Dearest Liam and Delphina, 27th of March
First, I owe an explanation, although not an apology, to Delphina for yesterday’s alarming message. Delphina, there is someone hunting you and every minute I wasted on explaining could have been a chance for them to lure you out of hiding. If they have not already made an attempt to draw you or Viatele back to Cellen or Resonia, watch for one in the next few days. I have no knowledge how, but they discovered you are in Hillsfar–information they have very recently acquired from what I overheard. Their plans seem to rely on you being in Cellen or Resonia, although I do not know why.
I learned all of this after I received Liam’s last letter. Liam, I debated coming back to Cellen for the exhumation or telling you to wait until I returned, but in the end, you made the right choice. What you said about the disturbing condition of the coffin fits the theory I’ve been forming as does the doctor’s comments about the body only showing minor signs of decay.
During my time here in Anchiasu, I have become increasingly convinced there is a person or group tampering with the natural process of death, particularly with the spirit’s departure from the body to the higher plane. Originally, my failure in contacting Rasmus’ spirit was a matter of patience, but I now see it as a troubling piece of a much larger picture. As soon as I read your letter I started conducting experiments on the Walkers, trying to locate their spirits. The spirit-tracking ritual is probably the nearest I ever come to performing a spell with classical magic. It requires three hours for setup and I spent an extra two hours of trial-and-error until I executed the process correctly.
My first subject was a middle-aged man who continually muttered, “Good morning, would you like to stay for dinner?”. The ritual at last produced a thread of essence drawn from the spirit to my runic circle. It was simple enough to trace for it led straight to another Walker in the camp–a young girl whimpering, “Three goats are surely enough for one cow.”
“Agustofe!” I called, unable to take my eyes off the girl. I had charged him with guarding my circle so no one disturbed it, but this was not a sight I was prepared to face alone. He rushed to my side and I choked out my explanation. “It is too cruel for words. They are killing these people and trapping their spirits into other bodies! The suffering…oh, the suffering!”
“So are they alive or not?” Agustofe asked. It was a question worn threadbare from repetition by everyone I’d met in Anchasiu. Because the Walkers weren’t decaying, had pulses, and breathed, many people hoped they were merely mad, not dead. I searched for words.
“I think they are the definition of ‘undead’.” I tried to keep my tone professional. “Don’t they understand? Once the bond between spirit and body is broken, there isn’t a magical paste or putty that can re-fuse them together. Whoever is doing this has come as close as you can get–they’ve managed to stuff the spirit back into the body, which must restart the biological functions of the body, but a complete reconnection of the pieces will never…” I swallowed hard against the bile rising up in my throat and croaked out the last part. “Especially when they are swapping spirits into different bodies.”
Augustofe squeezed my hand. “Can you free them?”
My soul trembled, but I set my jaw, returning with determined steps to my circle. No, I did not know the alchemy to loosen the bonds. I erased the strand of spirit from the sky by kicking sand over a symbol. “Augustofe! We perform this ritual until we find a clue accounting for everyone. Someone will lead us to them–whoever they are–and then we will stop them.”
We worked through the night, despite the wind kicking up around midnight and forcing us to start over again and again. Augustofe took canvas and pegged it down around our work area to ward off the wind, but we only managed to perform the ritual twice before morning. That second time, though, the strand stretched far into the dessert, over the horizon. The spell starts to weaken after two hours and we might not even have that long the unpredictable winds, so we hastily grabbed water skins and horses and galloped in the direction of the strand. We rode for such a long time, slower once the sun rose because the strand was less distinct, even slower when its trace started to fade. Neither of us spoke until we crested a large dune and found ourselves looking down into a sandless valley of hard orange rock and a massive dome-like structure.
“Don’t even consider trying to sneak down there, Cassie,” Augustofe warned me. “They will spot us the moment we’re over the ridge. We will wait until nightfall.”
I saw the sense in this, although I worried about our water supply. I was not hungry, even though I hadn’t eaten in almost a day. Once the sky grew dark, we approached the dome as stealthily as we could. The dome was made of the same strong material used in the inflated part of an airship, with now windows and only a few flaps opening to the outside. We were lucky there was no one outside because we had very little cover to hide behind. This letter grows long, so I will simply tell you that we found an entrance and discovered a jumble of lab equipment mixed with tools for performing magic rituals. There weren’t many people around considering how large the place was. We had a close call once, but it led us to eavesdropping on a meeting between nearly everyone in the facility.
“We must overcome his betrayal,” said one woman, addressing the entire group, “we have focused on it for too long already, now it’s time to act.”
“Agreed,” said another. “Now that we know the girl is in Hillsfar, she must be dealt with immediately. Delphina Redgrave is too important to this project to let slip through our fingers. We find a way to get her to Resonia or Cellen before we lose track of her again. Any last questions before we end?”
We fled after that, but now you understand my anxiety? I am not sure who is the betrayer they referred to, but I suspect they meant either your brother or your guardian. If your guardian is somehow mixed up in this, recommend me to him as a resource. If you trust him, please share our letters with him and perhaps he can fill in the pieces. I am sorry for having no personal words for either of you, though you are both in my thoughts during every moment. My travel plans are uncertain–I waver between remaining in Anchaisu, returning home, or joining you in Hillsfar. Delphina, shall I come? If we are together, we might find answers more quickly and if Viatele proves reluctant to provide explanations, it is possible I will have more success in prying the answers from him.