It was late at night when the commotion entered the great cabin.
Captain Crozier was up in a few seconds, and ready to bolt immediately after. The knocking on his door became more insistent. By the time he was walking next to his office, Thomas was already up and about, hands crossed behind his back, at the ready.
Lieutenant Irving entered the room. His hair was in disarray, still covered in ice and snow from his watch, his eyes frantic. He was twisting his hands nervously in a way that was so unlike him that Crozier immediately felt himself tense.
“You have to come, Captain.” he said in a small and slightly unsteady voice.
The walk through the ship was a quiet one. They passed wide-eyed men that just kept staring. Whatever was happening, it would be nothing good.
Crozier was led into the hold where an incomprehensible sight welcomed him. The wooden floor had been painted red in intricates … runes. All of them together ran towards the walls like waves crashing against a rock. They formed a circle, a maelstrom of sorts. Francis knew he ought to do - or say- something. But his gaze kept returning to the traces spreading across the floor like ti was the most mesmerising piece of art he had ever seen.
Something rolled in the pit of his stomach.
“It’s blood, Sir.”
Francis’s eye snapped on Jopson, who had crouched near the inscription. A stab of fear suddenly rolled inside him, and before he could even formulate a thought, his hand had clasped on Jopson’s shoulder and pulled him away from the circle.
Every eye was on Francis. He cleared his throat, eyes still on the strange figure. He felt like if he let it out of his sight only for a moment it’d… do something.
A ridiculous thought. And yet .
“Irving, who did this?” he asked.
The lieutenant shifted on his legs. Francis noticed he was standing further away from the circle than most of the men. It made sense, in a way. His eyes were widened, his hand twitching, as if not knowing if he should reach for his bible or his gun.
Irving’s head snapped up. His eyes went to a darkened corner of the room.
There, covered in blood and gore, a small, peaceful smile on his lips, was Mr Collins. His eyes were lost somewhere on the floor, somewhere else. A curl of his hair was falling in front of his brow and into his mouth, trembling with each shaky breath. Doctor Macdonald was at his side, already taking his pulse and temperature as best as he could. Francis wished he hadn’t touched the man - but he couldn’t legitimately ask a doctor not to follow his oath.
“Lieutenant, take two men with you and go to Erebus, please. Ask Sir John to join us: one of his men seems to have lost himself.” Francis said lowly to his second, “Be careful that no one overhear you.”
“Yes, Sir, of course.”
Francis caught the man’s forearm before he had the time to step away. “And be very careful on the ice, lieutenant.”
Little looked at him and nodded somberly. With this, he was gone.
Francis’s attention came back to Collins, who was now mumbling uncompréhensible things at no one. The Captain could hear the men whispering behind them - rumors would spread like wildfire in the next hour.
“He’s delirious.” said MacDonald, “and feverish. I’d like to move him to the sick bay and put him under observation- but I’m afraid it’ll take more than me to move the man.”
“Could it be… alcohol, or some form of drug? Could he have stolen a medicine?”
Macdonald frowned, unconvinced. “His speech isn’t slurred, his pupils are normal. I’ll ask Doctor Stanley if there’s anything missing in his inventory - but to tell you the truth, Sir, I highly doubt it.”
It really, really , wasn’t what Francis wanted to hear.
Jopson and Blanky helped to lead - carry would be closer to the thing - Collins to the sickbay, with a few other wide eyed men. If Collins didn’t outright fight back, he didn’t actively move any limb. He stayed boneless in the men’s arms - and the bulk of his weight was enough to slow down the process considerably. Order was given that no one would have access to the hold for the moment.
Francis would have ordered the whole mess cleaned up in the hour, but he knew Sir John would have to look at this. If only to see John’s face .
Harry Goodsir knew something was wrong when he saw the lieutenant Little coming on board with some of the Terror men. Goodsir was one of the rare men still awake with the few on shift.
He didn’t know why he couldn't sleep. Something kept him awake - something he would have called foreboding if he believed in that.
He was surprised to be called in with the officers in the Captain’s cabin. Everyone had very visibly just been awaken. Fitzjames’s hair was sticking up on the sides and Sir John himself looked somewhat in the fog.
The only one that looked awake, far too awake, was Lieutenant Little. His eyes were moving from one officer to another and he was in such a strange state that Goodsir immediately worried about his health.
“Lieutenant, if you please.” said Sir John once they were all sitting. All but Little.
“Tonight, around an hour and a half ago, Lieutenant Irving found marking on the floor of the Terror’s hold . The markings…” he took a deep breath, “seems to be some sort of runes; something ritualistic, Sir. Made in blood. Like witchcraft.”
There was a silence. Sir John rose from his seat, his hands clasped tightly behind his back.
“Mr Collins was found near the scene. He appears delirious, and was taken to the sick bay by Dr MacDonald. Captain Crozier asked for the Erebites to check on the stocks - maybe he was under the influence of a drug.”
“Doctor, you will look for missing substances if you please.” said Sir John. His joviality sounded empty in the half-lit room. Like a joke falling flat.
“Yes, Sir.” agreed Stanley steelingly.
“Captain Crozier asks you to come on Terror to help him sort the matter out, as the man is an Erebite, Sir.”
“Of course, of course. We will come. Gentlemen, I trust that this matter will not be discussed outside the strictest secret. No one but us will be made aware.”
“Yes, Sir, of course.” agreed Fitzjames softly. His hands were tight against the wooden board.
When they walked back to the sick bay, Stanley was walking strangely fast. The man’s shoulders were tense.
“Mr Goodsir, when we go to the Terror, I want you to stay always, and I can’t stress this enough, always , next to me. Am I clear?”
Harry frowned. “You don’t… believe in witchcraft, do you doctor?”
Stanley froze. His lips curled in a sneer. “Of course not.”
Suddenly, he took two long strides and gripped Harry’s arms bruisingly tight. “I don’t believe in it, but they do. The word is out, and soon it’ll be in everyone’s mind. Sailors are a superstitious kind, Mr Goodsir. I’ve seen this before.”
“I don’t think-”
“This type of thing can spark mass hysteria, Mr Goodsir. And do you know who the first ones are to be hurt in such moments?”
“Women. Strangers. Men of science. You fit in two of these categories. You talked- you were seen talking with Collins.”
Harry’s eyes widened. He opened his mouth and closed it back, unable to find something to say. There was something cold and weary in the older doctor’s eyes. He had seen this before - he had seen it and it hadn’t ended well.
Then, it hit him. “Lady Silence-”
“I have no care for that woman.” spat Stanley, pressing even tighter against Harry’s arms. Goodsir didn’t dare answer that. He had never seen he cool doctor so alarmed - and that alone was setting him on his toes. Finally, Stanley seemed to be satisfied by what he saw on Harry’s face, and stepped back at a more acceptable distance. “Stay. Next. To. Me.” he ordered cooly.
Finally, they were ready to go. The silhouette of the Terror was a dark mass against the colorful lights of the Arctic sky, looming over the glowing ice. The cold embraced Goodsir so tightly that it felt like it remembered him. Goodsir was overwhelmed by something he was sure was a form of nervousness. Almost instinctively, he walked closer to Stanley. The man looked at him from the corner of his eye, but didn’t comment nor sneered.
His arm may even had gone a little behind Goodsir’s, in some sort of deliberate yet aborted movement.
Captain Crozier was waiting for them in the hold- sitting a few meters from-
“Didn’t the lieutenant said it was only on the floor?”
They entered the sick bay in eerie silence.
Dr MacDonald was sitting on a chair next to one of the beds - a bed on which was laying Mr Collins. Despite his size - always impressive - he looked like a child, hands clasped close to his chin, knees drawn together in an obvious attempt to appear smaller.
MacDonald welcomed them all with a tired but kind smile.
“Did you find anything?”
Stanley shook his head silently. His eyes were on the patient, already calculating, analysing everything at his disposal.
Everyone tried to make the man talk. First, Sir John went. Talking about salvation, reassuring words. Collins wasn’t in trouble: it was obvious he wasn’t quite himself. Then MacDonald tried to make him say something - was he hurt? How did he feel? What were his symptoms?
“May I try?”
Everyone turned towards Goodsir. He immediately flushed, but kept his eyes up.
“Well,” said Sir John, “I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to try.”
Goodsir walked slowly towards the bed. It felt so bad, so wrong , to see someone as strong and tall as Collins laying terrified on a bed.
Goodsir smiled softly. His hand went on Collin’s brow. The man was burning up. Goodsir tucked back the curls falling over Collins’s brow.
“I’m not quite a doctor, Mr Collins. It’s me, Harry Goodsir.”
Collins’s face opened in relief. A small, shaky smile. Goodsir wished to look around for approval, but he didn’t dare to let the Lieutenant out of his sight now that there were results. Now that he looked a little less in pain;
“I’ve been told you were quite sick, Mr Collins.” he said, trying to mimic normalcy.
It wasn’t normal. Nothing in here was - not Stanley’s worries, not Sir John’s closed face, and certainly not the residual traces of blood on Collins’s hand.
“Dark… It’s all very dark, Doctor.” whispered the man. His eyes widened, and he started to shake anew.
“It’s alright, it’s alright.” immediately said Goodsir. His hands went to clasp the patient in a desperate attempt at comfort. This was close, far too close to Young’s death for comfort.
“I didn’t want to do it, but I had to. They kept banging-” Collins put a shaky finger on his temple, “here. Toc. toc. toc.”
“Who kept banging, Henry?”
The use of his first name seemed to stir something in the man. “You have to believe me!” he cried, his eyes suddenly meeting Goodsir’s. They were wide, bloodshot. “You have to- I don’t want anyone to be hurt. But he said it was the only way to make it stop! I just wanted them to stop calling!”
The man grasped Goodsir’s arm painfully in his frenzy - and immediately both Stanley and Fitzjames went to hold him back.
“I believe you, Henry, I do,” Goodsir said in panic - and immediately, the bigger man seemed to calm down. “You said you didn’t want anybody to be hurt. But - there was blood on your hands, Henry. Whose blood is that?”
Immediately, Collins stilled. Like he had frozen - like he had become one of the big mountains of ice that surrounded the ships. A chuckle escaped his lips- a chuckle that grew and grew and grew into a crazed laughter that filled the entire room. Even if the man made no movement to get out of the bed, the men immediately went to hold his limbs on the bed.
“They wanted to come! They wanted to come! He told me they just wanted to come!” he cried.
Immediately, Goodsir found himself being pushed back by Stanley, who grabbed the man’s jaw, opened it forcefully and put a leather band inside his mouth to stop him from biting or swallowing his tongue.
The silence was heavy in Crozier’s cabin.
“What is your opinion, Doctor?”
“It’s obvious that the man is suffering from some sort of delirium. As we found no missing substances in the medical stock, I might only assume that the symptoms are caused by something the men would have taken on board or by a disease. The fever tends to point towards illness - but I wouldn’t put it past the men to have hidden some root for recreational purposes.”
Crozier took a step forwards. “Do you agree with this, MacDonald?”
The Terror doctor frowned slightly. “Yes, with the cause of the ailment - I don’t see any other solution. But something else is worrying me.”
“You mean something other than the growing blood pentacle in the hold?” Blanky said with a raised eyebrow.
“Mhm. The… people - let’s assume that it’s people - Mr Collins is talking about. There is the “they” the thing in his mind. I’m sure Dr Stanley would agree to dismiss that as a hallucination of sorts - but there is something else. He talked about a “he”. A “he” that told him to draw the… pentacle, as you say, on the floor. The way he talked about it - that one sounded human to me. Like a person.”
“You think that someone saw Collins in his delirium and told him to do… this?”
Macdonald tilted his head. “It’s… a possibility. We can’t be sure of anything as long as Mr Collins is in this state.”
“And what do we do about the fact that the marking grew on the walls?” asked Crozier. The Captain crossed his arms in his chest, his brown knitted tight in some unknown expression.
“Surely you simply missed some of it in the panic of the situation - no one would blame you for that, Crozier.”
The Captain sneered. “There were seven men in this hold when the scene was discovered. Are you telling me that these seven men made the same mistake, in panic ?”
“Now, now, Francis, there is no need to -”
When the officers went to discuss the proceeding, Goodsir found himself quite alone with the maddened patient. They had taken care to tie his limbs to the bed for safety, of course, but still, Goodsir didn’t feel quite safe.
He didn’t believe in ghosts. He didn’t believe in demons. He didn’t believe in witchcraft. Then why was his heart beating faster; why was there sweat on his palms?
For the first time since the journey had started, Goodsir found himself missing the steely coldness of Doctor Stanley. Surely, the man would have dismissed his concerns with facts, and science, and a few not-so-veiled insults, until there would be no doubt left in Goodsir’s heart that there was only science at play here. That he was a man of science and as such had to look at this all with a logical eye. There would be an explanation. he only had to deduce it.
Watch the symptoms, find the disease, learn the cure. Simple, Mr Goodsir, child’s play. Even you should be able to do that - and for your own sake, and the ones of the men under our responsibility, you will.
Yet, in this lost, unknown land, full of forgotten things and howling winds, Goodsir’s mind wouldn’t focus on the logical . It couldn't focus at all.
“Henry, please… The people - things- you’re talking about… who are they? Are they - dangerous?” he asked urgently.
Collins lips stretched to a soft, warm smile.
“Oh, have no fear, Doctor. They’re already here.”
Somewhere in the ship, there was a scream.