The Isle of Skald, 20 June

My Dear Rackham,

There is too much to say, and not enough time. You wrote to me not expecting that your letter would be found, but I have found it. You expected to be dead; I know in my heart that you live. But you are not here, and I dare not linger, so I will write as fast as I can.

Know this: your grief is my grief, and my heart goes out to you for all you have lost and what you have endured. You were not able to include many details of your last three weeks of hell, but they are not necessary, because I saw them too. Some of the time, I was even at your side.

To explain that, I should go back to the conveyance chamber in the Black Mountains, a story whose last chapter you heard about not from me but from LaGrande. I could write an entire letter detailing that fight and my speculations about just what those creatures were, but it will have to wait. Suffice it to say, when the attack came, I saw the conveyance line as our best means of escape. I was able to get LaGrande out (with my previous letter), and my stalwart companions fought bravely to hold the enemy off for long enough to save some of the others, as well.

As we entered the In-Between, my experience could not have been more different than the first time. Why? This time, I knew what to expect. Adrenaline, rather than trepidation, coursed through my veins. But also: I had just used my Ability to aid LaGrande, and I honestly cannot remember to what extent, at the moment when we left, I was ghosted. At any rate, I had the same perception of an interconnected web of destinations laid out before me, but this time without the fear. I set us on a course, as it were, for Caeradarn.

I have no idea how long the trasition took, but it was long enough for me to look out with my mind’s eye and perceive some of the other destinations. Having studied the map that MacTallan sent I even found myself able to get my bearings. I felt in control: like I was not even bound by the destination that I had recited in my incantation. I could go anywhere.

That is when I made an impetuous decision, in a moment when I felt giddy with power. It was almost certainly ill-advised, and if you will agree that in the end it turned out for the best, it did so only by the narrowest of margins, because I have been able to accomplish so very little … but I digress. I knew I could go anywhere, but I also knew that my companions had injuries and that I had no right to decide for them. And so first we continued to Caeradarn.

“Step forward,” I said to them, there in the mists of the In-Between.

“Oughn’t you go first?” said Van Dyke, between grunts of pain from a broken rib.

“Not this time,” I replied.

“What the hell does that … Crane? Where are you? I can’t even see you.”

“I’m right here! Please, my friend, step forward.”

Van Dyke hesitated. Sharma did not: he gave a glance to Jacobs, who unceremoniously slung Van Dyke over his shoulder and the three of them moved out of the mist, into the conveyance chamber at Caeradarn. As if through a haze, I could even see the guard stationed there, one of Campbell’s men, mouth agape as they suddenly appeared before him.

But I did not go through. I drifted back to the heart of the In-Between and focused my attention somewhere else:

Skald.

I knew from your letter on the 4th of May that your group hoped to use the conveyance lines to return there. You had alluded to needing some weeks to prepare. I thought I might find you there, or, if you had not yet arrived, that perhaps I might use my newfound affinity with the conveyance lines to help you arrive safely. And it all worked perfectly: I emerged from the mists into the conveyance chamber on Skald, a place that I only knew from your letters. I was alone for a few moments, looking around in wonder, but also somewhat puzzled because something seemed different about my vision. I sensed the presence of things more clearly, but their fine details were blurrier, if that makes any sense. The darkness did not seem to prevent me from seeing.

Then two were-rats entered the chamber. I did not have time to hide, so I stood my ground, trusting my Ability to help me contend with them if need be. But they did not respond to my presence at all. They walked right through me and carried on their way as if I did not even exist.

That was my first indication of the reality that I had long, bitter weeks to appreciate and explore. I thought myself very clever some months ago when, in our correspondence, I started using the term “ghosting” to describe what I can do. A fitting punishment, then, that I should now find myself as a ghost. I do not mean to say that I was dead, of course, but that my state of disembodiment was now so extreme that I was invisible and barely able to interact with the physical world at all, save for whatever instinctive sense of buoyancy kept me from sinking into the ground unless I willed it. And, worst of all, I could not turn it off. Try as I might – and trying to do so was my sole occupation for many days – I remained a ghost. And as for the conveyance chamber – for of course I tried that too – without the ability to speak audibly, I could not activate it.

When I wasn’t struggling to become solid again, I spent my time wafting around the island. Had I known what was coming I would have watched the were-rats much more closely, taken note of their numbers, locations, and activities. I would have tried to find some way to warn Fynewever and the other survivors what was coming. I would have familiarized myself with every inch of the island so that I could go where I wanted in an instant instead of meandering around like a lost shade.

I expected you via the chamber. So it was not until the day after your arrival – this would have been the 22nd or 23rd, I believe – that, when wandering outside, I sensed the presence of your group and found you camped near the cove where you had hidden the Jagdschloss. Ah, Rackham, how I tried! I shouted, I waved my arms. I wiggled my fingers inside your head. I tried to move small objects to call attention to myself, but if, once in a while, I barely succeeded, no one noticed. I hovered over your shoulder as you reread my last letter, and the one from LaGrande, and started to pen an urgent message to Sanders in your log-book.

Despite my frustration at being unseen and unheard, in an odd way, it was great comfort to see you again, to regard Tollard and MacTallan for the first time in the flesh, to see Bennington, and of course to see Thorpe – despite your excellent descriptions, I was still shocked at the extent of his transformation. I hovered about as you all discussed your plans, and envied you as you ate (in my ghostly state I had need of neither sustenance nor sleep).

And, once again, I was in the wrong place. For by the time I sensed that things were happening near the conveyance chamber, the Browns had already come through.

Rackham, I … I tried. Tried to stop them, tried to warn you, but it was all for naught. I will do my best to set aside emotion and relate those details that may yet help you.

I believe only half a dozen came through the portal. Four ur-Browns (the shambling half-men that he assimilates from corpses), one proper Brown-clone, and the man himself. The last two were indistinguishable from each other, at least outwardly. But with my ghostly vision, the difference could not have been more apparent. The Brown-clone seemed to have the stump of another person inside it, whereas the real Dr. Brown was suffused with power. Based on that and on what I saw afterwards, I feel certain that only the real Brown is able to assimilate others. Small comfort.

Because I was not there when they arrived, I did not see by what means they took command of the were-rats. Had they been expected? By what means did they assert control so quickly? I do not know. But in very short order the Browns had organized them into war parties in order to scour and secure the island. They found Fynewever’s group on the beach, and they found you …

Forgive me. I am finding it difficult revisit it all. So much death and pain, and me helpless through it all. But you know well how your companions were captured or killed, and what you suffered, and so I will not dwell on those details. Instead I will limit my narrative to three things you do not already know.

First: After your group had all been subdued – imprisoned, or killed – I was spying on the Browns as they pored over your log-book. There were more of them now, thanks to some assimilations. Because of the bond they share they never seemed to need to speak to each other, which made it difficult to understand what they were up to. But I saw one of them writing a second part to the letter you had started, meticulously copying your own handwriting. He was doing a rather mediocre job, and it would not have fooled me, but it was, as it turned out, enough to convince Sanders that the two parts had come from the same hand. In the second part, Sanders was urged to put his trust in Dr. Brown lend him aid should they ever come into contact. Although the letter you had started to Sanders was of course going to suggest the opposite, there was enough ambiguity in what you had already written that Brown was able to twist your intent in his forged conclusion.

A week later Brown received Sanders’ reply, which I read over his shoulder. More recently I have been able to lay my hands on it, and as it addressed to you, I include it with this letter for your perusal. I think you will agree it paints Sanders in a different light than my own descriptions, and we can be reassured as to his character and resilience. Brown was furious upon reading it – he had not realized, I think, the extent to which Sanders had long since distrusted and detested him.

You will note I make no mention of how your letter, or its reply, were delivered. That is because it remains a mystery to me. Certainly I have been keeping constant watch for the arrival of Alia or Alona, concerned for their safety, but I have seen no sign of either. While I did my best to spy on Brown, there was more than one of him, after all, and I could not be everywhere at once. Perhaps it is as simple as that he used the conveyance lines. Or perhaps something else – I simply do not know.

Second: MacTallan. As you know he was imprisoned, like you, but after about a week he was killed. I was there, Rackham, and I heard the conversation he and Brown had before the end. I will do my best to relate it in as exact detail as I can recall.

Brown – the real Brown – walked, nay, sauntered into the makeshift cell, hewn into the corner of a cave, where MacTallan was being kept.

“Hugh,” he said. “It has been far, far too long. Gosh … I’m sorry we finally get to see each other again and it has to be like this. How are you feeling? Are the rats giving you enough food?”

“Go to hell,” muttered MacTallan, his voice muddled by his swollen jaw and broken teeth.

Brown tsked. “It doesn’t have to be like that, old friend. We are on the same side, are we not? That of the enlightened. Hell, you were the astronomy savant back at Die Universit├Ąt. You knew what was coming.”

“If I had known what was coming, why do you think I stayed? My wife? My child? I would have left, I would have warned–”

“Oh no no no, Hugh, you knew, you just didn’t believe. Faced with the possibility, you stuck your head in the sand. Me, I prepared. Don’t hate me for that.”

“And coming here, slaughtering my friends? Can I hate you for that? I believe I shall.”

“Yeah, look, I’m sorry about that. It would go much easier on the rest of them if somebody just tells me where the Rexley Device is.”

“I have no idea. I doubt they do either.”

Brown shrugged. “I’m not too worried. We’ll find it eventually. It’s not that big an island.” He got down on one knee now, his face close to MacTallan’s. “I mean, that’s important and all, but I’m also here for you. All that’s happened to Albion … it’s an opportunity, see? The fires of destruction and change are a crucible wherein those men with power and the will to use it can become gods. But most of the time I’m surrounded my idiots, even if they are idiots of my own making. I need men of like mind to forge ahead with me. Brilliant men.”

“Never.”

Brown stood. “But you don’t know what I’m offering! You’ve seen my power. I’ll admit, it’s not what I would have picked, but at least it’s something I did for myself. Didn’t stumble into it through blind chance, like some. Help me find Rachel and you, too, can be elevated above common men!”

“You’re a fool if you think you this sways me in the least.”

“I know, I know. Had to try, though. It’s a damn shame.”

“Get it over with. Just assimilate me.”

“Oh ho ho! Still thinking, I see. Good one, Hugh. I think you know that you are strong-willed enough to be a very difficult host, indeed. And maybe you know that I’ve already failed to take in Rackham, for some damn reason, and that after taking in some of those pour souls you recruited in Greysham I’m already stretched too thin.”

MacTallan’s head sagged.

“Ah yes. You get it, don’t you? You saw all that. But you also see that I would never admit any of it to you unless I had no intention of letting you live. And you what, Hugh? You’re exactly right.”

He used a knife. I screamed. I strained. Whatever it accomplished – a thickening of the air, loose stones dislodged from the walls of the cave – Brown was too intent on his bloody business to even notice.

Third – finally, a piece of good news. Even though you were imprisoned separately you probably know that Thorpe proved a very difficult prisoner. He possesses unusual speed and strength, and he was in no mood to cooperate. Brown was loathe to put a bullet in him, however, because of his curiosity about Thorpe’s transformation. He wanted an umblemished body to examine at his leisure, and so, after two near-escapes and the death of several were-rat guards, he secretly poisoned Thorpe’s food, and the poor man slumped lifeless on the floor of his cell.

From there he was moved elsewhere in the were-rat camp. But when I returned a day later to see if they had cut him open, I sensed something within him, something I would never have been able to detect if not in my ghostly form: a heartbeat. So slow, so faint, yet unmistakable. He was not dead. My first thought was that he must be comatose, but his outward appearance clearly suggested death: his scales, usually tinted green and splashed with surprising color, were a dull gray.

Then it occurred to me: there are species of lizards that possess the ability to feign death in order to deceive predators.

The next day, a Brown-clone arrived with a bag of medical tools, and the two ur-Browns with him hefted Thorpe’s body onto a large table.

“All righty,” said the Brown as he sharpened the blade of a scalpel. “Let’s see what we have in here!”

For a second I thought I had been wrong, for the body on the table did not move. But as the Brown leaned in close, Thorpe’s eye shot open, and with blinding speed his sinewed, scaly arm shot out, squeezed around the Brown’s neck, and twisted it with a sickening crack. The ur-Browns moved in but Thorpe was already standing. I had not realized until then that he also has fangs – I assume that they are retracted most of the time. At any rate, it was all over very quickly, and Thorpe was on his way out of the camp, moving close to the ground, faster than a man could run, yet making almost no sound.

When the bodies were found this put the rest of the Browns on edge, to say the least, and all attention was focused on tracking down Thorpe. If I am not mistaken, this is the moment that you yourself were able to effect your own escape, owing in part to the distraction, though you had no way of knowing the cause. But it is also why I was not there to witness your escape, and thus lost track of you – I was following Thorpe.

He put a great deal of distance between himself and the camp before he stopped. He darted up a tree and came back down having caught a possum-like creature for his dinner. It was the dead of night, and other than the distant sounds of the camp and his own chewing, all was silent.

“Who’s there?” he said suddenly.

He was looking in my direction. I shouted, but then thought better of it and focused my energy on stamping my foot on the ground, trying to create some disturbance, some reverberation.

“Show yourself,” he snarled, crouching low, clearly trying to sense me, but not by using his eyes. His lizardlike ears, as I later learned, perceived slightly different frequencies than humans, just enough to pick some of my ghostly movements out of the silence. Not waiting for an answer, he pounced, but found only air.

“What is going on?” he muttered, perhaps to himself. I stomped again, as loudly as I could. This time he clearly detected it, though of course he was still puzzled.

“Three pulses if you understand me,” he said.

Stomp. Stomp. Stomp.

Still wary, he skittered around the clearing, looking around to make sure no one else was near, then returned. “Very well. One pulse for yes, two for no. Are you a friend?”

Stomp.

“Is this Rackham? Are you in my mind?”

Stomp. Stomp.

“Are you someone I know?”

Stomp.

“I don’t suppose you are familiar with Samuel Morse’s telegraphic communications code?”

Stomp. Stomp.

“Quickly, then …” He grabbed a stick, moved into a patch of moonlight, and began to sketch into the ground. For A: a dot, then a dash. For B: A dash, then three dots. For C: dash, dot, dash, dot …

Scrape. Stomp. Scrape. Stomp.

“C … C …” Something clicked for him, though he still said it hesitantly: “Not … Crane?”

STOMP.

“Stranger and stranger. We should move somewhere where we can talk in safety. Can you follow me?”

Stomp.

“Can you follow very quickly?”

Stomp.

“Good.”

That is how it came to be that while you were making your own escape, Thorpe and I were holed up on the far side of the island, conversing in a tortuously slow manner. After he had etched out the entirety of the Morse Code for my benefit things went more quickly, and he was good at doing most of the talking and asking me yes-or-no questions so that we could communicate efficiently. Still, it was the better part of two days before we were ready to make another move.

Not knowing of your escape, our first priority was to try to release you. But I also had an idea of something that might help my predicament: the bright blood. I knew that the Browns had taken everything, and I knew where they were keeping it.

We made an odd pair, returning to the camp. Thorpe could be very stealthy all on his own, but coupled with my extended perception, and an occasional stomp to warn him of a concealed were-rat or an approaching patrol, we were nigh undetectable. First we discovered that you had escaped. Then we found the tent with the valuables, guarded by an ur-Brown and three were-rats. We waited for a moment when no one was within earshot, and then Thorpe came from behind and dispatched them with brutal efficiency. He emerged with a case holding the vial of bright blood.

I stomped repeatedly, with urgency, when I saw that was all that he had. He knew my concern. “No map,” he said grimly. I soon realized why. On the other side of the camp, in his own tent, Dr. Brown was perusing the map and taking careful notes. Actually there were four Browns sitting around the table, and at least a dozen were-rats arranged as guards outside. Thorpe wanted to go after him anyway, but I objected. The chances of losing him were too great, and I had another concern: the bestial rage with which he had dealt with those others had been terrifying to behold, and I did not want him, in embracing his animalistic abilities, to lose his own humanity. And so we left, as silently as we had arrived.

It is a good thing that I had had a very long time to ponder my condition and think about ways to counteract it. Naturally it occurred to me early on that the bright blood might be helpful, but I had no way to inject it. While my contact with the physical world seemed almost nonexistent, I did still have the sensation of breathing, which suggested that perhaps at some level I was still interacting chemically with my environment. So my theory was that if the bright blood could be introduced into a liquid infusion and then used to generate a mist, then by interspersing myself with said mist, some of its properties might transfer to me.

That is the sort of thing best engineered in a laboratory, of course, not in hiding on a mysterious island. But, as I said, I had had nothing if not time to consider such things. A dry cave, a fire, a mesh of woven reeds – some day I will give you all the details of my jury-rigged apparatus, made by Thorpe’s hands under my instruction. But for now let it suffice to say: it worked. I swooned as I rematerialized, my body suddenly resuming all its myriad ordinary functions.

It pains me that we have both been here on Skald for days, both in our proper forms, and our paths have not crossed. For the most part Thorpe and I have remained in hiding. While I do not think my brief encounter with a mist of bright blood has negated my Ability, I am afraid to end up as a permanent ghost again, and would only want to use it in direst need. Once Thorpe ascertained, on one of his scouting runs, that the Browns’ camp had been abandoned, we felt a little freer to move about. (It was while scavenging there that he retrieved the letter from Sanders, incidentally.) I recalled from our correspondence about the southern bunker where you had found the flight suit, and thought that might be a good place to look for you. Instead we found your letter – and the Rexley Device.

That led us in turn to search for the Jagdschloss, and it is on the shore within sight of its hiding place that I write these words while Thorpe keeps watch. You are not here, and I was hoping that you might arrive while I was writing. I am afraid that I dare not linger, however. Were-rats remain on the island, perhaps some of the Browns as well, and you are quite right that the Rexley Device cannot be allowed to be discovered. If Brown himself has indeed departed, perhaps fearing for his safety, there is nothing to say that he might not return in even greater force.

So I will leave this on the vessel for you to find. Thorpe will help me reach the conveyance chamber and I will leave by that route, taking the Device with me. He plans to stay: in order to find you if he can, but in order to continue to make life hell for any of his former captors who remain on the island, in any case.

I left your letter to Alia at the bunker. It is a saving grace that neither she nor Alona came here and ran afoul of Brown. But I am confident that when she does come looking for you, she will think to check the bunker, just as I did.

When the two of you are at last reunited, write and tell me. Leave your letter in her care for when she finds me next. And have her check on my friends at Caeradarn if she can. We have said before, “I do not know when next my letter will be able to reach you,” though there has always been a way. This time, though, I think it might be a long time before that happens. I know where I mean to go, and what I mean to do, but in case this should fall into the wrong hands, I will not set it down in writing.

I am sorry I could not do more, my friend. Sorry for all that you, that we, have lost. But you live. Thorpe lives. Brown has neither the bright blood, nor Rexley, nor Rachel. There is hope, and for that hope we must fight on.

Warm Regards,

Crane