My Dear Rackham,
Now it is my turn to write to you with a greater-than-usual sense of concern. Alona reports that neither you nor your compatriots were anywhere in sight the last time she was at Thornskye, and were-rat activity nearby meant that she could not tarry to determine your whereabouts. She left her delivery (including my last letter) at your pre-arranged dead-drop and left. Since then she has returned once to Thornskye but aborted her landing – the situation on the ground seemed “hot” to her and without any all-clear signal from your party she decided not to risk it.
I need hardly tell you that Alia has very limited patience for that sort of thing and will, before long, risk a landing no matter the danger in order to make sure you are all right. I am delaying her by insisting she wait for this letter, which I have told her contains important insights I have made in light of all our recent discoveries. That statement has the advantage of being true.
I myself am quite safe – if, after my last missive, you were anticipating a cataclysmic tête-à-tête with Brown in this one, you will be disappointed. He is no fool; he knew we would return after my escape, and made sure he was already gone when it happened. Other than two important discoveries that I will shortly relate, our storming of Caeradarn was a dull affair.
Because of this, I have had the opportunity to peruse some the intelligence taken from the Woodmere, as well as the (admittedly scant) notes and evidence pertaining to Brown here at the castle. I have also spoken with Segismund before he breathed his last. Rather than relate all of those investigations in tedious detail, allow me to synthesize them into a narrative of some recent history, filling in some of the gaps remaining after your debriefing of Tollard.
Dr. Amory Brown, a privileged child of whatever passes for nobility in New Columbia, entered a course of study under Dr. Von Neumann at the Extern-Universität of Tyrolia, as you had previously discovered. His time there overlapped for a few years with your man MacTallan, who, though he was undoubtedly the elder student, was eclipsed by the precocious newcomer’s unusual brilliance. Brown continued his studies for several more years after MacTallan returned home to Albion, even remaining after the point when political tensions rendered the presence of a New Columbian student at a Saxionan university rather complicated. At the outset of the Blood War, Brown managed to keep his head down, as it were, and when he was able to connect with a New Columbian regiment during the siege of Tyrolia, he was extracted and immediately enlisted on the field.
You will perhaps not find it too surprising that Brown’s regiment spent most of the war in and around Essen. Half of them did not escape the city in time to avoid its destruction. But Brown did, and when the war ended – ten years ago now, almost to the day – he returned home to New Columbia. He settled into what might have become a very ordinary life teaching archaeology and linguistics, but the immediacy and secrecy surrounding his return to Essen eight years later suggest that he maintained his connections with military intelligence, and may have even at this time been nurturing his contacts with the Society as well.
So then: Essen. What Van Dyke had told me about it earlier all checks out. Long after all the treaties had been signed and the other occupying forces had departed, an allied detachment remained in the ruins of the city. It included a number of New Columbians from Brown’s old regiment. The whole thing was shrouded in the highest levels of military secrecy, which explains why what would have been the archaeological discovery of the decade was unknown to the scholarly community at large and to those of us in the business. Brown arrived two years ago to conduct the dig. While the Society was not directly involved, one of the Albionese scholars there was affiliated with them to some degree. His name was Stratham, and I have every reason to believe it is indeed the late Stratham with whom you are already quite familiar.
Alas, I have no detailed reports on what they found in the impossibly ancient vaulted corridors deep beneath Essen. But I am confident enough to say that, whatever else they discovered, they found three people there, two men and one woman – people who should have been long dead, but instead were awakened as if from an incredibly long sleep. In runes above the chambers where they slept were, assuming an ur-Samekh pronunciation, three words: “EN-RA”, “ROS”, and “MAYIM”; whether those are their names or some other designation is unknown, though they are used to refer to them now.
There was a confrontation. Whether they were hostile to begin with or whether the expedition somehow provoked them, I cannot say, though I have my suspicions. One of the men – En-ra – died; the other – Ros – escaped; the woman – Mayim, who we know as Rachel – was captured. But all three of them were relieved of the amulets they had been wearing, the ones we now know as the telesma. (Indeed, I suspect that the removal of the amulets may have been what awakened them in the first place.) With Stratham’s help, Brown departed with the spoils: all three telesma, the captive Mayim, and the body of En-ra.
As you learned from Bennington, Rachel went to Garnsey, under the Society’s protection. But I am afraid she was not spared occasional trips to Caeradarn as a subject of Brown’s investigations. At minimum her blood was frequently extracted and analyzed, though I suspect she suffered more indignities than that. That is undoubtedly the source of her trauma and the reason for her hatred of the man. As for the body of En-ra, it too was subjected to all manner of experimentation and dissection, much if not all of which was kept secret from his allies in the Society.
On learning all of this I realized that I had assumed that Brown’s transition from man to monster must have come alongside his Ability: that, like Robards, some level of human weakness, overwhelmed with unexpected power, had caused him to abandon his moral compass. But in this case I am forced to conclude that the compass was cast aside at some earlier point: maybe under Essen, maybe during the war. Maybe he never had it. What is certain is that he was hell-bent on on extracting power in some form from these poor souls from another time. He succeeded in imbuing himself with an Ability, to be sure; whether it is exactly what he intended or just what he stumbled upon, we may never know.
Nor do I know exactly how it was accomplished, but the “dark blood” you mention assuredly had something to do with it. In a comminique between himself and Stratham, Brown, writing a year ago, indicates that his source of dark blood was the body of En-ra, and that he wants to find more. Why was En-ra a source for it, and not Rachel/Mayim? Is it simply because he was dead, or was something else at work? Would Ros potentially be another source, if he could be found? Questions without answers, at least for now.
Meanwhile, this tentative Society-N.C. alliance: your characterization of it from Tollard is apt, as it was never anything formal or complete, but was comprised of factions of both whose leashes were just long enough for them to get into this sort of trouble. Brown was a part of it, of course, but he seems to have been rather single-minded in his work on the telesma and dark blood. Others, most of whom we now know, were more concerned with the search for Rexley, and, as you have already discovered, the period during which all parties were harmoniously working together toward this end was surprisingly short.
That search was prompted by discoveries at Essen that suggested the location of Skald. The island itself is ancient, though it did not appear on maps until recently. Its rises from the waves and sinks again, cyclically, I believe, over a period of many years, though I cannot say for certain how many. The Society had long been obsessed with Edmund Rexley’s work, so of course they were eager to get to it.
Edward Segismund was already retired at this point, but was convinced by High Command to assist in this covert co-operation with the Society. He was given a cutting-edge ship, the Sigsbee, but he also took along his old command, the Woodmere, which he personally preferred, and which was slated for decommission anyway. He was personally motivated by fear: fear of the horrors unleashed in the Blood War, fear that his homeland was ill-equipped to deal with something similar closer to home. Unlocking the secrets of Essen, finding Rexley – he saw these as chances to gain crucial knowledge to buttress New Columbia’s defenses. But, to his credit, he was one of the first to realize things were not so simple.
His logs are a litany of hesitation and doubt: concern about his allies in the Society, distaste for working with deep-cover operatives like Thompson, reservations about using Rexley the more they learned of it. But above all, a deep disquiet about Brown. Even before Segismund learned what he was up to, he did not like the man. The mission to Gallia was the last straw.
It began in May of last year. Brown was operating out of Caeradarn at the time, but (rather impetuously, it seemed to Segismund) wanted to go on an extended mission surveying various locations in western Gallia. The Sigsbee was far too conspicuous for that sort of thing, so the Woodmere had to go, despite the admiral’s objections. (While Segismund was technically in charge, High Command had made it clear that what Brown wanted, Brown got.) For the next few months, the Woodmere skulked off the Gallian coast, dropping off Brown and his unsavory mercenaries under cover of night, picking them up again days later. It all seemed pointless to him, and Brown’s behavior was increasingly unsettling. When the landing party was days late for a rendezvous in September, Segismund decided to leave rather than risk being discovered and causing a diplomatic incident.
Imagine his shock upon returning to Albion, now ravaged by an altogether greater Incident. At Yarmouth: the Sigsbee gone, a blight upon the land. At Caeradarn: the same Brown (seemingly) he had left behind, calmly welcoming him back. When he began to understand what Brown had become, and what he had done to accomplish it, Segismund left again in disgust, now fully divorced from his original mission. The Woodmere spent weeks trying to find a route back west across the ocean, but was thwarted at every turn by vortex-storms. It tried to reach Garnsey, but failed again for the same reason. Up and down Albion’s coasts they wandered, alone.
Alone, I should say, by choice. Segismund could have found one of us. The Woodmere did not have a mooring tower, but it did have an aero beacon. But he deactivated it, fearing that the flyers would betray him to Brown and/or the Society. The notion seems ridiculous to us, but remember that he had been away for most of the post-Incident developments, and probably did not realize the extent to which old alliances had fractured and everything had been thrown into chaos. He was justifiably paranoid, and in the end, gave in to a kind of despair. Unable to get home, or find a safe haven he could trust, he concluded that his best chance would be to retake Caeradarn and neutralize Brown.
We arrived in the wake of that battle. Segismund had good intelligence on the number of mercenaries Brown had with him at the castle, but had not accounted for all the Brown-copies, and as a result things went poorly. After sustaining heavy losses, his forces retreated to the Woodmere, but the ship was overrun before he could weigh anchor. He ordered it scuttled rather than see it fall into Brown’s hands, and then he surrendered. Had he realized how many of his men would be cruelly assimilated, he would have had them fight to the death.
Two days ago we returned to Caeradarn to find it deserted. The first thing of note that we found was Segismund himself, imprisoned in a dungeon cell. I do not know why he had not been assimilated. I wish there was more to say about our encounter with him, but when we found him he was already a broken man, and learning the ultimate fate of his crew took away his last will to live. He spoke with me for some hours before begging me to let him sleep – a sleep from which he did not wake. So ends his tragic tale.
The second thing of note is what else we found beneath the castle: even lower than the dungeons, more chambers, even older still. A doorway with ur-Samekh runes around the frame. Past that, a room with a circle of runes carved into the floor. I recognized them instantly based on your (and Bennington’s) descriptions from Skald: we had found a node of the Ashkurian conveyance line network.
I would love to say we found it covered in dust, pristine and forgotten. But assorted detritus and disturbances in the dust suggest that the place has been visited very recently. And outside the castle, there were no signs to be found anywhere of a large group of people on the move. It is most likely that Brown escaped by way of a conveyance line – if MacTallan could manage it, then certainly he could as well. Can we ascertain where he went? Can we go there too, or perhaps adjust to another destination – even Thornskye? I will direct all my energies toward these questions in the coming days.
One final note. Segismund believed that Brown had caused the Incident. I am not convinced of this; I lean toward MacTallan’s theory that it was associated with a meterological event. But what seems undeniable is that he knew it was coming. He saw to it that one of his copies was abroad; he amassed vast quantities of food, water, and supplies at Caeradarn; he distributed two of the telesma to others – all in a short period of time just prior to the fateful day. He understands what has happened more than any man living, and he is loose in the world.
I can delay Alia no longer. While I am certain I will have much more to report in the coming days, I must send this off. I hope it finds you.