's 2017 Horror Write-off:

Prelude to a Journey

Submitted by Emergence

Once again, Strand found himself walking along a winding stone bridge. He could see the tower in the distance, the same as it always was. The tower was a twisted mess of staircases, turrets, columns, bridges, doorways, and windows, wrought from a shimmering grey mineral, stretching into the sky. Fibrous black tendrils grew across the surface of the tower and through its various openings. Some part of Strand's mind told him that he needed to reach the summit of the tower. He quickened his pace, eventually breaking into a sprint as he crossed the bridge to the tower. Just as the entrance was within view, Strand felt the stone under his feet rumble. A few moments later, the bridge collapsed, sending him plummeting into the abyss below. As he fell, Strand saw a sea of murky fluid stretching out endlessly in every direction below him. He threw out his arms to shield himself as he hit the sea's undulating surface.

Strand bobbed back up to the surface of the sea, gagging and hacking at the acrid taste and smell of the fluid in his mouth and nostrils. He looked up, and saw the tower floating high above him. Suddenly, Strand felt a current pulling him beneath the waves. The force grew stronger even as he struggled to stay afloat, before he was pulled under entirely. Strand saw the light of the surface fade as he was dragged ever deeper. Strand gasped and felt the murky ichor fill his lungs, but found that his breathing was unimpeded. As he floated in the swirling void, Strand could make out a faint shape in the distance moving towards him. He began to make out the features of the being as it drew closer. It swam through the murk, flapping a pair of filamentous wings. Its branching tail undulated back and forth. Twisted tubes erupted from its torso, venting trails of spores as it moved. When the being finally reached Strand, it stared down at him with a cluster of dark, sunken eyes, its tubular proboscises squirming. It raised one of its gnarled, multi-segmented limbs and reached out, touching one of its spindly digits to Strand's forehead.

Strand felt his flesh spasm and squirm. He looked down at his arm, and screamed as it began to erupt with wriggling tendrils. He could feel more of them emerging from his other arm. His legs. His back. Strand felt himself splitting apart from his head down to his stomach. He let out one last strangled scream as his body split open, a mass of tendrils and glowing bulbs erupting from his shriveling husk. Strand's eyes shot open. He gasped, and sat upright. He felt the front of his body, and looked down at his arms, sighing in relief. His skin was still grey and mottled, but he was in one piece. Stand sighed. He pictured the tower in his mind, the thought of reaching the summit pushing the image of his ruptured, overgrown body out of his mind. Strand raised his head, and turned to the mountain pass on the horizon. He stood, strapping his machete to his waist, and slipping on the vest he had strapped his books and tools to. He pulled an olive-green cloak from a nearby rock and threw it over his shoulders. The wind rustled through his messy black hair. Strand raised his right arm, and focused. The skin on his arm split apart, branching, filamentous tendrils emerging from the lesions. They twitched, furled, and unfurled, moving however he wanted them to, as if they were any other part of his body. The tendrils retracted as easily as they had extended, and the lesions healed as quickly as they had opened. Strand pulled his scarf up over his face and set off towards the pass, the image of the tower still burned into his mind.