The Human stumbled on through the tunnels, running as fast as the light from the crystal would allow. Eventually, a point of light shone ahead, which grew quickly. Staggering out of the tunnel, the Human blinked against even the dim light. The world was blurred and wispy once again, with only the rocks surrounding the cave mouth appearing solid. The sky appeared a bit darker than it had been where the Human had entered the Faded Kingdom. It appeared the trip underground had moved the Human significantly closer to Sunset. There was still no sign of the Human’s lost family, but hopefully that would change shortly. The Human set out down the path, holding the glowing crystal for comfort in the gloom. The trees on either side of the path were no longer tall and healthy, but wizened and twisted. Leaves only rarely flickered on their limbs.
“Oh, how pretty!” called a rough voice. The Human looked around and saw a large crow in a nearby dead tree. The tree did not have even the few leaves of the others in this area. Perhaps it had been dead a long time. The crow hopped down to a closer branch and cocked its head.
“You, my friend, are a strange one,” it remarked, turning its head again to examine the Human from a different angle. “I haven’t seen your like in this land. Now, in the Present, your kind and mine, well, we go a long ways back.”
Wary of giving offense, the Human bowed deeply and politely asked the crow’s name.
“Ah, that is a tricky question isn’t it? After all, I am not just a crow. I am the echo of many crows from many lands where many tongues are spoken. You may call me Crow, but that is not quite right. I am also the echo of the ravens, the magpies, and the jackdaws, and other similar folk. I wonder what your people thought of mine. Some humans think us fools, others see us as the bearers of wisdom, others view us with the dread of death, while still others see us as vermin to be killed.” Crow fluffed its feathers and hopped to another branch.
“I never had much use for superstition,” replied the Human, “but I know some of my neighbors were afraid of crows, while others viewed them with respect.”
“Ah, a reasonable balance, then. So, you are carrying something that I find quite beautiful.” Crow’s eyes fixed on the crystal. “Would you be willing to part with it? Hmm?”
“It was a gift,” began the Human.
“So. I cannot ask you to give up a gift,” interrupted Crow. “And then I would be in even further debt to your kind. Can’t have that. Hmm. Perhaps I have a solution. And an entertainment! It can be frightfully dull around here.” Crow pecked at the tree for emphasis. “Here is what I propose. I will pose a riddle. If you answer it correctly, I shall answer a question for you. Keep in mind that my kind carry knowledge between realms, so I know quite a bit.”
“And if I cannot answer?” asked the Human.
“If you cannot answer, then I shall STILL answer a question for you, but now you must also give me that crystal in exchange.
The Human looked down at the crystal, considering. A source of light would be useful closer to Sunset, and it had the ability to keep at bay something as powerful as That Which Dwells Below. However, knowing more about this place would be helpful, and perhaps Crow could help find the Human’s missing family members.
“Agreed. Ask your question,” answered the Human.
Crow hopped back and forth on its branch, looking at the Human with one eye and then the other.
“Hmmm. What to pick? I know all the best riddles, so there are quite a lot to choose from,” it mused. After a short time it stopped and faced the Human, head cocked to one side to look at the Human directly.
“What runs straight from future to past, yet winds and curves along its path?” asked Crow.
The Human’s first inclination to was to answer ‘time’, but time ran from the past to the future, didn’t it? Of course, the Human had moved from the Present to the Past, so maybe time did run in that direction… The Human sat down on a nearby rock to think. Crow hopped from branch to branch, looking pleased with the Human’s confused state. The Human looked up at Crow above and tried to think about what it would have picked as a difficult riddle for a Human. As a bird, it would have a very different view of the world. It would see things in three dimensions, not just two. Could the answer be ‘time’? Perhaps Crow saw time differently. Flowing like a… That was it.
“The answer is ‘a river’,” answered the Human, proudly. Crow’s feathers puffed up indignantly. It seemed angry.
“Curse you! You got it too quickly. Well, at least I can count my debt paid by helping you for free,” grumbled the bird.
“So, now I get to ask YOU a question,” said the Human. “I already know how to find my family, so I shall ask something else. How about this… ‘How do I get my family to the Future city?’, so they can remember themselves?” Crow started to laugh hysterically, flapping its wings, and stomping its feet on the branch.
“What’s so funny?” demanded the Human, angrily.
“This is the cheapest debt I’ve ever paid off. I’ve already told you the answer!” laughed Crow. It took off from the tree, circled overhead three times and flew off into the forest away from Sunset.