Stockport, 7 September

My Dear Rackham,

I feel rather the fool; I have been at my wit’s end cursing what I took for bad luck, but which now reveals itself as the workings of Providence. For almost two weeks I have been stymied in my efforts to leave Garnsey for Mont-Bré, but had I succeeded in departing even a day ago, I would have missed your letter and your invaluable sketches of the Obelisk-runes. And those may not even be the most consequential piece of information I received from you, for reasons that will become clear.

Allow me to begin by relating the conversation with Robards that took place shortly after I sent my last letter. I wanted him to confront the possibility that his unusual sway over the minds of others might be caused by something more than his usual charisma, so as to help him understand the sudden change in disposition toward him on the part of the New Columbians and the governor. I thought that the best approach would be to coax him into voicing the idea first; if he thought it was his idea it might sit better with him.

But I lack your smooth tongue, my friend, and am rarely at my best in such situations. To Robards’ mind all his difficulties were simply the result of irrational behavior on the part of those around him. He seemed alarmed when I broached the subject of the peculiar autopsies of Smythe and Dodgson. I may have made a mis-step when, at one point, unsure of what to say next, I consulted a conversational matrix I had sketched out in my notebook with optimal responses to his most likely statements. He found this somewhat alienating, and suggested that if I wanted to pick apart his brain that I kindly wait until he was properly deceased. That would have been the moment for a judicious reply, but in a fit of pique I went off-matrix, as it were, and pointedly inquired as to whether he had lost anything of particular value in the storm at sea. That plainly struck a nerve, but he mistook my meaning. “You stole it!” he bellowed, and lurched forward to grab me.

Instantly — and quite unintentionally — I became incorporeal, in what I can only assume was a reflexive act of self-preservation. Robards passed through me and slammed into the wall behind me, wheeled, swung a punch which whistled cleanly through my head, and another, before finally stopping and staring at me, thunderstruck. I hastened to explain that what he had just witnessed had been happening to me since the Incident. I swore to him that I had stolen nothing, and told him about seeing the glowing object fall from the ship and descend into the depths. And, fortunately, he listened. While I had not intended to reveal my Ability to him, it seems to have worked out for the best. When I suggested that perhaps he had an Ability of his own he gave the notion at least some credence, and we discussed the issue at some length.

More importantly, he confided in me about the object he had lost in the storm. It is, or was, a rough-hewn piece of stone with some runes carved on it, worn around his neck and then kept in a desk drawer in his cabin on the Sigsbee while we were at sea. It had no particular effect that he could discern, though his anger upon realizing it was missing, and his violent response when he thought I had stolen it, he attributes now to some strange power it must have had over him that has, thankfully, subsided.

I had him make drawings of the runes on it, to the best of his memory, but it is only today, with the receipt of your letter, that I am able to confirm that they are, indeed, of a piece with the ur-Samekh carvings from the Obelisk. At this point you are no doubt dying to know where he got this thing from, and you would do well to heed the answer. Robards says that he had it from none other than Throckmorton, who presented it to him at the chamber site before we all parted ways. It was not given as a mystical talisman or secretive object of great import, however, but as a simple good-luck charm, an innocuous memento between longtime war-compatriots about to take disparate paths. That, at least, is how Robards took it. Whether it was in truth given in the same spirit is for you to discover, if you can. The thing is now gone, of course, and perhaps I am making more of it than is warranted. You have made no particular mention of Throckmorton other than that he remains with your party, but I urge you to be cautious and mindful of the fact that there may be more to him than is apparent.

Moving on. Satisfying as it was to achieve a breakthrough of sorts with Robards, doing so did nothing to accelerate the repairs to the Sigsbee. In any case, it was no longer evident that Campbell would willingly take us where we wanted to go once she was seaworthy. And so I took a room at an inn in town, the better to survey other options for leaving the island. Stockport is a trading hub, and the pubs near the water are chock full of merchant seamen stranded here by the closing of the port, growing more restless with each passing day.

Recalling that your family’s riches originated in the mercantile world, I confess I let your name drop while buying drinks for some merchant captains one night. I don’t think any of them recognized Benjamin Rackham — no doubt they would have been taken aback had they known of the ways that you have amassed and disbursed your personal fortune — but the family name had the desired effect. I learned from these gentlemen that, while the port is indeed closed, that has not prevented smaller smuggling vessels from risking crossings to the Gallian coast, and some have even returned, bringing some goods and, more importantly, information. And so I have something to report, albeit third-hand, on the state of the world.

The good news: The effects of the Incident are not present abroad. Word is spreading about a cataclysm that has befallen Albion, and rumors abound. (The bitter irony there is that no matter how fanciful some of those rumors must be, they will only rarely prove as strange as the truth.) The sudden lack of contact and trade has created all manner of disruptions, to be sure, but the people of the Continent and beyond seem safe from this particular malady.

The bad news: The governments of the Continent are in a state of high alarm, and their chief priority at this juncture is to quarantine Albion completely. One story circulating — I have no way to verify it — is that a flotilla of our vessels that had survived the crossing was denied landing at the port of Brabant, and when they continued toward the docks nonetheless, they were blown out of the water by the shore artillery. All this is why it has been so difficult to find passage toward Mont-Bré. Braving the vortex-storms is no small risk to begin with, but the prospect of being caught breaking quarantine raises the bar even further, and it is only since your letter arrived that I have been able to make arrangements …

But I am getting ahead of my story. I must interject with an unrelated episode that happened a week ago, albeit one with some ominous portents. After a long period of silence, the governor asked Robards for aid in investigating an incident at a coastal village on the other side of the island, not far from where the Sigsbee originally landed. He and I took a dozen men and, arriving there, heard a harrowing tale from the villagers about mer-men crawling out from the sea and trying to steal their babies. No one had been hurt, however, and indeed, all the invaders were dead. But the story became curioser, as the villagers did not report any actual struggle with the creatures. They had all expired on their own, four of them on the beach, and two more who had made it into the village, one in particular who had burst through the door of a nursery room before collapsing. (Hence, “stealing babies.”)

There followed a rather long and perplexing investigation, but I shall spare you the details, since at the end of the day what provided the answers we sought was an autopsy. A thoroughly unpleasant autopsy, I should note, as the bodies of the creatures stank like dead fish. I could see why the villagers had described them as “mer-men” but you must not imagine a full hybrid in the manner of the were-rats. They appeared human in most respects, save for a sliminess and discoloration of the skin, and some evidence of emergent scales. And then, of course, the gills. They had lungs, but these were shriveled, useless, vestigial. Instead they had enlarged necks with six pairs of gill slits. Yet this appeared to be their only adaptation toward life in the water. They did not have webbed hands or feet, and their mouths, teeth, jaws, and digestive tracts were all human or very nearly so. My rather macabre conclusion is that these creatures found themselves able to breath in the water, but unable to get food there. They went ashore in search of sustenance — and there suffocated.

All this hints at a rapid mutation, reminiscent of what I found in Smythe and Dodgson. But that in turn suggests that these things were once men, and there are no reports of six men gone missing locally. It was Robards who quietly reminded me that we lost exactly that many men during the storm, and I tried to discern some identifying mark on the corpses that would confirm or deny that horrifying possibility. I cannot say with certainty one way or the other. Only that, despite their monstrosity, I cannot help but feel some sympathy for these creatures. It must have been a horrible way to die.

This brings me to more recent events, those since the arrival of your letter. I had been avoiding the College, but what you read in Bennington’s mind convinced me that it was worth another visit, if only to discover whether she does, in fact, have a laboratory there. Robards came with me this time. The president (a portly gentleman by the name of Sanders) welcomed us into his office, and we discussed the plight of Albion and what news and rumors we had heard since last we met. “Curious, isn’t it, Doctor Crane,” he opined, “That after all the trouble you have given the Society over the years about striding bravely into the future, it is mucking about with ancient artifacts that seems to have brought about the Apocalypse.”  Insufferable git. But I maintained composure, and steered the conversation toward Bennington — yes, yes, he did remember her, bright pupil, pride of the Society — and whether she maintained a laboratory here — no, nothing like that, just a tiny school really, all the interesting stuff happens elsewhere.

He was lying, of course, but short of confronting him and forcing our way through campus I could think of no way to proceed. But then Robards cut in: “Surely there must be something of hers left lying around, eh? What could it hurt to let us have a look around?” The words themselves, you will agree, were totally innocuous. But I felt a prickle at the back of my neck as he spoke them, as if there was an energy in the air, and I knew what he was attempting. To my surprise, it worked! The change in Sanders was sudden and total: he went from smug to subservient in an instant. The next minute he was handing Robards his own key-ring and directing us to the basement of the adjoining building. As soon as we were alone I asked Robards whether he had meant to activate his Ability, and he admitted that he had. “Thought I’d give it a try,” he said, shrugging.

A try. A try. I have been trying several times a day for weeks to gain any sort of control over my newfound gifts, without success. Your own Ability appears to be a double-edged sword, unfathomable in its potential yet necessitating constant vigilance against cacophony and madness. But Robards decides on a whim to attempt something he barely believes in, and meets with unfettered success. I have no words, Rackham. “Jealousy” does not even begin to cover it.

I digress. We located the laboratory — not currently in use, but some of the notes and logs left behind verified that it had been Bennington’s. Foremost in my mind as we investigated was your vision of her dream — had this place been, in fact, the site of “gruesome vivisection?” Or was that simply a figment of her nightmare, a manifestation of residual guilt (no doubt warranted, this being the Society) but not literal in nature? Given the examination tables and the diagrams on the walls, this was no doubt a place for anatomical investigation, but I found no concrete evidence of anything morally questionable. What was clear is that much of the research had been hematological in nature. Looking back at one of your earlier letters, I now believe that when Bennington referred to Society-sanctioned research into the superstrata of the blood, it was her own research that she was referring to.

In a locked cabinet we found a box containing several vials filled with red liquid — possibly blood — as well a syringe; the contents of the vials are evidently meant to be administered subcutaneously. They are labeled, but in an odd notation, and it will take me some time, with the aid of the lab logs, to make sense of it all. (Needless to say we took all those things with us.) Sanders had bid us join him for tea, so we returned to his office. I found his constant desire to gratify Robards to be a little unsettling, now that I knew the cause, but that did not prevent me from taking advantage of the situation. I mentioned my desire to reach Mont-Bré. He indicated that the Society occasionally makes use of local smugglers when transporting sensitive materials, and offered to help me make contact.

Which is how I come, once again, to be writing to you on the eve of a departure. Good news — but not without complications. Eager as he was to help, Sanders was also adamant about sending one of his own men along to Mont-Bré. We have relented on that point. Given the size of the craft we are to take, there will only be room for me, this Society man, and a couple of Robards’ soldiers. Certainly riskier than traveling with a whole company, or at least the remnants of one.

My heart goes out to you and your party, who have had to endure travails infinitely more difficult than our own. Reading your account provides no shortage of events to marvel at, but I feel obligated to utter one note of caution regarding Stratham. I credit that in a time of crisis he seems to have found reserves of strength and resilience, and indeed that he may have saved you all in some way at the Obelisk. But burning his own books, as you describe, seems altogether out of character for the man. If the mental strain of the events at the loch are affecting him, it could have dire consequences for your expedition. Proceed with care. I wish I had fewer warnings and more answers to offer you, and if all goes well, I soon shall!

Warm Regards,


Stockport, 26 August

My Dear Rackham,

As you will see below, I had composed some letters before hearing from you, and have written once since. You may find them all herein. -E.C.

The Channel, 16 August

Sometimes it is helpful to sketch out the Best Case Scenario, if only because it gives an occasion for a hearty guffaw. For a steam-powered vessel like the Sigsbee, crossing the Channel should be an easy errand, an afternoon jaunt — in good weather, and at one of the narrower points, one could expect to be wiggling one’s toes in the sand of the Continent in two hours’ time. And, if nothing is to be found there — if the local inhabitants have been transformed into cannibalistic proto-beings, or if all that is to be seen is a vast wasteland — why then, back to Howgate in time for dinner!

I am writing at the end of our first day at sea, so that fact alone should indicate that we are not operating under the B.C.S. While this hulking ship does indeed boast a powerful engine, it runs on coal, and Campbell is (quite rightly) loath to use his stores up when he does not necessarily know where he will acquire more. So we have unfurled sails, but you can well imagine that the daunting weight and seeming impregnability of our floating fortress makes for slow going, especially when tacking into a headwind.

And, finally, we are not attempting the shortest crossing, but rather angling south and a little west, thereby doubling (or more) the distance we must cross before we make land. But for this we cannot blame harsh circumstance, or the weather, but none other than the obstinate Doctor Crane. I sold the notion to Robards this way: any crossing will tell us some of what we need to know about the reach of the Incident’s effects and the state of the outside world. Why not also choose a destination that pertains to our original mission and might help us understand all of what has happened? If you have not already guessed, I am referring to the dolmens we investigated at that old saint’s hill some years ago. At the time it was just another job, but I have been harboring a suspicion that the inscriptions on it might bear some relation to those on the stone, or the Obelisk, or both. If I had my notes from that case the matter might be settled quickly, but of course they are lost. And so there is nothing for it but to go there again.

But I may be getting ahead of myself; first we must cross. If you note a marked decline in my penmanship, you may blame the great swells and unpredictable winds that have plagued us thus far. Slow going indeed!

The Channel, 17 August

“Dark tempests of black dust.” Those were your words, were they not? Or at least your report of what Alia saw. If yesterday, nothing about our storm seemed out of the ordinary, today I am kicking myself for having missed so many clear signs of the unnatural. What I took yesterday for dark patches of sky now appear as coiling tendrils of blackness, connecting sky to sea in swirling funnels, the largest of which could engulf our ship. Dozens of these surround us now, and it is only the unceasing efforts of the crew that have kept us from being blown into one. We no longer have a clear sense of our heading or position.

I am not entirely unskilled in matters of sail, but these New Columbians are a proud bunch, and even if they had not rebuffed my offers of assistance, Robards ordered me to stay clear of the rigging. “We cannot afford for you to get hurt of all people, my good man!” I have remained at the ready in case of injuries, but there have been none, and so I have been keeping out of the way, spending my time observing.

First Observation: Robards is not wearing a magical amulet. I am being fanciful, of course, but in all seriousness I refer to my vision of him some weeks ago. Though the glow I perceived had no clear shape, it was certainly of a position and size that made it easy to imagine as something worn around the neck. But, our stormy environs being what they are, I have had opportunities to behold him barking orders bare-chested, and he wears nothing whatsoever around his neck or on his chest. If there is some sort of item responsible for the glow, is he keeping it in his quarters? I do not feel I am certain enough to merit breaking in and going through his things, though that does not keep me from wondering.

Second Observation: Those orders he barks … it is remarkable to me how readily both Campbell and his entire crew hang on the man’s every word. I have worked with military men many times over the years, and seen my share of war zones, and it seems to me that the norm when forces from different countries (even allied ones) come together is a great deal of machismo and posturing — harmless bravado at best, stubborn and counterproductive turf protection at worst.  That Campbell would put his ship and crew at the disposal of, and under the command of, Robards so very readily continues to baffle me. But the way they respond to him is not simply a matter of protocol; it is eager, it is … devoted.

Writing those words just now, it occurs to me that their behavior is really no different than that of Robards’ own men in the expedition. They love their captain, they are devoted, they would die for him — and some have. But that has not struck me as odd, partly because they were in fact his men, partly because of the extremity of our circumstances, and partly because I have always known him to be a charismatic leader, one who easily inspires loyalty. That selfsame loyalty coming from foreign strangers remains puzzling, however.

Third Observation: The Sigsbee has a mooring tower for aeros! It was retrofitted with it, of course, and the structure is currently disassembled and lashed to the deck, since they lost their aero itself in the chaos at Yarmouth. I had found it strange that the New Columbians had a female crewmate, but now that I understand she is their aero pilot, it makes perfect sense.

Stockport, Garnsey, 20 August

So much to relate. The previous page ended abruptly, and with good reason — in the middle of writing I heard an eerie howling noise and the ship groaned from stem to stern. I quickly stowed my writing implements in a waterproof box and made my wobbly way to the deck to see what was going on. I was afforded only a glimpse before a dozen voices ordered me back down, and I was happy to comply. For what I saw was that we were approaching one of the dark funnels, the biggest one yet, and given our momentum, there was no question that we were going to hit it.

I was in a narrow corridor belowdecks when the ship pitched precipitously upward, and I suddenly found myself falling toward the stern, careening helplessly toward an iron-studded bulkhead that, I feel certain to say, would have split my head open like a melon had I hit it …

… but I went through it. I dispense with all the hesitancy and qualifications with which I described a similar experience in my first letter. I was awake, and entirely alert, and there can be no mistake. I became incorporeal, or at least partially so, enough so that my substance passed harmlessly through the bulkhead and through the space beyond. (My scientist’s brain counters: “But are you certain that it is you that became incorporeal, and not that by some force of will you made the environment around you so?” To which I respond: “It was me; I felt it; I know it to my very bones.”)

It did not stop there. In a blur I passed through the bulkhead, the galley, another bulkhead, and in one brief moment my torso and head were passing through the captain’s quarters while my legs were outside the ship — and then I was falling through the air. Of course I could scarcely make sense of any of it at the time, but in reflection I have surmised that the vortex had literally lifted the Sigsbee up into the air — only some ten yards or so, but still, no small feat. I hit the water with nary a splash, sliding into it like falling through a cloud.

I was down there for some minutes — whether, in my translucent state, I did not have to breathe, or simply found it easier to hold my breath, I cannot recall. But I turned, and I saw. Not with my eyes, I know that now, because I am one of those chaps who cannot bear to open their eyes under the water, especially seawater. By reflex mine were clamped shut, and yet I saw: the vast expanse of ocean around me, the ship suspended in the air.  In the next instant, I saw the glow, the very one I had seen on Robards’ chest, falling from the ship. Not Robards himself — indeed, every soul on that ship I could sense, most hanging on for dear life, some, like me, falling or fallen into the brine — just the glow. It hit the water and continued to fall, not descending gradually as a stone might, but picking up speed the deeper it went.

I strained my perception to follow its course. Looking down now, I saw it disappear, somewhere near what I imagine must have been the ocean bottom. And then … oh, Rackham. Even as I write this now my hand trembles and my heart palpitates at the memory. Down there, I sensed … something. A vast, inky presence, size unfathomable, lurking at the bottom of the world. It exuded malevolence, and an insatiable hunger. The amount of will that was required to turn my gaze away from it, back upward … I had not guessed I had that will within me, my friend. Far easier it would have been to let go, to be sucked downward like that eldritch glowing thing.

But look upward I did. I saw that the vorteces were dispersing, that the Sigsbee had crashed back down to the water, but was now far from me, at the very edge of my perception. But I also saw that one of its landing boats was nearer at hand, perhaps having been knocked loose in the chaos, and that some of those others who had fallen overboard were struggling toward it.

Let me be clear: in my natural state I would not have been able to see that boat, to say nothing of the fact that I would have long-sinced drowned. I was still incorporeal, and found that easy strokes propelled me effortlessly toward the craft. Some had already clambered into it and were grabbing oars and paddling and looking around, trying to gather up other survivors. “What will they say,” I thought to myself, “When I rise up like a ghost through the bottom of the boat, sit down casually, and grab an oar myself!” But just then, it all ended: my body solidified, my vision darkened, I gulped down mouthfuls of seawater, and broke the surface sputtering and flailing. A lifering was tossed my way and I was pulled aboard.

Those other castaways believed it no small miracle that I was found. No one had seen me fall overboard; no one had seen me in the water; only at the very last moment had I surfaced, scant feet from the boat! It was a miracle, of course, but of an entirely different sort. And it was followed by yet another smile from Fortuna, to whom I really ought to consider building a shrine at this point: we had land in sight. Indeed, it was the selfsame land that the Sigsbee was now making for. Her masts were in shambles but under steam she was able to limp ahead, taking on water as she went.

And that is how I come to be writing from the isle of Garnsey. If you have a map handy you will realize that we were not as far off-course as I feared. Campbell grounded the ship on a sandy beach, and those of us in the boat rowed up some hours later. Half a dozen men lost, many minor injuries, but all in all things could have been much worse. We were greeted by locals, and learned that nothing amiss had happened to their island, though given the queer weather, they had remained isolated these past months. We unloaded the ship of vital supplies and began to hike overland to the town of Stockport.

I saw “we” in all this, but regretfully, I must admit that after my underwater experience I was in a state and of no use to anyone. Indeed, on the hike, I was hauled along in a stretcher, feverish and babbling (I am told). Only today has my mind cleared, and only now am I afforded a moment to try to record some of what has happened.

I have just come from a town meeting where Robards related to the local authorities all of what has happened back home and the dreadful state of the world. I say “all,” though of course there was plenty he left out. It is no lie to say that the Incident is a mystery, but he declined to mention our proximity to the source of that mystery. I had always thought of the captain as one of that sort who excels at navigating the social particularities of military life but can be surprisingly tone-deaf and awkward when interacting with civilians. Certainly I had seen him that way in the past, but today he had his audience enthralled. The governor of the island is falling over himself to make accommodations for us and to make arrangements to retrieve the Sigsbee and get it somewhere where repairs can be made.

Stockport, 26 August

I cannot tell you what a relief and a joy it was to receive your letter! I suppose first of all I should explain the remarkable chain of events that allowed this to be.

I mentioned that the New Columbians counted an aero pilot among their number. Alona is her name; she was quick to ask whether a functional aero was to be found on Garnsey, and her inquiries led us to Elizabeth College. It sits on the hill overlooking the town, and boasts an impressive number of faculty for such a backwater institution — none of whom had seen fit to join the town meeting or introduce themselves upon our arrival, curiously enough.

Or not so curiously, as we soon discovered. I accompanied Alona there, was ushered into the president’s office, and introduced myself. Upon hearing my name his eyes nearly burst out of his sockets, and only then did I observe the figure on his lapel and the embossment on his stationery. He is a Society man, and knew me by reputation. Indeed, Elizabeth (as it happens) is a Society college, through and through. Suffice it to say that the conversation was somewhat strained after that point! But I was civil, and, present circumstances being what they are, he thankfully seemed inclined to let bygones be bygones.

Say what you will about the Society, they gave us aero technology, and without that we could not have been corresponding all this time. I do not pretend to understand it. But the College is in possession of an aero, an older prototype. More to the point, they have a proper mooring tower. Alona managed to get its beacon working, and two days later, Alia arrived. The black dust she observed over land and the funnels that bedeviled our crossing appear to be similar — perhaps different manifestations of the same phenomenon. In any case, as I’m sure you have gathered, she is nothing if not confident, and felt sure of her ability to avoid them. She was curious enough upon detecting our beacon to risk the crossing, God bless her.

So. On to your letter. I laughed long and loud when you brought up school days, and those penny dreadfuls we used to smuggle in. I am sure you recall the one about the wily privateer Captain Peregrine, Scourge of the Iberian Fleet! He would sail from Garnsey, the very isle where I am now, and his secret lair was a cave in a cliffside, big enough for a ship to sail into. At this very moment, the Sigsbee is docked in just such a cave, undergoing repairs, and I am writing from a nook in the side of said cave, where every sound is an echo. Perhaps I should search for buried treasure! If only those Everwood lads could see me now …

You will forgive me if I have not practised my “ability” of late, certainly not since the storm. There will be a time for that but I am not yet ready. As for the glowing object, I believe it to be at the bottom of the sea, and have seen no sign of the same on Campbell. As for Robards: I have already mentioned the unusual level of devotion the New Columbians gave our captain. When I saw the exact same response to the man at the town meeting in Stockport, it suddenly dawned on me: what if he, too, has an Ability? Not to read the minds of men, or see and move through things, but to bend others to his will with only the slightest effort? And, if it is indeed some sort of Ability, as it is quite a subtler effect than what we have experienced, is it possible he is not even aware of it?

The clearest evidence for this has come in a sort of negative proof. This morning, at breakfast, things were very different. Campbell wanted to reconsider our plan. He was now rather disinclined to take his ship into Gallic waters. And by all that is holy, why should he be inclined? That he should have placed himself under the command of a foreign officer and sail into untold danger bound for enemy soil seems incredible, and it was as if that fact had finally dawned on him. Robards, for his part, did not seem to grasp what was happening. I watched him adopt the same commanding, inspirational tone that had served him so well, but now it fell on deaf ears.

In a way all this is moot, since there are still some weeks of repairs before the Sigsbee is seaworthy. But I am still determined to reach the dolmen site. I am readying for, if not a confrontation, let us say a “clearing of the air” with Robards, where I hope to find out much and perhaps even share a little. There is no shortage of other vessels in Stockport, and so perhaps a smaller sortie might endeavor to complete the crossing, if he is willing to spare some men.

I know where else I could look for help, but the thought of ascending the hill again and saying “please” makes me grind my teeth.

So, who knows what the future will bring? At the very least I will place these letters in Alia’s hands … or perhaps Alona’s. The two of them have been thick as thieves, comparing notes, making plans, and getting the prototype working. It appears we will soon have two working aeros, and therefore a more reliable communication network. Whether that will help in reaching you in the north, who can say, but at the very least I trust that you will be able to pen a reply upon your safe return!

Warm Regards,


Howgate, 15 August

My Dear Rackham,

The sensible thing to do would have been to write to you as time allowed and then keep the letter, ready to hand to fair Alia should she arrive in time, mayhap with a short post-script to account for more recent developments. I even sat down to do this very thing on several occasions, but could not stop dwelling on the prospect of those pages lingering, unsent, and so did not even begin. This is foolish; there are good reasons to record what is happening, even if you never read my words. For posterity if nothing else. But today, Fortuna smiles upon me: the aero has flown in on the very eve of our departure! And so I am able to write to you, and this rambling prologue serves only to explain why I am, once again, writing in haste.

These past weeks have been exciting times for our expedition; less so for me. While Robards & Co. have ranged up the coast in search of a seaworthy vessel, I have remained in Howgate, both to administer to our own casualties and to provide what aid I can to the village’s own people.

Ah, Rackham, ordinary people! Civilians, families, untouched by the Incident! I overstate: they are, of course, not untouched. They have lost contact with even their neighboring towns. Most of those who have left have not returned, and those that have tell tales of horror. And yet, they themselves have not come under any sort of attack, and their gardens yield their produce, the sea its fish. Day-to-day life for them has not changed much. Indeed, many of them display the same skepticism toward our stories and warnings that we did toward those first reports from the Colonies, as you yourself described.

One night in the tavern I found myself drawn into conversation with two elderly fishmongers, trying to convince them that the very presence of our ragtag expedition must at least prove that something of consequence is happening in the world, but they remained unconvinced. They suspected a Ruse put forth by the Government, a ploy to raise the level of alarm and thereby levy more taxes without complaint. I had not the heart to tell them that the Government they so enjoy despising may not even exist any more, for all we know.

Fortunately, my ministrations have earned our group enough goodwill in the village that they do not resent our presence. I have set half a dozen broken bones, pulled a handful of abcessed teeth, and delivered three(!) babies. And yes, before you ask, those were my first experiences with childbirth outside of a textbook. Neither my time in the university, nor battlefield, nor museum prepared me for the life of a family physician. All my career I looked down (with no small measure of disdain) at colleagues whose lives took that path, yet now I find that, should we ever see ourselves clear of this current state of calamity, I should be happy to retire to a village such as this and tend to their workaday illnesses and cares until the very end of my days.

Your own reports fill me with a heady mix of sympathy, revulsion, and wonder. I mourn for the dead at the same time as I burn with curiosity about your new ability. Unfortunately, when it comes to the changes in my own physiology as a result of the Incident, I have nothing new to report. I have had (and have spent) ample time attempting to trigger the odd perceptions and abilities that I have related previously, but entirely without success. My working theory is that responses are more easily induced by danger or stress, both of which have been (happily) in short supply of late.

I mentioned we are leaving on the morrow, so best to catch you up to just how that has come to be. Robards took half a dozen men and made for Yarmouth, hoping to finding a bigger ship there, ideally one attached to the naval station. They found a deserted town, and a strange blight that made the air difficult to breath and their skin to break out in colorful rashes. But they also found a ship — and not even one of ours! A New Columbian ironclad had been stationed there as part of some cockamamie military exchange program. They had lost their captain and half their crew when the town came under attack at the same time the blight arrived. (I need not mention that the timing of these events coincided perfectly with the Incident.)  The survivors hunkered down aboard their beast of a vessel, which is where Robards found them.

You can imagine my surprise earlier today, watching the N.C.S. Sigsbee sail into Howgate’s modest bay, belching steam, with Robards standing proudly at the prow alongside the ship’s officer in charge. Campbell is his name, by the way. Every bit as self-assured and impudent as one might imagine a N.C. seaman to be. He and Robards behave like close friends. Campbell and his crew have signed on to our expedition, placing themselves willingly under Robards’ command.

I am, of course, full of questions. What is the nature of the blight and the attack on Yarmouth? Did Robards and Campbell know each previously, or have they just bonded quickly? For that matter, I have all the above information from Robards himself — what if he cannot be trusted? I hope I will have time at sea to get some answers.

Warm Regards,


Howgate, 23 July

My Dear Rackham,

I wiggled my toes in the ocean today. Over the objections of Robards, I might add! “Doctor! You of all people should know that we cannot assume anything about the safety of the water! Where is your analytical mind?” Or something to that effect. I was impetuous; I confess it, nevertheless, if our world has changed to a point where a man can no longer take a dip in the brine on a fine summer afternoon, then would it really be worth it to go on?

As it happened, the water was fine. Very refreshing to see something so vast and so unchanged. Your description of the Ravine brought to mind a lingering question: Are we in the same place that we were before the Incident? Certainly since then I have seen familiar landmarks, yes, but also unfamiliar or unexpected terrain, to say nothing of the things we have encountered out of fantasy and nightmare. Is this home, or is this a place only resembling it, a doppleganger landscape at once reassuring and alienating? Idle speculations, I know, but at least the ocean remains the ocean.

And, as I suspected, Robards means to cross it. No one knows how far the chaos has spread, and if lands abroad remain untouched, then perhaps there we can gain succor, or at least clarity. For all his brilliance the man is a landlubber through and through, however, and several of us had to convince him that the fishing boats in this backwater village where we are encamped would not make the crossing. Where to find a bigger boat? That is the question of the day, but it is, thankfully, Not My Problem.

Have I let slip a hint of annoyance at our illustrious captain? I do confess it. But I have good reasons. Your last letter reaffirmed something that had already been troubling me: forbidding the autopsy of the “were-rats” (a terrible name but at least it is short) on grounds of “hygiene” was not only ill-advised but also out of character. Certainly you remember Robards in the days leading up to the Incident: he was not an investigator himself, of course, but he shared our unbridled enthusiasm for uncovering the secrets of the stone. Never one to shy from turning over a rock to find out what lies beneath.

Alas, the opportunity of a hybrid autopsy is now lost to me. He did not want to risk an attack while we were on the move, and so, two days before we were to leave the observatory, he took a dozen men and took the fight to their warren. I was not invited to that particular party. Indeed, while I am generally present at all meetings of consequence, and am known to have Robards’ ear, on this particular operation he kept me completely out of the loop. The first I learned of it was when they returned, thoroughly bloodied. I was kept busy patching up the wounded right until the moment we decamped, and so had no opportunity to investigate the warren myself. He says they burned it all, and I do not doubt him.

Hence my annoyance with the man. I will not say “suspicion” — I have seen him risk his life far too many times to doubt his devotion to his men, and to the expedition — and yet, there is something he is not telling us. No doubt it would be easier to swallow if he were a Society man, or a Luminator. One could imagine all manner of ulterior motives or secret agendas in a such a case.

It is now the following day, and I only have time for a brief yet consequential addendum. Amid spirited discussion at our morning council, I found myself staring absently at Robards, pondering what I had written the night before, my mind wandering … and then my perception shifted. It was similar to what I had experienced weeks ago, but this time focused solely on the captain. I saw through him, saw into him, after a fashion. But I could make out very little, because something glowed so brightly that it overwhelmed my second sight. It was small, in the vicinity of his chest, where one might expect to find a pendant on a necklace. More I cannot say, for so bright was it that I reflexively raised my arm to cover my eyes. When I lowered it, my vision had cleared and all present were staring at me quizzically.

Do I now have evidence of the very thing he is hiding? Or are my interior doubts simply projecting themselves and deluding me? I hope to discover more, but with no sense of when I may experience another perception shift, I cannot say when that will be.

I will make every effort to write again before we take to sea, though from your report it seems uncertain whether even if this letter will find you. I pray that it does. Stay safe, my friend!

Warm Regards,


Sandown, 5 July

My Dear Rackham,

Indulge me for a moment while I paint a scene:

A seaside hilltop, its southern face very nearly a cliff, descending steeply into the surf. An abandoned observatory, once a jewel of the Society, now useful primarily as a defensible position. Me, on the roof, enjoying a moment’s quiet with my sketchbook. The sky, clear for once, with rays of sunshine filtering through puffy white clouds … as pretty a day as one could wish for, as if the heavens remain ignorant of all that has transpired below. I look north, and my heart leaps, for I perceive what seems at first just a horizontal line, an em dash written on cumulus, but gradually resolves into a nimble vehicle beginning its descent. Angelic Alia’s aero swoops down from the sky, its wings rotating on their axes at the last second, propellers emerging, allowing her impossible contraption to suspend nestled against our improvised mooring mast on the roof.

And so I find I must once again write in haste, as she is with us for only a short time. It had occurred to me more than once to begin writing earlier in anticipation of her arrival, thereby giving you a much more detailed account of everything that has transpired here. Alas, this was not to be: far too much has been going on, and most nights I collapse asleep before my head hits the wadded-up jacket that passes for my pillow.

So then, to business: the autopsies. Both of them were baffling in entirely different ways. Smythe’s internal organs had gradually liquefied in a manner consistent with extreme heat, as if he had melted from the inside out. I had noted an extreme fever in his last hours, to be sure, but nothing that could account for the condition of his innards. Dodgson’s was an even more peculiar case. Imagine the heart and lungs of an Olympian athlete in his prime, and then extend that image to the very edge of your credulity. That is what I found inside him: the very heart of a Hercules, in perfect condition. It was as if some new, impossible strength had swelled within him, but the rest of his body was unprepared for the transformation. He had ruptures up and down his entire cardiovascular system, and died from internal cranial bleeding.

I have included notes of a more clinical nature, as well as my sketches. Dr. Bennington may find them interesting, but I leave it to your judgment whether she can be trusted with such information.

It seems that nearly everyone in proximity to the stone has been affected. My own nightmares continue but I have had no recurrence of the strange perceptions I related in my last letter — at any rate, none that I can easily separate from my dreams. Robards, though, has been fine and reports nothing unusual. Strange.

Our primary occupation this past week has been fighting off attacks that I wish I could chalk up to fevered imaginings, but alas, are all too real. Theriocephic hybrids, part rat and part man, have attacked us every night without fail. They certainly lack human intelligence, for they throw themselves against our defenses willy-nilly, allowing us to mow them down by the dozens in interlocking fields of fire. Their fierce cunning at close quarters is undeniable, however. Thankfully we have lost only one enlisted man in the assaults, though minor injuries are numerous, and I am kept perpetually busy in our makeshift infirmary. An autopsy of one of those creatures would reveal much, but Robards, fearing disease, has forbidden it. We burn the bodies.

Something tells me Thorpe’s expedition may be encountering something similar; hopefully you know by now, one way or the other. But as to my wishes should he fail … I fear they are of no consequence. Robards has a plan, and it does not involve a rendezvous. We are to abandon this position in coming days and make for a fishing village east of here. I believe he means to set some or all of us to sea.

And finally: I hope you will forgive me for giving the sort of admonishment allowable between old friends. Laudanum may help ease your symptoms, but if we are to truly understand what is happening to us I fear it will be a hindrance. Dispensing with concerns about “long term” effects, as each day may be our last, I nevertheless advise caution. If you insist on imbibing, at least keep careful records of amounts, frequencies, and side effects.

Warm Regards,


Sandown, 12 June

My Dear Rackham,

It hardly seems possible that less than a month has passed since we parted ways. So much has happened that that time and place seem like a different reality altogether; I trust you feel the same, though I pray your own adventures have been less laced with tragedy than my own.

With deepest regret I must inform you that Smythe and Dodgson did not survive the journey south. Would that they had gone out in a blaze of glory, protecting the rest of us, but alas, they both faded slowly due to complications from the Incident. Captain Robards insisted we hold on to their bodies until time and facilities were found for thorough examination, and it is just such a period of respite that we find ourselves in now. Naturally the task of performing the autopsies falls to me. I am delaying that bad business by writing to you now, but with good reason: a very young and overconfident young flyer calling herself Alia believes she can make deliveries back north and return here safely, but she departs very shortly.

I relate the following to you in strict confidence. Two nights ago I awoke from a horrid nightmare. Sitting up and looking around, however, I found reality no less disturbing. It was as if the skeins that covered all the people and objects around me had been ripped away, and their inner workings were laid bare to my sight (or perhaps my inner sight). My companions appeared as skeletons and collections of pulsing organs. The walls around us were present, and yet in no way prevented me from perceiving what lay behind them. Disoriented, I rose and stumbled around madly. When my vision finally returned to normal I was standing outside the abandoned building we had turned into our encampment. I know full well that memories from a half-dream state such as that are not to be trusted, but my memories, such as they are, are clear: my mad stumblings had not led me outside via the corridor and out the door, but rather, directly through the walls, as if I were a ghost.

I do not know what to make of it, though of course my mind turns toward the Incident, wondering whether I escaped the poor fate of Smythe and Dodgson, but did not come away from that place altogether unscathed. But we were together then, and so naturally I wonder how you fare, and whether you, too, have noticed anything … unusual? A laughable question in these times of ours, of course, but I trust you take my meaning.

I pray this letter finds you well. If you receive it and if this Alia is able to make good on her promise to safely deliver a reply, then my heart will be glad. My deep hope is that our correspondence may serve as a measure of sanity in these coming months.

Warm Regards,