Night Train to Hardwick Chapter Three – Hauntings

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Brandon caught himself before he ran over Harper, but unfortunately Cassie wasn’t quite as quick, slamming into his back with a muffled squeak. The car was in an odd state, with half the benches empty and the passengers dangerously packed into the other half. The engineers in the locomotive were probably working overtime keeping the car balanced and even with the rest of the train. Brandon had a half moment to wonder what was going on before he heard Harper whisper, “Captain Colbert…”

Everyone seemed to be looking at something in the middle of the car but try as he might Brandon couldn’t tell what it was. He was about to tap Harper on his shoulder when Cassie took his arm and pulled him back.

“There’s something there,” she whispered. “I can hear it.”

Harper walked towards the center of the car, suddenly looking less like a seasoned railway inspector – no, detective – and more like a sleepwalking child. Brandon cleared his throat. “Is everything alright, Detective?”

“What are you doing here?” Harper asked.

Brandon shifted from one foot to the other and back again, a deep discomfort working its way up his back and spreading through the roots of his muscles. He leaned over to his sister and whispered, “What do you hear?”

“It’s not clear,” she whispered back. “Something there is talking to him, but-”

“You always were one for following orders,” Harper said, acid creeping in to his voice.

“-but its voice is indistinct and-” she visibly flinched. Brandon began to reach for the yew around his waist but Cassie stopped him. “Whatever is over there it knows Mr. Harper. And doesn’t like him very much. I don’t know if we should interfere.”

“I don’t care,” Harper snapped. “You need to clear off this train and take your new general with you.”

The children shifted, murmuring in barely controlled fear. Harper’s eyes seemed to track with something standing up in the seat in front of him. Then Brandon heard it, some sort of echo at once distant and immediate, a wild and malicious laugh that swept through the train car and faded.

Cassie let out a breath and shook herself off. “It’s gone now.”

“What was it?”

“I couldn’t tell just from the voice,” Cassie said. “Some kind of spirit. Maybe just a ghost, maybe something more significant. Mr. Harper definitely recognized it as much as it recognized him.”

“Probably a ghost, then,” Brandon said, watching as the man in question moved further into the car to speak with the Hearth Keeper. “We should keep an eye on him, just to be sure he’s not consorting with anything sinister.”

“Can you tell me what happened, ma’am?” Harper asked, taking his hat from his head and holding it in both hands.

The Hearth Keeper, a matronly woman in her mid forties, made a helpless gesture, her expression one of concern more than fear. “The children saw it, didn’t they? Poor man with his belly cut open. He kept telling them the train was never coming down again. What kind of notion is that? Everything that flies falls in time, don’t it?”

“That’s my experience, ma’am,” Harper replied. “But you didn’t see the ghost?”

“Haven’t got the sight, not me. But I knew they saw something. They was too scared to be running a prank.” From the confused expression on his face it was clear Harper didn’t understand what had happened.

Brandon cleared his throat again and stepped forward. “It’s a matter of age,” he said. “Those who haven’t gone through puberty tend to be very attuned to ghosts and spirits. The sight starts to fade around the age of ten but it can take as long as a decade to fade. Most lose it in a year or so.”

Harper’s gaze sharpened and focused on him. “I didn’t know that. Thank you, Mr. Fairchild. But if that’s true, why did I see Captain Colbert? I’m well past twenty.”

“Since you knew the ghost’s name,” Brandon mused, “you may have a personal connection that attuned you to it. That can enhance your ability to perceive them.”

“Perhaps. And perhaps…” Harper’s attention wandered for a moment then he turned back to the woman and continued his conversation. Brandon glanced around and realized Cassie had moved over to the place the ghost had occupied.

He moved over and asked, “Anything out of the ordinary?”

“No,” she said. “Not even an echo of what was here. But its voice seemed to harmonize with the sound of the train so well, almost as if the soul was a part of it. Very odd.”

“Ever heard of anything like it?”

“No.” Cassie’s face told him that worried her, which was enough to worry him.

“The Hearth Keeper’s agreed to come with us in a moment, so long as her husband feels its safe here,” Roy announced, crossing to join them. “What was it you wanted to ask the girl about, Miss Cassandra?”

Cassie straightened up, looking a bit surprised at the intrusion. “Yes! I thought it was odd only one of the children in the compartment saw the ghost there and I wondered if the girl had latent talents as a river seer or stone singer. Those children looked old enough to have lost their sight.”

“Is.. she in danger?” Harper asked. “Her or the train?”

“The train isn’t, if that’s the case,” Cassie said. “But she’ll need a mentor to help her get her gifts under control. She could be attracting ghosts the children are seeing without even knowing it.”

“Then we’d better figure that out before anything else. We’ll go in a minute.” Harper crossed away to the other side of the car, stopping to talk to the Storm Watcher.

“Do you still think this is just a stray ghost?” Brandon asked, leaning in for a measure of privacy. “Or is it possible we got called in this direction because of a seer or singer?”

“It’s only one or two ghosts at the moment,” she replied. “But it is possible there’s a singer or seer on this train and that’s where the leading came from. We do resonate with each other, from time to time.”

The Hearth Keeper was approaching them so Brandon bit down on the other questions he wanted to ask, instead turning to her and saying, “Can we help you, ma’am?”

She gave the two of them a stern look. “Is it true that you can recognize someone with the Sight?”

“I know a test or two we could give,” she admitted. “But if they don’t reveal anything it doesn’t mean Olivia isn’t a river seer or something similar. Definitively disproving that requires a good deal of in depth exercises.”

The Keeper nodded, her expression turning shrewd. “It would be a good thing to know. Those kinds of talents could open many doors.”

Brandon kept the smirk off his face, but only barely. The Keeper’s calculating assessment strongly reminded him of his mother’s attitude when she learned of Cassie’s gift. She was a much more profane woman than the one before him but some things were universal, it seemed. Unfortunately that attitude glossed over the harsher realities of gifts like Cassie had. The Hearth Keeper had a few other questions for Cassie but Brandon tuned them out, instead keeping an eye on the rest of the car. The children were nervous and upset, but gradually calming down. However the undercurrent of fear remained.

“I think the children will be alright with your husband,” Harper said, returning from his conversation with the Watcher. “Let’s go and talk to the girl and see what you can see.”

A moment later the four of them were hustling back up the length of the train. Once they were again clear of the breezeway Harper asked, “If you’re wrong, and Olivia isn’t what attracted Captain Colbert’s ghost to this train, what could be the cause?”

“Ghosts aren’t spontaneous phenomenon, for the most part,” Brandon said. “They’re attracted to someone or something. Generally speaking, an untrained river seer can yank them from their normal path just by catching sight of them, stone singers can get attached to them by saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. Otherwise, they don’t generally leave their patterns of haunting.”

“So,” Harper mused, “is it possible Miss Cassandra picked up this ghost somehow? Said the wrong thing?”

Brandon found himself reappraising Harper for the third time in an hour. “No. She’s far too experienced to make a mistake like that.”

“I’ll trust your judgment. How likely is it that there’s some other seer or singer somewhere else on the train?”

“It’s not impossible,” Brandon admitted. “But it’s not likely.”

“How likely is it that Olivia just so happened to snag a ghost out of my past within a few hours of my boarding this train?”

“I have no idea, Mr. Harper. I imagine the odds are quite small.”

The shorter man let out a long suffering sigh. “Well, it’s all we’ve got to go on.”

The Hearth Keeper unlocked the door to the private compartment a minute later. The room was really meant for four, perhaps six if some of them were young children, so it ran out of room quickly. Brandon was in the process of easing himself into a narrow space on the bench beside Cassie when Harper’s hand landed heavily on his shoulder, squeezing uncomfortably. “Well,” Harper said, “get to it. I’ve something of my own to follow up on.”

And then he was moving forward again, heading towards their compartment with purpose. For a moment Brandon wondered what the detective was doing but Cassie gently pulled him the rest of the way into the compartment and his thoughts moved on. The girl, Olivia, had recovered with the strength of youth and now chatted happily with the Hearth Keeper.

“And you’re sure it wasn’t just a nightmare?” The Keeper was asking.

“It wasn’t, ma’am,” she said with great sincerity. “There was a man in the couch with no stomach. Like he just peeked up through the cushions!”

Beside him, Cassie began to hum quietly. For his part, Brandon assessed the children with a more critical eye than he had at first. Olivia looked the youngest, possible still young enough to see a ghost naturally. Clark appeared oldest, at least thirteen and probably fourteen, he would likely reach adulthood in a year or so.

But best to be certain. He cleared his throat and asked, “How old are the three of you?”

The tone of Cassie’s hum changed slightly.

“Eleven,” Olivia said.

“I’m fourteen,” Clark added, “And Annie’s almost thirteen.”

The redhead nodded her affirmation.

Brandon gestured in his sister’s direction. “And what do you see here?”

All three of them stared blankly for a moment. Finally Clark said, “A pretty lady?”

Annie gave him a forceful shove, prompting some purely juvenile outrage. Olivia’s attention turned to them and the Hearth Keeper intervened to break up the argument. Cassie stopped humming.

Once things calmed down the Hearth Keeper turned back, hands clasped, and said, “Well?”

“I’m afraid there’s no sign of either talent among them,” Cassie said. When the woman’s face fell she hastened to add, “But that may be for the best. The path to mastering either gift is very difficult. Still, there might be one among your children. Could we talk to those in the public compartment as well?”

“Of course. You three children had better come with us then.”

The Hearth Keeper bustled the lot of them back out into the passage and towards the back of the train. Brandon spared a moment to look for Roy Harper, but the detective was nowhere to be seen.

Night Train to Hardwick Chapter Two – The Face of Death

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Roy was pounding on the door of the second compartment down when he realized the Fairchilds had followed him. He caught sight of them out of the corner of his eye as they approached and he shook his head. “What do you two think you’re doing?”

“If you’re a railway inspector I think you’d know,” Brandon said. “Nosiness is a part of life on a train.”

Any rejoinder Roy wanted to make was cut off when the compartment door popped open and a worried father peered out, his family in a worried huddle behind him on one of the compartment’s couches. “What’s going on?” The man asked. “Who are you?”

“Roy Harper, Packard Railway Detectives,” Roy said, pointing towards the medallion he was wearing. “Did you hear a scream just now?”

The father nodded as his wife pointed to the wall rearward and said, “It sounded like it came from there.”

“Thank you,” Roy said. “Please stay in your compartment for now. I’ll send the conductor by when we’ve determined everything’s all right.”

He turned and headed towards the next compartment, looking over his shoulder at his erstwhile compartment mates. “I don’t suppose you’ll remain in your compartment as well?”

“Is that an order, Inspector?” Brandon’s sister asked.

“No, Miss Fairchild-”

“Cassandra, please.”

That took Roy a bit aback, he’d heard the Avaloni were sticklers for propriety with names and stations. Maybe there was some nuance to it that Columbia had forgotten. “It’s not an order, Miss Cassandra,” he said, “just a strong suggestion. And the title is Detective. The Creighton Railway Inspectors don’t like us getting confused, although as I see it that would help their business.”

The siblings shared an unreadable look, the kind close knit families tended to use when they needed to communicate some simple thought quickly, without wasting time on things like words. “I’m aware this is your duty,” Brandon said gently, “but perhaps we could be of some assistance. We’re no strangers to trouble on the sky train.”

“I’m sure you’re capable of taking care of yourself,” Roy said, glancing at the saber in Brandon’s belt subconsciously, “but the Packards are trained and competent to protect others and the train itself when it’s airborn. So I’d appreciate it if you’d return to your compartment. The last thing I want is a druid knocking us out of the coalstoking sky.”

He cut off Brandon’s attempt at answering by banging on the next door down the corridor. To his annoyance the Fairchilds remained in the passage but he wasn’t willing to escalate the matter. Not only wouldn’t it help him discover the source of the scream they’d heard, he actively wanted to avoid dealing with druids as much as possible. Not just because it was a healthy lifestyle – he had little patience for such things in his day to day – but because he’d spent enough time in the last week doing just that and he was ready for a break.

The compartment door opened before his thoughts could run further down that rabbit hole, revealing an ashen faced boy of maybe thirteen years. His stringy brown hair hung nearly to his shoulders in disheveled locks. He was dressed in a rumpled brown shirt with no collar over ill fitting denim pants held up by worn red suspenders. Roy immediately recognized him, not personally but for what he was. The other two children in the compartment wore equally rough clothing and looked about the same age. The boy looked up at Roy, licked his lips and asked, “Can I help you, sir?”

Roy removed his hat and said, “Everything all right in there, son? The neighbors said they heard screaming.”

The boy gestured behind him where the other two, both girls in simple, faded dresses, clung to each other. One had short black hair and a tear stained face, the other a stringy redhead with an apologetic expression. “Sorry, sir,” the redhead said. “We think Olivia had a nightmare. She’s… she’s new.”

“What does that-” Roy put a hand in Brandon’s chest and pushed him another step back into the passage. Once both hand and man were out of sight of the girls, Roy pointed emphatically back up the passage towards their compartment.

“Where’s your Hearth Keeper, son?” Roy asked, trying his best to tune out the whispered conversation in the hall behind him.

“She’s in the second public car,” the boy said. “She was going to say the evening cant.”

“Couple of hours late for that,” Roy muttered. Then returned his attention to the children. “But you don’t see anything wrong with the young miss?”

The dark haired girl – Olivia – made an effort to pull herself together. Her lips quivered a bit but she managed to point to the seat across from her and say, “I saw it. There was a dead man in that seat.”

The redhead put a hand on her head, ducking it down a bit. “I’m sorry, sir. Her parents… were in a fire, two months ago. She’s had nightmares for-”

“But he was stabbed!” Olivia wailed. “I don’t know who he was, but it wasn’t Ma or Pa or…” the girl’s voice slipped from coherence into meaningless grief.

“I’m sorry, sir,” the boy said. “She’s not-”

“I understand, son.” Roy donned his hat and stepped out of the doorway. “Do you want me to fetch the Hearth Keeper for you?”

“Excuse me, Mr. Harper?”

Roy took a deep breath and marshaled his patience. At moments like this the whisper of fire running through the body of the train seemed to grow to a shout, telling him the simplest way to solve his problems was to burn them all away. But the role of magic was to listen to him, not the other way around. “What is it, Miss Cassandra?”

“Could I speak to Miss Olivia? There’s a chance she didn’t dream what she saw.”

“I didn’t!” The girl exclaimed, the vote of confidence restoring enough self control to make her coherent again.

There was definitely something out of true in that compartment, whether the young girl was having nightmares about her parents or seeing visions of stranger things, and it was technically Roy’s responsibility to sort it out, at least to the point where he could determine if it was a danger to the train or its passengers. It wasn’t his favorite thing to do but he kept his Packard license for a reason and until he was ready to give it up there wasn’t much choice in the matter. “We’ll go and speak to the Hearth Keeper, then. What’s your name, son?”

The boy started a bit, apparently not expecting to be called on. “Clark, sir.”

“All right, Clark.” He pulled the aluminum medallion off his neck and dropped it into the boy’s hand. “I want you to hold on to that. If anyone comes to your door and checks on you, show them that and tell them I gave it to you while I went to get your Hearth Keeper. All right?”

Clark’s eyes practically bulged out of his head. “Don’t you need this to fly, sir?”

“You can’t fly just by holding a chunk of aluminum, son,” Roy said with a laugh. “You need a lot more of it than that, plus a furnace of fire to empower it. So don’t go getting ideas. Just hang on to that, and know the Packards are looking out for you. We’ll be right back.”

The door swung closed behind him as he started towards the back of the train. The footsteps of the Fairchild siblings fell in behind him. “That was kind of you,” Cassandra said. “They’re all quite lonely and the gift helped. Who are they?”

“Orphans.” Roy waved a hand to encompass the train. “It’s not uncommon for rail lines to offer open space on trains to orphanages, who can send their older children along the route in an attempt to find them living situations. Unfortunately out here there’s always a disaster or plague or Sanna raid or rogue elemental to generate a new crop of kids like them, and we can’t do much but try and place the more independent ones quickly.”

Roy opened the door to the railcar, suspending the conversation as the three of them crossed the wooden boards between the cars. The wind of their thirty mile an hour passage, whistling through the enchanted tin safety mesh, combined with the creaking of the bronze links holding the boards in place and the cars together, made any attempt to talk futile. Only once they were safely inside the first public car, picking their way through the benches, did Brandon speak again.

“I’m surprised I never noticed one of these groups before.”

“We don’t advertise they’re here,” Roy said, giving a meaningful look around the car. Most people ignored them, which was the polite thing to do, but he still didn’t want to bring attention to the large group of children with only two supervisors onboard. “Although the Packards don’t really have a hand in these groups.”

“You’re a Packard, can’t you at least interview one of them?” Brandon asked, sounding skeptical.

“On the strength of Miss Cassandra’s request? No. Besides, I’d prefer not to step on the toes of their caretakers.” He glanced around the train car but didn’t see anyone under the age of fifteen that wasn’t with a family. He still dropped his tone a couple of degrees. “Besides, those kids have been through enough, they don’t need strangers inserting themselves into their lives willy nilly.”

“Willy nilly?” Cassandra asked.

“Yes. Lacksidaisical.”

“Of course.”

The Fairchilds finally stopped asking questions, for which Roy was grateful. They crossed the rest of the car and into the next in silence.

The occupants of the next car all stared at them as they entered, which was odd but not as odd as the way everyone was packed into the back of the seating benches, with four or even five young children crammed into benches meant for two. A middle aged woman in the red and brown robes of the Hearth Keepers was on the left hand side, the youngest children clinging to her. On the right, near the middle of the compartment, was a man about the same age in the gray and blue of the Storm Watch. He was frantically waving them away, eyes roaming through an area halfway between him and the front of the car.

A semitransparent man sat on a bench in that area, his ghostly innards piled around his feet, a bitter expression on his face. When Roy met his eyes the specter’s face morphed into a chilling smile. “Lieutenant Harper.” The ghost’s whisper seemed to reach every corner of the car. “We meet again.”

Night Train to Hardwick Chapter One – Private Compartment

Brandon woke to the sound of a polite, forceful knock at the door of his compartment. The sound of muffled voices in the passage of the train car were too indistinct to make out in its entirety but he picked up the voice of the conductor saying, “very full,” “no vacancies” and “very personable.” A second voice replied but the only thing Brandon caught was “sleep.”

Brandon gently moved his sister’s head off of his shoulder, taking care not to interrupt her rest, and propped her in the corner of the compartment’s north couch then he got to his feet with equal care. After years traveling the Columbian West he was as used to standing on a flying train as stable ground. The train felt momentarily odd under his feet, not bucking and swaying, which meant they must have come to a station while he was sleeping.

The conductor greeted him with his customary attempt at a cheerful smile, the round man’s salt and pepper beard splitting into an unpleasant display of teeth and gums. “Mr. Fairchild, I hope you’re having a pleasant evening.”

“Pleasant enough, sir. May I ask where we’re grounded?”

“Sanford’s Run,” the conductor replied. “I was hoping to talk to you about your compartment.”

“You’d like us to share.” Brandon didn’t phrase it as a question. In fact it was something they’d been asked to do several times while crossing the West.

The conductor stepped to one side, revealing a shortish man in a well tailored but weathered brown suit and a battered derby hat with a set of heavy leather saddlebags slung over one shoulder. “This gentleman transferred to this line on his way to Hardwick station and asked for a private compartment, but I’m afraid they’re all occupied.”

“And we’re two in a compartment that seats four,” Brandon said.

“If you don’t want to share I can easily close my eyes in a public car,” the newcomer said. “It’s barely eight hours to Hardwick, I can find a hotel there to catch up on my sleep.”

“Not at all necessary,” Brandon said, reaching back to open the door to the compartment. “Happy to share. I’m Brandon Fairchild.”

“Roy Harper.” He followed just behind Brandon, setting his battered saddlebags on the compartment’s southern couch across from Cassandra. Harper’s glance fell on her and a glint of sharp interest appeared in his eyes. He swiveled to study Brandon, then back to Cassie. “Your sister?”

It wasn’t hard to make that connection, to be honest. They had the same round face, though she wore it better than he did, and the same straight, dirty blonde hair, and they were only three years apart in age. But Brandon let that fact pass, only saying, “So she is.”

The sharp look vanished and Harper grunted. “You don’t sound like any Columbian I’ve met,” he said as he settled onto the other couch. “You two from Avalon? Maybe somewhere on the Continent?”

“We’re Avaloni.” Brandon sat as well. “We’ve been taking the sights of your lovely country for some time now.”

Harper nodded lazily. “Then you don’t need me to tell you to watch your back. The West isn’t very hospitable to anyone, I’m afraid.”

With that Harper leaned back on the couch, pulled his hat down over his face and was asleep before the sky train lifted off ten minutes later. Brandon marveled at the accomplishment. Even after a year and a half of regular travel by sky train, falling asleep on one was a challenge for him. Harper didn’t even stir during the rough takeoff procedures.

Cassie wasn’t so lucky, starting awake as the train lurched off the ground with a deep, haunting whistle blast. She looked around, eyes bleary, but took Harper’s sudden appearance in the compartment in stride. In a soft tone she murmured, “We have a guest.”

“He came on at the last station,” Brandon said. “Seems harmless enough and he’s planning on getting off at the next station. Speaking of plans, any new insights?”

She shook her head, turning glum. “Nothing. I know we were supposed to take this train but still no idea of when we should get off.” Cassandra took a deep breath and slowly let it out, then wiped her face with her handkerchief. “Sometimes I wonder if this trip is a waste of time.”

“Well it’s only three days back to Stillwater and the Coastal Express, if we turn around at the next station,” Brandon said in a comforting tone. “Maybe you’ll catch wind of a new tune to run down.”

But his sister wasn’t having it. “Not this train. The entire trip. In two weeks I’ll be seventeen and still chasing half heard echoes through the middle of nowhere.”

Brandon shifted uncomfortably and eyed Harper on the opposite couch. The newcomer looked like he was still asleep but Brandon pitched his voice even softer still. “No one questioned your calling at the time, Cassie. Not you, not even Father. What’s changed between now and then?”

“We left home nearly two years ago. We’ve been running around Columbia for more than a year and a half and we’re still empty handed. What have we accomplished, besides nearly getting killed half a dozen times?” Under normal circumstances Cassie could have laughed that off. Under stress her shortcomings would anger her and motivate her to set them right. But today for some reason she sounded outright despondent and it worried him.

So Brandon put his arm over her shoulder and pulled her in tight. “Cassie. You know this whole thing is just a lark for me. Almost no one gets sent out a questing these days, but you got a genuine revelation and I got a chance to get out of sleepy old Avalon and see the world. Sure, I have to see it with my least favorite sister-”

“Only sister.”

“-but everything requires some sacrifice.” He could see his teasing wasn’t having the desired effect. He adjusted to a more serious tone. “You have a chance to really accomplish something here, Cassie. The search hasn’t been easy so far but I’m sure, if you stick it out, you’ll finish quite well.”

“Making myself a spinster in the process.” It was a line of thought they’d covered often in the last six months.

Unfortunately Brandon didn’t have a single sensible reply to it. So he tucked his sister in a little closer and rubbed her back in a comforting fashion. At this point there was little left to be said on the topic for either of them.

So they sat in silence and lost themselves in the rocking of the train, tuning out questions, doubts and the presence of a total stranger as they slowly drifted off to sleep.

Only to jolt awake as a scream cut through the train car. Brandon reached up and grasped the hilt of his saber, resting on the baggage shelf overhead, and looked to the door of the compartment. To his surprise he saw Roy Harper already standing there, pulling on a pair of dueling gloves. Brandon struggled to his feet and pulled his sword from under his carpet bag still sheathed. “Hear anything, Mr. Harper?”

“Nothing,” Harper replied. “Stay in here, I’ll go and take a look.”

Brandon pulled his hip satchel off the shelf and selected an eighteen inch stick of yew from inside it and tucked it into his belt of woven roots. “Stay? Why’s that?”

“What are you planning to do if you come?” Harper asked.

“Render aid. If necessary, break up a fight or do a little of it myself.” Brandon glanced at Roy’s left side meaningfully. “What exactly are you planning to do if it comes to that?”

Harper snorted, checked the fit of his gloves and twitched his suit jacket aside just long enough to draw a black dagger from a hip sheath concealed beneath. It had the look of iron, although it was hard to be sure and with the metal’s magic killing properties Brandon was in no hurry to find out. “I can take care of myself. And more importantly, I can take care of this. It’s kind of my job.”

And he pulled a circular medallion with a star made of crisscrossing railway tracks from one pocket and dropped it around his neck before stepping out into the passage way. Brandon glanced at Cassie. “A railway inspector. I was not expecting that.”

“I admit, he doesn’t exactly fit with the others we’ve met,” she said. “Are we going to wait here?”

“Have we ever?”

But Cassie was already getting to her feet and the two of them followed Harper out into the hall.

Night Train to Hardwick – Forward

One of my favorite novels of recent memory was Night Train to Rigel, the first of Timothy Zahn’s Quadrail series. The part that appealed to me the most was the sense of claustrophobic danger, trapped on a train full of strangers, working with a person who could stab you in the back at any moment. Most of Zahn’s novels are fast paced adventures with a tinge of mystery and layers of intriguing strategy and Rigel is no exception, but this particular tale has a layer of suspense that few other scifi adventures I’ve read have even approached. 

Ever since I read it I wanted to try my own hand at a story in this kind of contained, tense atmosphere. When I first though of the idea that became Hexwood my idea was to tell the story of a sky train crew and the many mishaps they had crossing the country. My first idea was for the crew to face train robbers. My second idea was… there was no second idea. I had a hard time generating any ideas beyond that. However the idea of some kind of event on a sky train stuck in my mind. 

Fastforward to the end of Firespinner. I casually added a line suggesting Roy was a member of the Packard Railway Detectives, for no other reason than to suggest the existence of an equivalent to the Pinkerton Detective Agencey in Columbia’s world. This wasn’t really meant as a serious story hook, just a random worldbuilding element and an excuse for Roy to easily move around the West on the way from one job to another. 

But almost as soon as I finished the end of that story, the beginning of this one sprang into my mind. I knew I had several new characters I wanted to add to Roy’s life, and a meeting on a train seemed fateful. Destiny isn’t a huge theme in Roy’s life but for this one a touch of providence seemed appropriate. And, with my long standing love for Final Fantasy VI‘s ghost train sequence added to the mix, a fairly simple, self-contained premise built itself in the course of about two days. Fleshing out the details was a lengthy but straightforward process, then it was a matter of writing everything down and refining it. 

I’d always intended to look at Roy through the eyes of other people. But one of the things that made Night Train to Hardwick so appealing to me was the opportunity to look at Roy through the eyes of a druid, the order of magic users he’s accidentally stumbled into membership with. Another, of course, was a chance to try my hand at some of those atmospheric dynamics that made Night Train to Rigel so interesting. But another part was that it gave me a direct, very immediate sequel to Firespinner rather than a followup story that alludes to previous events. 

Now you don’t have to read Firespinner to understand Night Train to Hardwick. But since I am trying to unpack Roy’s character a little more by looking at him through other eyes, it might help you to hear the entire first story, which is told entirely from his perspective and get a firmer sense of his character from that. There’s also a bunch of allusions in here that you’ll appreciate more if you have the greater context of that story. Most of all, you’ll get a broader sense of the world, its history and how it functions from that story. This tale is very much about a single sky train, its passengers, and what happens to them one night as they make the trip from Sanford’s Run to Hardwick. 

So all aboard, dear audience, and present your tickets. The train will be lifting off in seven days! We hope you’ll enjoy your trip.