They were halfway up the length of the train when Cassie grabbed Brandon’s arm and hissed, “Did you hear that?”
“No,” he replied, eyes scanning the walls and corners of the public car but unable to pinpoint a source for her mysterious sound. Not even the ghosts were present at the moment. “What did it sound like?”
“Some kind of pipe or flute,” she said. “It’s playing a marching tune.”
“That’s probably a bad sign,” Brandon muttered, moving faster towards the forward door. The whole car bucked under their feet and two dozen voices screamed, gasped or sobbed in unison. “That’s even worse.”
“Something hit the train’s roof,” Cassie said.
“Two cars ahead? Maybe three?” Her eyes tracked something along the ceiling of the car. A loud bang and the ceiling cracked as a heavy weight rolled along the roof. Cassie’s expression turned to horror. “That’s Mr. Harper!”
Brandon immediately turned about, following the clunking sounds along the roof. “Is he saying anything you can make out?”
“Not over the sound of the army.”
“Dust and ashes,” Brandon muttered, feeling the yew dig deeper into his bones as it woke to danger, filaments weaving through his muscles and hardening his skin like bark. When he hit the breezeway at the end of the car he looked up. Harper was not in sight. So Brandon unhooked the mesh around the passage, reached one hand up and hauled himself onto the roof of the train.
The wind grabbed him as soon as his head broke over the top of the train car and tears filled his eyes as the force of the air assulted them. With the wind came a steady stream of horrific wails and screams. In the distance, empty grassland and high bluffs moved past at a pace made deceptively slow by the miles between the train and the horizon. Brandon put a hand up to block some of the wind and his vision cleared more. There, on the roof of the next car down, was Roy Harper, wielding his iron knife in a vain attempt to hold back a raging horde of ghosts.
It was hard to pick out details through the overlapping layers of spectral shapes. Harper’s body was clear for only split seconds at a time and, by straining a bit, Brandon could tell that there was some kind of solid form at the center of the horde, held aloft by dozens or hundreds of ghosts clustering around it. Waves of ghosts were buffeting against Harper in spite of his best efforts to keep them away. By the time Brandon got up on the roof himself Harper had taken another spill, tumbling halfway down the length of the car. The ghosts were trying to knock him clean off the train but he was staying low enough that he could turn a slip from a lethal mistake into a painful fall along the roof.
“Harper!” Brandon called, trying to find his own balance as the wind from the train’s passage buffeted him. “Push this way!”
Whether because the wind took the words away or because the sound of the ghost army drowned out his voice Harper didn’t hear. Instead he took another step back and hopped over the gap to the next car back. Brandon marveled at how certain his footing was, how easily Harper kept his feet in spite of the rushing air and raging ghosts.
Unexpected hands clamped on to his shoulders and Cassie’s voice came over the wind. “Get me closer.”
“What are you doing here?” Brandon demanded. “You can barely make yourself heard.”
“They don’t have to hear me for the power to take hold.” The tone of her voice was so startling that he turned to look and saw the most focused, ferocious expression he’d ever seen on her face.
“Don’t let go,” Brandon said, digging his heels in and shifting his focus from the yew within to that without, digging the short yew rod he carried out of his belt. It sprouted roots that looped up and around his shoulders and Cassie’s hands. With his sister mostly secured he quickly pushed towards the other end of the train car, muscles and yew roots working in tandem to move down the train.
In some ways having the wind at his back made traversing the car harder, not easier. Each step required deliberation, caution and precision or the wind could blow them right off the roof. Even with the weight of two people together it was difficult. At first he and Cassie couldn’t move in coordination. In fact they nearly tripped each other the first time they tried to take a step and, to make matters worse, Cassie’s hair came free of its bun and whipped into his face adding another complication.
Harper didn’t seem to have any better time of it. No matter how he tried Brandon couldn’t get any closer to him. The other man kept giving ground before the army of ghosts to the point where there was almost no train left! By dint of practice and a careful squint Brandon closed the distance between them to half a train car and the ghosts were starting to take note of him and his sister. The sound of spectral wailing seemed to change in tone and tenor as the spotted Cassie. “Poor things,” she said. “Most of them have no idea why they’re here. They’ve been shackled by one of their own.”
“So they have.” Brandon was so startled by Sam Jenkins’ unexpected arrival that he nearly took a fatal slip.
“Dust and ashes, warn a man next time,” he grumbled.
“You can see him there near the top.” Jenkins pointed vaguely towards a glowing mass near the top of the ghost army.
If he squinted, Brandon thought he could make out a slightly brighter figure in the overlapping mass Jenkins was pointing to. “Must be the ghost that was haunting Harper,” Brandon said. “He said it was a Captain. How do I put it down?”
“You can’t,” Cassie replied. “Ghosts are magic rooted in a vessel of water vapor. There’s nothing solid for you to cut or break. I’ll have to siphon off the power giving them shape.”
“I can hear the harmonies, Brandon! This was the call that brought us here! Just keep the ghosts at bay as best you can.”
There were some things people had to chose for themselves. Once Affirmed an adult at the age of fifteen there was little family or friends could do to change someone’s mind once they made it up and, for better or worse, the Fairchild gift had fallen to Cassandra. If she chose to use it there was nothing he could do. Just keep her safe. “Very well, then, if they turn nasty I’ll keep the ghosts back as best I can.”
“Use the thing that you used to call me,” Jenkins said. “It’s got a darkness to it, to be sure, but that’ll encourage most of them to to move on rather than stay near it. But Roy said not to do anything until he reaches the caboose.”
“What?” Brandon demanded. “Why?”
“Best of luck, Fairchilds! Go in peace, for we’ll not meet in this world again.” The ghost vanished into the wind.
“Our Lady guide you to warm hearthfires,” Cassie called.
“Our Lord call you to walk with the storm,” Brandon said. Then, as an afterthought, “If they even have either of those in the Great Beyond.”
“Let them get a few steps further ahead,” Cassie said. “Best not to draw their attention to us before we begin.”
“It might be too late for that,” Brandon said, eyeing the fringes of the army. Ghosts there still eyed them with suspicion.
He was wondering how they might go about distracting them when Harper tumbled off the edge of the baggage car, disappearing into the gap between it and the caboose.