Hornblower and the Black Ship
Author's note: this fic was written as a Halloween story.
It was All Hallow's Eve, and Horatio Hornblower did not believe in ghosts.
It was not for lack of trying on the part of his shipmates, Horatio mused sourly as he stood on the deck of the Indefatigable and listened to the ship's bell ring out its melancholy notes into the warm nighttime air. As he stood midnight watch on the dark and lonely deck, Horatio knew that at that moment many of the officers were in the wardroom trading dark stories of supernatural happenings at sea, of witches and spirits and demons that would arise from the depths and plague mankind on this night. They had asked him to join in, but Horatio politely declined, offering the excuse that he had been given watch.
Well, that was partly true; Horatio did have watch, but he had volunteered for it, to relieve himself of the tedium of listening to a group of grown men engage in telling silly stories designed to frighten each other.
The truth was, Horatio was embarrassed to admit that this night had never frightened him in the least. And he did not wish to be the only atheist in a roomful of devouts.
Oh, perhaps he was frightened of ghosts and goblins once, Horatio admitted to himself as he stared up at the full moon. Of course, tonight it had to be a full moon. Yes, perhaps when he was a very small child, but he could not conceive how these men - grown men most of them, and hard as nails in battle - could fall prey to the tales he knew were being passed around. Men died, and that was the end of it. There was no evidence to suggest their souls walked the earth afterward. Horatio had never seen a mermaid, or a ghost, or a siren, and thus knew they could not exist. And the evil he knew - the evil he had seen - was quite enough for him, thank you very much. To believe - even for a night - that there was evil beyond that was both silly and for him quite unnecessary.
So, Horatio did not believe in ghosts.
The full moon provided a bath of bright blue light on the glittering open sea, and Horatio swept his keen eyes back and forth across it, but saw nothing. He turned to walk across the deck to the other side of the ship when he noticed someone walking toward him. When the figure got close enough, Horatio recognized him as Midshipman Tom Parrish. Parrish was seventeen, friendly and outgoing, and a hard worker. He was also the youngest son of a minister, and from all accounts as pious as his father. Horatio didn't know him very well, except that he was prone to bad headaches, and he didn't drink rum. That was all.
"Evening, sir," Parrish said, a smile brightening his freckled face as he saluted Horatio.
"Mr. Parrish," Horatio replied. "You're not belowdecks, listening to the stories?"
"Oh, no, sir," Parrish answered with a shake of his head as he looked out to sea, "I promised my father I'd study my Bible on this night. And I have some other things to study as well."
Horatio nodded, tried not to sound too happy when he said, "That's very good of you, Mr. Parrish. It's a relief to know I'm not the only one on this ship who doesn't believe in that nonsense. Demons and evil spirits and such."
"Oh, but I do believe in them - sir," Parrish said earnestly, not flinching when Horatio looked at him in surprise. "Well...you have to, they're in the Bible. And other cultures too. If there's a God, there has to be evil to oppose him. It just makes sense."
"But surely there is enough wickedness in the world we can see, without conjuring another that is invisible to the naked eye." Horatio countered. It was important to him, for some reason, to want to set this boy straight.
"Well, they're all mixed in together," Parrish argued earnestly, " 'The devil is the author of wickedness, and the surest way to ensure his victory in this world is to not believe he exists.' That's what my father says."
"And if I do believe," Horatio replied, certain the youth was being led astray. "What then?"
"Then you can see him. And you can beat him." Parrish said certainly, then cocked his head and gave Horatio a sideways look. "You think this is all nonsense, don't you, sir?"
Horatio shrugged, not wanting to step on the boy's father too viciously. "I wouldn't call it nonsense, Mr. Parrish, but I have always had an analytical mind, and I'm afraid I find it all a bit...fanciful."
Parrish sighed. "I only wish it were."
Horatio groaned inwardly. Were there no scientific minds on this ship? Not having the heart to tell this young boy that his father was quite possibly mistaken about God and devils and evil spirits, Horatio was thinking of a way to extricate himself from this conversation when he looked over the rail onto the open sea, and saw something. And stared.
It was a ship, a sloop more precisely, sitting about half a mile away, stark and black and dead in the moonlight. Despite the fact that there was a breeze, her sails sat limp and motionless, and try as he might Horatio could see no lights on her at all. And most puzzling of all, she carried no flags or ensign.
Horatio frowned as he pulled out his glass and glanced at Parrish. "Mr. Parrish, go inform the captain that a ship's been spotted to starboard."
Parrish was looking at the ship warily, but jumped to obey Horatio's command. "Aye sir."
As Parrish hurried away, Horatio looked through the glass and grew even more puzzled. In the moonlight, the ship was bright as day, so every detail was clear. There was no battle damage, no broken planking or torn sails to suggest privateers, and - as far as Horatio could tell - absolutely no life on board at all. Every window was dark, every gunport and deck shrouded in blackness. It did not make sense.
And it sat so still. Horatio peered at the ship harder, compelled by the practical puzzle this apparition was presenting to him. It was odd - very odd - but the ship was mesmerizing in a way, almost shimmering with mystery, and Horatio stared into the blackness of the portholes, like sightless eyes. His eye moved over, to the porthole in the middle of the ship, and as he gazed into it, the quiet lapping of the water and the sighing of the winds began to lull his senses. Gradually the world shrank, dimmed and became smaller, until there was nothing but that black hole, no sound but sighing and soft waves...and all the while the ship was so still...as if it was waiting...
As if it wanted him -
"Horatio - "
Horatio yelped and spun around, then flushed in embarrassed anger. "Lord, Archie, you gave me a start!"
Archie looked surprised, and not a little amused. "My apologies, but as watch aren't you supposed to be aware of what's going on around you?"
Horatio threw his friend a sour look, then settled his glass to his eye again. "What happened, did the ghost stories get too intense for you?"
It was intended as a joke, so Horatio wasn't prepared for Archie's sober reply, or the nervous way he swallowed as he answered, "I wouldn't know. I've been in my bunk reading all night."
Horatio lowered the glass, looked at Archie. "No mood for stories?"
Archie shook his head. "No."
Horatio kept his gaze on Archie, thinking that perhaps more was forthcoming.
But no; Archie frowned at the dark ship sitting half a mile away and said, "What do you make of her?"
Horatio sighed and let Archie change the subject. "I can't make anything of her yet, she isn't running any colors or flags, and from everything I can see she's deserted. But who deserts an undamaged ship in the middle of the sea?"
Archie's blue eyes scanned the ship warily. Very slowly he said, "I don't know."
It was said in an odd way, and Horatio thought he could guess the reason. "She's intriguing, isn't she? I was half pulled in myself - "
Suddenly Parrish's voice came behind them. "Mr. Hornblower!"
Scarcely noticing that Archie hadn't answered him, Horatio turned to see the midshipman scurrying up the deck toward him.
As soon as the lad reached him he said, "I told the captain. His orders are to try and hail her, then send a party over if she doesn't respond."
Horatio nodded, "Very good, Mr. Parrish, begin hailing and we'll see if we can get an answer."
"Aye aye, sir," Parrish said, and ran aft, to where the two ships were closest together.
Horatio watched him go, then looked back at the ship. It seemed closer now; more of the ship was visible without the aid of the glass, but still he could see no light or life. It was all silence and stillness, like a tomb.
"Perhaps it's a plague ship." Horatio said, half to himself. That would explain -
"It's not." Archie said, and when Horatio looked at him he noticed that there was a faraway, frightened look in Archie's eyes, and he was hugging himself as if were the dead of winter.
Behind them both, Horatio heard Parrish's voice calling into the darkness. "Ahoy there! Present your colors!"
"Well, you have been listening to ghost stories," Horatio said gently, trying to josh Archie out of being spooked, but it wasn't working. Archie was still staring at the abandoned ship in a way that was both repelled and fascinated. Trying to quell the uneasiness that had been building within him, Horatio asked, "Archie, what is it?"
"It's cold." Archie said quietly, not taking his eyes off the ship.
Now to Horatio's scientific mind, this encounter was becoming very frustrating. A dead ship in the middle of the ocean, that was answering no hails, carried no wind even though there was a breeze, and men complaining of the cold when the wind was practically tropical.
And it was All Hallow's eve and a full moon.
Behind them, Parrish hailed again. Horatio listened as the young man's voice bounced off of the ship, the riggings, the wind, and came back again, lonely and forlorn.
And still the dark ship sat, no light or life stirring within it. Damn it all.
Horatio raised his eyebrows. "Well, All Hallow's eve or not, when a ship doesn't answer an English hail that's something to be reckoned with. I'll call a boat away to go have a look - "
"You're not going alone." Archie said flatly, looking at Horatio with anxious eyes.
Horatio paused to consider. "No, I wasn't planning to. Are you volunteering, Acting Leftenant?"
Archie turned back to the ship, that was still sitting and waiting, and said simply, "Yes." His voice had a hollow ring to it, for reasons Horatio didn't understand. He didn't want to understand; this evening was growing more frustrating by the minute.
And he still didn't believe in ghosts.
A boat was made ready in short order, and as Horatio waited to climb into it he kept glancing at the nearby ship, feeling the sense of dread that had been creeping up his spine grow until it was slowly, but surely, wrapping itself around his neck.
The ship had not moved. It had not stirred in the water, to go backward or forward, and the wind that fluttered in the Indie's sails was not touching it at all. The moonlight made it look eerie, otherworldly, like an old abandoned house far out in the country. Every time Horatio looked at the ship, he half-thought it might be gone, vanished like a wisp of smoke in the night vapors.
But of course, that wouldn't happen, because the ship was real. He was looking at it, wasn't he?
Parrish had gone off to tell Captain Pellew what was happening, and Horatio could tell the youth was as intrigued by this mysterious ship as he was, although probably for different reasons. Most likely the boy saw it as some kind of religious manifestation, rather than the irritating niggle of logic Horatio knew it as. Ah well, they could have a long philosophical discussion about it after Horatio returned.
Of course, Horatio had to be careful; that was why he was taking four marines with him, both well-armed. It might be a plague ship, in which case they would smell that fact long before they were close enough to catch its ill wind; or it might be privateers or Spanish involved in some elaborate baiting scheme, in which case the marines would give him backup until he could get back to the Indie. Either way, taking the marines ensured safety, and Horatio wanted that for both himself and the Indie.
Because he did not like the way this night was going at all.
Archie was right beside him, as he had been since his arrival, his blue eyes focused on the phantom ship, his gaze unswerving from it. Horatio looked at him in concern, thought for a few moments that Archie might be succumbing to a fit - he'd had them before, and always there had been that faraway look, that folding into himself. So Horatio watched him closely, as the boat was being prepared, and moved a little bit closer to Archie so he could aid him if he did have a fit.
But long moments passed, and no fit occurred. In a way it was a relief; but it did not make Horatio feel any better.
So he made a decision. "Archie," He said, and had to repeat the name when his friend didn't look at him the first time. Then he said, "Listen, it's late and I've enough men to help me. I thank you for volunteering but - "
"Look at her, Horatio," Archie replied, taking his eyes away from his friend to look at the silent, dark ship again. His tone was eerie, as if he were having a conversation with someone else.
Horatio obliged Archie, saw the same unmoving ship with its skulls-eyes portholes. "Yes."
Archie shook his head. "You can't board her alone. If I don't go with you...I don't know what will happen."
"I'll take a look around the bloody thing and come right back," Horatio snapped, beginning to lose patience with this night.
Archie's reply was very faint, and the way he said it Horatio wasn't even sure he was supposed to hear it.
But he heard it anyway.
"No, you won't."
One of the sailors approached the two men and knuckled his forehead. "You're all set, sir."
Horatio was about to thank him when he saw Parrish walking toward him with long, anxious strides. As soon as the youth was close enough he saluted and said, "Master said I was to go with you."
Horatio raised his eyebrows. "What for?"
Parrish's frank eyes went to the black mystery now closer to them than ever. "He doesn't like you going alone. He's ordered me to watch your back."
Horatio sighed. All right then, this night was going to be one long nightmare, between poking around a blighted ship, trying to keep Archie from falling over the side from - fatigue? Illness? Whatever he was suffering from - and keeping an eye on the eager but inexperienced Parrish...
Well, Horatio decided, he still didn't believe in ghosts. But he was beginning to believe in bad luck.
"Steady on the oars."
Horatio didn't know why he gave his commands in a low voice as they drew closer to the black ship; if there was anyone aboard, he would logically want to know it as soon as possible, so drawing attention to himself would normally be a good thing.
But as they rowed closer, he felt more claustrophobic and less sure he should have come along with so few marines. The ship loomed above them now, not huge like the Indie but ominous in its stillness, malevolent in its pitch-black gloom. It seemed to Horatio that the oars in the water dipped more quietly as they came closer, the sound diminishing as if being taken by the ship. All movement, all light, all sound had somehow been consumed by this shadowed entity that was now sitting before them...
Sitting. And waiting. For who knew what.
Horatio rattled his head in irritation, hoping to shake the superstitious nonsense out of it. He took a deep breath and surveyed his men. Parrish was scanning the vessel with an active inquisitiveness, as if it were a fascinating book and he was reading it. The marines didn't look so sure, but had gripped their guns with a stern-jawed resolve, and looked to Horatio for guidance. Archie was hunched in the boat, as far away from the ship as he could get, his eyes closed and his skin a ghostly gray.
That does it, Horatio thought to himself. No matter how strong his will, he's staying at the entryway.
The jollyboat drifted closer and closer, then finally bumped into the ship with a hollow thunk. In the stillness it had the impact of a cannon; Archie let out a gasp and flinched.
Horatio looked up the side of the ship, at the footholds. "All right men, I know it's dark but we'll be all right as long as we take this slowly. I'll head off, and light a lantern as soon as I've reached the top."
To his surprise, Parrish stood up quickly and said, "Begging your pardon, sir, but I can get up the side quicker, and I think under the circumstances the men would feel better if you stayed in the boat."
Horatio opened his mouth to argue, then glanced at Archie and thought better of it. Damned if Archie didn't look like he did that night just before the raid on the Papillon, and Horatio cringed as he pictured his friend collapsing on the ladder and falling into the sea. The marines wouldn't know how to react; and Parrish was too small to catch Archie if he fell.
Well, all right, dammit. Why should anything go as he planned? Horatio nodded, and with a grin Parrish took the lantern and scurried up the footholds to the deck of the ship.
The marines went next, slowly and cautiously, and Horatio was gratified that before the first one was even halfway up, a welcome light bobbed at the top of the entryway. Parrish had gotten the lantern lighted, and now at least they had something besides the moon to see by.
Archie stood, uncertainly Horatio thought, and approached the ladder as if it were a gallows. Peeved that his friend was being so stubborn, Horatio stopped him just as he put his foot on the ladder to climb.
"Can you manage it?" He asked in a low voice.
Archie blinked, looked at him with eyes that were thankfully clear now, and knowing. "Yes I can, Mr. Hornblower. I'm fine, as you can see."
The reply was a bit arch, but Horatio let it by in his relief that Archie was coming back to himself at last. It was this damned night; he would never be so glad to see the dawn.
After Archie had made his way up the ladder, Horatio followed suit, and with Parrish's helpful light to guide him found himself standing on the deck of the dark ship much sooner than he expected. A delay of ten years would have suited him just fine.
The ship showed every sign of being deserted. In the lonely light of the lantern Horatio saw a neatly scrubbed deck, riggings in fine condition, doors and portholes unbroken and unburned. The sails were limp but untorn. And there was no life anywhere.
Horatio slowly drew his sword. Without looking, he knew that Parrish was on his left, Archie his right, and the marines clustered behind him. Now or never. "Everyone be ready," he whispered, then in a loud voice called out, "Ahoy there!"
It was hellishly loud, everyone winced. The hail bounced from the deck, the sails, the timbers.
Horatio set his jaw, his keen eyes searching every corner and hole for life. Nothing, not even a rat. Shaking his head in confusion, he called out again, in several languages, hailing any living thing.
"All right," Horatio said under his breath, "There is no smell of death, so this is not a plague ship. And if this some sort of ruse, then it is time to rout our aggressors. Sergeant," He looked at the leader of the marines, "Split your men off, two forward and two aft, start at the top deck and go down a deck at a time, meeting your men before descending. If you encounter anything, do not hesitate to fire."
The sergeant nodded, and taking another lantern went to carry out Horatio's instructions.
Horatio glanced at Parrish and, lowering his voice, subtly nodded to his right. "Mr. Parrish, you will stay here with Mr. Kennedy while I search the captain's cabin and officers' quarters. He - it's possible he may become ill, and I don't wish him to trapped belowdecks on a strange ship should it happen."
Parrish's expression belayed his confusion, and Horatio thought, oh no, more problems. "Mr. Parrish, are my instructions not clear to you?"
"Aye sir," Parrish nodded, "Only Mr. Kennedy isn't beside you anymore."
Startled, Horatio whipped around.
Archie was gone.
"Blast!" Horatio peered through the darkness, but didn't see Archie anywhere. "Where did Mr. Kennedy go?"
Parrish's eyes were round with amazement. "I don't know, sir, he was beside you just a moment ago."
Horatio was rapidly losing patience. "Mr. Kennedy!"
Silence. Darkness. Even the wind did not answer him.
"Hell." Horatio said in tired frustration. Of all people, Archie should have stayed at his side. What was the matter with him?
Suddenly, from within the bowels of the ship, Horatio heard the hollow thud of a door being closed. He looked at Parrish, and saw from the boy's surprised expression that he had heard the same thing.
Horatio held up his sword and looked at the companionway stairs, just in front of them. It yawed like a great mouth, black and hungry, and Horatio did not want to go into it.
Another thud, deeper yet. And Archie was still gone.
Hoping he could mask his uneasiness so Parrish did not see it, Horatio thought of Pellew, adopted his sternest stance, and motioned the youth forward with a wave of his sword. They had mounted the back of the beast.
And now they were entering its belly.
That was the first thought that entered Horatio's mind as he and Parrish descended into the lower deck of the sloop. It was like a tomb, endlessly dark and consumptive of life, where even a lantern could not illuminate what lay within. Horatio could see timbers, decks, the wide low ceiling of the gun deck. They moved through it, toward the But no life, no bodies, no -
Horatio grabbed Parrish's arm. "Shine your light there."
Parrish did so, aiming the lantern at the deck. There were scorch marks there, huge wide stripes of black, as if someone had swept a fire on the plankings, but not burned them through. But that was impossible; once a ship caught, it burned. There was little stopping it.
Horatio bit his lip, studied the scene further. The scorch marks were almost circular, as if balls of flame had erupted and died. It was very strange.
Ahead of them, they heard another thud, followed by what sounded to Horatio like a moan.
Damn. Archie? "Mr. Parrish, your light."
"Aye, sir," Parrish responded, and they walked forward.
Past the gun deck ,in the back of the sloop, Horatio and Parrish came to the door to the captain's cabin. Horatio stared; the door had been splintered from its hinges, torn and scorched like the deck, but its battered form suggested an explosion of some sort. But it had not burned...
Parrish' breathing had gotten fast. "Sir, allow me to suggest we proceed cautiously." he whispered.
"An excellent suggestion, Mr. Parrish." Horatio agreed.
The room was black, and reeked of charred wood. At first Horatio could discern nothing in it, the blackness seemed to soak up the light in Parrish' lantern.
Then he made out sticks of furniture -glass - wood, all blasted and ripped apart, as if by some mighty blast. The walls were likewise burnt, but only partway. The glass in the windows was covered in inky soot. On the walls above the feathered charrings, Horatio made out some symbols that had been burnt into the wood. But he didn't understand them.
"My God." Parrish breathed quietly.
Horatio frowned and looked at the youth; his face had the color of ashes. "What is it?"
"Those symbols," Parrish said, his eyes looking around the floor in awakening fright. "I know them, from my studies. They refer to spirits."
Horatio wanted very badly to scoff, but something in this room was raising the hackles on the back of his neck, and he couldn't. "Spirits? You're referring to ghosts?"
Parrish was shaking his head. "Not simply ghosts. Not from the looks of things." he nodded toward the markings. "Those are Satanic symbols, devil worship. The idolization of evil."
Horatio attempted to swallow his fear. "But where is the crew?"
"From the looks of things," Parrish ventured, "I think they woke something up."
There was another thud, this time below them, and a muffled groan.
"The wardroom," Horatio said, and hurriedly found the stairs down.
It was like descending into a grave, walking down that ladder, into that darkness. Parrish went ahead, with the lantern, but the light was becoming meager, and it seemed to be shining on nothing. The bulkheads were close, claustrophobic, and Horatio noticed with a quickening heart that the ship was no longer silent, but was creaking and groaning around them.
And there was something else...an oppressiveness, a thickness to the air that intensified as he went down the steps. If Parrish felt it he gave no sign, but Horatio felt it wrapping around his neck, cutting off his air. If Archie was down here they had to find him and get out quickly. There was something down here -
Suddenly Parrish jumped backwards, and Horatio started and looked around him.
In the narrow passageway in front of them, in the sickly light of the lantern, lay two of the marines, covered in blood and very dead.
Parrish took a few heaving gasps, then whispered, "Sir?"
Horatio felt his heart slam into his ribcage. Dead! He looked around, his keen mind working. It was possible they were being lured here, that Archie was abovedecks and all right. If they were caught, it would be easier to fight on an open deck than in the tight confines below. "Keep your head, Mr. Parrish, as long as we have our way to the topdeck we're all right. I'm going to back up slowly, and you follow me, understood?"
Parrish nodded, but before Horatio could move he heard another sound that he couldn't place at first. It was almost an echo, but as he listened Horatio finally placed it: it was someone crying. Very far away, and crying.
It was Archie -
Parrish still faced forward, but brought his head back toward Horatio and said, "Sir, if I may, we may be dealing with something that is -well - beyond the expertise of the British Navy."
Horatio snorted. "Well, whatever it is, it's slaughtering my men!"
"Yes sir, but you can't fight it using Navy tactics. Sir, the devil is on this ship."
Horatio wanted to laugh. He wanted to dismiss the darkness, the noise, the scorch marks and dead marines. None of it made sense, not to his logical, mathematical mind, and he wanted very badly to wake up in his bunk and have this all be a dream. But even as a dream, it made little sense... "Your point, Mr. Parrish?"
"Sir, I can help you. If you'll let me."
The crying continued, far away and close at once. Horatio thought quickly: find Archie, join with the other marines, get off this ship now. The oppressiveness was stifling.
Parrish indicated with the lantern. "We have to go this way."
And they went.
By the time they reached the wardroom, Horatio could barely breathe. Something was there, fouling the air, sucking it into useless waste, drowning them as they stood. He wanted to claw at his skin to get it away, but instead he pressed on, bolstered by Parrish's steadfast, unwavering presence. If he felt the ominous shadows that were pressing them from every side, he didn't show it. Although his shoulders were quaking, just a little...
The cries had stopped and been replaced with a heavy silence. Horatio choked on his breath, wanted to call out for Archie so they could find him but was afraid of what calling into that darkness might bring. So he remained silent, and tried not to notice that he was bending further and further over, not because of the lowness of the beams but from some nameless weight that was crushing him slowly, pressing on his shoulders, warning him away.
"What happened here, Mr. Parrish?" Horatio whispered.
The boy shook his head. "Perhaps they ran slaves from Africa, who knew about satanism and dark spells. Perhaps they became intrigued, or bored, or maybe the slaves freed themselves and called on the dark gods to guide them home. In any case, they were dealing with things that have been destroying mankind since the Garden of Eden. They never learn."
Horatio shivered; he could no longer deny that something evil was living on the ship, something that wanted out and had not found a way. Something deep within -
Parrish stopped. "Here it is."
Horatio didn't need to look to catch Parrish's meaning. The wardroom door was blasted, but still on its hinges, and glared like a blasted skeleton in the low light of the lantern. And beyond it -
Horatio's throat closed, and he found himself gasping for air. Whatever lay beyond it permeated the air, stretched out like tendrils from that room. It knew they were there, but somehow Horatio thought, only marked their presence without attempting to snare them. Only marking...
Parrish said, "Sir?"
Horatio gripped the hilt of his sword. "What is it, Mr. Parrish?"
"I don't want to alarm you, but you should know that the other two marines are lying against that wall. I think they're dead as well."
Horatio didn't need to look. He knew they were dead, knew whatever was in that room was responsible. His men - that demon, or Satan, or spirit, had slaughtered his men. Pellew would make him answer for it, and their deaths would be on his head.
Horatio began to abandon his fear, and started to get angry.
"Enough cowering," he growled to Parrish, "It is time we faced this beast."
"Just remember," Parrish cautioned as he went to the door, "Forget your logical mind."
Horatio nodded, and Parrish opened the door.
Black. The room was black, its walls finely scorched until not a trace of paint remained. In the middle of the room sat the broken remains of a table, crumbled into ashes and shattered wood. The lantern could not penetrate the blackness, or make the air fit to breathe.
Horatio kicked something with his foot, and when Parrish moved the lantern both saw the darkened remains of some kind of planking with letters on it.
"What is it?" Horatio asked, not wanting to hear the answer at all.
"It's called a Ouija board." Parrish replied tightly. "It's for raising spirits."
Horatio coughed, shuddered. Looked around, for the source of the noises he heard earlier. Saw nothing.
"Mr. Parrish - "
Parrish seemed to know, shone the lantern in the far corner. Someone was huddled there, at first only a dark blue form silhouetted against the charred timbers, but after a moment's hesitation Horatio recognized Archie and motioned for Parrish to follow him.
Parrish hesitated. "Sir, if I may, we don't know who we're really dealing with - "
Horatio shook his head in exasperation, of course Parrish didn't know about Archie's illness, and now was not the time to educate him. Ignoring Parrish's protest, Horatio walked forward, slowly because Archie had his head in his hands and Horatio didn't want to startle him.
As soon as he was close enough, Horatio whispered, "Archie?"
Archie's head came up, slowly. He didn't look at Horatio, kept his eyes straight ahead.
The oppressiveness in the room had abated somewhat, and Horatio took it as a helpful sign. Archie had come down here and had a fit, and was only now coming out of it. That was it. "Archie, it's all right. It's Horatio. Do you understand me?"
Still Archie didn't look at him, and as he came very close Horatio saw that his friend was shaking violently. Reaching up to unfasten his own cloak, Horatio said quietly, "Don't worry, Archie, you're all right."
But Archie shook his head, the first sign Horatio had that he had heard him. In a tight whisper he said, "He wanted you, Horatio."
Horatio's hand froze on his cloak clasp. "What?"
Archie reached up and raked one hand through his hair, "I think - I think he'd almost drawn you in, before, when you were staring at the ship. He wanted you to come here, he needs - a body to dwell in - " Archie broke off and closed his eyes, tears slipping down his cheeks.
Horatio felt numb all over. Either Archie had gone mad, or he was telling the truth. Neither was pleasant. He slipped off his cloak and knelt down beside his stricken friend.
"Be careful, sir," Parrish cautioned.
Be careful? Archie was shivering and crying, at this moment a helpless child. What caution was needed? "Archie, please listen to me, you're all right, we'll take you home - "
"No!" Archie suddenly turned his head to stare at Horatio with frantic, white-blue eyes. "No, please, leave me here, he won't follow. I'm enough, he says. Please."
Horatio was shocked. "Archie - "
At that moment two things happened at once.
Archie let out a choking moan and fell into Horatio's arms -
and the lantern went out.
"Archie!" Horatio cried into the darkness, then turned to where he knew - hoped - Parrish was, Archie had gone completely senseless, as if he were dead. "Damn it, Mr. Parrish, light that lantern!"
"I'm trying - " Parrish said.
Horatio fought a rising sense of panic, and tried to decipher what to do. Archie was unconscious in his arms, and Horatio could scarcely move. He wasn't sure whether to try and wake his friend, or what would happen if he did. He could feel Archie breathing, but -
The crack of a flint. A bright spark. Darkness again.
"Archie!" Horatio called again. The shipped groaned around him.
Crack. Spark. "Sir, if I may - "
"Just get that lantern lit!" Horatio barked, ashamed at the fear that was clawing at his brain. This has to make sense somehow, somehow -
The lantern suddenly flamed to life.
Horatio blinked at the light, realized with a start that he had heard no crack of flint. Very slowly he said, "Mr. Parrish?"
"The lantern is lit, sir," Parrish said, equally slowly, "But I didn't light it."
That was insane - it was all insane - and Horatio was about to say so when without warning the oppressiveness he had felt earlier returned tenfold and swallowed his voice with its intensity. It was as if a boulder had fallen on Horatio's soul, and he all but collapsed beneath the weight of it. Something was with them, something horrible that was somehow familiar -
Archie stirred against him, cringed away from Horatio's grasp and pushed himself into the corner with a faint sob. He clutched both hands to his head and began to shudder even more violently than before.
Horatio knew Archie felt the same awful weight, and was helpless under it. Knowing he had to help - but scarce thinking how - Horatio leaned forward and put a hand on Archie's shoulder. "Archie?"
Archie threw his head back and took deep, huge breaths, as if he had just been underwater and was taking his first lungsful of air. His eyes were wide open and unseeing.
"Sir, please be careful," Parrish advised.
Horatio hardly heard him; Archie seemed to be relaxing, blinking his eyes slowly, and that was an encouragement, even if he wasn't looking at Horatio yet. The oppressiveness was fading too, as if it had been a bad dream. Allowing himself a faint smile, Horatio said quietly, "Are you feeling better? Archie - "
Archie jerked his head around. His face was twisted into a sneer of triumphant malice, not Archie's expression at all but another's -
Horatio's blood froze.
Then Archie spoke.
Horatio jumped backwards into the wreck of the table, stunned and shocked. He stared at Archie and thought for a brief moment that his friend had gone mad. Surely he had gone mad -
Then Archie began to move from the corner, uncoiling himself with a predatory grace Horatio knew Archie didn't possess, and his eyes - his face - Archie could not mimic that glare, that sneer, not even in madness. Slowly Archie slid to standing, and peered down at Horatio the way a snake might at a trembling mouse. Then Horatio knew - against all reason, against all sanity, against all arguments of logic and physics he might conjure -
Horatio knew he was looking at Jack Simpson.
"No welcoming embrace, I see," Simpson said in Archie's voice, now mellow and smug as he enjoyed Horatio's shocked expression. His eyes were Archie's, but now hard and gloating and cold, so cold, "Perhaps I've surprised you just a bit. Perhaps you thought I was dead, and you were rid of me. Well, my gentle fellow officer - you were mistaken."
Horatio fought to find his voice, struggled with how to deal with this apparition in front of him that had stolen Archie's body. No, his mind screamed, it was impossible, it was too horrible to contemplate, Simpson was dead and gone, but - but -
- forget your logical mind -
Parrish's words came back to him, and Horatio realized that he had to accept this, had to admit this inconceivable blasphemy if he had any hope at all of getting Archie and Parrish off of the ship alive. Finally, summoning every fiber of authority and control he possessed, Horatio croaked out, "You will leave Mr. Kennedy's body, now."
Archie laughed, a crude barking noise that made Horatio wince. "How pathetic! No thank you, Snotty, I think I shan't pay heed to your request. I have need of Mr. Kennedy just now, you see I mean to escape this rotting hulk and I need a body to convey myself in."
Horatio felt behind him, felt the burned remains of the table beneath his hand. What could he do? "How - "
Archie began to walk slowly back and forth, his corrupted face shifting into patterns of light and dark as he spoke. "I hated you, Snotty. Alive I hated you, dead I hated you more. Luckily the cretins that chose to hire a crew of those versed in black magic on this accursed ship weren't very careful with it. Now were they?"
Horatio couldn't bear to look at the evil and malice in Archie's face, to know who wore it now. And where was Archie, if Simpson held his form?
"So," Archie shrugged, putting his hands behind his back and nodding in self-satisfaction, "When the officers learned their crew's art, and stole their toys, I saw my opportunity and took it."
"You killed the men on this ship." Horatio gasped in anger.
"Yes, quite," Archie nodded happily, "And your marines as well. It does feel good being on this earth again, I've so much to accomplish now that I'm not bound to one form only. But you see, it takes a lot of energy to stay whole, so some sort of dwelling place is needed. The reality of it is very complicated, you probably wouldn't understand it."
"You brought us here to take a body," Horatio rasped, fighting to keep his wits together.
"Yes, Snotty, very clever of you to figure it out at last," Archie said lightly, bringing his hands from behind his back to study them, much as a man might study a fine new smoking jacket, "And my first plan when I saw your ghastly ship was to take yours, but sadly Mr. Kennedy had to wander up and break your concentration." Archie's grin was sickening. "And you were fighting me. I knew Mr. Kennedy could not."
Horatio felt a wave of revulsion and conquered it. He heard whispering behind him and realized that Parrish was praying. "Leave Archie alone. Take me instead."
"Bravo, Snotty!" Archie exulted sarcastically, raising his hands in salute. "That really is very noble of you, but I really must decline. Your soul isn't half the easy battle Kennedy's was. And I rather enjoy the thought of finally having the little coward where he can't get away from me again." Archie leaned close, his smile a wicked leer. "Just think, his trembling little soul mine forever, and he wanted to escape me so badly. I think it's a delicious irony. Don't you?"
"You bastard," Horatio cried, and lunged at the smirking spirit with all his strength.
Archie easily batted him away, and Horatio felt the bulkhead slam against his back as Parrish yelled something he didn't understand. Shaking his head, Horatio saw through throbbing eyes that Archie had turned, and was looking at Parrish quizzically.
"Oh, so Snotty has a new pal, eh?" Archie tilted his head. "And whose company do I have the delight of sharing?"
Horatio wanted to shout out a warning, but his head hurt immensely.
Remarkably, Parrish didn't look shaken or frightened at all. He was giving Simpson's glare right back to him as he said, "You don't belong here. You had better leave, now."
Archie laughed again. "I see you've been taking lessons from our dear shipmate! Enough of this, lads, I must take your jollyboat back to the Indefatigable and excuse your deaths - "
Horatio scrambled to his knees, frantic to stop Simpson even though it felt like every bone in his body was broken. But he could barely move.
Parrish's reply was calm. "You're not staying here. I'm warning you, God is here and has given me His strength to fight you. Go back where you belong."
Archie snorted in contempt and grabbed Parrish by the collar.
Horatio opened his mouth to plead for the midshipman's life, but then something happened that made him stop and blink.
Parrish grabbed the front of Archie's shirt and pushed him backwards onto the floor as if he weighed nothing.
Archie sputtered in fury and sprang to his feet. "How dare you! I can tear you apart without trying!"
"Then try it," Parrish said hotly, never wavering from Archie's hot gaze. "I know your kind, as my father does, and through God I can defeat you. You can leave the easy way, or we can force you to leave that young man's body. It's your choice, but you know there's a lower place in hell for you if we do this the hard way."
Horatio got to his feet slowly, aghast at Parrish's courage. The youth acted as if Simpson had no power at all.
Maybe he didn't.
Horatio gathered himself, stood a little behind Archie and felt an unknown strength flooding through him. Once again summoning his authority he said, "Listen to Mr. Parrish. Abandon Archie's body and go back where you came from, or you will regret it."
Archie whipped his head around to glare at Horatio for a moment, then smirked. "And if I don't? If I attempt to escape, can you really believe that some puny midshipman's god can destroy me? I'm holding your little friend's soul in my fingers, one slip and he takes my place in hell forever. Even banishing me won't bring him back."
"God can restore him." Parrish said firmly.
Archie laughed, his diamond-hard eyes never leaving Horatio's. "You may believe such nursery rhymes, boy, but I assure you our ever-practical lieutenant here won't truck with such nonsense." His eyes narrowed, and he stared at Horatio hatefully. "Because you know, don't you, Snotty? What god would allow the things I've done? I tormented you, killed Clayton, sent your little pal to go slowly mad in prison for three years. You know the truth. There is no God at all. Only the likes of me. God isn't holding Kennedy's soul, I am. Displease me and I send him away from you forever. Would you risk that, Snotty? Would you?"
For a moment Horatio teetered on the brink of an abyss, his mind frozen in horror. He couldn't know if Simpson was telling the truth, but suppose he was? What Simpson was capable of - that he could roam the earth at will, while Archie would be lost forever - if there was even a chance it was true -
Oh, God, Horatio thought helplessly. What could he do?
Horatio thought Parrish had spoken the word, but when he blinked again the midshipman had crept up behind Archie and was watching him very carefully. Horatio took a deep breath and stared into Archie's eyes, into the hateful, sick soul that was lodging there, and held it. Parrish's face was shining with something unknown to Horatio; he only knew it was something he could trust, and it was stronger than Simpson. Believe.
"You're such a coward, Snotty," Archie said after a moment, in a satisfied voice dripping with venom, "You see, I've won already. You'll have to kill Archie's body to destroy me, and if you let me go I'll do my damnedest to lay waste to everything you love, starting with your precious Captain Pellew. And no one can stop me."
It was so hard not to move - so hard not give way -
Archie's eyes narrowed into serpentlike slits. "Alive I could only do you a limited amount of harm. I think I actually prefer being dead." He smiled a little. "I do wish Kennedy's soul would stop squirming so. Awfully hard to keep a grip."
Horatio drew in his breath.
And Parrish struck.
The force of Parrish and Simpson connecting blasted Horatio to the deck, and a moment after he landed there he realized that something in the room had exploded, erupted into a white-hot ball of light. He rolled over and came to his knees, scarcely able to see for the brilliance of whatever was in that room.
There was a noise all around him, like the rushing of a thousand winds, so loud Horatio covered his ears, but when he looked around he could still see nothing but the blinding light.
"Parrish!" He screamed, but it sounded like a whisper to him. "Mr. Parrish!"
"Get out!" came Parrish's voice, but it came from nowhere and everywhere at once. Horatio looked around wildly, still saw nothing but white. The rushing noise became louder, mixed with terrible screaming.
Get out - but Horatio could hardly move, and he couldn't leave with his shipmate in peril and Archie -
"He's there!" Parrish cried out, still from somewhere over Horatio's head, and as he said so Horatio saw something lying on the floor near where Archie had been standing, something huddled in a woolen cape and not moving.
Horatio willed his battered body to move to that form. It was Archie, pale and unmoving but breathing. But Simpson -
Another scream tore through the blighted air. Archie shuddered and moaned softly.
Horatio took his shoulder, squinted at the impossibly bright light around them in a frenzied attempt to find Parrish. Even if Archie had somehow been freed, that still left Parrish and he -
"Sir, you must go to the boat," Came Parrish's voice once more, even and calm despite the whirlwind blowing in the desecrated cabin. "I'll join you there - hurry!"
Horatio heard the authority in Parrish's voice, knew the youth was drawing on knowledge he could not hope to possess. His heart pounding, Horatio painfully lifted Archie over his shoulder and stood, casting his eyes about to find Parrish, but seeing only dazzling light and hearing only wind and screams.
"Hurry!" Parrish cried out again, and clutching Archie to himself Horatio performed the only action left to him in this mad world he did not understand. He obeyed.
The ship seemed to come alive beneath Horatio's boots as he scrambled up the companionway stairs to the upper deck. The once-still vessel now pitched and rolled, and he had to keep one hand free to brace himself against the walls as he slowly made his way upward. Archie was still unconscious, and his body had an unearthly chill to it. Horatio hoped he was not rescuing a dead man.
Then he was on deck, and Horatio gasped at the change there. The once-still air was whipping about the sails like a typhoon, and the sky was flaked with snow and bitterly cold. Cold, and they were in tropical waters. But nothing made sense anymore, and Horatio barely marked it. He only had to get to the boat.
The deck was becoming wet, and Horatio slipped to his knees, wincing in pain and wrapping both arms around Archie to keep him from falling. He looked around frantically, saw that a thick fog had enveloped the ship, and he could not see the Indefatigable. God, she had to be out there. She had to -
The sea around the ship was swelling with whitecaps, and Horatio had the queer sensation of the ship sinking, even though it was at the moment merely pitching on the waves. He stumbled over to the entryway, looked over and saw the jollyboat still tethered below him. But he had no way to get Archie down the ladder.
Suddenly Parrish's voice cut through the winds, and Horatio looked to his side to see the earnest young midshipman holding a rope in his hands, the two ends already fashioned into loops.
"Mr. Parrish!" Horatio yelled in surprise. "Where is Mr. Simpson?"
"Where he belongs, sir," was Parrish's terse answer. his hair was whipping around in the wind and he cast anxious eyes at the heaving waves. "Hurry, we must get off this ship!"
Horatio nodded and helped Parrish fasten the rope around Archie's shoulders and knees. The wind was picking up even as they did so; in a few short moments spray began to shoot over the sides of the ship.
"Mr. Parrish, what happened?" Horatio asked as he held Archie's shoulders, "In the cabin - the lights - what did you do?"
"God cast Simpson out," Parrish answered in an equally brief way, He spoke louder to be heard over the gale. "He won't be coming back, to hurt you, Mr. Kennedy, or anyone else."
"But how? Mr. Parrish - "
The midshipman quickly backed away from Horatio, the rope in his hands. "All right, sir, he's ready."
Horatio nodded. "You get into the boat, and I'll lower him down behind you."
"With all respect, sir," Parrish replied as the boat began to heave more violently, "You're still weak from Simpson's attack. Let me lower Mr. Kennedy to you."
Horatio wasn't sure how Parrish knew he was still in such pain, but there was no time to argue the point. He carefully handed Archie to Parrish and hauled himself over the side, mindful of how the ship was bucking and tottering in the increasing winds.
In a few moments Horatio was in the bobbing jollyboat, and looked up to see Archie being lowered to him, the rope supporting him beneath his arms and knees. The winds were strong and colder now, and Horatio found himself shivering as he took Archie in his arms and cautiously laid him in the bottom on the boat.
The wind was stronger now, billowing and tearing the black ship's sails; but the ship was not moving, only thrashing up and down where she sat. Suddenly Horatio heard a noise, like an explosion deep within the ship, and his heart seized as he realized it was collapsing from within. He sat down in the boat so he wouldn't get washed overboard and screamed above the wind, "Mr. Parrish, hurry!"
Parrish's face appeared at the railing, and he pointed, shouting, "There's no time, The Indie is that way! Start rowing, please sir!"
Horatio shook his head wildly, "Come down here, Mr. Parrish, that's an order!"
A huge wave crashed over the ship just then, and the roar of it mingled with the rushing wind, the loud crashes of splintering timber, and a deep, thunderous rumble Horatio couldn't identify. He ducked into the boat, but miraculously they were not swamped, and when he looked up again Parrish was no longer at the railing.
"Mr. Parrish!" Horatio screamed, but he knew his voice was lost in the cacophony of destruction that was billowing around him. The black ship was veering away from the jollyboat now, keeling over on its side and, as Horatio watched horrified, bursting into red flame.
"Hurry, sir!" Horatio heard Parrish's voice again, urgent and commanding, and suddenly the air was rent with a deafening scream, so loud and horrible that Horatio put his hands over his ears and crouched lower in the boat. The ship was blazing now, writhing and shattering on the dark waves, and as Horatio watched it made one final, twisting pitch on the sea, then splintered into hundreds of glowing, tortured fragments ringed by a black cloud of smoke and ashes -
It was quiet.
Horatio sat for what seemed a long time in the jollyboat before he began to row, drinking in the silence as one would after receiving a stunning blow; he reeled with the impact of it.
What he had just seen - heard - experienced was beyond him. He knew it had happened, but it had no precedence in his knowledge, there was no explanation he could offer for it that made sense, save one. And he was just beginning to accept it.
Parrish was dead. The marines were dead. And the ship that had been their tomb was swallowed by the waves, or by the hellish flames that Horatio knew he had never seen before. And Archie -
The fog was lifting now, and the moon was still out, so Horatio could see by its light the still form of his friend curled up in the back of the jollyboat. He was asleep, not dead - the steady rise and fall of his chest assured Horatio of that fact, but it was not altogether comforting. When Archie awakened, would he remember that Jack Simpson had stolen his soul, taken his mind, found a new vile way to violate his body? There were rings under Archie's eyes, faint but there, and Horatio wondered sadly if the experience might not finally prove too much for that fragile soul. It was possible that Archie would wake up mad.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, Horatio took the rough oars in his hands and began to row. The steady sound of the oars in the water should have been soothing, but Horatio did not mark it. Instead he thought of Parrish.
Believe in evil and you can conquer it, Parrish had said. And now he was dead. And the evil he had fought... Horatio shook his head. He had seen evil, in the charred remains of that ship, in the dead bodies of the marines, in the trapped, helpless look Archie wore in the days of the Justinian. He had never had trouble believing in evil; but before this night he did not know it could bear a face.
But what then? Ahead Horatio saw the Indie sitting silently in the waves, awaiting his homecoming, but instead of feeling relieved he was full of dread. Evil had been defeated, at least temporarily; but that did not mean that good had triumphed. Five people were dead, and he was responsible. Simpson was gone, but others would follow him. And those that were scarred still bore the marks, and now had new ones added to them.
Horatio had to admit, against all reason, that this night he had seen evil. But good had not shown its face.
God had cast Simpson out, Parrish had said. God. Surely there had not been some almighty being in that dark cabin, flashing and swirling and fighting with the strength of a thousand winds? Even if there was a God - and Horatio was not yet prepared to admit there was - certainly He did not concern himself with the problems of a handful of seamen. Certainly He did not care if one soul vanished from the earth without a trace. And certainly He had more important things to do than listen to one freckle-faced midshipman's prayers, no matter how earnest they were.
No - no - that could not have been any sort of God fighting in that cabin, so close to him. The notion made Horatio very uncomfortable.
The Indefatigable now loomed beside the tiny boat, and as if in a sleepwalk Horatio stood up in the boat and explained to the confused sailor that Mr. Kennedy had had an accident and was unconscious. A sling was lowered, Archie was placed into it, and Horatio followed after, trying frantically to figure out how he was going to explain this. The truth would be difficult to swallow.
While Archie was being made comfortable, Horatio went to change his wet clothes, then made his way to the sick bay, where he found Archie lying in one of the hammocks asleep. Horatio stood and watched him for a moment, his mind still deep in thought.
Archie looked gray and exhausted, his hair undone and matted around his face, his eyes rimmed with dark circles, as if he had been very sick. Horatio's heart sank when he revisited the thought that Archie might not pull out of this latest trauma; a soul could only take so much before it gave way, and Horatio had seen Archie's soul laid bare, knew how close it had once been to leaving this earth, and that was only with the memory of Simpson to deal with. What would happen now, now that Archie had to live with not only the memory of physical violation but spiritual as well, a sick and twisted soul replacing his, pure evil living in his mind, seeing from behind his eyes? How could anyone undergo such an outrage and remain whole? Horatio stared at Archie in despair.
The word came like a tint of starlight, so quiet and eerie that Horatio thought for a moment Parrish had entered the room and was standing next to him. Of course that wasn't true, but still after what he had seen that night Horatio no longer felt able to discount the word. He looked at Archie's worn, unjustly haggard features and hoped that if there was anything more to believe in than the practical mind would allow - if there was something beyond the concrete, physical world so bound by science and mathematics and the provable harshness of life - if there was some power that was not uncaring or malevolent, and would listen to the wants of a mere lieutenant whose friend was sick and who was uncertain of what he now knew to be true -
Well then, Horatio hoped that that all-powerful being was willing to do what it could to help Archie survive this horrifying night. Because Horatio knew that he himself was helpless to do so.
As Horatio pondered this, he glanced down and saw that Archie had awakened, and was looking up at him. Horatio caught his breath, but astonishingly Archie's light blue eyes held no hint of the madness or fright that had tormented him earlier. He looked drained and worn out, but so far...so far all right...
Taking a deep breath, Horatio sat down next to him and smiled. "Feeling better?"
Archie vaguely shook his head. "I feel as if I've been thrown down the companionway stairs. Horatio, what happened?"
Horatio proceeded cautiously, hardly daring to hope. "You don't remember?"
Archie sighed and looked at the ceiling. "I remember sitting in my cabin and feeling somewhat melancholy. I went up to the topdeck to find you - and then - and then I'm here." His voice became small. "Did I have a fit?"
Horatio smiled, felt relief flooding through him. Archie really didn't remember. "No. There was a ship coming close to us, you came with me to investigate. You were struck on the head when we were attacked by - by privateers." That made sense. "I brought you back."
"Oh." Archie said sleepily, and Horatio knew he would accept it. His calming eyes said so. "That's all, is it. I was hoping it was at least something exciting."
"It was exciting enough," Horatio said with conviction as he arose, "Now I must go report to the captain."
Archie nodded, but he was already asleep when Horatio stood with a sigh. It was incredible, almost unbelievable, but Archie would be all right. With luck, he would never remember what had happened to him. With luck -
Then Horatio had remembered his half-prayer to a God he had not been sure was aware to answer, and shuddered to think that perhaps it had been heard after all. Well, if it had - if it had, and that had anything to do with Archie's recovery - Horatio felt grateful. Still extremely uncomfortable, but grateful nonetheless.
But as Horatio left the sick bay his mood sobered. Archie would be all right, but that would not make Horatio's report to Captain Pellew go any easier. Five people were dead, and he still had no good explanation.
"Mr. Hornblower?" Captain Pellew's concern was obvious as Horatio reported to his cabin.
With a sigh Horatio came to stand before the captain's desk, dreading every moment. Facing those commanding dark eyes he said softly, "Sir, I must regretfully report that there was an altercation on board the unidentified sloop." He paused, then stopped. He could not think of how to continue.
Pellew frowned. "Were you attacked?"
"Yes, sir," Horatio's answer was swift, and he did not feel as if he were lying. It was true... "The enemy was concealing himself in that vessel, as was suspected. We - defeated him, but I regret with loss of life."
Pellew nodded, his face a tense mask. "Yes, from here we could see the ship burn. I must admit for a time I feared we had lost all of you."
"Very nearly, sir. The marines were killed, and Mr. Kennedy was injured as well. I must say, sir, that if it were not for the bravery of Midshipman Parrish - " Bravery! It seemed too frail a word - "If it were not for his courage, none of us would have survived."
Pellew's eyebrows went up. "Mr. Parrish? Indeed?"
Horatio nodded. "I'm afraid he is also among the fallen, but I will gladly write a report of his actions this evening. He has - " Horatio paused and cleared his throat, remembering the extraordinary stand in the blasted wardroom. "I shall be forever in his debt, sir."
For some reason, Captain Pellew looked down at his desk for a moment, and Horatio thought he seemed a little pale. Then he looked up and said quietly, "Mr. Hornblower, this has been a most remarkable evening, so I must ask you so I am clear. You say Mr. Parrish was of great help to you on this expedition?"
Horatio frowned in confusion. "Yes, sir. The enemy - was very strong, and he fought them without my aid. It was extraordinary."
"Extraordinary indeed," Pellew whispered, "For I'm afraid Mr. Parrish could not have been with you on that ship."
A cold feeling crept up Horatio's spine. "How's that, sir?"
"Because, Mr. Hornblower, shortly after reporting to me that you were setting sail for that cursed vessel, Mr. Parrish suffered an attack on his way to report to you. I'm afraid for these past four hours he's been dead."
Horatio jolted upright in shock.
Pellew shook his head. "On this night of all others, I believe such things are possible. Mr. Hornblower, when you are ready I am most anxious to hear all about your encounter on that ship."
"Yes, sir." Horatio replied, but he hardly felt the words leave his mouth. He walked out of Pellew's cabin numb and dazed, his mind reeling over what he had just heard.
Parrish was dead. Parrish - or some kind of all-powerful God working through him - had saved his life, saved Archie's life, gotten them off the ship. And all the time Parrish had been dead.
Horatio wandered up to the deck, felt the warm breeze, saw the full Hallow's Eve moon shining above him. Parrish had fought Simpson, had cast him back into Hell, had defeated evil in a way Horatio could only concede to, never hope to understand. How could he - how in his logical, practical mind could Horatio hope to accept that such things could be possible, that ships should appear from nowhere and steal mens' souls and his greatest enemy should be thwarted by a freckle-faced midshipman four hours dead? And how, Horatio wondered, could he ever hope to be so strong?
Horatio sighed, stared at the brilliant moon and put one hand in the inner pocket of his cloak. He felt something there and drew it out.
It was a piece of paper, with one word written on it.
And Horatio Hornblower began to believe in ghosts.