Never thought and never found, in the bower without a sound.
A prism cracked and liege forsworn, with cuppered fringes fall'd to ruin.
In the attic, pressed in by box and dusted over, a strange and fearsome presence grew. A stray notion, borne up by bitter thoughts silently brooded upon, intersected with and became entrapped inside a particle of falling wood. And so intangible notion became infused with germ of matter, and was preserved, rather than dispersing out to the wind, as all its kin were wont to do.
Splintered by particle of wood, the dark notion pulsed and splayed tendril-like phalanges outward. It grasped upon passing detritus and ruin, and drew them in to its core. It claimed for itself all that was refuse, all that was forgotten, all that was meant to be nevermore. It caught also passing ill will and ringing insult, the vapors of malcontent from home below. It ensnared and drew them in, so that they also could not pass into forgetfulness, but rather became blended with its own original sin.
Heart it formed, then sinew and bone. Layer upon layer, it fleshed and clothed itself in all that was poor and all that was wrong. And the more it grew, the more evil and discontent were drawn to it, until it no longer became necessary for the darkness to pluck the lost and the harsh out of the air, they came swimming to it of their own accord, like salmon returning home.
Not only this, but evil and ruin that ought not have been were drawn unnaturally from wall and heart. Bits of beam and bauble splintered and broke before their natural expiry, and unkind words burst out of mouth for no reason. All summoned to answer a secret quota, all wrest free from their origin with a sudden crack, then trickling away to join the swarm of darkness above.
And the more that that matter and ill will bonded together, the more the being rounded out to a defined thing. Thought and reason, limb and claw, beast born of evil, and therefore fixed upon it.
In hammock and cradle, the patrons sleeping in home below would oft dream of it. Half-formed visions of malcontent, obscure and vague, of feverish bent. And even as they were discomfited by the undulating darkness, black tendrils began to grow in their veins, spreading its poison through an inner blood. Upon waking, no apprehension remained, all was immediately forgotten, yet the skin strained tighter over the face and tempers roiled at all manner of imaginary provocations.
Now and again they would pause in porch and parlor, and look upward, and stare hard at the patch of ceiling behind which the mind-fiend pulsed. They did not know and yet they did know. It called to them, but they were still too afraid to raise the ladder and meet it fully.
Come night again and the demon took its infant steps. It descended itself through the attic hatch and brooded in the halls, compressing itself inward and then releasing outward, like a breathing gas. Again and again, it loosened its ash particles and spread them out, until they pervaded every room and were inhaled by every slumbering mortal. Then the dark being compressed again, and bits of inner blood and unspoken secrets were drawn out of the sleepers and rushed to join the creature’s throng. In an out, in and out. Give and take, give and take.
By morning’s light the beast was nowhere to be seen, having silently returned to its dark recluse. But the people were even further changed, staring at one another with mad, blood-shot eyes, sending hate in every glance. Barely saying any words, barely accomplishing any work, barely holding on to their own humanity.
On second night the silent vigil commenced once more. Alone upon the rug the beast stood and emanated itself. Breath-by-breath, hour-by-hour, it felt, it infested, it drew out. A summoned clot of blood caught in the throat of one squire, pulling him forcibly out of his bed and onto his back. Still unconscious he thrashed his arms as the clot continued pulling, tugging him backward along wooden floor. A few more moments of struggle, then he coughed, and the clot finally rushed out, slicing lines in his inner esophagus as it went. His lips parted and two rivulets of blood ran like miniature rivers out open mouth and across muted air.
The dark being in the hallway tasted their freshness and trembled deeply. All the rest of that night it focused its energy on that one connection. One of the streams of blood continued to run out of the youth’s neck without ceasing. The other changed direction, becoming a river running from the dark entity back into the boy.
By morning the squire was pale as moonlight, completely vacant in expression, and entirely unrecognizable from what he once was. It mattered little, though. All the other patrons of that place were in such a haze of mind that they could not even acknowledge the shift. They walked about senselessly, drawn by invisible strings, mere puppets without individual purpose.
Even the sky overhead turned into a muted, gray haze. The sun became dull and lethargic, like the memory of a light only. The next day was even more clouded, and by the third the home was steeped in eternal night.
And as the home and grounds and immediate surroundings were swallowed into the dark, the memory of it passed from the minds of its nearest neighbors. Passersby took the long path around it, fearful to linger under its shadow, never daring to contemplate who it was that lived there and what had become of them.
But though they tried to keep themselves from it, an inexplicable oppression emanated from the place even so, and it began to cloud and darken the rest of the community. Bit by bit the hamlet became more silent and stifled, and eventually faded entirely to the same darkness as the original home. And as all this occurred all the outer world could do was wonder.
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.
Another two weeks passed by, and the dark remained as stifled and silent as before Godfrey’s interruption. Then, quietly and without fanfare, a new stranger entered the mist. It was a small and elderly man, who walked with a stoop but not a cane. He carried no sword nor shield, not a scrap of armor adorned his body. Clearly he had not come here for a fight, but he did move with a purpose. And though the darkness pressed around him as thick as it had Godfrey, he pushed through it boldly, as though he knew exactly where he needed to go. The man had only ever been to this hamlet once before, but now he was drawn to it a second time. Drawn to fix what had been broken.
As the stranger strode down cobbled street and carpeted halls, he paid no heed to the ghostly shapes that rose to peer at him, or the broken pieces of banister and rubble, or the body hanging from the iron-wrought sconce of the chandelier. He gave no regard to the smell of death and decay, uttered no words of challenge, and listened to none of the unearthly moans ringing in the distance.
The man made straight for the ill-fated mansion in which the dark entity had been conceived, and without hesitation he climbed up to the attic. Stepping between the boxes and furniture he came to an old, abandoned desk, three feet from which lay the splintered heart of all this oppressive darkness. With a sigh he took off his hat and laid it upon the desk.
“Who are you?” a voice called, and looking around the man saw it came from his reflection in an old mirror set against the wall.
“I am Bartholomew,” he replied simply. As he spoke, he pulled out a magnifying glass and set it against the desk, focusing his attention on a corner of it.
“But who are you?”
“No one of consequence. A simple carpenter.”
“This is no place for a carpenter.”
“I must disagree,” so saying he stepped back from the desk, revealing to the mirror a damaged corner. It appeared as though something heavy had fallen on the spot, wrenching the wood downward and snapping off a chunk.
“You have come to fix a desk?”
“So I have.” And Bartholomew reached down to his belt and pulled out his tools.
“In this place of utter ruin, you have come for the desk?!”
“Twas the desk that was ruined first. The desk and an insult about it. All else followed. So the desk must be remedied first.”
“But why do you come?”
“Well…I made this desk. It is my responsibility.”
The mirror had no response to that, and for a time there was only the sound of Bartholomew doing his work. Using a knife, he shaved away the loose splinters and remaining veneer. He meticulously dug out all the dirt and dust that had collected in the wood’s pores. Then he opened a jar and began applying a resin, remaking the damaged corner, carefully sculpting it to match its original shape.
“You do know that this a place of evil…” the reflection spoke up again.
The old man sighed. “There is great pain here. Much has been broken.”
“Fixing a desk won’t do anything.”
“It will fix the desk,” he offered simply. “Beyond that…we shall see.”
He held his hand over the resin, and it set itself instantly. Then he opened another jar and dipped a brush into it, applying a stain to match the color of the desk. It was a very small jar, yet it continued to yield stain for as long as he dipped his brush into it.
“There!” he said with a smile, stepping back to admire his work. He nodded in approval. “And now for the refuse…” Bartholomew opened a pouch at his hip, then bent down and began picking up every sliver of wood that had been discarded in his labor. He scooped into his palm every grain of sawdust, too, and all of it went into his pouch.
“That’s all there is to it?” the mirror asked.
Bartholomew turned and more fully regarded the nexus of splintered pain.
“It will kill you,” the mirror cautioned.
“The wood knows its master,” he declared. He took a step towards the dark nexus and it trembled more violently. “Come, little one,” he said. “You were never meant for this.”
Bartholomew extended his hand, but the splinter did not come.
“I know you were hurt. Something broke the desk, and you were the one left detached. You were wrenched from where you ought to have been, and it wasn’t your fault. Then, as you fell, you found this ill feeling from below and you bonded with it, even though that only aggravated things further.”
Dark tendrils reached out, groping for Bartholomew, but he waved his hand and they fell to either side.
“It might seem impossible, but you can come back. Things won’t be the same, it is true, but they will be better and have purpose. You know my skill. Even the refuse is not refuse to me. I compress it, I reform it, I give it a place that is new. Come to me and you will have a new place.”
He said no more, only held out his hand. All at once the splinter burst from the evil notion, severing all its ties to it, and tucked itself into the carpenter’s palm. Without a word Bartholomew nodded and put it into his pouch as well, then turned on the spot and made his way from that place.
And as he went all the dark tendrils started to fade. Without the splinter of wood to give the core dark thought any purchase, it dissipated away into nothingness, and gradually so did the mist. The clutch of evil was freed from the hamlet, for without the aggravated malice there was nothing to continue driving the pain and hate. By the time Bartholomew’s footsteps left the cobbled streets the town had fully emerged from the dark back into the brighter world. The streets were still empty, the town was still in ruins, but it was finally at peace. Life would grow back with time.