The Isle of Skald, 8 January

Dear Crane,

Alas, the hand that you see here is not mine, but the words are mine; in this you may rest assured. As a man of letters and of science, my friend, you are ever the skeptic, and of course this is what I have ever cherished about you, since the days at Everwood.

Speaking firstly to this, and in recognition of your generosity in reading the words of our good Dr. Bennington with an open heart, your acceptance of what has unfolded has not gone unnoticed or met with ingratitude. With additional forbearance, therefore—and with all the quiet patience of a scientist—I ask you to accept that my mind is now inside hers. No, not as a foreign and marauding presence, like Stratham’s; she is a consenting host. My thoughts and suggestions are only a small guest in the greater mansion-halls of her mind.

Yes, as she wrote in the last message, this strange place has amplified my Ability, providing additional dimensions to it. I feel rather like man who has found a new country, and thinking there had been only one trail to its hinterland instead has found a network of roads, each leading to a different terrain. I have been able to stretch out with my mind, projecting my perceptions as if invisibly floating along the ground. I can certainly read the memories of those on whom I focus, but now I can search out as well, and detect those intelligent creatures that possess memory. And as Bennington reported to you in the last letter, I no longer feel the crushing weight of pain in my cranium as before; now, I am left with a euphoria, an intoxication of the senses perhaps, when I enter into a trance.

Unfortunately that trance did me some harm the last time my physical body emerged from the caves that we have claimed as refuge. I followed the voices that I had heard out there, out in the wild forest, half-hearing them with my ears and half-tracking them with my mind. In the hopes of making contact with the memories I was receiving, I foolishly and abruptly left the company of MacTallan and Bennington—something I understand I ought not to have done, now.

What I saw in my mind that drew me was stirringly hopeful, but, as I came to find out, desperately sad. I saw a family; I saw a father’s pride in his two strong sons, and a mother’s kindness outstretched to envelop them all in nurturing comfort. I read the hard work of a young student, top of his class in the humanities—my favorite subject at Big School, if you will recall—with a letter from his esteemed dean of students proclaiming him the winner of a coveted essay award. His school was The Waterford School, Crane; the same one we found at Innesmere.

My mind looked through the memories as if flipping the pages of an enormous book, filled not with words but with pictures and sounds. I saw a brother looking up with admiration at his older one, older by just two years, wearing his brother’s sweater on the opening day of school. I saw this younger boy run a track and joining friends in an alley for a game football. The younger boy had been taught by the older one to look at the stars through a telescope that their father had built for them. I saw a mother scooping up the younger one after having fallen from a tree, and I saw the father coming home with news of a shuttered factory, prompting a move to Innesmere, where more work was waiting. I saw the streets of that city, its parks and its shops, its folk and its borders, stretched out before my mind’s eye through the eyes of whomever it was that had been remembering these things; and as I tore my way up the mountainside and into its pine forest, quite randomly and aimlessly, the horror of my own memories of that place seemed matched to them, superimposing themselves in my thoughts like two demented Daguerro-graphs from a penny sideshow.

I saw them in a chamber, a cage, built purposefully and cruelly, with restraints to hold the strongest of prisoners. I saw them watch as each was changed—a hideous and painful transformation from naked man to half-rat, rendering them screaming and collapsed. Their bodies covered in hair with bowed legs that supported their now curved, hunched backs, each one clawed at itself, incredulous and maddened to touch a snout that now protruded from an angular face and to find a tail grown from the small of the back. Fully cognizant of their new form after the transformation process, their lycanthropic flesh at once revolted against them and suffocated them, and they beat their breasts from anguish and defeat, until each new victim was dragged from the device by an enslaved underling just as gruesome in visage and form as the changed one.

Rexley. I knew then that I was seeing memories of the Rexley Device.

Blithering about through the woods I had a rudimentary sense of direction, but only relative to the sources of the memories that I had been tracking, and of course without the others I had no map. I had cut no trail as I had meticulously done the days before. The thought struck me that I would have very little idea of the way back unless my Ability was to assist then, and of course I had no way of knowing that. I felt I was closing in on the sources of these memories, and over a small hill I could barely make out a dim glow.

Then, I saw them.

They had made some sort of rough camp, mostly out of sticks and torn branches, with a small, wet fire that afforded little comfort in the cold air. Next to the low firelight I could make out three forms, speaking in harsh, guttural grunts and occasional muted screeches.

As I mentioned, my way had been lacking in cautious pause, as it had been these scenes that had enticed me forward, and the importance of employing stealth had been quite lost on me, and so I must have struck a curious figure, standing on a small rock above their position, framed by tall but bare pines in the moonlight. They looked up at me in alarm and fright, and made a sound that it etched into my heart—an inhuman cry of fury, created by a throat that is somewhere between human and beast, but not wholly either, echoing far into the valley below.

I confess that I did not register the obvious danger that I was currently in, and instead my feet felt bolted to the rock I was standing on. Something inside me knew that if I ran, I would be torn to shreds by these creatures. Instantly I thought of your descriptions of fighting them, back in the days when you had Thorpe and his men as allies and protectors—and knowing I had no such skills for combat (much less sprinting) I decided on another tack, more an act of desperation than it was planning.

I let my mind reach out to them with questions, demanding answers of them as if among them, whispering them into their ears. I decided to use what I had seen in my mind’s eye as a quarry from which to take my inquiries: I asked what they saw in their father’s telescope, what work their father was able to find in the new town, and, most importantly, why they had come here. I posed these silent questions in their very minds, not using any form of language, but pictures of the very memories I had previously viewed to form the basis of our communication; now I was the hostile stranger, the inquisitor of their dreams.

I had no idea, of course, if this technique would work; in hindsight I had let myself remain very exposed, both in an immediately physical sense as well as in a mental sense. I possessed no information about what these creatures before me really were, and, even if they could even communicate with me on some base and banal level, I had no inkling whether they would even desire such contact.

Rather than attack, their screaming ceased, and they looked at each other for a moment in seeming confusion and hesitation. One of them took a step back, its eyes flashing, its head rearing a moment. It was then that I sensed not malice, but shame: the two that had stood around the little fire (flanking the one now looking in my direction) bowed their heads and began to paw at their ears. These two then appeared to cower and seek refuge with the first, who assumed what I perceived to be a comforting role; appealing to this third one for guidance now, they began to step farther back, looking furtively back toward the mountain.

A wave of pity coursed through me, and it overtook my spirit: my horror and vulnerability converted to power, and with it, a sense of pity and wistful comprehension. I attempted to retract my wordless questions, somehow, to position myself now as a student of their experience rather than an authority; but between their own shock in seeing me appear quite suddenly out of the dark and what happened next, there was simply not the opportunity to engage in what would have become a much more meaningful discovery.

For at that moment a green light flashed out from a hidden grotto high on the mountaintop, and its light bathed us, sparing neither wood nor rock. It was as a beacon, but its rays did not beckon and guide—rather, it seemed imperious, both commanding and searching, sweeping itself quickly over the valley in several methodical rotations. Before it touched me I saw a glimpse of the rat-men running back toward it, tripping over their own feet as if in supplication and obedience; and when the light passed over me—or through me I ought to say—my stomach dropped and my head was gripped in an inexorable pain, the point that I thought my temples would burst. I felt the faint trickle of blood from my ears, and to escape it I had enough sense to dive clumsily behind my little rock.

I have no true recollection of finding my way back to the caves near the mountain stream where MacTallan and Bennington were, and I can say that although I was able to return most of the way, I had given up hope of finding them again by the time they ventured out to find me. My mind had gone completely astir, like the babble of a thousand voices, not a one of them a coherent thought, and for all of the new ways my Ability had manifested itself here on this island I was powerless to resist the effects of whatever had taken me.

Bennington very possibly saved my life with the administration of calming laudanum, and perhaps my body welcomed it now out of a demonstrable need. I felt my mind returning to me after some time, and I can sense my body resting comfortably. What is troubling now is that, while I have a keen awareness that I am quite out of danger and that the others are safe, I cannot seem to return to my own body. I see him breathing, and for the last few days Bennington has kept me alive, having designed a rather cunning system for dripping water and broth into my throat while allowing my body to relieve itself.

This has at least given MacTallan his desired time to investigate the ur-Samekh runes more completely and familiarize himself with the books and documentation he now carefully guards in a watertight chest. He is convinced that more runes are found elsewhere, and I have not asked Bennington yet to recount to him the full story of what I found higher on the mountain; he knows only that there were rat-men who I caused to run away with my Ability. Quite a half-truth, certainly, but Bennington agrees with me that before we animate this researcher toward a new goal, it is far better to see if I can heal completely and to allow him additional preparation time.

With your letter in hand, however, Bennington did take occasion to report that the rubbings resulted in a proposed partial translation as “changing the place where I am.” MacTallan agreed enthusiastically with this interpretation, especially to say that the leftmost rune appears to imply a first-person morpheme, as if the runes are meant to be spoken aloud by an activator or operator of the “conveyance line.” This is conjecture, of course, and as I ask Bennington to write this I cannot help but to involuntarily share with her that unnerving vision of the sickly green light.

MacTallan asks in return if the runes carry a sense of the imperative, a command perhaps spoken aloud, where “changing” is thought instead to mean “Change,” as if a keyword or phrase used to begin a process by a recognized user at the outset of an utterance. He thinks that the runes progressing to the right might explain the transition further, for example by naming a place that is the intended destination. His Von Neumann work seems to agree, in that the runes seem to be a right-branching or orthographic language system, and what may follow is not one destination but several, and the speaker is meant to choose the one that corresponds to a desired end point.

Finally, I imagined in my own mind the words that Bennington read as she received your letter, and I can only say that I am sorry to hear of the continued Blight in your various waypoints, and my relief that none of you decided to make a port at any dangerous or unsavory places. I understand your mild frustration at Campbell and his tendency to keep his own counsel; but I can only say that he is not like our other captains (and perhaps thankfully so, at least in the case of Robards), and he might have a plan that perceives more than what is only before him. If he thinks he can find Segismund, then he may well be your best hope for clues, and you are in good hands—much safer than we appear to be here on this forsaken island.

Yet there still is good news here. Alia is very sweet and comforting to me, and lately held vigil over my sleeping form while the weather and time could allow for it; her sorties with her sister remain successful, and we can only guess that Bennington’s letter has “hit home,” so to speak, with its recipient. We have been successfully resupplied, and in time, since the last of the recovered Saxonian rations had run out yesterday. Bennington believes a tincture of morphine, instead of laudanum, might have the effect of putting my body into a deeper sleep so that I might return to it; she likens it to a wall of semi-consciousness that must needs be lowered before I am to traverse it.

I hope then, that the next time I write you, it will be by my own hand, with more discoveries to share, or perhaps some kind of progress made either deeper into or higher up the mountain.

May you have smooth sailing,

Bennington, for Rackham