patting the cannon. “Sarah don’t take too kindly to them types. She don’t say much, but when she does, you better listen!”
“Evidently so,” Artemis muttered, impressed.
Entwhistle lifted a bag and tilted the cannon up, pouring black powder down the cannon’s muzzle. He packed it in with a large stick with a cloth bulb at one end, then grabbed another bag and began pouring rocks into it.
Claremont inspected the cannon, he was quite fond of shipboard munitions, and this specimen had clearly come from an old ship. How the ancient being had dragged it this far into the forest by himself was beyond any of them, but they weren’t about to question providence at this stage. Claremont said, “That’s quite the antique you have there.”
Entwhistle dropped his rock bag and rounded on him, sputtering and flapping his arms. “You need to learn some respect, sonny!” He calmed himself and placed a loving hand on the cannon’s barrel. “That is no way to talk about a lady. Be a wonder if y’ever have kids when you talk about women like that.”
“Calm down, old man,” Claremont said, chuckling, “I meant no offense. I just haven’t seen this model on anything but the oldest ships, or in museums. I’m amazed it still works, is all.”
Entwhistle patted the cannon, saying, “Sarah’s still got a lot of spunk left in her! Makes mincemeat outta them damn lizards!”
Artemis had been staring at where the lizard-men were standing, wracking his brains. He was sure he’d seen these things before, but he couldn’t place them. Turning to the old man, he asked, “What are those creatures?”
Entwhistle started, then shrugged. He took out a cloth and began wiping the soot from the cannon, taking care to polish it to a gleam. “Oh they live here in the forest. That’s why I didn’t want you boys to go down to the forest floor. They’re everywhere down there. Got them a temple or some such a ways off. Don’t know why they keep bothering me. I been right neighborly to ‘em. But they never seem to get the message. Damn things come and go as they please, but Sarah here reminds ‘em why they need to respect their neighbors!” He patted the cannon again, finished with his cleaning and polishing.
That bit about them coming and going as they please jogged Artemis’s memory, and he snapped his gloved fingers. A grin appeared on his stubbled face, and he said, “Now I remember!” Turning to the group, he began to explain.
“Those creatures are the Kree. They once had a large empire, spanning the entire world. A cataclysm wracked their empire, and they degenerated into those pitiful savages you saw there,” he waved where the Kree had been. “But thanks to their former position, they’re in possession of some frightful technology, when one of them is enough of a throwback to remember how to use it. Now, of course, they’re mostly the savage monsters you saw in that tree there.”
Claremont asked, “Oh yeah? What kind of technology.”
“All kinds. The Kree Empire was an advanced civilization. At their height they’d discovered things even the Elfs have no idea how to manufacture. Most relevant for our purposes, they knew how to utilize teleportation.”
The Captain slapped his hands together and cried, “Ah ha! I knew there was a way out of here!”
“Not so fast, Captain,” Artemis held up a hand. “Entwhistle said they have a temple nearby. That’s all we know. There might not be anything we can use there, or it might be destroyed. Or worse, it might malfunction and kill us all. We are talking about thousands of years, here.”
“Well do you have a better idea?” Claremont flung his arms wide, tired of this seemingly endless debate.
Artemis took off his wide-brimmed hat and scratched his head. “No, I don’t,” he said. “But I do know that it’s foolish to go into a Kree temple when we have no idea what will be down there, or if we’ll even be able to use what we find! This is foolhardy, Claremont, and you know it!”
“What other choice do we have?” Claremont shouted. “Wander around the canopy until one of those giant monkeys eats us?”
Artemis was about to deliver a hot retort when a voice spoke up from the doorway of Entwhistle’s shack.
“I think we should go.”
This story is apart of the continued adventures of Artemis Cromwell, Monster Hunter, and his companion Ana the Priestess. If you would like to read the former entries in their tale, here are the links to The Hunter, The Gypsy Queen & The Ranger, and The Airship Pirates.
If you enjoyed this story, you can find many more like it here on my Steemit, or in the anthology Darkest of Dreams from DimensionBucket Media on Amazon. You can also find more of my work at my website, jimfear138.blogspot.com, including my weekly podcast and audiobooks I've produced. You can also throw me a tip if you like at Ko-fi.