With renewed energy, the Human continued down the path. It sloped gently downward, and the darkened, blasted land began to lose even its burnt coloration, fading to an ashen gray. Ahead, a mild rise in the landscape blocked the view ahead. Cresting the hill, the Human stopped, stunned by what lay beyond the hill.
The land continued its slow descent from the base of the hill, an ashen plain marked only by the occasional burnt stump of a tree. These stumps stopped a few hundred paces from the base of the hill, however, replaced by smooth ash. The ashen plain eventually found an end at an immense, dark, still body of of water. The water spread far out into the distance, with a faint shore barely visible at the horizon. To either side the shore curved away, giving the impression that this body of water was somehow circular.
The Human sank to the ground. There was no sign of a way across the water. No trees were intact enough to construct a raft, no boat traffic could be seen, and the distant shore was much too far away to be reached by swimming. Then, the Human noticed something that marred the smooth line of the ashen shore. A blurred shape paced back and forth along the edge of the water, seemingly without aim or pattern. Rising, the Human moved closer.
Up close, the shape was shaped like a person, but was far more indistinct than any of the beings the Human had so far encountered. It was nearly transparent, visible more as a distortion in the air, than as an object.
“Hello?” inquired the Human. “Can you hear me?” The shape did not respond, but continued to restlessly flit back and forth along the shore. Then, a bit further along the shoreline, the Human spotted another such shape. And then another, and another. The shore was swarmed with indistinct shapes milling along the edge, as if they, like the Human, desired to cross the water.
The Human moved to the edge of the great sea, hoping that perhaps it was shallow, and thus could be crossed, at least partially, by wading. Ripples flowed outwards as the Human stepped into the water, marring the smooth surface. The ripples continued endlessly, without diminishing, unlike what the Human remembered from back in the Present. Then, all at once, the ripples froze in place, and a low rumbling could be felt through the shore. With a great shattering sound, the surface of the water began to move again, but this time with a great swell, as something immense began to rise from the deep.
It appeared to be one long, great creature that spread off beyond the horizon in each direction, following the curved shoreline. As it rose, waves of water were pushed towards the shore. The faint figures pulled back, retreating from the water. The Human stood fast, letting the waves flow past and then recede. The huge creature was not just rising to the surface, but it was moving towards the shore.
Slowly, the gargantuan bulk drew closer. It slowed as it came, and when it came close enough for details to be visible, the Human could see scales covering its skin. A bulge became visible in the line of its body, and the Human saw the head of the creature emerge from the water. Strangely, it held what appeared to be the tail of a similar creature in its mouth. It did not seem to have eyes or any other way of sensing the world, but the Human could feel the focus of its attention. As the head drew up on the beach, it never released the tail in its mouth. The tail trailed off into the water, becoming thicker as it went, until it became the right side of the creature’s body, leading off into the horizon. This beast was biting its own tail!
“How did you come here?” A great pressure filled the Human’s mind. It did not resolve into words, but the meaning was somehow clear. The Human hurriedly bowed.
“I seek the spirits of my family who should have passed this way before me.” The Human was suddenly struck by the thought that perhaps the faded shapes along the shore were spirits. Were the Human’s family among them? How could the Human recognize them? They did not seem to interact with the world other than to avoid the water.
“I am not concerned with the travels of shades,” rumbled the great beast. “My concern is how one of your kind came to this place. You do not belong here, and you must leave. These waters are not to be disturbed by the living. Although, you are not entirely living, are you?” The Human again felt the force of the beast’s attention. Eyeless, it seemed to peer directly into the Human’s mind and soul, and it did not seem be be impressed by what if found.
“I do not know how I came to be here, Great One,” answered the Human. “My grief pulled me to this place, and all those I have encountered told me I must follow this path to find my family. I did not mean to disturb you or this place. Please, did my family come this way, and, if so, is there a way to follow them?” There was a rumbling pressure that felt like low laughter.
“Great One. Could it be that you do not know me? I am the beginning and the end. All is one in me. I shall rise at the end of time, and yet time, and I, have no end. I am the border between chaos and order, between Past, Present, and Future. I am the World Serpent, the Ouroboros. I hold back the waters that would flood the land, and the land that would cover the waters. If you came down the path behind you, you may have seen an echo of Myself in Jormungandr, yes? Still battling the Storm God, I imagine.”
“Yes,” replied the Human. “Along with the rest of the Dragon’s heads. The Storm God said they would fight until the end of time.”
“And yet,” rumbled the World Serpent, “I have no end. I suppose what they say is still true, in a way. Were one or both of them to die, it would mean that chaos and order were no longer in balance, and all would end. You seek the spirits of your family. You have come a long way to find them. Assuming they were not among those lost souls along the shore, here, then they would have made their way across to the Isle.”
“Is there a way to tell if the are still here?” asked the Human. “These spirits do not seem to know I am here.”
“These are the Lost. They had so much fear in their souls that they refused to make the last leg of their journey. They feared Oblivion so strongly that they have condemned themselves to an even worse fate. They have only to take a step, and they would be saved, but their fear keeps them from even so small an effort. They refuse to continue the cycle, and are thus Lost. Were those you seek full of dread, fearing all things?”
“No,” answered the Human, relieved. “They were full of love and life and joy. Even when they sickened, they did not fear what came next.”
“Good. Then they would have made it to the Isle.”
“But how? I see no boats. Should I swim?”
“Only if you wish to lose all that you are!” laughed the great serpent. “The waters of Lethe will erase what holds your Self together. They embody chaos and are poison to the Selves of mortals. You must wait for the boatman. He will carry you across safely, but you must pay your way.”
“I have no coin,” said the Human. “What payment does the boatman seek?”
“That is up to him,” answered the serpent. “He should arrive shortly, drawn by the call of your soul. Take care when you board his boat, however. You must not make more ripples, and were you to fall into the water violently, far more than your memories would be lost. If the chaos of the waters gained access to a living soul, the balance would fail, and the Waters would cover the Earth once more.”
“Thank you for your warning,” said the Human, stepping carefully back from the edge of the water. “I shall take care.”
“See that you do.” The World Serpent began to slide back into the water, eventually disappearing from sight. The water became mirror-smooth once again. The Human sat down to wait, hoping for patience.
It was not long before a small dot appeared on the horizon, directly out from where the path entered the water. It drew closer, and the Human saw it was a boat with a figure at the prow, using a long oar to push the boat smoothly across the water. With a soft crunch, it pushed up onto the ashen beach, just next to the path.
The boatman, tall and angular under the shifting folds of an ethereal black robe, reached out a hand towards the Human. The hand at first appeared to be skeletal, but it was, in fact covered in a sort of flesh. It was insubstantial, like the Human’s cabin, translucent and wavered like fog.
“I need to cross,” said the Human. “What is the fare?” There was a long pause before the boatman spoke with a long-disused voice.
“Gold,” rasped the boatman. The Human despaired. There had been no coin in all of this strange world. The Human opened the turtle shell container, hoping to find something of worth, and saw the gold framed mirror from the Water Mother. The Human was loathe to part with such a gift, but it was the only gold available. The Human held the mirror out to the boatman.
The boatman reached to take the mirror, but froze as soon as he made contact with the frame. It was a long moment before he shuddered and pulled his hand back.
“This came from the Mother,” he whispered. “With her blessing, you have been given passage on all of her waters, even here.” The boatman gestured for the Human to board.
Carefully, mindful of the World Serpent’s warning, the Human clambered into the boat, and carefully put the mirror back into the container.
“Thank you. I need to go where the spirits of the dead go. Is that the Isle?”
The boatman nodded silently and pushed the boat away from the beach. With a deft motion of the oar, the boat turned and headed for the far shore.