My Dear Rackham,
I hope you are reading this. If you are, it means that Alia has successfully relayed it to you without anyone else noticing; I need hardly warn you to read it when no one else is watching. She will also have given you another letter, much shorter, and much less interesting – if you take my advice, you will allow yourself to be seen reading that one, and perhaps even leave it lying around so someone else might read it. It is entirely devoid of sensitive information. I am risking this because there is altogether too much to say, some of it directly relevant to you. But if the risk is too great, indicate so in your next message and I will take a page from Martineau in my subsequent missives. Rest assured that I was able to discern the full meaning of your last letter.
Obviously in arranging all this I had to share with Alia that you were concerned about, if not danger, at the very least surveillance from members of your own expedition. She demanded to know the names of those who opposed you. “Even if you knew, what on earth could you do?” I replied. She took that opportunity to show me just how many knives and other blades were stashed in the hidden pockets of her flight suit, along with an ample supply of garrote wire and some curious Nipponese throwing-weapons with very pointy ends. I considered asking her just which weapons in her arsenal she was actually trained to use, but thought better of it. Instead I advised her that, for now, discretion was preferable to outright confrontation, and she grudgingly agreed. I leave it to you decide how much else to share with her in the interest of your own safety, and caution you to never, ever give her cause to become angry with you.
The details of our escape from Machlou could easily fill an entire letter all on their own, but I will elide them for now. Someone at La Gardelle who knew we were in the attic decided to tell the authorities, and we found ourselves slipping out the back, down to the river, and into the Gromit while innkeeper delayed the constable at the front door. We were fortunate that the people of this region are Bretonnes, having more in common with our Caledonian and Gaelic neighbors than the Gallians with whom they share a country. The folk of Machlou are more than a little resentful that a garrison of Gallian troops is now stationed there to enforce the Quarantine, which many believe to be nothing more than a conspiracy to hamper their fishing industry. Suffice it to say that we found a surprising number of people willing to help cover our escape without even knowing, or caring to know, our purpose. Bertrand took us upriver several miles and let us out along a trade road.
We were decently outfitted for a cross-country trek, our chief disadvantage being that Jacobs (the Muscle, you will recall) had an arm in a sling and a thoroughly stitched-up torso, which meant he would not be carrying any heavy loads. Therefore we had to shed some weight, and left behind mostly weapons, ammunition, and some survey gear. We departed armed only with pistols, save Sharma, who cherishes his long-range Enfield rifle – nearly as tall he is – that he has affectionately named Kali.
Our three-day westward hike ended up taking us four due to an excess of caution; Sharma would scout ahead and we would get off the road rather than meet other travellers. On those occasions when there was not enough time for this, Van Dyke’s cover persona served reasonably well. We camped just out of sight of the road in quiet-looking corners of glens and fields. After long weeks traversing the mutilated countryside of our homeland, spending time hiking through an unmarred, beautiful land was a much-needed balm. I will not lie: it occurred to all of us to simply remain here, to make new lives on the Continent and leave the troubles of Albion behind. My only hesitation was in abandoning my compatriots, not least of all yourself, but whether that would have been enough to sway me is now an academic question. After what we saw at Mont-Bré, I know we must go back.
The afternoon of the fourth day we broke from the road and followed a winding track toward the saint’s hill. We had our first clear view of it from a mile away, and while trees still obscured the flat-topped summit itself, the chapel there, and the dolmens nearby, we already knew that we would not find it deserted. Campfire smoke in the sky betrayed some sort of encampment, and tracks along our path suggested that they, whoever they were, had recently brought up a wagonload of supplies. There followed a lengthy discussion as to how to proceed. Van Dyke was strangely noncommital during all this, which made a good deal more sense in retrospect. Jacobs favored a surprise ambush, despite my repeatedly insisting that we had no evidence that those on the hill would necessarily be enemies. In the end he agreed to my plan: an open and peaceful, but cautious, approach, but with an ace in the hole.
That ace was Sharma, who broke from the track and clambered up the hillside through the underbrush, intending to find a vantage point to cover our approach. We allowed him ample time for this purpose, then made our own way up the hill along the winding track, arriving at the summit an hour or so before twilight.
The chapel of Saint Herveus, you will recall, is a medieval building of crumbling stone, no doubt revered by some of the locals, but long overdue for a renovation, and seldom visited. It was at the moment, however, serving as a base of operations for several men, two of whom confronted us as we walked up. They wore no uniforms, but their bearing evinced some military training, and they were well-armed. They escorted us from the chapel down a path to the site of the dolmens, where we found five more men. Three of them were also soldier-types, and the last two I could pick out as an archaeologist and his aide from a hundred feet away, just by the way one was crouching near one of dolmens and the other was furiously scribbling the first’s dictations into a notebook.
But at the time I barely processed this fact, because my eyes were on the Obelisk. I need hardly remind you that the last time we were at Mont-Bré there was no Obelisk, just the ring of dolmens that I suspected were far older than the local lore credited them as being. Now, in the center of the dolmen ring, there it stood. For reasons that will soon become clear I cannot provide exact measurements, but to the best of my memory, it was, in size, shape, and inclination with respect to the surrounding stones, identical to the Obelisk you encountered late in August on the loch.
I must have been standing there, staring at it agog for a good while, because the archaeologist had ample time to wipe his hands, walk up to us, and introduce himself. “Pleased ta meetcha. I’m Dr. Brown.”
Hopefully my spelling has successfully conveyed my next realization, nearly as shocking as seeing the Obelisk, which is that this gentlemen was New Columbian. Dr. Brown gestured toward the Obelisk. “She’s a beaut, ain’t she? Not quite active yet, but soon, soon.”
“I beg your pardon,” I stammered. “You don’t seem surprised in the least to see me, but I must confess a great deal of surprise in finding …” – I gestured at the Obelisk, the soldiers, the whole scene – “… all this.”
“Yeah, I’m sure you must have a ton of questions. And I have quite a few for you. You know what? We outnumber you so I think we’re going to get to my questions first. Maybe back at the chapel?” The soldiers nearest us stepped a little closer, and I noticed the other ones at the site readying their weapons. “How about you leave your weapons right there at your feet and we’ll take a little stroll that-a-way.”
No one was pointing a weapon at us, but the aura of menace was unmistakable. Dr. Brown’s cheery smile carried no air of threat itself, but his eyes were ice-cold. Adding a macabre tinge to an already tense situation, the man who I took for his aide was crouched by the Obelisk, babbling to himself and clapping his hands as if he could not contain his excitement about what was to happen next.
Van Dyke and I crouched to lower our pistols to the ground and stood slowly again. Jacobs did not move. I begged him sotto voce to do the same, but he stood impassively. Twenty seconds passed in silence.
“Darn,” said Dr. Brown. “It looks like things are going to get uncomfortable.” He nodded curtly to one of his men, who raised his rifle, aiming at Jacobs. Just then, out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glint of light coming from a line of trees at the crest of the hill, sixty yards away. A signal.
That is when things began to happen very quickly. Jacobs dove toward me and barreled us both to the ground. The soldier shifted his aim, but before he could fire we heard a crack from the direction of the signal, and he reeled backwards, shot through the heart. The other one who had been standing near us crumpled to the ground after a second crack just a few seconds later. The rest were already reacting, seeking cover behind dolmens and the obelisk itself. One of them judged the direction of Kali’s ire incorrectly and left himself exposed – another crack, and he was dead. Meanwhile, the “aide” let out a rather primitive-sounding cry of rage and scrambled toward us on his arms and legs, like an ape. Jacobs rolled up into a crouch, took aim, and – despite having one arm still in a sling – brought him down with a single bullet to the head.
Dr. Brown, sheltered behind a dolmen from Sharma’s view, looked at Van Dyke. “Now or never, wouldn’t you say?” he said. For a brief moment, Van Dyke’s face betrayed a spasm of shock and anger, but he quickly brought it under control. He retrieved his weapon. Jacobs glanced at me uncertainly. The two remaining soldiers, peeking out from behind cover, seemed similarly unsure of what to expect next. I hesitated, and Van Dyke fired a round – squarely into Brown’s chest. The look on the archaeologist’s face as he coughed up blood made it all too clear that this was not what he had been expecting.
That was when the thrumming began. At first I mistook it for an earthquake, but the ground was steady – rather it was the very air that seemed to shake, with a deep sound like an orchestra composed entirely of string basses. Suddenly I was aware that in the bloody wreckage of Dr. Brown’s torso lay the shattered pieces of a stone worn around his neck, and that twisting coils of energy passing from that pendant to the Obelisk were what was causing the thrumming.
That awareness was coupled with a heightened awareness of everything around me – I glanced at my own hands to confirm that, indeed, I had shifted to a translucent state. I was immediately self-conscious and wondered what the others would think, but their attention was focused elsewhere. Invisible to them, but visible to me, crackling arcs of energy emitted from the Obelisk into each of the five corpses now on the ground around us. And the corpses rose. They were mere shells, animated somehow by the Obelisk, but they moved with surprising speed. Another crack from Sharma, and one of them fell – only to rise again the next instant and continue on its way. One of the soldiers at this point was running pell-mell away, but the other one remained huddled behind one of the dolmens. The animated corpse of one of his compatriots found him crouched there, and … suffice it to say that I am glad that the dolmen blocked the others’ view of what befell the poor man. It is a vision I will have to carry with me to my grave.
Dr. Brown’s husk was upon me, its mouth open as if it meant to clamp down on my flesh. Even as its arm passed harmlessly through my ghostly shoulder, I instinctively pushed it away. My hand entered its chest, but then – I am not sure how to describe it, for I did not solidify, but rather it was as if, by force of will, I laid claim to to that particular bit of space that both our forms were occupying, and Brown’s body was forcefully ejected away from my hand. He flew away from me, slamming into a dolmen thirty feet away.
If I was reasonably safe from the creatures, the same could not be said of Jacobs and Van Dyke, who were beset upon by three of them, fending off clawlike hands and gnashing teeth as best they could, finding their pistols of no use whatsoever. But my chief attention was now focused on the Obelisk. In my mind’s eye it glowed with eldritch light, but within it was something that seemed alive. Deep in the heart of obelisk was a bulbous mass, pulsing in rhythm, like a misshapen heart the size of a cow’s head. Hanging down from it was a tentacle or tendril, or perhaps artery, that extended below the ground going deep, deep, to the edge of my perception.
I headed toward it. There was no wind, but I felt resistance as I went forward, despite my incorporeal state. The closer I got the more it was like I was striving upstream against a strong current. I could hear the sounds of struggle behind me but my attention was focused ever-forward; I sensed that if I could only reach the thing, and somehow stop it, we might be spared. Time seemed to stretch thin, and my final steps up to the Obelisk felt like they took a lifetime. At last, my arm passed through the side of it, I grabbed, or tried to grab, the hideous beating thing in its center, to crush it, eject it, will it away, whatever might work …
For an instant I was connected to it, and I saw. A great yawning awareness filled me, but I cannot tell you a thing about it now, for like a dream it has slipped away, and even so it only lasted for a second before my mind shut down and I slumped to unconsciousness. I count that fact as a blessing.
I have tried to relay that entire scene in as much detail as possible, given its importance, but now of necessity I must take a step back and summarize, for, as with my experience in the storm on the Channel, in the aftermath I was not myself, this time for a period of about twenty-four hours. When I came to, Sharma was sitting over me, Jacobs was tending to a campfire, and Van Dyke was crouched rather sullenly off to the side, his face a black-and-blue patchwork of repeated bludgeonings. I learned later that this was not the result of the corpse attack. He had been making a concerted effort to write down everything that I said in my delirious state, and, considering the suspicious exchange between him and Dr. Brown, Jacobs felt that he should not be quite so presumptuous, and made his feelings known a little overzealously.
My striving toward the Obelisk had, in fact, taken close to five minutes, during which Sharma had moved up from the treeline, and the three of them had been in embroiled in a pitched battle for their lives. At the moment when I reached into it, the Obelisk had shattered, the corpses had collapsed, and only then (I assume) I had taken solid form once again, slumped on the ground. Nowhere was there evidence of a once-beating heart-like thing: only shards of stone. While I was indisposed, the others made a good effort at gathering the larger pieces back together for sketches and analysis.
We spent two more days at the site, gathering evidence and taking notes of whatever we could salvage. I am able to confirm from pieced-together shards that the runes on the Obelisk are also ur-Samekh, and perhaps with access to a proper library I can provide a bit more, but the detonation did away with much of what would have been valuable information. Some of the dolmens were themselves destroyed in the blast, others blackened by a fine dust that obscured their markings.
Van Dyke was, unsurprisingly, not forthcoming about much of anything. I had to remind Jacobs and Sharma that we had expected some sort of Society twist in all of this, that it was part of the game, and that we were fortunate that whatever he did was not the outright betrayal that perhaps Brown had expected of him. My best guess was that they had recognized each other, but had not necessarily been allies, and Van Dyke deemed it better that the man die than that the nature of their connection might come to light. Of course, had he let Brown live, we might have learned much from him, and the awakening of the corpses might never have happened. But while he has much to answer for, I was not willing to make a summary judgment concerning his fate.
We found frustratingly little at the encampment to further identify Dr. Brown and his entourage. We could find no official communiques, no orders, not even personal effects among the soldiers’ things. If this was an official N.C. military expedition, it was a highly covert one. More likely it was an independent operation of some sort – perhaps the soldiers were mercenaries? Brown’s work-table and notes would have been a valuable trove of clues, but they were situated near the Obelisk, and did not survive the explosion in readable form.
One afternoon I chided Jacobs for not letting me know that three of his stitches had come loose in the fight. “But sir,” he asked, dumbfounded, “How did you know?” Upon recollection I realized that I had idly wondered about it, looked at him, and had simply seen. It was not the total transformation of perception that has accompanied my ghostly state, but something smaller, more targeted, and, sadly, still something not under my conscious control, it seems.
Speaking of my Ability, the cat is out of the proverbial bag to some extent with respect to my companions. If nothing else, they know I was adjacent to the Obelisk when it exploded, and yet I somehow survived. Sharma, at the very least, must have seen the way that I sent one of the corpses flying through the air, but he has said nothing about it. Jacobs, for his part, repeatedly insists that that we had additional aid during the fight. He claims that, at one point, a ferocious wolf pulled a corpse off of him when he was at the point of death. He also says that a blind old man was standing near me when the Obelisk exploded. None of the rest of us saw anything of the sort, of course. But I thought I saw a beating heart within the Obelisk, but afterward there was no evidence of such a thing – who am I to gainsay him?
We made our way cautiously back to Machlou over another four days. It was a good thing we had not done anything overly rash with Van Dyke – though he was undoubtedly a persona non grata among us, we needed him to slip into town and find Bertram. We had to bide our time for another couple days before he was able to secret us onto the Gromit. One thrilling vortex-ride later, we found ourselves back on Garnsey, where Alia had arrived just the day before with your letter.
It will take me some time to sort through all the information we have gathered, and so my more detailed and scholarly conclusions will have to wait for future letters. But the idea that drew me back toward home is this: what if I could do to the Obelisk at the loch what I did to the one at Mont-Bré? Getting there will be a trick, of course. And in the meantime we must sort out what is going on with these New Columbians. It is no coincidence, I assume, that Dr. Brown had a stone pendant similar to the one that Throckmorton – I mean Thompson – gave to Robards. But what is their agenda? Brown’s “soon, soon” rings hauntingly in my ears – it is as if he was trying to awaken the Obelisk, or at the very least was eager for it to happen.
Now my hand is cramped and my ink is dry; I hope Alia is able to deliver this to you surreptitiously, else it has all been a wasted effort. Do try to keep her from doing anything too rash. And, as ever, stay safe, my friend.