The River Spirit


An edited and improved version of this story is now available for purchase as part of the ‘Prophecies of the Drowned Oracle’ collection.

A corpse, still fresh, drifted down the river. Soon it would become part of the current that moved it forward. Everything in the current belonged to the river, to its spirit. The spirit drifted around the corpse, examining all its features. Its murky eyes, its tangle of brown hair. She wondered what it had been like in life. Before its lungs filled with water, when it still fought for its life, clawing at the banks.

The corpse was untouched. The fish and insects hadn’t dared approach yet. They would come when she laid the corpse down where she thought it would best decorate the riverbed. Somewhere soft where algae and other plants grew.

There was a sound on the banks nearby, but the spirit ignored it. The banks weren’t part of her domain, weren’t her concern. Only the river was, and its new occupant.

The corpse’s hand tangled in strands of algae. There was blood on its fingers, stuck under its nails. She felt the creatures of the river lurking, watching them pass, roused by the smell of blood. None of them came near, but it was only a matter of time. The corpse’s hand moved, its fingers seemed to be grasping for something. Comfort. Maybe it was scared. It didn’t look scared. Its face was slack and peaceful, murky eyes stared sightlessly at the sky. But looks could be deceiving. She grabbed the hand, held it gently. Even softened by the water, its callouses were still apparent. It must have been a hard worker in life.

A loud crack sounded from the banks. The spirit kept her eyes on the river, pretended not to have heard the sound, but underwater she squeezed the cold hand for comfort. What happened on the banks wasn’t her concern. The current sped up, driven by the spirit. Their drifting became less peaceful. Harsher turns and streams hustled the corpse, bobbing it up and down and jerking it this way and that.

The corpse jerked, pulled her hand, twisted to the side. It went against the current. The spirit looked up in confusion. A branch was caught in the corpse’s shirt. She followed it with her gaze. It was thick and sturdy. Bright green leaves grew on twigs at the sides. At the other end, stood not a tree, but a human. Now she knew what the sound had been. The spirit kept a tight hold of the corpse’s hand and increased the current further. She didn’t want to lose it. It would be such a lovely addition to the riverbed. She already knew of the perfect place. No human would steal what was hers.

Water flowed around the corpse, moving its limbs in erratic patterns. Its shirt was pulled taut where the branch held it. While the branch bent into a strong curve, it didn’t break. The human was smart to use a living branch instead of a dead one. She increased the current more. A creaking sound came from the branch. Her corpse was almost safe. The creaking became stronger. The branch bent further. And then her hand gasped only water. She watched the corpse’s hand slip away from her as it broke the surface and flew out of the water.

The corpse flopped on the ground.

A ringing started up in her ears. The ever-present splash of water on rocks silenced. The spirit stared. Her corpse laid prone on the banks, eyes wide-open in horror. Rivulets of water dripped from its clothes, down the rocks, back into the river. The banks weren’t part of her domain.

The thief, a short human lady wearing a faded black robe, sat next to the corpse catching her breath. Fire burned in the spirit’s eyes. A spiralling current formed around her. The lady was too preoccupied to notice. She shuffled closer and knelt next to the corpse. She clasped her hands in prayer. Her eyes closed. Long strings of muttered words drifted over the water.

The words caught in the current. Over the sound of the roiling water, the spirit caught only slivers of them. Words of flesh, life, soul and spirit. They enveloped her, drew on her magic. The foreign pull on her magic snapped her out of her furious trance. She pulled away from them, but they snatched onto her magic like a hook. She struggled against them, directed the current back into a straight line to take her away, but the words only hooked deeper. She clawed at the ground, at the algae, the weeds. Pain built the harder she tried to pull away as it tore at her magic. She was helpless to stop it. She looked at the lady in horror. What in heavens could she be doing? The lady now stood up straight, eyes still closed, arms stretched out wide. Her lips moved, the words that had the spirit caught flowed out like a song. In a flash, the lady pressed down and touched her hands to the corpse. The hook pulled taut. Her magic tore, ripped right where hers ended and that of the river began. She was ripped from the river, onto the bank. The pain was all-consuming, she blacked out.

Water violently expelled from her lungs. She heaved staggering breaths that gurgled in her throat. Hard pats on her back helped her hack up the rest of the water. She gulped lung-fulls of cold air. Every breath burnt with excruciating pain. She struggled to open her eyes. When she finally managed it, she came face to face with the rosy face of the thief, the lady in the faded robe. The lady wiped her lanky hair away from her eyes and smiled. “How are you feeling?” she asked.

Feeling? There was an emptiness in her mind she wasn’t used to. Her thoughts raced around without an anchor. She tried to focus, she grasped hold of the foreign sensations of her body. Soaking wet clothes stuck to her skin, freezing because of the cold wind. Wet hair laying flat on her head. Burning lungs. A sore throat. It was overwhelming. She shied away from it, reached out to the familiar sensations of the river.

There was a gaping void where her magic should have melded with the river. Her breaths became more panicked. The burning sensation filled her mind. Her magic bled where it was ripped apart. The river was gone, the creatures were gone. She stood on the other side of the barriers the banks had always formed.

Her rising panic was interrupted by a soft voice. “I can’t believe it actually worked.” The lady let out a low chuckle. Her eyes were focused intently on the spirit. Her mouth stretched into a slow grin. “My first successful revival!”

The spirit’s mind wavered. She looked at her hands. Calloused skin, blood under her fingernails. Thin strands of algae tangled with her fingers. “I’m not dead,” she said. The words rasped in her throat, her tongue struggled to form the words. They didn’t ring true. She heard the water bash against the rocks, but she didn’t feel it. A droplet of water fell from her hair.

A hand touched her knee. She looked up into the bright face of the lady. She could hardly make sense of the cheerful expression, completely incongruous with her own thoughts. “Not anymore,” the lady said in a chipper voice. She radiated with pride. The spirit felt nauseous. She looked at the river. The current roiled. She wanted to calm it down, tell it everything would be alright, but nothing would penetrate the void in her mind. Her magic flailed around, searching for an anchor, but didn’t find one. Tears burned in her eyes, she turned away from the sight. The lady watched her, curiosity plain on her face. “Were you dead long?”

She swallowed the lump in her throat. “I didn’t die.” Her voice was faint, the void in her mind all-encompassing. The lady looked at her sympathetically.

“It must be hard to wrap your mind around,” the lady said. “You really did die. I used a ritual to pull your spirit back into your corpse.” Her eyes shone with pride. The spirit turned away and squeezed her eyes shut. Spirits, so often conflated with souls. A falsehood spread wide among humans. A falsehood giving them the idea they could bring back the dead. The lady was a necromancer. One of those idiotic humans who thought they could play with magic. Her magic flared in anger, flailed around. It got lost in the void around the ripped edge, losing the anger in the process. She needed an anchor, her ungrounded mind was distant and hard to grasp. She squeezed her hands, tried to find some comfort in the feeling of the algae stretching around her fingers.

A hand patted on her head. “You’re okay now,” the lady said. The spirit opened her eyes, glared at the lady’s comforting expression. She wasn’t okay, and her touch didn’t bring her any comfort. She slapped the hand away and stood up. Her eyes automatically moved towards the river. The water had risen higher. A duck went by, flapping its wings in a panic, trying to escape the current.

“Reverse it,” the spirit said. The lady stood up in alarm. “Reverse the ritual.” Surely there was a way.

“What? No!” The lady’s eyes were wide. “I can’t just kill you.”

“You already killed me,” the spirit said. The lady’s face paled. She shook her head. The spirit’s voice shook, “Y- you ripped me away.” She gestured to the river. As she did, one of the rocks at the edge of the bank was taken by the current. The lady stared, noticing the state of the river for the first time since fishing out the corpse. Her mouth opened and closed silently for a moment.

“That wasn’t your corpse?”

The spirit’s eyes flared. “My corpse? Of course it’s my corpse! It was in the river, wasn’t it? That means it’s mine.” Her chest heaved. She stood face to face with the lady, closer than she remembered. “First you stole my corpse and then you-” She couldn’t get the words past her lips for a second time. “You have to reverse it.”

The lady took a step back. The bottom of her robe landed in a pool of water. “I can’t.” Her eyes were brimming with tears. There was no hint of deception in her expression. The spirit didn’t want to believe her.

“You have to!” Her voice broke with desperation. She couldn’t stay like this. She was part of the river, she would go mad from the empty part of her mind, the ripped edge where her magic was supposed to meld into the river.

A wave crashed against the rocks, splashing her face with water. The lady’s hair stuck to her forehead. “I don’t know how,” she said. Her voice was barely audible over the raging current. “I’m so sorry.”

The spirit looked away from the earnest expression. It couldn’t be true. The water rolled over her feet. It was cold. It was empty. She was alone. There were no snails to comfort her, no fish to make her laugh. Without them, the silence in her mind was deafening. She clasped the algae in her hands. She felt the slimy strands in her fingers, but she couldn’t feel it’s comforting languid emotions. Her magic clawed at it to no avail. It felt dead. Her hands shook, she didn’t want to feel it anymore. The strands slipped through her fingers and splashed in the water. It washed away into the river. Everything in the current belongs to the river.

Of course. Her eyes roved over the furious waters. Her feet moved on their own. She stumbled over a raised rock hidden under a layer of water. “No!” the lady shouted. “What if you die? What if it doesn’t work?”

The current raged around her legs. She turned around from her place on the edge of the rocks. They locked eyes. “It would be better than this.” She plunged into the deep.

A corpse, still fresh, drifted down the river.

Soon it would become part of the current that moved it forward.

Everything in the current belonged to the river.

Posted elsewhere: r/nosleep

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