My dear friend,
If you are still alive, and if this letter somehow—by Deus’ grace—reaches your eyes, it shall be no small monument to the perserverance and sublime qualities of the entirety of both our crews. Mine, a researcher, a doctor, and a disembodied ghost of a man aching to return to the gilded cage of his own familiar flesh; yours, a sea-captain, his crew, a man of science, and a woman of innumerable years and impossible origins. Between us, gallant sisters flying near-constant journeys between us, a vital link of news, discovery, and goodwill. Without them, I do not know how we could carry on.
It has been a full fortnight since our last communication, and your last—well, forgive me, Crane, if my words come with hesitation even as Bennington’s fingers sketch the letters of my thoughts across this page. I am very afraid that you may be dead; worse yet is the fear that you may have died in a most horrific way, at the hands of some unholy revenant or phantom of a man. I know that you (unlike us) have the employ of many strong men and proven fighters, but given what we now know about the changes endured by Thorpe and the hordes of wererats, we have seen far too many good-hearted men succumb and twist to mysterious powers.
I will carry on with the assumption that you do not yet know that brave Alia was able to locate your letter, a bottom edge torn off as she found it in some dreary chamber at Caeradarn, and that she passed it to Alona. Alona herself was fortunate to have found us, or more accurately, we were the fortunate party, as we were no longer on Skald to be found at the time she had connected with her sister in Gresyham.
It was your Lt. Barksdale who protected an unwitting Alia from one of Brown’s “assistants,” as you called them, and all that I know of it is that he did this with pistol in hand and with no small measure of athletic ability on his part. This was told to Bennington, third-hand now, from Alona yesterday evening, as she recounted all of the details of her experience in Greysham and her fruitless search for us along the coasts and into the interior of Skald, nearly exhausting her aero’s amberite piles twice before at last seeing the beacon well to the north, on the Albionese mainland. To reach Greysham, Alia was able to make an efficient and timely escape in her aero from the Sigsbee thanks to Barksdale, but I confess I did not get the full story: and Alona only recounted what little Alia knew, despite Bennington’s questions for details on your condition.
I have not yet reunited mind with body, as I mentioned at the outset here, but it has not been for a lack of trying on my part and ongoing medical administrations on Bennington’s part. From what I see of myself through Bennington’s eyes, I seem peaceful, and the broth-and-water diet has effected the loss of a few pounds, something perhaps that I will welcome should my mind animate my own skin again. Would that I could simply walk with my own legs and talk with my own voice—while fascinating, this condition is maddening.
Yet it may be all changed tomorrow: Bennington has committed to attempting to what she calls the “final solution.” It is a cure that we know will work—as we witnessed it ourselves—but are both loathe to utilize, for reasons that shall become apparent as I narrate what has occurred these last two weeks.
I now will suggest to the good doctor that we explain to you where we are and how we came to be here. Alona will of course do her duty and bring this to Alia, who, I believe, will then attempt to locate the Sigsbee and hope that you are found safely aboard it. I write then in the solemn hope that the discoveries I describe here are not recorded in vain.
Yes, the Rexley Device had been used as a weapon, Crane—but it was never meant to be one. It was meant to be an instrument of healing.
The night after the last letter we wrote to you, Bennington awoke in a crude cage of bound wood, deep under the Skald mountain. I had been unconscious, too—while my mind and personality was still joined to her at that point, her body had not withstood whatever force had been applied to her, and my consciousness had followed suit to hers.
She looked around with the bleary vision of a sleeping infant, seeing distant, flickering lights hovering about in all directions, and felt cold, damp stone on her face. At this point I recognized that I was waking too, and, being no stranger to the torpor of a painful awakening following my many episodes in exercising my Ability, I believe I was able to find lucidity somewhat more quickly. In this way I was able to assist her in returning to full alertness, and I suggested that she focus her vision on any nearby light source.
As her eyes adjusted to the low light, we could make out the sullen and darkened face of MacTallan next to us, bound up as we were, but conspicuously outside of a cage. He had been left—or deposited—on the uneven cavern floor beside us. Bennington was close enough to him that she could discern the gentle motion of his lungs taking air, and thus we were consoled for the moment that he was still alive.
Over the next several and painful minutes, Bennington and I gave slow but terrible recognition to the fact that we were now located within a relatively central and somewhat higher point of a massive cavern system, whose corridors and gaping arches vanished far out to shadowed horizons. The lights we saw were the green and yellow flames of fires that were set, at regular intervals, among crowds—legions, I tell you—of creatures, vast armies of rat-men, kept as orderly and as submissive as an army of a conquering Hellenic general. Some could be seen running between groups, others could be seen squeaking about along the rings of fires, and yet others moved like moths between ledges and cliffs along the high cavern walls. The distant and chilling sounds of drums could be made out from the echoes that made their way to our ears.
At this, MacTallan sat up and groaned, exposing his bruised and cut face. “Bennington? What—”
“Take some rest,” I heard her say, “it could be our last.”
At that moment the three of us became aware that my body had not been conveyed to the place where we awoke. Bennington stood up, now, her body and head aching with a thousand bruises.
“I don’t see you, Benjamin,” she whispered aloud.
‘They may have taken you for dead,” MacTallan suggested.
I proposed an idea to Bennington. “He says he is going to try to reach out with his consciousness.”
I summoned my energy from deep within my thoughts, calling upon it to propel me outward and into the murky gloom of the cavern, over the hordes of—
Slam. It was like striking a stone wall—and I could feel it pushing back upon me, almost crushing me, like the ink-black waters outside the crippled Jagdschloss. Something was preventing my projection. I could sense that I could leave the confines of Bennington’s body, but my perceptions could travel no farther than just outside our makeshift prison; I could spin my altered vision fully about, but I could see no more than Bennington, MacTallan, and a nearby sputtering torch that had ostensibly marked the location of our future judgment.
Bennington involuntarily collapsed into a broken heap, her hands losing their grip on the rough-hewn bars of the cage. I joined with her body again, and lent my awareness to her, waking her up.
“Let’s not try that again,” she whispered.
“Agreed. I do not know where we are, but I believe we must assume my body is lost,” I replied.
She and I breathed together, as one, there in the shadows. MacTallan found a more comfortable position, propping himself up along our cage, fearing what was next for us. We listened to the drums and heard the faint shrieks of the rat-creatures. After several long and terrifying moments, we recognized that there were markings in a rough circle around us. These were set at regular intervals at the edge of the wide rock plateau that rose gently above the swelling scene in the cavern valleys to all sides of us.
“These look like what we found leading toward the obelisk at Loch Bairne.”
Bennington nodded. Then, a flash of memory. “You weren’t with us at the loch.”
MacTallan’s face turned slowly, and his black eye squinted. “You were there?”
Confusion reigned only for a moment, suppressed by a new, inexorable immediacy: just then several groups of rat-men swarmed up the sides of the plateau, screaming a cry that jolted both Bennington and MacTallan to attention. MacTallan, his arms and legs still bound with a cruel length of rough rope, fell over and called out in fear. The rat-men stopped to congregate in throngs along the sides of our little flat stone hillock, and many more torches were brought besides the one near us that had already been lit. In this dazzling firelight I saw thousands of eyes, stretching like a red sea into oblivion.
Bennington’s blood was chilled, and I could do nothing to calm her. The rapid pace of her heart had us both gripped in a panic. I knew I could not project my consciousness very far, and I feared that if she were to die, my spirit would also be lost. MacTallan at least had the sense to sit up, observe his surroundings, and shout back at the things, to no obvious effect.
For a few moments the wererats seemed to hiss and stare, with words barely intelligible through their high-pitched voices. Then, on an invisible cue, the chant went up. It sounded like the word “Higher, higher,” but then it settled upon us that the army of rat-men were chanting a name, casting their voices up and shaking the stalactites high above.
He emerged from somewhere within the crowd. Throngs seemed to step aside to accommodate him, but for several long minutes we did not see anything but waves of movement among this sea of altered humanity. When he arrived, we understood everything, and we watched astounded as he appeared.
His left arm was encased in matted brown fur, and his left hand was twisted into a rodent’s sharp claw. On the same side, a muscular, fur-covered leg bulged out from tattered trousers. The rest of him was still passably human. He stood, imperious, at the edge of the little stone ring, and then strode confidently into the center to stand in front of the cage that held Bennington. It was then that we noticed his rodent-like facial features, more subtle than the other rat-men, many of whom seemed uniformly rat-like from the waist up and somewhat still human from the waist down. He wore a tattered naval captain’s jacket with New Columbian insignia, but allowed it to drape over his bare shoulders like a cape.
“Bring me REXLEY!” he commanded. “We will teach these inferior humans who the real masters are!” We watched him double over slightly as he shouted into the crowd, his voice becoming shrill and finally finishing with a sinister laugh.
Turning to us: “We finally have the good doctor—and the professor as a further gift.” His New Columbian accent was barely detectible over his transformed voice.
“Tollard,” Bennington breathed. “Impossible.”
“Not so. Not after our own expedition.”
“As they say in my country,” he sneered, “the early bird catches the worm.”
At this, Bennington sunk to her knees, and I could feel the very despair that began to cloud her heart.
Tollard’s snout contorted in a hideous expression of mock pity, his rodentate teeth bared. “Now don’t be sad, Doctor—you finally get to see the fruits of your labor.”
Tears welled up in my companion’s eyes. For the first time I understood fully—she had been duped. Her life’s work. She never knew the ways that it was stolen and corrupted.
Four hulking wererats carried the apparatus, steadily trudging up the little incline like pall-bearers to a funeral. It was a contraption built around a copper and steel chassis, with pumps and tanks housed within a skeleton of pipes and valves. At one side was a smallish basket and a rod, with a hose extended to one side.
“No—not this—this is not what the device is for!”
Tollard looked back with a mocking smile.
Quickly, I asked Bennington what knew about this device—what she had not yet revealed to us. She showed me a memory of a droplet of blood dissolving into a vial, half-full with a strange green ichor. The green turned to transparent water when the red cloud had expanded inside the vial.
“Edmund Rexley was a healer,” she silently said to me. “He had discovered a panacea.”
“And the device?”
“Quite the opposite,” came the sad thought, in reply.
Bennington and MacTallan watched as the great machine was brought up, and another body was brought into the circle, conveyed on the shoulders of another team of wererats.
It was me.
“Let us show you what your contraption can do!”
With the flip of a switch, the machine thundered to life, filling the cavern with a whine and a methodical thump. It was the unmistakable sound of heavy pistons of iron pushing against the inside of a steam engine.
Squealing, a rat-man lunged toward us, took MacTallan by the hair, and pushed him down next to my sleeping body.
Taking the rod out from its holster on the side of the engine, we could now plainly see that the Device had at one time been a rudimentary medical instrument, one part early syringe-and-plunger, one part catheter, and one part container, all made of a fine glass. At the bottom of the portion that formed the base of the container chamber there was a copper pipe. This pipe extended out to an attachment that held in place a single glass tube with a rounded bottom.
Tollard stepped forward, the black hose trailing behind him.
“Doctor, this was your design. You should do the honors,” Tollard hissed.
I searched her emotions. Bennington felt outrage, horror, and defeat—but not the sting of guilt. She resigned to follow his commands in powerless humiliation, but she would not punish herself for a sin she did not commit, as shocking as her hideous captor could make it.
“BUT YOUR PRECIOUS SOCIETY’S!” came the booming accusation.
It was clear to me that Tollard—if this figure was even Tollard anymore—had found an unexpected moment of triumph in our capture, like a boon had finally descended to him from the same cruel heavens that had long cursed him. In this moment, he had decided to pour out his rage and pain, displaying it to his commanded legions with all of the sickly sanctimony of a tyrant.
My mind leapt to Robards for a moment.
That caused Bennington to recall Elizabeth College. Her long years of work. The vials—
As the rat-men beside him pulled a rope, our wooden cage lifted into the air, exposing her—us—to the imposing shape of Tollard looming over us, death-wand in hand as it pumped something through the hose, which dripped a green ichor onto the gray rough-hewn cavern stone.
“You see, when my boys found you, we thought we were out of luck,” Tollard wheezed, the words finding a whistle around his elongated front teeth. “But then you brought us a marvelous gift.”
As if acting as the debased celebrant of a profane ceremony, Tollard held aloft the rifle-like rod to his loyal crowd, using his clawed hand to display it high. With his human hand he twisted the empty glass vial in its socket, dislodging it and casting it to the ground in one fluid motion.
“Bring out the blood,” he called.
From the crowd a pair of wererats stepped forward and produced our equipment, wholesale, as it had apparently been taken along with our unconscious bodies. With a booted foot upon MacTallan’s trunk, Tollard stretched out his hand, and in it, a lieutenant placed one of the vials you sent.
The vial fit the socket perfectly, turning into place with a perfect click.
Upon seeing this I suddenly felt a wave of calm interest flow through Bennington, washing over her like a wind. Something inside her seemed to engage, and I sensed something like a mechanism of thought coming to life. It was her scientific mind, taking hold over her, pushing out the fear.
“What is in that blood?” I asked her, with silent words.
“I don’t think it is what he thinks it is,” she replied.
“YOUR APPARATUS IS READY, DOCTOR!” Tollard abruptly screamed, laughing maniacally at the same time, his eyes blazing, not at her but across his crowds.
Bennington shuffled forward and he pushed the device into her hands.
It was lighter than it seemed; the glass of the original device seemed elegant, benign, almost sacred. The end of it had been cruelly retrofitted with a heavy iron ring, copper piping, and round valve, which joined the long hose extending from the remainder of the machine. A metal trigger device had replaced the original stopper at the top of the plunger.
It was then when I made a suggestion to Bennington. She smiled imperceptibly and agreed.
She stood, in mock defeat, over my unconscious body and the cowering form of MacTallan. He looked up at her—and at once understood. With as much movement as he could muster, he put space between himself and me.
The gray mist that emanated from the device seemed a mixture of the red liquid in the vial and the green ichor that Bennington had showed me in her mind’s eye a few minutes beforehand. The device allowed the solution to atomize and then billow out toward a target, in this case MacTallan. The mist settled quickly upon him and stuck to his exposed skin and clothing, soaking in rapidly, as if he were a sponge.
MacTallan smiled at Bennington. “Now.”
Bennington turned and pushed the trigger again, this time aiming squarely for Tollard, who had the wherewithal to take a step back, but not the presence of mind to flee completely. The mist captured him, taking him fully within its boundaries, and magnetizing itself to his form.
His screams reverberated throughout the stone of our chamber. With piteous cries of agony and tortured spasms Tollard began to transform—back into a human.
Bennington wasted no time. Stepping forward, she opened the trigger completely, allowing the hose to run tight with a fast flow from the machine. Spraying first at the vanguard of the creatures nearest to her, she waved the device at any throng of creatures that dared to lunge at her, and then simply any that she could see. As they began to shriek and transform, she then walked along the perimeter of our little circle, letting the stream of gas find any target it could from among the rat-men who had not yet fled in panic.
Several minutes of this went on, and finally Bennington closed the trigger, lowering the device only when she came to rest astride my body. Our enemies now withdrawn and scattered, MacTallan set to freeing himself from his ropes, having found a sharpened blade from among the items dropped by the retreating creatures. Dozens of former wererats, now naked humans, lay before us on all sides, their twitches and convulsions slowing with the end of the transformation process.
I quietly proposed to Bennington that we could at once recover the Rexley Device and ensure that it never was used for corruptive purposes again, and she nodded her assent. Bennington walked over to the machine and switched it off. Holding the device aloft, she brought it down and smashed the end pipe against the side of the machine. The glass broke off inside its copper mount, releasing the remainder of the device to safer hands.
Just then, a fully human and half-naked Tollard stood up, jacket still draped around him, looking much like a forlorn castaway in a drunken stupor.
“You will be coming with us,” Bennington and I heard from behind us, and there stood MacTallan, knife in hand.
I had not seen a violent aspect on the man since I had met him; he seemed spurred in a way, at least to sudden action, perhaps half in the heat of the moment and half as a result of the scene that stretched out before us.
“MacTallan, you’re not hurting anyone,” I heard Bennington say. “Tollard will be coming with us of his own free will—isn’t that right, Captain?”
To my surprise, the broken man simply nodded and cast his gaze downwards.
“Then at least be sure to bring my research with you,” MacTallan said as he nodded toward the chest. Tollard, casting more a figure of a petulant child than a mighty warlord, grimaced but dutifully took hold of the chest.
“What about the others?”
“If this works the way that I think it will, then we can come back for them within a day,” MacTallan offered. “Then we find a way to safely help the others that fled.”
Tollard looked up at MacTallan and the academic met his eyes.
“That’s right, Captain. You were sitting on the bloody thing the entire time.”
MacTallan looked down and found the side of the circle a few feet away. As he walked along its circumference, he called out syllables with every step. As far as I could tell, he was reading the very runes that he saw on the floor, etched deep into the rock. How he was able to discern them from the broken and worn stone, I perhaps will never know, but as he did so, a strange mist began to rise from the floor. As Bennington and I watched, it enveloped us, my inert body, and Tollard, still holding the chest. MacTallan joined us in the center of the circle, and motioned to Bennington to assist in taking up my body. Bennington held up my limp arms as MacTallan lifted up my legs, facing forward.
The mist was as wet and as cold, like a Yuletide fog. It permeated our nostrils, covered our eyes, and slithered its way into our ears. “Just breathe,” I heard MacTallan call out softly into the heavy air.
Our vision went black except for a tiny and faraway point of light, like a star against the deep curtain of space. For a long moment, Bennington tried to focus her eyes on the light, but each time she did so, it seemed to fade. We could both see the light if she viewed it sidelong, using her peripheral vision instead of staring at it directly, as her instinct told her.
It was like treading in mud: there was no visible source of resistance, but Bennington’s legs seemed as if fettered with a hundredweight chain. I could offer no bolstered will or additional force to her. Time felt slowed, or irrelevant, and even as we appeared to approach the light it seemed to dance away. Bennington and I could see nothing around us, and we could only hear the labored breathing of our two companions.
She shivered from the extreme cold, and although there was no wind, it felt to me like walking into a blizzard. Bennington’s fingers and toes went numb and her ears ached.
“Keep walking,” we heard. MacTallan sounded like a man at the bottom of a deep canyon, calling upward. We could account for no ground gained as we went.
As we did, Bennington’s limbs began to warm, and her steps became less labored. With each passing step, the air became easier to breathe and our vision became clearer.
I cannot say how long we spent in that state, but I recall that my consciousness was fully aware of every passing moment, yet I cannot account for the travel itself to have taken more than a mere second or two of time. When we exited, it felt as if we were awakening to the dawn of a new day with bright light that caressed and welcomed us. When we opened our eyes again, we found ourselves in a courtyard, under a great oak tree, surrounded by stone buildings. The sun shone in the east, a herald of a fresh winter’s morning.
“This is Thornskye.”
We stumbled out for a moment, looking up and around, in disbelief. Tollard set the chest down and fell to his knees, inexplicably weeping. MacTallan and Bennington set my body down onto the ground, the dead grass around me painted with a thin layer of frost.
“This is why it was built—it was what we protected.”
Bennington looked at the professor. “Wait a moment—I thought it was overrun by rat-men.”
“I didn’t say it was safe. But we couldn’t stay there, could we? We need to find a way to help the others who are still back on the island. And this might be a place from where you can carry on your work.”
Bennington looked at MacTallan with a sideways glance. “Society?”
MacTallan smiled back. “Not on your life.”
“What about Rackham?”
“We can’t take the risk of leaving him here. The books will be fine for now. Tollard, take him up.”
Bennington and MacTallan ventured into the university campus quickly, followed by a grunting Tollard. He had shouldered my body, draping me over his back. My mind still joined with Bennington’s, we saw scenes not unlike the school at Innesmere as we followed corridor after endless corridor throughout the buildings. Evidence of struggles and pitched battles, of desperate defenses and daring escapes: doors torn from hinges, toppled walls, broken windows, and smashed furniture, in every corridor and in almost every room we hurried by.
“Up these steps.”
We ascended a wide wooden stair that led to a single door at the landing. Unlike the other doors we had passed, this one looked solid. There was evidence of scratching at the door, but we saw no broken lock.
MacTallan reached around to my neck and slipped off the leather strap with the key.
“I knew enough to let him keep it since the lifeboat. If I had asked for it back, we’d have lost it. But when I saw Thorpe produce it, I knew he had no idea about the key either.”
Bennington smiled. “I had wondered what that was for.”
The lock gave way easily with a turn, and MacTallan ushered us in.
Behind the door was a set of rooms, more ornate than the decoration that was hinted at before Thornskye’s overrun. It seemed to be a place of refuge—and of observation. Several large windows looked out onto the wide forested valley below. The first of the rooms were laid out as small apartments, each with a gas stove, WC, bed, and expensive furniture. Down a wide corridor we discovered what appeared to be a meeting room, a small laboratory, a library, and a larger kitchen.
MacTallan instructed Tollard to set me down onto a bed. He came back after several minutes with the news that the tinned food stores were intact, and that it looked to him that this entire area had gone unmolested by rat-men. The water supply was also still flowing to the kitchen area, he reported, and had located several oil lanterns for use at night.
“We can’t house everyone here,” Bennington finally concluded.
“No, we can’t, and I don’t mean to,” MacTallan replied. “But we can’t leave them on that island, either. Maybe they can find a way—”
“Back to their homes? They don’t have homes anymore.”
MacTallan nodded sadly. “For now let’s take refuge here—it’s our best hope for recovery.”
“And the flyers? They will come to the island and not find us there.”
“This I have an answer to, doctor. Do you think Elizabeth College is the only academic institution with an aero beacon?”
An hour passed and MacTallan returned, out of breath, with the chest of books.
“I’ve done it. We have no way of knowing if Alia or Alona will see the beacon all the way from Greysham. If the storms return it will certainly make that impossible. But on a clear night—we may just get lucky.”
Crane, you now know the rest of the story. For his part, Tollard has been silent: he has made no threatening acts, and in fact seems quite catatonic, spending most of each day on his bed and taking little sustenance. Tomorrow we will attempt to finally unite my consciousness with my body. I may well die in the process, but Bennington assures me we have exhausted all other avenues. If you receive this letter, Alia will tell you whether Bennington has succeeded or failed, as her plans are to remain at Thornskye until the procedure has concluded.
Until then, we have escaped the island, found safe refuge and are reflecting upon our new discoveries. I hope that this letter finds you well—in truth, simply that it finds you.
Bennington, for Rackham