The group turned to see Ana, framed in the doorway with the firelight giving her an almost angelic glow. Artemis’s eyebrows raised, and he turned to Claremont, pointing in anger.
“And that’s another thing! I have to consider my charge! I can’t just go dragging her into an ancient Kree temple!”
Artemis turned from the pirate Captain, for it was not he who spoke. He looked at Ana, who was staring at him, brow furrowed. She was straight-backed and composed, meeting his stare without backing down.
“I ask again, why not? If this has a chance to get us out of this forest, we should take it. I mean no offense to the good Mr. Entwhistle, but we cannot stay here forever. Traveling along the forest floor or the treetops is far too dangerous for a group so large, as we have established. The only way is the temple.” Ana arched an eyebrow and smiled, knowing she had them. “What do you gentlemen say?”
Claremont was nodding along with her words, this had been his plan since learning of the Kree technology, and he was only too happy to have someone to sway the Hunter to his idea. The pirate crew were beginning to murmur their assent as well. Artemis looked at Entwhistle, but it was clear the old man was too busy dreamily smiling at the first woman to pay him a compliment in decades, so he discounted this route for help. He sputtered, and tried to bring up objections, but it was no use. Any other plan for getting out of the Forest Sea had been discussed and discounted, and he had no choice.
But he didn’t want to put her in danger.
Striding over to the confident young woman, he took her hand, a bit roughly it must be said, and turning to the gathering he said, “We’ll be right back.” Dragging her inside Entwhistle’s shack, he closed the door and rounded on her, fire seeming to dart from his eyes. “What are you thinking?” he hissed.
“I’m thinking we need to get out of this forest.”
“But that place is dangerous!”
“Yes. And so is every other way we could possibly escape. But this might be shorter.”
“And if it’s not?”
Ana shrugged. “Then we come back and try a different way. It won’t be the end of the world, Sir Artemis.”
“But it might be the end of you!” he roared, much louder than he’d intended.
Ana’s hand fluttered to her breast, and a blush suffused her cheeks. “Sir Artemis, I know you worry about my safety, but we are already in danger. I also know telling you that you needn’t worry, that I am protected by my God, is futile. You’ll continue to worry. Because you are a good person.”
Artemis looked pained, clenching his jaw and closing his eyes tight. “Don’t say that, because I’m not. But you left Calpin because of me, and don’t pretend you didn’t. If we go down there, and something happens to you..." he struggled with the words. This was something he’d scarcely admitted to himself, let alone said out loud.
“It wouldn’t be your fault.”
Artemis gasped as if struck. He looked to her, uncomprehending. Of course it would be his fault. He was the reason she was out here, after all. She’d decided he needed saving and, despite his best efforts to get rid of her, had insisted on tagging along. Though he’d have to be tortured to admit it, and this was bearing close upon what he would consider torture, he wouldn’t be able to live with himself if harm came to her on his account.
Smiling gently, reaching out to take his hand in hers, she continued, “I chose to follow you of my own free will. This is what I believe my God has tasked me with, and I shall continue to see it through.” She laughed a bit. “Despite what you may think, you are my charge, not the other way around. Should anything happen to me, it will be because I chose to take you under my wing, not because you failed to protect a helpless girl.”
There were tears in Artemis’s eyes, but he was too transfixed by her to try to wipe them away. He wasn’t quite sure how to react to this, but it didn’t change the facts in his mind. He shook his head and swallowed the lump in his throat. “Ana, I can’t risk harm coming to you. I don’t know what I’d do if that happened.”
She laughed, just once, and smiled her benevolent smile down at him. “You will carry on. That’s all I or anyone else can ask of you. But right now the important thing is that we escape this forest. And to do that we have to investigate this temple.” She reached out and lifted his chin, and her blue eyes stared into his. “I will be fine. I’m a priestess of Arasil. You’ve already seen the power I can wield. These Kree are nothing compared to the power of my God.” She smiled at him again, closing her eyes. “Be more concerned for your own safety.”
Letting him go, Ana straightened, and said, “But this shows one thing for certain.”
Artemis coughed, bringing himself to his full height and wiping the tears that had so suddenly appeared from his face. “And that would be?”
She beamed at him. “That you are, in fact, the good person I think you are.” Twirling past him, she flowed to the door and said, “Let’s inform the pirates. I think they’ll be very happy about this.”
Throwing open the door she was greeted with a group of men who were trying, with difficulty, to pretend that they hadn’t heard what they’d just heard. She smiled at them, saying, “We’ve come to an agreement! We shall investigate the temple!”
The pirates cheered, throwing their hands up to the unseen canopy above. Captain Claremont clapped his hands together and rubbed them vigorously, grinning at the fact that his plan had been accepted. Entwhistle had been standing nearby, petting Sarah and whispering sweet nothings into the cannon’s barrel.
He turned as Ana made her announcement, and said, “Well that’s all well and good, but you can’t go now. No, no, can’t go now. It’s about to get dark, and it’ll be too dangerous out here. C’mon,” he waved his arms towards the door, “let’s all go back inside and have dinner. Then we can all get some rest. Those lizards won’t be back tonight, so we can all sleep with no worries.”
He led them back into the shack, got out a surprising amount of plates, bowls, and flatware for a man living in the middle of the wilderness, and they all ate. The food was marvelously good, supplanted by a few items from the crashed Highreach, and they spread out on the floor of Entwhistle’s shack to rest. The old man insisted on giving his bed, the only bed, to Ana, and when she realized the old man wouldn’t take no for an answer she lay down to rest.
Artemis, troubled by the path their adventure had taken, couldn’t sleep. He had propped himself up near Entwhistle’s bed to watch over Ana, but as he lay on the floor sleep continued to elude him. At last he gave up, and got to his feet. He took care that he didn’t disturb the multitude of pirates, and crept towards the door. With great care, he eased it open and stepped out onto the dark porch, bringing with him a torch so that he wouldn’t be in total darkness. As he got to the railing of the porch he heard footsteps behind him, and turned to see that Captain Claremont had followed him outside.
The pirate walked up next to him and stretched, asking, “Couldn’t sleep either, eh?”
Artemis merely growled in response. He didn’t want to have this conversation, least of all while he was this tired but unable to relieve it. He leaned onto the railing, staring off into the depths of the Forest Sea, and sighed.
Claremont clapped him on the shoulder, much to Artemis’ dismay, and said, “It’s okay, I understand. You’re worried about the girl. But going near the canopy, or along the forest floor is far more dangerous. She’ll be fine, and we’ll get out of here. One way or another.”
Sighing, the Hunter didn’t break his gaze, staring down the darkness. “And if the temple turns out to be a dead end?”
Shrugging, Claremont said, “Then we come back and regroup. We go for the canopy and make our way west, away from the mountains. Eventually we’re bound to get out.”
“And how many of your men are you willing to sacrifice for that, Captain?”
“All of them.” Claremont had responded without the least hesitation. “We either die in this forest, or we escape. There isn’t any in between here, Hunter. This temple gives us hope. Without it, we might as well stay here with that crazy old man and rot for the next few decades.”
Artemis sighed again. “I suppose you have a point.” He stood and turned to face the pirate. “But if any harm comes to her, I’ll take it out of your hide. This was your idea, after all.”
The Captain raised his hands in a placating gesture and said, “Hey, fair enough. I understand you’re attached to the girl. But we’ll get you, her, and the rest of us out of here. We did promise you safe passage to Ashkian, after all.”
Artemis barked a short laugh. “This is hardly what I’d call safe passage, Captain.”
Shrugging, Claremont said, “Well, unforeseen developments, and all that. You can’t account for every eventuality.”
Sighing at this, not feeling the need to say any more, Artemis slumped over the porch railing and stared out at the forest. After a moment he heard a great, soft booming. His hand went to his weapon, as it sounded as if it were getting closer. Claremont drew his saber and revolver, looking around in the darkness as if whatever it was might come out ready for a fight. The booming got louder and louder, and eventually at the edge of the torchlight Artemis discerned a shape.
It was furred, and immense, towering above the tiny house built in the arms of these trees. Artemis realized he was looking at the thing’s chest, and trailed his gaze up to see two large, glowing orbs staring down at them. The creature bent down to investigate them, and as it did they got a better look. It had a long muzzle, white and brown furred, and a great growth of antlers sprouting from its immense head.
It was a deer, Artemis realized. A gigantic deer.
The creature was larger than anything either of the two had seen in their lifetimes, and its massive head bent down to the level of the porch. Its eyes, like pools large enough to swim in, took them in, and it snuffed at them, getting their scent. They froze, not willing to move for fear the thing would demolish Entwhistle’s cabin. At last the great beast raised its majestic head, losing interest in them, and began to wander off into the depths of the Forest Sea. They listened to the booming of its footsteps as it left, wondering what kind of predator might hunt that kind of game.
Claremont whistled, saying, “This place is amazing.”
“Maybe a little too amazing,” Artemis responded, rising from the railing and stretching. “Come on,” he started walking back towards the door. “Let’s try to get some rest.”
Claremont followed him in, and they crept around the pirates to their bedrolls, laying down and falling into a deep sleep that neither of them thought they would be able to achieve in such a place. But in its own way, this forest had a kind of peace to it, and they found it easier to rest after seeing the forest in its own after the day’s conflict.
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.