Night Train to Hardwick Chapter Eight – Shades of Cold

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Technically, as a Railway Detective, Roy was able to enter other people’s compartments as needed. He’d only ever done it twice, both times to check on passengers who’d fallen asleep and overstayed their time on a train, so it still felt strange to just let himself into a compartment in use by others, even if they weren’t there. He did his best to ignore the luggage, discarded coats and other signs of habitation. Instead he focused on Jenkins’s ghost, who stood looking out the window and making the whole experience even more surreal.

“You’re sure you want to be here?” He asked. “The girl says you’re just an afterimage, like an echo. So I suppose you’re not really being hurt but still…”

“You’ve changed since we last met.” Roy gave Jenkins’s ghost a curious look. “I suppose it’s been a few years but still…”

The mirroring was uncanny. The shade matched his tone, cadence and even choice of final words. Roy wasn’t sure if it was some kind of ploy or just something intrinsic to the nature of ghosts but he was sure that it wasn’t the kind of behavior Sam Jenkins would have indulged in his life. Once again he wondered if the spirit was partially a projection of his own mind rather than an echo of a man he’d met years ago, during the Summer of Snow.

“Do you remember?” Jenkins asked, unprompted. “When the Browncoat told us he could only fight the cold if we paid him?”

Roy shifted on his feet, uncomfortable. “Yes, I remember.”

“I thought you would tear him apart yourself.” The ghost moved as if it was laughing but to Roy’s horror he just heard a distant wail. “When he refused to leave I started to hate him. I hated myself more when we finally agreed to his price.”

Roy shoved his hands awkwardly into his back pockets. “I felt much the same at the time.”

“There are worse deals to make,” Jenkins whispered. “Many times since I’ve wondered if he was trying to show us we should be careful when we strike a pact. Many times I’ve wondered what happened to him, to ask. Do they still talk about him?”

“From time to time, in the Treaty Lands,” Roy admitted. “I take it you haven’t seen him since Tyson’s Run?”

“Not me, or Tad Heller.”

“Heller’s still kicking?” Roy whistled. “That old man has spirit, I’ll give him that.”

“In the end I convinced him.”

Jenkins abrupt, unprompted subject changes left Roy off balance. “Of?”

“That the Browncoat was untrustworthy. That the price was too high to ask for help of the Strongest Man in the World a second time.” The train car shuddered under Roy’s feet and he found himself anxiously looking about, expecting the specter to give way before the arrival of the single most terrifying human being Roy had met in his life. But the moment passed, the name of power unanswered. If it noticed the momentary disruption Jenkins’ ghost gave no sign of it. “I made the choice to seek another deal. I paid a different price. And I never stopped paying that price until the day I died. Let me do one last thing, free of those shackles once more.”

Roy nodded, starting to see what the ghost was trying to say. “Then let’s see if we can figure out what’s going on here.” He raised his voice a shade. “Are you done over there, Fairchilds?”

After a moment’s pause Brandon appeared in the doorway. “Well?”

“I do have a few questions for the pair of you.” Cassandra joined her brother and they crowded into the compartment. “First of all, we need to assess the situation. Miss Cassandra, you can hear the ghosts even if you can’t see them?”

“A little,” she admitted. “But it’s hard to tell them apart. And I think they’ve started avoiding me since I led the children in the March of Joy.”

“There is something frightful about you,” Jenkins admitted. “As if staying near you will send us somewhere far away. If that makes sense.”

“It doesn’t,” Roy muttered.

“No surprise,” the specter said. “If it helps, I can see the other ghosts.”

“That was going to be my next question,” Roy said. “We need to figure out where the ghosts are concentrated and who, if anyone, on the train may be attracting them before we take any steps to clear up the situation.”

“Is it even necessary to clear it up?” Cassandra asked. “They’re unsettling but not dangerous, at least so far.”

“I’m afraid it is,” Roy said. “To protect the K&O Railway Company’s reputation if nothing else. No one wants to ride a haunted train.”

“Do you think this is some kind of sabotage?” Brandon asked. “An attempt to discredit the rail line by rivals?”

“It’s a possibility,” Roy said. “But I was thinking of the Gulf Locomotion Company that went bankrupt because people wouldn’t ride with them after a passenger died mid flight and haunted the train.”

“That’s a bit different don’t you think?” Cassandra asked.

“Doesn’t matter,” Roy said. “The way the West works, people will jump to conclusions regardless. But ultimately I suspect summoning this many ghosts here is not the easiest way to bankrupt K&O, there must be dozens of easier ways about it. So I find sabotage unlikely.”

Brandon folded his arms with a thoughtful air. “What is your working theory?”

“Someone is forming an army,” Jenkins’ ghost said.

A moment of silence filled the compartment. Roy gave Jenkins a hard look. “What makes you say that?”

“Well, I’m no soldier, that’s certain.” Jenkins leaned his body halfway out the wall and looked about outside the train, his voice still somehow echoing through the compartment. “But the ghosts out here certainly look like an army.”

Roy shifted uneasily. “They’re in a formation? Banners? Officers?”

“The first and last, though no banners,” Jenkins confirmed. “Although not all of ’em have uniforms the leaders definitely do. And there’s the numbers.”

“How many ghosts are out there?” Cassandra asked, a slight quaver entering her voice.

“At least a couple hundred of them and it looks like there’s more coming,” the specter said.

“Dust and ashes,” Roy muttered, ignoring the obvious discomfort of the Fairchilds. “Right, then the leader is either at the front or back of the train. Jenkins, search for a ghost who could command this army in those places. We’ll look for a human capable of it. Let’s get moving.”

“Why there?” Cassandra asked as she got to her feet.

“If it’s an army it has a front and back line. The quiet parts are ahead of the front line and in the back lines, everything else is busy and confusing. Generals are usually in the back line, where it’s quiet.” Roy hesitate, thoughts of Briarheart Ridge flicking through his mind. “Most of the time. There are no ghost sightings in the locomotive or the caboose, so the back line of this army is in one of those two places.”

He opened the door of the compartment and started to step out into the hall only to stop short when he nearly ran over the conductor, who was in the process of lifting his hand to knock on the door. “Oh! Mr. Harper, there you are. I’ve been looking for you.”

“What’s the matter?” Roy demanded. “Beyond the obvious.”

“Well…” He gestured helplessly towards the front of the train. “We can all see them now.”

Roy took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Of course. Well, you and I will head to the front, Fairchilds to the rear.”

“What are we doing?” The conductor asked, confused.

“I’ll explain along the way.”

Night Train to Hardwick Chapter Seven – Samuel Jenkins

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After sharing seventeen years of life with his sister, including almost two of them traveling the Columbian West, Brandon had an intimate understanding of the signs that she was using her magic. He also knew the costs and she’d promised she would only sing the orphans one song with the force of her gift. So when the familiar prickle filled the air a second time annoyance surged through him. Quickly wrapping his sandwich in its napkin he pushed up from his table and hustled two and a half cars toward the rear of the train. As he traveled his annoyance changed to bafflement. The song felt different than any other he’d heard Cassie sing and it lasted less than a minute, barely enough for a verse.

And, by the time he’d gotten back to their compartment car, he realized she wasn’t back in the public cars anymore, the buzz of her magic was coming from their part of the train. As he got back to the door of that compartment he realized Roy Harper’s voice was coming from inside. Suspicious and annoyed, Brandon yanked the the compartment door open and stepped in, mouth open, prepared to yell.

He stopped short when he saw Harper talking to the ghost of a wiry old man in dirty denim clothes and blood covering his front. “Why?” Harper demanded, ignoring Brandon for the moment. “Why would you want to just roll over and die?”

“It was time,” the ghost said, its voice soft and echoing as if from a great distance. “You’ll understand when your time comes. I could ask the same – why did you summon me, Roy?”

“We were hoping you could help us understand the situation,” Cassandra said. She was seated beyond Harper, holding a strange bundle of sticks – bones – and leather in her lap. She gave Brandon a meaningful look and motioned him in the door before continuing. “I admit you were not who we were expecting but we’d hoped you could help us understand what is happening here.”

“No,” Harper cut in. “We’re not keeping Jenkins here. You were supposed to bring Colbert, so send the poor man on and try for the captain again.”

“I don’t mind, Roy,” Jenkins’ ghost said. “Now that I’m dead I find the living less taxing than before.”

“And I’d prefer you not press Cassandra’s talents, Mr. Harper,” Brandon said, his annoyance bubbling up again.

“I don’t mind Brandon,” Cassie said, her fingers worrying at the objects in her hand. “He’s right, there is something here we need to be involved in. I’m sure of it.”

Brandon’s jaw worked back and forth as he tried to resolve the conflicting impulses. Finally he glared at Roy and said, “May we have a moment alone, Mr. Harper?”

Harper glanced at the ghost then back at Brandon. “What about him? I can’t very well take a visible ghost into public right now, can I?”

“I’ll meet you in the next compartment,” Jenkins’ ghost said. “It’s empty at the moment.”

Harper gave it a frustrated look. “Sam.”

“It’s fine, Roy. I’d like to do one more worthwhile thing before I’m gone.” The ghost sank into the seat behind it and vanished.

Harper made a frustrated sound in the back of his throat. Cassie raised an eyebrow and asked, “What’s the difference between this man and your Captain? You were all soldiers, weren’t you?”

“No,” Harper turned the word into a sigh. “Sam Jenkins never took an oath or marched in the Regulars. He’s lived out West his whole life. Deserved better than he got.”

“Don’t we all?” Brandon muttered as Harper moved past him to the door.

Harper hesitated and glanced over his shoulder. “No. I, for one, already have far more than is just.”

Once Harper was gone Brandon sat down, pulled his red kerchief from a pocket and held it in his lap. “What can you see, Cassie?”

“You’re holding your red kerchief. Brandon, it wasn’t even-”

Where am I holding it?”

“In your lap!” She threw her hands up in frustration. “Brandon, I’m fine.”

“Cassie,” he said, drawing deeply on well developed patience. “You nearly sang yourself blind just two weeks ago.”

“And my sight came back in time, just like it always-”

“Our father’s doesn’t return anymore. Cassie, there is a price for your gift.”

His sister took a deep breath, clearly straining her own patience. “Brandon. My eyes are fine now. Mr. Harper lent me an -” she glanced down at the fistful of detritus in her hand “- admittedly somewhat distasteful relic of the local people that assisted the song. The world is a little blurry, like it always is after a short song. That’s all.”

Brandon frowned, reached out and took the bones – horns? – and rolled them in his hand. They seemed unremarkable. “What is it?”

“Pieces of some kind of spirit trap.” She held up a handful of leather strings. “This used to hold it all together. You can’t hear it, but when the antlers and strings are near each other they… wail? But there is a tune to it. I was able to draw a song from it to call a ghost known to Mr. Harper.”

Brandon handed the pieces of debris back. “That’s fascinating. Why does he have such a thing?”

“Apparently he’s safeguarding it until it can be stored somewhere more secure.” She wrapped them in her handkerchief and slipped them into a pocket. “We were expecting the ghost Mr. Harper first saw in the orphan car.”

“And instead you got this Samuel Jenkins?”

“That’s correct.”

“Who is he?”

She tied the bundle closed with a helpless shrug. “I haven’t the faintest idea.”

Night Train to Hardwick Chapter Six – Brazen Joy

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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.”

Night Train to Hardwick Chapter Five – Echoes of Treason

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From Brandon’s vantage point Roy Harper was more and more of a chimera. He was remarkably graceless, rough around the edges and brusk. Yet he knew a remarkable amount about druids and their power, organization and rituals. But his attitude and the obvious gaps in his knowledge suggested he, himself, had never studied at any of the Great Henges.

“Oaths upon the graves of the Founding Knights are only for druids ourselves,” Brandon said, watching Harper carefully to gauge his reaction. “I could bind myself with one but only to another druid and Cassandra will be totally exempt from any such oath. I wouldn’t mind swearing such an oath but I don’t know as it would do much unless you yourself are sworn to the Stone Circle. I suppose I could swear on the dolmen themselves, if you like. It’s the pledge we generally use with the people of Avalon.”

“That’s acceptable,” Harper said, his expression twitching slightly but not in a way Brandon could interpret.

Brandon raised his right hand and said, “I am Brandon Fairchild, and I swear upon the dolmen of Stonehenge to follow your direction for this train flight and answer all your questions truthfully, to the extent my other oaths allow.” He let his hand fall and waited for Harper to nod in acknowledgment. “Now what would you like to know, Mr. Harper?”

“Let’s get out of this corridor if you don’t mind.” He gestured forward. “The dining car is just forward, and I could use some coffee to keep me on my feet if this goes on any longer. Will you need to let your sister know?”

“I’m sure she heard.”

It was a relatively short walk to reach the dining car, which was much like the public cars in that it had a corridor running between rows of benches except walls divided them into pairs of two in narrow booths, with an equally narrow table between them. Eating in an airborne dining car was an adventure in and of itself, but at least most trains served reasonably neat food. Soup, for example, never made the menu. An attendant took their orders – coffee for Harper and tea for Brandon – then left them to their relative privacy.

“Now then,” Roy said, leaning back on his side of the table, folding his arms over his chest. “Tell me, what is your druidic specialty? I should warn you now, if it involves burning incense in any way I don’t want you using it. Even if you use one of the handful of incenses that aren’t toxic I don’t want rumors that that kind of thing is allowed on sky trains circulating. Most people can’t tell the difference.”

“Fortunately, smoke is not the root of my power. I cultivate the yew.” Brandon held up his hand and flexed. The symbiotic plant living within him surged through his body, standing out in visible ropes under his skin. A moment later layers of bark broke through on the back of his hand. Brandon relaxed and the traces of yew influence vanished. “As you’ve already guessed, it makes me much stronger than the average man. It also makes me very difficult to hurt and I can manipulate yew wood, living or dead, with much greater ease than my peers. I know a few protective charms as well, but we’re not likely to need protection from wild trees up here.”

“Unlikely,” Harper conceded. “What about ghosts? Any defenses against them?”

“I’m afraid I don’t know much beyond the general theories of ghosts,” Brandon admitted. “We don’t engage much with the specifics, we simply study a few active countermeasures that allow us to ward them off using incense. Of course, even if you were willing to allow the use of it in this case, I’m afraid I don’t have any on hand right now.”

“Not much call for it, I presume?”

“No. If it comes down to it Cassie can deal with a ghost or two, although it’s something I’d prefer to avoid.” Brandon drummed his fingers for a moment. “Ghosts always haunt something they had a strong emotional connection to in life, be it person, place or thing. From what you’ve said in passing I take it the ghost people are seeing is someone you knew during Columbia’s civil war?”

“My company captain, in fact.”

“You must have been close.”

“We weren’t on good terms at all,” Harper admitted with a moment’s hesitation. “I was surprised to learn he was haunting me. If you know the theory of ghosts, do you know why a large number of them would gather in one place?”

Brandon considered that for a moment. “It’s difficult to say. Traumatic death is more likely to create a ghost than a peaceful death, so orphanages tend to see more of them than most. Especially since the children can see them where most people outside the haunting victim cannot.”

“But what if a large number of them arrive from another place?”

The sharp expression Brandon had noticed on first meeting Harper had made a return. “Are you referring to anything specific, Mr. Harper?”

“Colbert’s ghost visited me and claims there are other ghosts haunting this train, including some from a village we flew over.” Harper stopped to take a fortifying gulp of coffee. “Tell me, is that even remotely possible?”

“I… can’t be sure, one way or another.” Brandon considered what he knew. “It certainly wouldn’t be accidental. But if someone deliberately manipulated an emotional thread? Perhaps. Cassie might know more.”

Harper looked like he was about to say something else when he spotted something coming from the other direction. Brandon swiveled to see the conductor moving through the dining car, pausing to greet the smattering of other passengers still occupying it in the late evening. When he reached them he nodded to both men. “Everything to your satisfaction, gentlemen? I understand there was some trouble earlier.”

“Some,” Harper said. “Nothing terribly out of order, some of the orphans were jumping at ghosts. There’s something amiss on the train but it may just be a matter of flying over an old Sanna graveyard. I’m looking into it but I don’t think there’s a danger to the train just yet.”

The conductor absently scratched at his beard, his jaw working in contemplation. “Well, that is as it may be,” he finally said. “Let me know if you need my assistance with anything specific, or if there’s something the crew should be aware of.”

“Certainly.” The conductor turned to go when Harper added, “Do you know the crew well?”

The other man paused, looking a bit startled. “Well enough?”

“Have any of them lost family recently?”

He put a finger to his nose in an almost comical display of deliberate thought. “I think the day shift’s engineering captain recently lost his wife to consumption. Do you want me to check?”

“No, that’s fine. Thank you.”

Harper watched him leave long enough to confirm he was out of ear shot before he leaned back against the back of the booth and stared into his coffee. “Not good.”

“You’ve learned something important, I take it.”

“The Captain’s ghost mentioned that death specifically,” Harper said. “I was hoping he was making things up to unsettle me.”

Brandon took a sip of his tea, watching Harper and trying to parse what was bothering him. “The two of you clearly had a very interesting relationship. Care to elaborate on it?”

With a long gulp Harper emptied his coffee mug. “How much do you know about the Lakeshire War in Avalon, Mr. Fairchild?”

“We heard some news from the druids in Morainhenge, of course, but the Henges themselves are not entirely trusting of each other so it was given due skepticism.” Brandon shrugged. “Of course there are tools built into the Stone Circles to mitigate dishonesty, as you clearly know, but they really only work well in person. Binding oaths don’t do much in letters. However even if we took everything they said at face value we still wouldn’t know much.”

“Do you have any notion of how things were on the Columbian side?”

“Very little,” Brandon admitted. “Just what we read in the papers, which I have no doubt was entirely accurate and not distorted to favor or demonize any person or side of the conflict.”

Harper shared a sardonic grin with him. “No doubt, although I never saw a newspaperman within a dozen miles of a battlefield myself.”

“This relates to your captain somehow?”

Haper refilled his coffee before answering. “The Columbian regulars have a professional officer corps, you understand,” he said. “The problem was the Lakeshire War forced the Regulars to add tens of thousands of troops a year. There weren’t enough officers to go around. So when we formed new units recruits would elect their sergeants. Sergeants would elect a captain and lieutenant. And there you had it. Instant officers.”

“Elect?” Brandon kept the incredulity from his voice. “That’s an interesting approach.”

“And overall, probably an unwise one.” Harper’s gaze wandering over the dining car and into the past; a thing he’d seen veteran knights do time and again when recounting unfortunate memories. “For the most part companies were led by affable men with little potential as soldiers. Sometimes you got great captains like Trevor Rogers and sometimes you got captains who fooled everyone long enough to get elected but everyone came to hate. Then there were the people who were total incompetents.”

“I take it you got the latter.”

“We got the last two in one package.”

Brandon nodded slowly. “That must have been… difficult.”

“Too often it was fatal.” Harper turned morose. “We were nearly wiped out at Willow Falls because we got flanked and Captain Colbert refused to fall back and merge with the rest of the line. We lost five men we shouldn’t have.”

There was a ring in his voice that, though quiet, unsettled Brandon to the point his stomach churned and his muscles twitched. He’d heard it before, from veteran knights speaking of long ago quests, a sense of emptiness that provoked both fear and contempt. With practiced ease he put both sensations down. “Do you think your hatred of him is what ties you together?”

“In a way.” Harper had started the long trip back to the present. “We went up against a druid, dug in on Briarheart Ridge, and he raised the forest against us.”

Brandon nodded. “And your captain refused to give up the ground.”

“We didn’t have the numbers or the equipment to stop them but he insisted we stay there.” Harper’s smile was deeply unsettling, regretful but resigned. “I was second in command of the company so I was there, at the forward observation post when we saw the trees coming. Nothing I said to him could change his mind. So I removed him from command. I have no proof but given the situation I’m certain that’s when we were tied together.”

“I see.” Brandon was suddenly uncomfortable and turned to look out the window. But the sky was cloudy and the moon and stars hidden, so there was nothing to see. “Put in that light, I suppose I’d be more surprised if the man wasn’t haunting you.”

“I can’t be haunted by every man I’ve ever killed,” Harper said with a snort. “Half this train car would be full.”

“Even so,” Brandon said, “you can’t have betrayed the trust of all of them. With your captain you did and in a very stark fashion.”

Harper heaved a sigh. “I suppose you’re right. It doesn’t help with the problem at hand though.”

“The matter of your captain? Or the question of what is attracting the ghosts?”

“Oh. The latter, of course.” Harper shook his head to clear it. “I do find it unlikely Olivia’s parents betrayed and murdered one another nor does she seem capable of doing it to them. So I don’t think your shared emotional tie theory works in their case.”

“Perhaps its something else, then. Did she think they were idiots, as you did your captain?”

“She seemed to think they were quite normal, respectable parents,” Harper said dryly.

“Was there anything about your captain you liked?”

“Not that I can think of,” Harper confessed.

“Then perhaps some other tie binds her parents here and your ghost has simply grabbed hold of that connection and used it to make itself visible to you,” Brandon mused. “The connection between the two of you is very unique.”

“I suppose that’s as likely as anything.” Harper got to his feet. “Let’s see if anyone else is seeing ghosts. Perhaps we can find a common thread.”

“Mr. Harper.” He paused, an eyebrow raised. “Do you regret it?”

The older man didn’t hesitate. “Not at all.”

For a moment Brandon wondered at that. It was entirely possible he’d bound himself and his sister to a deeply disturbed man. But there wasn’t much he could do about it now besides stay vigilant so he finished his tea and followed Harper out of the dining car.

Night Train to Hardwick Chapter Four – Leaders and Followers

Previous Chapter

A nawonota was built for one purpose: To trap ghosts. The pieces of nawonota Roy had in his bag came from one of the most powerful examples ever created. Roy hadn’t considered the possibility that the thing had the power to attract ghosts as well as trap them – the Sanna used them to defend their communities, not as some kind of hunting tool – but at the same time he didn’t know enough about Sanna magic to rule the possibility out, either. So as an experiment he unwrapped the pieces, added his iron dagger to the mix and rewrapped the lot of it.

But while he was tucking everything back into his saddlebags a familiar voice whispered to him, “That’s not why we’re here, Lieutenant Harper. You’ll have to do better than that.”

“Can’t blame a man for trying,” Roy muttered, shoving the bundle into his bag. “I can’t imagine you’ve been brought here because of me, I’d have noticed you haunting me for the last decade. So who did attract you if it wasn’t me or this thing?”

“You know that I’m here because of you, Lieutenant. All of us are, to one extent or another.” The ghost affected a pose as if it was leaning back on the padded couch across from him.

“Us?” Roy gave the ghost a hard look. “There’s more than you?”

Colbert’s face transformed into a noxious smile. “I misspoke”

“Of course.” Less than two minutes speaking to his old Captain and he was already gritting his teeth. “If you’re here because of me why is it I can only see you now?”

“That’s something I can’t tell you. Against the rules.” The ghost looped his innards over an arm and hopped up to his feet. “But if I’m a ghost that is suddenly strong enough for you to see, how many more suddenly reaching this level of strength are there on this train full of orphaned children? And how many normal passengers have ghosts of their own? How many are like your chief engineer, who was widowed recently? How many times will you pass over a village that was nearly wiped out by a mudslide, like you did half an hour ago?”

“A town we passed over? What could possibly reach that far?”

“Rules, Harper.”

Roy rubbed the bridge of his nose, frustrated. In his army days Colbert had been incredibly opaque when asked questions about the unit’s orders and his strategy. Apparently nothing had changed in a decade of death. “Why are you here, Captain? Shouldn’t you be out on Briarheart Ridge?”

“Wouldn’t that be nice?” The ghost drifted over to the window and gazed out. “Looking out on a beautiful green hillside, staring down at the abandoned walls of Palmyra-”

“People still live in that city, Colbert.”

“-but no, whatever power makes ghosts decided I had to seek out my killer, instead.”

Roy snorted. “You’ve been doing a terrible job of it, these last ten years or so.”

“Ten years, six months, two weeks and three days.” A hint of madness seeped into the specter’s eyes. “I counted every coalstoking one of them, unlike you. Ungrateful bastard.”

Roy eyed his saddlebags, weighing them in his hands for just a moment. The iron dagger was his only weapon on hand due to his mistreatment of the sword he’d brought on the trip. He couldn’t get his hands on a new one until Hardwick. But he was pretty sure a dagger, even an iron one, wasn’t a weapon that could do much against a ghost that could pass through walls. He could try reassembling the nawonota but the relic was so powerful and unpredictable, and until very recently tied to magic so malevolent, he thought that it would be more trouble than it was worth. Instead Roy put the bags back on the shelf with a resigned grunt. “Maybe I can make my own ghost catcher.”

“I told you, Harper-”

“I haven’t trusted anything you’ve said in a long time, Colbert. Dust and ashes, you’d have fed all of us to the trees if you’d had your way.” Roy turned and walked out of the compartment with a dismissive motion. “Now are you just here to bother me or was there something specific-”

The compartment behind him was empty, as was the hallway outside it. For a brief moment he felt as if he’d woken from a dream, although he was certain what he’d seen was real. Brandon Fairchild burst out of the compartment where Roy’d left him, his face clouded with worry. “Harper,” he called. “There you are. Olivia says she just saw her parents.”

Roy grimaced. “I think there’s going to be a lot of that going on soon. It sounds like half the people on this train might be haunted. I don’t suppose your parents are dead? Or one of your siblings died at a young age?”

Brandon pulled the door to the compartment closed behind him. “So far as I know there’s no one who would haunt either of us. What’s going on here, Harper?”

“How should I know?”

The Avaloni man offered a helpless shrug. “You knew the name of the first ghost that appeared. You picked a druid and a stone singer out of a crowded train with no hints. You seem like a man who knows quite a bit.”

“The druid part was easy.” Roy grabbed his sleeve near the shoulder. “All you super strong types have those gussets in your shirtsleeves so they don’t rip when you really go to town. And your ‘belt’ is clearly made of some kind of wood. Pretty safe bet that someone like that is a druid. You and your sister talk like you’re experts on stone song, which is pretty much the only craft in Avalon more secretive than the druids, and that means one of you is a singer. The old customs forbid a singer from taking the Oath of the Stone Circle, therefore it’s not you. I just noticed a few things and drew inferences. You seem to know an awful lot about ghosts. How is that, just because of your sister’s talents?”

Brandon shrugged. “It’s something the Stone Circle has dealt with, from time to time, so we’re all trained on the rudiments of the subject. Cassie undoubtedly knows more but she doesn’t share a lot of the details. As you say, the singers are secretive and only share most of their secrets with their students. Although you should know she has very good hearing, on top of the voice. She’s probably listening in on this conversation as well, just so you’re aware.”

“Good ears,” Roy said with a grimace “Yes, I didn’t know that.”

“So.”

Roy spread his hands. “So what?”

“What did the ghost tell you, back in the public car?”

“Nothing relevant.”

Brandon gave Roy a skeptical look. “Nothing? Forgive my saying so, but you don’t seem like a great expert on the subject of ghosts. Would you know what’s relevant?”

That was an awkward question, because it was true that Roy knew very little on the subject of spirits and their capabilities. “Shouldn’t your sister have heard that conversation already?”

The younger man covered his embarrassment pretty well, but not well enough that Roy couldn’t pick up on it. “She could hear the tone, but not the words.”

Roy took a moment to weigh the possibilities. The Fairchilds seemed like a deep potential resource. A fully trained druid would, by default, know more about basic magic theory than he would. The full nature of stone singers was a closely guarded secret but legends surrounding the first know singer – Meryl of Linds, First Advisor to the King – suggested they had some power of spirits in general. Ghosts and spirits were not exactly the same thing, but they were similar enough. While three years of army life and another eight as a mercenary firespinner and railway detective had taught him a lot of practical, day to day magic tricks, dirty fighting techniques and esoteric trivia his knowledge of the grand theories of magic were rudimentary at best and few of them concerned the immaterial.

On the other hand, a druid was a sworn Knight of the Stone Circle. They could be inflexible.

But there were layers to the Stone Circle that Roy was only beginning to understand. Perhaps that was to his advantage. “Alright, Mr. Fairchild,” Roy said. “If you’re really determined to take a hand in this matter we can go over all that. But first, there are some ground rules. If you don’t like them, then you’ll have to step back.”

“Perfectly reasonable.”

“First, whenever possible I make the decisions. I’m the one who answers to the Railway for the lives and property on this train.”

Brandon nodded immediately. “That is a given, no matter what.”

“Glad to hear it. Second, you have to explain whatever druidic magic you have at your disposal up front.” Roy watched Brandon closely as he spoke, gauging his reactions. “Your sister has to explain any part of her abilities that might be relevant. I know that stone singers are rare and secretive, with good reason, but I have to be able to make informed decisions or I can’t agree to allow you to operate on this train.”

This time Brandon was more hesitant. “I suppose that’s reasonable, if I can have your agreement not to disclose anything you learn.”

Roy nodded. The real test came next. “And third, we’ll swear to the these requirements. On Pelinore’s Grave.”

Night Train to Hardwick Chapter Two – The Face of Death

Previous Chapter

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. 

Firespinner Chapter Twelve – Farewells at Last Light

Previous Chapter

Roy gently took Andrew Blythe from his seat on O’Hara’s bushwalker and set the boy on the ground, sleepy and unsteady but otherwise fine. He’d spent most of the trip asleep, like his brother. The ordeal the Blythe boys had gone through had taken a lot out of them but didn’t seem to have done any serious harm. There was one curious side effect, though.

Roy watched as Andrew and River Reeds walked into the Blythe house in perfect synchronization. “I’m pretty sure that will wear off in another few days,” he said to Nora. “But if it doesn’t Grunt can put the word out and we’ll see if we can find a true blue medicine man to look at it.”

“Thank you, Mr. Harper,” Nora said. “You’ve been very kind. This wasn’t part of what you were hired for.”

“Not a problem, ma’am.”

“But not necessary either,” Oldfathers put in. Roy couldn’t help but note that he’d linked arms with the widow. “I’ll be travelling for a few days to gather up some loose ends, but I plan to come back once I’m done. I’m thinking of settling down here. I’m getting too old to sleep in the open for weeks on end.”

Grunt and O’Hara looked surprised at that but Roy took it in stride. There were consequences to tampering with magic on the scale they had and Oldfathers had assumed duties that bore significant consequences, whether he’d realized it at the time or not. The old druid knew magic and its costs better than any of them and Roy had confidence Oldfathers would see them out.

“Sounds like you’ll be well looked after, Mrs. Blythe,” Roy said with a warm smile. “Hopefully you never need my services again.”

Nora laughed. “Getting involved with one legend of the west would be enough for a lifetime and I’ve already seen two. I got no appetite for a third.”

Roy chuckled. “Hopefully if you do it will be more benign than the Yose and Mete twins or General Oldfathers.”

She glanced at the general out of the corner of her eye. “Who, him? He belongs to the east.”

Roy’s brow furrowed. “Then what’s the second? Or are you counting the Brothers separately?”

Nora smiled and shook her head. “Take care of yourself out there, Mr. Harper. If you ever visit Mr. Grunwald here in town be sure to stop in, you hear?”

It sounded like a dodge but Roy couldn’t figure out why she would so he let it go. “Of course.”

Roy waited as a few more quiet words passed between her and the general then they set out for Grunt’s house. O’Hara parted ways when the passed the main street in order to take her bushwalker back outside the walls, leaving Grunt with a whispered promise to visit later. That left Roy with Grunt and the general. The three men walked in silence for a while, then Oldfathers said, “I appreciate your not taking me in.”

“I’m not an officer of the law,” Roy said. “I don’t have an obligation to bring in bounties.”

“Not even an old Lakeshire officer?”

Roy shrugged. “It’s been a long time, General. I’m not saying I would’ve done what you did in your situation but you’ve earned a little grace, at least. And…” His glance drifted up towards the mountain top. “I’m not sure how Yose and Mete would react if their new father left so soon.”

The general grunted something that might have been a laugh. “As you say. Well, I suppose I can take the pieces of that nawonota off your hands, if you want. I have a stash where I can bury them for a few decades at least.”

“It’s all right. The Packards have an Iron Room for dangerous magic items set up in Hardwick. It’s a day’s travel each way and that’s easy enough to work into my route back to Leondale. I’d rather the pieces of that thing sit on iron until all the magic’s leached out of them than just bury them out in the wilderness.”

Oldfathers chuckled. “And the Railway Detectives will just take an unknown artifact – or the pieces of one – off your hands because you say so?”

“And because I work for them from time to time.”

“And Allen Packard is his uncle,” Grunt added.

“And that.” Roy hefted the bundle holding the nawonota’s pieces. “Don’t worry, General. This will be well taken care of. And I’ll get that fulminite crystal out of the slag you made of my falcatta and send it back to you.”

“Keep it,” the General said. “I think you’ve earned it and you never know when it may come in handy out there. You’re going to have more chances to use it than me anyway.”

They rounded the corner to Grunt’s house and the big man ducked in the door to retrieve Roy’s travel bag. “Tell me something, General,” Roy said as they waited. “How are you going to pass on that journal of yours if you’re settling down here? Do you think someone will just come through and take it off your hands? It doesn’t seem like the best strategy, this being the end of the rail line and all.”

Oldfathers tapped his hexwood staff on the ground once which set it to unfolding in to its full sized tree form. “The journal will tell its owner when and where to find the next person in line. I’m not worried about passing it on. Never was.”

Grunt returned and handed Roy his bag. “Half an hour before the last train leaves,” he said. “Anyone up for a last drink?”

“No, thank you,” Oldfathers said.

“Gave it up, remember?” Roy tipped his hat in the general’s direction. “General Oldfathers, as much as it surprises me to say it, it’s been a pleasure.”

“Likewise. Take care of yourselves, Mr. Harper. Mr. Grunwald. Stay true to the Quest and it will bear fruit, in time.” The hexwood was unfolded to its full twelve foot height and its branches gathered Oldfathers up, allowing him to partially recline against its trunk.

“May Our Lady guide you to warm hearthfires,” Grunt said.

“Hearthfires, gentlemen. And Roy.” Oldfathers tapped his jacket’s left breast twice, winked and then whisked away on the frantic churning of the hexwood’s roots.

Confused, Roy patted his jacket in the place Oldfathers indicated.

Felt something solid there.

And pulled out Pellinore’s Journal.

“Dust and ashes,” Roy muttered.

Grunt burst out laughing.

“This isn’t funny.”

“Oh, I’m sure it’s serious as dead iron, Roy.” Grunt got control of himself. “But you have to admit it’s at least a little funny, too.”

Roy sighed and put the journal away. “Fine. Fine. Let’s go, the last train leaves in twenty five minutes and I need to stop by your local sundries supplier.”

“Sure.” Grunt locked his door and pocketed the keys. “What do you need?”

“Paper and ink. It seems there’s some writing in my future…”

Firespinner Chapter Eleven – The Day in Balance

Previous Chapter

As it turned out nothing happened for most of the day.

Roy was expecting Yose sometime between dawn and midmorning, the time when the sun was ascending, since he was supposedly tied to the Primeval Fire. But Thomas Blythe failed to appear. After midmorning they entered the time of balance, with the sun reaching apogee and slowly beginning its descent. Nothing happened then, either. As it turned out things began about an hour before full dusk when Thomas Blythe erupted out of the stream with no warning, flying over O’Hara’s rampart with a good three feet to spare. He landed with a sizzling thud, his features shrouded by a billowing cloud of steam and rippling waves of heat.

To his credit, in spite of the sudden arrival following a long wait, Reeds reacted instantly. A wall of shimmering red rectangles sprouted from a copper line on the ground, converging on a bronze talisman Reeds held aloft in his left hand. It was a crude ward and started crumbling almost as soon as Thomas collided with it. Reeds held a bronze wand in his other hand, quickly connecting a predrawn set of glyphs to finish a more effective ward that spat flames in a thicker, stronger barrier in front of the possessed boy.

O’Hara’s earthworks rumbled as the tiles on her board clacked, ensorcelled tiles and sulfurite crystals sliding across it as she reworked their formation and, in the same action, rearranged the land itself. The raised earth by the creek began to sink back into the ground as a new barrier of equal thickness but greater height formed behind Reeds.

But that wasn’t the loudest noise at hand. At the other end of the hill the massive trees at the foot of the cliff creaked to life and began to rip the cliffside apart. Rather than wait, Grunt and Marshall moved up to hack at the trees. The pines began to teeter and fall under their onslaught. But it ended almost as soon as it began when a surge of water burst from the opening in the cliff and swept both men back down towards the crater. A small figure appeared at the new entrance in the cliffside and started towards the crater, flanked by the trees.

Down in the center of the crater itself the stones began to shift. Overhead the clouds left from the previous day’s rain began to roil and churn.

“Nora!” Roy yelled. “Find the nawonota!”

That was their first gambit. If the Brothers had somehow co-opted Thomas and Andrew Blythe into playing out their old sibling rivalry perhaps the grudge could be undercut by introducing Nora into the role of peacekeeper, as Yose and Mete’s mother had been between them. Oldfathers considered it a long shot but it was simple and easy to try, so Roy lined it up first.

But it was anyone’s guess whether Yose and Mete would recognize Nora as their mother or not. So Grunt and Marshall moved to block Mete and Reeds started working on a third barrier, this one grounded in O’Hara’s earthwork itself. Or, at least, he started. Then he suddenly stopped and pivoted to look directly up the hill at the crater. Further up, Andrew Blythe did the same.

In unison both of them said, “Ket!”

The word echoed over the hillside with preternatural clarity. Roy spoke no Sanna but he knew the word “No” when he heard it. He wasn’t sure what circumstance made them say it but he did know who was saying it – they were both under the influence of Mete now. That was a lovely little wrinkle he hadn’t anticipated.

Roy tapped Oldfathers on the shoulder. “Stop those trees, General.”

He grunted noncomittally. “Easier said than done.”

But he raised his hexwood staff up, its branches unfolding into a complicated pattern, the sulfurite crystals twined in the ends of its branches pulsing with power. The general stretched his other hand towards the top of the hill in a clutching motion and the raging pines shuddered to a stop.

“Ket!” Andrew and Reeds screamed in unison once more, they reached towards the trees with their hands and made a dragging motion. The pines shuddered as if under great strain.

One shattered into splinters.

The others lurched back into motion.

“Dust and ashes,” Roy whispered. He hadn’t thought it possible Hezekiah Oldfathers could lose a contest of sheer power.

“Coalstoking Sanna ghosts!” Apparently the general hadn’t expected it either.

But he delayed the trees long enough for Marshall to get to his feet and charge back into the fray with surprising recklessness. His club whistled through the air and smashed into the trunk of one pine, which promptly shattered into flaming twigs. For a split second Roy panicked, thinking the debris would land on Nora. But as they arced through the air they were caught in the churning winds over the crater and went spinning away.

“That doesn’t look good, General,” Roy yelled over the noise. “Looks like Yose got to Marshall, too.”

“So the Brothers have all the brothers now,” Oldfathers replied, his gestures waking some of the smaller trees and sending them upslope as fast as the newly animated pines could go. Not that such little things posed much threat to the mature, sixty foot trees under Mete’s thumb. “Pull O’Hara out, she can’t be in there when Reeds and Thomas start fighting for the Brothers. I have something that will slow them down, you try and figure out what’s happening in the crater!”

“Ignis fatuus, man, I said tell me about all your tricks!” But Roy was doing as Oldfathers said, holding his fist aloft with thumb upwards then jerking it over his shoulder in the Columbian Army’s “fall back” signal.

O’Hara stepped away from the waist high board she’d set up by the river and kicked over a brazier she’d kept burning beside it all day. A cloud of viscous white smoke poured out of it and swept over the creek bed. Reeds and Thomas disappeared from view, though the fiery glow of Thomas’ presence was still clearly visible inching up the hillside.

Marshall just kept smashing trees with his club but couldn’t get anywhere near Andrew. For a moment Roy feared the boy would reach his mother before anyone else could. Then one of the huge rocks by the crater shifted.

Lifted into the air on Grunt’s shoulders.

And flew towards Andrew at speed.

Two of Andrew’s pines leaped into the path of the missile. One was smashed flat to the ground. Grunt was already hefting another one of the huge rocks, weighing it for another throw.

But Oldfathers was focused on the growing cyclone overhead. “Roy,” he yelled. “I was right, there’s something in that nawonota. I don’t know what part of the legend that is but I don’t think it’s going to let the story end that easy. You have to keep Nora away from it.”

Roy’s attention snapped back to the crater, where the widow Blythe was tugging at a larger rock near the bottom of the pit. Her hair and dress whipped in the air and her figure was half obscured by dirt and pine needles flying through the air. Roy gripped his buckler harder. “Agreed. Keep the brothers away from the crater but let them fight each other. I don’t think that’s the main show anymore.”

A brief flash of pale blue light caught Roy’s attention. Oldfathers had drawn one of his fulminite crystals, leaned against the rock and removed his peg leg. The top had a hollow just big enough for him to slip the crystal into. The general did so and held the peg back in place, vinelike tendrils around the top wrapping about the stump of his leg before he let his pants fall back into place. “I’ll take care of it.”

“What are you doing?” Roy asked.

“Cover your ears,” Oldfathers replied. “By the Breath of Mercury, I am carried upon the Primordial Whirlwind!”

Roy understood what was happening a half second before Oldfathers finished, barely getting his hands over his ears before a lightning bolt crashed down on the general. The world turned bright as day and Roy felt the sound in his sternum. The sound repeated in a frightening staccato that nearly brought him to his knees, flashes of lightning and blackened footprints tracking Oldfathers’ path uphill to Mete and his trees. The walking grove strobed with light and the trees were thrown in all directions, born on waves of crackling lightning. Within their trunks Roy saw after images of the general, his legs transformed into pillars of lightning, lashing out against the trees, the ground and the air itself.

No wonder Oldfathers had kept that trick to himself. Many Columbians thought avatars of the First Elements were blasphemous, after all, and this was a particularly terrifying blasphemy at that.

There was no time to watch the carnage. Oldfathers fought a delaying action only as the real battle took shape in the crater.

A true whirlwind was forming over it and Roy watched the sky with distrust as he approached Nora, unsure of what he was looking for. At this point they were past gambit two, where Nora tried to calm the boys once she had the nawonota in hand, and on to the part where he should just stick iron in the thing and see if that cancelled the magic at work. But Oldfathers was right – there was something in the nawonota and it didn’t seem to be either of the Brothers. That made everything less certain.

As Roy got up to the crater a towering pine tree loomed out of the chaos but before it could do more than send a few roots stretching towards him Grunt’s ax crashed into its trunk, drawing the tree’s attention. Roy scrambled down the crater, more than used to trusting Grunt to watch his back in these situations.

The widow was saying something to him as he approached but, after the lightning strike, Roy couldn’t hear much of anything. Once she realized he was partly deaf Nora motioned like she was lifting the stone at her feet, a block of stone easily two feet tall and twice as long.

Roy shook his head. “Never mind that,” he said. Or thought he said, he couldn’t even hear himself. “Something’s off, leave the coalstoking thing and we’ll move on to the next stage.”

Another series of flashes and rumbles, felt more than heard, drew Roy’s attention long enough for him to note Oldfathers descending the slope again. O’Hara’s fog had cleared and Thomas Blythe was coming up the hill again, only to stop short when he caught a crackling kick from the general.

Roy winced but focused on the task at hand. He grabbed Nora by the shoulder and tried to pull her out of the crater. The wind caught her hair and tangled it around his arm leaving it sopping wet. The day was overcast but not rainy. Roy looked up, then down, then finally back at Nora and realized that water was streaming from her hair in sheets.

He looked back up into the sky, a sinking feeling in his stomach. The clouds were spinning in angry circles. It could have been Roy’s imagination but he thought he saw a face forming there.

Nora – was it Nora? – was saying something but Roy still couldn’t hear her. But when he squatted down, put his shoulder into the rock and pushed Nora quickly joined him. A moment later the rock shifted and rolled halfway over.

Underneath was a simple octagonal frame of ivory and leather straps. Roy had never seen one but it was obviously the nawonota. He didn’t hesitate for a moment when it came into view, just pulled all the fire he could from his buckler’s sulfirite and blasted the old Sanna artifact with it. A screaming blast of wind, loud enough that even Roy’s ringing ears could hear it, tore down from the sky and plastered him flat. The blow left his head spinning and his ribs, which had been well behaved for the last day or so, throbbing once again.

For a moment Roy thought he saw something, superimposed over the chaos of the real world. A woman in the garb of a Sanna matron cowered, the nawonota held up in both hands like a shield. A Sanna man with cruel eyes loomed over her, hand raised to strike but a bewildered look on his face. A stone ax was buried in his side and a boy of no more than twelve, who’s face resembled the father he had just killed, held the weapon’s handle. His identical twin watched from the entrance of the tent, horrified. The father’s spirit was captured. As it strained against the nawonota the second brother went from horrified inaction to stealing the artifact and running away into the hills.

Not all legends were true. If they were true they were rarely the whole truth.

And the legend of Yose and Mete was apparently not one of the few that were the entire truth. No wonder Reeds and Marshall had never triggered the legend on their own, their father was already dead and it was clearly the death of the father of the family that started the story.

The vision passed almost as soon as it came, leaving Roy to get to his feet in spite of his pain, old and new. Pain he could ignore. The nawonota was another story.

And the Sanna artifact was on the move. The whirlwind that dispersed his fireblast also lifted the nawonota into the air, dirt and dust swirling around it in an ominous cloud. Roy’s buckler was mostly empty and adding the small reserves of his cufflinks and sword wasn’t going to give him more firepower than a full buckler so he changed tactics and drew his knife.

Stepped in to slash at the relic.

And got shocked in the leg before he got close.

Electricity crackled through the dust cloud now and, while dead iron would kill any magic it touched, it wasn’t a defense for his entire body. Every time he tried to get closer to the artifact the lightning snapped at him, leaving his limbs twitching and the distance the same. Roy backed away a step, growling in frustration. That was when he realized his hearing was coming back.

Not that it hand much to tell him. Nora was babbling in Sanna now, another surprise victim of the legend. He hadn’t expected it to be so all-encompassing but if the vision he’d seen was true, and not just a fever dream, then her susceptibility to the legend’s power wasn’t surprising.

A glance up and down the hill told him no one else was doing much better. Andrew Blythe was locked in battle with Marshall, much as their twin brothers fought down the slope. Nothing Grunt or O’Hara did fazed them and only the fact that the mismatched twins were fighting each other with Oldfathers poking them as a spoiler slowed their advance on the crater.

The power of the legend seemed to crackle all up and down the hillside like a living thing.

And that was when Roy had it.

All living things were a balance of four elements and, of course, as a living thing the legend was no exception. Mete was the element of earth, Yose fire, their mother water and their father air. Roy didn’t have to kill the whole legend to win. He just had to rewrite it. “Oldfathers!” His voice was barely audible over the din of battle. “New plan, get front and center!”

Hopefully the general could hear better than Roy could. All he could do now was try and pave the way for Oldfathers. Roy pulled in every last drop of firepower from the sulfurite on his body and blasted it into the crackling dust storm, burning much of the dust away and decreasing the static in the air considerably. With a sharp click Roy ejected the sulfurite from his falcatta and crammed Oldfathers’ fulminite crystal into the empty slot. It was a poor fit for the setting, not remotely the right size or shape, but with a little fumbling he got it to stay in place.

Roy gave the weapon an experimental snap, saw that the fulminite stayed in place and heaved the weapon at the nawonota. It spun through the dust storm, the bright bronze blade crackling with electricity and channeling it down into the fulminite, draining even more power away from the gathering whirlwind. Leaving a void in the legend. Roy looked around frantically. “General Oldfathers, get to the coalstok-“

The world went white and sound flew away once again. For a moment Roy saw the same family as before, now gathered around the fire. Save for the father, who was just entering the tent carrying a brace of rabbits over one shoulder. On closer inspection he wasn’t the same man as before. He was older, a little more world weary, but his eyes were kind. Kinder than the father from before. Kinder than the man who led the trees up Briarheart. But unmistakeable none the less.

Then the vision faded and the real world crept back in at the edges. Grunt was helping Marshall to his feet. Nora was struggling against the buffeting wind, which seemed to be fading but was still pretty strong. And Oldfathers was picking up the pieces of –

Of Roy’s sword. He was holding the nawonota in his other hand, still very much intact. Roy staggered over to him and held his hand out for the artifact. The general passed it to him, saying, “It looks inert, though I’m not sure that means it’s safe. What did you do?”

“That was all you, General.” He took the nawonota and carefully cut the leather that bound it together with his iron dagger. “I agree with you on the safety issue, though. I know a safe place to keep the pieces for a while. In the meantime, let’s get off this coalstoking mountain.”