“Look.” Artemis pointed to the one nearest them, and as the Captain observed it under the torchlight, he noticed that its chest was indeed rising and falling slowly. So slowly that anyone would’ve thought it was a corpse, or a stone statue.
“So what do we do?” the Captain hissed. He was used to combat aboard an airship, not in the cramped corridors of an underground temple full of lizard men.
“We keep going. Very quietly. And pray to whatever Gods you worship that they don’t wake up. Pass the word back. Stealth is our greatest ally now.”
The Captain whispered the news back to Ana, who transmitted it down the line. If the walk down the staircase was tense before, it was positively thrumming with nervous energy now. Artemis was certain one of the pirates would screw something up, trip into one of the statues, maybe, but there was nothing for it other than to continue on. They inched down the stairs, praying the light from their torches wouldn’t wake up any of these creatures.
They had been traveling in this fashion for several minutes, when one of the pirates screamed in agony. The three in the lead wheeled and saw that one of the formerly hibernating Kree had stabbed the rearguard through the torso. Looking around, they saw that all of the creatures were beginning to move. What they had thought were statues took on hideous, hissing, soul-shaking life. Another pirate was taken by a stab to the gut, and the rest began to panic.
“Follow me!” Artemis shouted, and led the group on a mad dash down the long staircase. With a swiftness that the eye couldn’t follow, he holstered his pistol and drew his sword, stabbing at the creatures that hadn’t woken up yet as he ran by. “Claremont! Left side! Like me!”
The Captain saw his aim, and followed suit, striking at the alcoves on the left side of the staircase as they ran down. Together they must have slain thirty or more of the creatures as they led the group down, but they couldn’t get them all, and there were still all the ones they’d passed by believing them to be innocent statues. The pirates followed their lead, but they were far less competent than their leaders, and the Kree were waking up much faster now. Soon they would have a veritable horde chasing them.
At the bottom of the staircase they came to a wide room, stretching out farther than the torchlight could cover, and turned a few meters from the staircase to make a stand. The pirates ran into them, almost bowling Ana over. Artemis passed her his torch, telling her to hold it aloft so they could see. The pirates regrouped quickly, this kind of fight was more their style, and they stood ready to face the creatures. Cutlasses and chainmail gleamed in the flickering torchlight, and the men set their faces and prepared to meet the enemy.
Down the stairs they came, two at a time into the large room, and the pirates cut them down as swiftly as they appeared. Despite their best efforts, these Kree were fierce fighters, and managed to make a beachhead at the bottom of the stairs. More of them poured into the room, and the pirates were soon outnumbered.
Artemis dodged a clumsy swing from one of the creatures and met it with a cross slash that opened up its guts. They spilled out onto the floor, and the creature hissed its dying breath and fell dead. Artemis drew a pistol with his free hand and shot one across the room that was about to stab Claremont in the back as he was defending some of his beleaguered crewmen. The Captain saw the monster go down, and nodded his thanks before rejoining the fight. Several pirates fell in the conflict, but they gave better than they got.
At last the tide of monsters stopped, and the group could take an accounting of themselves. There were six pirates still alive, but Claremont had taken a glancing blow during the melee that had opened his forehead. He was lucky to be alive, but they didn’t have the time for Ana to treat his wounds. There was an echoing noise of stomping feet coming from all around them, and they would soon be thrown into another fight if they didn’t act soon. The echo was making Artemis sweat, and he couldn’t tell from which direction the enemy was coming. A hissing sound began to build, and soon it was as loud as the footsteps.
Artemis holstered his pistol and ran over to Ana, still holding the torches high. He snatched his from her and yelled out, “Which way?”
Ana drew back, stammering, “What?”
“Which way do we go, girl? We can’t run around forever. Pick a direction! We’ll follow!”
The priestess looked around, fidgeting with her holy symbol, until a thought struck her. She turned and began scanning alcoves. Her eyes lit on one across the room that held another staircase, and a voice spoke into her mind. She flung out her hand, pointing, and screamed, “That one!”
Artemis turned and saw where she was pointing, nodded at her, and told her, “Stay behind me.” Turning to the pirates, he called out, “With me! We’ll get out of here yet!” and ran off down the passage Ana had indicated. The pirates followed, rushing to get out of the room before what sounded like an entire army of Kree found them.
The Hunter led them down the stairs, taking them two at a time. This staircase was free from statues, and he sent up a prayer to the girl’s God in thanks. The stairway opened up onto another large room, this one littered with stone benches. Ana gasped and pointed, calling out, “Sir Artemis! There it is!”
He followed her gaze and saw a great stone obelisk, at least ten feet in height, sat upon a dais in the center of the room. It was carven with frescos top to bottom, and at the tip there was a golden cradle in which sat a jewel the size of a man’s torso. The jewel gave off sparks and light, and Artemis liked the look of it not at all. But it didn’t appear to be damaged, and it was their only way out.
“Let’s go!” he shouted.
At the same moment, a pirate cried, “They’ve found us, sir!”
Turning to look at the entrance to the room, Artemis could see the Kree mustering at the door. They seemed wary of the torchlight, as these had just awakened, but he knew that wouldn’t keep them away forever. He shoved Ana forward with a, “Go, girl!” and they ran towards the obelisk, the pirates and the Kree close behind.
Ana didn’t know how she was going to activate this crystal, but as she neared it she felt the tingle of magic. It was an electric feeling all over her body, and it only got stronger with proximity. It was cold and alien, not like the power of her God that suffused her being with warmth and love. But as she got closer she noticed that there were sparks forming around her.
She ran up the steps to the dais and was struck by a bolt of cold, silver lightning. The world warped around her, and she felt her gorge rising. Without warning reality dropped away from her, and an instant later she found herself standing in a meadow. Looking around, she saw that there was another obelisk behind her, but her sick finally overpowered her and she loosed her guts on the ground, falling to her hands and knees with the power of the nausea.
Back in the temple, Artemis had seen her be struck with the lighting and disappear. He bit his lip, unsure of whether or not he’d just gotten her killed. Looking back to the Kree, he saw they were mustering for a charge, and that this would be the end of them if they didn’t use the obelisk. Swallowing his uncertainty, he shouted out, “Follow me, men!” and dove up the stairs. At the top he was transfixed by another bolt of silver lighting, felt intense vertigo, and saw the temple drop away, to be replaced by a green meadow and, Gods above, Ana! He attempted to run to her, wondering why she was on her hands and knees retching into the ground, and then he had joined her in that undignified position. He heaved his guts up onto the grass, and hoped that Claremont had the sense to lead his pirates on towards escape.
Artemis heard a series of sharp, tinny thwips, and looked up to see Claremont and his pirates collapsing to the ground behind him, being violently ill all over the grass. Ana had fallen on her back, rolling away from her own sick, and was pre-occupied with staring at the sky trying to get her bearings. The Hunter got to his feet, and drew one of his flintlocks.
Claremont had fared better than the rest of them, being used to sudden changes of space, and saw him advancing on them with a weapon drawn. He still wasn’t up to defending himself, but he held a hand out, stammering, “C-Cromwell… What are you-ulp!” He stopped as he threw up again.
Shaking the disorientation from his head, Artemis responded, “I’m making sure those things can’t follow us.” He pointed his pistol at the crystal atop the obelisk, Claremont reaching out to try and stop him, and pulled the trigger.
His aim was true, and the crystal exploded.
A terrible noise escaped the construct, and lightning began to arc out from it in a frenzy of magic. One of the beams struck a pirate, and his scream was warped into an abomination of the human voice as he was twisted and bent with wild, ancient magic and disappeared. Dark energies gathered around the shattered crystal, spouting lightning that the rest of them scrambled to avoid. The unleashing of magical energies stirred up a windstorm, and they all had to cling to the ground to avoid being sucked into the destroyed artifact.
With a final gust of wind and flash of light, the storm ended, and the broken shards of the crystal fell to the ground from their blackened golden cradle. Artemis wobbled over and helped Ana to her feet, while Claremont and the rest of the pirates somehow found theirs. The Captain wiped his mouth, looked around with bleary eyes, found Artemis, and strode over to him. Cocking back his fist, he brought it down on Artemis’s jaw and screamed, “What in all the Gods were you thinking?”
Artemis fell to the ground, still unsteady after the teleportation, and wiped the blood from the split lip that Claremont had given him. “I was thinking,” he said, gaining his feet again, “that we couldn’t let those things follow us. The best way to make that happen was to destroy the doorway.”
“But you could’ve killed us all! You did kill one of my men! How are you gonna make that up to me?”
“I don’t expect to be able to,” Artemis said, swaying slightly. They were all still a bit dizzy. “I know that the lives of your men are precious to you, Captain, but we could’ve all died if those things found the courage to follow us. I didn’t mean to sacrifice your man, but if it means that we all live, then I consider his life worth the price.”
Claremont grimaced at him and spat bile. “I should take you apart right now,” he said.
“Save it for when we get to a safe place,” Artemis responded with little sympathy. “We don’t know where we are, and we’re still in danger. Have your personal vendetta, but keep it to yourself until we get to a place where we can settle it like gentlemen.”
The Captain was not pleased with the idea, but admitted to himself the necessity of having such a skilled fighter on his side in unknown territory. He spat again, growling out, “So what now?”
“I wish I could tell you.” Artemis threw his hands up and looked around the meadow. There were no landmarks he recognized near here, and he wasn’t even sure where the four cardinal directions were at this point. “I suppose we pick a direction and walk until we meet a road or a river. Then we follow that until we reach a town or city. Then we can find out where we are.”
Claremont rolled his eyes. “You’re just full of great ideas. How did you survive this long?”
Looking at Ana, who was regaining her composure and beginning a prayer of thanks to her God, Artemis replied, “Sometimes I wonder that same thing.”
Entwhistle sat in the hollow of a tree for the two days he promised. He sat there without fire, without hot food, subsisting on trail rations and water, waiting for them to either come back or for the time to run out. The old man sat there for his two full days, and at the end decided that they weren’t coming back.
He made his way back to his shack, cooked himself a hot meal, and wondered to himself why he hadn’t gone with them. But the Forest Sea was his home. He knew he wouldn’t be able to live in common society. No, Entwhistle was much more comfortable out here alone. He laughed to himself over his bubbling pot, and thought that he might go out and talk to Sarah a while, and give her a good polish.
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.