Serignan, 25 June

Uncle Friedrich,

Where on earth to begin? I’m going to take the advice of a noted monarch and just begin at the beginning, go on until I come to the end, then stop.

When last your intrepid nephew left you, you were probably picturing me waving farewell to Alia and wondering what the hell I was going to do next and whether I would even survive it. There was a very small brave person inside me who thought, in order to learn the most, I really ought to press on to London and discover what was going on there, despite Alia’s warnings. But the much bigger person inside me who is not so brave just wanted to get home. So I began to pack my things.

And, before long, Ros returned. I hadn’t expected that. It was clear he had not wanted to be seen by Alia, which is why he slipped away. But while I never mentioned him to her she must have suspected that I had not been alone at Highmark. If she’s been privy to any of your learned discussions there in Mauerburg maybe she knows about him now. But on that day, she left without inquiring, and after a few hours he came back. I assume he had been watching us from a distance the whole time.

“I thought you were away for good,” I said. He set about packing his own things without saying a word. “Well, glad to see you’re here. Any road from this place is bound to be dangerous, so, safety in numbers, right? Where are you headed?” No response. “Me, I’m going to head south, see if I can run into some Gallian forces before I get attacked by savage marauders or something slimy with more limbs than me.”

Ros shouldered his pack and looked to the horizon. His walking stick – did you ever go on a hike in the woods with friends when you were young? Where everybody tries to find a walking stick in the underbrush but somebody inevitably lucks into a branch that is unusually large and straight, more of a walking staff than a stick, and wins the day by virtue of the imposing nature of his find? Ros had been on a hike, in one form or another, for the better part of a decade, and had been trading up his walking implement periodically during that time. Consequently, he had the walking stick to end all walking sticks, as tall as himself, sturdy, hand-carved, with a leather grip for his hand and a gnarled knot of wood at the top.

He looked at me and said one word: “South.” That was when I knew I was going to make it home.

And yes, I probably wouldn’t have made it without him. But I might have. We moved cautiously across the countryside, but it was largely deserted. We steered clear of ominous-looking crevices, mist-shrouded bodies of water, and any sort of civilization – even if it seemed welcoming from a distance. One day something had our trail, and we crossed a stream and hid in a tree to try to shake it. That night we heard a snuffling and growling from a hundred yards away, but whatever it was didn’t manage to pick up our scent again. At dawn it let out a mournful howl, so plaintive and sad that it made me think whatever-it-was had not been hunting us at all, but had been simply desperate for contact with another being. And that may well have been true! But we remained hidden.

Late morning on the twelfth day there was a salt tang in the air, and we caught sight of a Gallian foot patrol at the other end of a desiccated field. Ros immediately withdrew from sight, and I followed.

“Listen,” I said, “I’m going to be all right with them. They probably have orders to keep an eye out for me. I’m sure they’re going to whisk me back home so I can give a full report on everything I saw. Are you also trying to get across … to the Continent?”

He nodded.

“Then I can probably come up with a cover story. Just play it cool and we’ll be OK. OK?”

He shook his head.

“So then this is good-bye?”

He shook his head again, and allowed for what might have been a hint of a smile. Then he slipped away before I could say anything else.

I made sure to yell very loudly in Gallian as I approached the patrol. And while they were merely surprised and confused at my arrival, their sergeant at an encampment nearby dropped his jaw when I told him my name. And the lieutenant at the fishing village to which I was promptly escorted began making immediate arrangements to get me on a ship crossing back over the Channel.

That village, as it turned out, was Howgate, where Robards and his band had escaped Albion a year ago. According the his notes that I received from Sanders, the village at that time was a peaceful place, isolated from and (strange though it may seem) oblivious to what had happened to most of their country. The same could hardly be said now. The village was on a decent-sized bay and therefore served as a major landing-point for Gallian forces. They were transforming the area into a staging-point for inland exploration and incursion, though that hadn’t really started yet. Therefore everybody was nervous, rumors about what could be expected were spreading around like crazy, but nothing terrible had happened yet.

The force commander was under strict instructions to send me back to Gallia immediately, without even questioning me, though clearly he wanted to. On the eve of my departure, he went as far as he dared with a simple question, asked conversationally: “Is it dangerous?”

I had a good long laugh at that, but stopped myself, for fear of sliding back into the very dark place my soul was in before Ros found me. “Commander,” I said, “Take the level of preparation you would adopt under the most hostile circumstances. Assume your forces are outnumbered by enemies with unknown capabilities. Go forward with that level of caution, times three.”

I’m sure that in a few weeks’ time the generals safe on their heels back in Les Rives will bemoan the slow pace of troop movements in Albion and send word back down the chain to accelerate things. But if I can save a few poor soldiers’ lives in the meantime from walking into a deathtrap, it will have been worth it.

The next morning I boarded a Gallian ironclad bound for Garnsey. There were much shorter crossings of the Channel from there, but the vortex storms were still a big problem, and the routes to and from Garnsey were still the most reliable. I say “routes” but there wasn’t really a safe path, more a matter of techniques that had been proven to minimize loss, and no one was yet willing to risk trying them in other parts of the Channel. Honestly it was pretty impressive. By any rational measure those waters should be deemed impassable. But every Gallian ship now employs multiple spotters calling out the size and movement of visible vorteces, and on the bridge there’s a map of the Channel and an instrument that looks like a cross between a sextant and a gyroscope that’s used to take the information from the spotters and plot a course. All this to say, the trip to Garnsey was uneventful, if a little vertiginous.

Being a valuable intelligence asset who had been left for dead has its upsides and its downsides. Upsides: well-appointed quarters with a hot bath. Deferential treatment, even from military brass who are used to bossing people around all the time. A shave! Good wine! (Though any wine would have served at that point.) Downside: utter lack of freedom. I was under constant guard – “for your own protection” – and my every movement had to be approved. Remember that back home dear Maman had “gone dark,” as they say in the business, and while I didn’t know then whether she was being actively hunted by La Commission, it certainly meant that I was going to be treated with caution.

So I could not seek out Professor Sanders, which would have been my first move. The evening of my second day on the island, I was informed that I would be a guest at – wait for it! – a dinner with the governor. So, that was awkward. The governor was cooperating with the invaders, not that he had a choice, and while there were a couple local notables at the table they were outnumbered by Gallians. And of course the last time I was there had been under another name, to say nothing of my encounters with the feisty Claudia. Conversation at the table was as buttoned-up as ever, though; no one called attention to any of these facts. This left precious little to talk about, so I had to break the silence.

“I am disappointed not to see the esteemed Professor Sanders here tonight – was he indisposed?”

“Ah, yes,” replied the governor. “His work has kept him very busy.”

“I see.” Awkward pause.

“Your Excellency,” I continued, “I know the last time I was here you were weary of having to use some of your own cellars as makeshift prison cellars for dissidents. I trust you have been able to move them to more suitable accommodations – perhaps with the help of my brave countrymen?”

Another awkward pause, but when he finally spoke his gaze toward me was unusually strong. “As a matter of fact, we no longer have any prisoners here at the house. Matters were resolved amicably, before the arrival of your … brave countrymen.”

“I see. Delightful.” I glanced around at the other Gallians, but none of them showed any sign of understanding our exchange (which had been in Albionese), or of appreciating its significance if they had. I switched to Gallian to put them at ease and the dinner proceeded drearily. Afterwards we retired to the parlor to hear Claudia play the harp. A butler brought me brandy, and as he leaned over to pour he let an envelope slide out of his other hand and fall in between the cushions of the divan where I sat, and hovered there for a moment while I snatched it up and slipped into into my pocket without anyone noticing.

That was how I received your letter, via Sanders, who must still have people in the governor’s mansion, God bless him. He also left a note for me that explained that, with Gallian sails on the horizon, he had been able to convince the governor that letting Robards fall into their hands would be extraordinarily bad, and so he was now hidden at the College. From what I understand of the events in Garnsey this is an ironic turn of events, to say the least.

But I never did get a chance to meet with him personally. The next morning I was whisked aboard another ship bound for the mainland. Walking through the port, my head was swimming, owing of course to all the revelations in your letter. All the things you have discovered about what’s happening to the world, what could be happening – if I understand you correctly – to US, and most of all just who, or what, Ros is. I had thought of him as my guardian angel, but your analysis suggests that he may be one in a sense that is fairly close to literal!

I am glad you have landed safely and found a home for your work. I am less glad about the state of the world if you are right. In your first letter you spoke of reversing what had happened to Albion. Is that hope lost? Will we be able to recognize what the world is becoming … what we are becoming? Will we want to even if we can?

Those were the thoughts swirling in my mind as I approached the dock, as I boarded, as I stood on the deck watching grey dismal Garnsey fade into the distance. So you can imagine my shock when I glanced up and saw Ros standing beside me.

It was really him, not a hallucination, as I soon learned, though at the time I didn’t quite believe it. He was wearing the uniform of a Gallian sailor, and remained only long enough for me to recognize him. Then he nodded curtly, just one man on a boat to another, and strolled away.

And here is where I made a mistake. Obviously he had done what he did deliberately, so that I would know he was there, but would not attract attention. I should have taken heed and bided my time until we could connect with discretion. But my head with aswirl with the notion that 1) the world was ending and 2) Ros was something other than, or more than, human. I desperately wanted him to confirm or deny all the theories you and your friends in Mauerburg have concocted. I should have waited. But I did not.

The crossing from Garnsey is now easily accomplished in a few hours, so I didn’t have much time. I was not under constant watch while on board – where could I go? – but there was one young sailor tasked with monitoring me. A meandering stroll followed by a quick dart belowdecks was sufficient to shake him. I found an unused cabin, lit a lantern, and from there furtively ventured out to see if I could find Ros again without being spotted by anyone else. Eventually, perhaps because there was some commotion abovedecks upon my disappearance, Ros came down looking for me, and I grabbed him by the elbow, dragged him into the cabin, and closed the door behind us.

I stuffed the pages of your letter into his hands, ignoring his startled expression. “Is it true? Is any of it true? Is all of it true?” I demanded.

He glanced at the door, concerned, but then, perhaps realizing that there was nothing for it now, he sat down at the edge of a bunk and read your letter. I paced, but held my tongue until I he had finished.

“Well?” I asked.

“Most,” he replied.

“Damn it, man! For once in your life could you go into a tiny bit of detail?! Are you even human?”

He paused, and delivered his answer in a way that suggested that the truth was a bit more complicated. But he did say: “Yes.”

“And that shitshow back on Albion, everything we saw, the devastation – that’s going to spread?”


“And everybody’s going to die except you’ve got your stupid magic faerie sites and you can use them to … to augment, whatever the hell that means, and maybe save … how did he put it … a subset of humanity. A fucking subset?”

He paused. I had never seen him become emotional before, and I’m not saying he was now, but he was close. “We thought we could do more. If we came at the right time we could save everyone. Or most. But we were awakened early. And one of us died. And we were separated. Nothing happened as we planned.”

“So that’s it, then? We’re screwed. Irrevocably, cosmically screwed.”

“There is a small hope. Highmark did not fail utterly. And if Rexley’s –”

He fell silent and listened. I was in shock that he was uttering full sentences, so it took me a moment to realize that our ironclad’s steam engines had gone silent.

“We can’t be in port already …” I said.

We heard many footsteps approaching, first above us and then coming down the stairs at the end of tiny corridor on which our cabin was situated.

We both realized we had to get out of there before we were found, but we were too late. We emerged from the cabin to find both ends of the corridor blocked – to our left by sailors, including the one who was supposed to be watching me, looking rather irate, and to the right but some unusually burly men not wearing uniforms. They looked New Columbian to me. Standing among them was a wiry bespectacled man in a suit and overcoat.

“Pleased ta meetcha!” he said to me cheerfully in Albionese. “I’m Doctor Amory Brown.”

“Who?” I replied. Of course I recognized the name. And given my emotional state right then it’s a minor miracle that my training worked at all. But, believe me or not, I delivered that “who” as convincingly as ever.

“Gee, sorry, I promise I’ll formerly present my credentials in a bit.” Here he switched to passable Gallian. “I am from New Columbia but I am assisting your government. I am a member of La Commission. Just like you.”

“I see.”

“As you can imagine there are a lot of folks who are very eager to hear about your travels in Albion.”

“Yes, but why are you here?”

“Oh, that. The port. It’s full! Would you believe it? So we grabbed a local lighter and came out here to pick you up. Got a carriage waiting to whisk us back to Les Rives. Do you need to grab your things? If you’ve finished with your little dalliance, that is …”

I felt hopeful when I heard that – Ros and I, slipping out of an empty cabin together – it would be a plausble story if we ran with it, and if no one looked too closely at Ros, who appeared too old to be a lowly boatswain. I did my best sheepish shrug.

“Oh, don’t worry,” said Brown. “Men of your value are afforded some lenience in their proclivities, in my experience. Your friend on the other hand … well, that’s up to his superiors.”

He looked at Ros, who had been keeping his head down so that his sailor’s cap covered his eyes. “You. Sailor. Raise your head. Let’s see those eyes.”

Ros hesitated, but then met his gaze. And the color drained from Brown’s face. His serene, infuriating calm was replaced by something close to panic. “SHOOT HIM!” he screamed. “Shoot! Take him down! What the hell are you waiting for?!”

Everyone was as flabbergasted as we were at his sudden change in demeanor. The sailors weren’t about to do anything that rash, and Brown’s own thugs were slow to respond. By the time one of them had unslung his rifle from his shoulder and was tentatively raising it, Ros spoke three words.

I wish I could tell you what those words were, but I don’t remember, because the next moment, along with every other person within earshot, I had collapsed to the ground in incredible, mind-searing, unendurable pain. It was as if every pore of my skin was on fire and my heart was boiling inside my chest. It was the worst thing I ever experienced, and I’ve been through a lot of shit lately. For me the pain was short-lived, because the next thing Ros did was crouch down next to me and whispered a word in my ear that made the pain disappear. The others were not so lucky.

We stood. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I could not affect them without affecting you also.”

“It’s … OK,” I stammered, my head clearing. “Let’s get the hell out of here.” He nodded and stepped over the writhing bodies of Brown and his goons, heading for the stairs to the deck. But I hesitated when I was stepping over Brown myself.

“Hold on a second,” I said. “I’m supposed to put a knife in this guy’s eye.”

Ros glanced back at him with deep contempt. “Don’t bother,” he said. “It is not really him.”

I made a mental note to ask him to explain that comment later, but I never got the chance. I’m not the murdering sort, so in a way I felt relief. Abovedecks, Ros took my arm and murmured some words under his breath as we walked. We were indeed within sight of the port, with a lighter pulled up alongside the ship, its pilot nonchalantly smoking a cigarette while he waited. There were plenty of empty docks visible, though – that part had been a lie.

So we climbed aboard the lighter and instructed him to take us back to port, and he did, simple as that. I’m still going over that in my mind to see if it makes sense. On the one hand, a good bit of the crew were still writhing in pain belowdecks, so there weren’t that many people left to stop us. (Ros assured me that the effect would wear off in time.) Those that did see us boarding the lighter were low-ranking sailors who may not have known that anything about it was off. And the pilot was just an old seahand from Saint Germain, probably not too picky about which official-looking person he was taking orders from. But part of me also thinks that maybe those words that Ros spoke had some effect, obscuring our movements or making us unobtrusive or something.

It was a rainy day, so Ros and I huddled with tarps held over our heads to stay dry as we rumbled toward shore. To my surprise, he spoke without me having to prompt him.

“I know you have many questions. But they will be looking for us together. We – ”

“We have to separate. Easier to escape detection alone than together. Yeah. I get it. Where will you go? Mauerberg?”

“Better if you do not know. Do you know where you will go?”

“Yes. I’ll be fine. Look, I … if we don’t see each other again. Thank you. You saved my life. More than once.”

He nodded. “You are welcome. But we will meet again.”

And that was the last I heard from Ros. Where the dock met the shore he went left and I went right and we both faded into the rain and mist.

It’s not fun being a fugitive, but if you’re going to do it it’s a hell of a lot easier in your own country, and it’s definitely easier if you’ve had a mother like mine. The details are actually a bit boring, some petty theft and skulking about and disguise, but mostly just a lot of waiting. I made it out of Saint Germain and over the next three weeks made my careful way south. Things were especially slow at first, with checkpoints everywhere, having to cut overland time and again to avoid them. They were part of a new security detachment empowered by La Commission, because when it gets to be a certain size, every bureaucracy wants its very own thugs. These ones had blue caps. It wasn’t all for me, or even mostly for me, although I did spot wanted posters with my face on it. They were labeled “Dangerous Fugitive,” without my name.

Southern Gallia, though, felt mostly the same. I kept up the safe pattern: move, wait for a day or so to make sure no one is onto you, move again. But now the waiting part could happen somewhere considerably more comfortable, as when a vintner let me stay for a weekend in exchange for some help around the place. He even had a horse he needed to deliver to someone in Serignan, and I convinced him I could make the delivery, which made the last few days of my journey fly by faster than the whole previous week.

Serignan is quiet town on the southern coast of Gallia. In reaching it I had gotten as far as my knowledge could take me in getting to where I wanted to go; now I had to trust on luck. After dropping off the horse I found the town’s solitary café and settled into a corner with my coffee. I watched the people come and go, trying to decide who would be the safest one to talk to.

I’m not sure where I went wrong. Did the vintner report me? Was I spotted at some point and didn’t realize it? Or was it just bad luck? At any rate, two local constables strolled into the café, followed by a man in a blue cap.

Mr. Blue Cap had my wanted poster. To his credit, the café owner, when asked about it, shrugged his shoulders and went back to stacking some dishes, not even looking my way. I thought for a moment they were only going to put the poster up and be on their way, but Mr. Blue Cap scanned the room, saw me, and sauntered over to have a chat. He stole a glance at the poster after looking at me more carefuly, and could barely conceal the glee in his voice when he said: “Your name, please?”

If there was a way out of this, it didn’t involve making a break for it right then. “Bertram Dupont,” I replied.

“As I thought,” he said triumphantly. “Come with us, please.” He didn’t notice the raised eyebrows of the constables the second they had heard my name.

As I stood up, one of them spoke. “Excuse me, monsieur. I want to be sure I heard you correctly. Your name is Bertie Dupont?”

“Yes, it is.”

He turned to Mr. Blue Cap. “And this man here, Monsiuer Dupont, he is the one you wish to detain?”

“Yes, of course!” he snapped impatiently.

“Thank you for the clarification.” Then, without warning, the constable swung his rifle butt into Mr. Blue Cap’s temple, knocking him unconscious.

“Come with us, please,” said the other constable. “Madame Dupont has been very worried about you.”

If one is to maintain a safe house in a remote location, and if one plans to be there for any length of time, you either pick a place where you know the local authorities, or buy them off, or (ideally) both. Maman had done just that, which is how I find myself writing this to you with a glass of wine at my side and a lovely view of an ocean untouched by vortex-storms. She is very angry with me, though, because the incident at the café means were are going to have to relocate to one of her other safe houses. I am going to send this letter out before we leave, and trust in her network to get it safely to you, eventually. I am also including all my notes from Highmark, which will be a hell of a lot more useful to you than they will to me.

When I was younger, and Maman was making me learn the finer points of shaking a tail, or reminding me to review all exits of a building before I entered it, I would moan, “Je ne veux pas être un espion, maman!” But she kept right at it, perhaps trusting that someday it would all prove useful. And of course it did. Now it looks like I’m going to have to embrace that occupation after all. I don’t want to give up on the shred of hope Ros spoke of. But to find out more, and to set Gallia on a better course, we have to get back into the good graces of those in power. And that will never happen while La Commission holds sway. So, it has to go. That will take a lot of planning. And scheming. And skullduggery. I can’t wait.

But sadly, all this means that our correspondence must come to an end. It took all my charm to convince Maman to even let me send this last one. You will hear from me again if we are in some measure successful, or not at all. Good luck, uncle! I hope you weather the storm. I hope we all do.



Mauerburg, 8 June

Dear Bertie,

It has been the better part of a morning now until I have found myself calm enough to write you; this first part has been penned after the excitement of having very unexpectedly received your letter, but the latter sections will be my copies and re-writes of records that I had been making now these past eight weeks, intended for you all along but never sure that you would be in continued correspondence.

From now re-reading your letter of 31 May I will take pains not to give into my overwhelming temptation and dash out something quick, but altogether too short, in the enthusiasm and delight of hearing from you again. Since you seem to be on the move toward the south of Albion, hoping to make contact with Gallian soldiers, then I think I will take the time to write out what this happy round of correspondence needs. And that, my nephew, is best understood as an attempt to provide more forthright and bare information, coupled with a measure of precise detail, than I might have been able to afford in the past.

Not that I was never truthful in what I wrote, or complete—that is not my gist. I mean to say that although I cared nothing for those that might have watched our correspondence, the circumstances are vastly different now. And, in fact, a period of you and I having not heard from each other may well be a boon in this area. We may be—and ought to be—freer with our information than ever before, given the developments on my side of things of the last eight weeks, and indeed, as I read, yours as well. I am glad that you have come to a similar revelation, via your own route, that we no longer have the luxury of being anything less than frank and urgent, content to wait upon the priorities of our paymasters.

I am very thankful that the intrepid Alia was your erstwhile savior, if not a messenger—I can imagine the scene of her swooping out of the sky like a mechanical angel—even if she was necessarily cautious of you at first. That she was busy ferrying messages between the two halves of the Rackham and Crane mission since their division makes logical sense given what I know. That she was blackmailed by this Dr. Amory Brown makes me hate him all the more, fitting with what I have already learned of him. My re-produced notes below will explain something of those comments, but what you say also gives me some hope that you and I may yet make the acquaintances of Mr. Benjamin Rackham and Dr. Eliot Crane, despite what Alia might have described of their situation. I have never met Alia, but last week I made a brief greeting of her sister Alona here at our laboratories. As our collaboration with Sanders increases—without the corruption of the Society—I believe that the discoveries I will explain to you will deepen and prove themselves true. Alona, and perhaps her sister, may very well play a key part in that.

As for myself and my new colleagues, we are in the northern Saxonian town of Mauerburg, known, ironically enough, for its medieval walls that once saw it through the onslaughts of the ambitious Novgorod kings centuries ago. Its walls have now become a symbol of the quixotic and doomed goal of my fellow Saxonians to resist the changes that, we are sure, have already begun to take hold on the Continent. No, the cataclysm that blights Albion will not be localized to that island nation—we are sure of it now, from our work. The Gallians have chosen not to listen, and indeed their Quarantaine, as well as La Commission itself, were established in the fool-hardy belief that they might prevail over the events that most certainly herald the closing months of our current Weltstufe. What they fail to see—to their detriment, of course—is that no nation on this world will be spared. Not even the myopic and thick-headed New Columbians, despite whatever plans this Brown has concocted. It all must change, and we with it.

In the meantime, I have conveyed your name to my colleagues should you decide to come and seek a short refuge. That said, your developing abilities, and mine, may be called upon to usher in the next Weltstufe. You may read this and you feel yourself under no Abilities, no altered state, and neither do I: but as you will read in my notes below, it is very likely that you and I may develop them, in time. Especially you, since you have already traveled at length through Albion proper, and have not managed to turn into a pillar of white-gray salted ash, nor have you changed into an arouranthrope, like so many of the sad remains I have studied. Take heart that this is good news. If you make your way to Mauerburg any time in the next few months, find Herr Brandt, and he will lead you to me. If you continue to work for your current employers, then feel free to pass along to them our latest research. It won’t make a difference if they know; and in the best of all possible outcomes, perhaps what I explain below may convince a few of them to act in concert with us.

I’ve composed the information on the next pages under two topics; I recognized that while I had originally recorded my notes in chronological order (as anyone with my training naturally would) what I have to tell you makes better sense if I group the findings under like headings. Where memory served me, I attempted to tell a narrative of the most salient parts from my perspective, adding in what I recall my colleagues might have said, or actually had said. I did this in an effort to make things yet more clear to you—you are certainly clever, but that there are some highly technical details that require the support of background or context.

On the Nature of Conveyance Lines

I was correct about some of the direction my earlier work at the College had been going, although I did not know to what extent in some cases, and in other cases I was off along a side track that might never have gotten me back on the main road were I to have spent weeks examining it. My original Society handlers had directed me to review the star-charts you graciously recovered from the Observatory in the thought that the time of the next Weltstufe was predictable from the arrangement of the celestial bodies in the night skies above. I might have told them even then that the end of the current era of the world was at hand, but I sensed that this was not the kind of answer they wanted—so, misled by the direction of my own superiors at the time, I blundered around in the dark, not seeing the truths right in front of me. At the time I was also unable to obtain from my own organization the ancillary material necessary to make the connection which I later saw staring back at me in plain view just a few days after I moved from Essen to where I am now.

The world is criscrossed with pathways, hidden from the eye and impossible to traverse unless one knows the secrets of their activation. These pathways, or lines of conveyance as they first appeared in the work of one of our foundational sources, permit near-instantaneous travel between their points for living beings. They are not overland routes nor subterranean passages, although many of their terminal points, or “nodes” happen to be found underground. The lines of conveyance, the energies that support them, and the nodes that connect them have been here for millennia. Only recently—only because the current Weltstufe is at an end and a new one begs to be ushered in—have they reappeared, accessible now to adventurers like you, and of course Rackham and Crane. We have evidence that at least Rackham has experienced travel along one of them, if not Crane as well. We also believe that the despicable Brown has been exploiting them for his own ends—although exactly what these ends are we cannot say.

What I had been chasing using the astronomical charts was the timing of the Weltstufe and its portents; what I ought to have been seeing was the correspondence between the stars and the lines.

With help from a strange little man named Haien, a curator of archives here, the stars and their motions were plotted against a map of Albion and the Continent. With a simple mathematical algorithm of Haien’s design which allowed us to take into account the distance of the stars in both their apogee and their perigee from our world, we were able to plot both the locations of the “nodes” of the conveyance lines. What we found was that the distance of certain stars from our world was proportional to the power invested in the many and several nodes that we had gathered information about. The perigee of key stars in both the winter sky and the summer sky has happened several times in recorded history, and thanks to the last eight years of painstaking cross-referential work by Haien, a tablature of the “activation” and the “dormancy” of the nodes for conveyance lines has been compiled. According to our theory, at the end of a Weltstufe, these stars are all in perigee, activating all of these nodes. Also notable at the end of each of these eras of history, a comet has been seen passing close to the world. With the comet’s appearance, a “central hub” appears and sends out its power along these lines, allowing relatively free travel between them for a short time. All signs point to Highmark being this Weltstufe’s hub.

I recall the conversation with Haien, in the studio portion of his sprawling office. I had finished a reproduction of the known nodes of the conveyance lines on a large map, more of a collection of smaller maps either recopied from Von Neumann works or from Haien’s own gathered research. For each site, every time we were able to confirm at least three sources from stories, legends, records of the unexplained, or from eyewitness accounts on the site, we plotted its supposed location on the map. At the end my first month in Mauerburg, we completed two dozen of these cross-referenced locations, with five more listed as likely or possible. Some of these sites seemed more important than others, with more lines of conveyance passing to and from them.

“What you’re saying, Haien,” I said, studying the connections plotted on the map in push-pins and string, “is that this is not the first time the world has experienced this.”

“Not at all, Herr Doktor,” he replied, from somewhere behind me. Haien was the kind of researcher who, if allowed, would assume too much familiarity without establishing a like protocol for his own titles and experience, which, given the circumstances, I found relieving. I needed not regard him to know his pudgy nose was wrinkled upward to lift up his ponderous round spectacles in effort to add weight to what I sensed he would say next.


“Three times in recorded history, with archaeological evidence to suggest a fourth time. We may well be looking forward to a fifth impending Weltstufe, if not a later one yet.” I noted that his pronunciation of the Saxonian word was tinged with a different accent, very possibly Carpathian. Around the office we had fallen into Albionese as a default, since other assistants and colleagues on retinue here seemed to prefer the same.

“Each time a comet?”

“Yes. The last time was sixty years before Rexley published his volumes, er—”

“The Universal Lexigraph, yes,” I hastily interrupted, turning to look at him.

He smiled. “Begging your pardon, I meant to say his earlier works, such as the Utility of Nature.”

I nodded. “Indeed. You have read them all?”

“Not in entirety,” my short colleague admitted, joining me at the map. “But he knew enough that the comet passing through the atmosphere awakened effects in the world around him.”

“Surely if it were the end of an age, he and his contemporaries would have recorded more effects than this.”

“Not if the central, er—chamber—had not been activated,” he said, lifting his glasses to peer closely at the red pin labeled ‘Highmark’ on our map.

“I don’t understand,” I said, stepping back a moment to take in the breadth of the web we had plotted on the massive board. “The activation of the hub is something that could be chosen?”

He shook his head. “Not from the evidence we have. You see, not every Weltstufe ushers in changes to the extent we think this one has. It’s entirely possible that Rexley was fortunate enough not to live through a Great Cataclysm, yet be able to uncover at least some of the discoveries that have flooded into the Society within the last two years. His early work would have found correspondences to what we have learned now, but he may not have had the entire picture.”

I stared at the map one more time before reaching for my tea. “You mean the Ur-Samekh runes. What Von Neumann based his own research upon during his time at the Extern-Universität.”

“Not just based his research upon. He managed to codify three hundred and forty distinct syllables in the language of Ashkur.”

“Ashkur?” I asked, blankly.

“It was a city of ancients, founded well before the migrations of the four tribes out of—”

I waved my hand to stop him, thankful for his wealth of knowledge of ancient civilizations but with no stomach for legends that day. “We have other Von Neumann volumes, Haien—where are these codes?”

He looked downward. “We do not know. The Society owned a great set of them once, said to be the only copies made after the professor’s death. They never reached Mauerburg. But there is the curious story of their disappearance.”

“Which is?”

“They were simply misplaced,” he chuckled.

“This is why the Rackham and Crane expedition had been backed by the Society,” I concluded, sighing with the satisfaction of sudden recognition. “They needed Von Neumann’s work, and without it, they were trying to gather as much information on as many symbols as possible.”

Haien nodded and refilled his tea. “From what I understand, Rackham’s money had been his own, but many of the other elements, including key members of the expedition, were Society agents.”

“Crane?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Not to my knowledge,” he replied. “But the friendship between the two, stemming from their schoolboy days, provided a handy cover for Society leadership. If the New Columbians were to catch wind—”

“Yes,” I murmured, returning to the map.

“At any rate,” Haien continued, “you asked about comets. We think that the Weltstufe that ended of the Ashkurian civilization had its own comet, which passed very close to the world and blotted out the sun.”

“Your source?” I inquired. “This would have been before the advent of the written word.”

“Our observations of the path of the comet that passed into our skies two years ago, with a mathematical formula that agrees with every aspect of its appearance,” he replied, adjusting his spectacles. “And, of course the fossil evidence of the Tyrolian glacier basins.”

“That’s it?”

He shrugged. “There are also the markings of the caves on Skald.”

I turned and frowned at him. “How did we—er, excuse me, the Society—recover those? I thought the mission on Skald had been abandoned.”

“Begging your pardon, again, Herr Doktor,” he said after a short cough. “The mission had in fact come to fruition as the establishment for the allomorphic experiments.”

A look of disgust and horror came across my face as I thought back to the many twisted and changed corpses I had dissected at the College of Surgeons. Poor devils.

Bertie, I do not quite recall the conversations over the next few days as well as I do the one we had on that particular morning, but I can tell you a few more details I learned from Haien over the course of our work—before I was assigned to reviewing the prevailing theories regarding the transformations (with details in the next section).

In the first place, Bertie, your description of the Highmark location as an “emergency chamber” may prove more apt than you might know. It is a prevailing opinion here that each of the sites Haien and I have plotted on the ponderous map that dominates the wall in our laboratory functioned once, long ago, to somehow accommodate and link the Ur-Samekh speakers of Ashkur, providing refuge against the effects of the changing of the world. Haien sometimes refers to them as the “original people,” preferring not to give this civilization the label of “true speakers” as has been suggested elsewhere in some of his sources, most notably the few Von Neumann works we do own. The Highmark chamber, it has come to be regarded, may well have been a special protective chamber that linked the remainder of the sites when it became active, but which also the leaders of this mysterious civilization might regulate and join their people, lest they become lost.

If he were writing you, Haien might say flatly that these chambers were the method by which the Ur-Samekh speakers were able to continue their civilization from one Weltstufe to the next, where widespread catastrophes proved impossible to continue whatever lives they had led at the time of Ashkur’s ascendance. As I keep reminding him, we can support no theories about the utility of the sites and conveyance lines unless we have incontrovertible evidence that is supported independently from non-contemporaries of the main source. While I do think that Haien is given to occasional flights of fancy, he does not know yet that I intend to support his conclusions in my own report to the others, based partly on your reports but also some information that I had managed to retain after the break-in and removal of my materials earlier this year.

I believe that the Essen dig uncovered three of these ancient Ur-Samekh speakers, awakening two of them from a state of self-induced slumber in which their unique physiology allowed for a state of prolonged stasis. I take my source as Bennington herself; she had managed to write a small examination manual on the subject she called “Rachel” which, as I understood when I received the work, was somewhat more benevolent than the other ghastly things the Society operatives did to her there. I only wish I had Rachel here in our midst to prove this theory beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Our shared view is also substantiated by the preponderance of runes at each “activated” location. Reviewing my own copies of the rubbings I sent you a few months ago, my intuition tells me that some of the symbols relate to transportation along the lines, while others seem to be different somehow, more descriptive than they are functional. I believe that I can support Haien’s archaeological theory that the Ur-Samekh speakers used these sites to not only preserve their lives but also to preserve the history and culture from one catastrophic Weltstufe to the next, with transportation between places allowing the sustenance of some sort of leadership or collective good.

The work that Haien had completed before my arrival also points to a rule-governed variance in the appearance of the sites throughout history, independent of cosmological events or the marking of time in semi-catastrophic eras. Several sites under Haien’s study had been active in their own ways but remained “unlinked” from the network for centuries, and were active at different times because of the positions of the corresponding stars. Skald was like this, according to him—and true to Rexley’s suggestion, is linked to the alignment of certain planets and the position of Tisiphone. In an earlier letter, I told you that I thought it sunk under the waves and raised again, around every two hundred years; but Haien would say that it does no such thing, since the Society landings there confirmed that full trees and a variety of plant life grows there since a few years ago when it reappeared, which would have been impossible during submerged years. While we do not know exactly the manner of how it can disappear for years at a time from the very passing of seafarers, Haien would nevertheless tell you that no one save for Edmund Rexley had even come close to finding these patterns between sites such as Skald and the movement of the stars, not least because their patterns were not recorded until recently in human history. Those early sages who had an inkling about such things certainly never had recognized what they were looking at. Sadly, Von Neumann was closing in on this conjoined cosmological and archaeological theory as one of the greatest research minds of our time, but the bulk of his work has been lost to the disintegrated relationship between the Society and New Columbia, the incompetence of the former, and the avarice of the latter.

You can imagine, then, that the expedition of Mr. Rackham and Dr. Crane, can be said to have generated the greatest record of the Ur-Samekh speakers in the wake of the Von Neumann works and since the age of Edmund Rexley, recording and cataloguing all that they could and sending their findings to and from the halves of their mission. Whatever little we here in Mauerburg have been able to recover as copies of their correspondence seems to prove that humanity was not the only sentient life on the planet, a theory which of course was held and expanded by Von Neumann. As a result, it is imperative that as many of their records that can be recovered as possible be found—and the flyers might be the key, Bertie, if you can find a way to be in contact with her again following your rendezvous with your countrymen. Even if either Rackham or Crane, or both, are compromised, Alia and Alona know where they are. If they do not, they seem the ones that are most capable of locating them again.

On the Transformations

The last few weeks, then, have turned from analysis of the heavens and their relationship to invisible roads used by ancient peoples to the specific—and alarming—breakthroughs in what we potentially understand about the physiological changes present in the various specimens that came my way during my time at the College, combined with newest crops of specimens here, and observations gathered from various sources, including your own most recent letter.

If you recall, I explained some months ago that a man named Tarquin had watched me in the wake of the break-in at the College, following me daily to my preferred café in Essen, until such time as he could make his identity and purpose known. In the weeks that have followed, Tarquin has become something less of a recruiter and more of an organizer of sorts, assisting in my requisition of new equipment and introductions to valuable contacts such as Haien. At least I can say about these fellows that they are more respectful of my work than my previous handlers ever were. (If you had been reading for what factors influenced me in formally renouncing the Society and finally joining their efforts, here is indeed at least a partial explanation.)

At any rate, on several occasions, I met with Tarquin, as well as his associate, a woman named Covington. Covington is an older woman, with eyes and a demeanor bespeaking military rank and experience; both are Albionese, something I found almost unsurprising. In private quarters, Tarquin sometimes referred to Covington as “the Countess,” but would not explain whatever noble lineage she possessed. I recall one particular revelatory conversation which, in like wise that I attempted for my talks with Haien, I will endeavor to reproduce to the best of my memory. This conversation occurred last week, thankfully, so I believe I have command of its detail.

“You must be wondering something of your purposes here, Herr Doktor,” Tarquin called to me from his comfortable settee in a sitting-room somewhere in the town. I noted that over the past months, half of my working time had been spent at the central laboratory location in the old part of Mauerburg, and the other even half had been spent providing updates and reports in private residences around the town. I did not know if this was done for convenience or for some strategic advantage.

“I have in some ways, Tarquin,” I responded, sitting across from him, expecting still to provide a summary of my most recent findings, whereupon I would be allowed to go. “But in other ways I can see the direction of it, especially where concerns bringing in the critical work of Haien and his assistants.”

He nodded, closing his eyes with a little smile. “But you must naturally wonder about the intersection of that work with what you’ve found among the specimens.”

I swallowed, wishing to convey intention in my next words. “I must ask that you not call them specimens. They are people—or, according to what I now conclude—were people. But they deserve freedom just as any of us do.”

“As soon as we can confirm that they are not a threat, we will release them. And after all, are we not treating them with the utmost respect?”

“Yes, but that doesn’t excuse detaining them overlong,” I replied, testing the waters.

He sighed. “When the Countess arrives, she can explain better than I can what our strategy is in this regard. For now, I will take your tack as one of compassion, and note it among your more positive traits.”

I relented and reached for a pfeffernuss biscuit. Somewhere in this upturned world, I thought to myself, someone continues the critical work of turning out pfeffernuss biscuits. (I forgot to mention earlier, Bertie, that I sent a small tin of biscuits along with this letter, and I expect you are munching on them as you read these lines.)

After a few minutes of smaller talk and the discussion of some sundries that I needed at the laboratory, Covington arrived, assisted by a spritely teenager, who I learned later was a grand-nephew. Covington and I had met twice before, and as a result the three of us were able to quickly move to the main point of our meeting.

“Herr Doktor, I asked you here today to give an account as to your findings of the last month,” Tarquin prompted, smiling tightly at me.

I leaned forward in my seat, meeting her gray eyes. “Bennington’s data is conclusive, and I have been able to reproduce almost the exact findings independently.”

Covington looked, for a brief moment, as if she were about to shed a tear at the relief my news brought. Something in her shifted, however, and she remembered something more stoic in herself, and simply nodded slowly, blinking softly as she listened.

I continued. “The superstrata are all demonstrable, and above all they are stable. The samples we’ve collected will withstand transport. I cannot guarantee every individual reading, but—”

Covington raised her nose. “But you have isolated specific phenotypes?”

“Yes. There are three.”

She and Tarquin exchanged satisfied expressions. “Very good. They are?”

“We have catalogued a clear pattern of augmentations among those we included within the first phenotype. These augmentations all seem benevolent in nature, although within about five percent of the sample, the augmentations resulted in death from an inability for the body to become fully hospitable to the changes. Within this first phenotype, we observed specific variance in the beta set of the superstrata collected.”

“And in the alpha set?” Tarquin prompted.

I drew a long breath, heavy with the meaning of what I was about to report. “The alpha set is identical in each specimen—er, volunteer.”

The last word hung in the air between us, causing Covington to raise an eyebrow, but I sensed no imminent reproach.

“They can go free,” she said suddenly.

Tarquin sat up in his chair in protest. “But we don’t have—”

“We have enough, thanks to Herr Doktor,” she corrected, waving her hand. “We are not the Society.”

“Nor are we the New Columbians,” I put in, taking advantage at the unexpected support I now had for my original request.

Tarquin relaxed, resigned to the impossibility of fighting a two-front argument against those who, after all, he had sworn to respect as equals. Covington may have counted herself as first among equals, but if she had power in this way, she never seemed to wield it. (Perhaps, Bertie, this is where the structure of Society leadership had fallen astray.)

Tarquin turned toward me. “You said that there were three phenotypes?”

“Yes,” I continued, thankful to return to the main point of my report. “The second phenotype is one where we found the alpha set of the superstrata identical to the first, but the beta set seemed to have been altered somehow. Stunted, perhaps, is the correct Albionese word.”


“Yes, as if the coding of the beta set seems to have begun to follow one of the directions observed among samples of the first phenotype, but then stops. In its wake there is the introduction of a coding set that seems—well, chaotic, and not based on the chemical trace patterns of the other beta sets. In one-hundred percent of these occurrences, we found the same result, which of course we identified as arouranthropic.”

“Has this altered your original categorization scheme?” asked Covington. It encouraged me that Covington had read as much of my work at Essen as Tarquin had.

“Somewhat. My team and I are now categorizing the first phenotype as superpotentials, and folding non-arouranthropic animalism under this category, given the additional assistance from the volunteers we—ah—recruited. The second phenotype is now firmly designated as degenerate, not least due to the non-conforming chemical markers, but also due to the subtractive nature of the resultant changes.”

She nodded, satisfied with this explanation, and understanding enough of it to ask her last question. “And the third phenotype are those who have no beta set present in their superstrata?”

“—Who have no superstrata present whatsoever,” I corrected, gently.

Tarquin and Covington exchanged looks once again upon this news. “That confirms what Haien came up with in his last report,” the man said, and stood up to begin pacing.

I frowned. “I haven’t had the opportunity to speak to Haien for a while now,” I said, folding my arms. “Perhaps you two could let me into the newest developments?”

“He’s shared with you his evidence about the speakers of the Ashkurian language?”

I looked up at Tarquin, licking my fingers from their dusting of sugar. “Ur-Samekh. Yes. I should rather say so. And you know I support his reasoning?”

“We do. And we’re all in agreement that the Essen beings were three of their number. But, Herr Doktor, have you ever wondered why the human race survived the changes from one Weltstufe to the next?”

“You mean,” I clarified, “if the nodes and conveyance lines were meant for this advanced race, why humans would have continued to exist in their present forms throughout the centuries, managing to avoid extinction themselves?”

Covington let slip a little grin. “Exactly, Herr Doktor.”

“Clearly they were allowed to access the protections of the Ur-Samekh speakers as well,” I laughed, half-leading my colleagues into their next revelations.

Tarquin smirked. “Not quite so,” he returned, leaning against his brick mantle. “In fact, Haien thinks that they were given specific alterations from the Ur-Samekh speakers. Something extra that allowed them to survive—on their own terms, but indeed survive. Call it an uplift.”

I pursed my lips, suddenly understanding. “Call them augmentations, you mean.” At this, I caught Covington indulging in a smile of satisfaction from the periphery of my vision.

“Indeed, man,” Tarquin said. “Haien thinks that some subset of humanity was gifted by these ancient people.”

“How?” asked Covington, flatly.

“Passed through infusions of blood,” Tarquin replied, letting the connections set in for a dramatic moment. “As for Rexley, he knew he needed to find one of these ancient ones. He didn’t know he was about two hundred years too early.”

I nodded. “And I suppose that there’s one critical more detail present in Haien’s work that you are going to explain next.”

Tarquin narrowed his eyes. “Well—yes.”

Covington put her hands in her lap. “Well?”

“There are no historical precedents whatsoever supporting the appearance of rat-men,” he said, slowly.

“Arouranthropes, if you please, Tarquin,” I corrected. “As far as my research can indicate, we do not know if the extent of the degenerations meant that the poor creatures lost their minds. They may yet have been human—inside. Somewhere.”

Covington waved her hand again, indicating her lack of patience with distractions. “Gentlemen, I think what you’re telling me is that the arouranthropes are a recent—well, development.”

“More like a recent corruption,” I countered.

“It has to be what the Society and the New Columbians had allied themselves to create in the wake of the cataclysm,” Tarquin put in. “After the Essen discovery, they found a way to control the effects that an introduced superstratum had on a subject. Taint it somehow. But toward a certain design.”

“And we’re sure that all of the arouranthropes came from Albion?” asked Covington, now riveted to her chair with the thought of what Tarquin had suggested.

“Yes,” I confirmed, myself now standing up with a vague urgency. “The volunteers for the recent studies are all from Gallia or Saxonia. All of them have showed the beginning of augmentations from inborn superstrata. We have not yet confirmed findings of the third group—those without superstrata at all—but we expect to soon, if the changes in Albion have indeed begun to affect the Continent.”

“What of our associates?” Covington finally asked, looking upward at me.

“My catalog is complete. All of us, including myself, bear augmentative superstrata.”

Tarquin stepped forward, his face grave. “Then it could by any time.”

“We need to make contact with one of the two beings that were found at Essen,” Covington offered, her voice quavering with disquiet.

“Even if we could find them,” Tarquin replied, “we’re not meant for their special chambers. To them, we are simply the descendants of humans they once gifted long ago. The changes we will soon undergo will most likely be mirrors of what our ancestors once had in order to survive the transition to the next era.”

If we survive,” I added, my own voice faltering.

I leave off my little story there, Bertie, since you now have everything you need to know, if knowing will even make any difference in the months to come. I will also say that this is very likely the last letter you will receive from me, even if it finds you safe in some Gallian town, or still in Albion. This last week has brought debate whether we ought to conclude our research and disband, and each take up the protection of his or her own devising to weather the coming storm, or if we ought to hold up in Mauerburg for as long as we can, like a little castle that stands against the siege of nature itself. I do not know the direction our group of twenty researchers and scientists will take as time goes on, watching the Continent changes around us just as it did in Albion. If you come here, you can at least join me for whatever purpose we can see in the last light of the age. With any luck, perhaps you can impart upon my colleagues a story of putting a knife in Brown’s eye, if you choose to take on Alia’s challenge.

In closing, as a final thought from my end of the world, I can tell you that Haien is convinced that the Ur-Samekh speakers will eventually repopulate this world once again, although their reappearance will be slow. Given this, I can further speculate that the Ros you met was one of the creatures unearthed at Essen, and he may well be looking for Rachel. When I read your account of meeting him back to Haien, he agreed exactly.

Whatever the case, if you come upon him again, wish him well from the gifted humans. Perhaps we will meet his kin in the next age.


Uncle Friedrich

Highmark, 31 May

22 May

Dear Uncle Friedrich,

Finally, at long last, I’m taking the time to write you again. It feels strange, because it has been so long, and because I have a feeling this letter will end up being longer than my report for La Commission or even my note to Maman. Not because I’m being overzealous in my duties as liaision to your Society, but because you may be one of the only people who can make sense of the things I have seen.

Let’s see … I last wrote you on the sixteenth of February, after which there were predictable delays from my superiors getting all the approvals and logistics for attempting a crossing to Albion. By the time I boarded a nimble schooner on the north coast of Garnsey under cover of night, it was already the fifth of March. That puts our landfall at Yarmouth on the seventh of that month.

The crossing went about as well as could be expected. That is to say, by some miracle we managed to avoid the vortex storms around the island, and had a period of strangely smooth sailing after that, but once in sight of the coast of Albion the storms appeared out of nowhere and pursued us like hounds. Our ship crashed into shore, ejected by the swirl of a gigantic vortex – the keel was split in the process, and maybe 2 out of 3 sailors survived the impact. I was spared all that by virtue of having been thrown overboard, which at the time felt like a death sentence, but by swimming myself to exhaustion I managed to get ashore via what turned out to be the far more comfortable route.

I will not regale you with the names and personalities of the Gallian soldiers and sailors who washed up with me on Albion. Not because some of them weren’t interesting, but because they are all dead. Yarmout took only the first of them. There was a haze there, a miasma in the air, thankfully only in limited pockets, though we stumbled upon one of those before we knew better. Those it did not kill outright it drove mad, and they had to be put down. As best as we could tell the haze had once covered the whole city, probably driving enough people crazy that they tore themselves apart. There was some evidence of arouranthrope activity but not enough to explain the desolation we found.

Interestingly, the naval station there had a secure bunker, underground near the port district, which had been unsealed within the past few months. Weapons, ammo, and supplies had been taken, but some strange-looking canisters had been left behind. I can’t help but wonder if the poisonous haze is not a direct result of some meteorological event, but instead related to whatever was in the canisters. I had no desire to open one in order to find out, and the lieutenant (oh, very well, one name: DeBarge) would not have allowed it in any case.

If, after I’m done relating all I have to relate, you add up the events and look at a calendar and wonder where all the time went, let me remind you: most of our time was exceedingly boring. Crash landing! Deadly gas! Mysterious bunker! Followed by, no lie, a full week of building-to-building searches, cartography, water samples, soil samples, etc. etc. That was how it things went as long as the rest of my countrymen lasted. We made our way inland, north from Yarmouth, and every desolate village, crossroads trading post, or abandoned farm was an occasion for at least a day’s worth of information-gathering, if not more.

I had wanted to cut east to the village of Howgate, which Robards had indicated on his map was the place they had actually disembarked from, and which he had labeled as “unmolested by troubles.” Speaking to the actual people of Albion seemed – to me anyway – to be a very sensible thing to try to do, but DeBarge would have none of it. On our northward route we did spot other people, but only at a distance, and none of them ever elected to approach our band of heavily-armed strangers.

The first tragedy after Yarmouth happened toward the beginning of April, and fell squarely in line with the horror stories we had heard out of Albion and all the things we had dreaded seeing but had not yet seen. We came upon a … gash in the countryside. Three meters across, perhaps ten meters long. Our first casualty was the poor soul scouting ahead, who literally fell in without seeing it. By the time the rest of us arrived his cries for help from below were distant, and then cut short. The appearance of the rift had clearly been a recent event, but appeared to pose no danger other than its unobtrusiveness and the steep fall. We were well-equipped with ropes, so DeBarge ordered a group to carefully descend and (hopefully) rescue their comrade.

The cries of those first to descend started as soon as they were to lost to sight in the gloom. Then something below yanked on the ropes with tremendous force, and the two whose job it had been to anchor them were pulled in as well. Then, when half a dozen men were standing on the edge, craning their necks to try to see below, the tentacles emerged. Long, sinewy, like those of an octopus but with lizardlike scales and no suctions. Four more were lost to the pit in that moment, including DeBarge.

And me? I had been deemed (perhaps not inaccurately) to be utterly useless in situations like this and instructed to remain well clear of the rift. So I saw it all and could do nothing.

The highest ranking survivor was an aging sergeant of the Gallian Expeditionary Force who, I have no doubt, would have given the order to make for home right then and there had we not lost our boat. As things stood there was no safe option, no clear way home, and according to the map we were close enough to Highmark that we may as well continue.

The second tragedy was not supernatural in nature; I guess you could call it a secondary effect. We came across an abandoned town., though not one eerily deserted like most we had seen … more like Yarmouth, with ample evidence of violence and bloodshed. There were many white husks which seemed similar to the descriptions in your lab reports. Some evidence of rat-men or perhaps another allomorph. And then … the marauders.

I would like to think that the citizens of this town, those who had survived, had left for elsewhere. I would like to think that those who attacked us were a band of evil men who had entered the town later. They wore patchwork clothing and carried improvised weapons, most prominently swords, spears, and maces looted from some castle or museum, making them seem like creatures out of time. Their faces were painted in the manner of the recalcitrant Caledonian tribesmen of old. And they wanted nothing more than blood. They came at us like berserkers without even a thought of communicating. They were animals, and that is why I want to believe they were already evil men. If they were survivors from this town, reduced to something less than human by the extremity of their circumstances … that would be hard to bear.

They were encamped at the church at the center of town. I think they must have spotted us when we first arrived, and sent a group the long way around to flank us when we reached the town square in the shadow of the steeple. We had been wary and were not caught off-guard, and we had firearms. But they had numbers, and fanatical determination.

I killed someone for the first time that day, with the rifle of a fallen Gallian. I’d like to think my woeful aim other than that contributed some tactical advantage, but I doubt it. Only three of us survived, including myself and the sergeant. The obstinacy of our foes left no room for prisoners or wounded survivors on either side. Every last one of them perished rather than surrender. We decided to burn all the bodies, and when we saw how our enemies lived inside the church, and what they had done to the women and children there, we agreed that the church should burn too.

We found plenty of lamp oil in storage under the nave. The sergeant and I set about soaking wooden supports and scaffolding as best we could. We heard a rifle shot from outside, and ran to find our other fellow survivor dead, staring down the barrel of his own gun. Misfire or suicide, who can say?

Finally, when the night sky was aglow with our building-sized pyre, the roof collapsed, the steeple tipped, and the plummeting church bell broke loose, ricocheted off a crossbeam, and hit the sergeant – lost in his own thoughts, staring into the flame – squarely on the head, ending him.

I laughed then. I don’t mind saying it now, since I have in some measure recovered, but I laughed long and hard at the absurdity of it all, and anyone who had seen me at that moment would have thought me mad, and they probably would have been right.

I cannot account for all the time in the next few weeks. When I finally left that town I was making for Highmark, but not out of any sense of determination or duty, only the sense that any direction would be as good as another to meet a colorful and/or laughable death. That I had been the one to survive was such a ludicrous proposition that every moment I failed to expire felt like a mistake, an error of arithmetic in the cosmic ledger.

The remainder of my journey to Highmark consists of fever dream fragments:

Neat hedgerows extending to the horizon, their smooth lines broken by a swath of destruction that might have been left by a boulder the size of a house.

Fingers of rock pushed up out of the earth, still smoldering.

A lake, its surface ominously tinted yellow, constant undulations suggesting massive things moving under the surface.

A single arctanthrope, head down, arms taut, pulling an entire wagon step by slow step toward London.

London. Albion’s capital, and yet, not a word from anyone as to its fate from all those interviewed by La Commission. What started to become clear when our group first examined abandoned farms and villages, and what I confirmed in my solitary wanderings, is that the inhabitants of these places, to the extent they survived, packed up their most precious belongings and made for London.

Not me, though. My road ended north and west of there, in what I can in retrospect deduce must have been the last week of April.

So now we come to Highmark. I should say right away that what I found there is not as interesting as who I found, or rather, who found me. But the “what” came first so let me get that out of the way.

The location is somewhat remote, sleepy villages and country estates (all abandoned) sprinkled across low, gloomy hills. The Albionese word for the terrain is “moors,” which certainly evokes the right mood. Robards’ map took on some extra detail here, because no roads lead to Highmark. It is a solitary hill, too rocky for grazing, utterly unremarkable, and, given the foggy haze that seems ever-present on the moors, not particularly conducive to scenic views from the top either. When I finally arrived I saw nothing unusual and let out one last laugh at my life, which at that moment seemed to have culminated in a divine joke told in exceptionally bad taste.

But then a patch of fog cleared and I saw a structure. It was not immediately clear whether a crack had appeared in the hillside, revealing it, or whether some force had caused it to burst up from the ground. Either way, its emergence seemed like something that could be dated back months, not years or centuries. And as I approached I saw the cleared ground of a former encampment, supplies left behind – I had no doubt that this was the place where Rackham’s infamous expedition had explored, and where something happened to Crane, Robards … perhaps others.

The revealed entrance led to a staircase, spiraling tightly downwards into the hill, ending in a corridor whose walls were decorated with multiple lines of intricate runes. And here is where you helped to bring me back from the edge of insanity, uncle. I am describing these things vividly, but remember that at the time I was still walking around in a cloud of despair. Those runes, though – when I saw them I realized they were just the sort of thing that you and LaGrande would love to see, and that it was my job to dutifully copy them down. And I still had paper and writing implements in the pack on my back, since I had been the one carrying them in the first place.

The prospect of a concrete task helped clear my mind. I wasn’t thinking about what would happen after, but if I could map the site and catalogue the runes and other details, well then, perhaps I could starve in peace if it came to that.

Exploring the rest of the site was no hard task: the corridor led to a large chamber with an upright stone in the center, with branching corridors from that point. Some led to empty rooms with no clear purpose. One led to a room where a narrow shaft allowed a beam of sunlight to shine down upon a table. Another had long shelves carved into the walls such as might be found in a crypt or catacombs.

I’m no expert, obviously, but something about the place felt … industrious, as if things were meant to happen there, or to be made. But there were no artifacts, no machinery. Just an abundance of runes, everywhere.

The stone, then, was the highlight. I guess I would call it “obelisk-like.” Surprise surprise, it too was carved with runes, on all four sides, though those were blackened, resembling soot stains from a fire, though there was nothing anywhere to burn.

Anyway, I started taking notes, writing it all down, taking measurements, and all of that will ultimately give you a much clearer picture of Highmark than my words, so I’ll leave off and jump ahead to when things got interesting. I was about a week after my arrival. I was in the stone chamber, trying my hand at yet another sketch of the thing – not my forte – and going very slowly since I did not have enough paper to afford mistakes.

My back was to the entrance corridor, and I had the feeling that I was being watched, but I had become accustomed to a bit of paranoia in my solitary wanderings, so that in and of itself didn’t alarm me. At some point I did glance back, though, and dropped my pencil. A man was standing there, calmly watching me.

Everything about him seemed out of place … though I don’t know what would count as in place in that context, now that I think about it. His clothing was so travel-worn it made mine seem fresh-pressed by comparison. Over it all he wore a swath of fabric draped around in the manner of a desert nomad.

His hair was grey, his beard salt-and-pepper, though not so long as the one I had grown since arriving in Albion. By his bearing I would have guessed him to be of fit middle-age, but the wrinkles around his piercing green eyes suggested someone much older.

“Good afternoon,” I said, in Albionese, aiming for casual cheerfulness, but, being a bit out of practice with that sort of thing, failing miserably.

He cocked his head, thoughtfully, then shook it.

“Not Albionese,” I ventured. “Thank Deus, neither am I. What then?” He had a little of the Teuton bearing about him, so I switched to Saxonian, such as I could. “What brings you to this lovely place?”

I sensed recognition then, and perhaps, at the risk of flattering myself, a touch of bemusement. His eyes calmly surveyed the room, settling on my makeshift sleeping pad and pile of supplies in the corner.

“You are Gallian,” he finally, said, in oddly accented Gallian.

“Guilty as charged!” I replied, delighted to be slipping into my mother tongue. “And how about yourself? Your accent is hard to place. You are something of a mystery.”

“Yes,” he said simply, and began walking around the chamber, looking around.

I followed behind him, holding my tongue (with some difficulty) as he completed a walk-through of the entire facility. It was the way he was looking at it all that I found most unusual. He did not have my what-the-hell-is-this-strange-place attitude, but neither was it the kid-in-a-candy-store curiosity that I would have expected from an archaeologist or historian. His gaze would linger, or he would touch the stone, at places that to me had seemed unremarkable. Occasionally his brow furrowed. He looked like a ship captain examining the hull of his vessel, or an engineer at a building site. Finally I could not resist interjecting.

“You seem to be familiar with this place,” I blurted. He looked at me then, holding my gaze for long enough for it to get uncomfortable, before finally speaking.

“I have been trying to get here for a long time,” he said.

“Ah, of course,” I said. “You had to make the crossing as well? Not exactly tourist season here, is it? At least overcrowding isn’t a problem. How did you manage?”

He ignored my question as we returned to the main chamber and he walked around the stone slowly, examining the strange burn marks. “Sadly, I am too late. There has already been an activation. The power is gone.”

“Yes, um, well … it wasn’t me. I mean, there were other people here. Months ago.”

He nodded. “They did not know what they were doing. They are probably dead.”

“Actually, not as far as I know. They survived and there were some … interesting developments.”

At this, he looked up sharply. “Where are they now?”

“I don’t know. I was trying to figure out where they had been, not where they were going.”


His simple question brought me up short. Official Gallian government business? Personal desire to “fix”Albion? Catastrophically misguided sense of adventure? Thankfully, he took my confused moment of hesitation itself as an answer. He nodded quietly, then left, returning shortly afterward from outside with his own shoulder pack. He rolled his own mat onto the floor across the chamber from my own.

“So … you’re staying,” I asked.

“For a while,” he answered. “If I left now, you would die.”

It took my over a week to understand what he meant by that. I assumed that he knew of other marauders nearby who might pose a threat, or perhaps some ancient monster whose job it was to guard the place. Our days passed quietly – despite my frequent attempts at conversation, it became clear he had already spoken more words than he was accustomed to speaking, and preferred silence. I continued the slow tedious work of recording every bit of information about Highmark I could manage. Sometimes he wandered, sometimes he meditated. At one point he hunted deer with a simple spear, none to soon – to say I hadn’t been taking care of my bodily needs was something of an understatement.

Finally I realized that when he said I would die, it was not because of some outside danger. He had seen through my bravado when we first met, recognized my lack of will to survive, and perhaps also my lack of expertise even had I possessed the will. He had been quietly supervising my recovery, physical and mental.

I came to this epiphany while eating deer stew, sitting across from him at the campfire we maintained just outside Highmark, among the detritus of the old expedition. “Thank you,” I said out loud. “I think if you left now I might survive.”

He nodded. “You might.”

“Instead … how about we travel together? I mean to get back to Gallia. I know people who would love to talk to you. Perhaps they would be better at asking the right questions.”

He smiled. “That will not happen.”

“I see. Well then, at least … let me know your name.”

He looked up in alarm. “My true name?”

“Well, not if you don’t want, I mean … whatever you want me to call you.”

He thought for a moment. “Call me Ros,” he said. He pronounced it somewhere between “Roos” and “Ross”; not really sure how to render that.

“And I’m Bertie,” I said.

That was when I decided it was time to write some of this down. Letter and reports, at long last, have been my work of the past few days, in the quiet of the stone chamber, or across the campfire from the enigmatic Ros. I will leave this off for now, and add more when our next steps give us something new to report.

31 May

I can hardly believe it even as I am writing this, but: I am in receipt of your letter, the one from all the way back in March! And I have an opportunity to finish this letter as well, with at least a reasonable chance of it making its way to you, via Sanders’ Society channels. If those channels will still work, that is, given your shifting loyalties. I never would have guessed you were so fickle, dear uncle!

Actually, even though I’m making light of it, the fact of the matter is I wouldn’t be writing to you at all, at least not candidly like this, in other circumstances. You have admitted to me that you have joined “them,” and it’s a Them I know next to nothing about. In Maman’s parlance, you are therefore a Potentially Compromised Asset, and my correspondence with you should be continued only with utmost caution. The problem is, the news I received from home at the same time as your letter has severely limited my options. There has been something of a shake-up at La Commission, apparently, and things are moving more quickly than expected. Garnsey has been occupied by the Gallian fleet. And Maman has had to make herself … scarce. OK, to be blunt, she is in hiding and has instructed me not to attempt contact. So I can’t be frank with her, and I daren’t be frank with La Commission. That leaves you.

My time with Ros was peaceful, if not quite as informative as I hoped. Some people take a bit of time to “warm up” to another person or a situation and come out of their shell. You’d think that weeks of being camping buddies on a desolate moor would serve to break the ice and loosen his tongue. Deus knows it loosened mine. But at the end of the day there were really only two things of import that I learned from him.

First of all, Highmark is definitely tied to your Weltstufe theory. It functions, or was supposed to function, as something between a power source and an emergency first aid kit. The entrance literally sinks and rises … or is hidden and is revealed, not sure which … in a cyclical fashion, so that the place is only available at need, in order to, as he put it, “weather the storm.” How that’s supposed to work I still have no idea, but what actually happened was that Rackham’s expedition found the place and managed to “activate” it haphazardly. The fact that that didn’t end in complete catastrophe appeared to give Ros some measure of hope, actually.

Second, while he came all the way to Albion specifically to find this place, he is also looking for someone. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that he lost someone, and while he has no trail to follow, he is always hoping for a clue that will lead him in the right direction. It was the only thing he ever asked me directly: whether I had seen a woman, someone who looked a little like him, who perhaps also seemed out of place.

“You mean someone who never answers questions and is creepily comfortable around strange runes and ancient ruins?” I said at the time.


“Nope, sorry, haven’t seen her.”

And that’s all I have to report on Ros, because from the moment we first spotted the silhouette of a flyer approaching in the morning sky, he gathered his things, nodded a curt farewell, and left, clearly not wanting to be discovered. I, on the other hand, threw extra logs on the campfire and waved my arms and whooped and hollered, right up to the point when that miraculous contraption settled down in a clearing at the foot of the hill and a woman vaulted out of the cockpit.

I moved to embrace her. It didn’t seem strange at the time. It is the Gallian way, after all, and I hadn’t seen another person other than Ros in quite some time, and hadn’t seen a woman in even longer than that. I don’t think it was a particularly aggressive embrace, but she turned out not to be a cuddly sort of person, and before I knew what was happening she had twisted around within my grasp and used my own momentum to toss me over her shoulder, flipping head over heels and landing on my back at her feet, gasping for breath.

“You must be Bertie,” she said, clearly unimpressed. “I am Alia.”

I’ll skip past the first hour or so of our conversation, in which I kept finding new ways to annoy and anger her in spite of myself. For example, when I learned that she had just been to Garnsey, and that Sanders was the one who asked her to come to this area and look for me here, I assumed that she was a Society operative. When I said as much, the ice in her glare brought me up short. “I answer to no one,” she said through clenched teeth. When I wondered out loud at one point whether there was room for two on that magnificent flying device of hers, she demurred with a rather pointed comment about “too much dead weight.”

Fortunately, we were stuck with each other, and ultimately she proved far more communicative than Ros. She had been operating in Albion all this time, carrying messages and light supplies among groups of survivors, most notably between the halves of Rackham’s expedition, which split up after Highmark. I put my cards on the table, explaining my interest in allomorphic transformations and how that had led me here, even explaining that I was no longer entirely sure who, exactly, I was doing this on behalf of any more, but that if I could find Rackham or his friend Crane it would certainly be a big help.

Then something unexpected happened: a tear slid down her cheek. I had not realized until that moment that her remarkable poise was only a mask. That single tear was the only evidence she allowed, and she remained guarded even after that, but still saw fit to share with me the source of her concern.

She had been blackmailed. She had recently flown to the island of Skald to meet with Rackham’s group (she would not at first admit the destination, but on a hunch based on your information, I guessed correctly). But when she arrived she found no sign of them, and was instead captured by forces which had occupied by the island, led by one Dr. Amory Brown. Brown told her that Rackham’s people were his prisoners, and they would surely be killed if she did not deliver a letter to Sanders on Garnsey – a forgery, ostensibly from Rackham himself – and return with the reply. Her stop at Highmark was en route back to Skald.

Obviously she had been cautioned to utmost secrecy about this blackmail, so I was a little surprised that she had confided in me. But I do not believe she was lying. I asked her why she was telling me any of it.

“If you make it back home,” she said. “Perhaps you will see fit to put a knife in Brown’s eye for me.”

“I would like nothing better than to please you, cherie, but my home is Les Rives.”

“He is there.”

“I don’t understand. I thought he was waiting for you on Skald?”

“He is resourceful. You will understand if you meet him.”

It is perhaps a testament to all the time I spent with Ros that I accepted her infuriatingly cryptic answer. Clearly I was out of practice in getting people to talk, and besides, I didn’t have a whole lot in the way of leverage.

And now I must conclude this letter, because she is leaving. She has promised to deliver it to Sanders for me when next she makes it to Garnsey. I spoke with her briefly about where I should head next in order to, you know, not die. I told her I was considering London.

“No, I would not go to London if I were you.”

“Where then?”

“Back south. Your people will be arriving soon, in force.”

South it is, then. Wish me the best. One final regret: there are some finishing touches I wish to make to my catalogue of Highmark. I will keep the notes with me until the next chance I get to write.

Feeling not so much a sapling in the midst of the ashes,

As a leaf blowing on the wind, I remain,

Your dutiful nephew,


Somewhere On The Continent, March 2


Your Maman is perhaps wiser than I might have otherwise credited her for. Someone, indeed, knew. All along.

I have time now—or at least I am told that I have time—to write you a full account of what has transpired on my end these last five weeks. Upon receiving your last letter, I had a mind to write you immediately; I thought I might send a letter that would reach you in time before you left for your excursion to Yarmouth, and presumably, Highmark. Alas, at the point when your letter came to tell me of your time in Garnsey, and the next leg of the mission before you, I recognized that I had little to say.

Now I have much, and I write in fear that this letter may never find you, or it will find you too late to be relevant. In either case, I am compelled by the events of the last three weeks to write, if only to record the direction my research has taken. Thanks to my new benefactors, I can say that I am doing my research again, and with more success as when I was still at the College of Surgeons.

I will direct the letter to Sanders in any case, with a personal note of thanks to him—at least for his hospitality shown towards you—and ask that he forward it to wherever he knows or thinks you to be in Albion. I will not indicate that you reported the meeting that transpired between you both, but for that I am grateful too, and count him as an ally. If he is reading this, then, my friend: dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

Speaking of allies, then, I have now many and several that I did not know about, and indeed should not have known until the critical time became apparent. Whether they need me more than I need them has been debated in my mind this last week, and my conclusion is that it makes no difference. It is perhaps a symbiotic relationship, one that I was reluctant at first to enter into—but which I found I had no choice—and now one that I intend to make the best of.

Allow me to paint a scene for you.

I had made perhaps a little home for myself at the Café zum Badenstor in the rainy weeks that bridged this past January and February. As you recall, this would have been after the removal of almost every valuable piece of research I had been working on from my office and laboratory at the College. While my hosts at the College were sympathetic to the robbery, they of course knew nothing, and made impotent inquiries with local constabularies. Of course, I could not share with them my suspicions as to the identities of the perpetrators, even if I had one. My work for the Society was not exactly sanctioned by the deans of the College, and they blithely assumed I would return to my writing within a week’s time as if nothing had happened.

At any rate, the Café patrons began seeing me as a regular, and I secured a favorite table from which to review our letters and the smallest of the star-charts that you had faithfully recovered for me. I had been able to reconstruct some small part of my work, cataloguing a linkage of the trajectories of notable comets with their patterned appearance in the night skies over the last few hundred years. It was slow work for me, since as I have reminded you and my superiors at many junctures, I am not a researcher of astronomy but rather a biologist and physician by trade. Without orders to the contrary in the wake of the break-in from my superiors, and no pressing need to return to my bare trappings at the College, I continued what little work I could, sipping dark teas in my lamp-lit corner.

I recall the man who I eventually came to know as Mr. Tarquin walking in three times during the course of one week, sitting quite on the opposite side of the warm, wood-lined room, watching me over whatever mug of drinking chocolate and buttered pastry he had ordered that particular day. I am no spy but I know when someone is watching me, and I know how to act as if I have not noticed. On the third occasion I had mind to clap up my book, bundle up your letters into their coffer, and exit quickly; I also thought to confront him, but I was afraid of a concealed weapon.

He did not allow me the luxury of choosing either option.

“Good evening, Herr Doktor,” he called, from his seat.

I looked up blankly, knowing I could not ignore him any longer but stultified at his brazen greeting. His Saxonian was not native, but the accent had been so well suppressed that I could not immediately guess at his nationality.

An ingratiating smile played at his thin lips. “Doktor Friedrich Emhaus Nussbaum. Hauptartztgenerall, Chirurgschule Zöllern. Secondary group, Circle of Regents, The Ancient and Maj—”

“What is it,” I interrupted testily. It was then that I became aware that the café was quite empty except for he and I, and that the door had been locked and shuttered. The portly proprietor was nowhere to be found.

“Your writings are excellent, Herr Doktor. I have long hoped to speak with you in person.”

At this I lost my next thought, which I recalled later was going to be a firm protest at his inquiry and an admonishment that he had mentioned the Society, even in private. I stopped and instinctively rolled up the chart, keeping my eyes on him even as I did so. He had the aspect of a lean and quick man, not quite devious, but hungry in a way, with darting eyes.

“What writings?” I finally managed, looking down at your letters. I initially assumed mockery in his tone, and the first conclusion my mind went to is that La Commission was displeased with me—with both of us, perhaps—and the confiscation of my equipment and materials had been a punishment of some form.

“Your studies of the allomorphic transformations, and your exhaustive treatment of the various categories of changes you observed. Your laboratory notes on the homologous development of musculature in the arouranthrope were especially intriguing.”

I confess this disarmed me perhaps more than it should have, especially given my recent loss and the bitter recognition that no quarter was safe anymore.

I cleared my throat. “Thank you, but before I say more or ask how you came to read my work, I must now ask you who you are.”

“Of course, Herr Doktor. I am Jacob Tarquin, formerly an explorer with the Knights of the Tower and Key. Golden Eagle, third operative.”

I breathed a sigh of relief. “Society man.”


I narrowed my eyes and the man stood up, bringing his mug with him. He stood before me, six and a half feet of sinew. I observed no weapon; not seeing any better use of the next several hours, I motioned for him to sit before me as I closed up the remainder of my notes and writing equipment.

“Thank you, Herr Doktor, you are most kind. I do not mean to frighten or alarm you with my appearance here today, but after careful consideration, I decided this environment would offer a chance to speak privately without raising too much suspicion.”

“Among whom?” I asked, still skeptical.

“Society informants. Your handlers. The ones to whom you currently answer.”

I paused, impatient now for the man to arrive at some kind of premise for this conversation. “And they are not those to whom you also answer,” I prodded.

“Not anymore. Not since the Schism.”

“I have never heard of a Schism,” I replied.

“Nor were you meant to,” Tarquin countered. “You were meant to continue your work, making only the discoveries they wanted you to, and advancing knowledge you never knew you were uncovering.”

I blinked and squared my chin. “This is nonsense,” I muttered, but something kept me in my seat.

Another crooked grin spread on Tarquin’s freckled face. “How many dissections did you perform at the College, Herr Doktor?”

“In excess of five hundred,” I declared. “Either as the supervising surgeon or as the operant myself.”

“Did you ever wonder where the specimens came from?”

“Never. They were poor devils that were caught in the wilderness or hiding in some cellar. Some had undergone their changes at prisons and others at sea. Many had died as a result of their changes, and others were killed by frightened or outraged compatriots.”

“That’s what they told you,” Tarquin said. “Ever get a rat-man from Yarmouth?”


“Ever receive a bear-man from a place called Innesmere?”

“I recall him exactly.”

“Ever dissect a dog-man from Duneaton?”

“I don’t recall the town, but I recall that specimen, yes.”

“Ever wonder why the specimens were always from places in Albion? And why you always seemed to have a steady supply?”

I looked down in an attempt for earnest recollection. I reddened a little, and was forced to admit that I never questioned the origin of my specimens, or the conditions under which they came to me.

“Herr Doktor, I must tell you now that I represent a small alliance of former Society agents and scientists who have come to the conclusion that the direction in which the world is heading is not, in fact, the direction it is meant to go in, and that there are secret but very powerful cabals that would spin it into their own hands for their own ends. I will tell you that the Society, such as it is, is one of those groups, and even now they continue to act in concert with elements from New Columbia. The catastrophe of Albion made hardly a correction in their activities, and, in fact, according to my friends, acted as the perfect cover for their agenda.”

I hesitated and my eye twitched. “Your friends?”

Tarquin nodded solemnly. “We are perhaps the world’s only hope.”

“You have a way to reverse these catastrophes?”

“No,” he breathed. “We must evolve from them.”

My heart fluttered and my palms began to sweat. Every inch of my skin seemed to crawl. I desperately wanted to leave and simultaneously I found myself riveted. “I—I don’t understand,” I stuttered.

Tarquin’s eyes drifted toward the thick scroll by my side on the bench where I sat. “Of course you do. Why would you have ordered the star-charts?”

“My sources pointed toward a correlation between the presence and types of allanthropic activity and certain celestial—”

“That doesn’t sound like medical research to me, Herr Doktor.”

“No,” was all I could manage.

Tarquin raised his chin. “You believe in the Weltstufe.”

“I do. But it is not a belief—”

“Correct. It is a theory,” Tarquin offered, “to which my friends and I adhere. In fact, it is a concept central to our work.”

I shifted. “You had me at a disadvantage during the first part of this conversation, Mr. Tarquin. Now I must inquire: what work is this?”

“Our theory—upon which we have amassed some considerable evidence—is that the workings of the world are cyclical. It is meant to continually evolve. To move toward a state of more perfection than it finds itself currently, yet a state that it once possessed. In fact, there have been several times of rebirth, so to speak, and they frame this world’s history like the rings of a cut tree.”

I took a long breath and signaled him to continue.

“Think upon it with me, now. You are a surgeon, but your training was in the natural sciences. You know, even as we speak, there are things you have seen which are unnatural and—well, perverse. I am willing to bet that there are other things you have seen which, although not within the typical order of things, seemed yet as improvements, beneficial changes to humans which seemed not to corrupt, but to enhance.”

I nodded slowly. “I don’t—I cannot disagree.”

“As a naturalist, now, think of how a forest fire works. A dry, overgrown, knotted wood, filled with hollow dead trees and others fouled by disease. Growth in strange directions, too close upon itself to efficiently drink in the sun or bring nutrients from the soil. A saphrophyte’s delight, but inhospitable to the rank-and-file of burrowers and birds, predator and prey alike.”

Here he paused for dramatic effect, or to gauge if I was still listening. His hands twitched in the air.

“A spark comes from the heavens—a dash of lightning that touches down somewhere in the forest. The tinder and parched undergrowth lights up in minutes. Soon a great and roaring fire springs up, engulfing all of the dead material in its hungry advance. Old trees, rotten roots, dead plants—everything. The flames carpet a wide area. And what is left?”

“Ashes,” I gulped.

“And there in the middle of the cold ashes, after the rain has fallen upon the blight?”

I stared ahead as if I could see the very scene. “A sapling,” I whispered.

Tarquin rested both of his hands on the table and straightened his back. “I put it to you, Herr Doktor,” he declared, “that there are people in this world that want to hold back that healing fire for their own horrid ends, to exploit the deadness of the world, and who at the same time claim to be able to cure what ails it; and there are others who recognize that this world is in the midst of cleansing itself so that it can become something new again, something brighter, with beings populating it whose bodies and minds are more wondrous than what they are now. It must evolve—but its progress is slowed. You can either work for those who keep you secretly shuttered away, recording what you learn of their own monstrous but failed abominations loosed upon the unknowing world, or you can join us, those understand what is truly happening and have the evidence to prove it. We seek to accelerate the evolution of the world toward a new beginning, as it once was and yet has already been many times.”

I joined them, Bertie.

More awaits in future correspondence, I promise. I will tell you where I am and what I have been working on. However, what I say and when I say it may depend on how you fare on the excursion upon which you embark even now. It also depends on whether this letter ever reaches you. Let us just say for now that for both our sakes, I hope you find a sapling in the midst of the ashes.


Stockport, 16 February

Apologies! Finally it looks like I am able to arrange safe delivery of some correspondence to you. It’s been a while, and so I have a few letters piled up. The first is written from Les Rives; the rest from here on Garnsey. Enjoy.

22 January

Dear Uncle Friedrich,

Sorry to hear about your lab! I wish I could offer more than sympathy. I know what Maman would say, her severe eyes peering over her spectacles: “Somebody knows.” Especially since, as you note, the burglary happened in a limited window of time, and without violent ingress. Either someone provided a key, willingly or unwillingly, or someone lost one. At the very least somebody on the street saw something. So it’s just a matter of finding that person. And being able to tell if someone is lying, of course. Maman was teaching me that skill when all the other boys and girls were dutifully reciting “amo, amas, amat,” but I don’t know whether you ever picked it up yourself.

I find myself also wondering: who could be behind it? It certainly does not sound like an ordinary thief in search of valuables. You do not suspect anyone who might be reading our letters. But there are others who might know. It was not possible to entirely conceal the fact that I was delivering a package – least of all from the folks at the Observatory who provided the star charts in the first place, for example. Why on earth would they go to length to steal back what they freely gave away, though?

It may seem strange to suspect that you have been burgled because of some internecine struggle, but just now I find it totally believeable. As I prepare to leave for Garnsey, I have been approached in confidence by various members of La Commission’s leadership, each of whom wished to clue me in on my “real” mission. My job will be to take soundings of the bay at Stockport in anticipation of the arrival of the Gallian fleet. Or, contrarily, my job will be to uncover evidence of (as you would call it) allomorphic activity so that I might strongly advise against an invasion. Or I must seduce the governor’s daughter. It all depends on who you ask.

Whatever else I do, though, I will check on your beloved College for you. And I will do my best not to fret too much about what you said about “otherwordly powers.” Ordinarily I would dismiss the notion with a sharp “Fantasy, good sir! You speak pure fantasy, I say!” Except I am already apparently accepting all your talk of were-this and were-that and ancient languages and astronomical convergences. What’s one more theory to add to the pile?

29 January

With deep regret I must inform you that the isle of Garnsey, despite its many charming qualities, does not merit inclusion on any list of Best Places to Take a Holiday. Though it has experienced recent strife, that is not the problem – almost the opposite, actually. Things are quiet here … incredibly quiet. The streets of Stockport are often deserted. Almost everyone who was not from here left when it became possible, and even some who were.

Getting here was harder than I thought it would be. Safe transit is now possible with a bit of luck, though the vortex storms aren’t gone completely. I saw some of them from a distance and they are very ominous. An industry in miniature has sprouted up dedicated to making the crossing, but its emphasis is all on leaving the island, and specifically, delivering passengers to a place where they will not be caught by La Quarantaine. I fear the smugglers advertising their prices on the docks are selling the poor emigrants a lie, however. La Quarantaine is very thorough, and the shoreside villagers of Gallia and the Lowlands are, as a rule, eager to report the arrival of strangers to the proper authorities. The grizzled gentleman who I finally found to take me to Garnsey couldn’t quite believe that that was what I wanted.

I arrived under grey skies and a light rain, the cobbled streets slick and empty. Had to rouse the innkeeper to get a room; as I was his first customer that week he was happy to have me, especially when I offered to pay double for an extra measure of discretion. But discretion has been almost impossible here, I’m afraid – how can you melt into the crowd when there is no crowd to melt into? In the common room at the inn there is a full-length portrait of Robards on the wall. Apparently it was put up in earnest adoration of the island’s new leader a couple months ago, but now it has been defaced with garish red paint: a moustache and several other unmentionable embellishments.

The site of your ruined College sits atop a hill overlooking the town. There are a couple buildings still standing, though even their interiors have been scorched and gutted. The rest is rubble and ash. I couldn’t help feeling as if I was being watched while I poked around, and it took me a while to finally locate the scrawny lad peering at me from a third-story window-hole. I don’t think he noticed that I noticed, and in any case I didn’t have the time then to further investigate, owing to my appointment with …

… the governor! See “discretion is impossible,” above. Upon arrival at the port I identified myself a representative of some Gallian shipping interests. The island being a small place, apparently he caught wind of it. Commerce having all but come to a standstill, he was on the lookout for ways to revitalize it, and was thus all too happy to invite me to dinner.

After a few days in Stockport, all I wanted to ask about was New Albion, and the infamous Robards, and everything that happened then. It was a such a short period of time, and it happened so recently, but judging from the stories and rumors and competing interpretations circulating around the populace, you’d think it was a much-debated historical moment taught in school. At the governor’s table, however, it was not considered an appropriate topic of conversation. I started to broach the subject after the second course, but the governor’s wife was able to convey, with a single twitch of her eyebrow: “One does not speak of such things in polite company, does one?”

Also at the table: The governor’s very marriageable daughter, someone with the title of “Portmaster,” a couple friends of the family, and a portly gentleman who was introduced as “Professor Sanders.” The latter immediately attracted my interest, of course, since to my knowledge there wasn’t any place on Garnsey other than the College where one might actually employ that title. Owing to my cover, though, there wasn’t a natural way that I could steer the conversation around to his academic pedigree.

In fact I was hard pressed to keep my cover intact, since the Portmaster had a detailed knowledge of shipping practices, and peppered me with questions about specific Gallian shipping companies, annual export tonnage of this-or-that resource, and minutiae of treaty language. I had to fake it, and hope that those present came away with the impression that I was merely an incompetent trade representative, and not something else altogether. Along the way, though, I did manage to pull off something of a conversational master-stroke: tying in a conversational strand about the plight of Saxonian trade with another comment the governor made about the complexity of cross-national familial connections in the present age, I was able to casually mention that a branch of my family had some Saxonian connections, including my dear uncle Friedrich Nussbaum.

Sanders, to his credit, did not spit out his chowder, but merely cocked an eyebrow. My comment had the desired effect, though. During the dessert course he invited me to review his plans for rebuilding the College, perhaps during a tour of the former site? I politely accepted. That will be in two days; until then I fear things will remain incredibly dull. I hope you are having more fun than I am.

3 February

You’ll be delighted to learn that I have made contact with your Society man. I don’t think he trusts me. I’m certain he doesn’t like me. But I’ve made some progress, nonetheless.

Let me explain: three days ago I met Sanders at the inn, as arranged, and strolled up the hill to the College. Along the way we engaged in innocuous chitchat that, in retrospect, must have been laced with subtle messages or cues for countersigns that I was oblivious to. So it wasn’t too surprising that, when we finally stood in the shadow of one of the ruined buildings, he turned to me and said:

“You are not Society.” He spoke in surprisingly fluent Gallian, so I responded in kind.

“Guilty! I am still at your service, though.”

“What do you know of Nussbaum?”

“I am in correspondence with him, actually. Is he a friend of yours?”

“Hardly. I know him by reputation only. How am I to believe you?”

I showed him my credentials from La Commission, which did not impress him. Unfortunately I had not brought your previous letters with me. But, since I have actually been corresponding with you, I was able to mention some of the terms from your research, such as “ur-Samekh”, and I wondered aloud whether some of the fantastic stories about the events surrounding New Albion might be explained by the presence of suprapotential allomorphs. This was enough to convince him.

He sighed. “What does Nussbaum want?”

“Information. Documents, resources. There was a break-in at his lab; he lost everything.”

“I see. And why do you care?”

“I don’t. It’s just a favor.” I paused. “No, I do care. He believes what has happened to Albion might be reversed. I’d like that to see that happen.”

Sanders snorted. “Is that what he told you?”

“Can you help him?”

“Perhaps. A little. I can compile some materials he might find helpful. But I will not give them to you. I will find a way to get them to him through Society channels.”

“Excellent. Thank you.” I paused. “I … it’s just …”

“What? Out with it.”

I gestured around me. “Where exactly are you keeping these materials? I think that must have once been the library, over there, but …”

I should mentioned that during this conversation, I had gradually become aware of at least three other people watching us from hiding-places amid the ruins. I’m pretty sure one of them had a rifle trained on me the whole time. Judging from how suddenly they appeared, I strongly suspect that there is an underground portion of the College, perhaps with a hidden entrance, that was untouched by the fire.

“That is not your concern,” Sanders replied bluntly.

“Fair enough. If I can’t be nosy about that, may I at least be nosy about something else?”

Sanders rolled his eyes. Actually, he didn’t: he has that very Albionese ability to indicate he is rolling his eyes without actually moving a muscle. “What is it?” he said testily.

“I am genuinely curious about Robards. And Crane. What really happened here? What can they do? What is the truth behind the tales I hear in the tavern every night?”

“Crane left. Robards is rotting in a cell. Most people here would like to put it all behind the,.”

“Yes, about that cell. Is there to be a trial?”

“How should I know?”

“Word on the street is that it will happen any day but it sounds like it’s been that way for weeks. I hear that someone with the governor’s ear is seeing to it that the trial is constantly delayed, perhaps owing to this person’s … research interests.”

Sanders’ face turned a very satisfactory shade of red. “Where the hell did you hear such a thing?”

I smiled. “Claudia.” (The governor’s daughter – ever a dutiful agent of La Commission, I had at least managed to fulfill one of my missions by that point.)

There followed an uncomfortably long period of time where I grew increasingly concerned that he was going to signal to have me shot. Instead, he took a deep breath and uttered a single word:


“What is that? A place?”

“Something happened there. A stone in a chamber. I don’t know the details; I haven’t been there. But it is where changes started happening. To Robards, Crane. Others. If you want answers, for yourself or your ‘uncle,’ you should go there.”

“Excellent! I shall do so at once. How far is it?”

“Idiot. It is not on Garnsey. It is in Albion.”

The conversation petered out from there. As I said, the man doesn’t like me. But they were interesting enough tidbits that I thought I had better get them down quickly. More later.

16 February

How time flies! I have not been idle, but I’m afraid most of it won’t be very interesting to you. I have indeed taken soundings of the bay. I have surveyed the islands for signs of allomorphic activity, and heard some amazing stories about mer-men and sea monsters as a result. No proof, though. And I have been dutifully sending reports back to Les Rives. Unfortunately, since my conversation with Sanders, I have received neither dinner invitations from the governor nor invitations of another sort from Claudia. Without help, and with the very limited resources this island has in the way of information, I had no way to find out where Highmark might be other than “somewhere in Albion.”

Nevertheless, I knew I must – and maybe you will call me crazy, but here it is – I must try to get there. To this end, I recommended in my reports that Gallia send a scouting mission to Albion itself, and that, naturally, I be on it. The risks of the crossing are immense; maybe these long dreary days on Garnsey have addled my mind that I would even contemplate such a thing. But I finally received word that my proposal has been accepted, which is what is prompting me to write again and see these letters safely off.

That, and the fact that Sanders paid me a visit. Either he was very well-informed or he had been keeping close tabs on my activities; I suspect the latter.

“I am beginning to think,” he said, “That we can expect a large number of Gallian visitors before long.”

“It is possible,” I admitted. “I don’t make those decisions. But … yes. Listen: if you want to cross over to the Continent, I have connections, I can make sure you don’t receive the, ah, usual treatment if you’re picked up by La Quarantaine …”

“I am not leaving.”

“Very well. I take it you were able to send some things to Nussbaum?”

“Yes. Another package is going out tonight.”

“Might I trouble you to include some letters to him from me?”

“If you wish. And I have something for you.”

He handed me a sheaf of papers. They included a crudely drawn map, and accompanying scrawlings that took the rough form of a travel-log: such-and-such a date, so many miles traversed in this-or-that direction. But it was littered with question marks and rounded figures; I surmised that it was someone’s recollection of a journey, and not something written in the moment. Something about it clicked, and I looked up in alarm.

“Robards wrote this? You are in contact with him?”

“For now. He is … full of regret. What you have there is his best guess of their route from Highmark to the town of Yarmouth.”

“Thank you. I … I didn’t expect any more help from you.”

“I have no guarantee you will share any discoveries with Nussbaum, or me. But it is better than someone else getting there first.”

“Who? I admit there are some back home who would love to see Gallian legions marching over southern Albion, but even if that comes to pass, it won’t be for some time …”

“They are not what I fear.” He stood up, and nodded curtly. “Good luck.” And then he left.

All very ominous and exciting, n’est-ce pas? So, if all goes well, these letters will reach you via a different channel. Nonetheless you should reply using our usual one, as I am not certain where I will be when your next letter arrives. And do let me know whether Sanders did in fact send you some useful things? If that was a lie maybe the whole thing is an elaborate trap.

Oh dear. Did I say that I liked field work? What was I thinking?



Essen, 25 January


I am glad that I did not store our letters in my laboratory. I would also credit myself as ahead-thinking (if this a word in Albionese) because I had stored our correspondence in a teakwood box which I took with me to a café here in Essen. However, I can only say that it was fortune and not a conscious choice that motivated the removal of the letters to a different location than the laboratory. I am now sad to say that apart from the smallest of the star-charts, a few notes, and the packet of letters, I have nothing.

I arrived in the evening of the 23. to find my laboratory completely empty. I had once learned the meaning of “ransacked” and I would use it here, except that the floor, my cabinets, my safe, and my closet were completely bare. It was if the space was newly built and no one had occupied it. Whoever was here left no trace of anything, and removed every scrap of equipment, books, instruments, and supplies. What remained was what was bolted to the floor, which means that upon turning the key and swinging open the door, I found I was left with my three dissection tables, a metal rack, the wire shelves where I kept most of my solutions and tinctures, and an iron-wrought bench that had been a gift from the College. They took my favorite rolling stool and several of the smaller pieces I had used as utility tables.

My mind did not quite register the outrage until I recognized that my stool was gone. At that point, I am embarrassed to say, I let fly a stream of curses. And yes, sometimes the Saxonian language is the only one adequate to express certain ideas.

As for my adjoining offices, the thieves (I cannot imagine any other word more appropriate here) left me with a few more creature comforts, but they were careful to remove every scrap of record, or anything that looked like a record—from a scribbled note that I might have made regarding my next foray to the nearby markets to the largest of the star-charts you sent me. They must have had orders to be as complete as possible with their removal but as neat as possible with it also, and from the looks of it I suspect that they were not told what to take but to take it all, lest a mistake be made and something valuable to their cause be left behind.

Consequently I can surmise that they will review what they took over some time, and eventually come to the conclusion that they are missing one of the star-charts—and, perhaps more notably, our letters. I say this partly because of the precision of their work (they were quite efficient, having removed a large amount of material in three hours’ time while I was taking an early supper), the planning and assistance they must have had (not only did they enter exactly when I was out, but also they must have had a copy of my key, and used it to lock it after they were finished), and the sensitivity of the work that I had begun after you were kind enough to provide me with the charts. As a result, I must think that whoever is behind the theft also knows that you and I keep correspondence, and will notice its absence from what is brought for inspection.

This last point—about the sensitivity of the work—deserves some more explanation. Before I tell you more, I ought to insert a point that anyone who is reading these letters between you and I are not the same as those who cleaned out my laboratory and office a few days ago. In fact, I hope that if they are indeed intercepting these communications, as I suspect, they might take a much-needed alert from this particular letter and act against the thieves in some ways. I am helpless to do so, as are you, but the nature of what I have discovered—or had discovered—is far-reaching enough that my Society contacts are going to want to take every precaution that it does not fall into any hands but theirs. Yes, I have written the requisite reports to the appropriate people, but I have doubts that my Society friends can do anything about this particular problem.

That is not to say that the Society is impotent or that it cannot protect its own, but I fear that we are at a weak point now, and the description you gave of Robards and his ruin of Elizabeth College in your last letter is a reminder of the freshest of our wounds and the most severe of our setbacks to date. My intelligence tells me that your La Commission is now the rising power in this strange world, and I took no surprise that LaGrande was snapped up by others in your organization for a multitude of tasks. Cheer up, Bertie, your tactical error will not yield any true negative repercussions, since at the very least you see that you introduced a valuable resource at a time that LaGrande’s knowledge is needed the most. In fact, I would advise that your recent assignment to gather information from Garnsey is La Commission’s way of rewarding you.

I can only hope that you recover something on Garnsey, or learn something, that can somehow compensate for the strategic loss that I—my employers—have suffered with the loss of my equipment and research. The explanation I can proffer regarding what I had been working on is that a working theory within the Society points to an otherworldly power “grooming” the world for a mass evolution toward something greater than itself, and the happenings of the recent years is not the result of these efforts, but efforts from another quarter intended to inhibit that metamorphosis. Indeed, as you guessed in your question, the College of Surgeons began collecting allomorph specimens during the Blood War. In fact the fog of that war provided the best cover for us to do our work: but that came to an abrupt end with the victories of the Gallians, and the subsequent occupation of the New Columbians. Turncoats and backstabbers, all of them. Saxonia, for the third time in her little but brave history, was left to be carved up by those who professed to be her friends just instead looked with jealous eyes across her rich borders.

At any rate, I am not a historian or a politicist; I am a scientist, and I must take firm stock of observable realities, no matter how far-flung the source or complex the theory behind them. I can say that the rubbings that I sent you when we first opened our correspondence are reportedly in a language called Ur-Samekh, and are thought of as the language of those who mean to lift up the world to a better existence. In this you may now understand the Stufe in Weltstufe: a “stage” or “phase” of the world. My work before the robbery was to match what I knew of the locations where the rubbings were found to phenomena observed at those locations when the stars were in a certain position, and of course in the time since my laboratory and office were violated, I have not had the ability to do anything, and may have to wait several weeks until I am set up again.

I have said far too much in the paragraphs above, but with the situation such as it is, I find myself a little desperate, and with little to risk. Since you will be away on your mission, I decided to write you as soon as I could, but I know that you will not be in a position to assist me with any more transfers of material from the libraries or archives of La Commission. However, remembering that I read that you would be sent to Garnsey, I thought perhaps you might at least find something there of note that relates to the work that I had been doing in the weeks before the robbery, and thus be in some kind of position to replace to some small extent what I have lost.

Until then, I may also travel: I have it in mind to visit the nearest of the rubbing-sites on a hunch. Again, I am a scientist and not some kind of dashing adventurer like Dr. Crane or his associate Mr. Rackham. I suspect that those two Albionese are a bit touched, as my own mother used to say, since they endeavor to travel into the heart of what the Society has believed in recent months to be the epicenter of the “false evolutions.” But—perhaps fortune in fact favors the bold, and I ought to heed that proverb to some extent.

I hope to read your next exciting chapter soon, Bertie—but above all, stay safe.





Les Rives, 20 January

Dear Uncle Friedrich,

I admit, I’m still trying to get my head around all the revelations in your “dissection notes.” The accompanying illustrations have provided me some memorable dreamscapes! But as someone who has been insulated from the Weltstufe – oh, and bravo, by the way: as ever, the Saxonian language really comes through when you need a term for something ominous and doom-laden – I’m baffled by the sheer number of subjects you have come across. Five hundred seventeen! My question is: where did you find them, if not from Albion? Did you have other allomorphs nearer at hand, perhaps as a result of fallout from the Blood War? And if so, why on earth should there be a connection?

Even as I write that I picture you peering at me knowingly over your wire-rimmed glasses as you prepare to yank the scales from my eyes. Yank away, if you must – you have already corrected my take on the Blood War, so I am primed for still more education and edification – but be gentle. And if you do not in fact wear wire-rimmed glasses, please don’t correct me … the image is already too well-fixed in my head.

I have to admit an error, though hopefully this is one of those bad-in-the-short-term, good-in-the-long-term ones. By introducing LaGrande to La Commission, I let him slip en dehors de la poche, as Maman put it (I got an earful from her regarding this tactical mis-step). As long as I was his sole point of contact with the larger authorities, I had control over his flow of information; he was “mine”. But now that he is part of the larger organization he no longer reports to me, and he is being kept so busy that I have even found it difficult to meet with him at times. The hopeful long-term benefit is that La Commission is now organizing multiple expeditions to various historical sites in-country; LaGrande himself will probably return to Mont-Bré at some point. The short-term loss is that I have no new information to convey directly to you. Hopefully next time.

But I do have information that you will find interesting, and, coincidence of coincidences, it involves (tangentially, at least) a name that you mentioned in your letter! What are the odds?

I know I don’t have to ask you if you know about the tiny island of Garnsey, because your precious College is/was there. That aside, it has been a Point of Interest because it is an Albionese island that lies closer to the Gallian coast than its motherland, and rumors had a way of creeping out of there even though the vortex-storms kept anyone from sailing near there who wasn’t certifiably suicidal.

A few weeks ago, as you probably know, the storms stopped. A great many ships that had presumably been holed-up at port there for months all set sail, and those that landed at Gallian docks were promptly impounded by La Quarantaine, their passengers and crews isolated and questioned, all the better to understand the Weltstufe and protect the people of the Continent. Those who seemed the most interesting and/or reliable were sent to Les Rives, and consequently I have spent many hours in the past week listening to the stories of salty sea-dogs and irate merchant captains. It doesn’t surprise me that you had already received word through your own channels that Elizabeth College had been destroyed, but hopefully I can add a little bit as to the how and the why.

Tensions were running high there owing to the isolation caused by the storms and the myriad rumors about the cause of it. But things got even more complicated when a New Columbian ironclad crashed on shore, bearing not just its own crew, but a contigent of Albionese soldiers led by a captain named Robards. He must have been quite the charismatic leader, because in a surprisingly short time he had most of the population rallying behind him as the de facto leader of “New Albion” – the old one having been left for dead, apparently. He seemed to have a great deal of success leveraging the resentment of the locals against the diverse crusty sailor-types stranded in the port, which were, not surprisingly, exactly the people who got the hell out of there as soon as they were able and eventually found their way to an interview room (“interrogation chamber” sounds so harsh) in Les Rives. So, no love lost on Robards for most of these people, but a few of them, despite all that they had been through – despite the fact that they weren’t even Albionese! – still professed loyalty to him. Bizarre.

Anyway, as a part of consolidating his power, he went to Elizabeth College, imprisoned and/or scattered the faculty and staff, burned the buildings to the ground, and made off with some interesting loot including what is referred to in the official reports as “experimental artillery.” Which makes absolutely no sense unless you’re aware of the College’s affiliation to the Society, which, thanks to you, I am.

Anyway, New Albion proved short-lived. The New Columbians that had brought him and his men there turned against Robards, the outlying villages united to oppose him, and he was also betrayed by his chief adviser, a man by the name of … wait for it … Dr. Eliot Crane.

I heard Crane give a lecture once in New Columbia, where he was visiting. As a rule I didn’t attend many lectures while I was there, but this one sounded interesting … a former combat medic from the Blood War was now an archaeologist traveling to ancient sites in exotic locales with his friend and traveling companion, Benjamin Rackham, footing the bill. How adventurous! But the man muttered his entire lecture with his nose buried in his notes, and practically put the whole hall to sleep. Apparently the written version was considerably more engaging, but I never read it. I couldn’t even be bothered to introduce myself to him afterward, and yes, I’m kicking myself about that now.

As far as I have been able to piece it together, this expedition of theirs, the one with your operative in it, split off into two at some point, with the part led by Robards and including Crane heading south, connecting with the New Columbians on the coast (who know what they were doing there …) and eventually crash-landing on Garnsey. What their original plan was, and why they turned against their leader, I have no idea. No one I have interviewed had firsthand knowledge of the battle in the village of Carteret where Robards was defeated. Apparently Crane and the New Columbians are no longer there, in any case.

But it’s still a place of strategic importance, and while the vortex-storms have come back, apparently they’re not as strong as they once were, and La Commission has decided to send a covert information-gathering mission to Garnsey before deciding on next steps. And when they look around the table at the meeting, thinking about who to send, their eyes fall on me as they exclaim, “Who better to send on a covert mission that the youngest son of Annette Dupont! Bien sûr!”

Ah well. I suppose I shouldn’t complain – it is field work, after all. Maman could get me out of it but she thinks a touch of danger will be character-building. And so, I will be sure to pop by the ruins of your College and see what there is to see. But if there is anything or anyone you want to me to keep an eye out for in particular, let me know. What with the necessary approvals and requisition forms I don’t imagine I’ll be leaving for a week or two, yet.


Bertie Dupont

Essen, 15 January


It seems that your Maman, fortunately, has not passed to you the lingering anger that the Gallians still have against we Saxonians—and of course the Albionese—following the Blood War. For the most part she is correct about the detail on the Society technology from Albion benefiting the Saxonian armies under Vögl in the Western Zone. Your conclusion that my fellows helped to arm Albion is, however, a little rückwärts. (Please pardon my insertion of the Saxonian; it functions somewhat better than the Albionese “backwards” since I meant to imply a comedic subtext!)

It was the Albionese who shared their technologies with us—for a price, and I mean yet beyond the outrageous terms of their expensive alliance against your nation. Certainly they had younger members and new cells of the decentralized Society across the Occitan Continent and even into Cathay at the outbreak of the War, but nothing expands a clandestine organization’s reach like the profits of war. That the New Columbians should come in as interlopers and change the balance of power when they did is ironic to me, since they arrived as Gallia’s saviors yet left as Albion’s allies. You can bet it was the Society that was behind that change of heart, too. Now that the La Commission is cooperating with the New Columbians only highlights their fickle sense of alliance, and perhaps the desperation of your countrymen. Opportunists!

Yet, if the New Columbians have shown us anything, it is that intelligence and scientific inquiry can lift us above our nationalist pride and pig-headed prejudices. Even the Gallians know the value of clemency in victory: they were kind to me specifically in the wake of Saxonia’s defeat and kinder still to those of my profession in a general sense, leaving our university and hospital system largely autonomous. As you get to know this LaGrande fellow, perhaps he can tell you something similar. And access to the Sorbonne—would that I had those kinds of archives at my disposal! This is the kind of thing that tells me that the Gallians understand the role that supporting discovery can have in making sense of our changed world, even behind the aegis of La Quarantaine.

I suppose, though, what you are telling me is that I do have access to the Sorbonne—through you. Yes, it is a two-way street: I was glad to hear that you shared the rubbings with LaGrande, someone who, from your description, sounds like a much better man than me to handle them. The star-charts are delightful, and I thank you a thousand times for them. They will further the work greatly that is already underway in predicting the next Weltstufe. (Pardon the preference for Saxonian again; I believe the Albionese use the word “Incident,” but this, I am told, does not provide the same connotation of progression toward an end, which both the Saxonian word and the Gallian phrase étage-du-monde provide.)

If our analysis of the star-charts predict that the next Weltstufe brings the collective human consciousness to a cataclysmic end, I will be sure to let you know.

More cheerfully, I have send along with this letter something for your new Gallian researcher friend to pair with his rubbings. Enclosed are copies of my notes from the Franconium Conference six months ago, linking at least some of the symbols from the rubbings to specific heavenly bodies, showing in many cases a clear correspondence to their sudden and unexplained altered trajectories to the designs found along with the rubbings at each of the four locations. I would have sent them sooner but I honestly didn’t know what you might do with them since we were early on in our correspondence; and besides, like I noted above, this LaGrande seems like he would be the man to interpret them best. You might also make special note to him about the particular locations and ask him his interpretations. If he has studied Mont-Bré already perhaps he can tell me any connection he finds. I know that certain Saxonian members of the Society had long wanted access to Mont-Bré but of course were forbidden this on the orders of their former enemy government.

You were curious about the dissections that I have performed, and ordinarily I would give you, like anyone with a similar curiosity, a perfunctory response that information of that type is provided on a “need-to-know” basis only, and at this time you do not need to know. However, we are in very different circumstances, and so far it seems that the free flow of information benefits us both. So, as an appendix to this letter, I have written out a brief synopsis of the work I have done. This work was done under the banner of the College of Surgeons flying in the courtyard between our sprawling wards, but in truth it was done at the Society’s orders.

In this, I recognize you are very good at drawing information forth from me, and I also recognize that I am still in the happy glow of having received all of your carefully-shipped star charts. But I am a man who is constricted not only by these walls but also by the obligations on my time—you, however, seem to have no problem meeting new people like LaGrande, finding entry into observatories and libraries as you go about whatever business it is that your Maman thinks she found for you. So, ask away, any curiosity you have!

Let me know soon what LaGrande thinks about my additional notes. I wouldn’t show him my dissection notes unless he insists.


P.S. Ah to mention curiosity, after I finished this letter to you I read again what you wrote and I saw that you also were asking about Skald. What I have heard about that mysterious place is that it rises above the sea, or falls underneath it, every two centuries or so. To hear the observatory clerk, or whoever he was, dismiss it as a myth made me laugh, because even within Society ranks there seems to be something of the mythological about it. In fact, Edmund Rexley’s mathematical equation that predicts its reappearance—and disappearance—with remarkable accuracy is still enshrined in a Society museum somewhere; this same equation predicts the planetary alignment of Hestia, Dionysia, and Hera with the appearance of the comet Tisiphone in the northern sky. According to the calculations, Skald should have reappeared some six years ago; I had heard that there were some preparations at Elizabeth College to explore the island, but these efforts received neither funding nor enough interest—this was surprising to me, but the expeditionary branch of the Society is not one I belong to.

I think I also mentioned in one of my previous letters that we had an operative along with the expedition that was launched by the Albionese gentlemen Eliot Crane and Benjamin Rackham, who financed and organized their team independently of whatever was left of the Albionese government following the beginning of our current Weltstufe. We think she has been compromised somehow, as she no longer is in communication with her contacts within the Society—but hear this only indirectly since, as I have said, I do not work with the exploration teams. We thought that a landing on Skald by Crane and Rackham might have re-energized an interest in the cooperation that once existed between the New Columbians and the Society, with our operative as a lynchpin, but I am afraid that those goals, like many others, lie in ruins now. Perhaps you can learn more, and tell me what my ears have missed on this side of the Quarantine.

– – – – –


College of Surgeons, Essen

Many of my colleagues use the word “lycanthropy” to describe the metamorphic changes observed in our autopsies. Keeping Hellenic word roots, a better word is allanthropy: changing-to-other.

We have catalogued some five hundred and seventeen cases of allanthropy, and they generally fall within three main discernable types: animalism, degeneration, and suprapotentiality. In whomever we do not see a change, we refer to these as “null” cases. Allomorphism is a subset of suprapotentiality, where mostly human forms are retained but animal characteristics are taken on without a reversion to animal instincts. We have limited information on allomorphs except the three poor devils we keep caged at Elizabeth College; what we know is that they retain speech, the ability to reason, and their memories.

I have dissected over two hundred rat-men (arouranthropes) with varying degrees of similarity, cataloguing their differences. It seems their blood carries combinations of cells not matching the original host nor quite matching any next rat-man; thus the rat-men are as varied as humans are, and their rat-selves appear to be something added to the human, but dormant from birth. In the majority of these cases, the transformation seems to be localized in the upper half of the body, but not in all cases. Why the rat-men (about forty percent of the total catalogued samples) are in the majority of the changed forms is not known.

Some different types of animals have also been catalogued, for example lizards and snake-like men (sauranthropy, specifically ophisanthropes) and bear-men (arctanthropes). These made up about fifteen percent of our sample. In order of frequency, the changes that these creatures endured corresponded to reptilian (twenty-nine of the subjects), canine or lupine (twenty-two of the subjects), feline (sixteen of the subjects), and rodentate but not rat-like (seven of the subjects). Completely missing from our sample set were any transformations that appeared aligned with features of birds, fish, or hooved animals.

Another three hundred were degenerates, who were generally humans who seemed not to be able to sustain a transformative process. In these cases, we noted with almost total consistency that the blood seemed to have evaporated from within the victim, leaving the flesh a brittle, white husk both within and without. Tests on the flakes of flesh recovered from each of these cases revealed a cellular structure not unlike bone, where minerals naturally present in the body seemed to overtake and crystallize otherwise healthy flesh.

In terms of the suprapotentiality, we dissected very few. Of the subjects that were brought to us either already dead or dying, they each displayed either physical characteristics or mental characteristics that would seem beneficial, if not desirable, but which lead to their death. One example I can relate to you is a man whose flesh was impenetrable in any way; he had sadly died racked of hunger since his body had not been able to assimilate foods, no more porous or permeable on the inside as it was on the outside. We could not cut, or burn, or tear, or otherwise puncture his skin; needless to say, the autopsy I performed on him was quite lacking in many of the typical observations I would normally make upon peering into a man’s inner cavities.

Les Rives, 6 January

Dear Uncle Friedrich,

I’m very happy you’ve decided to keep up our little correspondence. My official duties these days consist of attending an endless series of meetings where everything is discussed ad infinitum and nothing ever seems to get decided. Your requests for obscure information are therefore welcome: I much prefer field work. Well, I prefer a well-aged Château-Grillet shared with a beautiful woman next to a roaring fire, but if I must work, then yes, field work, please.

I understand now that you have replied in part because you really do need me. I’d like to think you were also impressed that I knew about the Society, since its existence is hardly common knowledge in Gallia. When Maman refers to me as her “crushing disappointment,” she does so with a loving smirk, but that does not make it any less true. The fact is, she taught me herself from a very early age, so I know all sorts of things that are not generally taught in school — it’s just that I usually find no higher purpose for all that knowledge than to impress people at parties. (And let me assure you, I am very impressive at parties.)

Anyway, I thought I knew all about your Society, but now I’m not so sure. I had no idea the full name was “The Ancient and Majestic Society of the Unchanged Ways” … that is absolutely terrific, and not at all what I imagined. I pictured something quite a bit more Albion-centered and modern. As Maman explains it, during the Blood War, the Gallians marched into Saxonia bursting with pride at the fact that the horses in their cavalry regiments were oh-so very well-groomed, only to see Albion show up with steam-powered-this and tesla-that … and of course the Skylads with their aeros! Naturally the question everyone had was, “Where did they get all these things?” And the answer, for those in the know, seemed to be (cue ominous music) “The Society.”

I see that I committed the all-too-common fallacy of assuming that your Society was a monolithic organization of unified mind and uniformity of purpose. And what organization is ever like that, really? All the more after what has happened to Albion. I stand corrected!

But I have to ask … if it is true that fellows in your Society helped to arm Albion during the Blood War, how does that make you feel, as one who was on the receiving end of the onslaught? Around here, people mutter about “what happened to Essen” as a sort of cautionary tale about the dangers of technological advances. It’s even said (in private) that whatever has happened to Albion may have been deserved after all the hell that it unleashed on the Continent. Not to say that the Kaiser didn’t have it coming, of course! But still. How do you square these things in your own mind?

On to business! I have been diligently pursuing information on your behalf, with some interesting results.

Asking after this Von Neumann fellow got me a lot of blank stares, but eventually someone suggested I try the library at the Sorbonne. They are very protective of their things over there, but as I mentioned in my last letter, being able to hold up a document, signed and embossed, that identifies me as an agent of La Commission, opens a lot of doors. A librarian escorted me through dusty corridors into a cavernous room, walls lined high with rickety shelves, full to bursting with books. Stout oaken tables in the middle of the room were piled high with the same, haphazardly. More books and loose documents filled the corners, including what looked like a random pile of scroll-cases as high as my chest.

“How will I find what I need in all this?” I asked the librarian. His reply began with “Je suis desolé,” a lovely Gallian phrase which, in this context, meant that he had already given all of the fucks he was planning to give about my situation. After a fruitless hour of poking around, I realized I would need to come back with a clearer sense of what I was looking for, or help, or both.

Next I made for the Observatory, cutting an impressive silhouette atop a hill on the edge of town. I knew that’s where I would find astronomical records.

It should have been a perfectly pleasant carriage-ride. As I said, though, I was taught by Maman, and one of those lessons she drilled into me was to perpetually check my surroundings, take note of the people I see, and file away important details, especially if anything seems out of place. A pointless exercise, done out of habit – it’s not as if someone would be following me!

Except, this time, someone was. Another carriage, keeping its distance but matching mine turn-for-turn. Like mine, it was an enclosed carriage, horse-drawn, so I could not say for sure who it was. I instructed my own driver to round the next corner, and in that moment when we were out of sight I slipped out and crouched down a nearby alley. (Getting horse-shit on my boots in the process … let it not be said that I will not go to great lengths on your behalf!)

When my pursuer slowed to come around the corner, I darted out, opened the carriage door, and slipped in to sit opposite its passenger, who at that moment had his head craned out the side window opposite me in order to see ahead. His flabbergasted expression when he realized he was not alone with well worth a bit of horse-shit, that’s for sure.

“Bertie Dupont,” I said, extending my hand. “You were following me. To what do I owe the pleasure?”

Lest you think me too cocksure for my own good, let me assure you that that I did not choose that particular approach until I had seen the man, and seeing him put to rest any concern that I was dealing with some sort of assassin or agent provocateur. This fellow was a dowdy scholar scarce older than myself who fidgeted with his hands while he tried and failed to say anything witty – or, indeed, even cogent – in response to me.

Finally he introduced himself as Julian LaGrande, archaeologist at the Sorbonne. One of the librarians alerted him that someone was asking after Von Neumann texts, and he apparently wanted to find out about me before he decided whether to offer any assistance. I took great interest when he mentioned he had done some work early in his career at Mont-Bré; I recalled that you had mentioned that place in your first letter so I knew it must be relevant.

We repaired to a café, where I showed him some of the rubbings you sent along to see if he thought he might be able to translate them. What he lacked in certainty he certainly made up for in enthusiasm; he could barely resist getting started on the project right then and there. You can be the eventual judge as to whether his linguistic skills are up the task: I decided he seemed harmless enough, and so arranged for him to receive a position with La Commission, reporting directly to me.

The following day I did get to the Observatory, and I am happy to report that I was not je-suis-desoléd by anyone there. Indeed, they bent over backward to be helpful, which is why you will be receiving a crateful of star-charts and celestial maps, possibly more than you need, and hopefully including some that are of use to you. I am also including with this letter some of the early results of LaGrande’s work, but that is still very much in process, and the bulk of it will have to wait for my next letter.

A curiosity and a question, though, while I’m thinking about it. While waiting for the folks at the Observatory to gather up all those maps and charts, I killed some time poring over a magnificent wall-atlas showing the Continent and its environs. I was able to find all the places you had mentioned in your letters, save one.

“Where is Skald?” I asked a fellow who was in the room. He sneered, causing his mustache to wriggle in an unseemly fashion as he peered at me over his spectacles.

“The Isle of Skald is a myth,” he drawled, disdainfully.

Curious, no? I hadn’t ever heard of it before myself. Perhaps you could tell me where it is?

Finally, my question. I get that your theory is that the rise of transformations is tied to astronomical events. It’s strange, but “strange” is relative when we’re already talking about werewolves and fairy-tale islands. But you said that you arrived at it that theory after “hundreds of dissections” …

What were you dissecting?


Bertie Dupont

Essen, 25 December


Well, I may as well simply call you Bertram after this round of correspondence, now that you have described our familial connection. I never knew Arnaud, at least not in any true sense. Hildi and I last spoke before the Blood War; I ceased getting letters after the great Tyrolian advance into Steinmetz, and the enormous catastrophe that enfolded there. I never had a hate for Gallians in any case.

So indeed, there are no “hard feelings,” as you state—especially since I am hoping that the Commission for whom you work will cooperate with me, when so few others will.

Speaking of that, there is a saying we have: “the Society never knows what the Society knows.” This speaks to the loose and fractured cells that vaguely cooperate from a thousand shadows, I suppose. I include it here to address the notion that the Society was only on Albion. Yes, the Albionese were its principal founders, having begun with the great thinker and inventor Edmund Rexley. But the Society’s members were—and still are—found in many nations, on the Continent, in Cathay, in Anatolia, and yes, even in New Columbia.

In fact, that you are Gallian, residing in New Columbia, corresponding with a Saxonian element of the Ancient and Majestic Society of the Unchanged Ways in well-practiced Albionese is a grand irony that is not lost on me, I assure you.

If Maman arranged this assignment for you—this does not worry me. If your scholarly credentials were less than originally advertised—then I have another saying for you that we have in the Society: “Utility in all things; potential is greater than the sum of its doubts.” I can tell you about the legends of Rexley himself: he was a failure before his discovery of the celestial clock, and that was only possible through his correspondence with Molineux. He codified the Universal Lexigraph, certainly, but only with the collaboration of many in his day who had knowledge beyond his. I can provide you with many more examples, but again I say, I will rely upon your desire to assist me as the only encouragement I need to continue corresponding.

Toward that end, I hope you were able to convey the rubbings I sent to your superiors at the Commission for possible translation against their Von Neumann volumes. I need whatever translations—even if rough—that you can furnish, and if you cannot provide any, say so and we will move the next project. We had an agent who could provide such translations placed among the Albionese explorers, but we have not heard from him in almost two months now.

I reviewed my previous letter to you and recognized that although I had mentioned that I needed access to “records,” I was not entirely clear. I need star-charts and celestial maps, any and all that you can get your hands on. If I understand from your letter that you can safely send these things without diplomatic interference, any that you can send my way would be most beneficial. We in the Society know that the New Columbians have made great strides in the area of observations into the skies, and perhaps there are some new charts you can “borrow” from them. Since our observatory on Garnsey is no longer in operation—as my contact there tells me—then you are my next recourse. If you promise not to let your friends at the salon set their tea-cups on it, I may well give you some summaries into my findings in a future letter!

One last detail that I cannot resist explaining. I am a scientist. This requires that I abolish all superstition until it converts itself into fact through evidence, or dissipates under the power of truth. I cannot eliminate any possibility until it is either upheld through logical explanation, or dismissed by the same light of reason. Lycanthropy is real, my friend; but it is not a thing of werewolves like they tell in the dark Märchen of my childhood. It is a slow and painful process, causing great agony and danger to the body. It is not contagious, yet it is found in large groups at a time. Despite the legendary tales, it is completely irreversible in the subject. And perhaps most disturbing of all: those who survive a transformation retain their human consciousness. This means that those who undergo the involuntary and sudden change, and survive, roam the earth in full knowledge of their changed state.

But there is one detail that seems to hold true to the old stories. The changes happen because of a shift in the stars, or the moon, or both—or this at least is my theory now, after hundreds of dissections and observations of live victims. Now you know why I am asking for astrological maps.

With those comforting thoughts, I wish you a Happy Yule, or whatever they say in New Columbia. Joyeux Noël and Fröhliche Weihnachtszeit!