An edited and improved version of this story is now available for purchase as part of the ‘Prophecies of the Drowned Oracle’ collection.
With an excited spring in her step, Emelia Warren followed the path towards the river. She’d wanted to explore the river for such a long time now, and finally she could. She understood why her parents didn’t like her to go there of course, and some years ago she would have been terrified to get anywhere near it, but she was an adult now and could make decisions of her own. And what she decided was that her desire to explore was much bigger than any danger or fear.
Her crunching footsteps morphed into near-silent thuds as she left the gravel path in favour of the grass. The path didn’t get very close, and close is what she wanted to get. She would be careful of course. The edges were steep and slippery, nearly impossible to escape from if you fell in.
Before long, the river came into view. She stopped at a safe distance and just watched for a moment. The river wasn’t very wide, but it had quite the stream. The water slipping over stones and dirt, shimmering in the sunlight, was mesmerising. The grass near the edge looked extra vibrant, the plants taller, the trees stronger. The river was the source of life for all the plants in the area, including her hometown. As she looked at it though, even though it was the source of life, the river itself wasn’t alive.
For as long as she could remember, the lands Emelia lived in had felt… intelligent. Here near the river, it was more palpable than ever. It wasn’t any one thing, more of a combination of little things stacked together. The way the tree-branches swayed in the absence of wind; The perfect distribution of plants, none competing with the other; The insects that she’d felt watching her from the moment she left the path.
She was a bit disappointed to find the river itself to be so lifeless. It was just water. There was no mystery to it, no intelligence. She always assumed… what with Elric…
His body had only been found in the river after days of searching. She’d assumed then that the river was the new interesting thing Elric had found. A new intelligence, or maybe part of the other. But now it seemed like that wasn’t the case.
Maybe his brother knew what he meant? Emelia had never asked. It always felt insensitive to bring it up in front of Mark so shortly after his brother’s death. She didn’t much like thinking of her dead friend herself either. Then the family moved away and they lost contact, so Emelia would probably never know.
Well, unless she found Elric’s discovery herself. That’s why she wanted to explore the river after all.
She walked along the edge, careful to stay at a safe distance at all times. Although her fear had waned over the years, the memory of Elric’s death was still clear. Occasionally she went a little closer to examine things that caught her eye. One time it was a bush she’d never seen before. Then there was a small bright blue bird on the other side of the water.
Then, her eye caught on some strange looking branches hidden partly behind a hill. It took her away from the river, but not very far. As she walked around it, she saw the branches were part of a particularly gnarly tree. The trunk was thick but uneven. It was twisted, curled and folded. The bark was even worse. It had completely worn off in places and where it was still there, it was chunky, uneven and misshapen. The trunk wasn’t much taller than Emelia, the twisting branches adding just enough for the tree to be about double her size. The exposed roots digging into the bottom of the hill were as misshapen as the rest of it.
Emelia stepped on one and was mildly surprised it felt sturdy. The tree looked dead enough for the roots to be rotten, but that evidently wasn’t the case. She stepped from root to root to get around the tree, but her path was cut off abruptly.
There was a hole. A dark opening nestled between the roots, slanting towards the hill.
Emelia backed away, inexplicably unnerved. The hole was big enough for her to crawl through if she wanted. The thought gave her pause. If she could crawl through it as an adult, what would it be like for a child? This must have been what Elric found.
Emelia peered into the darkness, but couldn’t see where it ended. She bit her lip. She wanted to know what was inside, but she knew all too well how dangerous it could be. She stepped closer again and felt along the top of the hole. The dirt was packed tightly, only a tiny stream of dust came loose. It didn’t feel like it would collapse…
An hour later she was back, wearing some old clothes, a torch filled with new batteries in her hand and phone in her pocket for backup. She didn’t tell anyone what she was doing, her parents would never allow her to do this. Even she hesitated for a long moment before the entrance, thinking that maybe she shouldn’t do it after all, but her curiosity won out.
She clicked on the torch and crawled inside.
The ground was cold and damp under her hands and knees. The top of her head and back scraped along the top of the hole. Even fully inside, she still couldn’t see where it ended. The stream of light from her torch lit up where the tunnel got tighter, before suddenly opening up again. She crawled forward on her hands and knees. Her neck ached from holding her head down. If it got any tighter, she would turn around. She wasn’t claustrophobic by any means, but having to drag herself forward on her elbows was too much.
Then she got through the tightest point, and the tunnel opened up. To her surprise, the tunnel was big enough to stand up in. She felt along the walls and ceiling. On both, the dirt was so tightly packed together it resembled the walls of an actual house. Was this man-made?
But sturdy or not, the tunnel was strangely bumpy in places. It got worse the further she went. She had to aim her torch down so she wouldn’t trip. The light of her torch was weak and had trouble penetrating the darkness, necessitating she aim it close in front of her.
She kept expecting something to jump out at her from the void ahead, but she didn’t turn around. It was the silence. It was utterly silent in the tunnel. If there was something ahead, she would know, dark or not. It was reassuring in a way silence had never felt before. For someone who filled her days with music, even when trying to sleep, this comfort was new.
After a while, she noticed a pattern on the floor. White crisscrossing lines that got denser the further she went. She stopped for a moment to get a better look. It was mycelia, fungal roots she recognised from finding them under rotting logs in the forest.
She followed the white fleshy lines with her torch and found them not only on the floor, but on the walls and ceiling as well. They converged at the bulbous outcroppings she’d thought were dirt, but now realised were mushrooms. Hard, almost wood-like mushrooms.
She moved on. The ground became increasingly squishy and the lines of mycelia became thicker and denser. She wondered how deep it went. How long would she have to dig before she would reach normal dirt? Judging by how deep her feet sunk, a long time.
A cold drop of water fell on her nose. Above her, strands of mycelia hung from the ceiling. Drops of water slowly gathered at their ends, before falling under their own weight. Was she under the river now?
Despite the moist atmosphere, the air was growing— well, not exactly stale. It still smelt fresh, but there was a dustiness to it.
Grainy might be a better word.
It got worse. Until her nose was stuffed with the damp air. Fleetingly she considered if it could be toxic, but she didn’t feel bad and quickly dismissed the thought. Besides, she didn’t want to turn around now that she was so close to the end.
She could feel it. Wherever the tunnel was leading her to, it was close.
When her nose became too clogged to breathe through and the damp dust lay thick on her tongue, she saw it. She froze. She didn’t breathe, she didn’t blink.
The tunnel opened up into a room. The walls, ceiling and floor so packed with mycelia they were completely white. In the middle of the room stood a platform reminiscent of the marble stands of mausoleums. An apt comparison considering the corpse laying upon it.
Emelia couldn’t seem to turn her torch away from the sight. The feet were all bone, nearly all flesh rotten away in the moist environment. Fluffy mold grew between the ligaments and joints of the toes where some leftover flesh still rotted. But that wasn’t the worst of it.
All over, the rotten flesh was replaced by mycelia and small, white, almost luminescent mushrooms. Strings of mycelia ran between the corpse and the walls and ceiling, most at the head.
The corpse stirred.
Emelia stared, too terrified to even think. The corpse rose slowly, lifted by the strings in the ceiling. It floated there, upright, staring at Emelia with mushroom-filled eye-sockets. Its arms lazily stretched to either side. Stringy hair waved around its head, dancing in a current that didn’t exist.
Like tree branches on wind-still days…
Emelia knew. This being was the truth of the intelligence she’d always observed. Not just an intelligence, but something… that might have once been human.
She ran, aided by the squishy floor under her feet. The concept of a nebulous intelligence controlling the land around her was interesting, beautiful, almost comforting. Seeing the inhuman, unnatural thing at its centre was something else.
Wet hanging strands slapped in her face as she sped through the tunnel. She didn’t watch where she stepped. She crushed the bulbous fungi under her feet, nearly tripped on one too sturdy to break. She didn’t care. She needed to get out, nothing else mattered.
A light appeared ahead of her. In her desperation she hadn’t even noticed she’d dropped her torch. She fell to her knees and crawled through the last tight bit of the tunnel.
The outside light was blinding, but she kept running. She went in the direction of town, but she was disoriented. She just managed to stop herself when her eyes adjusted to the light and she saw she was headed straight for the river.
The water glistened in the light of the setting sun. She slumped on the riverbed, suddenly too exhausted to continue her sprint. Her legs ached, her lungs heaved. She tried to catch her breath, but it was difficult with her clogged nose. The water rushed by, unmoved by her near plunge. She thought of Elric’s body, drifting by on the current.
When she got back home, she took a long hot shower. She considered telling her parents what happened, but decided against it. All it would get her was concern for her mental health or a lecture, possibly both. Instead, she told them she wasn’t feeling well and would be going to bed early.
The next morning, Anne Warren, Emelia’s mother, knocked on her daughter’s bedroom door. The response was more muffled than usual. Her question of “Are you feeling better?” got a negative response. She pushed the door open and could tell from how Emelia looked this wasn’t just a cold. Emelia’s face was pale. Her forehead shone with sweat and her eyes were watery. She gently pressed her hand to Emelia’s forehead and confirmed she had a fever.
A few minutes later she was back with a thermometer, a glass of water and some tissues. Emelia immediately went for the tissues and blew her nose. After taking her temperature and confirming the fever wasn’t dangerous, making sure Emelia knew to call her if she needed anything, and giving her one last kiss on the cheek, she gathered the already used tissues and left the room.
As she was about to throw the tissues away, she noticed something weird. Among the clear mucus lay a few white unmoving strings. Anne threw the tissues in the bin. They were probably on the floor and stuck to the tissue when she picked them up. She went through the rest of the day as usual, although worried about Emelia’s continued fever.
She only noticed her mistake when she found Emelia’s bed empty the next morning, and every tissue covered in those white fleshy strings.