's 2013 Horror Write-off:

"The Hungering Root"

Submitted by Kevin Stanley

It appeared without warning, spearing itself forth from a rise in the landscape. We awoke to see it had significantly expanded the originally small desert it had connected to. It was a great, black root flowing forth into the sands, covered in knobs and veins that pulsed as if drawing great amounts of fluid throughout it. Smaller roots branched off of it, as evidenced by their occasional breaching of the sands, where we could see the way they branched – large offshoots thicker than any tree spreading off to smaller tendrils, branching into yet smaller on until the protrusions could have been mistaken for fine, black thread. Unlike the veins on the black obelisk of it’s body, these exhibited no pulsing movement and instead probed and moved like fingers, slowly and searchingly. The smallest of them moved leisurely and slowly as could be seen, greater sizes moving more slowly. The main offshoots took days to move notably. We puzzled over this sudden event, as it had to have appeared and anchored itself overnight, at the slowest. One who had attempted to handle one of the threadlike protrusions found the tip drawing itself to the hand that had touched it, and upon contact made the handler leap back and cry out – he explained it had caused him pain, and there was a large bead of blood forming where the tendril had briefly touched his skin. I quickly decided to allow no one to handle the black vines coiling through the sand, regardless of speed or size.

Soon after it had appeared, we realized more and more of the black mass’ protuberances had spread through the desert, and the sands had expanded even further. After investigating, it was discovered the cause was that everything at the edges of the desert was being degraded to a fine, white sand that burned as if each grain were blade-sharp when touched, but left no mark. It also held heat remarkably, with newer sand feeling as cool as the air, but this sand farther inwards of the desert didn’t seem to ever cool, even long after nightfall. The degrading landscape brought alarm to the entire village, fearing our homes and land would be consumed. This seems to be merely a fear, as it spreads only in one direction – across the desert and onwards, spreading only to the sides and forwards in the opposite direction as our homestead. Unfortunately, this remedies nothing of my worries, as it seems to move on and on without end earning it my title of ‘The Hungering Root’.

Panic died down over time, but a feeling of dread and unease hangs in the air so long as the Root remains, spreading its reach further with every waking moment and almost combing over the wastelands it has created for more. I viewed it as a being of almost pure greed, mindlessly searching further and further to own more of its sands. I was quickly proven wrong.

I found the villagers bringing me concerns – worries about their mental health, all speaking of similar symptoms of others. Some complained of nondescript whisperings in their heads, some an inexplicable drawing to the desert and yet others felt a need to hold the burning sands the Hungering Root had created and take the grains home. The news frightened me greatly, and left me seeing study of the Root as the only response.

We quickly learned that the flesh was near impenetrable by cutting or bludgeoning, requiring focused force to chip away at. We resorted to pickaxes, but learned the black skin of the Root grew back upon itself slowly as a deterrent, and any parts separated evaporated quickly in a grey haze that dissipated as fast as the shards evaporated. This spurred us to try and breach the skin of the thing, now the size of a small mountain. We worked in a group on a singular spot, placing stones where it grew back, causing it to heave and toss them back out in rejection. We eventually pierced the hide, only to be met with something seemingly impossible. We were faced with a void of red emptiness, seeing nothing, yet perceiving a raging scarlet in an anomaly of our sight, and our entire team was driven back by a great blazing heat and inhuman screaming of impossible volume that burst forth from the opening. It was unanimous that such attempts were pointless, after seeing the results.

Shortly after, most of the people in the village were afflicted by the earlier symptoms, but on a far greater scale. There are whisperings into people’s minds powerful enough that they seem just short of being heard, disheartening at even walking in the opposite direction of the desert and even some picking up the paining sands without realizing until told of it. Those who are yet unaffected are greatly afraid of the Root now, myself included.

After a time at impasse with how to proceed studying the root, we realize how great the stretch of desert has become. At this fifth week after its appearance, a hole opened in the side of the Hungering Root, stone and earth splitting before it into an almost temple-like Gateway. That same day that it had been discovered, the whispers became defined, telling the afflicted to enter the root. Those drawn to the desert find themselves losing track of their movement, curving towards the sands without heavy concentration. Those who were taking sands home without thought were found covered in the grit of the root, sand coating exposed skin and clothing wherever it could stick from their unconscious rubbing of it against what skin they could. I no longer saw it as a mindlessly expanding beast. I now realized it was an intelligent force wanting more than its bleached sands.

Many who had not felt the pull on their minds left, off in the direction opposite the desert. Some of the villagers who were most affected have disappeared, I assumed to the root. My fear grew with every day that passed, until one of those who had disappeared days earlier returned. He came ragged, and in delusional happiness. He clutched to him putrid foods in excess - rotting meats and hides, maggot and larvae infested fruits and vegetables, even liquefying parts that were completely inedible from the start. And yet the unique stench he carried overpowered all the other scents, even in its lesser amount. He raved of how the Root had promised him great, fertile lands and forever blue skies within its mass. When offered good, fresh food he refused it – treating it as if it were more putrid and disgusting that the foodstuffs he held, continuing to ravenously eat his rotted stockpile. He claimed that he had come of his own will to share with us the life he lived, yet defended his stomach-turning haul of leftovers with great ferocity. At the state of the foods, I had wondered how long he had kept them saved for the trip.

At this point, most of the remaining villagers have left to the root’s calling depths, with only our bravest remaining in hopes of combatting the black pinnacle as it spreads even further. In a last-ditch effort, we decided to enter the root and strike whatever drove it on, heart soul or otherwise. We found our way to the entrance it had opened to its followers, and looked on into utter darkness. A torch was retrieved and lit, and our small group entered. Quickly, the torchlight illuminated a scene that I cannot forget. A great vastness, seemingly infinite - fields of lush greenness, but not of any flora. The ground was coated in some horrid imitation of grass, almost like bristly hair; where in place of trees grew branching pillars of soft, fleshy substance bearing the stench that coated the man who returned. The towering, soft webbings produced fully formed dishes and foods of quality and amount that would have been fit for great kings’ feasts, but emerged already putrefying and rotted almost beyond recognition. And above were the ‘blue skies’ spoken of; some bizarre, artificial sky of cloudy cyan, producing a faint glow of the same color and flowing, undulating like the sea waves. Sprawled across the unnatural landscape was the occasional lump, moving and shuffling. We quickly realized with horror that those were our fellow villagers, shambling along in an almost fetal position, gorging themselves on the falling results of the rot making false trees. We stood in shock of the landscape before us and our complacently mindless brethren, until the sight and dread overcame me and sent me bolting back to the entrance with the others following. In our escape I felt a great rage focused on us, the root’s entirety shaking as if an earthquake had struck. Upon our return, we discovered the village the target of the vine-like protrusions, two of the three who had stayed behind in plain sight; their corpses hanging from wreaths of the smallest extensions. The way through the village blocked, we were left with only the desert as traversable terrain. And as such, we set out across it in a last act of self-preservation.

We were hounded by the great spread of the tendrils, and could feel their rumbling in the sands constantly, as they strained to pursue us throughout our Journey. I have come back to the village alone, and write this now from my own home, awaiting the moment the Hungering Root finds the Cellar beneath my home – the moment of my death. It knows I am here, as I feel it even now reaching into my thoughts to fill me with false courage and whisper me lies of supposed weaknesses. It wishes to draw me out and finish me. I leave this record of what has happened as the head of the village for warning and explanation to whomever comes across what remains of our home; leaving the last contribution we can. Our name no longer matters or has meaning, for we are doomed as a people, the last of our blood endlessly hunted by the loathing root’s reach as I now head above ground to my end.