“Do you really think this is a good idea?” apprentice geistcatcher Timothy asked between grunts of exertion, as he struggled to push the cart-mounted rig up the steep incline.
“Of course it's a good idea,” said geistcatcher Rodrick, walking along in front of the cart and humming lightly to himself, not bothering to turn around.
He did turn around seconds later when he heard the cart's wheels stop. When he did, he saw Timothy panting and straining to pull the cart's handbrake into place. Having done so, the apprentice slouched down on the ground, sucking in the damp sea air with deep, greedy breaths. Rodrick tutted at him.
“I mean, I know we've done this before,” Timothy said, his chest heaving up and down. “But them was just ghosts. This here's a whole ship. Ain't that any different?”
Rodrick sighed. He adjusted his beaver hat, and his voice assumed a condescending, professorial tone. “In your brief association with me,” he said to his apprentice, “how many geists have I slain?”
Timothy thought for a second. “Twelve?” he said.
Rodrick nodded. “And how many have I failed to subdue?”
“Well,” Timothy said, “there was that one chapel geist that–”
“–that doesn't count!” Rodrick interrupted. “You know that. We've been over this.”
Timothy shrugged. It had never been entirely clear to him why Rodrick thought the chapel geist didn't count, but Timothy knew better than to press the point. Arguing with Rodrick did no good, so he dropped the subject.
“Anyway,” Rodrick said, “the point is, with my expert knowledge, and my rig, we have nothing to fear from any spirit.”
He sounded like he believed it, too, Timothy thought.
“Provided, of course, that a certain worthless apprentice gets up off the ground and resumes positioning the rig,” Rodrick said, sounding peevish. He walked over to Timothy and gave his apprentice a small but sharp kick in the ribs. “So get going!”
Timothy rubbed his ribs but did not protest. He stood back up, dropped the handbrake, and resumed pushing the heavy cart up the steep hill which overlooked the drownyard.
Rodrick's cart was mightily heavy, Timothy thought, but the geistcatching rig which sat atop it was a wonder to behold. Fashioned from silver, gold, and other metals Timothy didn't recognize, it was festooned with interlocking gears of all shapes and sizes, great whirring belts, glass lightning tubes filled with crackling energy, and snaking pipes which vented steam in great, whistling bursts.
It was a marvelous contraption, both mechanical and magic, and for all of Rodrick's bluster, it did indisputably work.
Just how it worked, though, was something of a mystery. When Timothy had first started working for Rodrick, he had asked him to explain the rig. Rodrick, with a heavy sigh, had pointed to a bronze turn-crank which protruded from the cart's left side.
“See that crank?” Rodrick had asked.
“When I tell you to, you turn that crank,” Rodrick said. “As you do, the tubes will fill with lightning. When they do, I will tell you to stop cranking, and you will.”
“See that lever?” Rodrick had said, pointing to a silver-plated lever which sprouted from the cart's right side.
“When I tell you to, you pull that lever,” Rodrick said. “When you do, it will kill the geists.”
Timothy had nodded one last time.
“But how does it work?” he'd asked again.
Rodrick had thrown his hands up in the air. “What does it matter how it works?” he said. “I'm not asking you to build me a new one. I'm asking you to turn a crank and pull a lever. How hard can it be?”
“My father's paying money, good money, for me to learn from you, for you to teach me a good trade,” Timothy had said. “How'm I supposed to learn a trade if all I do is turn cranks and pull levers?”
“It's best not to trouble yourself with things you wouldn't understand,” Rodrick had said, and that had been that.
One night in the workshop, with Rodrick drunk on a half-dozen flagons of ale and passed out in front of the fireplace, Timothy had found himself alone with the rig, and, in a moment of irresistible curiosity, he had pried open one of the machine's ornate panels, and, aided by the light of a flickering torch, had peered inside. What he'd seen had only confused him more. Where he had expected to see a maze of mechanical innards, he had instead seen only a small, white box, with a thin network of tubes and belts running in and out of it. The box had a strange marking on its side, stenciled in black – a symbol Timothy thought he recognized from somewhere, like he'd seen it before.
But, before he'd had a better look at it, Rodrick had been behind him, his breath smelling like ale, yelling “are you mad, do you want to get us both killed?” and slamming the panel shut, nearly catching Timothy's fingers still inside.
Shocked, Timothy had been about to protest, when he'd seen the look of real, blind terror in the drunken man's eyes.
“Never do that again,” Rodrick had said. Timothy had said nothing back.
Since then, Timothy had turned cranks, pulled levers, and watched as his teacher had humbly accepted grateful thanks and sacks of coin from customer after customer. Some, albeit not much, of that coin had made its way down to Timothy, and he had stopped asking questions.
And the purse which Rodrick had been promised for exorcising the ghost ship had been heavy indeed. Timothy had caught a glimpse of it as Rodrick had negotiated the deal with a local merchant. Which, Timothy thought, explained Rodrick's impatient look as his apprentice finished maneuvering the cart into position atop the hill.
“What do we do now?” Timothy asked.
“We wait,” Rodrick said, extracting a flask from his pocket and taking a long pull from it.
* * *
The sky was moonless, and a thin nighttime mist had formed above the rocky coast of the drownyard below, so that Timothy wasn't even sure he'd seen anything at first. It seemed like a trick of the light, a shimmering on the horizon, floating just above the waves.
But then the shimmering became bigger and began to take form: The prow of a ship, blue and ethereal, emerging from the sea mist, with tattered sails at full mast and knotted ropes trailing behind. The ship seemed to glow with an unholy blue aura and, as it came closer and grew more distinct, Timothy was shocked to realize that the ship was not sailing on the ocean, but hovering slightly above it.
Between the crashing of the waves and the rustling of the sea breeze, Timothy thought he could hear the sound of a piper playing. The music was thin, reedy, and unnatural. It sent a shiver down his spine.
Timothy nudged Rodrick, who lay sleeping nearby, with the toe of his boot. “Sir,” he said.
Rodrick snorted and rolled over.
“Sir,” Timothy said, slightly louder this time, taking a step back as he did.
“What?” Rodrick asked, annoyed.
Rodrick was still for a second, then scrambled to his feet. “Why didn't you bloody well say so?”
Timothy started to say something in response, but the words froze in his throat. Instead, he just pointed up at the approaching ship, his arm trembling.
The ghost ship was entering the drownyard, turning towards the rocky hill atop which the rig sat. At this distance, Timothy could just make out the individual members of its ghostly crew. Men – dead men – climbing the rigging and tending to the ship's lines. He saw the piper, blue and translucent, standing at the ship's prow, filling the air with his wailing, haunted tune.
And, at the ship's wheel, he saw its captain. A woman, with a peg leg and a three-cornered hat, her hands guiding the wheel, her scarf trailing lazily behind her in the wind. Like the ship, she seemed to shimmer with a sickly blue light, to flicker between clear and opaque, to be at once both present but not.
Timothy blinked, and felt his blood run cold. He could swear the geist captain was looking straight at him.
He gulped. A short, dry swallow.
“What do we do?” he asked.
“You turn the crank, you cretin,” Rodrick said.
Feeling too numb to protest, Timothy did as he was told. He walked over to the cart, and started turning the heavy bronze crank. The rig began to whir. Gears spun. Electricity crackled inside the glass tubes.
“Be gone, men of flesh!” a female voice boomed inside Timothy's head, and he let go of the crank with a start. Although the ghostly captain had not seemed to speak, had not seemed to move, and was still some distance away, Timothy knew without knowing that the voice belonged to her. It was not how he had expected a geist to sound – thin, hollow, or indistinct. It was clear, full, and loud.
Not an obviously malicious voice, he thought, but there was something to it – an edge, a kind of latent malevolence. Controlled, but present. Unmistakably present. It gave him the willies.
“Maybe we should just leave,” he said to Rodrick.
“Nonsense!” Rodrick said, his words a little slurred. “Keep cranking!”
Timothy shivered, but did as he was told.
To the ghost ship's captain, Rodrick called out, “I have no fear of you! I fear no geist! Geists fear me!”
The woman's laugh was loud and long. “Fear you?” her voice replied inside Timothy's head. “Why should I fear you, man of flesh?”
“You'll see,” Rodrick said. He turned to Timothy, who was turning the rig's crank madly, as though his life depended upon it. The rig was jostling back and forth on its cart, practically sparking with lightning and magic.
“Timothy, pull the lever,” Rodrick said, turning back to face the ghost ship and its spectral pilot.
Timothy pulled the lever.
Great bursts of energy, white and blue and many colors in between, burst forth from the rig's golden antennae. They arced skyward, twisting and turning as they rose, showering the land, sea, and sky with a pulsing, reflected light. As the beams ascended they began to curve, flattening and straightening and turning towards the ghost ship floating above the drownyard.
Converging into a single, intense, impossibly-bright stream of magic, the beams closed in on their target and struck home.
The ghost ship was engulfed in a fiery halo of bright, whiteish-blue light. The air rang with a great, thunderous clap, and Timothy and Rodrick were thrown to the ground.
As Timothy crawled back to his feet, coughing and shaking, he looked at where the ghost ship had been. In place of the ship and its crew, all he saw was a diffuse blue haze, like a great cloud of dust swept up by the wind and held in place by some swirling breeze.
Then, as he saw what happened next, he said in a low, unsteady voice, “Angels, help me.”
The blue haze began to swirl faster, to turn in upon itself, to reform. Timothy saw it concentrate and condense, until he again began to see the outlines of the ship. Sails, ropes, prow – all slowly but surely reformed themselves, becoming recognizable and distinct if not exactly whole. The crew took shape.
The captain, peg-legged and tricorn-hatted, took shape.
The ship began slowly, inexorably, to move.
Timothy heard pipes begin to play.
“Oh, balls,” he heard Rodrick say.
* * *
Inside Rodrick's head, he heard the ship's captain laugh – long and loud as before, but this time with a sinister edge.
“Man of flesh,” she said, “you cannot kill what is already dead.”
“Sure I can,” Rodrick said, although he sounded less confident this time. “Timothy, again!”
Without looking away from the ghost ship bearing down on him, Rodrick waited to hear the rig whir to life. But all he heard was the wailing sound of the piper, and what seemed like the beating of a drum.
“Timothy, turn the crank!” Rodrick said.
Rodrick whirled round, shouting his apprentice's name, but stopping in mid-syllable as he saw the rig sitting alone upon the cart, with no pair of hands on its crank.
“Oh, balls,” he said again.
As he did so, he felt a cold wind licking at the back of his neck, and heard the woman's voice again. Not inside his head this time, but in his ear, close by. The words felt icy, and Rodrick imagined he could feel their speaker's incorporeal breath upon his cheek.
“You belong to me now, man of flesh,” the woman said. “I have work for one such as you.”
Rodrick felt a kind of pain he could have never imagined possible.
* * *
Former apprentice geistcatcher Timothy first heard Rodrick's blood-curdling screams coming from behind him as he scrambled down the hill, running as fast as his legs would carry him.
Then, after a while, he didn't hear anything at all.
He didn't stop running until the sun came up.
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