Twas the noble knight Godfrey who first answered the call to investigate the hamlet. He hailed from a far distant castle, which received news of the spreading evil on a bright summer day. It was, of course, impossible to appreciate the gravity of the story while he ate and drank surrounded by his friends in cheery sunlight, and so the whole thing to Godfrey was nothing more than an exciting ghost story.
A yearning for adventure stirred within his masculine heart, his eyes flashed beneath his golden curls, and his hand clutched anticipatingly at the hilt of his sword. Here, at last was his chance to prove himself, a cause that would give fame to his name. No sooner did he hear the plight of the hamlet than he happily declared he was just the sort to set it right! He would be the one who set these wrong things right!
So cheery was the reception to his announcement that he did not set out immediately, but lingered a while to enjoy all the pre-celebrations that followed. Every neighbor said they were proud to know a man who was so courageous, every damsel was bashful to be in the presence of such lively vigor, every innkeeper gave him free ale whenever he entered their abode, and every night another feast was held in his honor. The entire community concluded that he was one of the very best that their city had ever brought forth, and he was famous for being willing to do great deeds, as if he had already done them.
Indeed, life became so warm and pleasant for Godfrey that he might never have stirred himself to actually perform the great deed. But then, fate intervened, and three weeks later he received word that his own cousin had also determined to resolve the matter of the blackened city.
“What, Percy?!” he cried incredulously. “He thinks he has the mettle for such an ill as this?”
“Thinks so and has already set out!”
“He’s already gone off?!”
“Yes. A week ago.”
“A week ago?! And what has become of his expedition?”
“Disappeared into the black with nary a sign of life come out since. Seems he fell to a bitter end.”
“Well, it was bound to happen, I’m afraid. Not everyone is made out for this sort of thing.”
“But suppose he still lives but is captured! Or maybe he will yet emerge the victor!”
Hmph! Godfrey huffed at this, then raised himself to his feet and lifted his goblet in a toast. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he declared. “The time has come for me to be on my way. My foolish cousin has run afoul of this spreading void, and whether he is in need of rescue or of avengement, I cannot linger here any longer. I am off to do what I must!”
And with three cheers he was borne to the stables and put upon his horse and set along his way. Hastily he rode, driven less by the fear of his cousin in peril than by the fear of his cousin in success. In a matter of two days, he had made his way to the storied valley, at the end of which lay the woods, and the dark hamlet that stood at its fringes.
And here, taking in his virgin view of the creeping mist he began to have his first misgivings. There were no screams or roars to set his blood affright, rather it was the pervasive stillness crowding in from every direction that chilled him to the bone. Not a single soul moved along the roads, not a single bird chirped within the trees, and even the wind had dissipated into perfect nothingness. “Lord, preserve me,” Godfrey said aloud, and his voice sounded muted and far away, even to his own ears.
Almost he turned back then and there, but he was persuaded onward by the vision of everyone at home mocking him for a coward. He dismounted his horse (which had stubbornly refused to advance any further) drew his sword in his hands, and pressed alone the last mile until he was enveloped by the dark entirely. Now he had to stumble about, waving his arms left and right, wafting away the dark tendrils to clear the path before him. He became aware of cobbled streets under his booted feet, then wooden steps leading to a porch, then marble slabs of a gilded hall.
But just as before, there was no sign of life, no sound to greet him. In the few feet of visibility that immediately surrounded his person he only found complete emptiness.
“Hullo!” he called and heard his voice warble and echo ahead like it was traveling down a tunnel. It grew fainter and fainter, then paused and reversed, now growing louder and nearer. Back and back it rushed, surpassing the sound with which he had sent it out, so that it came crashing over him in a deafening roar! Instinctively Godfrey raised his sword and slashed through the air, as if to cut the echo in two!
“Who’s there?!” Godfrey demanded, pretending bravery. “I command whatever evil lingers in this place to stand and fight me! My name is Godfrey and I do not fear you, whatever you are! I will end you!”
Godfrey’s words rang into the dark mist, then echoed back. But only a few of them, and rearranged into a different order.
A chill ran down Godfrey’s spine.
“Who’s there…?” he muttered.
Suddenly a ghostly shape rose from the ground a little way ahead and flung itself through the air. Godfrey instinctively raised his sword again and cleaved through the thing. It fell on either side of him, and glancing down he saw a strange, almost human-shaped lump of white. Upon its head there was an imperfect facsimile of his cousin Percy’s face.
“What is this?!” he groaned, but before he could linger on the dread spectacle another white form raised in the distance and then another and another. In rapid succession they similarly flung themselves at him, some with the face of Percy, some with that of the squire whose throat caught on a clot of blood, some of an old man, some of a young woman. All of them people who had been in this hamlet before fading into its abyss.
Over and over Godfrey swung and hacked and skewered with his sword. Terrible vestige after terrible vestige lay ruined at his feet. But still they came. On and on. Drawn from nothing and absorbed back to nothing. Gradually the young knight lost his footing.
“No! No!” Godfrey cried as the horrible, lumpy bodies slammed into his back and buckled him to the floor. He rose and ran from the place, groping through dark halls, looking for any semblance of a refuge. He came upon a staircase and stumbled up its steps to a landing.
“Ohhh–” he moaned as suddenly the entire world seemed to shift underneath around him. The walls were bending inward, the ceiling was sliding underfoot, and the floor became a memory only, like a ghostly image that lingered behind the eyes.
Godfrey looked down to his arm and saw not one limb, but seven, duplicates of one another and fanned out in a line. He checked his other arm, and it was also repeated seven times, as well as the sword that he held. As he watched he saw one of the right hands swing over to the left, making to hold the sword in both hands. Then the second right hand swung over in like manner, then the third and the fourth. But rather than catch the hilt, he watched how his left hand grabbed on the blade and cut itself. Then the second left hand did the same, the third, the fourth…and when it was the seventh sword and the seventh hand, he actually felt the cut in his own palm and the blood in his own hands.
“AH!” he cried out and saw all seven swords drop out of all seven hands and become lost to the dark. He saw his right hands now reaching to his thigh to draw out his dagger for protection and given that idea he moved his real arm to follow suit.
“AGGGH!” he cried as the sword, which in reality he had not dropped, passed between the gap of his tasset and cuisse and pierced through a narrow flap of flesh in his thigh.
“Godfrey…” the ghostly echo of his own voice returned.
He tried to stumble onward. He saw the next flight of stairs ahead of him and raised his foot to ascend. But in reality, he had become turned around and was facing down the steps he had already climbed earlier. His foot went through the mirage, he lost his balance, and fell down the flight of stairs, the sword slamming into the ground and driving further into his flesh as it went!
“I am lost! I am lost!” Godfrey panicked as he collapsed in a heap on the lower landing.
“Hullo…Godfrey…” the voice still rang.
“What do you want from me?!” he shrieked.
The dark mist pulled back, far enough for Godfrey to see that the landing he lay upon dropped off to a lower floor. The railing was broken before him and rising out of the void a suspended spearpoint floated into view.
Godfrey saw ghostly duplications of his arms and legs again. Each of them moved separately from the others and depicted different forms of continuing to accidentally harm himself. He understood. It was a threat. A threat of pain to be carried out unless he surrendered himself to the oblivion.
With a whimper Godfrey rolled off the landing and fell to the spear.