Porthgain, 26 February

My Dear Rackham,

Do you remember Mlle Tourno from our Everwood days? The headmaster brought her in on an assortment of Wednesdays, perhaps it was in our fourth year, to educate us on matters of etiquette. I recall she was something of a sensation with the older boys, for obvious reasons. But it is her lessons on the proper conduct of correspondence that brought her to my mind just now. Matters of penmanship and stationary that circumstance has forced us to abandon, but also rules of form and address that even now we continue to follow. I confess an impish desire to leave you in some suspense as to where I am writing from and what my current circumstances may be, so that I could reveal them with proper ceremony in the course of my narrative. But the fond memory of Mlle Tourno does not permit me: the heading of my letter must consist of the place of its composition, followed by a comma, a short interval of space, and then the date. I suppose in a way it is a comfort to adhere to such formalities. They are a connection to the past in a world where so much has changed.

But they have indeed spoiled the suspense: I write from Porthgain, the coastal Cambrian village nearest Caeradarn, and for these past weeks the Sigsbee’s home port. Let us roll back the clock, however, for the story of my escape depends on much that happened earlier, and though you have heard tell from our flyers about our first tragic investigation of the castle, hopefully my perspective will help you achieve a fuller understanding.

Over six weeks ago now, we ascended the cliffs and entered Caeradarn. We soon realized that we had come on the heels of a battle. The smell of gunpowder still lingered in the air, and streaks of blood were in evidence, especially near the castle gates – although, strangely, bodies were not to be found. We did not know it at the time, but Campbell and his men were also discovering signs of combat on board the Woodmere, albeit obscured by the shifting tides.

We proceeded with caution. Caeradarn is a rather traditional medieval castle in structure, though the addition of numerous crosswalks and elevated passages somewhat blur the distinction between its outer wall and central keep. One of the corner towers had been built higher at some point well following the initial construction; perhaps some long-dead baron had a plan once to transform the seat of his fiefdom into something a good deal more fanciful and grand, but he only made it so far as to extend the height of my eventual prison.

At first we were at a loss as to where to begin our exploration. But then we heard the screams. We followed the sounds to the great hall, only realizing then that they came from somewhere beneath, and, judging from the echoes, it seemed likely that the excavations beneath the castle might be substantial.

Those screams still haunt me. I have had the grisly duty of performing a battlefield amputation without the benefit of anesthesia; no scream of pain, even were it under the duress of torture, could have affected me so. This was somehow even worse. Not only that but we continued to see some gruesome evidence of fighting. At one point our way was barred by a pool of blood. Streaks of blood emanated from it, gradually fading, as if a body had been dragged – in the direction of the screams.

I say all this not to sensationalize, but to fully convey our sense of agitation and terror as we finally came upon the chamber. It was large, with an elevated ceiling, perhaps a storage room but more likely an ancient crypt, though now it resembled a cross between an operating theater and a site for ritual sacrifice.

And there was Dr. Brown. He was not alone in the room – several assistants were visible – but in those first few seconds he commanded our attention. He had something of the posture of a surgeon, leaning over a body splayed on a stone slab. Judging from its convulsions, the body had been the source of the screams we had heard, though in the moments before we entered they had ceased. Brown held no instruments; as he straightened to look at us it appeared that he had just been grasping the head of the poor man on the slab between his hands.

“Dr. Crane! Nice to meet ya again!” That voice, cheery as can be, unmistakable, terrifying. “You’ve caught us at a busy time, I’m afraid. Give us a chance to tidy up a bit and we can give you and your friends a proper welcome. How about dinner?”

That is when Rachel ran towards him, face twisted in rage. One of his assistants intervened, and they grappled there in the middle of the chamber. Van Dyke ran forward and pulled Rachel back to us, locking eyes with the assistant as he did so. “Crane,” he said, voice thin and strained, “Look at him. Look at him.”

What I saw was another Brown. Not identical, for this man’s build was slightly different, and there was a certain dullness in the eyes whereas the “real” Brown’s were hawklike. But it was somehow unmistakably him, not a chance resemblance.

“We have to fall back.” This voice came from behind us – Lt. Barksdale, who had remained at the entrance to the chamber. “We are being flanked. We have to fall back now.”

My own recollection of the ensuing hours remains muddled, but having had the time and the (unfortunate) opportunity to deal with Brown up close, and having the chance (at long last) to confer with my companions about that fateful day, I will lay things out as clearly as I can.

I do not know if it was a trap, exactly, but it is definitely the case that Brown and his forces had been aware of our approach, and most of them had remained silent and hidden as we entered the castle, allowing us to follow the screams down to the chamber. Then they had begun to close in around us; that Barksdale detected this probably saved our lives. As Van Dyke pulled Rachel bodily from the chamber, Brown’s assistants closed in on us, holding rudimentary weapons. My last glimpse back as I retreated was of the body on the slab, slowly sitting up, and its face … its face was also Brown’s.

The forces arrayed against us were of two types. First, New Columbian soliders out of uniform – mercenaries, or a rogue detachment, we still do not know, but in any case, loyal enough to Dr. Brown that they had attacked us without hesitation just as they had, the previous day, apparently battled their own countrymen without remorse. Second, the uncanny copies of Dr. Brown, which were by no means limited to those we had seen in the chamber.

Our group fought bravely, managing to stay together, but found the stairway we had taken down from the great hall blocked by the enemy. Van Dyke’s knowledge of Caeradarn’s myriad corridors was limited, but he seemed confident there was another way back to the surface somewhere, so we moved on through the lower halls, searching for an exit. A Brown-like half-man came lurching out of the shadows at me. I say “half-man” because his posture was ape-like, his rage animalistic, his strength enormous. The only saving grace is that his movements were choppy and clumsy, and even someone as untrained in the fighting arts as myself was able to wriggle free of his attempt to close his oversized hands around my throat. He seemed to lose interest and shambled back in the direction of the others, but our melee had taken us down a side passage just as they had been exchanging fire with soldiers attempting to cut off our intended route. As I pieced together later, what happened is that Barksdale perceived they were on the verge of being pinned down, and had one chance to surge ahead and escape the vice. He gave the order, unwittingly leaving me behind. As I stood and regained my own composure I realized that the voices I was hearing around me were not those of my friends. There was a side-room nearby, some long-unused closet with a dusty floor and a door of rotten wood. I ducked in and pulled the door shut behind me.

At this moment I was glad for the New Columbian-issue survival packs we had each taken from the Sigsbee prior to setting out for the castle. In addition to some simple provisions they had an insulated box containing candles and matches. I gave myself a little light then, and … I began to write. Perhaps a strange choice, I know. But I did not think my chances of finding my way out without being caught were very likely. And I had brought the letter I was in the process of writing to you along with me. I knew I wanted to hide it, but thought I should quickly add some note of what had just happened before I did so, especially if, as I feared, none of us were going to make it out of there.

I did not get very far. Maybe a few sentences beyond what you already read, lost when the page was torn. But when the pounding on the door began I barely had a moment to stuff the pages amid some debris in the corner before I was seized and knocked unconscious.

Barksdale, Van Dyke, and the others did make it out of the castle, save two brave souls (one sailor, one soldier) who died in the fighting. There they met reinforcements – Campbell, to his credit, had positioned a lookout at the top of the cliff, from where he could watch for activity both at the castle and at the Woodmere below in the water. This scout had heard sounds of fighting once it reached the upper halls, and had signaled the Sigsbee. Alia came up with the reinforcements, and proved to be the deciding vote in the question of whether to attempt to go back for me, as they had of course realized by then that I had been lost.

“Vote” is not the right word, exactly. Once Alia was apprised of the situation, she started running towards the castle gates. The others were obliged to either accompany her or stay behind, and no one much wanted to shy away where a woman did not fear to tread, much less bear any responsibility for the demise of one of the flyers. And so the now-larger group re-entered the castle.

They were fortunate that all this was happening very rapidly, and that the tactical situation remained, as they say, fluid. If Brown’s forces had had some time to assume defenive positions there would have been no chance of returning. As it was, the enemy was recovering from their own losses in the fighting, and certainly did not expect a counterattack. Alia’s gambit proved even more successful than they had hoped – the enemy was driven back, Barksdale established a control point in the great hall, and was able to lead sorties back down to look for me and to recover some evidence from the chamber where we had first encountered Brown (who was no longer there). For a while it seemed as if they may have succeeded in taking the castle.

But then the enemy counter-counter-attacked in greater numbers, arriving from still-lower chambers beneath the castle. Like a rising tide, dozens of Browns emerged from hidden staircases and unexplored corners, and our forces were sore pressed. Alia located the closet where I had been caught, and found my letters. Barksdale saved her from a particularly vicious Brown, and convinced her that nothing more could be done. Our forces engaged in a fighting retreat from Caeradarn; its great gates slammed shut as they made their way back down the cliffside to the Sigsbee.

I awoke in my prison cell in the tower. Why there, as opposed to some subterranean dungeon? Perhaps to keep me away from the secrets of the castle; clearly there is a good deal more to be found underground than what we were able to discover. But I suspect there was a touch of sadism in the choice as well. Brown would visit me in my cell and encourage me to take in the view of the foggy, windswept hills outside. He always couched it in terms of kind treatment of his prisoner, though I could not help but detect a hint of enjoyment in showing me a freedom he believed I would never have again.

I have gone far enough being elusive about Dr. Brown and his Ability. Time to lay out what I know. In addition to his occasional visits to my cell, he brought me back down to his Chamber on two occasions, and based on all that I have seen I have a clearer notion than I would like as to what he can do.

He can copy himself. His features, his memories, even his consciousness. Not only that, but these copies are linked – in earlier times I would hesitate to use a word like “telepathically,” but I trust you will not bat an eye at it now. This connection seems to function over great distances, although not at great strength. While he certainly recognized me from our meeting at Mont-Bré, it became clear that he did not know (or should I say remember?) exactly what transpired there, and wanted to get that story from me.

These copies are not created out of thin air, however. He needs, if you will pardon the macabre tenor of the term in this context, raw materials. For this, any body will do – even a corpse, so long as it is a fresh one. But a living body is best, and that is what we were witnessing when we first came upon his chamber. That is also the explanation of why we saw no bodies when we first entered the castle – Brown had been hard at work bolstering his ranks by assimilating the dead, the wounded, and the captured all alike.

I shudder to think of it, but surely you must recognize the eerie similarity between what he does and the transformative properties of the Rexley Device. What he accomplishes requires no apparatus or transfer of fluids, however. How he came by this Ability I still do not know; he was not with us at the Incident; he has thus far given no indication what his connection might be with Rexley. I suspect it may have something to do with the excavations under Essen.

At any rate, the form of each Brown-copy depends on the raw materials used. I believe that the copies closest in appearance and manner to the man himself – and I have seen a few that are nearly indistinguishable – come from healthy bodies and weak minds. I say “weak minds” because I have seen other copies that show evidence of inner turmoil, as if the host is actively fighting for control. These poor souls suffer rapid mental degradation and are most often seen as assistants or menial workers. And then there are the monsters, like the one that assailed me – nearly devoid of mind but uncommonly strong. These come from the bodies of the recently dead.

I was able to lay hands on a piece of mirrored glass and used it to signal outside, more as a way to pass the time than anything else. After eleven days in prison, one of my signals was detected, and soon after Sharma’s arrow found the arrowslit in the wall of my tower cell, sending me welcome word from the outside and allowing me to catch up on your activities as well. Back in Porthgain there was heated debate about whether it really was me up there in the tower. I do not fault those who believed me dead or lost. Between what they had seen and the things they retrieved from the chamber, my allies had a more or less clear notion of Brown’s Ability; why should he not have used it on me? But perhaps more to the point, Van Dyke had a clear notion of my Ability, and others, like Campbell, at least suspected it – none of them knew that it had been dormant since Carteret, though, save Rachel. Van Dyke’s assumption was that I should have been able to escape easily, and the fact that I had not rejoined them meant that I had almost certainly met my end, either by death or assimilation.

Which brings us to the chief question that bothered me during those long hours in my cell: why hadn’t I been assimilated? As I said, Brown brought me to the chamber he used to conduct that awful transformation more than once. Each time it seemed clear that that was what he meant to do to me as well. Both times he made me watch as someone else was transformed, no doubt to rattle me. On the second occasion he had me laid out on the slab, his fingers pressed into my temples – but then he stopped. And no, it was not that I possessed some great reserves of mental fortitude that he could not penetrate – it was more that he came to the point of it and changed his mind.

It was only upon receipt of your last letter – fired with astonishing precision by Sharma once again – that I began to conceive a theory accounting for Brown’s strange behavior toward me. Your own Ability appears to be dormant following Bennington’s use of the substance in the vials to return your mind to your body. Mine was suspended after Rachel triggered some power within the telesma. Brown’s own Ability proceeds unchecked, perhaps fueled by this “dark blood” from Essen, as you theorize. His questions to me about Mont-Bré suggest he was not just trying to understand what had happened to his copy there, but more importantly what I had done there. I regret to say that I had the telesma on my person when I was captured, and now Brown has it. He showed it to me once in my chambers, no doubt hoping to gauge my reaction. I did not give him the pleasure. “No matter,” he exclaimed, “It’s just a dead thing. Little like yourself, perhaps?”

Then, later, when he came to take to the ritual chamber the second time, his first words to me were, “Still sleeping, eh?” Which was odd, since I had been standing upright, staring out the window when he arrived.

As I said, your letter helped me put the pieces together somehow. The reason Brown had not tried to assimilate me is that he knew I possessed an Ability – that much he remembered from Mont-Bré, though perhaps the details were hazy. He suspected or intuited that it was dormant, but feared that attempting to transform me might somehow trigger it again. When he called me a “dead thing” or said I was “sleeping,” he was referring to my Ability, not my person. He was looking, perhaps, for some final piece of assurance that I was full and truly asleep and would not react in some fantastic way if assimilated.

Would I? I did not want to test that particular case. But his fear was a real one, in that I knew from experience that imminent trauma had been the most reliable trigger for my Ability in the past. It was upon this last realization that I conceived my plan.

I had to wait a while to carry it out. By this time I was receiving weekly deliveries via longbow – usually just notes and updates from Porthgain, along with a match to burn them after they had been read. These deliveries happened in late afternoon when the sun most reliably shone on the tower; first Sharma would signal me in readiness, then I would send a return signal with my mirror if the coast was clear.

It came to late afternoon on the appointed day. I could have done with a glass of something strong to fortify me for what I was about to do. As it was I had only my inner resolve to spur me on. But I knew it was only a matter of time before Brown concluded it was worth the risk trying to turn me into one of him, and I did not want to spend the rest of my days buried under the consciousness of an unnecessarily chipper New Columbian psychopath.

So then. Sharma signaled. I signaled back. I stepped away, counted to five, and then, standing on a chair, imposed my body over the entire length of the arrowslit.

The arrow hurtled straight for my throat. And in that instant before impact, true to my hopes, I woke up. I felt a tingle, not in my extremities, but in my internalities, if that makes any sense. My Ability returned just in time to save my life – my whole body ghosted, the arrow flew through me and clattered into the back of the room. I did not know how long it would last, but I had the presence of mind to solidify for just a moment to retrieve the arrow. Then I willed myself insubstantial again, jumped headlong through the wall of the tower, and drifted, cloud-like, downward. I solidified just enough as I reached the ground that I wouldn’t keep right on going, making for a quite graceful landing, if I do say so myself.

Sharma and Jacobs found me a few minutes later. The expressions of amazement on their faces were, admittedly, rather gratifying.

“We was goin to rescue you,” said Jacobs. He sounded almost disappointed.

“And I thank you for it,” I replied, “But don’t worry. You will get your chance to return to the castle. We are not done with Brown.” This seemed to satisfy him.

I have only been in Porthgain two days, enjoying some proper sleep and good food for the first time in a long while. I have yet to follow up on some important matters, foremost among them, learning from Campbell what was discovered on the Woodmere, and re-examining his story in light of everything you have discovered about Tollard. But I wanted to write to assure you of my safety, so those discoveries will have to wait. As will, if all goes well, the story of our assault on Caeradarn. That abomination Brown cannot be allowed to remain there in peace. He feared to awaken me; he was right to fear.

Warm Regards,