Fire and Gold Chapter Six – The Silver Sword

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An amused smile touched Hernando’s lips. “Oh? You’re the Giantkiller, are you?”

An annoyed look crossed Harper’s face as he drew a long, straight, thin sword with a large sulfurite crystal in the hilt. “Some people call me that, I suppose. It’s not a title I claim but I can’t take words out of other people’s mouths, either.”

“You Avaloni have such a strange fascination with giants. They’re just big.” Hernando eyed Harper’s sword and estimated it gave his opponent two and a half to three inches of reach advantage. He assumed a duelist stance and began circling the other man warily. “It’s not like they’re majestic like the griffon or powerful like the dragon. They don’t even symbolize an elemental power like the unicorn represents the Depths of Purity. Why a creature that is merely us, enlarged?”

“I don’t know.” Harper made an experimental lunge, feinting a downward cut that suddenly snaked sideways becoming a cut at Hernando’s left flank. The gold drinker back pedaled quickly enough to dodge the worst of the slash. However Harper’s reach and the unexpected nature of the attack was enough to lay open a shallow cut in spite of Hernando’s fast response. Harper returned to a guard position with a casual shrug. “I know the story of Arthur and the Brothers Walking but I’m not sure why the First and Forever King slaying a giant made fighting them the greatest achievement an Avaloni man can achieve. I’d rather leave that honor to him and seek my own path. I don’t think I’m worthy of the calling Arthur answered.”

Gold scabbed over Hernando’s wound in seconds. He probed it with his fingers for a second, more worried at how easily the blade cut through all three layers of clothes he wore than the wound itself. Harper was clearly a competent swordsman. But his opening attack was a poor match for the sword he was using. That kind of slashing attack would have worked better with a little more blade behind it rather than a narrow, straight weapon like Harper was holding.

On a hunch Hernando edged forward and feinted a high cut. Harper answered by raising his blade to block and riposted with a wheeling cut, snapping his wrist around as he lunged again to try and strike Hernando’s shoulder. It wasn’t the typical counter you’d expect from that kind of sword. Based on Harper’s last strike it was exactly what Hernando was expecting and, with no force behind his initial strike, he was able to shift and block it easily.

With a grim smile, Hernando followed Harper’s arm back towards the other man as he recovered his weapon. As Hernando expected, Harper recovered like he, too, was trained with a saber or similar backsword. Curved cutting weapons were, in general, shorter than straight cut and thrust weapons like Harper’s current sword. People who weren’t used to a longer weapon often lost control of their point and the blade went out of alignment, creating an opportunity to trap it against its owner’s body.

Harper wasn’t an exception. Hernando took full advantage of his opponent’s sloppy recovery, pushing Harper’s sword down until he was forced to drive the point into the floorboards to stop it so it wouldn’t cut his own leg. This was where Hernando’s shorter blade came in handy. It wasn’t stuck and he left the bind to slash upwards at Harper’s forward leg.

With a snappy throwing motion Harper sent the bead of fire in his left hand zipping down to touch the edge of Hernando’s saber where it exploded. A sudden gust of hot air whooshed past him. However the explosion had no force behind it and the heat seemed to focus in the saber blade, melting a hand sized section of it in the space of a breath and spattering molten bronze on the floor. Harper yanked his sword free of the ground and stepped past Hernando.

The gold drinker whirled in an attempt to keep the other man in sight but Harper was too light on his feet, staying just beyond Hernando’s left shoulder. For some reason he didn’t strike. With his saber destroyed and his reach even more reduced compared to Harper’s moving away didn’t strike Hernando as a good strategy. So he threw the full weight of his gold into his left foot and swept it out. With the weight shift added to the force of the spin his leg caught up with and toppled Harper, who did Hernando the disservice of falling on top of him. They both wound up on the ground in a tangle of arms and legs.

A mad scramble ensued where Harper tried to get back to his feet and Hernando tried to get a solid grip on him to keep him grounded. In the middle of the scramble a sharp pain shot up Hernando’s leg. Reflexively he pushed hard to shove the source of it away from him. He’d already put a fair amount of gold in his hands to help him drag Harper as he wished and as a result when he shoved Harper went rolling across the floor like a tumbleweed, elbows thumping, sword clanking, mouth cursing.

A deep cut had laid Hernando’s thigh open. Gold was slowly filling the wound in but it wasn’t moving as quickly as he’d expected. Grimacing, he got to his feet and prepared to lunge back into the fray but stopped short when he saw Harper. He’d gotten back to his feet and was back in his stance. Somehow he’d also changed weapons, his long thrusting sword gone, replaced with a shorter, wide bladed machete. The large sulfurite crystal in the handle glowed brightly but the weapon had no fuller or other way to release it’s power. It was hard to tell from a distance but the crystal looked exactly like the one in Harper’s previous weapon.

Hernando barked a short laugh. “Silver? You bring a silver sword to challenge a gold drinker?”

“’Those who mix blood with gold think they take in the king of all metals,’” Harper said in a flat, absent tone. It sounded like a memory given voice. “’But the truth is that gold is the most promiscuous.’”

Hernando’s amusement drained away. Malice welled up in its place, a gnawing desire to destroy Harper in such a thorough, tortuous way that his words would never be spoken again. “Oh? Where did you hear that?”

“Read it in a book,” Harper replied. He touched a finger to the crystal in his sword and pulled a bead of flame from it. The crystal didn’t visibly dim so it couldn’t have been that much. Nevertheless Hernando braced himself for another attack like that which had destroyed his sword. But Harper just continued to speak in his previous tone of voice. “’The magic of gold goes beyond simply bonding with all metals. It also mimics the magic of that metal. The way iron wars with magic isn’t understood but it is magic and this is why gilded iron does not kill magic is effectively as other forms of the metal. Gold is killing iron’s magic just as iron is killing other magics.’”

Growing tired of Harper’s lecturing, Hernando took a half step to the left, as if he was going to circle around the other man towards Danica, then transitioned from the feint to a vicious lunge. By forcing the weight of metal into his forward foot, he added to his forward momentum creating an unstoppable step-in. Unfortunately Harper did not react as Hernando hoped.

Instead of moving forward to intercept Hernando’s feint Harper skipped back and threw his bead of fire into the wooden floor. It burst into a small flame that wavered weakly. Then Haper pointed two fingers of his left hand at the flame and a spark like red lightning flickered in his eyes and the floorboards burst into flames. Hernando had skidded through his initial lunge, keeping his weight forward. He’d intended to chase Harper and bring him to grips. Instead he got caught in the fiery eruption Harper set off. Scrambling to try and get out of the sudden conflagration, Hernando’s boot caught on the edge of… something and he toppled over.

It wasn’t until he scrambled backwards across the floor that he saw what had happened. He was beating out the flames on his clothes when he realized the floorboards were quickly turning to ash, leaving a half inch depression full of ash growing in the building’s great room. The fire was advancing with supernatural speed, already lapping at the soles of his boots again. The flames on his clothes would not go out.

He had to get away from Harper. The man had some kind of magical control over fire, a power as mysterious to Hernando now as gold drinking had been a year ago. But few magics could be directed with precision without the ability to see what one was doing.

Herando wasn’t the only one to realize this. When he spun to head back to the door he discovered the entire floor behind him was a sea of flames. He tried to think of a counter. His opponent was one step ahead of him. The fire surged forward in a wave that funneled itself towards him, rushing over his head and torso in a seemingly endless stream. The heat was enough that, even with his reduced sense of touch, Hernando could feel his flesh burning.

He screamed.

Then he toppled to the ground. “’The magic of silver is to assume the shape its master desires.’” Harpers voice came from very close by. “’When it binds to gold, both gold and silver will shape to your desires. By binding silver to the gold in the creature’s blood you will gain power over it equal to the creature itself.’”

Hernando’s eyes recovered from being boiled away, although they saw the world through the yellow tinge of the gold that had helped them heal. What he saw was Harper kicking his severed leg to one side. Flecks of gold and iron clung to his blade, gleaming in the light of the brilliant bead of fire cupped in his left hand.

“’This is the way I, Sir Albert Oakshott, successor of Pellinore, first slew the creature of blood and gold.’” Hernando lunged forward, hoping to drag Harper down to his level. One of his arms struck Harper’s leg as he sidestepped the lunge and something clattered to the ground. For a moment Hernando thought he’d succeeded. Then he pivoted on the stump of his leg to follow up on his success to discover Harper, still on his feet, coming forward to slam his boot down onto Hernando’s chest.

“You can still renounce your gold,” Harper said, leaning over him. “Even if you don’t know the way, Albert did.”

At a total loss, feeling his reserves of gold and blood vanishing as they tried to replace his leg, Hernando tried to think of a response. He could only think of one.

To his surprise, Harper only sighed when Hernando’s spittle hit his boot. “So be it.”

Then he raised up his weapon and swung it down through Hernando’s neck.

Night Train to Hardwick Chapter Seven – Samuel Jenkins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harper gave it a frustrated look. “Sam.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where am I holding it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And instead you got this Samuel Jenkins?”

“That’s correct.”

“Who is he?”

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

Night Train to Hardwick Chapter Six – Brazen Joy

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.”

Night Train to Hardwick Chapter Four – Leaders and Followers

Previous Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Rules, Harper.”

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

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

“People still live in that city, Colbert.”

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

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

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

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

“I told you, Harper-”

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

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

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

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

“How should I know?”

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

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

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

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

“So.”

Roy spread his hands. “So what?”

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

“Nothing relevant.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Perfectly reasonable.”

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

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

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

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

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