Night Train to Hardwick Chapter Twelve – Towering Inferno

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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.

Night Train to Hardwick Chapter Ten – Boiling Over

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Long exposure had taught Roy to ignore the whispers of fire that pervaded the typical sky train. And the voice of fire was everywhere. In the excited babble of flames rushing through the copper pipes that channeled and enhanced its magical force. In the liberated shouts of that heat bursting out and up through the aluminum flight panels built into the frames of each car. And even in the buzzing ambient heat of the passenger’s body temperature. It was all background noise to him at this point. But sometimes even background noise got too loud to ignore.

Roy have never visited a locomotive when it was in flight.

The noises of exertion that accompanied shoveling coal, the murmurs of the train’s vulcanists as they made adjustments, the whistling sound of air rushing through the chamber to keep the crew cool, were all inaudible to his ears. They heard only roaring fury, desperate purpose and the promise of power. The voice of the locomotive’s engine. He couldn’t stay.

With sudden resolve he turned away from the arcane crystals and lenses of the monitoring station and pushed past the conductor. The giant copper furnace that powered the train and forest of copper pipes that distributed its blessings weren’t exactly in the way but he still shrank back from them, the furious power within a distraction he didn’t need. Finally he broke out into the breezeway, cool night air rushing past and sweeping away the heat and noise. The corridor in the compartment car beyond was quiet and empty, save for the occasional flicker of ghostly motion, and Roy took a moment to enjoy the solitude.

Then the conductor burst through the door and joined him. “Is everything all right, sir?” He asked, hands clasped anxiously in front of him. “You didn’t look well, back there.”

“Just distracted by the heat,” Roy said. “You said you haven’t seen any spirits at this end of the train, even now?”

“That’s right.” He nodded. “The engineers think the power in the furnace is keeping them away.”

“Or it’s the back line,” Roy mused.

“I’m sorry?”

“The ghosts are on the move.” Roy gestured back to the door behind them. “You saw them just now, as we passed through the breezeway. It’s possible that they just haven’t reached the locomotive yet, or maybe it has some other arcane significance to them.”

The conductor looked aghast. “You mean they could be drawing power from the furnace?”

Roy shook his head as he started towards the other end of the car, hoping to find the Fairchilds at the rear of the train and compare notes. “I’m not well versed in ghosts and their magical natures, but I vaguely recall the average specimen being tied to the air more than fire for power, though they tend to use both water and earth as mediums. Either way I could see a sky train attracting them or serving as a locus for their power very easily. But I doubt the furnace itself would be an attractive power source for them or whoever is gathering them.”

As they crossed into the next breezeway the conductor stared out at the gathering ranks of ghosts, new lines of fear or something similar sketching over his face. As they stepped into the dining car he grabbed Roy’s arm and pulled them into a booth, sitting opposite him at the table. “What are you trying to say?” The conductor asked, his voice low, unnecissarily so given the car was empty of all but two passengers and the staff. “Has someone onboard summoned all these spirits? Is that even possible?”

“I don’t know the answer to either of those questions,” Roy admitted. “But I have made preparations to consult the literature.”

The conductor watched as Roy pulled a small, black leatherbound book from his jacket’s inside pocket. “What’s that?”

“The notes of some very skilled and experienced monster hunters and arcanists,” Roy said. It was, in fact, the original copy of Sir Pellinore’s Records of the Hunting Wylds, a record dating back to Arthur’s Stone Circle and, based on what Roy had seen of the early pages, one of the most comprehensive accounts of monstrous creatures in the history of Avalon. But Roy left that and his difficulties reading the thing out. Mostly so he wouldn’t have to explain how he got it or what he had to do to access the later parts of it.

To say nothing of who gave it to him.

“That thing has a section on ghosts?” The conductor looked skeptical.

“Hopefully more than one.” Roy thumbed through the pages but reached the end far faster than its width would suggest. “It’s also got a mind of its own. But according to the table of contents it should only take a few hours to reach one of them.”

“But you don’t know for sure it will tell you what kind of phenomenon this is?”

“No. But the authors tend to review what is known in general about a supernatural thing before discussing the particulars of their hunt.” Roy drummed his fingers on the cover. “Hopefully this can tell me something more than the Fairchilds could.”

“Oh?” The conductor’s eyebrows shot up like startled caterpillars. “Is that why you went back to your compartment to talk to them?”

“No, actually, they came-” Roy froze, mid sentence, when the incongruity hit him. “They came to me.”

Roy got to his feet, shoving Pellinore’s Journal back into his pocket.

“What’s the matter?” The conductor asked, scrambling to keep up.

But Roy didn’t answer, dashing back through the first compartment car and up to the tender car. There, by the doorway, was the clipboard with the train’s crew roster on it.

“What’s the matter?” The conductor asked, gasping as he pushed the door closed behind them. “Do you think the Fairchilds have something to do with this?”

“We weren’t in our compartment,” Roy murmured. “We were actually in the next compartment over.”

The other man’s brow furrowed. “And? Packards are allowed to enter any part of the train if they have cause.”

Roy turned the clipboard around to show him the name written at the top of the crew roster. “But you didn’t know that. And yet you came straight to that compartment, not our compartment. How did you know where to find me, Mr. Colbert?”

Colbert backpedaled half a step. “I don’t know what-”

The clipboard clattered to the ground as Roy grabbed him by the lapels and shook him. “Maybe you’re brother’s ghost told you? Hm?”

All pretense of ignorance vanished and the conductor’s face turned hard. “You really are a violent, stubborn man, aren’t you, Mr. Harper?”

“Never mind me. What’s this all about, Colbert?”

“You killed my brother and cursed me with his coalstoking ghost. Now it’s high time that score was settled.”

Roy snorted. “Funny. There’s a lot about me the Captain never knew and plenty more that’s changed in the last decade. But even if you had a plan for me, you don’t even have a knife on you.”

The conductor snorted back. “I’ve got better than that, although I’d hoped for a little more time to gather them.”

A warning tickled at the back of Roy’s mind but he did his best to ignore it. That possibility could be dealt with when the other man was secure. “Come on, Colbert. It’s time we found a hole to keep you in until we get to Hardwick.”

With a single sharp move he spun the conductor around and slammed him face first into the wall, intending to get ahold of his hands. But instead Colbert sank into a wave of ghosts pushing through the wall and grabbing at Roy with cold, clammy hands. A blast of flame from his cufflinks kept them at bay for a brief moment, long enough for Roy to backpedal towards the door. To his surprise he saw Jenkins ghost step out of the horde, looking panicked. “I found the leader, Roy,” it shouted. “But I can’t reason with him or break his power!”

“Never mind that, then!” Roy ripped the door open and vaulted up to grab the roof of the train. “Get the Fairchilds and have them meet me at the caboose. Make sure they don’t try anything until I get that far, understand? Not until then!”

If Jenkins answered Roy didn’t hear it. He was too busy scrambling over the roof of the train, trying to stay ahead of the raging ghosts that boiled out of the tender car screaming his name.