The landing wasn’t as easy as Roy had hoped. For most of the harrowing journey over the top of the train the ghost army had been more help than hindrance. Apparently only held in existence by the Colberts, living and dead, the specters lacked any kind of group cohesion. They were confused, uncoordinated and clumsy, easily avoided even as he used their actions to bait the conductor further and further down the train. Now they were almost to a point where they could avoid catching anyone in the battle to come. That was why he’d dropped off the roof when he had.
He bashed his shoulder hard against the side of the caboose when he landed, numbing his left arm for a moment, but it was the last thing on his mind. A quick glance inside the car showed only two porters sitting at a dining table. Their half eaten food sat in front of them as they stared out the window at him in confusion. Roy held his detective’s medallion up to the window and frantically waved them out of the caboose. “Go forward! Now! Move, move, move!”
Whether they heard him, inferred his meaning or just saw the ghosts coming and fled in terror, the porters were on their feet in seconds. One yanked the door open and pulled him in, the other looked out in bewilderment. “What’s going on?”
“The Fairchilds have a plan.” Jenkins’ ghost pushed through the table with the announcement, startling both porters, who stared at it for a moment before belatedly taking Roy up on his advice and sprinting out the door. Jenkins continued as if he hadn’t even seen them. “Miss Cassandra has some way to disperse the army but you may need to distract it for them.”
Roy nodded. “They’re welcome to try their approach, although I’ve settled on one of my own.” He watched as the fringes of the ghostly horde began seeping through the ceiling and walls of the caboose. “I owe you another apology, Jenkins.”
“I told you not to worry about it, didn’t I?”
“Well, it turns out this did all come back to me after all. Never meant to get you caught up in a personal vendetta, you clearly had enough to deal with in life.”
The ghost gave an unsettling, hollow laugh. “The opposite, if I’m truthful. And whatever the reason, I’m still glad to have the chance to be useful again. Now do what you must. I’ll try and drag that nasty Captain away from the horde while you’re at it.”
The ghost dove back through the floor and out of sight. The first rank of the ghost army was through the walls and, as Jenkins said, it was time to do what he must.
Under normal circumstances Roy found working on a sky train pretty distracting. Each car was essentially a box with an aluminum frame resting on eight thinker aluminum slabs, all pumped full of magic piped in from the locomotive’s furnace in a massive network of bronze pipes. It was very difficult to get away from the constant buzz of the fires keeping the train aloft. For once that was an advantage and not a hindrance. Before the the ghosts reached him Roy got a firm grip on the fire coursing through the pipes in the walls and coaxed it into the walls themselves. With a push it burned through the wood in a breath, turning the material to ash and sweeping the ghosts passing through it away like cobwebs. That left him basically in the open air. Standing in the middle of creaking mass of bronze pipes and aluminum bars, looking up at the conductor through the mass of wailing ghosts.
The flames coiled around his feet, waiting for him to direct them, slowly eating away at the floor of the cabin. “This is your opportunity to surrender,” Roy said. “You’ve scared a lot of people but no one’s gotten hurt yet. And there’s no coalstoking way you’re killing me with those floppy little ghosts to work with.”
“You didn’t say he could do that,” Colbert screamed. Roy thought he could pick out his brother’s ghost, whispering in his ear. Or perhaps screaming in it.
Jenkins reappeared, looking upset. “No good. The army’s figured out I’m not on their side and won’t let me pass.”
Roy pulled his gloves on tighter and gripped his knife, trying to ignore the way the iron tugged greedily on the magic swirling around him. Under normal circumstances iron wasn’t enough to distract him if it didn’t touch him directly. But he’d never held this much power in his mind while also holding the dagger. It was a considerable distraction. “What happens if I just kill the living one?”
“You satisfied wiping out all the men in a family?” Jenkins asked.
“Satisfaction has nothing to do with it. Besides, by this point in my life I’m sure I’ve killed an only son at least once so it’s the wrong time to start worrying about it.”
“Have care with that logic,” Jenkins murmured. “But yes, I think if you kill the conductor the Captain will have to depart this world.”
“Give it up, Colbert,” Roy yelled, drawing the conductor’s attention back to him. “Last warning.”
Colbert’s eyes locked with Roy’s, deep and unsettling wells of black that didn’t seem to register anything before them. “Give up what?” He demanded. “This is my chance to finally be rid of both of you!”
“Be quiet,” ghost Colbert screamed. “Just finish him!”
That certainly explained the conductor’s motivation. And seeing that there really wasn’t much chance he would give up Roy gathered the power around him and pushed it down into the aluminum slab under his feet. The entire car bucked beneath his feet, twisting back and forth as the power lifting it went wildly out of balance. Under normal circumstances the engineers in the locomotive would even things out. But with Roy monopolizing all the power in the car there was little they could do but feed more flame through the bronze pipes that connected the train. And that just gave Roy more power to work with.
It only took a few seconds for him to tear the flight panel free of the car and send it shooting up towards Colbert. In his mind, Roy imagined a relatively straight ascent. But the panel came free from one end, then swung around the other before breaking free of the pipes, nearly throwing Roy off in the process. He lost his dagger as he flailed for balance. With his weight shifting all over the place the panel rose in an awkward spiral, clipped one side of the caboose frame and knocked Roy clean off. His only turn of good luck was landing on an undamaged part of the cabin floor rather than falling a section that couldn’t take his weight or missing the floor entirely. The flight panel continued to rise precipitously under the influence of the magic within, taking the bulk of Roy’s available fire power with it.
Above, Colbert cackled and the ghost army surged down again. The horde moved with enough force that the caboose shook under the force of their passage. Roy grabbed for fire, gathering what scraps were left in the frame and what was coming in from the front of the train. It wasn’t much and the car dropped slightly as even more power drained out of it. The ghosts came at him with chilling fingers, howling. Roy had seen this a dozen times on the trip down the train and it wasn’t any different than all the previous times the Colberts had tried it. Creativity had never been the captain’s strong point and the conductor seemed no different.
Roy simply wrapped himself in a layer of warmth that kept the worst of the ghostly chill at bay. The horde still battered him with the force of a heavy wind but it was no different than standing on top of a train moving at thirty miles an hour. But he had no counterattack.
The force of the army was enough to keep him low to the ground and would quickly drown out the force of any fire blast he launched with the tatters of power left available to him. And Colbert wasn’t getting any closer. For a moment Roy regretted the loss of his falcatta, an excellent weapon for compressed, long range flame strikes with the potential to break through the wind. It was definitely better suited to the situation than an iron dagger.
Colbert was slow to the uptake but not stupid. He did notice that his army wasn’t gaining purchase on Roy and its attention shifted from him to the structure of the car. The specters crashed into the copper piping, the aluminum frame and the floorboards. The car groaned and bucked wildly under the onslaught, forcing Roy to grab the aluminum frame with both hands to avoid a lethal fall.
He skittered back and forth along the remnants of the floor, seeking one of the remaining flight panels for firmer footing. It was easier to stand up on it but still less than ideal. “I’ve been in the air every bit as long as you, Colbert,” he called. “It’s going to take more than that to knock me down.”
The engineers up front noticed that the caboose was off balance again and sent a fresh wave of magic towards the rear of the train to balance out the lift. There wasn’t much chance of that happening but it refilled some of Roy’s reserves. He devoted part of his attention to flashburning the last of the floorboards, gathering a bit more fire power into his orbit, and sent a trial fireblast in Colbert’s direction. The ghosts dispersed it with ease. The last vestiges of flame disappeared in the wind before covering half the distance between them.
But some of the ghosts vanished in the process and they didn’t start reforming as the others did. That was when Roy noticed the clear, clarion call ringing faintly over the roar of the wind, the screams of the army and the crackling flame.
A long, unbroken note rose on the moonlight, calling mortal thoughts upwards on starlight arpeggios. And as the sound echoed past the train, crossed the hundreds of feet between and struck the earth beneath a deep, rumbling harmony joined in. Stonesong. The voice of permanence, of endurance, of foundations. A reminder to the fragile and transient things of the world that there was a time for their glittering ambitions and a time to lay them aside for the unknown.
And one by one, the army of ghosts lost their furious expressions. Rage, hope, disappointment, love and fear all vanished, replaced with a glimpse of peace before they faded from view. Colbert’s army was slowly slipping away, defecting to eternity one soul at a time.
With the same speed as before Colbert’s attention snapped away from Roy and to the top of the next car forward, where Roy could barely make out the Fairchilds. Cassandra’s song seemed to carve an area of supernatural calm around them. But Colbert wasn’t having it and, riding high on his army of spirits, he didn’t even have to move to strike them, just gesture with a hand. The ghosts turned away from Roy and charged towards the stone singer. Getting closer to the source of the sound didn’t increase its power at all, the ghosts continued to disappear at the same rate as before.
But they were vanishing even as they closed on the Fairchilds. While Roy watched at least a dozen of them winked away in the few seconds it took to close with them. But he guessed the army was still hundreds strong. Colbert would kill them before the song could wipe all the ghosts away.
The copper heating pipes weren’t meant to hold a man’s weight. But they could serve as stabilizing hand and footholds as Roy scrambled up the aluminum flight frame. With Colbert’s attention elsewhere the tortured remnants of the caboose were stable again but the climb was still a challenge. Roy nearly lost his grip on the flight frame twice. Once he reached the top Roy wedged himself into a corner of the frame, finding it a much better position to launch an attack from. There was a heating pipe within arm’s reach he could draw magic from. With both feet wedged into the corner he opened his mind to the power in the copper pipe and channeled as much of it as he could into a single continuous blast at the conductor. The car dipped and bucked as the loss of magic to the flight frame took its toll. Roy cut off his attack and focused on keeping his balance.
When he looked up to resume the attack he found the spectral horde screaming back towards him. The car wrenched badly as they slammed into it. Then, whether due to the sudden changes in temperature, the jarring movement or just some imperfection in frame itself, the bar Roy was holding on to broke. He swayed at the end of the aluminum strut for a moment. Then the caboose frame swung back the other way and the aluminum snapped entirely and and plummeted towards the ground with Roy still on it.