It turned out people were seeing ghosts all over the train. Once he retrieved his amulet from Oliver, who returned it with only a touch of reluctance, Roy went up and down the length of the train and found at least one person who had seen ghost in all six passenger cars, though not in the locomotive or caboose. The crew seemed to be exempt from the hauntings so far, recent deaths among them or no. However both the conductor and the porters admitted they were seeing people talking to empty air with growing frequency.
Roy himself didn’t see Colbert again, or any ghosts at all.
As he worked his way forward through the trained after ninety minutes of fruitless talking he found himself no closer to understanding what was going on than he had when he started. There weren’t any through lines among the people who admitted to seeing ghosts in terms of age, place of origin or kind of ghost haunting them. But the mood in the train was shifting from the bored acceptance of most travelers to quietly repressed panic and that worried him. Panicked passengers were a danger to themselves and others.
He was expecting to find the orphan car to be in the worst mood of them all, given their circumstances and likelihood of being haunted. Instead he walked into a wall of noise.
The children were singing and clapping along with some kind of high spirited marching song with a steady cadence and simple tune, well suited to the untrained voices of the young or soldiers on the march. As Roy passed between the rows of orphans the sound took up residence in his breastbone, ringing through his body with a joyous, coppery tone. At the far end of the car he finally spotted the source of the sound. Cassandra Fairchild sat on a bench there with a young girl on her lap, leading the song as the child laughed and clapped wildly.
For a moment irrational excitement surged through Roy, carried on a wave of light, airy magic. Then his own fiery reserves roared forth in response. The rush of joy and anger warred for a moment before Roy’s iron hand of discipline, built over years, clamped down on both and returned them to their places. With joy and anger both quietly bubbling in the back of his mind Roy had a moment to just appreciate the music and its results. Fear was swept out of the car, driven by the bronze blade of rhythm and song. Thirty children, theoretically the most fearful and vulnerable people on the train, had become a bastion against the ghosts. He waited for a moment, listening but not joining with the song.
Once it was finished and the children had dissolved into laughing and excited discussion Roy approached and put a hand on Cassandra’s shoulder. “A moment of your time, Ms. Cassandra?”
She looked up in momentary surprise, her eyes wide, deep blue pools filled with the sparkling power of the storm. Then they focused on him and she frowned. “Will it take long? The children are restless.”
Roy gestured around the cabin, rapidly shifting from a gleeful energy to a sleepy contentment. “You seem to have worn them out.”
The Hearth Keeper, who was seated in the row in front, turned hallway around and said, “Go on, Cassie, he’s right. I think I can manage them like this, I already have for the last two weeks!”
The young woman deliberated for a moment then sighed and carefully shifted the girl out of her lap and got her settled on the bench. Even this child was quickly drifting off to dreamland. A moment later they were quickly moving towards the front of the train. An odd air settled around Cassandra, a distance that Roy couldn’t quite parse. He realized that Brandon wasn’t there as a buffer between them and he wasn’t entirely sure what direction to take with the conversation. Brandon had made an agreement and Cassandra had theoretically overheard it, but she hadn’t shared in it directly.
“Allow me to congratulate you, Ms. Cassandra,” he said as a way to make conversation.
“On?” There was a surprising edge to the question.
“Well… on setting up a stronghold in the center of the train,” Roy said, a bit taken aback. “I’m sure the children appreciate it if nothing else.”
“Oh… yes, I see.” She deflated a bit, whatever nerve Roy had touched apparently salved and the crackling energy leftover from her song quickly dissipating into the atmosphere. Her presence in the room diminished as well. “So why did you ask me to leave them?”
“Because I hope you can help me ensure their safety – at least to the extent we can at two hundred feet.” His gaze swept over their current car as they passed through it. It was a normal car, not set aside for orphans, and the passengers were the usual mix of middle class individuals with the occasional family mixed in, all moving to parts unknown. But even here there was an undercurrent of tension he could pick up on.
“And what could I do toward that end?” Cassandra asked.
Roy held up a finger, forestalling the conversation, unsure if anyone in the cabin was related to the ghost plague. But there was no indication that anyone gave them a second thought. Nevertheless, only once they cleared the passageway between cars and he confirmed the corridor was empty did he answer her question.
“I had a thought, just now,” he said, “and I hoped you could give me your thoughts on it.”
“Go on.” She seemed a bit more open to the discussion now. Perhaps she was just nervous in front of the crowd.
“Your brother tells me ghosts are tied to people via some emotional bond.”
“Simplistic but accurate,” she said with a smile. “Brandon’s forte.”
“Where is he, by the way?”
“He turned peckish ten minutes or so ago and went to the dining car for a sandwich. The yew shares its power with him but he is also the soil it draws nourishment from. If he is hungry his power wanes.” Another trip between cars halted the conversation for a moment. She resumed as he held the door to their car open for her. “But to your question, yes, some part of a person’s dying thoughts can shape a spell that becomes what’s called a ghost. The feelings and direction of a person’s thoughts molds a ghost in that sense, forming a sort of magical echo of those moments that lives on after them.”
Roy opened the door to their compartment as he mulled that over. “Does the feelings of the person on the other end have any impact on it?”
Cassandra swept into the compartment, a contemplative look on her face. “Perhaps. But not much of one, I would think. Places and objects can be haunted just as easily as people and clearly they do not have feelings as you and I do, yet those ghosts are as fully formed as those that haunt people. But perhaps a haunted person tints the ghost, like a colored film over a lantern would tint the light? I don’t know as anyone has ever studied it, or how you would do it without becoming a monster.”
Roy frowned, watching as the young woman’s hair drifted slowly behind her, his mind absently mulling over other approaches to the problem. “So feelings direct the ghost?”
“The feelings of a long dead person, certainly,” she mused, turning to regard him with a skeptical look. “Why?”
“You just turned thirty or forty frightened orphans into the happiest people on the train.” A deep blush spread over cheeks and up to her bangs, which were just now settling into place. Roy’s frown deepened. “Couldn’t you change the mood of the ghosts just as easily? Redirect them elsewhere?”
“It’s not clear if ghosts have feelings of their own or if they’re just an echo of the dead.” She looked more and more flustered for some reason. “As I said, they’re defined by the people who died when they were created and they’re quite static. You can overwhelm them and break them, but it’s incredibly difficult. Or…”
She trailed off, her gaze unfocusing and her attention drifting. After a moment Roy decided to prompt her. “Did you hear something, Miss Cassandra?”
“No. I was just thinking of whether you could swamp their feelings…”
He cocked his head, trying to parse that. “I don’t understand.”
“Certain sounds naturally cancel each other. Our feelings aren’t quite the same, but you can drown them in other emotions…” She shook her head, her loose hair drifting in a nimbus around her. “But as far as I know its never been tried. I have no notion whether it would work or not.”
As he watched her hair settle into place inspiration struck. “What if you channeled your magic through something we know does effect ghosts?”
“Again, it’s never been tried so…”
“Let’s try an experiment.” Her eyes widened as he crossed over to her and flinched away as he reached up over her shoulder to collect his saddlebags. She darted over to the other side of the compartment, looking a bit indignant for some reason. But it probably wasn’t important so he just retrieved the bundle from the pouches and unwrapped it. “This is an old Sana artifact called a nawonota.”
The indignation drained from her face when he fully unwrapped the old bits of leather and ivory for her inspection and ghostly air whipped her hair about her face. “What is that sound?”
“I’m afraid I don’t hear anything,” Roy admitted.
“Nothing good was in there.”
“Don’t I know it. But the ghost that was here had most of its power dispersed.” He held the pieces out to Cassandra. “Perhaps you can repurpose the magic that’s left to influence the ghosts in some way?”
She looked at the fragments of the relic doubtfully. “That’s one very unsavory artifact, Mr. Harper. I don’t know if I can help you with it or not.”
Roy sighed. “It was only a thought. I’d hoped the old ghosts atunement to the power of the air might make it easier to use, your being a stone singer. But-”
He actually saw the inspiration strike. “An interesting thought, Mr. Harper. There is a sort of melody to it.” She took the pieces from him, her fingers brushing his with an electric snap. “I might have something at that. But I think I’d need your help with the experiment…”
Roy smiled and gestured for her to continue. “By all means.”