Choose – A Random Picture Prompt

Choose – A Random Picture Prompt

Early this year, I realized I had let Domerin run rampant with a lot of these prompts (sorry about that). They were originally designed to be writing exercises, and I think a lot of them have strayed from that purpose. Which is fine, but I wanted to get back to challenging myself on that level. Rather than choosing prompts from a list of statements and suggestions, I decided to base several random scenes on pictures I found while browsing stock photo sites. (Indie authors spend a lot of time browsing stock photo sites). This is the first such effort and I’m really pleased with how it turned out.
. . .

She woke to the sight of a barren, alien landscape. She recalled only a bright flash and a surge of… something. She didn’t know how it carried her here or, more importantly, why.

Her head hurt, a dull, incessant throb tormenting her temples. Dirt tinged her tongue. Grit irritated her throat. With a soft grunt, she shifted, rolling onto her side. She spit, then coughed, then spit again, trying to clear the acrid taste of desert from her mouth.

She didn’t know where all this sand had come from. The ground beneath her was hard-packed and had offered little padding for her fall, which had been considerable, despite the flat nature of her surroundings. A thin layer of grit swirled across the desert’s cracks as a chill wind raked its barren surface, but she got the distinct impression she had somehow brought it with her.

“So, you finally made it.”

The voice was low and raspy as if its owner had spent the last three decades smoking without realizing how heavy an effect it would have on their lungs. She tilted her gaze upward, seeking its source.

What she had initially taken for cloud cover now revealed itself as a strikingly clear sky. The blue-black patchwork reminded her of midnight, but there wasn’t a single star dotting the horizon. There was a thin disk, like the sun shrouded by the moon during a solar eclipse, but gazing at it made a shiver tear up and down her spine. This was no eclipse; it was some kind of dark sun drawing light from world rather than radiating warmth.

A single, solitary figure loomed over her. It might have been a man; it was hard to tell. His entire body was cloaked in shadow, his robes a darker black than the starless sky. Only his eyes shone from beneath the cowl, hints of ruby light in empty sockets as deep as the hole in the sky.

“Choose,” he commanded, without waiting for a response, his voice as harsh as nails scraped against a chalkboard.

The figure extended one bony hand. Its structure was the color of granite, its once intricate features worn into obscurity by time and weather. Above the delicate fingers floated an orb surrounded in light brighter than any other in this wretched wasteland.

She blinked, her sight momentarily dazzled by the brightness. Squinting hard, she peered closer, trying to see beyond the orb’s ring of light.

Within the translucent bubble rose a single structure built of aged wood. A barn, she thought, though she couldn’t be sure. It could have been some kind of warehouse, something that had long since fallen into disrepair. As she watched, a terrible wind struck one corner, spilling the building into debris. Behind it, a great balloon rose into the air, a blimp perhaps? Or some massive hot air balloon, carrying passengers to safety.

Blinking, she checked again, watching as the mass moved against the distant, distorted sky. Was it a balloon? Or was it a skull, looming menacingly on the horizon?

“Choose!” the voice commanded again, its tone harsher this time.

Stumbling half a step backwards, she looked around, trying to determine what she was meant to choose. At the figure’s feet were two more orbs. Beyond the shimmering surface of one she saw tiny flecks of white drifting toward the ground, like the snowglobe she used to keep on the table beside her bed when she was young. Fire flickered in another, causing smoky black fingers to rise toward the sky.

The harder she tried to determine the details of these images, the more elusive they became. What did these tiny bubbles contain? Were they memories? Or were they times and places?

A harsh cackle startled her. The figure lifted the orb in its hand to one side as it doubled forward, bracing itself with its other arm. Its laugher devolved into a coughing fit that seemed to go on for ages.

“You don’t remember, do you?” the cloaked figure demanded at last, its ruby eyes boring a hole through her. “You don’t know why you’ve come. Do you even remember your name?”

“Of course I do! Its-” But the familiar label did not come. She stammered for several seconds, making a soft, insistent sound deep in her throat. It must be there! It was on the tip of her tongue!

More harsh laughter. “Then your efforts will be in vain. All the years you spent searching for this place will be wasted. How can you make a choice with no basis for comparison?”

“It’s only three options,” she murmured, speaking more to herself than to the strange guardian of this place. “How hard can it be?”

“Three? HA! Look again.”

She did. A dozen sparkling lights appeared beside the orbs at the figure’s feat, each resolving into a bubble of its own.

She took another step back and, as if her vision suddenly cleared, two dozen more shining orbs become visible. A hundred more followed. Then a thousand. From horizon to horizon they occupied the desert, each set in a tiny nest of rocks. Some displayed entire cities within their translucent walls. By day figures moved about the streets and by night lights flickered and cars zoomed. Some orbs showed singular houses with no occupants, others showed nothing but people. Some depicted familiar events, while others revealed creatures she had never imagined could possibly exist.

If she wandered the wasteland, how many millions of orbs would she find? How could she choose among so many when she didn’t even know what they contained? Could each be a world of its own, offering her only a small glimpse of what it held within? What if she chose the wrong one?

“I think it unlikely you’ll ever find your way back here again,” the guardian spoke as if reading her thoughts. “And you dare not linger long. Already this place has begun to leech the essence from your soul.”

This was no mere mockery. Already she could feel knowledge slipping from her mind. When first she had looked at the original orbs, she had recalled something vague and unimportant. Now she couldn’t recall the specific details, despite her best efforts. There was merely a void within in her brain, or the memory of a void. How long before that slipped from her too? It was hard enough to recall which of the three orbs had first come into her view.

She closed her eyes, reaching deep within her for answers to questions she couldn’t ask. She felt that many people relied on the decision she was about to make, that she was trying to prevent some great war or other such suffering. If that were the case, surely she had prepared herself for this moment. She didn’t think she was the sort to waltz blindly into a situation like this one. Not if what the guardian said was correct and she had been trying to find this place for years. But what key could she have hidden within her mind, and how did she know this strange place had not already stolen it?

Think!

It might be true that she could walk for years and never find the end of the options presented her. But if it was in the nature of this place to drain its inhabitants, her destination could not be far from her point of origin. The right orb must be here.

Opening her eyes, she scanned the translucent bubbles, searching for anything that might spark inspiration within her. The easiest choice would have been the orb the guardian held with its sinister skull balloon still drifting on the horizon. But would it be wise to trust the guardian when he seemed so eager to see her fail?

Something caught her eye in one of the bubbles. Shuffling forward, she peered closer. It was a cityscape set in the dim hours of twilight. Small vehicles zipped through the air between skyscrapers while traffic clogged the streets below. And in the distance, barely visible in the clouds shrouding the horizon, she thought she saw something else. She couldn’t make out the details from this distance, but it called to her as keenly as her missing name.

“This one,” she said, trudging forward so that she could jab a finger at it. She took each step carefully, somehow aware she dare not touch any orb by the one she chose.

“Are you sure?” The guardian barked a laugh. “What intuition delivers you to this choice?”

She swallowed hard. She had no way of knowing whether it was the right course of action to trust her gut. But if she couldn’t trust this strange place, if she couldn’t trust its guardian, and if she couldn’t trust the vast universe to guide her, surely she could at least trust herself.

“Faith,” she said and set her hand on the orb before the guardian had a chance to retort.

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