Fire and Gold Chapter Three – Drained Dry

Previous Chapter

The ranch house was quickly becoming Hernando’s least favorite part of the homestead. Janice was spending most of her time there. Something about the ramshackle pile of sticks created a powerful attraction that kept her there. He found her standing naked in the kitchen when he returned. A bucket of well water sat on the counter beside her as she carefully adjusted the coils of hair on top of her head. Soft whimpers came from the master bedroom. Hernando scowled.

“What are you doing?” He demanded, striding through the great room to the tall cabinet by the root cellar door.

She hesitated, a long pin closer to a weapon than an ornament half impaled into her hair. “You said to clean up after-”

“Why haven’t you eaten yet?” Hernando demanded, irritation lacing his voice. “You’re as bad as Larry. It will take time for the gold to bond to new blood and give you command of it yet here you are playing with your food instead of eating it.”

Janice turned to face him, arms folded under her breasts. “Hernando, what’s got you so wound up? It ain’t like you to rush through things so much, you ought to be lookin’ at your diary and plannin’ out our next trip but instead you’re all fired up to move on tomorrow.”

“Today, if possible,” he snapped. “The people of Columbia take their holy orders so abominably seriously that we can’t hope they won’t look into the loss of a Watchpost. I thought a day here would let us lay in some iron and gold for emergencies. We’re hours past that and we’ve barely started on the process.”

“They had ranch hands up on the ridge,” Janice said with a helpless shrug. “Did you really want more people escapin’ to rat us out?”

“No,” Hernando snapped. “It’s not anyone’s fault that things didn’t work out perfectly. It is your fault that you won’t do as you’re told. Now go and finish your meal so we can put him with his sister and go about turning them.”

Janice perked up. “So you will give him the change?”

“Only if you have him ready for it before sunset.” With a disgusted shake of his head Hernando rummaged through the cabinet until he found the box he’d spotted there on his initial pass through the building the day before. He took it out and moved it over to the dining table in the great room and emptied the contents there.

“What is that?” Janice asked, still ignoring his instructions to gawk at the pile of paper and tools that spilled out.

“Maps,” Hernando said. “We’re on the edge of territory I know well, I’ll need to look over the counties north of here before I can decide where to go next.”

“Why not go west to Winchester county?” She asked. “There’s a bunch of skytrain stations there. We could fly anywhere in Columbia in four days time.”

“Because the Storm’s Watch is likely to bring in a team of their own to investigate what we did to their Post. Any team they send is far more likely to know a gold drinker than regular men are. And the Storm’s Watch can move their team a lot faster by sky train than by foot or wagon, so we’re going to stay as far from them as we can for the next few weeks.”

Janice sighed. “When you put it that way, I guess we’re gonna have to avoid the skies. To bad. I never been flyin’ before.”

Hernando didn’t mention the other problem with flying – as gold drinkers collected blood iron under the sway of the gold in their veins they quickly got heavy enough to fall right through the floor of most skytrains. To say nothing of what that weight did to throw them off balance. Although he’d taken most of the blood iron Janice drank she was still far heavier than she looked, and probably wouldn’t ever be able to fly without giving her nature away.

Not that her weight was a topic he was eager to broach.

This same difficulty made horses or stage coaches impractical, so they were going to have to walk wherever they wanted to go. “We need some place that is sparsely settled but close enough we can reach it in two or three days. Any ideas?”

“Honey, we been farther north than I’ve ever been since you changed me. But I know ranches, and they’ll have a map with their routes for cattle drivin’ somewhere. There’s usually some kind of way station along them routes we could lay low in for a few days. No one’d miss ’em for weeks.”

Hernando grunted, unhappy with her familiar language but willing to let it pass. Her plan was sound, if he could find those maps. “These don’t look right.”

“Nope. Those’re claims and deeds. The route maps are proably in the boardin’ -”

“Hernando!” Danica charged into the house, eyes wild. “Hernando, they got Larry!”

He set aside the paper and sighed. “Do you mean Larry is missing? Has a group shown up and captured him?”

“He’s dead.” She skidded to a stop and pointed frantically towards the barn. “They cut his head off and all his blood is gone!”

Hernando pursed his lips, stymied. “His blood is gone? How is that possible?”

“I don’t know,” Danica said, “but I couldn’t smell any in his head or his body. He’s pale, Hernando. So pale…”

He didn’t understand how it was possible to exert control over a gold drinker’s blood. The tome he’d discovered that laid out the gold drinker ritual was long on process but very short on details of how that magic worked. It basically laid out the need to feed and how acquiring blood iron would allow them to concentrate their power. It was possible to restore a badly injured, or even decapitated gold drinker, with enough time and blood iron.

However if Larry had lost his blood somehow Hernando was certain he couldn’t restore him with the resources he had on hand. He glanced at Danica. “Did you collect his excess blood before he died?”

“No,” she whispered.

“It can’t be helped.” He loosened his sword in its scabbard. “Did you see any signs of who killed him?”

“No…” Danica seemed to be coming back to herself now. “But I did notice something smelled charred. The barn was smokey.”

Hernando grunted. “I’m surprised we didn’t hear anything. Most sulfurite weapons are on the loud side. Perhaps a spear? Some of those are on the quiet side.”

“Does it matter?” Janice asked.

“I’m wondering how many men are out there. If they were a large group I don’t think they’d be so sneaky about this, they’d already be beating down the door.” He gave Janice a look. “Get dressed, Janice. We’re going hunting.”

Once she was given sufficient motivation Janice could move very quickly. She got dressed and retrieved her machete. It was more tool than weapon, without even a mounting spot for a sulfurite crystal, but it was deadly enough at close range. Hernando had tried to train her in the use of a sulfurite blade but so far she was more a danger to herself and her allies than their enemies. So for now the machete would have to do.

They found Larry right where Danica left him. Hernando glanced at her. “Has anything changed?”

“No, he was like this when I found him. I – I just got scared and ran to find you so I didn’t look at him that closely but he looked like this as near as I remember.” She knelt down and studied the floor. “I think he was in a puddle before but it may have drained away or dried out?”

Hernando squinted his eyes and looked around the barn. “Where are the horses?”

“I don’t know. They weren’t here when I found him.”

Janice walked to the back and looked through the rear door. “They’re not in the fields, either. Do you think it was horse thieves?”

“Simple horse thieves wouldn’t know how to do this. I’m not even sure how this was accomplished.” Hernando knelt down and studied the stump of Larry’s neck. The cut was not particularly clean. In fact it looked more like the last bit had been torn off more than cut through, suggesting the blade that made the cut was on the dull side. Larry didn’t have enough blood iron to be unusually durable, so decapitating him wouldn’t have been any harder than cutting the head of a normal man. But that was still a difficult task.

Hernando picked up Larry’s head and set it aside to reveal a second wound in the stomach, not a cut but a deep stabbing wound. “That would be the spear,” he murmured. “They moved the body for some reason.”

“Maybe as part of how they removed his blood?” Danica said. “And they used the water to wash away the evidence.”

“I don’t understand why they would be so secretive,” Hernando said. “It’s a lot of time wasted for negligible return. Still the kill itself was quite masterful.”

He studied the two women with him skeptically. For all his erratic nature he was a dependable fighter when the need arose, where as the womenfolk were very early in their training. He definitely didn’t have the resources to revive Larry so he was going to have to be left behind. “I don’t think this is a fight we want to have. Janice?”

She turned away from the doorway. “Yes?”

“Go collect the boy, eat your damn meal and take him to his sister. Danica, look for the horses. If you can’t find them in a quarter hour, meet me at the slaughterhouse and we’ll perform the change on our new members.”

“Where will you be?” Janice asked.

“I’m going to find those maps.” Hernando grimaced. “It’s time to move on.”

“We’re runnin’?”

“Yes. I’m not tangling with the unknown when we’re this far in the red. One day there will be a reckoning for this, but it’s not today.”

Fire and Gold Chapter Two: Culling the Herd

Previous Chapter

“I like that one,” Larry said, patting Danica’s head eagerly.

She grabbed his hand and forcefully pushed it back to his side. “Stop it, Larry. No one cares what you do or don’t like, we just need you to stop making these messes.”

Larry sighed and picked up the bound and gagged man and carried him out to the dining room with the others. It was strange and unsettling to see the overweight ranch hand being carried like a sack of potatoes over Larry’s skeletal shoulders but she had to keep an eye on him or he would eat another one of the dwindling ranch staff before Hernando could make decisions about them. She was fairly certain de la Feugo wouldn’t want to keep any of the ranch hands. They were all muscular men, most on the larger side. Changing them would require a lot of gold that they simply didn’t have on hand at the moment, especially since he’d already chosen the rancher’s daughter as one of his converts.

Also, she’d noticed he liked to change women far more than men. The only other man she’d seen him consider changing was the scrawny cleaning boy at the Watcher’s Post who had about as much wit and sense as Larry, which was to say none at all. However outside of the daughter, women were in short supply in these parts. So if Larry partook before Hernando got around to inventorying their latest catch it probably wouldn’t effect the ultimate outcome.

But Hernando would be angry.

As Danica looked at the three dead humans Larry left in the bunk room she wondered if it was even worth trying to deflect that anger. Larry was a mindless idiot. Let him take the brunt of Hernando’s anger, that was what he was best for. If the de la Feugo patriarch didn’t kill Larry himself the wiry creature would undoubtedly be used to slow down some hostile pursuer, like he’d spent Danica’s sister to distract the druidic mayor down south in Ferry’s Landing. Much like Katharine, Larry was too poor in mind for anything else.

On the other hand, if Danica didn’t do something to make herself look useful she was likely to share her sister’s fate as well. So she started looking over the bodies to make sure he’d at least gotten all the blood out. Once it was clear he had – perhaps not surprising given Larry was the hungriest of them all – she started carrying them out to the dining area as well.

Larry was looming over the three surviving ranch hands and muttering to himself.

“What’s your problem, Larry?” She asked, watching him warily. “You tied them up real good, didn’t you?”

“Sure did,” Larry yelled back. “But he’s looking at me wrong, Danica. He’s gonna hit me.”

“They’re tied up Larry,” she replied, setting the first body down. The eyes of the living ranch hands widened. “How’s they gonna hit you when they’re trussed up like they’re goin’ to market?”

“He always hits me!” Larry shrieked, suddenly rearing back and kicking at one of the ranch hands with his heel.

Cursing the cretin’s lack of wits, Danica ran across the dining room, bowling the massive wooden table out of her way easily, wrapped her hands around his waist and leaned back. “Stop it, Larry!”

Larry did not stop. But, despite their appearances, she was the older of the two of them and had more iron in her veins. Even Larry’s gluttonous nature couldn’t balance the scales. Hernando always took everything but what Larry needed to keep going when the wiry man overindulged himself, where as he’d only drained Danica once, a few weeks after she was changed. Her superior weight dragged Larry away from the living ranchers one step at a time.

“Make ’em stop lookin’ at me!” Larry screamed once he was out of reach of his victims. “Make ’em stop, Danica!”

“Give it a rest,” she muttered into his back. “Only one way I can make ’em stop and we gotta let Hernando look at ’em before we can do it. He hits a lot worse than they do.”

“I certainly do.”

The room’s sudden chill was all in her mind but the knowledge of that fact didn’t stop Danica’s shudder. She carefully loosened her grip on Larry and turned the two of them to face Hernando. He stood in the boarding house’s entrance, silhouetted by the afternoon sun. The light washed out the aristocratic features of his face and reduced his luxurious suit, silver trimmed sword belt and leather duster to overlapping shadows. The baleful glare from his eyes outshone that from outside.

“What have you two done?” The calm question belied his wrathful expression.

“Hernando…” Larry shrunk away from him. “Just did what you told me.”

The Tetzlani man stalked into the room, towering over even the man who’s nickname was “Long,” and grabbed his face in a vicelike grip. “Is that a fact?” He pried Larry’s mouth open and sniffed. “I don’t recall telling you to eat whatever you want. Did I?”

Unable to speak or shake his head, Larry just whimpered.

Hernando just snorted and threw him to the ground in disgust. The wiry man scrabbled back and tried to get up but Hernando stamped on one of his hands as he scuttled about. Larry groaned but kept his mouth shut. “At least you know you must close your mouth some times,” Hernando said, voice low and soft. “Learn to control it better, else I will close it for good. Do you understand me?”

Larry nodded once. Hernando lifted his foot up and Larry started to get up again when Hernando’s boot came back and smashed him across the face, sending him sprawling across the floor. Danica watched the whole thing without speaking, hoping Hernando would forget she was there. But no such luck was with her. He let the backswing of his kick spin him around and crossed over to her immediately. Murderous black eyes stared down at her from beneath the brim of his narrow brimmed hat.

“I…” Her voice failed her for a moment. “I rounded up the horses like you wanted, sir. The iron is all there still.”

“I saw them in the barn when I passed through.” His immaculate fingertips pressed together in front of his stomach. “I believe I instructed you to remain there with Larry until I came to get you, did I not?”

“There was a horse that wandered into the north field and I went to retrieve it,” she said. “I left Larry in the barn with the other horses but he was gone when I got back.”

The world spun around Danica in a flash of light. She had crashed into the floor before Hernando’s hand striking her with the weight of all the iron and gold he’d taken behind it registered. The floor swam in front of her eyes for a moment. One of the greatest upsides of her changing was that she no longer felt pain and damage lingered briefly. But she knew better than to get up quickly. It was a lesson she’d learned right away, where Larry hadn’t figured it out yet.

“Idiot.” Hernando stalked back over to the bodies, living and dead, that they’d piled there for him. “Do you think horse blood is one tenth as important to me as the freshness of human iron? You should have left the gelding and kept ahold of Larry.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, carefully getting up to a sitting position. “If I’d known I had to wrangle both the horses and Larry I wouldn’t have let him go off on his own. But you gave him different tasks than me, so I didn’t think it mattered.”

For a moment, as their eyes met over Hernando’s shoulder, Danica wondered if she had gotten up too soon. Then he toed one of the living farm hands and snorted. “I suppose these will have to do. You will collect the blood and bring it to me, Danica, just as you will for the horses. Collect the excess from Larry as well.”

Danica suppressed a grimace. The change took away most touch and smell but enhanced the other senses beyond the human norm. Horse blood tasted terrible and old blood filtered through Larry’s innards would be worse. Turning it all over to Hernando wasn’t any fun either. “As you say.”

Hernando stalked out of the boarding house and Danica set about carrying out her tasks. First she sent Larry out to round up the horses, or else he would try and finish the ranch hands on his own and she was tired of trying to keep a handle on him. If he collected some iron from the horses for her she wasn’t about to complain.

Then she had to drain the living ranchers. Even with them tied up it wasn’t easy given the enormous size difference between them. The only one of his changed that Hernando let keep any major portion of the gold or iron they collected was Janice, so Danica didn’t weigh much more than she did before her change. A far cry from Hernando, who was easily seven or eight hundred pounds of densely packed metal.

After a little experimentation she settled for dragging the hands one at a time over to the table, looping their bonds under a table leg to hold them in place, then draining them dry. As an added benefit, the table leg kept their worst spasms from throwing them around too much. However, with Larry out of the building the last ranch hand nearly crawled his way out of the boarding house before Danica caught up to him and dragged him back inside.

With all the thumping, hauling, bleeding and screaming that went on, it took her almost an hour to finish that simple task. For a moment she considered finding Hernando and asking if he wanted to change any of them. But she’d spent a lot of time watching him over the last five months and knew if he’d wished to change any of them he would have said so already.

So she wiped her mouth off with one of the rancher’s bandannas and walked out towards the barn calling, “Larry? Larry, where you at?”

The gangly menace was nowhere to be seen in the dirt circle that surrounded the well at the heart of the homestead. Her eyes slipped over the buildings to the field behind the barn. The barn door was still open so he should have heard her calling if he was in there, but if he’d gone to the back fence to find a horse he might be out of earshot. Huffing and grumbling, Danica made her way around the barn to the back field.

But Larry wasn’t in the field. He wasn’t beyond the fence, there were no footprints in the dirt path leading down into the gully that passed through the ridge beyond and there were no signs of horses that might have tempted him in that direction anyway. It was like Larry had vanished.

Danica knew he always sulked a bit whenever Hernando got angry at him. Frankly she didn’t blame Larry on that count, Hernando was quick to anger and rarely raged with good reason. But even Larry wasn’t so stupid as to ignore Hernando’s orders just because their creator was angry with them. That way lay starvation and eventually a second death.

So Larry had to be doing something. Maybe he had just buried his head in horse innards and hadn’t heard her calling him. So Danica went back around to the front of the barn and looked in. The first thing she noticed was the lack of horses there. Which was odd. She’d left all the horses she’d rounded up in stalls not two hours ago. They weren’t in the barn and they weren’t in the field, so where could they have gotten to?

The second thing she noticed was a faint smell. Although the change had left her with almost no sense of smell even she noticed the scents of smoke and charred meat lingering in the air.

The third thing she noticed was Larry himself, propped in a half seated position by the water barrel. His legs were folded in the Sanna style, his hands resting in his lap. His severed head cradled in his hands.

Fire and Gold Chapter One – To Pay the Ferryman

“The highest magic we know is gold.” Hernando de la Feugo rolled an obol through his fingers, the yellow cast of the coin catching the afternoon sunlight and reflecting it to the darkest corners of the room. “Even iron, which wars with all other magics, submits to the power of gold. It’s still a proud and stubborn metal but it recognizes the power of gold as king. Yet the nature of gold is to bind with other metals. It does not enhance magic, as copper might, or take on a false life of its own, as silver does. A conundrum but a beautiful one, almost as lovely as you.”

He ran his fingers through golden waves of the girl’s hair, released from their braids like a river released from it’s banks. “You know, the druids your ancestors served in Avalon held life as the highest magic. For centuries they considered iron the magic of death, since it leeches even the magic of life. But in time, what did we discover?” Hernando ran his fingers down the side of her cheek, along the bottom of her chin and finally over the graceful curves of her neck. Then he licked the blood off of them with relish. “Iron is the very foundation of the life’s blood, a part of our own existence we cannot escape. And if iron bows to gold, so too must life.”

He placed a single obol over one of the girl’s unseeing eyes. “Beauty.”

Another coin over the other. “Wisdom.”

A third in her mouth. “Joy.”

He wrapped her right hand around a fourth coin. “Skill.”

And a fifth in her left. “Strength.”

A coin on her heart. “The past.”

Another on her womb. “The future.”

He lifted his golden knife, still red with her iron. “All these submit to the power of Charon, the-”

“I found the books, Hernando!”

Hernando carefully set down his bag of coins and placed his knife beside it. “Thank you, Janice.” He pressed his palms together gently they held them there with all his strength. “This couldn’t have waited until I was done here?”

“They have the symbols, Hernando.” Janice bent forward a bit as she looked up at him, her eyes wide in a sickening imitation of childish innocence. “You said I should let you know if I saw the symbols right away, no matter what you were doing.”

Her shoulder length red hair was held in a loose ponytail, swept over her left shoulder. Hernando grabbed it and used it to pull her into an upright position so she would stop her noxious simpering. “I did say that, Janice. Thank you. Still, it’s surprising that you saw them here.” He looked around at the rough wooden walls of the slaughterhouse, where the previous owners of the cattle ranch had prepared their food much as he was doing now. “I wouldn’t think ranch hands or cattle barons would have much use for those kinds of books. Show me.”

Janice’s eyes wandered to the girl, laid out in full ritual fashion, and licked her lips. “You promised that I would have one this time.”

“And you will. After you show me what you found.”

“I have one picked out.”

This time he just stared at the woman until she withered a bit and took him where he wanted to go. The ranch compound was four buildings in total, the slaughterhouse, the barn, the boarding house and the ranch house. It was this last building where Janice led him. The house was relatively luxurious, with a wooden floor, lovingly sanded, a loft for storage and sleeping children, a great room with a brick hearth, a generous kitchen and not one but two bedrooms. In size it wouldn’t have been out of place on a wealthier street in Tetzlan City. The furnishings were rough, mostly handmade wooden furniture with no padding or upholstery, but that was to be expected. Such finery wouldn’t have lasted long in the Columbian wilds.

But, to Hernando’s surprise, there was a floor to ceiling bookshelf in the master bedroom, stuffed to bursting with books. Perhaps that made sense. So far from civilization any sensible person would have to stock up on whatever knowledge they could, since no libraries or monasteries of learned men were on hand to consult with. And sure enough, the Mark of Eternity was there.

Two of the books had a simple rectangle flanked by twin triangles on its spine. Below that was the feathered triangle of the Avaloni coat of arms. With a sinking feeling Hernando reached out and took one of the books, flipping quickly through the first few pages. Then he slammed it closed and held it under Janice’s nose. “Do you know what this is?”

Her aura of satisfaction quickly wilted under his stare. “I… it looked like a book with the symbols on it?”

“It is a History of the Forever Wars.” He cuffed her on the ear. “The worthless lies you Avaloni tell about your so-called First King. That’s all. I know Avalon is full of pathetic minds and empty lies, and Columbia can’t hope to be any better than its founders, but I would think you could at least recognize your own childish fairy tales.”

“Ain’t like I learned reading, Hernando,” she muttered, cradling the side of her face. “I heard about Arthur fighting Eternity from the Hearth Keepers but I didn’t know that symbol had anything to do with it.”

He ignored her excuses and threw the book over on the bed, skimming over the other titles on the bookshelf. Nothing really stood out to him. Most of it was simple Hearth Keeper texts, like the History, basic veterinary texts or penny dreadfuls. Exactly the subjects he’d expect from books on a cattle ranch, just more of them than he’d expected. “Pay more attention in the future, Janice. The popular conception of the Mark is different from what I showed you. The triangles lay flat against the center, they don’t stand apart from it like fangs.” He’d explained that the firs time but to his complete lack of surprise she’d forgotten. “I shouldn’t be surprised. Why would a place like this have anything bearing the symbols of the Army of Eternity?”

“Well if you didn’t think it would be here, why did you tell me to look?”

Hernando gritted his teeth. “Because it’s important to be open to possibilities.”

“Well, if you’ll be taking in someone who can learn me my letters, I can tell the difference in the future.” She straightened up and pulled her hand away from her ear. “Speaking of which-”

“No, Janice, you may not take one for yourself.” He jangled the bag of loose coins they’d found in the ranch thoughtfully. “Unfortunately the paymaster didn’t keep many large coins in the paybox. The problem of working for a tightfisted owner. We have enough gold to change one or perhaps two more, the rest is silver.”

Janice’s hands slipped up to massage his shoulders as she whispered in his ear. “If we do things my way we can get two for certain.”

Hernando sighed, knowing the best way to get her to be quiet about her idea was to hear it out. “Who do you have in mind?”

“The boy. He’s small, he’ll cost you a lot less than an adult. Add him to the woman you’re working on and there you go – you’ll have two! He can grow the investment easily, like Danica. And just think, then we’ll have a boy and a girl!”

That was the kind of reasoning he’d come to expect from Janice but he didn’t see any value in it. He was already coming to regret letting himself get talked into changing Danica, who was proving a lot less useful than he’d originally hoped. “I will consider it. In the mean time, you may take him for your meal. Do as you like with him, just remember to clean yourself out when you’re done. We’ll need to gather in the remaining ranch hands and add them to my reserves before the day is out.”

“What’s the rush, darling?” She wrapped her arms around his chest. “This place is nice and we could take our time with the meat. It’s so much better when we take it fresh.”

Hernando suppressed a shudder at the notion that anyone could find the place nice. “I don’t disagree. But the escapee from the Watcher’s outpost must have reached a settlement by now and sooner or later a posse is going to come looking for us. This is the natural place to start. We need to be gone before they arrive.”

“You don’t think we can deal with them?”

“I’m not willing to risk it, not yet.” Hernando fingered the gold in his bag, turning an obol over in his fingers as considered. “If we add another four to our numbers perhaps we’ll be ready to fight off a few dozen armed men. Even then, such actions will only draw greater and greater wrath. We must move with care.”

Janice sighed. “Of course. And the boy?”

Annoyed, he pulled her arms off of him and shoved her away. “Don’t get attached to your food. I’ll decide if I change him later.”

“Fine.” She crossed her arms and sulked. “Do whatever you want.”

Hernando straightened his clothes and marched out of the house towards the barn. Only once he was across the threshold, looking through the stalls to find Long Larry, did he remember he still had to ask Charon to bring back his own meal and change her into one of them. Then there was still a half a dozen ranch hands to work their way through and the livestock itself to deal with. When the old texts he’d found in the Tetzlani archives promised him the Rite of Golden Thirst would ensure he never went hungry again he never expected the business of it to become so tedious.

He’d been careful when they ate the Storm’s Watch on the northern ridge. But at least there had been something interesting in breaking up their powerful wards and clever use of plant magics. He didn’t want to spend his life running from posses but he wouldn’t mind another challenge like that to break up the monotony.

Not that there was likely to be another man equal to the head of the Watchers in three counties. Perhaps someone could afford to hire The Strongest Man in the World to hunt him down. That was another legend that had the ring of a fairy tale to it. Over the last two decades the mercenaries of the West had grown in reputation until they overshadowed even the soldiers and gentry of the surrounding nations and Columbian firespinners were supposedly the toughest of the lot. None of them could hold a candle to the pride of Tetzlan. He looked forward to the chance to prove it.

Night Train to Hardwick Chapter Fourteen – Coda

Previous Chapter

Roy had never heard of someone losing their sight because they used magic but apparently that was part of how stonesong worked. Not a great exchange in general, in his opinion. Particularly bad when you had to help the mostly blind woman down off the roof of a moving sky train. They managed it safely, but it took work. He had to walk Cassandra down the ladder as her brother assisted him from below. As they parted ways she paused for a moment with her head resting against his chest. Then she was steady on her own feet again and he took them forward, locking down the baggage car behind him.

Once he had the Fairchilds safely back in their shared compartment he went to find the assistant conductor. The small hours of the morning went to writing down details, completing the conductor’s share of the paperwork and walking the train in his place. Someone had to manage the train, after all. The only upside of the whole mess was that losing the weight of the caboose allowed them to arrive in Hardwick a full ten minutes early.

With the train firmly on the ground once again Roy found himself wishing the passengers safe travels and securing the train until a new caboose could be brought on. He didn’t look forward to his uncle Alan’s letters about this mess. The train company wouldn’t be happy replacing an entire car but Hunter Colbert had started the fight and that gave Roy some ammunition to use to defend himself and he was confident his uncle’s lawyers could sort everything out with time. Not that Roy planned on being involved in that process. Some magics were too dark to tamper with, even for him.

Since all danger was now behind him or at some nebulous point in the future Roy headed to Hardwick’s only hotel, the Carlton, to check in and get some sleep. To his surprise he found Brandon Fairchild waiting for him by the reception desk. Roy gave the younger man a skeptical look and asked, “Something I can do for you, Mr. Fairchild?”

“Allow us to buy you breakfast?”

Roy favored him with a grouchy glare. “If I must, though I’d much prefer a nap followed by a full night’s sleep.”

“Dinner, then?”

Given how much nonsense the Fairchilds had put up with the night before Roy suspected a simple ‘no’ wouldn’t be enough to deter them. So he sighed and said, “Better order two pots of coffee.”

A moment later he was seated at a small, round table across from the pair of them. Cassandra’s eyes were still unfocused so it didn’t seem her vision had returned, but she still turned to him as he approached. It was eerie. He took the seat Brandon offered and asked, “What can I do for you two? I do appreciate your assistance on the train, particularly as it turned out to be a personal matter and not railway business, but I don’t know as I’m ready to take on any new work at the moment.”

“Actually, we wanted to ask you some questions,” Brandon said.

“About the train?”

“Tangentially.” He glanced at his sister.

“I’ve listened to all your conversations with my brother,” she began, “and while you’ve been quite specific about your thoughts on our orders of magic you’ve said very little concerning your own. Quite deliberately, I think.”

Roy was tempted to speak. But that was obviously what she expected when she paused and he decided not to dance to her tune. He took a sip of his coffee instead. Grimace at the bitterness. When she realized he had no intention of commenting Cassandra continued. “When we saw you on the train’s roof we understood why. You’re a firemind.”

“Dolmen burner,” Roy corrected, stirring cream into his coffee.

“A distinction without a difference,” Brandon said.

“No.” Roy set the cream down with an emphatic thud. “This isn’t Avalon, Mr. Fairchild, it’s Columbia. One thing we learned from the people we met here is the importance of names. Of precise speech. There is a difference between a firemind and a dolmen burner, and you’d best respect it.”

The younger man was taken aback by the vehemence in Roy’s statement. “Oh? What difference is that?”

“A firemind is a talent awakened in a druid as he trains under the Stone Circle, after taking his oaths,” Roy said. “A dolmen burner is a curse, laid on a man who took part in destroying both Circle and oath.”

To his surprise Cassandra nodded affably. “So we guessed, based on what your captain’s ghosts said. But I noticed the sound of an artifact of the Stone Circle on your person as you were helping me down from the train tops. And it clearly belongs to you, or you wouldn’t be able to keep it. Did no one tell you? Or perhaps you found it after the last owner died? There’s precedent for it.”

“Is that a fact?” A number of possible remarks flitted through Roy’s mind but it wasn’t his place to bring the old owner of Pelinore’s Journal into the conversation. “Well, as it happens I was given it and told what it was. No one mentioned not keeping it, in fact I understand it’s quite the opposite. I can’t lose it. I was also given to understand it chooses its owner somehow and that was me, which I admit doesn’t make much sense but with Morainhenge gone I suppose it’s any port in a storm. Does it come with membership in the knightly ranks as well?”

“It doesn’t,” Brandon said. “Not exactly. But I think the average druid would consider you closer to one of our own than you think.”

Roy grunted and stirred his coffee absently, then sipped it, finding the taste more compatible with his palate. “So? What do you want, then? I could try and return the Journal to you, if that’s what you’re after.”

Cassandra shook her head, lips curling in amusement. “No, Mr. Harper, it belongs to you now. There’s little we could do to separate it from you.”

“Short of killing you,” Brandon added, “which wouldn’t be terribly chivalrous of us and may be outside our capabilities as well.”

“No maybes about it.” Roy drummed his fingers on his coffee mug and waited for them to go on. But it was their turn to wait on him. “Did you want to read the Journal? Is that even possible?”

“I’m afraid I don’t know,” Cassandra said. “But probably not. Certainly it isn’t appropriate, as Pelinore was a contemporary of Arthur himself and the journal undoubtedly records many secrets from the King’s founding of the knightly orders. Things not meant for the world at large.”

“Or even the rank and file of the Stone Circle,” Brandon added. “I won’t learn many of the secret histories for years and years, if at all.”

Roy reached into the inner pocket of his jacket, pulled the journal out and turned it over in his hands. Its appearance had changed slightly since he first received it, gaining a reddish sheen to the black leather cover and shrinking a touch to better fit his pocket. But it still looked a worn, old, overused thing. “It really contains those kinds of secrets? Hardly looks it.”

“The best secrets are those everyone passes over,” Brandon said.

But Cassandra’s brow was furrowing. “You sound as if you haven’t read it.”

“I haven’t. There are things I have to do before its fully mine so I can only read the first few pages as of now.” Roy tucked it back in his jacket. “Was there something you hoped to learn from it?”

“When I came of age,” Cassandra said, “I was called to find the Secret of Steel. The elders of Stonehenge gave me a list of five texts lost to us that may contain clues to discovering it…”

Roy realized that both Fairchilds were quiet and staring at him. Perhaps he had nodded off. “I’m sorry, you were saying?”

“You know something, don’t you?” Cassandra’s voice was barely a whisper.

“About what?” Roy asked.

“Steel,” Brandon said.

“Now what makes you think that?”

“For starters,” Cassandra said, “you didn’t ask what was stolen, like most people do.”

“That’s…” Roy fumbled for a response. “Listen, it’s nothing from the Journal itself. To tell you the truth I don’t know much about it, but once, years ago, I met a man with a gleaming sword made of a metal that looked like aluminum but he called steel.”

Brandon leaned forward, his voice soft. “Did he know how it was made?”

The ghost of a smile crossed Roy’s face. “From fire in the heart and iron in the blood.” The siblings looked crestfallen and Roy smothered a laugh. “He said it was forged iron, which is impossible since iron resists all magic. It’s not like throwing it in a fire will do anything. Only gold can overpower iron and even then only to alloy it. And before you ask, yes I know what gilded iron looks like and no his sword wasn’t made out of it. Steel is a much different beast.”

“Do you…” Cassandra hesitated.

“Know how to find him?” Roy asked. She nodded, sheepish. “I had no reason to stay in touch with him until this very moment.”

“What was his name?”

“He never told us.” Roy gave a furtive glance around the room to make sure no one could accidentally overhear then leaned forward, pitched his voice lower and and said, “But the Sanna call him The Strongest Man in the World. From time to time you hear rumors of him, floating around the West.”

There was a long silence around the table. Finally Brandon set his tea cup aside, brows furrowed. “I trust that’s not some kind of joke?”

“It’s not.” Roy sighed. He’d tried to explain the events of Tyson’s Run, during the coldest days of the Summer of Snow, but few of those he’d told the tale believed him and those who did were reluctant believers. The Fairchilds would have to remain skeptics. “I’m willing to allow you to study any notes I transcribe from the Journal if they relate to steel, but based on what I’ve seen it’s not really a book concerned with that kind of human innovation. In the mean time, you’re free to try and find the Strongest Man in the World if you wish. It’s not a thing I recommend, though.”

“Why is that?” Cassandra asked.

“A man of his reputation never works for free and always asks a high price.”

“I suppose he also comes with many enemies,” Brandon added.

“None that I’ve heard of. From what I’ve seen those he makes don’t last very long.”

“And how do we stay in touch with you while we look for this mythical man?” Cassandra asked. “You’ve said we’re free to look at your notes but there are other old records Morainhenge held that we’re looking for. We’ll need some way to stay in touch.”

She was right, of course, and there was a very simple solution to the problem she pointed out. He just wasn’t sure he liked it. But Pelinore’s Journal weighed heavily on him, a reminder that he owed the Stone Circle a great deal in both penance and now in duty. Perhaps these two were an opportunity to begin paying off those debts. “Very well, Ms. Cassandra. I live in Kegan’s Bluff, the southwest junction of the T and K and Sommerville Rail lines. I don’t know what kinds of steps you’re taking to recover your lost texts but its an excellent hub for travel and information. An ideal place to look for books or men.”

Brandon nodded thoughtfully. “It’s as good a starting place as any, I suppose. Does Bennett’s Bank have a branch near there? It would be unfortunate if we had to leave town whenever our expense funds run low.”

“I’m sure you can arrange something with one of the banks in town,” Roy said, gathering himself for the next bit. “However I think I can simplify things for you. You’re welcome to the use of my guest rooms for as long as you chose to remain in Kegan’s Bluff, it’s much cheaper than staying in a hotel.”

“That’s very generous of you, Mr. Harper,” Cassandra said. “We’ll consider it and let you know what we decide.”

“Do as you see fit. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to find some place to close my eyes.” Roy got to his feet and staggered out to the desk. As he waited in line for the chance to check in he tried to track how he wound up there. Ultimately he suspected it didn’t matter why he’d stumbled across his unexpected guests – and for some reason he was certain they’d accept his offer – what was more important was where he went from there.

He was going to bed. Beyond that, there was far more to the West than the ghosts of his past and hopefully for the moment such things were behind him.

Night Train to Hardwick Chapter Thirteen – Roots in the Air

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The touch of a ghost was terrible. Even as Brandon wrapped himself in layers of bark the attacks of the ghost army were freezing spiderwebs of ice crystals onto his clothes and skin. Brandon could feel the cold creeping past the yew and into his flesh. He had some of the resilience of the tree that shared his body so he could withstand deep cold for days or months, but only if he was willing to lapse into hibernation.

With Cassie behind him that was a luxury he didn’t have.

Her song was carrying the ghosts away with growing speed but proximity didn’t equal efficacy and many of the ghosts most determined to push past him seemed the most resistant to her magic. Lobbing a short burst of fire from his saber dispersed a ghost easily. But as often as not they were reforming back at the core of the horde and returning for another pass. It wasn’t like he was in danger of letting any of the spirits slip past him but the fire reserve in his saber’s sulfurite was getting low.

The horde was thinning out on top. The center of the mass was moving closer to them and, as the ghosts passed on, it was dropping lower as well. There was enough thinning of the ranks for Brandon to make out the train’s conductor at the heart of it.

As the horde thinned fewer and fewer ghosts were coming on the offensive, more and more remaining with their master to keep him aloft. And that was when Brandon realized what was really happening. It wasn’t because cause he couldn’t stay in the air any longer, although that point was coming soon. He was coming to grips. “Hurry up, Cassie,” he muttered, “I don’t know how long I can hold him off.”

A subtle shift in the harmonics of her song set the frame of the train car under his feet vibrating. It was the only answer she gave. Hopefully it meant the song would, indeed, send the ghosts away faster but in the mean time a new issue crept up. He’d sent roots out of his feet and into the roof of the car to keep himself in place. But now the vibration was splintering the roof around them. There was no time to count ghosts to see if they were vanishing faster as the conductor had landed on the car only a few feet away.

He set the army of ghosts on Brandon in waves. Ice and cold rolled over him with freezing, hungry jaws and any protection Brandon’s clothes and bark might have offered failed in the face of the raging dead. Desperate, Brandon overloaded the sulfurite in his sword. It released all the power of fire stored within in a single burst, overflowing the weapon’s fuller and blasting the area with a wave of heat as strong as summer. Brandon’s layers of chilled bark kept all but the barest breath of that heat from reaching him. But the ghosts suffered terribly.

For a brief moment the space between Brandon and the conductor was entirely clear of specters, giving a brief glimpse of the portly man batting out sparks on his clothes. Then the ghosts were charging forward again. The horde had thinned even more but, with no fire in his sword, Brandon had no way to fend them off. In fact, the blade had shattered in the blast. He couldn’t even cut down the conductor if he charged him so there was no choice but to go the other way.

He pulled his roots up and pushed Cassie backwards, trying to make space. Grasping spectral hands still clutched at him, robbing him of warmth, but they were coming much slower than before. For a brief moment Brandon contemplated victory. He could transform the Yew rod currently binding him to his sister into a spear to kill the conductor with. But even as he dug his fingers into the weapon he realized it was futile. The cold had take a much greater toll on the dead yew than the living wood rooted in his body. It was far too brittle to shift without breaking.

Brandon snarled and threw the hilt of his weapon at the conductor. However even with the whip like strength of the yew behind his throw the ghostly winds easily deflected the hunk of metal before it reached its target. The bearded man leered at them, screaming, “To bad, Mr. Fairchild! Years go Avalon chose to stay out of the Lakeshire war. Wouldn’t even provide neutral diplomats! Now you finally pick a side a decade late and to top it all off you chose the wrong one!”

The statement barely made sense to Brandon. He little of the war in Columbia when he was a child but he did know there were several raging in Europe at the same time, a few going so far as to involve Avalon itself. It wasn’t like the Crown had the manpower to get involved with all of them. Then again, expecting coherent thought from the man might be a bit too much. Constantly consorting with the dead was a burden on sanity that few could endure for long.

“I don’t much care for your opinion on the decisions of the Crown or his Lords,” Brandon said. “I don’t even care why you’ve done all this. But the dead belong to the grave, don’t torture them any longer by keeping them here.”

The conductor lunged at him, his fingers cracking through frozen bark with ease. Brandon jerked away in pain and surprise. The conductor’s fingers dug in and he ripped an entire layer of bark away, shattering the roots of his belt and the yew rod that held Cassie in place. She staggered away, her song vanishing on a panicked note.

“Brandon, what happened?” She asked, the fear in her voice straining against her self control.

“Keep singing,” he said through gritted teeth.

“No!” The conductor screamed. “Enough singing! Enough of the whispering voices! I just want you all to be quiet and leave me alone!”

The man reached for Brandon’s face, layers of frost forming on his hand, face and hair. As the conductor’s fingers closed on Brandon’s forehead a surge of wind swept up from the bottom of the train. An angry red glow lit the scene from below.

As Brandon grappled with the conductor his mind grappled with these details. His mind presented him with a solution first. “Updraft.”

Confusion crossed the other man’s face when he heard the word. “What?”

Harper shot up over the edge of the sky train, a red hot piece of aluminum dragging him up by one arm. His other hand grabbed the edge of the train car and Roy pivoted around it. The fire in the aluminum jumped free, circling Harper’s head like a rogue sun. The rod of metal swung about and slammed into the conductor’s head with a sizzling thunk. The metal was still so soft it wrapped halfway around the conductor’s head covering his mouth and cutting off the man’s pained shriek.

The conductor’s hands flew up and tugged at the chunk of metal. At first the movement was frantic but it quickly grew sluggish as he slumped to his knees. Harper put a foot in the man’s side and shoved, sending his corpse toppling off the edge of the train and leaving the two of them alone at the end of the train.

“This isn’t over, Harper!” The eviscerated ghost from before appeared out of the horde, screaming. “I promise we will haunt you…”

His voice faded to a whisper as Cassie’s song surged forth with renewed vigor. The conductor’s death had weakened the hold the dead had on the world of the living and the renewed song seemed to wipe the remaining ghosts away like a rag wiped away the dew. They all vanished in a few seconds, save for one. Sam Jenkins lingered near the end of the train, a wistful look on his face, a hand raised in farewell Then he looked up to the sky and faded as well.

Harper took a deep breath and let it out, stripping his dueling gloves off. Brandon noticed the palm of the glove that held the aluminum during his brief flight had burned entirely through. “Well,” Harper said, rubbing that hand against his side with a wince. “If I ever see another ghost it’ll be too soon.”

That put an uncomfortable thought in Brandon’s mind. “Cassie?” He yelled, dashing back to her. “What can you see?”

Night Train to Hardwick Chapter Eleven – Front to Back

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They were halfway up the length of the train when Cassie grabbed Brandon’s arm and hissed, “Did you hear that?”

“No,” he replied, eyes scanning the walls and corners of the public car but unable to pinpoint a source for her mysterious sound. Not even the ghosts were present at the moment. “What did it sound like?”

“Some kind of pipe or flute,” she said. “It’s playing a marching tune.”

“That’s probably a bad sign,” Brandon muttered, moving faster towards the forward door. The whole car bucked under their feet and two dozen voices screamed, gasped or sobbed in unison. “That’s even worse.”

“Something hit the train’s roof,” Cassie said.

“Where?”

“Two cars ahead? Maybe three?” Her eyes tracked something along the ceiling of the car. A loud bang and the ceiling cracked as a heavy weight rolled along the roof. Cassie’s expression turned to horror. “That’s Mr. Harper!”

Brandon immediately turned about, following the clunking sounds along the roof. “Is he saying anything you can make out?”

“Not over the sound of the army.”

“Dust and ashes,” Brandon muttered, feeling the yew dig deeper into his bones as it woke to danger, filaments weaving through his muscles and hardening his skin like bark. When he hit the breezeway at the end of the car he looked up. Harper was not in sight. So Brandon unhooked the mesh around the passage, reached one hand up and hauled himself onto the roof of the train.

The wind grabbed him as soon as his head broke over the top of the train car and tears filled his eyes as the force of the air assulted them. With the wind came a steady stream of horrific wails and screams. In the distance, empty grassland and high bluffs moved past at a pace made deceptively slow by the miles between the train and the horizon. Brandon put a hand up to block some of the wind and his vision cleared more. There, on the roof of the next car down, was Roy Harper, wielding his iron knife in a vain attempt to hold back a raging horde of ghosts.

It was hard to pick out details through the overlapping layers of spectral shapes. Harper’s body was clear for only split seconds at a time and, by straining a bit, Brandon could tell that there was some kind of solid form at the center of the horde, held aloft by dozens or hundreds of ghosts clustering around it. Waves of ghosts were buffeting against Harper in spite of his best efforts to keep them away. By the time Brandon got up on the roof himself Harper had taken another spill, tumbling halfway down the length of the car. The ghosts were trying to knock him clean off the train but he was staying low enough that he could turn a slip from a lethal mistake into a painful fall along the roof.

“Harper!” Brandon called, trying to find his own balance as the wind from the train’s passage buffeted him. “Push this way!”

Whether because the wind took the words away or because the sound of the ghost army drowned out his voice Harper didn’t hear. Instead he took another step back and hopped over the gap to the next car back. Brandon marveled at how certain his footing was, how easily Harper kept his feet in spite of the rushing air and raging ghosts.

Unexpected hands clamped on to his shoulders and Cassie’s voice came over the wind. “Get me closer.”

“What are you doing here?” Brandon demanded. “You can barely make yourself heard.”

“They don’t have to hear me for the power to take hold.” The tone of her voice was so startling that he turned to look and saw the most focused, ferocious expression he’d ever seen on her face.

“Don’t let go,” Brandon said, digging his heels in and shifting his focus from the yew within to that without, digging the short yew rod he carried out of his belt. It sprouted roots that looped up and around his shoulders and Cassie’s hands. With his sister mostly secured he quickly pushed towards the other end of the train car, muscles and yew roots working in tandem to move down the train.

In some ways having the wind at his back made traversing the car harder, not easier. Each step required deliberation, caution and precision or the wind could blow them right off the roof. Even with the weight of two people together it was difficult. At first he and Cassie couldn’t move in coordination. In fact they nearly tripped each other the first time they tried to take a step and, to make matters worse, Cassie’s hair came free of its bun and whipped into his face adding another complication.

Harper didn’t seem to have any better time of it. No matter how he tried Brandon couldn’t get any closer to him. The other man kept giving ground before the army of ghosts to the point where there was almost no train left! By dint of practice and a careful squint Brandon closed the distance between them to half a train car and the ghosts were starting to take note of him and his sister. The sound of spectral wailing seemed to change in tone and tenor as the spotted Cassie. “Poor things,” she said. “Most of them have no idea why they’re here. They’ve been shackled by one of their own.”

“So they have.” Brandon was so startled by Sam Jenkins’ unexpected arrival that he nearly took a fatal slip.

“Dust and ashes, warn a man next time,” he grumbled.

“You can see him there near the top.” Jenkins pointed vaguely towards a glowing mass near the top of the ghost army.

If he squinted, Brandon thought he could make out a slightly brighter figure in the overlapping mass Jenkins was pointing to. “Must be the ghost that was haunting Harper,” Brandon said. “He said it was a Captain. How do I put it down?”

“You can’t,” Cassie replied. “Ghosts are magic rooted in a vessel of water vapor. There’s nothing solid for you to cut or break. I’ll have to siphon off the power giving them shape.”

“Cassandra-”

“I can hear the harmonies, Brandon! This was the call that brought us here! Just keep the ghosts at bay as best you can.”

There were some things people had to chose for themselves. Once Affirmed an adult at the age of fifteen there was little family or friends could do to change someone’s mind once they made it up and, for better or worse, the Fairchild gift had fallen to Cassandra. If she chose to use it there was nothing he could do. Just keep her safe. “Very well, then, if they turn nasty I’ll keep the ghosts back as best I can.”

“Use the thing that you used to call me,” Jenkins said. “It’s got a darkness to it, to be sure, but that’ll encourage most of them to to move on rather than stay near it. But Roy said not to do anything until he reaches the caboose.”

“What?” Brandon demanded. “Why?”

“Best of luck, Fairchilds! Go in peace, for we’ll not meet in this world again.” The ghost vanished into the wind.

“Our Lady guide you to warm hearthfires,” Cassie called.

“Our Lord call you to walk with the storm,” Brandon said. Then, as an afterthought, “If they even have either of those in the Great Beyond.”

“Let them get a few steps further ahead,” Cassie said. “Best not to draw their attention to us before we begin.”

“It might be too late for that,” Brandon said, eyeing the fringes of the army. Ghosts there still eyed them with suspicion.

He was wondering how they might go about distracting them when Harper tumbled off the edge of the baggage car, disappearing into the gap between it and the caboose.

Night Train to Hardwick Chapter Nine – Chorus of the Lost

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The ghosts were everywhere. Even in the orphan’s public car, previously swept clear, specters were flitting through the walls briefly. However echoes of Cassie’s magic remained there, driving the ghosts away quickly. It left a strange impression, as if the edges of the car had turned blurry with the faces of ghosts flicking in and out. The other cars were worse, with ghost flailing, yelling and swooping at people at random intervals.

“Strange that we haven’t attracted any ghosts,” Brandon muttered.

“We’re probably too far away from any remnants of people we know,” Cassie said. “Small blessings from the Lady there.”

“Are you sure none of this is dangerous?” Brandon asked, watching as a living woman struggled against tears, clutching at the intangible form of a boy on the seat beside her.

“So long as they remain in the normal classes of ghost they don’t have any physical power,” Cassie said, looking away from the scene uneasily. “But that doesn’t mean specters can’t manipulate people verbally, in fact they’re uniquely suited to it because they know those they’re bound to. They’re just as dangerous to the mind as any living creature. Haunts – ghosts that are bound to places or objects – are less likely to do it but all I’m seeing and hearing are specters.”

Brandon stepped out into the airway between the last public car and the luggage car, eyeing the growing swarms of ghosts that billowed through the night sky, voices merging with the wind in a constant surussus of half heard, unsettling words. “What happens when they stop being normal ghosts?”

“Then you have a revenant,” Cassie called over the wind. “Or a poltergeist if you ask the Teutonic wizards. Either word means the same – a ghost that can fling objects, freeze people and is no longer bound to a single person, place or thing.”

The luggage car door slammed shut behind them but to Brandon’s surprise the piles of luggage were swarming with just as many specters as the rest of the train. “Interesting. Are we changing our mind about there being no haunts on this train?”

“This may be the locus of power Mr. Harper was looking for. That, or every piece of clothing and luggage is bound to a haunt,” Cassie murmured.

Brandon frowned and started looking through the luggage carefully. Most of it was in trunks, locked closed, difficult if not impossible for a regular person to open. Smaller items were kept in wooden cubbyholes with locked doors, which Brandon knew could only be opened by a conductor with a master key or the passenger who rented it, who was given the relevant key.

“If an object was the focus of all this, how big would it be?” He asked.

Cassie shrugged, resting her ear against one of the trunks while working the fistful of Harper’s magical scrap in one hand. “It could be as small as a jewel or curio portrait.”

Brandon grunted and closed his eyes. Cassie might be able to hear and speak to things beyond but his initiation into the stone circle had given him the strength and heart of the yew. He ran his fingers along the doors of the cubbies and the lids of trunks, looking for the telltale signs of recent human touch. Behind him, Cassie began humming quietly. Brandon frowned, annoyed that she kept pushing her gift when she was in no danger. No matter how Harper’s gizmo interacted with her talents it wouldn’t help her forever. Either its magic would give out or Harper would take it back but the habit of relying on it would remain.

And at the rate she was going she’d be blind by thirty.

Then again all stone singers had to face that reality sooner or later, even if they never consciously used their magic. He thought he’d accepted that, watching his father slowly lose his vision as he grew up. But it turned out dreading his sister’s eventual decline had its own kind of horror to it. He realized he’d stopped searching and pushed himself forward again. A few minutes later he reached the far end of the baggage car and sighed, shifting his shoulders as the yew roots relaxed and his magic went dormant. “Nothing here. I’d guess no one needed their luggage in the last twelve hours. Any chance someone set their ghost attracting talisman earlier in the day and we just saw the effects now?”

“Most magic dealing with spirits only functions at night,” Cassie said between bars of her tune. Another half minute of humming and she opened her eyes again. “None of these ghosts seems more powerful than the others. If there’s a ghost general behind this its not at this end of the train.”

“Could the magic be set up one night and activated the next?”

“Not if sunlight touches it.” She gestured to the high windows of the train car. “So the windows make it unlikely the spell was cast out in the open. If none of this luggage has been tampered with then there’s no place for the spell to survive the dawn.”

Brandon glanced at the back of the train car. “That just leaves the caboose.”

“That’s the crew’s territory,” Cassie said, doubtful. “Why would one of them sabotage their own train?”

“Maybe they’re not,” Brandon countered. “Maybe one of them is just haunted by the ghost general, as you put it.”

“Well either way they aren’t going to let us in. The crew cars are always locked,” Cassie mused. “Though I’m sure Mr. Harper could gain entry. Perhaps we should go and find him.”

She turned and headed past him towards the door but Brandon stopped her with a hand on her shoulder. “Cassie. When you heard the call, what was it?”

“I told you, Brandon, there weren’t words. Just stonesong. And I could tell it was coming from this direction.”

“Cassie. Just because I can’t hear stonesong myself doesn’t mean I don’t know anything about it. My father is a stonesinger, same as yours.” He gave her a knowing smile. “And he knew us well enough to warn me of the kinds of things you might learn but not share. So. Out with it. What did you hear when the call came?”

She sighed. “A sound like an ocean of trees, all folding in on themselves until nothing was left but the whisper of wind through the leaves.”

A frown pressed down on Brandon’s face. “And that was enough for you to rush us out onto this sky train with less than half an hour to spare?”

His sister nodded glumly. “I’ve heard it before.”

“Really?”

“Not exactly the same, you understand,” she hastened to add. “But something very similar when I was nine and we went to Stonehenge for your initiation into the First Circle.”

“You believe there’s a druid out here somewhere,” Brandon said, realization dawning. “Perhaps even Harper himself. He knew enough to recognize me, although he didn’t identify himself as such.”

“Morainhenge is gone,” Cassie replied. “There can’t be any proper druids here anymore, can there? Besides, Harper talks like a Regular, not a Lakeshire man.”

Brandon snorted, she was wrong on the first count and they were hardly the best judges on the second. The again, there were many things she could hear that he couldn’t. “Then we keep looking for the druid that’s the source. Do you think he’s connected to the ghosts here, somehow?”

She shook her head. “No druid I’ve met sounds remotely like that. But I have heard the sound before, from the Book of Linds.”

“Is that a fact.” Which changed all the implications entirely, didn’t it. “You were called by a relic, not a druid.”

Cassie nodded. “Either the Manual of Sulfur or Pelinor’s Journal is somewhere nearby. I can’t say where, just that it’s in this direction.”

“Well,” Brandon said, “that’s useful if we survive these ghosts. I doubt either one is close enough to help us right this moment.”

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

Previous Chapter

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

Previous Chapter

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.”