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.
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.”
“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,