As I begin this letter to you it is with fervent hope that Alia is able to locate you, either before you embark on your sea journey or, failing that, somehow afterwards. At the end of your last message, you noted with some uncertainty if the letter would find me. I am glad to report that it did, although Alia told us that she had some difficulty this time locating our encampment—even though buildings of brick and stone are easier to sight from the air than tents of canvas under the eaves of the forest.
Apparently there are storms of some enormous kind that she sees now on her voyage between our two expeditions, or at least this latest run between us. Dark tempests of black dust that interpose their tendrils enough so that sighting the ground becomes all but impossible except in the brightest day. This time, she found our beacon using a magnetometer, but only on the retour from a wide circle, having missed us the first time. The alarming thing was that here on the ground we recalled only a string of mildly cloudy days. It must be that the storms are to the south but progressing northward and have not yet reached us.
I write this evening confined to my cot, my senses reeling from the stench of death that still lingers here in the little white-tile room that we have dubbed, at least for now, the infirmary. I suppose I have an improved respect for Bennington, since over the last week I have seen her dispense critical attention to our men without regard for rank or status; and whatever her allegiances are, I care little just now after having seen what I did.
Gujparat is dead—Graustein heaved him away and out of here earlier this morning and then set to cleaning up the blood. As for Kensington, we have no idea where the body is (if it is still a body), and cannot spare the time or the effort to find it. When I write their families—if I ever get an opportunity to write them—I anticipate that those letters will be sad ones indeed, and I will have to choose my words carefully to spare the families unpleasant imaginings as I explain the causes of death.
Crane, in the wake of the devastation to the Colonies I know that many tales reached our ears, safe in our comfortable offices, homes, and cafés. Your recent words on the familiar-yet-alien doppelganger landscape we find here ring in my mind, especially to think now of the life we knew only some months ago. I recall hearing some of the strange stories of horror that began to trickle back to the Continent and knowingly dismissed many as either patently impossible, a likely product of a disordered mind, or an outright shocking joke, told to get attention in dimly-lit taverns.
I am now revising many of those judgments.
Two days ago I found Gujparat in the forest, having gone after him myself—foolish perhaps, I see that now—when he and Kensington did not arrive back from their reconnaissance. The trace I found of the men first took the form of a canvas supply pack swinging from a branch high overhead, its tools and instruments strewn about on the ground below. As I turned and strode into a clearing, I heard his labored cries and heavy moans coming from the area ahead, a rocky descent down to a wide river. Sensing the clear presence of danger, I drew my pistol and found a little pathway down to Gujparat, whose bloodied and broken figure I could see on a rock promontory. As his left leg ended in a tangled mass of shredded bone and muscle at the shin, he had apparently been trying to crawl away from the scene of something horrible, lifting and dragging himself as best he could on one good arm and a willpower of iron. As for Kensington, I saw no trace of him.
It wasn’t until that evening when Gujparat had awoken from his trauma that either Bennington or I could get any useful information from him. Thorpe wanted me to show him and a detachment of men where I had found Gujparat, but I think my reasoning that we needed first to learn what Gujparat knew beforehand won out in the end. I didn’t tell Thorpe that another reason why I was keen on questioning the poor man right away was because I sensed that we had little time before his impending death to find out what had happened.
As you know, I spent some time in Pandjara on the Mission, and I have a smattering of Sindhoo. I must say it was another point that impressed me about Bennington—her Sindhoo is not altogether bad. Where and how she learned hers I do not know, but I confess it added a dimension to her otherwise inscrutable nature. At any rate, between Bennington and I, we were able to capture a great deal of information from Gujparat as the laudanum calmed him enough to temporarily set aside his immense pain and speak a few words. We took furious notes throughout this exchange, and I will copy my notes into a representation of our dialogue with as much fidelity to my recollection—and to Gujparat’s voice—as I can muster.
“Kensington and I were searching, trying to find another way to get back on the North Road. We went into the forested area to the west about a quarter of a mile, maybe more. We didn’t think the wetland would be as thick there. We were right—the land started to slope up and away a bit and become rockier.
“After about another hour of walk we found a good trail. It went up into a hill. Kensington said something about the torch stakes, and that we would go back at night if we could find water. I did not understand but I put a stake in wherever Kensington pointed.
“I was resting after we had drank up the last of our water. Kensington said he heard a river and went to see; he came back after an hour and said he found good water. I went with him—we walked along a cliff and under big rocks overhead. Then we saw a river.
“We were going to turn around to go back to camp when we heard a sound that made us cover our ears and scream. Kensington was vomiting from the sound. It made my eyes shake and we fell down. I looked up and there was something around Kensington’s leg. He yelled and I saw a green-black rope (?) twist around his leg and up to his hip. It looked like a snake but it was coming out of a cave above us, and more of these shapes dropped down to take hold of Kensington. I could not run. I saw the ropes bite into Kensington’s legs and arms and rip them away. Blood was everywhere. I knew Kensington was dead.
“I got up and all I could think about was how to get away back the way we came. I jumped up on the rocks and the sound got louder again. The sound was like a wall of sharp whistles and it made my blood boil. I closed my eyes and then I felt a sting on my foot. I looked down and my leg was gone. At that point I felt another sting on my back and the creature tore by equipment pack away. I took my chances and dove downward off the rock instead of trying to stay and fight it. I fell a long way and broke my ribs, but if I hadn’t done that, I would have ended up like Kensington.
“I looked up from where I fell and I could see maybe twenty of these green and black snakes waving from outside of the cave. They were very long and some of them looked like they were sliding along the rocks, searching for more victims. Then the terrible sound stopped and the snakes went back into the cave. I think my eyes went black for a while.
“The next thing I remember is that I was trying to crawl up the rock again to find the path. About an hour later, Rackham found me.”
When I returned with the mangled Gujparat, Bennington noted that the areas where his body had suffered the most damage were bloodied but also slick with a translucent, slime-like substance. In transporting the wounded man, this ichor stained my clothes and had transferred onto my arms and chest. Where it had made contact with my skin, I felt a numbing sensation, not unlike an area affected by a venomous bite. While this was not particularly painful, Bennington ordered my assignment to a cot for erstwhile observation, to which I naturally assented.
As the laudanum worked its way through his veins I watched Gujparat slip into unconsciousness. I thought about what I had read in your letter about letting your focus drift to a subject, and I decided to try it. As the minutes passed, I let all other emotions and thoughts drain from my consciousness, and I let the sounds at the periphery of my awareness rush forward like a flood, overtaking me in a furious cacophony. Remembering how it caused me pain to open my eyes during these episodes, I resolved to recline with my eyes closed yet with my face toward Gujparat, in an attempt to reach out to his resting mind with my own.
Crane, I could read the man’s memories. He had told Bennington and I the details from his perspective as if narrating a short but dreadful tale; but when I “channeled” the sounds and signals from the sleeping man, they filled in several more details than what she and I had gleaned from our strained Sindhoo. For example, Gujparat and Kensington had argued about getting off the main road because Gujparat did not want to risk straying off their planned course. Kensington’s Sindhoo was quite limited, and I read in Gujparat’s thoughts that he felt it was easier to give in to the wishes of his companion.
His next series of thoughts was about the torch stakes—these are my invention, I should add. Gujparat knew what Kensington did not, which was that the Tesla beacons at the top of the stake only flash if the first one in the series is “jumped” with the hand generator—which I have here with me at camp. Thus, Gujparat knew that the torch stakes would have been of no use to the men, and he was annoyed with Kensington for bringing otherwise useless equipment with him on the scouting foray.
Gujparat also thought Kensington a fool for going ahead without him to find the source of the river. I suppose that in some cases, military training does not always bequeath common sense.
Something horrid also happened during this episode, Crane, and I am loathe to describe it but I know all information shared between us might have a benefit somehow. I stopped reading Gujarat’s memories at the moment his mind’s eye recalled the attack from the tentacled being that inhabited the cave. The fear—the panic—the blistering pain—I knew I could sense it all and drink it in, so to speak, if I allowed the cascade of sound to continue to overtake me. Had I done that, I would have borne scars of that unholy experience which would not have been shaken quickly. I opened my eyes and removed myself from concentration as soon as Gujparat’s first screams resounded in my mind. Even still, my hands shook and I found myself bathed in sweat as I awoke from my trance.
In closing, I would now advise you to continue to practice whatever—ability—you describe to me. We may have been altered from the Incident, or we may have acquired these peculiarities from our presence here; it matters little exactly how, but I am beginning to understand these as gifts of a sort, aberrant as they might seem, but not altogether useless. Do keep your eye on Robards, and on my side, I will resolve to place my focus on Bennington in the days ahead. There may indeed be more to these two than we know.
With wishes for a safe sea crossing,