To say that I felt relief when your bundled letter was handed to me would do little to convey the emotion that filled my heart. It was both a shock and a deliverance, all at once, from the worry and concern that worked its way through our bones. Inwardly, we became a shabby and changeling few, with a flagging spirit that haunted our breaths in greater measure each passing day—indeed, we were affected by the delay in correspondence to a degree that none of us had anticipated. As Bennington aptly pointed out some days ago over our weekly meal and meeting, it was the spectre of the unknown that had gripped us. Had you had written to report sudden disaster, bitter defeat, or a gnawing frustration, we might have taken some tiny solace in the simple fact that you were still alive and, despite whatever bad straits in which you found yourself, unhurt.
MacTallan has had the most to say of late regarding what you reported regarding your experience with the conveyance lines. I think you may find that the greater part of his reflections match some of the sensations that you must have had upon entering what he calls the “aetherial state.” What you describe, for example, as the “heightened perception” of your companions stemming from the activation of your Ability, is in fact also a facet of the phantom world into which one sidesteps along these mystical pathways. One thing MacTallan asked me to include in this letter is this: if your Ability were activated along the conveyance line, its effects, taken in combination with the already disorienting and disembodied nature of travel by these otherworldly mechanisms, might have well accounted for a loss of control, especially to someone using the lines for a first time.
“Intentionality,” he repeated to me, as I stared blankly for a moment at his waxed moustache.
I must have seemed as I did once to Mlle Tourno and Master Urquart: a dull student, his mind in the clouds, fixed on some far-off luxury instead of the lesson at hand. “Eh?” was all I could manage, training my eyes again on him.
“Ben, that was the difference. I wanted to get us back to somewhere I knew was home. We were escaping and I had—well it was all a dreadful panic, I suppose. Here was your inert body, then there was Bennington turning those creatures back into their former selves—it was unlike anything I had ever seen before.”
“Yet—I saw you through Bennington’s eyes. You read those runes like an expert.”
A sudden hardness overtook his face and his eyes shone. His jaw shifted, and I could see that a desperate emotion had taken him for a second. “I had the knife—I had it at him.”
Now finally comprehending, I took a deep breath and set my hand gently upon the table. “You would never have used it, Professor.”
He gave a small, almost defeated nod: and I prepared myself for information that, secretly, I forgave MacTallan for not providing before now. The motives that drove this man forward, I began to see, were something more than simply academic. I recalled our little conversation on the hills overlooking the Cairns that evening in early October.
“I wanted to be home. More than anything. That’s essentially the only difference. The runes are basically the same anywhere, I’d wager.”
I narrowed my eyes at him, studying him, now putting logical points in my mind into a new configuration. “You never found your wife and child,” I ventured, with all the gentleness I could muster.
He collapsed into a nearby easy chair and shook his head, casting his eyes downwards. I paused, looking out the window of the second-floor study in the mansion that used to be Bledsoe’s.
“And Penelope?” I asked. “She wasn’t among the dead at The Waterford School, was she?”
At this I could not push for more, as shimmering tears fell from the man’s eyes, onto his beard and lap. I got up from my chair and draped my arm around him, holding him as he trembled and shook.
When he had composed himself somewhat, Bennington arrived at the door. I needed say nothing: she, standing there, had surveyed us for several seconds, not knowing whether to return another time or join us as a further comfort. I am glad to say that the compassionate nature of our doctor is joined in equal measure with her professionalism, as she strode over and took the young man’s hand in hers.
As he unfolded his tale to the both of us, it became apparent that MacTallan’s hunger to study the scorched lines, the environs of the Cairns, and other features of the land was done in a potentially dangerous but unfortunately vain attempt to uncover more clues as to the whereabouts of his family in as much as it was an academic curiosity. Driven by his vexing loss and the mysterious disappearances of whole villages and towns in Thornskye’s vicinity and parts to the north, MacTallan became convinced that his family had been taken, and not killed. Given that the deans of his own university had known that their campus was the site of some kind of ancient power, he formed the theory that this site was somehow responsible for their disappearance. Being a student of VonNeumann, he had already been led down the corridor—so to speak—of a belief in a people, or a race, whose very language had a mysticism, a form of communication that shaped and defined reality even as it described it, a specialized speech far removed from the quotidian and charged with something from the very stars.
“I think my family are on Skald,” he said, drawing careful breaths as I brought him tea.
Bennington shifted in her chair. “Tell us why you think that, Professor.”
“I—I don’t quite have proof. I sort of, well—I feel it.”
“Then our efforts here are not in vain. In a month’s time, my good man, look what we have built. Camp Greysham is very nearly ready.”
“But what if our travel from the Cairns turns out like Crane’s? What if we lose our way?”
Bennington knelt beside the man. “We will find your family and bring many more families home, as well. When you read the runes you uncovered at the Cairns, let your desire to see them again guide you.”
He nodded, accepting what we had to say at least as a temporary balm. Bennington called for Thorpe and Tollard to join us at the familiar table in Bledsoe’s former dining-room, which had been converted into a work-space for planning and conversation among us, it main feature bestrewn now with various pencil-drawn construction plans and documents of inventories. We are now collectively known as the Town Council, having hastily adopted a set of by-laws that are modeled on public works committees—a kind of consensus-driven governing body that thriving towns before the Incident would have convened. Our first act three weeks ago as a governing body was to appoint faithful Parsons as the Town Supervisor; our second act was to organize a group of able-bodied young men and women as the Town Watch, under direct command of Parsons, whose first official report to us as Supervisor was delivered a week ago.
Given this, and knowing that this letter will reach you—finding you either at a Gallian-occupied Garnsey or the northern coast of Gallia proper—I feel I can provide you with some more detail regarding our preparations for our crossing attempt, which will take place sometime within the week. Thanks to your letter, we now know the Gallians may be moving north along the coast; while we are caught somewhere between a nebulous uncertainty and a hope of some aid, our overriding motivation is to make the crossing before any interference occurs, for good or for ill. If the Gallians come and assume control of the town, the five of us have decided to move on using the conveyance line, leaving Parsons and Hollins here. For their part, they have already decided to submit themselves to their command should they assert it—they have seen a belly full already of death and destruction and welcome an organizing force, even if a foreign one. Few have forgotten that the Albionese and the Gallians were enemies at the outset of the Blood War, only to become allies during the twilight months of that horrible conflict. They hope, then, that the same spirit of reconciliation that swept the two nations following the death of Marshal Vanaise holds true now.
Enough of national politics; few of us here have time to become overly concerned with that now. Besides news of the government of the town itself, the completion of three hundred and ten habitable apartments between the various empty buildings of the northern section of the town, and the fact that the Jagdschloss had been towed safely back into the Greysham harbor some days ago, I can share with you that earlier this past month, a week-long search was conducted by MacTallan, Hollins, and his assistants, aided further by Thorpe. Unfortunately, their mission to canvas some twenty square miles of the land surrounding the town has turned up no evidence of the bodies of the original men under Thorpe’s command, even with the maps that MacTallan and I created some months ago to assist in the progress. This had cast Thorpe in a dark mood for quite some time, understandably, and some days ago he agreed to hold a brief memorial service for the dead men, speaking remembrances of their bravery on our long road. Following this, the Council received news of a group of strong youths from the town—aged sixteen through twenty-two—who volunteered to act as our new armed escort, knowing we might well need one soon for the crossing. This act of selfless bravery by this untrained but stalwart team of men and women, I think, lifted Thorpe’s spirits considerably. As I write this, I can hear out of an open window the rifles firing in a drill out on the proving yards next to the mansion.
Speaking quickly of Thorpe—and while I still have a few minutes as Alona finishes up a meal before take-off—I ought to speak to your points that you made very poignantly in the letter that at last arrived here some three days ago. Thorpe had delayed his response to Bennington’s offer to administer the bright blood and thus hopefully reverse his transformation, citing a rationale that his changed body would aid in the search efforts for his men. Indeed it had, to a degree, as Thorpe’s considerable celerity as a reptilian humanoid allowed him to cover considerable ground in advance of MacTallan’s survey group and cut trails through the woods and up the cliffs. When the group had returned, Bennington again entreated Thorpe that he consider returning to human form—but Thorpe finally declined her offer. In fact I had shared with him your exact words: that your Ability had saved your life. As he explained it to Bennington and I, this was also true for him; he feels, also, that with his Abilities, he may yet save the lives of others in the future. With the impending crossing to Skald in our minds, we could only nod our heads in assent.
Again, I must mention that the fact that I can hand Alona this letter now and it will make its way back to you is a thought that fills me with elation. I am doubly grateful for this, as I am sure that the next of my letters will have news of our rescue attempt, and consequently whether or not we have been successful in using the conveyance line once again. Until then, may this letter find you in somewhat safer and more comfortable conditions.
Our most warm thoughts to you and your companions,