Location Unknown, 10 April
My Dear Rackham,
I am violating my personal rule and writing again before I have heard from you. At this point I do not know how I will even get this to you, or when I will hear from you again. Things have gone awry, to put it mildly. But for that reason especially, I thought it important to set down what has happened.
The plan, as I described in my last letter, was to attempt using the conveyance lines – not immediately in order to locate Rachel or confront Brown, but first, a short transit to see if even that was something we could manage. It is rather ironic to think about it now, considering how things turned out, but the destination we settled upon was one that would have made for a pleasant surprise. I noticed that the map MacTallan provided indicated a conveyance node at the Cairns, a place that we knew, from your descriptions, was still extant, and was not currently overrun by were-rats or other unknown dangers. It seemed a safer bet than other options, and if it worked, there would be the added benefit of my being able to consult with MacTallan face-to-face – to say nothing of our own reunion!
Needless to say, things did not go as planned. I checked and re-checked my analysis of the runes, and reviewed my … I hesitate to use the word, but in an odd way it fits … my incantation. It is a matter of reciting the runes on the circle, to be sure, but also weaving in the ones associated with the intended destination. And there are matters of intonation and emphasis, undoubtedly subtleties of pronunication that I had no way to appreciate.
And why on earth should it all matter? I constantly asked myself this. And, in a way, I began to understand, although my mind has difficulty wrapping itself around the notion. Let me try to explain:
Words have power. Pre-cataclysm, you might ask your valet to bring you a cup of tea, and in a few minutes, tea would be provided – your words had made it happen, though not directly, of course. But ur-Samekh is different. In the right circumstances, its words are not merely the communicative artifacts of language as we understand it, but forces that make their weight felt upon the world. Rachel speaks a word, and I am paralyzed. Say where you are, and where you want to go, and, somehow, you might go there.
All this dawned on me as Van Dyke, Sharma, Jacobs, and I were stepping into the circle beneath Caeradarn. As I spoke the words in ur-Samekh, some part of me could feel the push that they were exerting, an essence to them beyond sounds traveling through the air. My voice wavered, and part of me quailed, suddenly appreciating the significance of what I was attempting, and my utter inability to comprehend the fathomless power and subtlety of the forces I was drawing upon.
But that was not what set us off-course. The culprit, I fear, was my Ability. We were in the circle, a mist rising up from the floor, when it triggered. You will recall my first experiences, before I was able to exert conscious control of my ghosting – those times, I also experienced heightened perception, sensing things around me in a manner beyond sight. This had not happened to me for a long time, but it happened now. I could sense the presence of my companions, feel their heart-beats. I knew we were not in Caeradarn any more. We were … in-between. And I felt the network of nodes, an array of potential destinations, an interconnected web sprawling out, overwhelming my mind. I sought concrete realities to latch onto, but we were in a liminal state of potentiality instead, and, I am ashamed to say, it was too much for me to take. I do not believe I successfully completed the incantation. I remember wanting to be in a place, any place that was real, willing us desperately toward one before I collapsed into unconsciousness.
The good news: I succeeded in bringing us somewhere. The bad news: We have no idea where we are. We arrived at a node in a subterranean cavern, deserted and ancient, with familiar ur-Samekh markings all around. While I recovered, the others lit lanterns and explored the area, finding the place where a rockslide had blocked the original entrance, probably centuries ago. Fortunately, moisture had eroded one of the other walls, giving way to a system of caves where the prevalence of mosses and liverworts, as well as bats, hinted at a connection to the surface.
My ability to ghost would have been very helpful in navigating our way out of that place, but even after I had regained consciousness, I was in no state to attempt it. I am not concerned, however – when it comes to my Ability, I have enough experience with it all now to recognize the difference between dormancy and simple exhaustion, and I am confident that this is a the case of the latter. Sharma offered to fire a bullet through my head in order “get the juices flowing,” since something like that had worked before. I politely declined.
It took several hours of fraught spelunking to finally break out into daylight. Not because we were far from the surface, but because in those natural cave formations, the hopeful-looking openings were always the ones that lead to dead-ends, and the true exit was a narrow horizontal gap that we passed a dozen times before realizing it was there. Sharma was the only one who could squeeze through it at first, and our last hour was spent hacking away with a rock-pick in order to create enough room for Jacobs to force his way through.
We found ourselves on a mountainside, at twilight. The flower-scented spring breeze brought tears to my eyes. I am writing from our campsite; with night falling fast we decided to wait for dawn to get a proper sense of our surroundings. But already we can see the lights of a village in the valley below, so we know we are near civilization, and, judging by the terrain, we are not in Albion.
Mont-Bré, 21 April
The prospect of actually sending this to you still seems remote, but as I have ample time now, I will continue my narrative. No doubt you are curious at the location I have entered at the top of the page!
The next morning Sharma was the first to ascertain that we were in Gallia. He pointed out various aspects of the flora and fauna that he found familiar from our previous visit; I doubt any of the rest of us would have noticed, but we quickly agreed once we were made aware. Our mountain was one of a small number in what appeared to be a very modest range, certainly not the Alpines, which narrowed the possibilities.
“Les Montagnes Noires,” Van Dyke asserted after we had pooled our collective geographical knowledge and mulled it over for a while.
“But … that would put us in the same region as Mont-Bré. Not close, perhaps, but within less than a hundred miles,” I said.
“Indeed,” he replied. “Rather a fantastic coincidence, wouldn’t you say? The very area the four us traveled in before, and here we are again.”
I had done my best the previous night to explain to the others what had happened during our transit; I was frank about the fact that I had been overwhelmed by everything rushing upon my senses, and had lost control. But I do not think Van Dyke is correct; it was not a coincidence that we ended up where we did. In that moment when I was reaching out for a destination, any destination, the problem was not that I couldn’t see, but that I saw too much. It would make a certain amount of sense if my unconscious mind, connecting somehow to all the possible destinations, latched on to one that I felt an affinity to, perhaps because it was closely associated with my current companions.
At any rate, there on the mountainside, while the birds chirped around us and the sun shone brightly, we discussed our options:
- Squirming back into the caves in order to try to use the conveyance lines again.
- Returning to Albion by other means. Traveling overland to Machlou and seeking transit to Garnsey seemed like the best bet, since we had done it before.
- Choosing another destination – as long as we were already on the Continent, why not make for Essen, for example?
- Walking Away From It All. Just as was the case the last time, the sheer peace and beauty of a place unsullied by destruction was intoxicating, and I would be lying if I said we did not consider it, if only privately.
The scientist in me wanted to test some hypotheses about how I might approach the transit differently, and leaned toward #1. But the others were (understandably) not eager to re-descend into the darkness toward an uncertain end. #3 and #4 both suffered for the same reason that we were hesitant to saunter into the village for a hearty breakfast – we were strangers in a foreign land, and all indications from our previous visit were that the Continent held Albion under a very strict quarantine. Until we knew more, any contact with others would be risky. #2, if we could manage it, would allow us to check up on Elizabeth College, and on Robards. As you know, Alia and Alona have made occasional runs to the island on their routes, but the last one was several weeks ago, and no real news had come from there in even longer than that.
And then it occurred to me – if we were going to head toward Machlou, why not stop by Mont-Bré again? I know much more now than the last time we were there. Another look around, to take some more notes, see if there’s anything I missed, certainly couldn’t hurt. The others agreed, and Van Dyke offered to enter the nearby village to get the lay of the land and, hopefully secure some supplies.
His fluency in Gallian had proved helpful the last time, of course, but in recent months I have had little occasion to see his covert skills in play, and had forgotten just how formidable they were. Van Dyke strolled into town, posing as a frazzled government aide-de-camp from Les Rives who had been given the difficult task of entertaining a visiting Pandjaran raja with a penchant for wilderness exploration. As such he needed a guide to take us north across the mountains, perhaps someone familiar with the terrain who would not mind the company of an eccentric foreign noble and his security detail?
“Sometimes the bigger lie is just easier,” he explained to me afterwards. The rest of us came to town, chiefly so that the villagers could gawk at us, and, primed by Van Dyke’s fanciful tale, they saw what they wanted to see. The biggest flaw in the ruse was the notion that I, of all people, would ever be able find work on a security detail. But this was overlooked. And Sharma, normally so quiet, proved surprisingly adept at playing the raja, barking orders at us in his native tongue with an outrageously exaggerated accent.
The locals “ate it up,” as they say on the stage, agreeing to help and even sharing some provisions with us for the hike. Our lack of funds was something of a sticking point: Van Dyke assured them that payment would be forthcoming from the capital after the appropriate paperwork had been submitted. I suspect this was enough to dissuade many from helping, but the innkeeper’s son – a scrawny boy of 14, eager for adventure – insisted upon serving as our guide, and we accepted.
We were glad to have him, as his knowledge of the mountain passes turned what would have probably been a five-day journey otherwise to one of only three. Young Denis was full of questions about the distant land of Pandjara. Sharma was happy to provide answers, which Van Dyke was obligated to translate into Gallian and relay to the boy; our esteemed raja made his answers incredibly verbose and full of obscure vocabulary, engendering many a harsh glare from Van Dyke and chuckles from the rest of us. At least it passed the time.
Denis had stories of his own to tell, little bits of history and folklore associated with the various landmarks we passed. By far the most interesting was when he casually asserted that there was an entrance to Hell somewhere in the very mountains we were crossing, but that we were nonetheless safe from demons, since this area was under the protection of Herveus. He had several tales to tell about this local saint, a blind man, guided by his pet wolf, who apparently knew how to handle recalcitrant imps. Jacobs still claims he saw a wolf at our fight with Brown near the obelisk, so he paid particular attention to all of it, and took an extra watch every night – whether out of fear of demons or a desire to see the wolf again, I cannot say.
We reached Mont-Bré mid-morning on the 14th of April; Denis showed us a path up the hillside nearest us so we wouldn’t have to go all the way around to the main road. This meant we crested the hill near the site of the obelisk, and as we emerged from the trees into the clearing we could see things were much changed since our last visit. The entire area around the stump of the obelisk had been gridded off with stakes and rope; two canopies nearby sheltered tables, chairs, and cabinets. In other words it was an archaeological dig site, and a proper one now, not the rush job I had performed the last time.
Van Dyke looked at me tensely. “Could it be Brown?” he said. Even the thought of it put us all on edge, and we edged forward cautiously, weapons drawn. At one of the canopies, I glanced briefly at a couple of notebooks.
“They are in Gallian,” I said. We all breathed a sigh of relief. Together, we took the path to the chapel at the top of the hill. As we approached it was clear that now, as before with Brown, it was being used as a base of operations. No one was in sight, but then:
“Arrêtez!” The shout came from a lookout on the roof of the chapel, partially hidden, his eye to the sight of his rifle. I wondered whether we should break for cover, but when I saw Sharma lower Kali to the ground and raise his arms over his head, I had little doubt that the guard had us dead to rights. Soon after, four more uniformed gentlemen with rifles emerged from the chapel. Not mercenaries, this time, but Gallian soldiers. The sole officer in the group approached.
My Gallian was not quite up to the task of understanding everything that was said on the fly, so I write having had it all clarified for me afterwards. Denis, unfortunately, was the first to speak. Rather indignantly, he informed the soldiers that they were in the presence of the Maharaja Bahadur Sharma of Pandjara on an official diplomatic visit and they really ought to show some proper respect. This man here (he indicated Van Dyke) is a very important government official from Les Rives and they will be sorry they pointed their guns at him.
The officer was plainly suspicious, as we looked at that moment about as far from an official diplomatic delegation as one could possibly imagine. I detected a hint of bemusement on his face as he turned to Van Dyke and said, “Alors, monsieur … votre papiers, s’il vous plaît?”
To our stalwart spy’s credit, even though I knew that at that moment his mind was racing to come up with a story that would extricate us from our dilemna, his outward demeanor betrayed nothing at all. Jacobs, on the other hand … he did not say “Fuk this, I can get to this Gally ass before he can shoot an have my knife at his throat.” But the intent was so clear in the expression on his face that I feared he was about to instigate a bloodbath.
Just as Van Dyke was about to speak, he was interrupted by the voice of another man emerging from the chapel. Not a one of us expected the words that came out of his mouth.
“Dr. Crane? Is that you?”
“Monsieur LaGrande?!” I replied, incredulously.
“Doctor LaGrand now, I have the fortune to say,” he replied. “How amazing it is that you are here! I assumed you were dead, along with so many of your countrymen. How is that you have returned to Mont-Bré?”
I do not know whether you will rember Julian LaGrande from our previous encounter. This would have been during our first expedition to the dolmens here, before all the troubles, what seems like a lifetime ago. Then, he was a young student of archaeology, the son of some local official or other. We brought him along with us to observe, as a favor to said official – “greasing the wheels of bureaucracy” was the term I believe you employed at the time. (You were always better at that sort of thing.) But I was the one who interacted with him at the site; while the many questions he peppered me with were distracting at the time, they were the questions of a sharp mind, and I had no doubt he would prosper in his studies. The intervening years had not dulled his boyish good looks.
For an instant I was alarmed by his question – had he somehow discovered that were at the Obelisk? But I realized, of course, that he was referring to our first visit to Mont-Bré, when we met.
“A long story,” I finally replied. “Perhaps we could catch up under less, ah, tense circumstances?”
“Of course, old friend. I must apologize.”
I was not quite so easy as that. The officer (one Sgt. Lascelles, we learned) remained highly suspicious – a credit to his instincts! We were allowed to gather in the chapel for refreshment and to exchange our stories, but only after we had been searched and our weapons locked away in the basement.
I would have loved for Van Dyke to be able to be the one to do the talking, but he had no knowledge of LaGrande or our relationship, so it fell to me. It occurred to me that the very fact that he was here meant that the Gallians, or some faction thereof, were keen on investigating this site, with a high level of security to boot. Therefore they were on the trail … of Brown perhaps, or attempting to understand Albion’s fate. So I opted for some degree of candor. I told him that we were indeed present at Albion’s fall, and had struggled to survive since. I said we had escaped the mainland and made it as far as Garnsey. From there I desired to reach Mont-Bré to see if any clues might be uncovered there, but given the Quarantine, we had opted for a covert approach.
All of this had the advantage of being precisely true! I just happened to elide the fact that it pertained to our previous visit, and made no mention of Brown, or the conveyance lines.
Lascelles interrupted at this point in Gallian. He had been prudent enought to take Denis aside for a separate interview, and wanted very much to know why, if we were coming from Garnsey, we had met and employed a guide from the village of Roudouallecc, across the Black Mountains in the opposite direction. Before anyone could translate, Van Dyke explained that we had sailed around the coast, hoping that approaching from the south might better our chances of avoiding the authorities.
The good news is that they believed our story. The bad news is that Lascelles’ took la Quarantaine very seriously and saw it as his duty to convey us his superiors. In deference to LaGrande, however, he let us continue to discuss matters first, as there was little worry of us escaping: where would we go?
As eager as they were to hear about what had happened to Albion, I was doubly eager to learn at long last about goings-on in the rest of the world. It seems that while La Quarantaine is still the strict policy followed by Gallia and the rest of the Continent, there has been much discussion of the Albion Problem, and plans to send forces across the Channel, with concerns both humanitarian and security-related in equal parts. For his part, LaGrande held a position at the Sorbonne in Les Rives, and had been asked by the newly-formed Commission d’Enquête de l’Albion to fully excavate the Mont-Bré site. He had arrived to discover that the dolmens had suffered some sort of explosion, as well as evidence that another group had been here much more recently, within the past year.
I had to feign surprise, of course, when he revealed rather dramatically that the more recent intruders were New Columbians. But I have no idea how he knew this – when we left the last time, I took with me any number of rock samples, copious notes, and every last thing scrap of paper or other evidence that we would carry about Brown’s expedition. I did not think we had left anything behind that would have given that away.
I have reached the end of dramatic developments. As of this writing we have been here at Mont-Bré for over a week. This came about after some rather heated debates between Lascelles and LaGrande: the former wanted to take us to Les Rives right away, while the latter insisted that he needed my help with his research, and as long as we were cooperative, what was the harm? Lascelles begrudgingly relented. As for the site, there is little to say: I made away with everything interesting the last time I was here, and, contrary to my hopes, nothing else seems to have happened in the meantime. Nevertheless, I continue to work, and meantimes the others remain compliant but vigilant.
Gallian coastline, 30 April
I am writing this in the presence of Alona, who I believe I embarassed considerably by referring to her as my “bright, shining star,” and embracing. I apologized afterward, but seeing the silhouette of her flyer on the horizon was an incredible relief, as I’m sure you can imagine. She has no way to convey us from Gallia, of course, but at last I am in receipt of your last letter, and I have the opportunity to send along mine. But it is a risk for Alona to stay here overlong, so I must write in haste.
First, how did this come to be? Cast your mind back for a moment to my letters from Mont-Bré last year. I mentioned that among the documents I recovered was evidence that Brown was expecting the delivery of an aero beacon, one part of the reason I suspected he might have some Society connection. It appears that said beacon, along with some other supplies, was indeed in transit at the time, but whatever smuggler they employed to deliver it must have arrived to find Mont-Bré deserted, and had hidden the large wooden crate containing it all under piles of brush halfway down the west hill-face. Though I have had occasion this past week to be rather annoyed with LaGrande’s fastidious methods, it is only because he had the soldiers carefully scout out the entire hill that the crate was found. That was how he knew that it was New Columbians who had been here.
I did not learn this until last Thursday, after many days of cultivating LaGrande’s trust. I hate that word, “cultivating” … it makes it sound so manipulative. In point of fact he is a good man and I have valued his company. But looming over it all was Lascelles’ plan to take us to Les Rives, which of course we could not abide. At any rate, LaGrande showed me the crate and its contents one night, hoping I might have some insight. And I had plenty, but I kept them to myself. The very next day I took pains to draw Van Dyke aside so we could speak in private.
“They have an aero beacon,” I whispered. “The one meant for Brown.”
“That is … hopeful,” he said cautiously. “But we are far too far from Albion for Alia or Alona to even detect a signal, let alone fly here.”
“Could they detect one from Garnsey?”
He shook his head. “Too far inland. We would have to set it up on the coast, north of here.”
“It is worth the attempt. Lascelles is already running out of patience.”
“Time to go?”
I nodded. “Tomorrow night. Try to get them all drinking at dinner.”
I was at pains the next day not to act suspicious. LaGrande’s official survey of the site was almost complete … I suspect he was even dragging his feet somewhat, knowing full well that our fate afterward would be uncertain at best. He was smart enough to be puzzled over some of his discoveries – for example, the stump of the shattered Obelisk, which had not been there on his last visit with us. But he looked to me for corroborration, and it was all too easy for me to feign ignorance or indifference, and thus allay his concerns.
That night, Van Dyke deftly poked at the ego of one of the soldiers concerning his ability to hold his liquor, and before long one of the other soldiers was proposing a drinking game. I like having Jacobs on my side because of his penchant for committing brutally efficient violence in a pinch, but in this case, it was his ability to drink any and everyone under the table that proved most useful. At the conclusion of festivities, only half the soldiers had even managed to stumble back to their cots. The rest were passed out at the table or on the floor.
The crate, and our weapons, were kept in the basement, behind an old door that the soldiers had secured with a formidable padlock. Ghosting through it and ferrying all our things out again would have taken too long. Smashing through was out of the question, of course. So I held the padlock in my hand, then ghosted, walking through the door with it firmly in my grasp, hoping it would come along for the ride. And it did.
On our way out, I saw LaGrande, passed out in the corner, snoring loudly. I fear he will get into trouble for our escape; I only hope I can make it up to him someday.
Our departure was not entirely undetected … as we slunk down the road that wound down the hill, Denis emerged from hiding and confronted us. Satisfied that he knew nothing else helpful, Lascelles had sent him home some two days earlier, but he had circled back and had been lurking around ever since. Taking his responsibility as a guide very seriously, he was not willing to abandon us.
“Denis,” Van Dyke said to him in Gallian, “We must be straight with you. Sharma is not a raja. I am not Gallian. These men are from Albion.”
“I know. The sergeant told me.”
“I am sorry we lied to you.”
“It’s all right. The truth is much more interesting.”
“Thank you for understanding. Will you go home now?”
“No no. I’m coming with you. You must escape la Quarantaine. And tell me more stories.”
Under the circumstances we could hardly deny him. Along he came.
There followed several days of high tension that are nevertheless tedious to relate. We took every precaution to hide our tracks, and stayed well clear of every town, and even of the roads whenever we could manage it. We frequently hid, and wasted long hours in an overabundance of caution, waiting for the right moment to steal alongside a field or cross an exposed stream. Finally we reached a stretch of rocky coastline out of sight of any village, and set up the beacon.
And we waited. For of course our only hope was to wait for one of the flyers to make a run to Garnsey, and hopefully, while there, detect another signal to the south and come to it out of a sense of curiosity. Who knew how long that would be?
Fortunately for us, as you no doubt know by now, the flyers were already looking for us, and Alona made a point of going to Garnsey when she might not have otherwise. We were waiting at the coast for only four days. I am far more familiar with skat, a Saxonian card game that Van Dyke adores, than I would prefer to be as a result. I am not proud to say that at one point I stole into the nearest village and, with the aid of my Ability, helped myself to food and water from the larder of the local inn. But eventually we saw the beautiful sight of an incoming aero, and are now reunited.
Alona brought important news. She stopped at the College, but Sanders was there to warn her off and send her on her way as soon as she had refueled. The Gallians are moving: they have already occupied Garnsey, and several ships of their fleet, as well as others from elsewhere on the Continent, are poised to cross the Channel. She detected our signal and came, but this means she will need to refuel again at Garnsey before she can make it back to you. She will have to do so under cover of night so as to remain undetected; so long as the Gallians do not take particular interest in the College it should be all right. But there is no telling whether, after reaching you again, she will be able to get back to me. We will certainly not remain here. All this is to say that I still do not know how or when I will be able to contact you again. But write nonetheless, and trust to our flyers to find a way!
I have scant minutes left, but let me briefly address some points in your letter. I appreciate your survey of all the assorted conspirators aswirl in this N.C./Society nonsense, and of trying to make sense of it all. I think now of the two of us at the outset of that fateful expedition, and we seem in retrospect to have been hopelessly naïve – completely unaware of the secretive agendas that were at play, and, even then, beginning to fracture.
Turning to Thorpe, and the notion of Bennington trying to restore him. It put a question in my mind: were I with you now, would I want to be restored? Of course I have the advantage of not looking like a giant lizard. But even so, the fact of the matter is that I would not want to lose this Ability, even if I could. It has saved my life on more than one occasion. And I feel am only at the beginning to appreciating its potential. It is his decision, as you say, but as you advise him, weigh whatever his new potential might be against, the advantages of seeing him restored. I am not convinced that the right answer to the question is so clear.
I would warn you about the possibility of a Gallian invasion, but to be honest, I am more worried for the Gallians themselves. True, it seems that the vortex storms are not as prevalent as they were. But I think of the vision I had beneath the waves – of a presence deep in the water that even now I hesitate to recall – and I am not certain that their fleet can look forward to a successful crossing. We will see.