As the Human walked, the air grew warm and dry. More than once, the Human had to stop and cough as the air filled with with a fine ash. The ground was studded with burnt stumps of trees, and the blackened bones of small animals who had not escaped the blaze. The ground took on a glassy look, as if from a fantastic heat. Strangely, as the devastation grew worse, signs of life could be found. A blade of grass pushed through a crack in the baked ground, while a tiny leaf was just budding from the side of a blackened stump. The air was a mix of ash, heat, and the occasional whisper of spring. The sky was nearly pitch black above, with just a sliver of Sunset to be seen ahead. Turning, the Human noted a slight glow that resembled the light just before dawn. It was so faint as to seem illusory. The Human turned back towards the Sunset and trudged down the path.
The air became uncomfortably warm. The earth itself radiated heat, and, in the deeper cracks, embers flickered. A hot breeze fanned the embers to life as it brushed past, but there was no fuel left to feed the embers into flames. The path began to slope downward sharply, and the Human could see that the path descended into a large bowl-shaped depression. It appeared to be headed to the heart of the devastation, a large mound of burnt wood, still lit with fitful coals.
As the Human drew close, the mound of wood resolved into what seemed to be a huge nest, carefully woven from wood the size of the Human’s wrist. The nest sat just to one side of the path, at least 10 paces across, with the lip rising chest-high to the Human. The heat emanating from it was nearly unbearable. Hot gusts pushed out, forcing the Human to lean forward to make progress, one arm raised to both light the way and provide protection from the ash. As the Human drew even with the nest, it shuddered, and the air suddenly cleared as a new, even hotter wind blew away the ash. The coals in the nest flared nearly back to life, and the Human staggered back. The crystal was no longer needed to see the path, as the glow from the nest was nearly as bright as a torch. The Human drew closer to the nest, peering over the edge to see the source of the heat. Inside, sat an egg, as wide as the Human was tall. The shell was a glowing pearl white, with streamers of red, orange, and yellow light flowing over its surface. Blue and green sparks played around it, as it began to rock slowly back and forth. Fascinated, the Human stood and stared, too enraptured by the beauty to be afraid.
The sparks flew more densely as the egg shivered and with a sound like nearby thunder, a crack appeared across the center of the shell. Beams of brilliant crimson, gold, and white flew from the crack, forcing the Human to raise a hand protectively. The air vibrated, not with a true sound, but with a palpable joy. The crack in the egg grew wider and a metallic red beak forced its way out into the air. A head feathered in gold and orange followed. The eyes, both a crackling electric blue, locked onto the Human. The beak opened and the Firebird sang a note like the dawn after an eternal night. The Human felt tears of rapture begin to flow. For the first time since coming to this dim place, the Human knew joy.
The Firebird shouldered its way out of the shell, which turned to find white ash as it fell away from its former occupant. Shaking the ash from its feathers, the Firebird cocked its head to one side and took a cautious step towards the Human.
The Firebird sang notes of light and warmth which formed radiant thoughts in the Human’s mind. “Blessed are you who first grace my sight, O child of the Present. My rebirths come once in a thousand years, and rarely have a witness, much less one who comprehends what is unfolding. Pray, tell me what brings you here to my presence. To be born is often a lonely thing, and I thank you for sharing it with me,” it sang.
The Human drew a breath of clean, warm air and spoke, bowing as far as the edge of the nest would allow.
“Truly I am blessed to have witnessed such a miracle. I only happened to be here through an unfortunate chance. Your rebirth has been the one true moment of grace in this land and for some time before I arrived here. I seek my family, who passed into death without me. My grief brought me to the Past, and I am seeking to restore my family to me.”
“It is good that you seek restoration, rather than Oblivion. That cursed place offers not the cleansing power of destruction, only dissolution. I can see the grief at the heart of you, and would offer a way to remove it.”
“Is it in your power to restore my family to me?”, asked the Human, hopefully.
The Firebird stepped forward, perching on the lip of the nest. Its legs were covered in golden scales, and its talons shone like red gold. It shook out its tail, and spread it out into a broad fan. The pattern was similar to that of a peacock, but in ruby, topaz, and amber rather than sapphire and emerald. The warm light that shone from its feathers illuminated the blasted land around the nest. As the light drove away shadow, life began to spring forth in earnest. Blades of grass pushed through the layer of ash, and tree roots broke through the patches of fused glass. Saplings struggled out from the burnt stumps, shattering the charcoal shapes as they grew. Flowers sprouted from the cracks in the ground, which had become filled with rich soil.
“I offer rebirth, not restoration,” the Firebird sang, with an edge of sadness. “True rebirth comes through cleansing destruction. It is a joyous process, but much would be lost. You would be reborn in the Present, free of sorrow and loss. You could start anew, and find a happier path.”
“But I would not have my family with me,” said the Human.
“If you can bring them to me, I can offer them the same, but they would be washed as clean as you. You would all return to life, but at its beginning. Perhaps you would find one another again, but not as you once were.”
The Human was silent for a long moment, as life flowed through the crater, new buds blooming, leaves turning towards the Firebird for light and life. There was so much beauty in rebirth. Since the Witch had not given any way to find the Future, perhaps this was a better way. Even if the Humans family was not together, surely it was better than Oblivion?
The Human spoke slowly. “I thank you for your offer, brilliant one. It is a far kinder one than I could have hoped for. If I am unable to find a way to restore my family, then rebirth will be the path I choose. Thank you again.” The Human bowed once more, and, raising the crystal, started to move off down the path.
“Wait!,” cried the Firebird. “Bring that stone to me. Let me see it more closely.” The Human turned and lifted the crystal, the glow of which was barely visible in the radiance of the Firebird. The great talons of one foot took it gently and raised it to a sparking blue eye. The Firebird trilled quietly as it turned the stone about.
“This come from the Rock King, does it not?” asked the Firebird. The Human nodded. “You have used its light to face the Dark, as well.” The Human nodded again, but the Firebird did not appear to notice. “I believe I have another way to help you,” it sang. Returning the crystal to the Human, the Firebird reached back with its beak and pulled loose a feather from its splendid tail.
“Take this. Use it along with the other gifts you have gathered. It may be enough.”
“Enough for what?” asked the Human.
“Enough for you to face what you must,” replied the Firebird. “I cannot foresee what shape it may take, but your most difficult task is still before you. It will be dark and difficult, but I see you have the strength to face it.”
The Firebird bowed low before the Human, who returned the gesture.
“May the blessings of light and life guide you,” sang the great bird, “and may you find the love you seek.” Straightening, it spread its wings, which were feathered in the same fiery tones as its tail. It leapt into the air and soared in a spiral over the crater. Its song rang out, tones of rapture, hope, and joy. It circled higher and higher, until it appeared to become a distant yellow star.
The Human looked at the feather, which gave off a brilliant light far brighter than that of the crystal. It was too bright to look at for long, so the Human placed it into the turtle-shell container. It was now apparent that the shell was translucent, and the container shown a warm yellow, with streaks of brown. Again raising the crystal to light the path ahead, the Human began to climb out of the crater.