My dear Crane,
There were times these last two weeks when I was gripped by a fear that our correspondence might come to an abrupt end. A horrid thought, indeed, and while it was fueled especially by the nightmares of the last few days, it was also grown out of our consistent failure to erect an aero beacon on any stable strip of land between the abandoned outpost at Tydonn and our present location.
Countering and dispelling that pall, as you can easily imagine, was the bright, shining morning star dipping out of the cloudy sky late in the day yesterday. The black storms were far enough to our west and south—although a wide ring around the site of the Obelisk—and for that reason we were able to clearly make sight of the aero, using a medical hand-mirror that Thorpe found among Bennington’s supplies in order to signal an approach.
Laray leveled a rifle at the flying machine at one point, I am embarrassed to tell you: yet before we condemn his judgment as poor, his eyesight was keen, and he was the only one among us to notice that the aero approaching was not Alia’s. I stayed his hand when it occurred to me that the aero had been first circling, as if to locate our group, rather than dive, as if to attack. Fortunately my quick thinking spelled a better outcome: on the ground, we hailed Alona’s arrival to cheers around the entire camp. The small packet of letters from you explained everything, of course, and Thorpe himself drank a toast to the female flyers of our country that have replaced—and surpassed—the “Skylads” we lost in the Blood War.
Now I am most interested in making this preface short, because given a safe return to Garnsey (Deus willing) by the second of our intrepid ferrywomen of the air, you hold now in your hands the copies of several journal entries as well as my rough sketches of the environs of the site of the Obelisk, and I am eager to introduce them. I will only say here how that while most of us are still alive (except Graustein and Thorpe’s lieutenant Elberts) we are certainly shaken and glad to be nowhere near the Obelisk. Bennington’s mind has mostly returned to her, I am relieved to report. As for Thorpe, he appears to have an Ability—or perhaps we ought to call it a Quality—quite different from what you or I have been experiencing; I have made sure to detail it well in my appended notes.
I can also report that we are all in good spirits having heard not only of Robards’ success (I obscured the finer details of his apparent sway over the men of the Sigsbee) but also in the comfort and respite you and your company must be enjoying on Garnsey. I will note that there is some coincidence regarding Elizabeth College that is present in my notes; read on.
Finally—and forgive this little paragraph written with a hasty hand, as my heart has leapt into my throat to think of the next leg of your expedition—if you mean to journey to Mont-Bré, then I think you will be very interested in my copies of the runes that we found near the Obelisk. My final journal entry included with this letter will describe it in full, but before I gathered this up to give to Alona, I made additional, full-page copies of the runes that appear on other sketches. Perhaps these will replace your old notes to some degree, if you find similarities between these and the inscriptions at Mont-Bré. I have only a vague memory of the carvings on those ancient stones, and the boxes of graphite rubbings your assistants dutifully made during those weeks we spent there. As the financier for that expedition I tried to remain as inconspicuous as possible, preferring to get out of the way in favor of the experts. It was you who convinced me that on our next venture I needed to take a more involved role, and, well, here I am now, Crane.
Allow me a short note of praise for your excellent idea to convince Robards to sail for the Gallian coast. Perhaps there will be some vital clue that links our happy past to our ever-darkening future and will summon the sun to break the dark swirling clouds that hang ever on the horizon. I do not attempt florid prose with that description: I mean quite literally about the clouds.
I will close this portion of my correspondence to you by noting that my opinion of Stratham has changed. You will read in my copied entries how Stratham outright saved us at one point, despite Thorpe’s consternations; but among us all Stratham seems the least marred by the last two weeks. He is changed, indeed—but for the better, as if a confidence has seized him and given him a new wisdom. Most admirable, however, is that this morning I saw that he had selflessly burned his books for our cooking-fire, their blackened spines poking up amongst the ash and embers.
May Fortuna continue to smile on you,
Broke camp at the first light of dawn, which I estimated to be a quarter to seven. Thorpe organized two parties—Thorpe leads mine and Elberts leads the other. One group scouts ahead and sends back two to report to the second, whereupon the second group meets the first and then has scout duty. Allows each group to rest or eat, &c., on a rota.
Dark clouds at the south-east with some movement noted in upper strata, starting about noon. Shadows on the road cast by smaller tendril clouds. Our group found a paved road, broken in parts but generally passable. We were able to speed up pace even as we headed into higher altitudes. Rockier terrain forward, fields to the south and west.
No signs of civilization—Caledonian moonscape. Many places we passed seemed scorched, as if from warfare, but devoid of shell craters and foxholes as on a battlefield. Found a small wood that had been reduced to sticks and ash, with earthen outcroppings in a ring formation. Did not investigate—Thorpe impatient to make progress while we had the light.
Slight headache occurring after evening meal, with noises like a distant waterfall in my mind. I was able to block them out but needed to focus my eyes on something bright, like a fire or a star above. All of us in one group make thirteen: myself, Thorpe, Bennington, Graustein, Stratham, Elberts, Laray, Arasaku, O’Doole, Kilcannon, Wright, Throckmorton, and Bell.
Some sunlight breaking through the clouds in the morning, no sign of the cloud-tendrils. Food palatable, men (and Bennington) in good spirits. Thorpe checks map incessantly.
Found end of paved road in ruined town around four in the afternoon. Thorpe’s map notes the place as Innesmere. Thorpe did not want to enter the town but Bennington made the case to find the injured or sick. Spent last four hours of daylight clearing out old hotel and adjoining buildings.
Scenes of horror in many areas of the town and inside buildings. The dead take different forms: some eviscerated and left to rot, scenes of combat. Others like mummies, but a ghostly white, as if drained of vitality and life, with skin like paper. Whole phantom-families in their beds were found by Thorpe’s men in nearby apartments. Thorpe ordered pullback after fifth building was cleared.
Headache manageable but still noticeable. Will not take laudanum; I fear a loss of control at this stage. Need to practice concentration and calm.
The place where we have taken shelter looks to be a school. Slate boards in most rooms and broken furniture litter the halls. One group of furniture looks to have been a barricade of some sort, separating an upper floor from the remainder of the building at the top of the wide stairway. We cleared part of barricade at lantern-light. Found gruesome scene of rotted corpses beyond, many look to be torn apart. Many bodies in this area seem to have military uniforms. Same scorching noticed on walls and ceiling in places.
Found headmaster’s library with school letterhead: The Waterford School. I know of it—a younger cousin attended here some years ago.
August 25 and 26
Thorpe wishes to spend three days assessing the town to find survivors, or, failing that, clues as to its demise. Bennington has advised against: she believes that there can be no one left alive. We follow Thorpe while we can afford the time. Today is darker; sun is low and cold.
Bennington has confided in me that her nightmares have returned. Graustein’s eyesight is getting worse but he holds vigil at night—his hearing has compensated somewhat. He can no longer use a rifle, but he can help with injuries.
Second day of slow investigation. My group of searchers have found some canned food and a few usable weapons to add to our supplies, including a fine pistol, which I have taken for myself. Terrible scene of carnage found at town hall and at bank. More barricades, evidence of strong defense mounted by citizens before being overwhelmed.
The rat-men attacked here. Several bodies with faces contorted into rodentine features and excessive body hair were found separated from the human dead. Perhaps some erstwhile survivors had dragged them into the pile we found before some final attack was made. We have also found earth outcroppings at sites that correspond to scenes of most violence.
Something seems to have disturbed our captain (besides the horror we have witnessed here). Complaining of tingling in his extremities. Blotchy skin apparent on neck, arms. Bennington has examined and taken notes, found some ointments to soothe the sensation.
Morning was barely noticeable from the night. Awoke to find darkness and black dust settling upon encampment at the school, wafting in through doors and broken windows. My headache has returned more intense than ever—I have considered turning to the laudanum or at least to alcohol, but I need to keep a clear mind at all times. Bennington appears exhausted from troubled sleep but has same fortitude. Society or not, I now admire her.
Thorpe has awoken to find patterns in his skin in reds and browns, now covering large areas of his body. He seems troubled but says there is no time for his ailment, and does not wish to draw from medical supplies. Bennington has examined sample of mummy-like flesh from a poor victim. Notes that the skin is brittle and crumbles easily, as if desiccated. No cause apparent.
It was decided (by Thorpe, Bennington, and myself) that we must move away from Innesmere lest the “wererats” sense our presence and return. I relayed the story of Robards and his offensive against the warren in Crane’s earlier letter; Thorpe is not convinced that we would be as successful, and wishes to risk neither men nor time. I cannot say that I blame him, but I note that this is a different Thorpe than we have had of late.
We did the best we could getting a start to our move after some time spent regrouping and reviewing maps. A ransacked local library proved useful, and turned up a large book about historical sites in the area. Stratham made quick claim of it and advised Thorpe on a new direction of approach toward the Obelisk.
Surgical masks from the Tydonn search were welcome, as the black dust irritates eyes, skin, and hampers normal breathing. Worst of the storm subsided around noon (so I guessed) and the sun was stronger in the afternoon. This long arm of the storm seemed to approach from the south-east.
Walked five hours, lost paved road after three. Stratham’s path has us following a river to the loch where the Obelisk stands. Should reach that by evening tomorrow. Made camp in an orchard at an abandoned farm. Thorpe is fearful of buildings now, and intones warnings that rat-things could come up from basements.
Awoke to almost unbearable migraine. By force of will I quieted my trembling and allowed the cacophony to overwhelm me. My mind reached out to Bennington in the next tent. Bennington was seeing unholy terrors invade her own memories, all in her dreams. Main image: graduation from the college on the windswept island, and the laboratory she had set up there. But the cadavers and the experiments haunt me now. Twisted scenes of torture and insanity! I saw Society men, decorating her with awards, but in her mind these credentials had been perverted into commendations for pain induction and gruesome vivisection.
I opened my eyes—migraine subsided and was replaced by dull pain at temples. Graustein had difficulty getting Bennington alert and ready to move. Weather is somewhat better and Thorpe is resolved to reach the loch tonight.
Uneventful but exhausting hike at a good pace but mostly uphill. Men need rest and Graustein is slowing us with poor eyesight. Cataracts now impeding all but bright lights. Bennington has run out of eye-drops from medical supplies. At least the others seem healthy and unaffected by the dust clouds of the days past. Made encampment on bank of wide panorama, only the stars above to lull us into calm.
Migraine is at peak on this cold morning. We are awoke on promontory overlooking loch. Concentration difficult. Noises in my mind seem to emanate and echo from the island in the loch.
Breakfast of strong coffee helping with migraine. Digestive biscuits found at Innesmere pantry perhaps the most delicious I have tasted since childhood. I wonder about the family from whose pantry we took the foods we now pass around among us. I think about their house, their neighborhood. Before the Incident.
Thorpe orders a stay on the rocky ledges until his men return with reports from scouting ahead. Fine; allows time for sketch of loch and consultation with Bennington. Bennington seems calm but far-away, not unlike the shell-shocked lads from the War. Graustein now believes he is hampering the mission; I try to give him hope that perhaps his condition is reversible.
Elberts first back from scouting teams. Reports clear path down to shores of loch. Thorpe’s team returns with description of abandoned cottages not far from shores, hope for boats to cross to island.
Thorpe makes decision to cross loch before nightfall, citing concerns about rat-men attacking camp; he thinks island is safer. No disagreement but I sense the scenes at Innesmere changed him. I am more concerned about the Obelisk but I have no evidence from which to argue. Stratham is eager to reach the site, seems cheerful in spite of misery of last few days.
Second scouting group was right: old boats found among the cottages. The cottages are not altogether deserted, if one counts the bleached and desiccated skeletal forms of their former inhabitants. Bodies of victims seem contorted, not in repose like at Innesmere: one paper-dry form up against wall, arms clawing in vain, another on floor, seeming to crawl away.
Now on island. My temple throbs in pain and I can hardly write. Maddening sounds from all directions makes putting pen to paper almost impossible. Directly in front of us: a hulking gray mass, surrounded by mists, incongruent with landscape backdrop. A monstrous presence dropped into idyllic scenery.
I can describe it only through glances from my periphery of vision: direct gazing leads to stabbing pains and watered eyes. General chill has descended upon our hardscrabble encampment. Tempers fraying. Stratham has gone to look ahead at site of Obelisk in direct defiance of Thorpe’s command. What we are doing here is now questioned in my mind.
While the last of the sun hangs in the horizon I am sketching what shapes I can make of the Obelisk, its summit of rock, and the twisted and blackened trees that remain here.
Stratham is rambling without stop about his books and runes. He is different now—animated, manic. Bennington can hardly speak and her body is in near-constant state of trembling. I now wholly fear for the success of our part of the expedition and care nothing for my fortunes. A world like this knows no comfort from money in any case.
August 30 and 31
Finally a few moments of rest to write following our flight from the island early in the morning hours. I will set down here what I know, what I saw, and the rest from the reports of others.
Late yesterday evening, Elberts set out to find Graustein, who had also disappeared at some point. I daresay that Thorpe had been well-distracted over the whole affair and left our camp, ordering Laray, Arasaku, Kilcannon, and Throckmorton to fan out on each side of the island in search of the junior professor. Elberts ordered remainder of men to guard camp while he went forward on the island to find Graustein. Stratham also gone without a trace.
Winds picked up and soon we were amidst a tempest. Lost some supplies into the water. Tents and shelters useless. Black dust clouds descending from sky high above and touched down at site of Obelisk. Surgical masks donned but we huddled close, protecting Bennington especially. Ethereal blue light seen flashing at base of funnel cloud. Then, a screeching, keening howl, a flash, and a compression like a shell from the Great War. Found myself knocked well into the water. Silence followed.
Hours passed and around dawn Thorpe and his men returned to our relief. Regrouped and discussed plans; my headache gone, Bennington seeming to rouse somewhat.
In full light of dawn we ventured toward Obelisk. In morning light, I could see the shape of the thing: rough-hewn base effacing to sharp-cut rock, like a spire, pointed tip, flat face. The carvings on the front and sides remarkably like those we saw at Mont-Bré, but additional shapes present. It does not pain me to look upon Obelisk today, and the sounds have vanished.
We found Stratham furiously sketching and making rubbings of outcropped black stones in a ring around the Obelisk. I am now close enough that I can take more precise measurements. Obelisk is sixteen feet high from base to tip, calculated from angle of sun and length of shadow measured at ten o’clock. Five feet at widest point; two feet at narrowest point at tip. Fine tools used to chip away oblong rectangular prism on three sides; back face left rough but rounded off by different tool. Sloped side of spire portion, angles forming tip look to be intentional, with some effort for symmetry evident. Front face and selected areas on both sides feature both angular and circular cuts; circular cuts are less deep, like scratchings, in intricate spiralled patterns, and angular cuts are thought to be Ur-Samekh or a close variant (as explained to me by Stratham).
Ring of similar stones have same types of circular scratches and deeper angled gouges. Sophisticated tools would have been necessary to bite this deep into the dense, almost crystalline rock. Ring of stones set an average twenty feet from base of Obelisk, in intentional eight-point pattern, with relatively accurate measurement of equidistance.
We found Graustein and Elberts, or who we believed were they: complete transformation into the terrible ghostlike apparitions, dry husks of men. One figure seemed to lead the other before being scattered like litter to the ground, arms flailing, digging deep into the unyielding earth. Poor devils!
When the blue light emanated from the Obelisk last night it enveloped Graustein and Elberts. What Graustein was doing there, Deus only knows. Stratham foolishly approached to get better look at the clouded Obelisk to verify Ur-Samekh; had been found by Elberts moments before the loud howl. Stratham watched as Elberts grabbed Graustein; described the man as “trance-like.” Light enveloped them; they screamed and turned bone-white. The pair fell to the ground in the form we found them now. Stratham then reported uttering three words—or syllables—memorized out of his books. A wave of energy pulsed from the rune-rock in front of him and out across the loch. No way to know if this is what protected us from the rays that claimed Elberts and Graustein but we cannot think of any other explanation.
Thorpe proclaimed Stratham’s recordings to be enough for the trouble and loss we incurred. Frankly I could not have agreed more with the man. I aided a weak but alert Bennington into a boat and helped collect salvageable supplies. Hiked back down the original trail until nightfall again to new encampment. All of us exhausted and our mind shattered, could not eat or drink.
September 1 to 3
I believe I was wrong about the cloud patterns. I now theorize that the black dust is spewed by the Obelisk—generated, perhaps, or called, I am not truly sure of the right word—in forceful swirls that loop back from the north. Like a child drawing a stick through algae in a bog. May explain some of the counter-current of the clouds from the south.
There is only a dull rumble in the edges of my hearing. Bennington is much better and upright now, eating what she can when we rest. Thorpe is a man bound, leading us at a forced march toward the east. Stratham has voiced an opinion to return and learn more about the Obelisk. Thorpe will hear none of it, and no one takes up Stratham’s banner, even myself.
We were too occupied to notice, but one of Thorpe’s eyes have changed: like a cat’s eyes, glowing with an internal light when shined upon. First noticed this around the fire on the first night after our flight from the loch. I am not strong enough to read his memories, nor would I want to at this time. He has also seemed to lose some hair on the left side of his face, the side that bears the changed eye. He will not suffer inquiries on the topic.
Two days now of hiking. Have reached downward slopes, to our relief. Thorpe has allowed a slower pace for now. His map notes a small village on the shoreline, which he has proclaimed to be our next destination. Stratham confides in me that the book he found at the school tells of another site of interest, perhaps connected somehow to the Obelisk, some fifty miles south and east, nearer to the coast. I will make no mention of this to Thorpe—or Bennington, for that matter—until the time is right. All I can hope for now is that the village is like the one in Crane’s letter, untouched by calamity and ruin.
We have better weather today and our thoughts now turn to the aero. Thorpe orders a search in a five-mile radius of a clearing, any open and generally flat land that we might set up the makeshift beacon. Bennington and I have taken this time to consult with Stratham, who has made compelling arguments that the expedition must now turn south to a site he calls “the Cairns.” We resolve to come to Thorpe with our position during the evening meal.