The Cairns, 8 October

Dear Crane,

I am quite glad, at least for this chance, not to have to write in code for this letter; the reasons why will become apparent as I continue on. I expect I may have to revert to the Martineau cipher at some time, but I can do so now in the knowledge that you remember it from our days at Everwood, and it will allow us to continue communicating in any case.

I have appreciated the descriptions of your compatriots that made the landing with you into Gallian territory, not the least of them Van Dyke, who seems to have played a vital role at several points. At first, reading your description of events, the thought played in my mind that perhaps things went too easily, too smoothly for Van Dyke; and then learning of a connection between your spymaster and that strange Dr Brown made several pieces of suspicion and partial understandings come together, in a sense.

Perhaps I ought to provide a thumbnail-sketch, as artists might say, of my erudite traveling companion these last six days, and then my drift may become more apparent in your mind. I will also say that I now have a better view of the man myself, and I have learned that although reading a person’s research certainly provides one with a tone and tenor of an academic voice, that is but one aspect of many.

If after reading those journal articles I had sent you years ago, you thought (as I did) that Dr Hugh MacTallan was a wizened, dusty librarian type, a desk replete with forgotten, yellowed notes and bits of torn maps from archaeological digs, then you would have been in error as much as I confess I was. Hugh (as he has asked me to address him) is younger than I am by five years and considerably less portly around the belly; his young eyes leap from his face, and behind an unkempt beard he has rather an unshakeable grin. If he is scarred from his losses, he does not show it, and I daresay that he has found new energy in continuing his work. His curiosity is infectious.

The Incident claimed his young wife and his child, as well as his sister, the only survivor from their family. Over a wet campfire one evening MacTallan became emotional recalling the scene of how he found his wife and child, and I bade him recount the horror no more, and I most certainly did not have the heart to scan his memories for additional information that would have only taken my soul, too. His sister Penelope—or Penny as the family called her—had been a teacher at The Waterford School in Innesmere, I am also sad to say, and must have seen first-hand the horrors of the changes brought on by the Incident. I shuddered as my mind swept back to the detritus and carnage we found, and I could say nothing of it to him.

For this reason and others, MacTallan vowed to pursue his research, lucky enough to find refuge at Greysham after the Incident, even if he was without any source materials from which to draw his conclusions. He has made many forays into the countryside, straying as far as his energy and bartered supplies would allow him, until our group found him that fateful day last month. Now he intends to lead us to the sites that have become “active” in the last eighteen months, with the purpose that the information we learn, as well as what is compiled by your team, can shed light on the causes of the Incident—and perhaps onto its cures, if a hope like this can be had.

Since having been made a research fellow at Thornskye three years ago, MacTallan might well be the best authority on the events surrounding the Incident among our group—perhaps moreso even than Stratham, with whom we are both eager to rendezvous tomorrow at the Cairns. MacTallan believes that a meteorological event was the cause of the Incident, but only inasmuch as it had been foretold by ancient peoples long ago, and “energized” powerful objects that have been interred for millennia, undiscovered by man. According to him, the Obelisks at the Caledonian loch and at Mont-Bré, and what we may find at the Cairns, are examples of this, and there may yet be others that have become “activated.”

Since Greysham he has taken me fully into his confidence, sharing with me everything relevant to both our mission and expeditions that have gone before. As you read in the last paragraph, I have accordingly shared with him news of your expedition as well as what I could remember from the last three months of our experiences here. Significantly but not altogether surprisingly, MacTallan and Brown were students together, having studied under the prestigious Von Neumann at the Extern-Universität in Tyrolia. It is from Von Neumann that both Brown and MacTallan got the idea that the variant of symbols that we know as Ur-Samekh descended from the same language branch as the speakers of the antediluvian city of Ashkur.

Crane, I did not inform MacTallan of the harrowing account regarding the re-animation of the dead Brown and his companions at what I can only surmise was the “activation” of the Mont-Bré Obelisk, nor did I mention your Ability. MacTallan has seen enough devastation in the recent months, and since I did not know if he still felt friendship or colleagueship to Brown, I dared not mention either his death—or his short but disturbing unlife. However, quite casually, MacTallan volunteered information about the existence of a certain number of “ancient amulets” that were said to be magical wards—this was the “ward” I had referred to in my coded message. From what you described in your previous letters, I can only conclude that Brown had one, and Robards had one but lost his; and I now believe that Thompson wears one.

I make a couple of short notes still before I stuff this letter into the false medical box that Alia intends to include among the other supplies on her aero tomorrow evening. Thank the heavens above for good Alia, and know that while you counseled right in recommending discretion before confronting the spy, it may turn out to our advantage, at least in the short-term, to have the spy in our midst whilst feigning ignorance. MacTallan and I will make it back tomorrow afternoon for our rendezvous with the main part of the group on the periphery of the Cairns locale; the reason we had been able to gain leave to do so was because of Thorpe’s intervention.

On the morning of our departure, Thorpe asked to speak to me privately; I will relay the conversation in my hotel chamber with as much detail as I can muster. “Rackham, we have private matters to discuss,” our captain began, taking me rather by surprise, as I packed up the last of my clothing. I looked at him and marked his changes: he now has a very reptilian-looking head, having lost all his hair now, with colored scales in swirling patterns beginning to descend across his face and down his neck. “We have a spy among us.”

“The New Columbian,” I said, boldly, after a pause. Thorpe seemed surprised at first, but his expression—still apparent even with the changes to his skin and eyes—told me that his military training favored a matter-of-fact approach rather than one that signaled the failure of forethought. “Yes, Thompson. I was the one that selected him. I knew he was an NC man since the passage.” We allowed that sentence to hang in the air some long minutes before I spoke again.

“What about Robards?” I asked, clumsily, despite myself. Thorpe was calm, deliberate. “I don’t know what you have heard from your scientist friend from the other team,” Thorpe seemed to hiss, “but I shouldn’t worry about him. Even turncoats have to be employed somehow.” This word stuck in my mind; Thorpe’s intonation cast an icy chill, and I found myself lost in confusion for a moment, trying to unravel the meaning behind it.

“I suspect New Columbia and the Society are in on something together, and it has to do with these stones.” I nodded, desperately hoping Thorpe would reveal details that I did not need to scan his memory for later, as I did not know if I could endure another crushing migraine. “What has that to do with us, then?” This was my best attempt at probing delicately for more information—anything, I thought, that I could tell you.

“I don’t quite know yet, but I trust my men,” Thorpe replied, head bowed. He had not replied with the direction that I had expected, and if he had sensed the reason motivating my question before, he did not let on. “I know many of those lads served under you,” I began, appealing to his sense of leadership. “But we can’t have both the New Columbians and the Society having their claws into us—they’ll rip us apart. We’ve already taken losses these last three months.”

At this I was tempted to mention the considerable money I had fronted in order to fund our undertaking, but I thought better of it: it would only distract Thorpe momentarily onto a topic that he cared little about anyway, and may have inserted yet another untoward motivation underlying our efforts—in error, I might add, but to Thorpe might have been indistinguishable at that moment.

“I think I know where we can find more volunteers for this expedition,” Thorpe replied, and it was then that I recognized his true reason for speaking to me in private. “I will need your loyalty and agreement that after the Cairns we make…some personnel changes.” His flashing eyes fixed on me, scanning me for my reaction. I raised my eyes, not in protest, so much as alarm. “Murder?”

Thorpe shook his head. “Not if we can help it,” he replied, but something in my gut twisted. My sense of calm and caution kicked in, if only for a desperate moment. “I did not fund a mission of killers, Thorpe.” I knew that even then, whatever warning I was to give was one that he had already considered and was well past the point of indecision on the matter.

“Go with MacTallan back to the woods he keeps talking about, just you and him.” Thorpe’s voice was low now and he paced a little as I sat on the bed and watched him. “You’ve told me he has done research out there, the lines he has found among the trees. Then take the next few days to find out more about him. When you come back, if you say he is on our side—then he stays.”

I nodded, mute, but fully understanding my charge. “And Rackham—if you can, look into his mind.” At this, I stood up. “How?” was my only word. “You’re not the only one who has read your letters to Crane.”

I am not a fighting man, and I knew enough that if I were to attempt to inflict any kind of harm on a man as robust as our captain, it would be mere seconds before he would have me on the floor in pain. Yet he could sense my rising ire: and in recognition of this fact, he said simply, “He passed me your copies of the letters after reading them himself.” As a clarification, Thorpe offered, “Thompson thinks I am on his side—and I need to keep it that way for now.”

Thorpe then assured me that my copies had not disappeared, but he could not return them to me without some suspicion being raised: at this I consented, finally, more stung with all of this intrigue than truly outraged at the loss of my personal property, even if temporarily. Thorpe also offered another idea that I was glad to see you catch onto: a false letter will be sent with Alia, openly, with this letter being smuggled, for lack of a better term.

The last six days, then, have been an adventure that I did not expect to take. In order to accelerate your understanding of what MacTallan has found, I offer two maps on the backs of each of these pages: they outline—crudely, forgive me—what are unmistakable interlocking spirals created by dead and rotting wood, within an area of five square miles, centering roughly a mile and a half due west from Greysham. At points the dead curving pathways cut right through whole trees, turning them into piles of splinters in a five- to seven-foot swath. On the ground the plant cover seems blackened and aged, and the line of the sickly plants marches perfectly in line with the dead trees and missing branches high overhead. Complimenting these lines of dead greenery are more scorches, much like the ones we saw on the road toward Innesmere and other places; but these are also deep gouges like scoring, not unlike what we saw at the Ravine but in smaller scale. The deep scorch marks are more random, haphazard, and linear, and they do not seem to match in pattern the concentric spirals.

It took us five days to map it all out and to find the extreme edges; we took a supply of food and my canvas tent, and I am glad to say that one the last day not only did we find the rendezvous point in short order, but we also had some time to rest—thus I thought it best to take that opportunity to write down all that I have learned this last week.

I can say that any suspicion I may have had of MacTallan is gone, and I see him as an important ally to our expedition. He is eager to speak to Stratham tomorrow, especially based on what I told him of Stratham’s dramatic act at the Obelisk at the loch, but also because both MacTallan and I are of the opinion that the design of the spiral patterns are very close to rubbings that Stratham made of the stones near the Obelisk and at other locations. Perhaps they have meaning beyond decoration.

If you are reading this letter, it means that Alia has made another successful air voyage, and without her, Crane, I do not know how we would survive. One question that leaps to mind as I close this letter with my fondest wishes to you concerns Alona, who I had met at least once after we escaped the Obelisk. Is she still running aero missions for us, or have the Society at Elizabeth College set her to other purposes?

At any rate, Crane, I wish you well, and if my next missive is coded then you will know that I have taken up the ruse of ignorance of our New Columbian friend again; in that case, look for the keywords only you and I know.

Toward truer revelations,