My Dear Rackham,
I feel rather the fool; I have been at my wit’s end cursing what I took for bad luck, but which now reveals itself as the workings of Providence. For almost two weeks I have been stymied in my efforts to leave Garnsey for Mont-Bré, but had I succeeded in departing even a day ago, I would have missed your letter and your invaluable sketches of the Obelisk-runes. And those may not even be the most consequential piece of information I received from you, for reasons that will become clear.
Allow me to begin by relating the conversation with Robards that took place shortly after I sent my last letter. I wanted him to confront the possibility that his unusual sway over the minds of others might be caused by something more than his usual charisma, so as to help him understand the sudden change in disposition toward him on the part of the New Columbians and the governor. I thought that the best approach would be to coax him into voicing the idea first; if he thought it was his idea it might sit better with him.
But I lack your smooth tongue, my friend, and am rarely at my best in such situations. To Robards’ mind all his difficulties were simply the result of irrational behavior on the part of those around him. He seemed alarmed when I broached the subject of the peculiar autopsies of Smythe and Dodgson. I may have made a mis-step when, at one point, unsure of what to say next, I consulted a conversational matrix I had sketched out in my notebook with optimal responses to his most likely statements. He found this somewhat alienating, and suggested that if I wanted to pick apart his brain that I kindly wait until he was properly deceased. That would have been the moment for a judicious reply, but in a fit of pique I went off-matrix, as it were, and pointedly inquired as to whether he had lost anything of particular value in the storm at sea. That plainly struck a nerve, but he mistook my meaning. “You stole it!” he bellowed, and lurched forward to grab me.
Instantly — and quite unintentionally — I became incorporeal, in what I can only assume was a reflexive act of self-preservation. Robards passed through me and slammed into the wall behind me, wheeled, swung a punch which whistled cleanly through my head, and another, before finally stopping and staring at me, thunderstruck. I hastened to explain that what he had just witnessed had been happening to me since the Incident. I swore to him that I had stolen nothing, and told him about seeing the glowing object fall from the ship and descend into the depths. And, fortunately, he listened. While I had not intended to reveal my Ability to him, it seems to have worked out for the best. When I suggested that perhaps he had an Ability of his own he gave the notion at least some credence, and we discussed the issue at some length.
More importantly, he confided in me about the object he had lost in the storm. It is, or was, a rough-hewn piece of stone with some runes carved on it, worn around his neck and then kept in a desk drawer in his cabin on the Sigsbee while we were at sea. It had no particular effect that he could discern, though his anger upon realizing it was missing, and his violent response when he thought I had stolen it, he attributes now to some strange power it must have had over him that has, thankfully, subsided.
I had him make drawings of the runes on it, to the best of his memory, but it is only today, with the receipt of your letter, that I am able to confirm that they are, indeed, of a piece with the ur-Samekh carvings from the Obelisk. At this point you are no doubt dying to know where he got this thing from, and you would do well to heed the answer. Robards says that he had it from none other than Throckmorton, who presented it to him at the chamber site before we all parted ways. It was not given as a mystical talisman or secretive object of great import, however, but as a simple good-luck charm, an innocuous memento between longtime war-compatriots about to take disparate paths. That, at least, is how Robards took it. Whether it was in truth given in the same spirit is for you to discover, if you can. The thing is now gone, of course, and perhaps I am making more of it than is warranted. You have made no particular mention of Throckmorton other than that he remains with your party, but I urge you to be cautious and mindful of the fact that there may be more to him than is apparent.
Moving on. Satisfying as it was to achieve a breakthrough of sorts with Robards, doing so did nothing to accelerate the repairs to the Sigsbee. In any case, it was no longer evident that Campbell would willingly take us where we wanted to go once she was seaworthy. And so I took a room at an inn in town, the better to survey other options for leaving the island. Stockport is a trading hub, and the pubs near the water are chock full of merchant seamen stranded here by the closing of the port, growing more restless with each passing day.
Recalling that your family’s riches originated in the mercantile world, I confess I let your name drop while buying drinks for some merchant captains one night. I don’t think any of them recognized Benjamin Rackham — no doubt they would have been taken aback had they known of the ways that you have amassed and disbursed your personal fortune — but the family name had the desired effect. I learned from these gentlemen that, while the port is indeed closed, that has not prevented smaller smuggling vessels from risking crossings to the Gallian coast, and some have even returned, bringing some goods and, more importantly, information. And so I have something to report, albeit third-hand, on the state of the world.
The good news: The effects of the Incident are not present abroad. Word is spreading about a cataclysm that has befallen Albion, and rumors abound. (The bitter irony there is that no matter how fanciful some of those rumors must be, they will only rarely prove as strange as the truth.) The sudden lack of contact and trade has created all manner of disruptions, to be sure, but the people of the Continent and beyond seem safe from this particular malady.
The bad news: The governments of the Continent are in a state of high alarm, and their chief priority at this juncture is to quarantine Albion completely. One story circulating — I have no way to verify it — is that a flotilla of our vessels that had survived the crossing was denied landing at the port of Brabant, and when they continued toward the docks nonetheless, they were blown out of the water by the shore artillery. All this is why it has been so difficult to find passage toward Mont-Bré. Braving the vortex-storms is no small risk to begin with, but the prospect of being caught breaking quarantine raises the bar even further, and it is only since your letter arrived that I have been able to make arrangements …
But I am getting ahead of my story. I must interject with an unrelated episode that happened a week ago, albeit one with some ominous portents. After a long period of silence, the governor asked Robards for aid in investigating an incident at a coastal village on the other side of the island, not far from where the Sigsbee originally landed. He and I took a dozen men and, arriving there, heard a harrowing tale from the villagers about mer-men crawling out from the sea and trying to steal their babies. No one had been hurt, however, and indeed, all the invaders were dead. But the story became curioser, as the villagers did not report any actual struggle with the creatures. They had all expired on their own, four of them on the beach, and two more who had made it into the village, one in particular who had burst through the door of a nursery room before collapsing. (Hence, “stealing babies.”)
There followed a rather long and perplexing investigation, but I shall spare you the details, since at the end of the day what provided the answers we sought was an autopsy. A thoroughly unpleasant autopsy, I should note, as the bodies of the creatures stank like dead fish. I could see why the villagers had described them as “mer-men” but you must not imagine a full hybrid in the manner of the were-rats. They appeared human in most respects, save for a sliminess and discoloration of the skin, and some evidence of emergent scales. And then, of course, the gills. They had lungs, but these were shriveled, useless, vestigial. Instead they had enlarged necks with six pairs of gill slits. Yet this appeared to be their only adaptation toward life in the water. They did not have webbed hands or feet, and their mouths, teeth, jaws, and digestive tracts were all human or very nearly so. My rather macabre conclusion is that these creatures found themselves able to breath in the water, but unable to get food there. They went ashore in search of sustenance — and there suffocated.
All this hints at a rapid mutation, reminiscent of what I found in Smythe and Dodgson. But that in turn suggests that these things were once men, and there are no reports of six men gone missing locally. It was Robards who quietly reminded me that we lost exactly that many men during the storm, and I tried to discern some identifying mark on the corpses that would confirm or deny that horrifying possibility. I cannot say with certainty one way or the other. Only that, despite their monstrosity, I cannot help but feel some sympathy for these creatures. It must have been a horrible way to die.
This brings me to more recent events, those since the arrival of your letter. I had been avoiding the College, but what you read in Bennington’s mind convinced me that it was worth another visit, if only to discover whether she does, in fact, have a laboratory there. Robards came with me this time. The president (a portly gentleman by the name of Sanders) welcomed us into his office, and we discussed the plight of Albion and what news and rumors we had heard since last we met. “Curious, isn’t it, Doctor Crane,” he opined, “That after all the trouble you have given the Society over the years about striding bravely into the future, it is mucking about with ancient artifacts that seems to have brought about the Apocalypse.” Insufferable git. But I maintained composure, and steered the conversation toward Bennington — yes, yes, he did remember her, bright pupil, pride of the Society — and whether she maintained a laboratory here — no, nothing like that, just a tiny school really, all the interesting stuff happens elsewhere.
He was lying, of course, but short of confronting him and forcing our way through campus I could think of no way to proceed. But then Robards cut in: “Surely there must be something of hers left lying around, eh? What could it hurt to let us have a look around?” The words themselves, you will agree, were totally innocuous. But I felt a prickle at the back of my neck as he spoke them, as if there was an energy in the air, and I knew what he was attempting. To my surprise, it worked! The change in Sanders was sudden and total: he went from smug to subservient in an instant. The next minute he was handing Robards his own key-ring and directing us to the basement of the adjoining building. As soon as we were alone I asked Robards whether he had meant to activate his Ability, and he admitted that he had. “Thought I’d give it a try,” he said, shrugging.
A try. A try. I have been trying several times a day for weeks to gain any sort of control over my newfound gifts, without success. Your own Ability appears to be a double-edged sword, unfathomable in its potential yet necessitating constant vigilance against cacophony and madness. But Robards decides on a whim to attempt something he barely believes in, and meets with unfettered success. I have no words, Rackham. “Jealousy” does not even begin to cover it.
I digress. We located the laboratory — not currently in use, but some of the notes and logs left behind verified that it had been Bennington’s. Foremost in my mind as we investigated was your vision of her dream — had this place been, in fact, the site of “gruesome vivisection?” Or was that simply a figment of her nightmare, a manifestation of residual guilt (no doubt warranted, this being the Society) but not literal in nature? Given the examination tables and the diagrams on the walls, this was no doubt a place for anatomical investigation, but I found no concrete evidence of anything morally questionable. What was clear is that much of the research had been hematological in nature. Looking back at one of your earlier letters, I now believe that when Bennington referred to Society-sanctioned research into the superstrata of the blood, it was her own research that she was referring to.
In a locked cabinet we found a box containing several vials filled with red liquid — possibly blood — as well a syringe; the contents of the vials are evidently meant to be administered subcutaneously. They are labeled, but in an odd notation, and it will take me some time, with the aid of the lab logs, to make sense of it all. (Needless to say we took all those things with us.) Sanders had bid us join him for tea, so we returned to his office. I found his constant desire to gratify Robards to be a little unsettling, now that I knew the cause, but that did not prevent me from taking advantage of the situation. I mentioned my desire to reach Mont-Bré. He indicated that the Society occasionally makes use of local smugglers when transporting sensitive materials, and offered to help me make contact.
Which is how I come, once again, to be writing to you on the eve of a departure. Good news — but not without complications. Eager as he was to help, Sanders was also adamant about sending one of his own men along to Mont-Bré. We have relented on that point. Given the size of the craft we are to take, there will only be room for me, this Society man, and a couple of Robards’ soldiers. Certainly riskier than traveling with a whole company, or at least the remnants of one.
My heart goes out to you and your party, who have had to endure travails infinitely more difficult than our own. Reading your account provides no shortage of events to marvel at, but I feel obligated to utter one note of caution regarding Stratham. I credit that in a time of crisis he seems to have found reserves of strength and resilience, and indeed that he may have saved you all in some way at the Obelisk. But burning his own books, as you describe, seems altogether out of character for the man. If the mental strain of the events at the loch are affecting him, it could have dire consequences for your expedition. Proceed with care. I wish I had fewer warnings and more answers to offer you, and if all goes well, I soon shall!