They say the greatest treasures come in the tiniest of packages, and that the most profound of miracles reveal themselves after the most mundane of disguises. In this instance, you can imagine my welcome astonishment at finding your letters of 26 February and 9 March, tucked quite well inside the desk at my room at the Downborough Arms, like a child’s hidden Yuletide-present. Yet more to my surprise, there was an additional gift—if gift is indeed what I can call it.
Accompanying your letters was a thin volume with a grey cover, letters stamped out on the front in embossed gold: TAGEBUCH HAISCHIFF JAGDSCHLOß.
Not yet believing, yet drinking in the texture and slight weight of the little book in my hands, I opened it. Missing were the pages that would have held the left-facing entry for November 30 to December 7 on the right side. These would have been the pages that I extracted from the log-book and wrapped up with the additional chart paper, which I had found somewhere amid the washed-up wreckage of the submersible.
Tollard, Bennington, MacTallan and I are now sitting at a familiar table in the tavern at the Downborough Arms. Alia is resting from her latest journey in the bed in my familiar room here. I cannot tell you what joy it was to see the smiling face of my love again, our eyes wet from sheer relief at simply seeing each other alive. I will spare you further details of our meeting, as I feel that these would only ring hollow, since the information I have for you must needs take priority over selfishness and indulgence. But at least know, my friend, that I am alive and well, and so are the other three, and we can even say that we have safety and health—for now.
Tonight, my three companions and I are looking over the detritus of a well-enjoyed meal and the dregs of wine staining our glasses. For all of these restful distractions, I can still not quite fathom how this little book in front of me can be real, and if it is, how it should come into my possession once again. Its plain, quiet greeting there in the false bottom of the desk shook me quite to my core. Of all of the incredible occurrences that have happened to this tempest-toss’d band, the log-book’s unceremonious appearance is like a shard of abject unreality that cuts into a ribbon of remarkable yet otherwise explainable events.
I last had the log-book on the shores of Skald, and from there my memory fails. I must have had it when we first found the warm cavern, our hold for many days—but as I was then turned into a disembodied ghost, I confess a dutiful inventory of our possessions was not foremost on my mind. I might have assumed that the log-book had been put in with MacTallan’s chest of discovered Von Neumann works, but then it would have been brought with us to Thornskye. In any case, during our harrowing escape from Thornskye, all that MacTallan was able to save, sadly, was one particular precious volume and his map of conveyance lines.
Our escape. Almost one week ago.
We awoke to the terrible scratching at the safety door, as well as the cacophony of shrieks and gibbering far below in the courtyard. We convened in the common meeting room. Horror was etched deeply into MacTallan’s face, while I noted with some puzzlement the serenity on Tollard’s.
“Well, we knew they would return,” Bennington whispered, as the candles flickered in the gloom. “We just wait them out.”
MacTallan rose for a moment, pacing, moving to the window and then back again. I sensed that his mental energies were directed simultaneously at controlling his own panic while trying desperately to make sense of the situation at hand.
“But not like this,” MacTallan responded, finally sitting down. “Yes, they overran the Uni, a while ago. But they never gather in these numbers without a purpose.”
“What do you mean?” I remember asking. “Crane reported dozens at Sandown, for example.”
“Their raids were always at random, and usually motivated by food. Innesmere itself was pillaged over several weeks, and it was finally fully destroyed only after the Obelisk took its toll. The wererats came to Thornskye after finding that there wasn’t anything more at Innesmere but the dead. Even then, they never showed up in large numbers like this.”
“So we give them food.”
“They don’t want food,” Tollard suddenly interjected.
“What do you mean, man? MacTallan just said—”
“They want me.”
We stared at Tollard. The din of what must have been thousands of rat-creatures filled the air far below, having redoubled its strength from when we awoke. He stared back at us, and at that moment I recognized that he was quite entirely in possession of his faculties now.
“They know there hasn’t been any food here for some time. You heard the professor yourself—that’s the only explanation for why we have been relatively unmolested here for the last month now. If there was something worth taking here, they would have done so by now.”
“How do you know they want—you?” I ventured.
“The sounds you hear outside aren’t from the same rat-men that ravaged Thornskye, Innesmere, or any of the ones that Crane’s expedition faced,” he continued. “They are my—people. From the island.”
The three of us listening searched each other’s expressions, finding an alien sense of plausibility in his words.
“They’ve come for revenge on me. They want me to answer for turning them into what they are.”
“Are you truly responsible?” I asked, instinctively.
“That doesn’t matter right now,” MacTallan reminded us. “They’ve obviously found a way to use the portal.”
Bennington snapped, a sudden fury taking her. “We should have been using the bloody thing this entire time to help those poor wretches! We should have been going back—”
Tollard shot back: “With what weapons? Rexley? Do you know how to power it? Have you fixed it?”
“Don’t pretend this isn’t all your fault. To think we nursed you back to health!”
I raised my arms and MacTallan stepped forward. Bennington and Tollard glared at each other with eyes of ice.
“This argument profits us nothing,” I finally suggested, “unless we can agree on a plan that includes going back to Skald to at least rescue the ones that Bennington transformed back into humans, if not save them all.”
“Are you serious?” MacTallan asked, incredulous. Bennington nodded her head and stood up in support.
“Quite. It’s the only thing right now that makes any kind of sense,” I responded.
We took several deep breaths in contemplation of my proposal. Finally, Tollard spoke again, his voice shaking.
“No. I must go to them and face my punishment. I must deliver myself up. It is my fault for having gone against orders. Perhaps I can be a distraction while the three of you leave somehow.”
He stood up and I interposed myself between him and the door.
“If you go out there, you do your ‘people’ no good,” I said.
His eyes focused on me. “This is my fault,” he choked, faintly.
“Then pay your penance with service as you once did. We’re going to need you, Captain. We’re going to need you when we finally get back to that bloody island and figure out a way to get those people to safety before they starve or get torn to shreds by the ones that weren’t transformed.”
This seemed to strike a chord with the man, who paused for a moment before sitting back down. The scratching and screeching we could hear from beyond the doorway became more desperate.
“We need a way out,” Bennington called, now spurred to action, as she dashed into a chamber to gather up the Rexley Device as well as whatever equipment could be carried easily.
I looked at MacTallan.
“The one the rat-men are sitting on top of is the only one around for miles,” he explained. “But there is another, not too far from here. If—if we can get to Greysham again.”
“The Cairns,” I said, suddenly understanding.
The young professor nodded.
“So that’s why he’d insisted to head there. And why you were looking for it—”
“I didn’t have a clue what was really there until these past few weeks. Until I had a chance to study my mentor’s maps. I was working on a hunch, but apparently Stratham had access to more than I ever knew.”
I looked over at the pile of books. “You can’t take all of Von Neumann’s work with you this time,” I said, shaking my head.
“I won’t need to,” MacTallan replied. “I’ve been able to piece together a fairly accurate map from the several that I found. The map, my notebook, and one or two additional volumes—that should be what I need.”
“Gentlemen, there’s no time for this,” Bennington interrupted, exasperated. “We should be looking for an escape route now.”
“Not to worry,” MacTallan said, suddenly a picture of calm. “Tollard, get up from that chair.”
With MacTallan’s directions, the three of us removed the massive conference table from its position in the center of the room, setting it aside with its chairs. I pulled away the expensive-looking rug to reveal a metal door set quite solidly into the stonework floor. Locating the key again on its strap around his neck, he set it into a recessed hole at the side of the door. It took Tollard and I assisting him to swing it open, its hinges creaking at the rust. Below, a stone stairway revealed itself to us and a cold draft wafted upwards. The air from below seemed stale but dry.
“Tunnels,” MacTallan explained. “Back in the days of the Blood War, emergency escapes like this were built into many buildings.”
“How do we know the wererats aren’t down there to greet us?” Bennington asked.
“If the rat-men were down there, we would have known by now,” MacTallan offered.
She peered down into the murky darkness of the stairway.
“The stairs are worked into the eastern wall of the main building and they bypass the cellar entirely. They connect up with a tunnel system deep below ground. If I’m right, we’ll find an exit to a road well outside of campus.”
“I’m not seeing any other options,” I finally said, standing up to gather up what I could from the supplies.
“Grab that lantern and help with whatever the doctor needs,” MacTallan instructed Tollard. “I’ll get my things.”
We fled, taking with us whatever we could carry in both of our hands and on our backs. The long stairway turned once and finally ended in a stout wooden door, which opened up onto a dusty stone corridor. For three miles, this passageway carried us, angling slightly to one direction and then another. An incline downwards and another little stairs took us deeper underground at one point; towards the end of the corridor three ponderous sets of stairs were necessary to return us to surface level. We finally exited from a little grotto, an open mouth of earth folded into a hillock in the middle of an expanse of forest. When we groped our way outside, dawn was breaking.
“This road will lead us toward Greysham. It’ll be a good day’s travel, and into the early evening. If we’re lucky, we can reach the town by nightfall and avoid the wererats.”
We approached the town, our relief flooding through us, quickening our pace and breathing hope into our hearts. We were greeted by good Parsons at the city gates, who of course recognized everyone except for Tollard. Giving us the equivalent to a heroes’ welcome, we were ushered swiftly back to the Downborough Arms with happy cheers and a crowd that followed us.
Confronting the coward Bledsoe was relatively easy, and it is one of the few times I have ever found myself with the desire to kill another man. I held back, of course, but the pistol that MacTallan had brought with him from the safe-room at Thornskye felt suddenly heavy in my hands and begged to be unleashed upon the man. After what I had seen, and after the danger he had put us in, I wanted him to pay. I wanted to convert him into an example in front of his town.
He seemed surprised, of course, to see us as we burst into the tavern at the Arms—but more mortified, in the way someone would look upon seeing a dead acquaintance come back to life to greet them. He stood up and Tollard quickly tackled him. Before his aides could come to his rescue, I pulled out the pistol, and backed them off. Seeing the confusion caused by those heralded as returned heroes confronting the town’s leadership, Parsons thought better of interfering, instead agreeing to accompany us to Bledsoe’s house. We interrogated the man there, most likely in the same room where Bledsoe must have kept Thompson out of sight after secretly releasing him from the wine cellar, the day before he boarded the Jagdschloss in secret.
Bledsoe confessed to collusion with the spy, having become convinced of Thompson’s mission to destroy Skald, and if that were impossible, at least sinking the Saxonian boat so that no one would gain access to the Rexley Device. Our unexpected reappearance was impossible to explain, since news of the wreck of the Jagdschloss had apparently reached the ears of the townsfolk; and the weak-willed Bledsoe at least opted not to introduce further lies. Neither Thompson nor Bledsoe had been aware of Tollard’s presence on the island, from what we gathered, and Bledsoe did not seem to recognize the former boat captain in our midst. Bledsoe’s motive for assisting Thompson, however, was the most chilling: when we questioned him, Bledsoe mentioned “Cambrian gold” and the “promise of seeing his wife again.” We left Bledsoe under Parsons’ overwatch, who is taking our orders, at least for now. I am thankful that he at least was able to quickly see to truth of this and give us his allegiance after the confession of his former mayor. Parsons is now acting as de facto mayor until an election is held.
Thankfully, it wasn’t until well after we left Bledsoe’s house that MacTallan noted that while he had taken a pistol with him from Thornskye, he had not taken any ammunition.
In the morning, I will let my beloved take flight again, and I will re-read your two letters in more careful detail than I have been able to these last few days. The story of your capture, the re-awakening of your Ability, the disappearance of Brown himself, and the last words of the Admiral, are all stories that I wish to relate to MacTallan and Bennington in order to bring forward their careful consideration. As for Tollard, we consider him joined in our mission now, but not quite in our full confidence. For that reason I am loathe to read your letters aloud or bring them into areas where we meet. I have also not disclosed to Tollard the death of Segismund, and I wish to withhold that until a more appropriate time. I think there is more that Tollard can tell us yet, and I have a vague impression that knowledge of Segismund’s death may change his motives somehow.
Please know that I have been most appreciative of your forbearance for my interruption in my part of the correspondence, and I will write again as soon as we here have decided on the next course of action. This will likely will be to muster a group of ships that can be used to transport whatever human survivors that we can find alive still on Skald to safety here in Greysham. For her part, Bennington favors the use of the Rexley Device and the “bright blood” to continue a de-transformation of rat-men, but I do not have the capacity to contemplate this at the present moment. I will say, however, that we have begun to discuss plans such as these and the role that MacTallan’s map of portals might play. Should you decide to hunt down that abomination Brown, MacTallan has already set to work on a copy of the map for your use. It is not complete yet, but expect it in a future missive from me.