Diana stopped at the edge of the soft shadow of the tree. Its trunk rose into the clouds, near black in the noon sun. The branches seemed to go on forever, one half of the tree green leaves, one half every color of the rainbow, and brighter than the low light should permit. Around her, the flat, grassy plain stretched to the horizon in every direction. The only sound that met her fox ears was the creaking of the branches and the rustling of leaves.
She continued down the crumbled stone path, looking at the ancient paw prints all along it. Every kind of paw was represented, and every kind of motion. Even some mech prints from the war, before the Tree revealed itself and put an end to cataclysmic struggles for all time. The path took her to the hollow in the center of the tree. Inside, she stood in the shining, shallow pool of water that came up to her knees.
Insects swarmed into the hollow and coalesced into the shape of a fox, a mirror image of Diana. The bug-fox, a Keeper, grinned. “It’s been a long time since I had company. The Tree still won’t talk to me after what I did. What can I do for you?”
“I need guidance. My life’s gone to crap.”
“Colorful. You must be a vulnog.”
“Yeah. So can you help me, or should I go hang myself on one of these branches? There’s no way in hell I’m walking back to that life without some direction.”
“I can show you some images, but I can’t help you interpret them. The Tree is…weird. Speaks in riddles. Eccentric old fool.” The fox-swarm cupped its swarm-paws over its swarm-muzzle. “Hear that, asshole? Idiot.”
“What? Next you’re going to say it’s all my fault the Tree won’t talk to me. Maybe if I just had a better attitude, right?”
“I’m sure the Tree contributes. Takes two to argue.”
“Yeah, and the Tree is trillions. I’m one. That’s hardly a fair fight. Look, I'm the first Keeper. You try maintaining a relationship for eons without the occasional fight. Anyway.” The Keeper melted into the pool, and Diana found herself in the middle of her home city, Luma.
“Didn’t think my answer would be here.”
“Like I said. Weird Tree. You think it’s going to take you to the village you grew up in, show you some event from your childhood, and everything will make sense. What happened here?” The Keeper followed Diana as she walked through the empty streets, looking up at the ruined buildings.
“I don’t know. It’s Luma, but…broken. Do you know anything about it?”
“Luma? Never heard of it. I got exiled to where you found me before people started building cities again. We call the planet Lumari, formerly Earth. Who names a world dirt? Seriously.”
Diana stopped in the middle of the street, then walked toward a storefront where a red fox was busy laying down a new tile floor. “That’s my stepmother. Crap. I know what this is. An earthquake turned most of the city to rubble when I was little. Civil society broke down. The family had a shop here. Why would she be remodeling in the middle of society collapsing?”
“Good place to hide something. Did your family have money before it all fell down?”
“We had…yes! Stocks. Lots and lots of money in the stock market. She died a few years ago, and told me our family had a good foundation. She always loved riddles. I hate riddles.”
“Huh. The Tree usually jerks people around more. Lemme guess. You need money.”
“And those stock certificates are probably still good.”
“Who owns the building now?”
“I own it. I need to buy a hammer.”
“Lovely.” The illusion blinked away, and they were back in the hollow. “So, I was lying about being lonely. I’m actually quite introverted. Are you done here?” Diana nodded, and the Keeper flew away in a swarm. A hammer made of stone and wood descended on a vine and broke off, landing at her feet. "Now shoo."
Diana returned to Luma, recovered the stock certificates, and paid off her student loans.