The High Cost of Living – A Random Picture Prompt

The High Cost of Living – A Random Picture Prompt

Instead of using a random character for this one, I actually dusted off an old character I only ever used a handful of times. The picture depicts a centaur, but the character I’m using has the lower half of a deer rather than a horse. But the main point is that the picture reminded me of her. I haven’t used her original incarnation here, in part because I can’t find a copy of her bio anywhere (silly me), but I’m rather happy with how the new version turned out. I’d like to do more with her in the future – I’m intrigued by this updated concept.
. . .

With every step the faun took, a soft sound like bells penetrated the gloom, though the haze and fog were quick to swallow her again. Not that the cheerful sound did anything to lighten her mood. Who could hope to be happy in a place like this?

At least she had left the bog behind with its stench of rot and decay, amplified every time a sticky, brown-water bubble burst. She hadn’t been able to eat for weeks and the smell was still stuck in her nostrils, like tar that refused to budge.

Now the plains opened before her, rolling into the distance, until the low-hanging clouds devoured all trace of their green-brown mass. The grass was long, untouched by grazing, its razor tips tickling the knobs of her knees as she descended a small incline. Had the day been clear, she would have been able to see for miles in any direction, but with the grey miasma swirling beneath her hooves, she couldn’t see more than five feet in front of her. It gave her the eerie impression she was being watched, that creatures were lurking in the cloud haze, just waiting for her to turn her back.

She shivered and the bells wound across her antlers tingled, somehow adding to the ominous nature of her surroundings. The lack of sun had all but drained the sparkling sheen of her silver fur, making it seem dull and lifeless. Even the crisp navy of her cloak seemed hopelessly tarnished as she drew it more closely across her shoulders, hoping to ward off the sudden chill.

At least she had reached the cave, its unmistakable bulk jutting from the grassland like the head of a grand statue. Though if said statue ever had a body, it had long since crumbled to dust. From a distance, it looked like a great lion, its tangled main swollen by some long-past breeze. But now that she stood beside it, it looked more like the head of a ram, its curled horns choked with moss and ivy, though its goat-like grin still managed to mock her.

The faun didn’t care when it was meant to resemble. She needed to open it.

For a moment, when she set her hand against the curve of one great nostril, she expected the great stone head to sigh, part its teeth and unroll its tongue to grant her passage. At least, that was how she had always dreamed this moment would unfold, that the cave would recognize her presence and offer her welcome.

Not that life ever went according to plan.

When the mouth remained closed, the ram’s unseeing eyes staring straight past her, she chanted the words given to her by the mage in Farram. These were followed by the words she acquired from an arcane practitioner in Dulchase, then another set that came from Alcar. With patient determination she tried every permutation of the mystical words, changing the order and repeating them precisely, but never did the sinister snarl so much as flinch.

So the traveling sage, crazy old crone that she seemed, had been right. She needed the gem if she was to open the path.

Thank all the gods she had listened to that crazy old loon.

Digging her nails into the moss clinging to the rock face, the faun gently pulled the roots from their mooring until it revealed the soft indent exactly at the point of one of the teeth. Who would have thought to look there? But she was grateful she didn’t have to strip the whole head of plant life, especially when there was no firewood to be found.

Pulling the blood-red ruby from her cloak’s breast pocket, she caressed it one last time before she slid it in place. It was worth ten thousand gold pieces in most markets, more if you found the right buyer. And she would likely have to leave it behind; a sacrifice to the forces she intended to reach.

With a deep groan of protest, something unhinged deep within the stone ram’s structure. With the steady scrape and scratch of stone against stone, it shimmied and shook until the lower half of the ram’s grin slid into the ground, revealing a set of stone stairs where the tongue should be.

Shivering with both anticipation and dread, the faun descended the staircase. It hadn’t been built for a creature with four hooves, but she dared not touch the sides of the cavern, lest she trigger some long-waiting trap. The bells accompanied her, down and down and down some more until, at last, she arrived at the base of the stairs.

Far above, the tiny ray of light which had illuminated her path narrowed and dimmed until, with another groan, the ram’s mouth closed. It seemed she wouldn’t be leaving until she found what she was looking for.

With a snap of her fingers, she summoned her light. It hovered on the edges of her antlers, illuminating their tips, like tiny, flickering candles. She made her way forward with endless care, uncertain what to expect at this point in her journey.

She had spent so many years asking questions about this cave and its wonders that she expected to spend half a decade searching its depths. She expected to wander a labyrinth – she had a journal full of possible routes to take. She expected tombs and jewels she dared not touch. She expected vast chasms and riddles and puzzles that would test the very limit of her wit.

And if she had been an adventurer seeking thrill, glory and treasure, she would have been disappointed when she reached the end of a single snaking hallway and found exactly the door she had been looking for. Perhaps the real challenge had been getting this far. Perhaps she had proven herself by virtue of that resolve. She certainly wasn’t going to question her good fortune.

Without hesitation, the faun set her pale fingers against the intricately carved wood of the door and pushed.

The room beyond was illuminated by a spectral blue glow, the azure flames gleaming in their alcoves like lost spirits unable to break free of their prison. The chamber was not adorned with silk, nor decorated with gold and encrusted with gems as she had always expected. It was, instead, covered in the roots of some ancient tree, decorated by precise, mathematical carvings. At the center of these arcane gravings stood a single table made of ancient, gnarled wood. And behind that table stood a being the faun couldn’t stand to look at for more than a couple of seconds.

It was both ram and lion, both solid and ethereal. It seemed to suck the light from its surroundings and exude a purple-pink illumination of its own. The creature had more arms than she could count and no legs that she could see. It had five eyes – four on the sides of its head, one set slightly below the other, and the fifth rested in the center of its forehead. This eye was the most terrible of all, bearing neither iris nor pupil but seeming to open into some deep void that threatened to sweep the faun away with merely a glimpse.

She might have turned to run, but the door had closed behind her and disappeared seamlessly into the roots forming the walls.

“Tell me why you have come, child.” The voice seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at once. The ram-thing’s mouth certainly didn’t move. It just grinned freakishly at her from beneath the five eyes, its teeth bright and glistening. “Speak true, for we have no patience for deception.”

The faun swallowed hard. “I seek to change my fate.”

“The cost is too high,” the creature replied, flicking a set of its wrists in dismissal. “A soul like yours could not bear the burden.”

The faun steeled herself, lifted her chin and drew up her shoulders, drawing breath to puff out her chest. She had not come this far to be turned aside.

“The fate the oracle spoke for me was too short and too cruel. There must be a way to altar it.”

“Where will is steadfast there is always a path to be carved,” the creature agreed. “But that does not mean you can afford to pay for it.”

She drew another deep breath. “Then grant me something I can afford, a tool that can be used to avoid my fate.”

“What is your name, child?”

“Elsyria.”

“And what is this horrible fate you have spent years trying to escape?”

“To die an insignificant and meaningless death. An accidental death, within the next decade. And to leave no mark upon the world before I go.”

The ram-lion chuckled. “Such is the fate of most souls, child.”

“Not mine,” Elsyria insisted. “I wish to write myself a different saga. One with meaning.”

“And what tool will allow you to do this?”

“Sight,” Elsyria said without hesitation. “The Vision of the Oracle.”

“So that you may see your fate and avoid it?” The words were accompanied by cruel, cutting laughter.

Elsyria stuck out her chin further. “Yes. But also so that I may see the fate of others and help them to achieve it.”

The creature cackled for several seconds before it spoke again. “What you ask can be granted. But you will not like the cost.”

“I don’t care. Whatever it is, I’m willing to give it.”

“So be it, child.”

Elsyria didn’t have a chance to say anything else. Several of the ram-lion’s arms snaked out from behind the table, impossibly long and impossibly fast, to close around her head. Searing pain filled her skull, momentarily dimming her sight to a black curtain. She tried to scream, but no air moved through her throat. Her heart beat like a mad beast, desperate to escape its bindings. She couldn’t even lift her arms to try to peel those ethereal fingers away.

The fire continued to throb through her head until she thought certain it would explode. Then the sweet, sickly darkness of oblivion claimed her.

*   *   *

She didn’t know how much time had passed when she woke. The roots covering the walls of the chamber remained, but their fantastic carvings had gone. The candles were cold in their alcoves, the wicks long since burned away.

Her head throbbed when she stood and groped for the door, now just a plain piece of wood hanging on a pair of flimsy iron hinges. The hallway outside was half as long as she remembered, the stairs lit by sunlight. When she emerged into the day she found herself on the outskirts of a clearing in a forest she recognized. Half a world away from the cave she had entered.

If not for the throb in her head and the lingering stench of the bog in her nose, she might have believed it had all been a dream, the mad search, the endless journey, the impossible creature and its mocking laughter.

But did she really have it? Could she really See if she tried?

Elsyria closed her eyes.

If she did have the ability to see the future, how did she make it work? Could she tap into it at will, or did she have to wait for it to come upon her?

She was only halfway through the thought when she saw the first flash, a bleary image of herself standing in the street – the street where she was meant to die. She saw the lead cart of the caravan swerve, she saw herself dance out of the way, saw the shock in her eyes as she realized that she had just narrowly avoided her own death.

The fate that she had fought so hard to secure.

Glee rising in her chest to combat the ache behind her temples, Elsyria opened her eyes and breathed deep of the fresh forest scents. She reveled in the sensation of the wind caressing her face and glanced over her shoulder to see if the sheen had come back to her silver fur.

But it hadn’t. Because her fur wasn’t silver anymore. It was tawny and brown, dappled with age and dull with wear.

Breath lodged in her throat she glanced down. It wasn’t just one spot of brown, it was all four legs and her back. Wildly she ran her fingers through her fur, looking for some sign of the silver underneath. And she thought she caught a gleaming glimpse of it before her eyes focused on the backs of her hands, a patchwork of gnarled veins, spotted with grey, her fingers oddly bent and refusing to open all the way.

Her hands shot to her face where wrinkled skin traced wrinkled skin. If she had been able to see herself in a mirror, she might have screamed.

What had happened? How could this be?

She tromped in a circle outside the tree, traveling half the length of the clearing before the sound of bells reached her ears. Her hands shot again to her flank; the brown had faded and so had the veins. The silver had returned. She traced her cheeks, ran fingers through her hair, checked every inch of her body to make certain all its youth and vitality had returned.

So she had the Vision. And she could use it as she pleased, use it to avoid her fate and help others weave theirs.

But how long before use of that power trapped her in the form of the crone? How long before she whittled her life away trying to control the shape of it?

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