Long exposure had taught Roy to ignore the whispers of fire that pervaded the typical sky train. And the voice of fire was everywhere. In the excited babble of flames rushing through the copper pipes that channeled and enhanced its magical force. In the liberated shouts of that heat bursting out and up through the aluminum flight panels built into the frames of each car. And even in the buzzing ambient heat of the passenger’s body temperature. It was all background noise to him at this point. But sometimes even background noise got too loud to ignore.
Roy have never visited a locomotive when it was in flight.
The noises of exertion that accompanied shoveling coal, the murmurs of the train’s vulcanists as they made adjustments, the whistling sound of air rushing through the chamber to keep the crew cool, were all inaudible to his ears. They heard only roaring fury, desperate purpose and the promise of power. The voice of the locomotive’s engine. He couldn’t stay.
With sudden resolve he turned away from the arcane crystals and lenses of the monitoring station and pushed past the conductor. The giant copper furnace that powered the train and forest of copper pipes that distributed its blessings weren’t exactly in the way but he still shrank back from them, the furious power within a distraction he didn’t need. Finally he broke out into the breezeway, cool night air rushing past and sweeping away the heat and noise. The corridor in the compartment car beyond was quiet and empty, save for the occasional flicker of ghostly motion, and Roy took a moment to enjoy the solitude.
Then the conductor burst through the door and joined him. “Is everything all right, sir?” He asked, hands clasped anxiously in front of him. “You didn’t look well, back there.”
“Just distracted by the heat,” Roy said. “You said you haven’t seen any spirits at this end of the train, even now?”
“That’s right.” He nodded. “The engineers think the power in the furnace is keeping them away.”
“Or it’s the back line,” Roy mused.
“The ghosts are on the move.” Roy gestured back to the door behind them. “You saw them just now, as we passed through the breezeway. It’s possible that they just haven’t reached the locomotive yet, or maybe it has some other arcane significance to them.”
The conductor looked aghast. “You mean they could be drawing power from the furnace?”
Roy shook his head as he started towards the other end of the car, hoping to find the Fairchilds at the rear of the train and compare notes. “I’m not well versed in ghosts and their magical natures, but I vaguely recall the average specimen being tied to the air more than fire for power, though they tend to use both water and earth as mediums. Either way I could see a sky train attracting them or serving as a locus for their power very easily. But I doubt the furnace itself would be an attractive power source for them or whoever is gathering them.”
As they crossed into the next breezeway the conductor stared out at the gathering ranks of ghosts, new lines of fear or something similar sketching over his face. As they stepped into the dining car he grabbed Roy’s arm and pulled them into a booth, sitting opposite him at the table. “What are you trying to say?” The conductor asked, his voice low, unnecissarily so given the car was empty of all but two passengers and the staff. “Has someone onboard summoned all these spirits? Is that even possible?”
“I don’t know the answer to either of those questions,” Roy admitted. “But I have made preparations to consult the literature.”
The conductor watched as Roy pulled a small, black leatherbound book from his jacket’s inside pocket. “What’s that?”
“The notes of some very skilled and experienced monster hunters and arcanists,” Roy said. It was, in fact, the original copy of Sir Pellinore’s Records of the Hunting Wylds, a record dating back to Arthur’s Stone Circle and, based on what Roy had seen of the early pages, one of the most comprehensive accounts of monstrous creatures in the history of Avalon. But Roy left that and his difficulties reading the thing out. Mostly so he wouldn’t have to explain how he got it or what he had to do to access the later parts of it.
To say nothing of who gave it to him.
“That thing has a section on ghosts?” The conductor looked skeptical.
“Hopefully more than one.” Roy thumbed through the pages but reached the end far faster than its width would suggest. “It’s also got a mind of its own. But according to the table of contents it should only take a few hours to reach one of them.”
“But you don’t know for sure it will tell you what kind of phenomenon this is?”
“No. But the authors tend to review what is known in general about a supernatural thing before discussing the particulars of their hunt.” Roy drummed his fingers on the cover. “Hopefully this can tell me something more than the Fairchilds could.”
“Oh?” The conductor’s eyebrows shot up like startled caterpillars. “Is that why you went back to your compartment to talk to them?”
“No, actually, they came-” Roy froze, mid sentence, when the incongruity hit him. “They came to me.”
Roy got to his feet, shoving Pellinore’s Journal back into his pocket.
“What’s the matter?” The conductor asked, scrambling to keep up.
But Roy didn’t answer, dashing back through the first compartment car and up to the tender car. There, by the doorway, was the clipboard with the train’s crew roster on it.
“What’s the matter?” The conductor asked, gasping as he pushed the door closed behind them. “Do you think the Fairchilds have something to do with this?”
“We weren’t in our compartment,” Roy murmured. “We were actually in the next compartment over.”
The other man’s brow furrowed. “And? Packards are allowed to enter any part of the train if they have cause.”
Roy turned the clipboard around to show him the name written at the top of the crew roster. “But you didn’t know that. And yet you came straight to that compartment, not our compartment. How did you know where to find me, Mr. Colbert?”
Colbert backpedaled half a step. “I don’t know what-”
The clipboard clattered to the ground as Roy grabbed him by the lapels and shook him. “Maybe you’re brother’s ghost told you? Hm?”
All pretense of ignorance vanished and the conductor’s face turned hard. “You really are a violent, stubborn man, aren’t you, Mr. Harper?”
“Never mind me. What’s this all about, Colbert?”
“You killed my brother and cursed me with his coalstoking ghost. Now it’s high time that score was settled.”
Roy snorted. “Funny. There’s a lot about me the Captain never knew and plenty more that’s changed in the last decade. But even if you had a plan for me, you don’t even have a knife on you.”
The conductor snorted back. “I’ve got better than that, although I’d hoped for a little more time to gather them.”
A warning tickled at the back of Roy’s mind but he did his best to ignore it. That possibility could be dealt with when the other man was secure. “Come on, Colbert. It’s time we found a hole to keep you in until we get to Hardwick.”
With a single sharp move he spun the conductor around and slammed him face first into the wall, intending to get ahold of his hands. But instead Colbert sank into a wave of ghosts pushing through the wall and grabbing at Roy with cold, clammy hands. A blast of flame from his cufflinks kept them at bay for a brief moment, long enough for Roy to backpedal towards the door. To his surprise he saw Jenkins ghost step out of the horde, looking panicked. “I found the leader, Roy,” it shouted. “But I can’t reason with him or break his power!”
“Never mind that, then!” Roy ripped the door open and vaulted up to grab the roof of the train. “Get the Fairchilds and have them meet me at the caboose. Make sure they don’t try anything until I get that far, understand? Not until then!”
If Jenkins answered Roy didn’t hear it. He was too busy scrambling over the roof of the train, trying to stay ahead of the raging ghosts that boiled out of the tender car screaming his name.