The Human held up the crystal once more and trudged back down the path to the clearing of the great tree. The tree was now quiet and did not attempt to speak to the Human. Nor did the Human wish to talk to the tree. It now seemed that only determination would serve to find the Human’s family. Despite the promises of the Tinker and the great tree, the Witch had granted nothing but wasted time and frustration.
The Human found the original path again and set off, hoping that this side trip had not cost too much time. There was no real way to tell time here, and the Witch’s house had been so strange that the Human could not trust the memory of time passing, either. The path wound through the forest, switching directions frequently, and the Human became more and more frustrated with the slow linear progress.
After a time, the silence was broken by a deep rumbling sound, more felt through the ground than heard. It was answered by another, sharper noise. Both came from up ahead, and the Human picked up speed to see what was causing the sounds. More sounds came, growing louder as the Human approached. The leaves on the trees visibly shook, now, as insubstantial as they were, and the Human could feel the ground trembling.
Finally, rounding a last curve in the path, the forest gave way to a broad plain. The plain was strewn with broken and burnt trees, water-filled divots, churned earth, and parched patches of dried mud. The cause of this desolation was clear. In the center towered a giant of a man. His head was wreathed by the crackling glow of lightning, and he wore shimmering armor of a style the Human had never before seen. He stood so tall his face was lost to distance; only visible as a paler area wreathed by silver-streaked hair, above a great beard, and below the flickering lightning crown. He was locked in combat with a beast that the Human had only ever heard of as fiction. A many-headed dragon faced the giant. It had more heads than the Human could count, each one different from the others. It had as many tails lashing behind it. As the two fought, their footsteps caused the booming sounds the Human had been hearing. Their attacks blasted the land, and the dragons steps, especially, altered the ground as it paced.
The Human could just make out the path winding across the plain, appearing to head straight across. The giant and the dragon, however, fought astride it. The path was so damaged by the battle, the Human worried that skirting around the two would mean risking losing the path altogether. Somehow, the Human had to find a way past the two combatants.
As the Human watched the battle, hoping that the fight would move away from the path, something about this contest seemed familiar. The giant fought with a huge mace, trying to crush the dragon’s heads as they darted in to snap at him. The dragon had taken some wounds, and where they bled, the ichor smoked and burnt the ground. Other wounds leaked vermin and snakes, insects, and scorpions fell from the dragon’s flanks. The giant managed a strong blow on one head, a sinuous one with drooping mustaches, and it fell limp. As the giant turned to attack another, this one a scaly monstrosity resembling a huge black snake, the first head healed before the Human’s eyes and reared up to rejoin the battle.
The giant was not unscathed, either. As the battle raged, he turned more towards the Human, and it was apparent that he was blind in one eye, and his armor had several great rents in it. His left arm hung limp, as if the sinews had been cut. One of the dragon’s heads, this one metallic green with a horned nose, darted in towards that weakened side. The giant started back, and tripped over a fallen tree. When he hit the ground, the force was great enough to trigger a massive earthquake. The Human fell, clutching the ground, glad to be out from under the trees at this moment. Before the dragon could press the attack, however, the giant made a wild swing with his mace, clearing enough space to stand.
One of the dragon’s rearmost heads had a nearly human look. It had jet black eyes and hair and seemed reluctant to join in with its brethren. As it looked about its gaze fell on the Human standing where the path entered the plain. It stared, surprised. This, in turn, caught the attention of a fish-like head nearby, who turned to see what had caught the first head’s attention. A third and then a fourth head did the same, until all of the heads not actively fighting were staring at the tiny anomaly. At this point the giant noticed something was unusual in his opponent’s behavior, and took a step back, circling to his right to get a view at whatever was so fascinating to the dragon. This, then, caused the dragon’s other heads to look. Soon, the three of them the giant, the dragon, and the Human stood staring at one another in silence.
“Excuse me, great ones,” said the Human, bowing low. “Would it be possible for me to get past you on the path? I have far to go and not much time.”
“And where are you going?” asked the dragon head that looked nearly human.
“I am seeking the spirits of my family. They would have come this way, moving towards Oblivion. I am trying to catch up with them before they are lost to me forever.” The human dragon head nodded sympathetically.
“I understand the draw of family. I miss my wives. Back in the Present, we were so happy. Here, however, I am tied to these other aspects of myself, and unable to be with my loves.”
“Is that why you do not join the fight?” asked the Human, curiosity overcoming caution.
The black snake head whipped around to face the human head.
“You are not fighting? No wonder we have been unable to make progress.”
“I am not the only one! Leviathan was not fighting, either!” retorted the human head.
“Do not drag me into this, Kaliva! I have my own reasons for not engaging in violence with our honored opponent,” said the fish head.
“Both of you! All of you there in the back! You leave the fighting to Yamata, Jormungandr, Illuyanka, Typhon, Xianliu, Yam, Apep, myself, and a few others. Why do you not join us! We could win if we were united!” cried the black snake head.
“Zahhak, you know why I do not fight,” answered Leviathan. “I am fated to die at the end of time. As you are, Jormungandr,” Leviathan nodded at a snake-like head near the front. “Are you so eager to bring about the end of days?”
“Bah! Superstition! We are the Dragon! We cannot be slain!” answered Yamata, the head with great mustaches.
“You can, as you well know!” cried Kaliva. “Or do you forget that time you got so drunk you fell asleep and all but one of your heads was slain so fully only one of you now remains!”
“That wasn’t just me! Illuyanka drank too!,” roared Yamata.
The argument was cut short by the bellowing laughter from the giant. He was bent nearly in two, his good hand on his great thigh, shaking with mirth. His laughter was like thunder, and small bolts of lightning were shaken loose from around his head, falling to strike nearby.
“What is so funny, son of Odin?” asked Jormungandr. A green and gold snake-like head near the front sighed loudly.
“How many times do I have to tell you? That is not Thor, it is Zeus, my mortal and eternal enemy!”
“No!” interrupted a head that was hooded like a cobra. “That is Ra!”
“No! That is Yu the Great!” cried a head that resembled Yamata, but larger and with different coloring.
Soon all the heads near the front were snapping at one another, shouting the name of which enemy they thought they fought. Many the Human had heard of, but many others were novel. The heads near the back looked at one another helplessly. They seemed resigned to the squabbling, but not surprised. The giant was now seated on a nearby pile of fallen trees, drinking from a wineskin. He turned towards the Human, grinning.
“I would not try to cross when my foe is like this, little one,” came the great booming voice. “They may fight for days, and the stomping of feet and lashing of tails will be quite hazardous for such as you.”
“They seem to be arguing over who you are,” answered the Human. “How can they fight with such ferocity if they do not know you?”
“Ah, but they do. Each one sees a different aspect of me, the one it fought it life and legend. I am the Storm God, the embodiment of order and light. I have as many names as my friend here,” he gestured towards the Dragon, “has heads. He is the embodiment of chaos, in opposition to me. Although I have been known to wreak my share of destruction over the ages. We shall fight until the end of time, and then I shall finally defeat him.”
“You must have been fighting for a very long time,” said the Human, eying the destruction that stretched around the two. “Do you never tire?”
“There have been respites. As Kaliva mentioned, I have had victories, although they did not last. And I have had my setbacks as well. The sinews from my arm and my eye have been lost, and my wounds run deep. I always regain what I have lost, however. Sometimes I manage to lock my foe away under the earth for a time. Then I can find time to rest. I suspect the Dragon uses that time to recover strength as well. We always fight the more fiercely when he escapes.”
“What about those heads that do not fight?” asked the Human, walking over to sit near the Storm God.
“Ah, those. Our relationship in life and legend is not always adversarial. Kaliva reformed when defeated by Krishna, and Leviathan is not aggressive by nature. Even Zahhak has times when he becomes more like a man and steps back from the fight. He is always swayed to return to the fray, however. Jormungandr fights knowing it will be slain, but it knows it shall slay me in turn, and its hatred is so strong it is willing to pay the price to see that result.”
“You shall both die?” the Human was surprised to hear the giant speak of death so carelessly.
“In a way. When the end of time comes, both order and chaos will pass away, to be reborn in the world to come. We will end as we are and become something new. It is not so terrible a fate.”
“I beg your pardon for changing the subject, but I need to pass through here if I am to catch up to my family. I fear that if I go around, I will never find the right path in all this destruction, but the path forward travels very near the feet of the Dragon. Is there another way?”
“Perhaps. Kaliva seemed moved by your plight, as it is quite near to his own. Let me see if he is willing to help.” The Storm God cupped his hands to his mouth and blew a gust of wind towards the Dragon. When it reached its destination, the squabbling heads took no notice, but Kaliva, Leviathan, and the other peaceful heads looked up, curious. The Storm God gestured from the Human to the path, raising a great eyebrow questioningly. Kaliva nodded, and bent to confer with the rest of the rearmost heads.
After a brief conversation, the rearmost heads rose up as one, and turned towards their tails, pulling the body backwards. They were not used to exerting their will over the body they shared with their combative brethren, but with the aggressive heads distracted, they were able to get the legs to step backwards bit by bit. At the giant’s urging, the Human hurried back to the path and started along it at a fast walk, not wanting to be caught in the Dragon’s path, but not wanting to draw attention, either.
As the Human drew even with the Dragon, on of the fighting heads, a dull metal-scaled beast, caught sight of the Human passing and looked down to see that its body was moving away from its most hated foe.
“Beware my brothers!” it cried. “We are betrayed!” The other heads whipped around in response.
“Smeu! You are right!” answered Typhon. “A trick! We should have known!”
“Get it!” Called Yamata. “I hunger, and have not tasted flesh in so long!”
The forward heads surged towards the Human, and the Dragon’s feet churned as opposing instructions reached them. The ground alternately flooded and dried to desert, and poisonous ichor sprayed as wounds were stressed by the pulling. Eventually, however, the aggressive nature of the Dragon of Chaos won out and the body sped towards the Human, who was now running as fast as possible.
Fire belched from the mouth of Smeu, and other heads snapped forward, each bite coming closer to the Human with each stride. Just as the Human was covered by the Dragon’s shadow, and felt sure the end was near, the Dragon pulled short, Yamata’s teeth snapping shut a mere handsbreadth from the Human. The Dragon’s body lurched and fell heavily, as a great bellow came from behind it.
“Oho!” cried the Storm God, stepping on several of the Dragon’s tails. “You will not escape me so easily! Turn and fight! Or do you so fear me you prefer tiny prey to a true foe?”
The front heads rose as one and roared defiance. The Dragon rose to its feet and whirled around, yanking its tails from under the foot of the giant, who hopped back to avoid falling. The Human resumed running, ducking as the tails spun past just overhead, as the Dragon turned and charged its ancient foe. The Human risked a look back, and saw Kaliva looking back in return. He nodded gravely at the Human and then turned back to watch the battle. The Human, now safe from immediate devouring or trampling, still hurried across the plain, carefully staying on the path. As the distance from the battle increased, the path became clearer and wider, eventually resuming the straight and even appearance it had earlier.
As the Human walked, the sound of the struggle behind grew fainter, until all was again silent. The land grew more and more lifeless, however, and the ground took on a blackened, cracked look, like a great fire had raged here. Wary for the case of this devastation, the Human continued on.