The group awoke gradually, relieving themselves and cooking breakfast so that they could get on to escaping this hellish land they found themselves in. Entwhistle tootled around the shack, attending to various projects he was undertaking, until breakfast was ready. Artemis finished his gruel and, setting his bowl and spoon aside, looked level at the old man.
“All right, Entwhistle. How do we get to the Kree temple?”
“Nice to see you’re all gung-ho about the idea, sonny,” the elder responded. “Don’t worry, I’ll show ya. We just need to get ourselves prepared first.”
Entwhistle began rummaging through his belongings, tossing food, torches, and other useful items at the pirates. They distributed the rations and light sources equally between them. After sharpening their blades and reloading their firearms, they donned their packs, and Entwhistle snatched up a staff with a wicked, hooked blade at one end. He looked around at the assembled pirates and their two passengers, nodded, and moved to the door. As they went out onto the porch, he turned and addressed the group.
“It’s a ways to the temple, but it shouldn’t take too long. Y’all look like strapping young lads. Just keep quiet, and you'll be fine.”
Claremont nodded and smiled, saying, “Don’t worry about us, old man. We’ll be right behind you.” He gestured with his torch. “Lead on.”
Entwhistle laughed at that. He seemed full of glee for a solitary, probably crazy old man who’d been alone in this forest for decades, and strode to the edge of the porch. He looked down, holding out his torch to get his bearings, and stepped over the edge. Ana gasped at his sudden drop, but they heard him calling from below them, and when they looked over the porch railing they saw him on a limb some ten feet below, waving at them to join him.
The pirates did so, one at a time, until the entire group was down on the branch. Claremont, Artemis, and Ana were the only ones left on the porch. Artemis looked to the young lady, eyebrow raised.
She gulped and fidgeted with her habit, her fingers finally finding the symbol of her God at her breast. "Just don't toss me this time."
"Here," he said, passing her a rope. She took one end, Artemis and Claremont the other. Together they slowly lowered her to the branch, where she was caught and steadied by the pirates. She looked a bit shaken from the height, but not unduly put out.
Looking up at them, she asked, "Are you coming, gentlemen?"
Claremont looked at Artemis, shrugged, and stepped over. Artemis followed suit, and once they were all on the branch Entwhistle organized the group and led them on. They went in a more or less straight line to the bottom of the trees, having to use Entwhistle’s ropes to get them to the forest floor. It was completely dark at this level, and there was little vegetation, and a thick carpet of dead leaves and debris from fallen limbs. The pirates stared around them in awe, wondering how they were going to find their way to the temple, let alone find their way back if they weren’t able to escape.
The old man seemed to have no doubts about his course, and led them with the authority of a longtime resident. He merely treated this area as though it were a bad neighborhood, and not one of the most dangerous places in the world. His torch bobbed along, and Artemis thought he could hear the old man singing under his breath. The Hunter shook his head, unable to believe this strange character they were relying on to save their lives.
It took them several hours, but eventually Entwhistle led them around the bole of one of the massive trees and stopped. He motioned Artemis, Claremont, and Ana to come near him, and they crowded around the old man. With a decrepit, bony finger, he bade them to keep silent, then brought them within sight of the entrance to the temple. The torchlight barely illuminated the structure at this distance, but it was enough for them to see the entryway.
The Kree temple was destitute, and it was evident that there had, at one time, been other buildings surrounding it. These were no more than rubble now, and the temple itself was in little better shape. There were no guards, and they thanked the Gods for their good fortune. But they had to work quickly. Their presence would not go unnoticed for long, and it wouldn’t do for them to be surprised by a patrol or raiding party on their way in. Entwhistle smiled sympathetically at the group.
“This is where I leave ya, I’m afraid,” he said.
“You mean you’re not coming in with us?” Claremont asked, his voice low.
“T'ain’t never been in m’self,” the old man replied. “Wouldn’t do you much good to have these old bones shuffling around underground with ya.” He patted the Captain on the shoulder. “You’ll find it sonny, don’t worry. And if ya don’t, I’ll be here. I’ll wait two days for ya, but that’s as long as I can stay in these parts and not get caught. If y’don’t come out in two days I’ll figure y’either found a way out, or got killed.”
Ana spoke up, “We thank you, good sir. Your help so far has been most valuable.”
“Just bein’ neighborly, my lady,” said the elder with an exaggerated bow. “Now y’all better get goin’ if you’re goin’. Them lizards don’t stay below ground, and y’don’t want ‘em sneakin’ up behind ya. Best of luck, now!” He waved cheerfully at them, and bounded back around the bole of the tree to find a secure place to wait for them.
“Are we ready, then?” Artemis asked the group. They all nodded, and he led them around the tree, torch in one hand, flintlock in the other. Claremont followed behind him, and after the pirate Captain came Ana. The rest of the remaining crew bickered over who was going to take up rear guard, and sorted themselves out as they approached the archway into the underground.
This place not only looked ancient, it felt it as well. There was an oppressive sense of age about the place, and as Artemis passed under the arch he felt the weight of the centuries land squarely on his shoulders. His mouth ran dry as he took in the passage before him, the crumbling stonework, the frescoes etched into the walls, the debris on the floor. There was a small antechamber inside the arch, enough for his torch to illuminate the entire thing. As he didn’t see any Kree inside, or whatever these degenerate creatures the Kree had become, he beckoned the rest in after him.
They followed, stepping lightly, keeping a sharp eye to the shadows and cracks in the wall where the torchlight couldn’t penetrate. Across the room from the entrance was a staircase going down. Artemis led the way again, gripping his pistol. His leather boots kept his steps soft, and Claremont and Ana were hardly making a sound, but he gritted his teeth and cursed under his breath at every jangle of cutlass, every jostle of pack, every oath the pirate crew made as they fumbled after them.
These men are going to be a liability, he thought.
Making it down the stairs without incident, they found themselves in a passage with many doors leading off in various directions down its length. Artemis shut his eyes tightly, clenching his jaw and growling a bit. “Nothing can ever be easy, can it?” he whispered.
“What’s wrong now?” Claremont asked him, putting his lips near to the Hunter’s ear.
Artemis gestured with his pistol, raising his eyebrows and smiling tightly as if to say, “What do you think, genius?”
“Ah,” the Captain responded, seeing the dilemma. Shrugging, he continued, “Well, we have two days. Let’s just pick one and go investigate.”
While Artemis brought up the obvious problems with this, and Claremont argued back about not having a better option, Ana had been investigating the frescoes on the wall in an attempt to decipher them. They were made in pictographs, so anybody with sufficient time would be able to figure out what they depicted. Unfortunately, this group of amateur archaeologists did not have that kind of time. She did notice one thing that caught her attention, and tapped Artemis on the shoulder. When this didn’t work, she grabbed him by the cloak and yanked him towards her, so that he almost lit his hat on fire tripping over himself.
The pirates tittered a bit at that, until he threw them a look fit to turn them to stone. Turning back to Ana, he asked, “What?” in a hissing whisper.
“These pictures,” she said, pointing. “I think we might be in luck, but you are more knowledgeable in these areas than I. This appears to be some of the Kree surrounding some… obelisk, or tower, and this next to it looks like a portal. See? There is a circle with trees and houses in it. And here,” she pointed to another fresco along the wall, near to the one they were looking at, “there are fewer Kree here, and here is another of those obelisks, at an obviously different location. And looking further along the wall,” she swept past him, enjoying herself, “the numbers of Kree at the original obelisk decreases, and the numbers at the other obelisk increase.”
“I think I see what you’re getting at, but this isn’t exactly a map, Ana. It doesn’t show us where the obelisk is, or even where it would take us.” Artemis shook his head. “And besides that, the obelisk might have been damaged, or destroyed, in the years since these carvings were made.”
Claremont had no real interest in following these wall carvings, and he looked over at his crew and shrugged. They shrugged back, having no idea what the two were discussing. These men were itching to get to exploring the temple. The faster they got this place mapped out, the faster they could find whatever it was they were looking for, or get out and back to Entwhistle’s shack.
“If I were a Kree…” Ana began.
“Which you aren’t,” Artemis cut in.
“But if I were,” she continued, “I’d put something like a teleportation obelisk somewhere important. Somewhere deep in the temple. I think we’ll have a better chance if we go deeper.”
Artemis rolled his eyes and said, “All right then, we’ll keep going and you pick out anything you think is ‘important,’ Ms. Kree.” He motioned to the Captain. “Claremont, with me. We’re going ahead.”
The pirates formed up behind them, and they crept deeper into the temple. So far no alarms had been sounded, and they hadn’t run into any of the degenerate Kree, and that was making Artemis very tense. He began sweating inside his gloves, and his grip on his pistol became white-knuckle. As he led them deeper into the temple, his eyes sought out every shadow, waiting for one of the lizard-men to leap out from an alcove and attack. They got to the end of the passageway, and found themselves at the tip of another staircase.
Not seeing any other way they could go that would feasibly lead them to their goal, not that they knew which way they were going, they began descending deeper. As they went, they passed statues covered in ancient cobwebs. Apparently there are bugs and arachnids even at this level, Artemis thought with a wry smile. The statues appeared every few feet or so, and as they continued Artemis began to notice that they weren’t as statuesque as he would expect. Normally statues in a temple were carved to represent the height of the people, in finery and armor. But these…
He came up short, and Claremont bumped into him, the Hunter’s hat narrowly escaping immolation for the second time.
“What now?” the Captain angrily growled, trying to keep his temper from raising his voice.
“We’re surrounded,” Artemis stated calmly.
“How do you figure?” Claremont asked, taking a tighter grip on his saber.
“Look at these statues. Notice anything wrong?”
“Well they’re dressed in rags, and their weapons are garbage, and…”
“And they’re breathing, Claremont.”
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.