The Secret of Berth Twenty-Nine
It was a brisk fall day, late in the afternoon, when I met Mr. Hilden and heard his strange account.
Vail and I were on an urgent mission to stop an assassination attempt on the life of Count DiMontique. That particular adventure, and its tragic conclusion, are detailed in another account (‘The Apparition of the Ghostly Hounds’, for those readers unfamiliar) so I will not go into detail here. Vail and I were in desperate pursuit of the nefarious Dr. Mendoza, who at the time had a two-day head start by carriage. In hopes of heading him off in Lekar (again, readers who are familiar with ‘the Ghostly Hounds’ will already be aware that we failed to catch the demented doctor in that city), Vail had chartered passage aboard a riverboat and we were making good time up the Musarde river.
The Emerald Lady was quite a large vessel actually, one of the newer steam-powered paddleboats, and Vail had selected it over smaller and slightly faster vessels because it was the only vessel whose captain was willing to run by night as well as day. The boat had an excellent reputation for speed and safety, and her master was known as an expert on the Musarde and Arden rivers. His name was Nathan Timothy.
Despite the fact that our mission was pressing, once we had boarded there was little to do other than hope for fair weather and good progress. We had ridden directly by carriage from Chateaufaux to catch the boat, and so exhausting was our journey that the first evening I retired early to our shared berth and fell immediately into a deep sleep.
The night passed without incident, and I spent the balance of the following day alone, as Vail had secluded himself in our stateroom, apparently re-analyzing the clues we had garnered and familiarizing himself with the weaponry we had brought (Vail suspected strongly that Dr. Mendoza was a special form of ancient undead, immune to conventional weapons). It was a clear day, and cold enough that I could see my breath. Cedar and pine trees marched along the banks of both sides of the river, a dark and mysterious wood beyond, and the fading red of the setting sun sparkling off the water lent the scene an otherworldly beauty. The Emerald Lady was a fair sized ship, and there were a good number of other passengers aboard, but due to the coolness of the air I had the deck to myself, with one or two exceptions. However, after twice pacing the circumference of the boat I was more than ready to return to the warmth of our cabin.
But as I entered I was surprised to discover that Vail was not alone. He was sitting at the small wooden table with an austere and grave-looking gentleman who wore a thick mustache. As the stranger turned toward me, I was mildly surprised to see that although he was well-dressed he appeared to have gone without shaving for the past day or two.
“Ah, Pendleton,” Vail said as I closed the door. “Excellent. May I present Mr. Hilden, a fellow traveler on this voyage? He has just been telling me the most interesting tale.”
“Good day,” the man said with a nod. He looked a little taken back at my quick inclusion.
“Colonel Pendleton is my invaluable associate,” said Vail by way of explanation to the man. “Were it not for him, you would never have been directed to me.”
I was a little confused by this, but Vail was already standing and offering the third seat to me. “Come and have a listen, colonel. There are points of Mr. Hilden’s narrative which are quite unique.”
Mr. Hilden looked a bit put off. “Am I to repeat my story, then?”
Vail nodded. “If you would be so kind. There are one or two questions I may interrupt with, but in the main I think it wise that Pendleton hear the story from your own lips.”
“Well,” said Mr. Hilden, his brow furrowing, “I suppose if it will help to set this matter to rest…”
“I assure you it will, Mr. Hilden,” said Vail. “Please spare no detail.”
“Very well then,” said Hilden a bit reluctantly. “I… I suppose I should say first of all that I don’t travel often, and never before by boat. So when I boarded five days ago I was entirely ignorant of goings-on aboard ships.”
“Five days?” I asked. “Well then, you must have boarded earlier than Chateaufaux.”
He nodded. “Quite right, though I was damned tempted to get off there.”
“Mr. Hilden boarded at Pont-a-Museau, in Richemulot,” interjected Vail.
Again Hilden nodded. “We left at twilight, which I thought a little odd, but I suppose sailing ships have odd hours. I was assigned berth 30, which is on the port side, forward. I didn’t actually know that the staterooms are double-occupancy until I entered. Apparently my companion had boarded before me, for I saw his bags were strewn across the table. I took one look at the disarray of his luggage – one garment bag was laid carelessly across my berth – and I decided right away that I didn’t like the fellow, and resolved to avoid him as much as possible.
“As I say, the boat left Pont-a-Museau nearly at nightfall, and I had spent a full day before, so after moving his luggage off my bed I settled in for the night, turning down the lamps and drawing the curtain. Although I have never been on a boat before, I found the motion of it quite lulling, and I drifted off to sleep almost immediately.
“I don’t believe I slept for more than an hour or so before I was awakened by the entrance of my companion. I remember this only vaguely, for the man stumbled in the darkness, struck his foot on the table, and grunted a curse. He fumbled his way to his bunk and climbed in above me. I remember my distaste at his foul language and my irritation at being half-woken from a peaceful slumber, and then I drifted back into sleep.
“But it was not to be the first time I was awakened during the night. I had dark dreams, Mr. Vail, nightmares. I do not dream at all, as a rule, but that night… I woke in a cold sweat, frozen with fear, convinced I was still in the middle of some horrible night vision. It took me a moment in the darkness to realize where I was, and before I had quite shaken the disturbing feeling I became aware of two things. First, it was cold and quite damp – much colder than it had been when I first fell asleep. The curtains I had drawn to close my berth were in fact moist to the touch and rippling from some draft. The second thing I realized was that my companion had probably awakened me – I heard him groan terribly and shift suddenly in the berth above me. And then he groaned again, and seemed to cry out in his sleep, shifting about restlessly or as if he were in great pain.
“I pulled back the curtain and was shocked to see that the stateroom was filled with a damp fog, which was pouring in thick, ropy tendrils through the porthole, which was not only open but fastened back! The floor was covered in a carpet of the roiling stuff, and it glowed a faint blue-green color - not much, but enough that I could see it distinctly in the darkness, and thus the outline of the rest of the stateroom. I will admit that for a moment I was thrown by the sight… I mean, glowing fog is hardly the sort of thing I see every day. But then I recalled that sometimes the river fogs in this area are faintly incandescent, and that it is a completely natural effect. Something to do with rotting plants.”
Vail nodded. “’Ghost Fog’ is the sailor’s term, I believe. It has to do with a local species of decaying algae and is, indeed, completely natural.”
“Yes,” said Hilden. “That sounds right. Don’t remember where I heard it, but… Anyway, once I recalled that, well, I wasn’t so leery anymore. Instead I was extremely angry. After all, before I retired I had made sure that our little porthole was fastened shut. Only common sense, I thought. But apparently my bunkmate had taken the liberty of opening it again, in the dead of night, and fastening the confounded thing back. To say I was irate is to understate it. I was tired, cold, and damp, and I rose angrily and crossed the room to close the porthole. The floor was slick and the whole room smelled awful – like rotting swamp water - and my ill-mannered companion was responsible. Seasick or not, this behavior was unacceptable to me, and I resolved to have very hard words with him come morning.
“No sooner had I reached the porthole, though, than there came the most hideous cry from behind me! How to describe that awful sound? It was like a madman’s scream, strangled and desperate, and it made the hackles on the back of my neck stand up.
“I whirled back towards my companion’s bunk, where the cry had come, just in time to see a dark shape leap from the upper berth, so forcefully that I am certain I heard the curtains rip.
“For a split second, in the glimmer of the ghostly fog, I saw his face. It was like nothing on earth that I can describe, Mr. Vail. His lips were drawn back in a rictus smile like that of a feral animal, and his eyes started nearly from their sockets. He gasped horribly, a wracking coughing sound, like he was choking on air. And I could swear he was dripping from head to toe with some foul slimy substance.
“I drew back from him in horror, as you may well imagine, but not quickly enough. He seemed not to even notice me, and lunged immediately with mad purpose towards the door. His shoulder struck me a glancing blow as he passed and I went sprawling to the floor, nearly cracking my head on the edge of the table. I am not a small man, Mr. Vail, and the man I confronted in my stateroom that night was not particularly large, but I was thrown like a doll, and my shoulder still bears a painful bruise from the encounter.
“I do not know what I was thinking at that moment, Mr. Vail. The next day I was convinced it was anger that drove my next action, though truthfully I was too stunned and horrified to be truly enraged. More likely I was only trying to see the experience out to its end. I sprang to my feet and gave chase.
“The man had already yanked open the door and passed into the hall beyond, probably before I had even finished tumbling to the floor. I reached the door, which hung half ajar, just in time to see his fleeting shadow dodge to the right at the end of the corridor, some twenty paces away. I was amazed that he had made such terrific time, even at a full sprint, as not more than two or three seconds could have elapsed since the time that I regained my feet. But I bolted after him, sprinting the rest of the way down the hall.
“As I said earlier, my stateroom is on the port side, forward. The passage that runs by my door is narrow, with a low roof – as I suppose all the passages are aboard a vessel like this. It is mostly straight to its end, slightly curving with the hull, then cuts to the right, where it runs by a small set of stairs that lead up to the foredeck and joins with a twin passage which runs along the starboard side of the ship. At the top of the stairs is a small door, kept latched, beyond which is the bow.
“When I rounded the corner I glanced up at the stairs, saw the door was latched and undisturbed, so I raced to the opposite passage. But looking down its length I saw no sign of my bunkmate. It was empty.
“I turned back to the stairs, for although it seemed impossible to me that the man I was pursuing could have so quickly gone through the door and latched it behind, that was the only thing I could envision.
“But when I came out on deck I found no sign of him. Quickly I trotted around the deck, circling the ship, but the only person I encountered was the night watchman, who had come down from the wheelhouse when he saw me pass. He declared that he had a clear view of the bow from there, which was well lit by two lanterns hung out on the bowsprit, and that he had seen no one emerge from below.
“He conferred with the captain, who apparently was at the helm, then accompanied me on a very thorough search around the deck and down into the ship, but we found no sign of the fled man. Strangely enough, the night watchman was more shaken by my story than I was myself. In fact, he offered to share his own quarters with me, should I fear to return to my room, but I refused.
“I could not fathom how my roommate had eluded me, unless he had jumped overboard in a fit of madness, but finally I gave up and returned to my stateroom. I half expected that somehow he would have managed to return there before me, but I found it as empty as when I left it.
“The whole thing was very strange, but I was tired, and more than a bit irritated. I closed the porthole, screwing down the bolt tightly, and returned to my bunk. It was a restless, uncomfortable night, especially as damp and cold as my bunk was, but nothing more than that.”
Hilden paused for a moment in his narrative, reaching for the pitcher of water and pouring himself a glass. It seemed to me that his hand trembled slightly.
“I awoke the next morning,” he resumed, after taking a drink, “tired and out of sorts, as you both may imagine. I quickly checked, but found that my bunkmate had not returned during the night. Stranger than that, though, was the fact that the stateroom was completely dry and warm, and no trace remained of the awful swampy smell which had permeated it the night before. This seemed unaccountable to me, but I let it pass.
“I spent the day as I normally would, I suppose, but kept a sharp lookout in all my wanderings through the ship for my fled roommate. But not one sign of him did I see. I even asked some of the other passengers about him, but my questions came to naught. And… well, there was something strange that happened. The captain came to me at midmorning, and angrily demanded that I stop putting about ‘silly rumors’ among the other paying passengers. He claimed there had been complaints, and that he would not tolerate such behavior.
“So rude was he that I was quite taken aback. I felt his anger was far out of account for anything I had done.”
“Curious,” said Vail, “most curious. Pray continue.”
“Well,” said Hilden, “the rest of the day passed normally, I suppose… except of course for the accident at the railing, but there was nothing too out of place about that.“
“One moment,” interjected Vail. “You didn’t mention any accident in your earlier account.”
“It is nothing,” said Hilden, shrugging, “just another example of how miserable this ship is. I was taking my leisure by the aft railing when the section I rested my hand against snapped off in my hands. I nearly overbalanced and fell into the confounded paddlewheel below.”
“Most interesting!” said Vail.
Hilden was puzzled. “Well, I had hard words with the ship’s carpenter about it, of course, who assured me the railing would be fixed and checked along its length for other signs of weakness. But the whole affair happened in broad daylight, and there was no sign of any foul play. Accidents like this occur, especially when there is shoddy workmanship about. Certainly it had no connection with the strange events that had happened the night before.”
“Perhaps,” said Vail. “Perhaps. But continue with your story, please.”
“Well,” said Hilden, “I will not say that I was unnerved by the thought of returning to my room, but for whatever reason I stayed up later that night, playing at cards with some of the other passengers. Finally, around eleven o’clock, I retired to my stateroom.
“Of my bunkmate there was still no sign, though all his belongings and luggage lay strewn about as before, and his bed seemed untouched. By this time I was fairly certain that he must have either leapt off the ship the night before, or he was playing tricks at my expense. I locked and bolted the door, so that even if he did return during the night he would be forced to spend it out in the hall – no more than he deserved, I felt, after his actions the previous night. I checked and made sure the porthole was closed and fastened down as I had left it – it was – and then, on a whim, I opened the curtains to his berth and tied them back. I then took the lantern which hung by the door and lifted it so that I could see every corner of his bunk. It was completely empty, and I still am not certain why I even looked, but I felt better at ease after I had done so.
“I then retired to my own bunk, closed the curtains, and dropped off to sleep.”
“The lantern, Mr. Hilden,” Vail interjected. “I believe you mentioned the lantern specifically before.”
“Er, yes, thank you Mr. Vail,” said Hilden. “The lantern I left lit, colonel, though it is not my habit to do so. In fact I have great trouble sleeping when there is a light on. But I fastened my curtains as tightly as I could against the light, and despite my misgivings, I fell quickly asleep.
“I don’t know exactly how long I was asleep, whether it was ten minutes or several hours. It seemed to me only a few moments before I started awake, a thrill of horror running through me. For what had awakened me was the sound of something shifting about immediately over my head!
“I lay there a long moment, unsure of what I had heard, whether it was real or part of some half-remembered dream, when other things became apparent.
“First, the stateroom was dark. My curtains had come slightly ajar during the night, but no light spilled in. The lantern had plenty of fuel when I left it earlier, so that even if several hours had passed it should still have been lit. And yet it was not.
“And again, as my eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, I could see the very edge of the porthole through the slit in the curtains. I could not be entirely certain, but it appeared to be open, and even as I watched, the same ghostly fog slowly spilled its way into the room.
“At that moment, just when I was most certain the porthole was open, there came a gasping groan, and something shifted about in the berth above me. It was an unearthly sound, Mr. Vail, and I do no think I can describe it with justice. I imagine that a man, drowning, might sound something like it.” Hilden shook his head, remembering.
“And then?” prompted Vail after a moment.
“I forced myself up from my berth,” said Hilden, “for I was convinced that if I stayed there even a moment more I would become paralyzed with fear.” He shook his head again. “My mind was in turmoil, but still I sought some logical answer. My roommate must have returned, I told myself; sometime during the night he had managed his way in and opened the porthole.
“I forced myself to my feet, then turned to look into the upper berth. But the curtains which I’d tied back earlier were now closed, and I could see nothing but darkness within. There was another awful cough, and the sound of something heavy moving. The swampy rotting smell was so strong that I was on the edge of gagging.
“I stood frozen with indecision an instant, then forced myself to action. I… I don’t know why, even now, but I stuck my hand in, and seized… something.
“It was…” He shook his head again, searching for words. “It was something like a human arm that I seized upon, Mr. Vail, and yet it was wrong. The flesh beneath my fingers was damp to the touch, and cold like a thing long dead that had rested in the murky bottom of the river. And yet it surged and moved under my hand with unearthly vitality.
“It was only a heartbeat I held it, that awful dead thing that moved, and then I turned and fled.
“But before I had got even a few paces towards the door the thing behind me gave a ghastly scream - like that of my roommate the night before but worse, much worse – and I was suddenly struck to the ground by it as it raced by me at a fantastic speed.
“My arm still bears the bruise where I hit the edge of the table when I fell. The door opened, and the faint lantern light from the hall beyond spilled in, and for just a moment – just a fraction of an instant – I saw the outline of its silhouette in the door.”
Mr. Hilden shook his head again, his face gone pale. “Mr. Vail, I tell you this with absolute assurance. It was not the silhouette of the man I had chased the night before. The shape was wrong, too short, and the thing walked with a limp. The limbs were jointed wrong somehow, as if they were broken in several places. And the head… the head was smashed nearly to a pulp on one side.”
Hilden paused then, and, trembling visibly now, took another drink of water.
I was so taken by the horrifying tale that I could not hold myself from asking what happened next.
“What happened next?” said Hilden. “Nothing happened next. I went straight to the night watchman, and took him up on his offer. He was kind enough to fetch my luggage and things from that stateroom, for I would not set foot in that awful place again, not even during daylight. I am thoroughly unnerved by the whole affair, and have suffered nightmares every night since, but I have seen nothing else of remark. And then, just yesterday, I learned that Mr. Vail here had come aboard. He has a reputation for mysteries and things of the occult, and so I resolved to tell him my story. And now I have.”
* * *
“An interesting account, eh Pendleton?” asked Vail after Hilden had left.
“Chilling, certainly,” I agreed. “It is a pity the man would not stay with us tonight to see the whole thing through.” Vail had asked Hilden to pass one more night in his stateroom, with the two of us present as well, but he had refused, and so it seemed we two would stand watch alone.
Vail shrugged. “Understandable, perhaps, considering how shaken he was. I do not think his presence would have aided us in any case. In truth, I think it for the best. If my suspicions are correct, then Mr. Hilden has been a very fortunate man to have escaped this incident without anything worse than a bad shock. I am not eager to place him in harm’s path again.”
I chuckled. “And yet you are very sanguine about our own safety.”
Vail steepled his fingers and gave just the hint of a smile. “I rather think we are better equipped to face the challenge of this particular mystery.” He sprang to his feet. “Come, Pendleton, there is much work to do, and half the day is already gone.”
“Are we off to his stateroom so early?” I asked, a little surprised. “It is hours yet until nightfall.”
“Not just yet,” said Vail, “though I certainly intend to go over it inch by inch with a good measuring tool while the light is still good. But first we must speak to the captain.”
“The captain?” I asked.
“Yes. He is the only factor in all of this that I do not understand.”
* * *
Though Nathan Timothy was not a large man physically, his manner and presence were so intimidating that he seemed to tower above all whom he came in contact. His chest and arms were broad and well muscled, his hands large and calloused, and his face was deeply tanned from long hours in the sun. By reputation Timothy is one of the wealthiest and most successful of the captains who sail the Musarde, owning a small fleet of riverboats that haul passengers and cargo back and forth. Yet despite his position he was wearing common woolens, threadbare and stained. His hair and beard were both raven black, curly, and unkempt.
“What do y’ want?” he growled, looking from one of us to the other. “I’m a busy man, with a boat t’ run.”
If Vail was ruffled by his abrupt behavior he did not show it. “I am Hector Vail, and my companion is Colonel Oliver Pendleton.”
“I know who y’ are,” he said. “Booked y’ on my boat, didn’t I?”
“Indeed,” said Vail. “Perhaps you know something of our reputation? We are investigators, detectives of the occult.”
If anything, Timothy’s scowl only deepened. “What’s that to do with me?”
“We have recently been approached by one of the passengers, a Mr. Hilden by name-“
“That bloody man!” snarled Timothy, suddenly enraged. “I warned him to keep his mouth closed and not to bother paying passengers! Him with his stories and wild tales, exciting decent folk! I’ll put him right off my boat, wait and see if I don’t!”
“You place no merit in his story, then?” asked Vail mildly.
“Hokum and nonsense! And neither should you, if y’ know what’s best for you. The man is as cowardly as a rabbit frightened of its own shadow, and spreading wild rumors and seditious tales!”
“Nevertheless,” said Vail, “with your permission captain, I should like to take a look at the ship’s manifold and passenger manifest, and perhaps interview certain of your crewmembers. And if I might ask the help of your ship’s carpenter in taking a look at Hilden’s stateroom-“
“My crewmen have better things to do than laze about chasing fairy tales, Mr. Vail, and I’ll thank y’ to keep clear of them with your wild theories! Mr. Hilden is a fool who spouts wild stories and there’s an end to it. It needs no more investigation than that!”
“How then do you explain the disappearance of Mr. Hilden’s bunkmate?”
Timothy gave an irritated shrug. “How am I to explain it? The man probably got drunk and is sleeping it off somewhere. Am I to account the whereabouts of every layabout aboard this boat? I am the captain, and a busy man.”
“I would think,” said Vail, “that a captain would be more concerned about the safety of his passengers.”
Timothy’s face darkened with rage. “Don’t presume to be tellin’ me my duties!” he said, shaking a finger furiously at us. “And as for your investigation, y’ had better stay far away from any of my crew, or y’ both may find yourselves confined to quarters and put ashore at my earliest convenience!”
And with that he turned and stalked away from us.
“What an utter buffoon!” I exclaimed after a moment, looking after him.
“Hmmm… yes,” said Vail. “I think we shall have to rethink our strategy, Pendleton. I had not expected the man to be quite so antagonistic. We shall have to enlist the aid of a crewmember who is not so hostile.”
“But who?” I asked.
* * *
Gustav Lancombe was a wiry man, slightly balding, with large gray eyes and a weak chin. He had a nervous manner, and continually dry-washed his hands.
“But… but I don’t understand, gentlemen,” he stammered, “I have nothing whatever to do with this matter. Surely Mr. Hilden told you-”
“He told us that you were the crewman who scoured the ship with him the first night he saw the… apparition,” supplied Vail.
“Then he must also have told you that we found nothing. No traces of any kind. For all I can say, the man was simply overwrought or plagued with nightmares. Or perhaps unbalanced.”
“Yet you offered to share quarters with him,” pointed out Vail. “There must have been something in his story which you found plausible.”
He looked uncertainly from one of us to the other. “Well… his stateroom was quite damp and the man who was assigned to berth 29 was missing… Look, the captain doesn’t want wild stories put about aboard his ship. He is a hard man with a temper, but he pays a fair wage and I have no mind to lose my position.”
Vail frowned. “He has forbidden you to speak of it, then?”
“No,” admitted Lancombe hesitantly, “not specifically that…”
“What then?” asked Vail. At Lancombe’s nervous look he added reassurance: “If it is reprisal from the captain you fear, know that you may rely on our discretion absolutely.”
“Well, sirs,” said Lancombe, “it’s just that… that stateroom… Well, it isn’t the first time something strange has happened in there, that’s all.”
“Ah!” said Vail. “It has a history then?”
Lancombe gave a slight nod. “To my mind it does, though the captain calls it coincidence.”
“What does he call coincidence?”
“I was hired on two weeks past, to fill a vacancy. The man who held my position… well, I have no mind to put about rumors, but the captain told me freely when he took me aboard that my predecessor was a thief and a liar, and that he had put him off the boat several stops before.”
“You don’t sound convinced of that,” pointed out Vail.
“As I say,” said Lancombe, “I am not one to put stock in rumors, but I have heard from the other crewmen that he was not only a thief, but a murderer as well. The story goes that he was caught in a passenger’s room, rifling through his belongings. Surprised at his thievery, he panicked and rather than be caught, he overpowered the passenger who had surprised him and did bloody murder, then set about cutting the corpse into pieces and putting it out through the porthole.
“The captain himself found him at his grisly task and flew into a terrible rage. He seized the nearest thing to hand – some say it was an iron crossbar, others a stray piece of wood left from a recent project of the ship’s carpenter – and proceeded to beat the man nearly to death.
“He then seized the man, and declared that he would not suffer him to stay aboard his ship a moment longer, and hauled him out of the room where the terrible murder had been done and up onto the deck. He then pitched the man over the side, where he certainly must have drowned.”
“How awful!” I exclaimed, repulsed by the story.
Lancombe shook his head. “I must stress that this is only a rumor. Even those I heard it from did not know whether it was true, for the whole awful affair occurred late at night, and none of the other crew or passengers were awake to witness any of it. All that is known is that come the next day, the crewman in question was not aboard, and one of the passengers was missing, though his belongings were still in his stateroom.”
Vail had listened with acute interest, and was now nodding slightly to himself. “And the stateroom was of course the same as the one Mr. Hilden was assigned.”
Lancombe shrugged. “That I do not know, sir, but since I came aboard two other men who were assigned that cabin have vanished, leaving their belongings behind.”
“Gods above!” I said, shocked. “Three men have vanished, and the captain still puts passengers in that damned room? That is tantamount to murder!”
“Indeed, Pendleton,” said Vail. “And now I think I understand the captain’s role in all this, and why he is so hostile on the subject.”
“The captain claims the vanished men all pitched themselves overboard in suicide attempts,” interjected Lancombe, “and insists it so angrily that he will hear nothing contrary. Indeed, he may even be right. I was standing watch the night the second man vanished, and I saw someone come racing up from below deck and throw himself over the bow. I ordered a full stop and seized a lantern to look for the man, but though we looked for nearly half an hour we found no sign of him. The captain finally ordered that the boat move on.”
Vail’s interest caught at that. “Hilden told us that the night his bunkmate went overboard that both you and the captain were standing watch. Does he often stand the watch with you? Is that not your job alone?”
Lancombe shrugged. “Captain Timothy is restless by nature, and going by night is always tricky and difficult. He knows this river well, sir, and usually pilots the boat by night. Why do you ask?”
“Can you get me a good chart of the river?” asked Vail. “Something that shows all the shallows, the contours of the banks, submerged rocks, that sort of thing?”
“I suppose,” Lancombe said doubtfully. “But I don’t think the captain would approve…”
Vail rested his hand on Lancombe’s shoulder. “We are up against an evil creature of great power. It has killed more than once. May we count on your help?”
Lancombe swallowed. “Yes,” he said at last.
* * *
Vail would not tell me what he wanted with the chart, though I asked more than once, and I could not understand what use it would be. “We shall seek to strike the thing in its lair, Pendleton,” Vail said at last. “If we are successful, there is every chance we will not need the chart. But if we should fail, it is well to have a second option.” And, mysterious as his comment was, that was all he would say.
We did not go immediately to Hilden’s stateroom, but instead returned to our own. In hopes of dealing with Dr. Mendoza when we caught up to him, we had brought several items of power. From among them Vail selected two. One was a silver token, mirror smooth and shaped like one of the holy symbols of Lathander, the Morninglord, and the other was the Sword of Fflam, a gigantic claymore that had reputedly been blessed by Baelon himself.
“These may serve us,” said Vail, “though I confess I know little about the nature and vulnerabilities of the thing we will face.” He handed the holy symbol to me. “Wear it about your neck, Pendleton, and be aware that it may be no real protection.”
“Shall I fetch my pistol?” I asked. “It is a mortal weapon, I know, but I have a store of silver shot to load it with.”
He gave me a rueful smile. “I do not foresee it will aid us much. We will not be facing any werewolves tonight.”
Nevertheless I took it, and was comforted to have it in my vest pocket, near to hand.
We then proceeded to Mr. Hilden’s stateroom.
It was smaller than our own, but of the same general design. The berths lay to the right upon entry (our own lay to the left) and directly opposite stood a small wooden table and two chairs. There was a wardrobe just beyond the table and facing, and just beside it was the porthole. The porthole itself was no different than the one in our room: a thick glass plate surrounded by worn brass fittings. It was closed and fastened down.
Vail came to an abrupt halt as he entered, and turned to look at me. “You smell it, Pendleton?”
Warily I took a sniff. “I smell nothing,” I said, a bit bewildered.
“Precisely. And yet both Hilden and Lancombe testified that this room was dampened, the floor slick with moisture in fact. Where is the faint lingering smell of rotting swampwater? Where is the pungent smell of mildew?”
He strode over to the berths, felt the curtains, then the bedding. “Dry and soft, as if they had never been exposed to water. Yet the bedding to the upper berth was soaked through, according to Hilden.”
For the next half hour Vail took measurements, tapping walls, looking for hidden recesses and false panels. First he examined the walls, the table, the wardrobe. He spent no small amount of time on the porthole, unscrewing it, rescrewing it. He then tied back the curtains to both berths and, lantern in hand, scoured every inch of them.
“Perfectly normal,” he said at last, satisfied. “There is no place here for a man to hide.”
“Surely after Hilden’s story you didn’t think we were dealing with a mortal adversary?” I asked.
“No, but it was as well to be sure. Hello, what’s this?”
He was reclining on the lower berth, looking up at the bottom of the bunk above. “Only a moment,” he said, working something free of the upper mattress. When he pulled his hand back I saw he was holding a short iron bar. “An odd thing to find in a bed, eh Pendleton?” he commented, standing.
“It looks like the some sort of crowbar,” I said, getting a good look at the thing, “though it appears a bit rusted.”
“More than rusted, Pendleton,” said Vail, “These brown marks… here and here. See how they flake off? It is blood, though very old.”
“Lancombe’s story!” I exclaimed. “Could this be the very instrument the captain used to bludgeon the murdering crewman?”
“I suspect it very strongly,” said Vail.
“But how could it have ended in that berth? Surely the man who took the upper berth would have noticed it when he lay down.”
“I do not think so. It was lodged in the wiring of the boxspring. As for how it ended there, I have an idea. It is telling that we found it in the upper berth rather than the lower, don’t you think? Perhaps if it were in the lower berth, it would not be Mr. Hilden who came to us with his strange story, but his unfortunate roommate.”
I was shocked. “Do you mean Hilden escaped harm only because his roommate took the upper berth?”
Vail gave a sober nod. “I believe so. In any case, we have discovered a powerful tool. If this was the instrument that took the crewman’s life, than it may still hold some power over him in death.”
He took the crowbar to the porthole and used it to tighten down the brass screws which held it closed. “There,” he said. “It is tightly fastened. I do not believe it could even be opened by hand.”
I gave a tug at one of the thick screws, testing it, but was not able to budge it, and so I concurred. At that moment there came a timid knock at the door.
It was Lancombe, holding a rolled up piece of parchment, which he thrust into Vail’s hands. “Here,” he said curtly. “The captain is manning the helm at the moment, but he will notice if I am gone long. These are not copies, so I’ll be needing them back.”
“Thank you,” said Vail, but the man had already turned away.
Vail then gave the crowbar to my keeping, laid the Sword of Fflam against the wall next to the wardrobe, and took a seat at the table. He spread the charts out and took a look. I closed the door and took a seat opposite.
“Hmm,” he said, poring over it.
“What is it you hope to find?” I asked after several moments.
Vail pursed his lips in annoyance. “Nothing,” he muttered to himself. “Deep water. At least the banks are shallow. That is something, I suppose.” He glanced up at me, then re-rolled the chart. “Forgive me, Pendleton, I do not wish to keep you in the dark, but I think it may be better to keep my secondary plan silent for the moment. If we are lucky we shall have no need of it, but I do not want to risk giving it away.”
I was mystified by this. “You think that even now the creature may be watching us?” I looked around the room, unsettled by the thought.
“I find it unlikely,” said Vail, “considering what we know, but not impossible.”
“What is it then? Some sort of ghost?”
“I believe so, yes. A very specific, very rare type. I have never before encountered one, though I have read of two similar cases.”
“Then you know how to fight it?”
“I have an idea, though in truth it amounts only to speculation. More direct evidence is required. Keep that crowbar close to hand, Pendleton, and do not hesitate to use it when the occasion arises.”
He removed his pocket watch and opened it, placing it on the table. “It is now thirteen past ten. I suspect that we may have a few hours ahead of us before the creature manifests itself. We are as prepared as we can be. Now comes the wait.”
And so we waited. The hours stretched interminably, the only sound the slight ticking of Vail’s watch. To pass the time, I took out my pistol and first cleaned, then loaded it with the silver shot. I half expected Vail would tell me again that it would likely be of no use against the creature we would face, but he did not. Considering that even he was uncertain what would be effective, it was as well to have several weapons ready.
We had three lanterns spaced throughout the room - one hanging by the door, one on the table, and one placed in the upper berth – so on the whole the room was brightly lit, and there was nothing out of the ordinary about the place. In fact, had it not been for Hilden’s story I might have dozed off. But I remained wide awake and very alert, and found myself periodically scanning the room.
Still, after several hours when nothing had happened, I was beginning to wish that I had brought along a book or a deck of cards to pass the time. I was about to make a remark about this when Vail suddenly started to his feet, snatching up the lantern and facing the porthole. “Look, Pendleton!” he said fiercely.
I was on my feet the same instant, but at first I could see nothing.
“The screw, Pendleton! Do you see it?”
Vail had raised the lantern so it was easier to see, but even so, the shadows around the porthole and the darkness outside made it difficult to be certain. It seemed to me that the thick brass screw was still as ever… but had it been in that position earlier?
And then I realized it was turning, so slowly as to make it seem that it was not.
“It moves!” I cried, then leaped forward to grasp it with my hands. Though I exerted the full force of my strength, I could not budge it back so much as half a turn. Instead, it moved against my grip.
“Here!” said Vail, appearing at my side with the crowbar in hand. “Use this! Together!”
We jammed the tip of it into the screw and wedged it in place to keep it from moving, bracing it with our combined strength, yet – incredibly – the screw kept unturning itself, inch by inch!
“Gods above, Vail!” I said panting with exertion. “We… cannot stop it!”
I was astounded to see that the tip of the crowbar was beginning to bend. Then, with a sharp metallic retort, it slipped its groove and I stumbled and nearly fell, though I kept my hold on the crowbar. Vail kept his feet better than I, and I saw him reach for the Sword of Fflam.
It was at that instant the room went dark as all three lanterns suddenly sputtered and died.
In that first moment of total blindness there came a distinct sound from directly behind us, and I felt a thrill of horror run through me. It was the sound of someone shifting about, and it came from the upper berth.
I whirled toward it, my eyes still not adjusting to the darkness, and felt a rancid breeze brush across the back of my neck, making the hair there stand on end. The porthole was now fully open, and out of the corner of my eye I saw a greenish mist spilling over the lip of the opening, winding its way down towards the deck. With the mist came the sickly smell of rotting swamp water, which seemed to wash over the little stateroom in a wave.
But my attention was riveted on the upper berth. I stood rooted for several seconds as my eyes adjusted, but the sound of someone or something thrashing about there was unmistakable. Vail was a blacker spot in the darkness to my right and just ahead, and thanks to the slightly incandescent nature of the swamp fog I was able to see something of the berths. We had tied back the curtains to both of them, but it seemed to me in the darkness that those on the upper berth had been fully drawn. Whoever or whatever it was that was there could not be seen.
After a moment a low groan, gradually building, came from within. It was utterly unlike anything I have ever heard, before or since, and the sheer alienness of it filled me with a terrible fear. I gripped the crowbar even more tightly, aware that I was on the edge of panic.
The moan turned into a low howl, then a sharp cry… then a low groan again. There were terrible gasping sounds between, gurgling sobs as if a man were trying to get air and yet was drowning in his own fluids.
I would have fled had I not been aware of Vail standing so resolutely there, poised and waiting. I took a step towards the berth, my hands gripping the iron bar so tightly it hurt, but Vail laid a hand on my arm. “Not yet, Pendleton, not yet! Be ready!”
The thing in the upper berth screamed.
The curtains there rippled once, then went still. The whole room had gone deathly silent.
Then, with an inhuman roar, it erupted out of the bunk, launching itself at the door.
I do not know how to convey the revulsion and horror that coursed through me at the sight of that… that long dead thing. I will describe it as best I can recall.
It was naked save for a few strands of brackish plant growth that were stuck to it, and it glistened wetly, as if it were something that had been dredged up from the dank depths of the river. The flesh was so pale it was nearly white, and riddled through with bluish veins. It had the general shape of a man, though it moved wrong, and I could see that the arms and legs were bent at unnatural angles, as if the bones within the flesh were horribly broken, and indeed I thought that even in the darkness I could see jagged bits of bone which had torn through the flesh. The face was horribly swelled and misshapen, with eyes that were dead white and a tongue that was black playing about those terribly torn lips. It had hair in spots, but most of its skull was bare flesh, as if decomposing, and the shape of the head was wrong, with a great dent on the upper left side, as if it had been smashed in.
The moment it emerged from the bunk the stagnant smell of decaying plants and swamp water swelled to a peak, nearly overwhelming me. It was all I could do not to retch.
If the thing had taken any notice of us up to that point, it gave no sign. Its entire purpose seemed to be to get through the door and out of the stateroom, just as Hilden had described.
Vail sprang forward, swinging the Sword of Fflam in a blow aimed at the thing’s midsection. His aim was true, but the edge of sword met no resistance, passing cleanly through the creature as if it were no more substantial than air. Vail overbalanced from the force of the blow, crashing into the thing’s chest with his shoulder.
It proved substantial enough then, for in a motion so quick it was difficult to follow it lifted Vail off his feet and hurled him bodily across the room. Vail grunted as he crashed into the wardrobe and lost his hold on the sword, which clattered to the floor.
I noticed this only peripherally, for I had gathered my courage and struck down with the crowbar, aiming a blow at the creature’s head and putting all my strength behind it.
It moved with fantastic speed, and my aim was off. I struck it a glancing blow on its back. Yet unlike the Sword of Fflam, the crowbar met flesh, and rebounded from it as though it had struck iron.
Although only the very tip of the crowbar connected, the blow had quite an effect on the creature. A dark green fluid spurted from the wound, and the thing shrieked in agony, the muscles in the surrounding area spasming violently.
I struck again, but this time the creature was more wary. It shifted itself around the blow, seizing my arm and wrenching it painfully.
I struggled against its iron grip, trying to bring the crowbar into play, but its muscles surged with terrific force and I was suddenly enfolded in a crushing grip. I was helpless as a child, and suddenly finding myself so close to that clammy and awful flesh I was engulfed by a fresh wave of nausea. So horrible was the smell that the room literally spun around me and I swooned in its grip.
That was the last thing I knew before I fainted.
* * *
“Pendleton! Pendleton, are you alright?”
Blearily I swam back to consciousness. I was stretched out insensate on the damp floor, and Vail’s face came into focus above. The door was now slightly ajar, and light spilled into the stateroom from the hall beyond. Of the creature there was no sign.
“Where… where is it?” I asked weakly. The nauseating smell was not half so strong as before, yet the lingering memory of it was making my stomach rebel again.
“Gone,” said Vail, and it seemed to me his face was pale. “For the moment at least. Are you injured?”
I took stock of myself. My shoulder throbbed badly where the creature had seized me, but other than that I did not think myself hurt.
“I think not,” I said, rolling to my side and trying weakly to rise. “That damned smell! I cannot… bear it.”
And then I could fight my roiling stomach no longer. I vomited.
“Air,” I croaked, when I had finished heaving. “I must have air.”
Vail lifted me and helped me out of that awful room, then down the hall and out onto the open deck. The fresh night air helped somewhat, but I still found myself bent over the railing, retching once more.
When I had regained my composure, I looked to Vail, who had looked on with concern. “I am better,” I said, taking a breath. “What is the next step?”
“My brave fellow!” Vail exclaimed, touched. “What a man you are! With bad judgment I place you in peril, yet you spring back ready for battle again!”
“Your judgment was not faulty,” I declared loyally. “I hesitated too long in the attack. The crowbar was an effective weapon. Perhaps if we try again tomorrow evening-“
Vail shook his head. “The creature will be on its guard now. We have found its weakness, and it knows us as a threat now. We have one card yet to play.”
“What is that?” I asked.
“We must run the ship aground.”
I was astonished at his statement, but I had no time to ask questions. He thrust the Sword of Fflam into my hands (he now held the crowbar himself) and said, “Come, Pendleton, let us see the matter finished.”
“But what use is the sword?” I asked. “We have already discovered it is ineffectual against the creature.”
“We may have occasion to put it to use against mortal foes,” said Vail.
We raced up to the wheelhouse together, storming in as if we meant to pirate the boat – which I suppose we did, after a fashion. Lancombe was at the helm when we entered but the captain was nowhere in sight.
“Where is the captain?” Vail demanded.
“He went to the check something on the stern,” said Lancombe, eyeing our weapons nervously. “What are you-“
Vail shut the door behind us, latched it, then looked about for something to bar it with. His eyes fell on the thick wooden captain’s stool. “Pendleton, the stool.”
I assisted him in dragging it to the door and wedging it under the handle.
“Gentlemen,” said Lancombe, “what on earth are you doing?”
“The creature is real,” said Vail, “and there is one sure method to destroy it. We must run the ship aground.”
Lancombe looked at us as if we’d lost our senses. “Aground?” he asked in disbelief.
Vail gave a sober nod. “It is the only way.”
“But the captain-“
“Has placed his crew and passengers in peril for long enough,” said Vail firmly.
“He will never allow it,” said Lancombe, quailing.
“We are not asking his permission,” I said angrily.
“Do not fear,” said Vail. “We are armed. You have no choice in the matter, and the captain can hardly blame you for that. I am not asking you to destroy the ship; quite the contrary. The bottom of the river must touch the hull at some point, that is all that is required. The gentler we do it the better.”
Lancombe looked from one of us to the other, plainly afraid. “The captain would never forgive it. You don’t know his temper, or you would not even entertain such an idea.”
Vail held up the crowbar. “I have some idea of what he is capable. I will risk his temper. If you will not do it, then stand back from the helm. I am no sailor, but I can steer for shore.”
There arose a low growl from the door, as of some animal. I turned and saw the captain’s face beyond the glass, twisted in rage. “Lancombe!” he barked. “Open this damned door!” He saw us, and if anything grew more furious. “You!”
“Run us aground, Lancombe!” said Vail urgently. “Do it now!”
But Lancombe was clearly panicked at the appearance of the captain. Beads of sweat had formed on his forehead and he stood rooted as if uncertain what to do, licking his lips nervously and looking back and forwards between Vail and the door.
“Don’t y’ do it, Lancombe!” snarled the captain, hearing Vail’s words. “Not if y’ don’t want to face me!”
“Now, Lancombe!” Vail cried again, but the man was rooted to the spot. “Stand aside, then,” he commanded, taking a step towards him.
There was a splintering crash and Vail turned back to the door. Captain Timothy had given the door a terrific kick, the force of which had shattered the stool to kindling, sending pieces of wood and glass flying. I was shocked at the superhuman strength he displayed; with only one kick the stout wooden door was hanging half off its hinges.
As for Timothy, his features were so twisted with bestial rage that they hardly appeared human. I saw at once that there was no reasoning with the man. His second kick was even more brutal than the first, and with a shriek of tearing wood and twisting metal the door gave up its hold on the frame, coming to rest at a crazy angle just beyond the doorway.
Timothy was into the room and over the remains of the door as quickly and effortlessly as a wild animal.
“Hold your place, sir!” Vail said angrily, shifting the crowbar to his off hand and producing my pistol – which I thought I had left in Hilden’s stateroom. “One more step and I’ll fire!”
Timothy growled deep in his throat and bared his teeth. Perhaps it was the excitement of the moment, but it almost seemed as if his teeth were elongated, sharper than they had been before. So bestial and fierce was his manner that I do not know if he even heard Vail’s warning. Certainly he seemed to pay no mind to the pistol.
With a roar that sounded like some wild beast he sprang at Vail, leaping the distance between them.
There was a sharp report as Vail fired, and Timothy suddenly cried in a high-pitched whine of pain. His leap went wide and he came crashing down to Vail’s left, directly in front of me. He was clasping his right shoulder, which was wounded and bleeding freely. A look of shock and pain was on his face, but hatred still shone in his eyes.
He made to rise, but I stepped to interpose myself between him and Lancombe, and used the point of the Sword of Fflam to push him back down. I held it directly over his chest, and pressed none to gently. He yelped again and lay back, his eyes smouldering with fury and hate.
“Good work, Pendleton,” said Vail. “Hold him there. Lancombe! Run this ship aground!”
Lancombe had watched the captain’s actions and our short fight with something bordering on disbelief. “I… But I don’t understand!” he protested.
“The creature!” said Vail. “It is a water spirit, a bowlyn. Sever its tie to the river and it will be destroyed!” Still Lancombe did not move, so in disgust Vail said: “Stand aside then!”
But before he made even one step, a warm stagnant breeze blew in through the shattered door, and he whirled again.
“Vail!” I cried, struggling to keep from gagging. “The creature!”
“I smell it Pendleton,” he said, holding the crowbar high. “It knows our aim and seeks to stop us, as it must. Be wary! It will come to us invisible, but cannot attack unless it takes form.”
It was as if Vail’s very words spurred the spirit to action, because even as I watched, a tendril of the incandescent green mist crept in through the doorway, then grew in size until it was the height of a man, and a dark shape formed within it.
There were two lanterns fully lit in the wheelhouse, and they both died at that moment. Still, there was light that spilled in from the lanterns outside the door and along the deck, so everything was cast into silhouette.
The creature had materialized where the mist had congealed a moment before, and Vail moved to engage it, brandishing the crowbar. “Lancombe! Steer this ship for the shore!”
As for the spirit itself, it shrieked and started forward, only to back a step as Vail swung the crowbar. It was wary of the weapon now, and Vail was able to drive it back several feet.
Lancombe was frozen in fear and horror at the sight of the unearthly thing, and even Timothy’s eyes had bulged with disbelief.
“Now Lancombe, now!” urged Vail, holding the crowbar ready for the spirit’s next attack. “I cannot hold it forever!”
“Hurry, man!” I urged, adding my voice. “Else it will destroy us all!”
The spirit itself shuffled back and forth in an arc just beyond Vail’s reach, seeking some way to pass him, and Vail was forced to move with it, swinging the crowbar threateningly when it tried to dart forward. It crooned and groaned as it moved, then roared in rage and frustration whenever Vail forced it back.
It locked gazes with Captain Timothy for a moment, and with a cry of rage sprang toward him – and me, though I do not think it took notice of me, but Vail clipped it sharply on the arm with the crowbar and it howled and backed off again. For his part, Timothy had shrunk back at the thing’s advance, and seemed visibly shaken. His eyes held some measure of shock.
Finally Lancombe’s hands moved, though his eyes never strayed from the creature. He turned the wheel, again, again, and though I could see little of the water out in the darkness, I could feel the ship turn in its course.
This only served to incense the creature, who became even more combative, swiping out with one broken hand to slap the tip of the crowbar away, seeking any weakness in Vail’s defense.
Vail himself was forced to back a step, then two, grunting with the effort of snapping the heavy iron bar back to the ready position each time the creature slapped it down. I could see it was a losing battle, for if Vail was too slow, even once, the creature would spring inside his range of attack and tear him asunder.
I burned to help my good friend, but there was nothing I could do. The Sword of Fflam could not touch the thing, and I had no illusions about how I would fare in a direct physical confrontation with it. I held my place, making certain Timothy did not interfere or try to stop the boat’s new course, but even his ferocity seemed muted now, and he did not look half so eager to rise.
Lancombe stayed at the wheel, watching in horror as Vail was pushed back, step by step, until Vail’s back was nearly touching him.
The creature slapped the tip of the crowbar down again, and this time Vail stumbled, going to one knee. With an inarticulate howl of fury, the thing sprang upon him.
I cried out in alarm, turning from my place and lifting the sword, but I knew even as I did that I would not reach Vail in time. At the same moment Lancombe finally lost his nerve. He shrieked and abandoned the wheel, backing to the corner nearby and huddling down there, covering himself with his arms and quaking visibly.
But Vail had not been quite so off-balance as he had appeared to be. He swung the crowbar and connected soundly with the creature’s midsection, putting all his strength behind the blow. There was a splintering crack as several bones in its ribcage gave way, and the thing itself gave a coughing cry of agony. The blow caught it in midair, and sent it crashing down at the deck right beside Vail.
Vail lifted the crowbar for another strike, but the thing recovered itself and sprang nearly the instant it hit the deck. The two went down in a heap, its clammy dead hands closing around his neck with unearthly strength.
As I ran to where they struggled, I could see that somehow Vail had managed to lever the crowbar into position against the creature before it had landed on him. The crowbar must have pierced the creature straight through, for the sharpened iron tip was poking out of the thing’s back just below the right shoulder blade, a greenish black ichor spurting from the terrible injury.
The creature was coughing and wheezing in agony, but even with the awful nature of its wound it had not loosed its hold on Vail. Vail’s face had gone deathly pale, and he fought desperately against its choking grip, but I could see it was only instants before the thing crushed the life out of him.
Suddenly there was a low groan, not from the creature, but from the ship itself. The deck shuddered and shifted beneath me, and I pitched forward as it tilted slightly, falling to my hands and knees.
The spirit, or bowlyn as Vail had named it, threw back its head and screamed in utter agony, immediately letting go its hold on Vail. As I watched, horrified, it went into convulsions, lifting completely off the floor and into the air. It was not glistening wetly anymore; even as I watched I saw the flesh withering, cracking, stripping off, turning to dust, until only the broken and shattered skeleton remained. And then that to turned to dust, and was whipped into nothingness by a fresh wind that came from the door.
It happened so quickly that several moments of stunned silence filled the room. Then Vail groaned, breaking the quiet, and I hurried to his side.
“Help me up… Pendleton,” he said quietly. “We have destroyed it.”
It was true. Of the creature there was no sign, not even a hint of dust on the floorboards. And I realized dully that the awful smell was gone.
Distantly I could hear the shouts of awakened passengers and crewmen, coming on deck. “We will have some explaining to do,” I said, and Vail barked a laugh.
“Indeed, Pendleton. Indeed.”
* * *
The rest is history. Captain Timothy was enraged at what we had done and the state of his ship (though the hull was not breached and I am given to understand that he was able to get it back into deep water within a day) and ordered us put ashore on the spot. Poor Mr. Lancombe did lose his position over the affair, and he was put ashore with us.
Vail and I went without complaint. The vengeful Captain would surely have tried to do worse to us if it were not for the many passengers and crew who might have born witness, and I should point out that many of the passengers themselves were not happy with what we had done, nor the delay that it would cause them.
So we were put ashore somewhere in the wild Dementlieu countryside, and were forced to make our way overland to Lekar. We did not arrive in time to stop Dr. Mendoza, though we later caught up with the fiend in Stangengrad.
I was still unclear about the nature of the creature we had faced and some of the details about its relationship with Captain Timothy, and later asked Vail.
“A bowlyn,” he explained to me, “is a very rare type of spirit, vengeful and evil. It is always the spirit of a former crew member, and is bound in its haunting to the vessel on which it served. It is thus inexorably tied to the water, and if ever it should be forced onto land – as we did when we ran the ship aground – it will be instantly destroyed. It is a vicious creature, constantly searching for revenge against those that harmed it in life, and it usually stalks innocent crew and passengers, seeking ways to put them in peril. It can only attack them directly if it takes physical form, but while invisible it will still arrange shipboard ‘accidents’, minor at first. You recall Mr. Hilden’s mishap at the railing, which nearly pitched him into the paddlewheel? I have a feeling this was the creature’s doing, and that he was its next target, had we not intervened.
“As to its relationship with Nathan Timothy, we have only speculation and the rumors Mr. Lancombe supplied. I suspect that Timothy did indeed come upon the murdering crewman at his grisly task, and beat the man to death, pitching the body overboard. If so than it is likely the bowlyn held a special hatred for Captain Timothy.”
“But why then did it not attack him directly, instead of harming innocent passengers?” I asked.
“Such creatures follow the pattern of their former lives. The story Lancombe told us suggested that the man stole from passengers and ultimately murdered one of them. Is it so strange that it did the same in undeath? Too, the captain was the man who beat it to death. Perhaps it still held some measure of fear for him. Of course all of this is idle speculation, and we will likely never know the whole story, but the creature is destroyed and the affair is at an end.”
And so we contented ourselves with that.
As for the Emerald Lady and Nathan Timothy, I never saw either of them again, though Vail and I had recently a letter from Gustav Lancombe. It seems that he secured a position on a river barge, transporting timber south from Darkon. He reported that it was a quiet vessel with a good captain, and that he is well pleased with the change in career.
Author’s note: This story is intended mainly as a tribute to my all time favorite ghost story, ‘The Upper Berth’ by F. Marion Crawford. If you haven’t had the pleasure of reading it, by all means do. Also, the creature presented in this story is a Bowlyn, which appears in the first Ravenloft Monstrous Appendix.