Following is the fourteenth story in a series that tells the tale of the first hero to go on a journey to discover his calling.
Little One soon realized that there were two problems with his plan to return to the Palace of the Serpent God in light of his new understanding so that he could rescue his father.
The first was finding the palace.
The second was finding his father.
He had already walked dozens of miles through the grasslands before he figured out how to solve the first problem. His feet were sore, his muscles ached, and he had eaten his way through his entire supply of food and water now that he had rejected the genie’s gift of a backpack that continually restocked itself. He almost wished he had kept that one boon, but the genie’s other presents had all led to equally unforeseen and undesirable outcomes, and he didn’t want to take the risk of something else derailing his quest.
The problem was, he wasn’t sure where he was in relation to the palace. He had traveled here directly from the palace, true enough, but he’d reached the grasslands by falling through an enormous abyss, and as if that weren’t enough to disorient him, he’d also gotten lost multiple times since arriving.
He was staring at the stars when the answer came to him. He’d been trying to sleep and having a hard time of it because of an empty belly. Wondering how far away the stars were, he began to think that it must be very far indeed if they were truly little suns, as they looked. He considered the fact that he might very well be losing his mind but allowed himself to speculate anyway that one of the stars might be his father’s palace; at the very least, that would explain the long fall on the way here.
But that didn’t make any sense. He and Ginger had found the Serpent God’s palace when they were in the mountains. He’d walked all the way around the mountains before finding it, and there were no adjacent grasslands, nor any abysses. He was pretty sure he would have noticed a giant chasm of nothingness you could fall through for days if there had been one nearby.
That’s when it hit him: his father’s palace wasn’t in any one, fixed location. Rather, it was everywhere and nowhere at once, accessible only to those who knew how to find it.
The god he’d had to find was within himself—his own strength, courage, and wisdom. Reconnecting with that had been what allowed him to enter the palace.
That meant he knew what he needed to do to return. Rolling up his blanket and packing his things into his backpack, he recalled how he’d felt when he defeated the guardian of the guru. He could feel his power, the golden warmth of his gifts as it spread from his core all the way out to his hands and feet. As he did, the night around him began to darken, eventually going completely black. Not even the stars were visible anymore, and it was almost as if he were floating weightlessly through another abyss.
This time, though, he didn’t have to wait long. Within a few minutes the darkness began to resolve itself into shapes—a dark box just in front of him, with cylinders extending out to all sides. A little ways off he could make out curved walls with periodic columns like spines forming a perfect circle around him. A grimy dome above him let a dim patch of moonlight shine through where some of the grease had been haphazardly rubbed off.
He remembered the last time he’d been in this room, and what he’d seen through the circle he cleared on the dome.
His father had appeared as a giant god far bigger than the tallest tree. He had a human body covered in scales and a snake’s head and thrashing tail. Congratulations, he’d said. You achieved everything you set out to do.
Little One had thought he was talking to him.
But for the sake of what? the God had boomed. What did you really gain?
Little One hadn’t known how to answer, but it didn’t matter; his father had continued regardless.
You have no idea. Oh yes, sure, you have plenty of answers for everyone else, but absolutely none for yourself. And now in your quest for recognition, in your insatiable hunger for success, you have lost the one thing that you actually cared for.
Only later did Little One realize that his father’s words weren’t directed at him. The Serpent God wasn’t actually there; he was witnessing a memory somehow recorded and replayed by the box with the cylinders surrounding it.
Well, I can’t do it anymore, his father had said. I can’t keep sacrificing myself in order to give you what you want.
It was the sadness and the fear in his father’s voice that had made Little One conclude that he had been kidnapped by someone he used to know and trust—that and his final words.
You are not who I thought you were, the Serpent God had said just before disappearing. I give up. You win. You are free to do what you will.
Little One shook his head as he remembered. His initial conclusion had made sense at the time, but he still had a hard time believing how wrong it had been and how long he had taken to see that.
Standing in the circular room once again, he took a deep breath. He had solved his first problem of finding the palace. Now it was time to address the second.
Finding his father, however, turned out not to be a problem at all.
Before he had finished exhaling, Little One heard something snarl above him. Looking up through the dome, he saw the same figure he had seen before with huge feet, brown- and green-scaled legs, an enormous tail, and a snake’s head so far above him that it nearly disappeared into the sky.
Little One looked at the black box in front of him and the multicolored cylinders around it. All were dark and motionless. His mouth went dry and the golden warmth disappeared. This wasn’t a memory, or a recording. His father was really towering over him.
“So you’ve come to find the great Serpent God,” the giant figure said, its huge tail swishing back and forth. “Well, here I am.”
Little One swallowed, reminding himself of his reason for being here. “Hello, Father,” he said, the words no more than squeaks by the time they left his mouth.
“I can’t hear you!” roared the Serpent God. “Speak up, boy!” Little One saw something huge and dark descend like a falling boulder. Before he could react, the dome above him exploded into thousands of pieces and the god was straightening back up.
Little One wondered if the god had meant to smash him along with the dome. He didn’t wait to find out. “I said, Hello, Father.”
“Father, yes,” the Serpent God rumbled, his voice like a distant earthquake. “So the errant son returns. I suppose now that you’ve passed your tests, you’re here to claim your reward.”
Little One felt panic rise within him. He had to wait for it to pass before he could feel that a small current of warmth was still coursing through him.
“No, Father,” he said more firmly. “I’m not here for any reward.”
The red eyes seemed to bore into his face as they searched him. “I see,” boomed the god. “Then you must be here to beg my assistance.”
Little One swallowed again. “No, Father,” he said. “I’m not here to ask for aid either.”
The enormous tail swung back and forth in the sky. “Wisdom, then? Many of my children used to come for wisdom. Gods, too. What type of answers do you beseech?”
“I do not come seeking answers,” Little One said.
“Then why on earth are you here? To worship me? To get in my good graces for a future favor? To tell all your friends that you spoke with the great Serpent God?”
“No,” Little One said. He felt his feet on the ground, the quiet strength running up through them. “Father, I have come to save you.”
The enormous tail swung towards him and smashed into the palace wall to his right, leaving a dark hole in its wake. As he flinched despite himself, Little One couldn’t help but wonder if the blow was meant for him. He shook his head, reminding himself that if the god had meant to hit him, he would already be dead. The thought gave him hope.
“Save me?” the god laughed. “You must be confused. Why would the most powerful god in the world need saving?”
Little One had to make an effort to keep his voice calm. “Because you’ve lost the one thing you actually cared about,” he said quietly, just loud enough to be heard.
“And what’s that?” the god asked, his face contorted into a sneer.
“Yourself,” Little One said softly.
The red eyes glared at him. He could almost feel them burning holes in his skin, despite the distance. “I have lost nothing,” the Serpent God rumbled, his voice like crashing thunder. “Nothing that matters. I am the most powerful god in the world. I can have anything I want. Anything! Even the other gods worship me. I had to build the hidden palace that you’re standing in just to get away from them. But what would you understand of such things? You are nothing but a human, and a failed one at that.” The tail lashed back and forth.
Little One looked up at the God, a question in his eyes.
“Oh, yes,” the deep voice rolled on. “I know what you have been up to. I am a god, remember? I see all. I saw you lose to the guardian of the guru, saw you fail to get the answer you sought, saw you squander the genie’s gifts. You are nothing but a feeble, pathetic loser.”
Little One fought the urge to defend himself, to clarify what had actually happened. “That may be true, Father, but I also learned something that I believe can help you. It has already helped me.”
“I do not need your help!” roared the god. “Are you stupid as well as weak? I have told you. I am the most powerful god there is. I have everything I have ever wanted. I am successful beyond your wildest dreams! What could I possibly need from you?”
“Perhaps you’re right,” Little One continued calmly. “Perhaps there is nothing you need from me. But tell me this: Is this really all you’ve ever wanted? It looks awfully lonely to me.”
Something flickered quickly across the Serpent God’s face, but in the next instant it was gone. “You have no idea what you are talking about, boy,” he hissed. “There is no one who is more respected, feared, or admired than me.”
“Yes,” Little one said, nodding his head. “I see that. You have done very well, far better than I ever could. My only question is, how does it feel to be so successful?”
The red eyes were glowing again, but the god didn’t say anything.
“Do you feel satisfied?” Little One asked. “Peaceful? Fulfilled? Do you feel good about all that you’ve done? Can you feel the strength of your gifts?”
Suddenly the tail came crashing down on the other side of Little One, smashing another section of wall. “I am tired of your idiotic questions!” the Serpent God roared. “I have no time for this! I will destroy you like the ant that you are!” The tail flew back up towards the sky, this time directly over Little One’s head.
“Because I can, Father,” Little One said quickly, resisting the urge to duck. “I can feel so much beauty, light, and love within you, even if you can’t.”
For a long time there was silence. Finally the god said in a low growl, “And why should I care about these things? Why should I listen to you about any of this?”
“I have been lost too, Father,” Little One said. “I know how painful it is. I want you to find again what I know is within you. So that you and the world will know your light once again.”
The tail descended slowly back to the ground, where it lay motionless. The giant body slumped, and there was a soft noise like wind passing over mountaintops.
“Why will you not worship me?” the god finally asked, his voice a hoarse whisper.
Little One looked up at him, his heart both heavy and full. “Because you have helped me to find my true self,” he said equally softly. “And so for you I am able to feel nothing but love.”
He heard a loud whimpering sound as the giant serpent head stared at him for a long moment before closing its eyes. Time passed, and Little One wondered if he had saved his father or destroyed him. Then suddenly the eyes flew open again, and he was surprised to notice that they were no longer red.
The large head descended from the sky until it had reached the height of the surrounding treetops. It was huge in front of him; he realized that the head alone was at least three times as wide as he was tall.
“Thank you, Son,” the Serpent God said softly, his black eyes glittering in the night. “You have no idea what you have done for me tonight.”
“It is surely no more than you have done for me,” Little One answered, hardly daring to believe that he was finally speaking with his true father.
The Serpent God straightened back up to his full height. “How did you know?” he asked from above, his voice booming now. “How did you figure out what happened, and how to save me?”
Little One was about to answer when he heard something growl quietly very close to him. He jumped, startled, and looked around for the source of the noise. When he realized what it was, he flushed, hoping his father hadn’t seen. “It was you who showed me,” he finally managed to answer. “You and this box.” He nodded his head towards the black box with the cylinders in front of him.
“The rainbow lightning box?” the Serpent God asked, a furrow appearing on his serpentine face.
“Yes,” Little One said, smiling in self-satisfaction at having been right. “It played a…sort of memory of you that I could see when I first came here. I misunderstood what it meant at the time, but eventually I figured it out.”
The god’s face grew dark. “Strange,” he said. “I didn’t know it could do that.” He paused, and Little One could just make out his eyes narrowing against the sky, which was beginning to lighten with the coming dawn. When he spoke again, his words sounded more like demands than questions. “But you still haven’t told me: what did you misunderstand, and how did you come to learn the truth?”
Little One opened his mouth to answer when he heard the snarling noise again, this time much louder.
“What was that?” the god snapped, disbelief clear on his face. “Are you growling at me? Boy, I will make you regret the day you were born. I will—”
Suddenly the sky exploded into thunderous noise and the ground beneath Little One shook. He instinctively ducked down, covering the back of his head with his hands. When the sound finally faded, he peeked out from beneath his arms. The Serpent God had a huge smile on his face.
“You’re hungry,” his father said. “That was your stomach growling, was it not?”
Little One straightened up enough to look at his father directly, but he kept his hands over the back of his head. “Yes, sir,” he said.
“I apologize, son,” said the Serpent God. “I’m afraid I developed some bad habits over the last few years. Would you do me the favor of forgiving me, and accompanying me into my palace for some breakfast?”
Little One lowered his hands back to his sides and nodded slowly.
“And please, call me Father,” said the god.
“Yes, Father,” Little One said, feeling strangely reassured that even a god could have such a lapse, and what’s more, that he could laugh about it.
As he watched the walls around him grow to fit the giant form before him—given the dynamic location of the palace, Little One supposed he shouldn’t be surprised that its size was relative as well—there was only one thing detracting from the lightness that he felt. Standing up straight and rolling his shoulders behind him, he decided to assume that she was on her way and would arrive at any moment.
As his father looked down at him with an amused smile still on his face, Little One saw something sparkle in his eyes. It wasn’t the sun, he realized, which was shining somewhere behind the god’s ankle. It was peace, rather, and freedom, and a wide ocean of joy.