Rona follows Fortress into the Great Oak…
NORTH IS ALWAYS FORWARD
Rona sniffed the air, searched the empty sled, dug into the fresh tracks, then peered into the tangles of The Great Oak. Buried in the winding branches, she caught the old druid’s eye.
She startled and skidded backward. Without the vision of the poisoned acorns, the druid appeared old as he’d been, but his eyes and complexion were empty and mealy gray.
“Oh, no.” Realization smacked into her. “No, no.” She dropped her pack and drew out her axes, War Screech and Whistle. She chopped at a branch that held the druid’s throat fast, then another, splitting through branch after branch while her eyes welled up. “No!” But green shoots burst out and turned into new hard branches that wrapped the old druid up all the tighter. “Stupid tree!” she shouted, tears freezing into icicles on her cheeks.
Rona glared at the tree, wiped her nose on her cloak and huffed out a resolute breath. “Welp,” she said to no one, “north is always forward.” She hooked her axes back on her belt and stuck her head into a gaping hollow in the tree. The spiraling dark yawned up.
“Hallo?” she called, and her greeting echoed back. There was nothing left to do but climb inside.
Down and down and down she went into the enveloping black, slipping on moss and jutting roots, butt-bumping down. Down into the heat, so that she threw away her cloak. Down into the thin air that made her drowsy, though she napped only a nightmarish hour at a time, stairs jutting into her sides and knees, before continuing down and down and down, until, somehow, she found she was going up. As bad as down had been, up was worse. She sweated and grumbled and drank the last of her waterskin. Up and up and up, she counted the steps to keep her mind on something.
Just before she would have gone mad, she saw a thin light high above. With a last great effort, she climbed toward it. The light came from another hollow, and she tumbled out of it into the other half of the world.
The jungle air felt like drowning to breathe. The sunlight was orange instead of the white-gray she had always known; the trees burst with colorful leaves and flowers. She climbed a set of stone steps, axes at the ready, her tongue sticking to the dry roof of her mouth, past crumbling stone statues and ancient architecture no longer loved. Echoing from somewhere unseen, a merchant called out his wares. At the top of the stairs, the stone path widened into a courtyard. In the middle, a great crystal hung suspended in the air over a glowing well. Her mouth opened and closed like a fish; she was so stunned that she almost missed the wolf pack that surrounded the well.
The alpha was almost as tall on all fours as she on two. She gripped her axes, glaring, but the alpha’s hackles didn’t rise. “Ah, good,” growled the alpha. “The druid hoped you would follow.”
War Screech and Whistle dropped loose in her fingers. “And who are you?”
“I am Fortress,” he replied.
“You are the fortress?”
“And you are Rona the Berserker.”
“I am,” she said, and as if he had reminded her of herself, she squared her shoulders.
“Then come with me,” said Fortress. “There is fighting to be done.”
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