Following is the thirteenth story in a series that tells the tale of the first hero to go on a journey to discover his calling.
To read the first story in the series, click here.
To read the previous installment, click here.
Even as his attention was split between dodging blows, seeking openings for counterattack, and searching the land around him for anything that might offer protection, Little One became aware of a strong, insistent thought taking shape in the back of his mind.
He tried to push the thought away, focusing instead on the fight at hand, but it persisted, a tickling, relentless noise in the back of his mind. When he evaded a particularly strong attack and his opponent found himself temporarily off-balance, Little One had a chance to catch his breath. In that moment, the thought rushed to the surface with more precision and force than even his foe’s most powerful strikes. A split second later, it landed squarely in the center of his consciousness with the undeniable weight of truth:
This opponent was undefeatable.
As his foe regained his balance and started his next attack, Little One tried to convince himself it was just a desperate thought born of fear and stress, inaccurate and unworthy of his attention. But even as he raised his sword to defend himself again, he knew that it was more than that. He had sensed it in his bones and somehow known it before the words had even taken shape.
It wasn’t criticism; it was fact: No matter how skillful he was, no matter how strong and persistent and clever, there was no way he could vanquish this adversary.
He hadn’t felt this way when he started.
In fact, the very act of finding this foe had been a type of triumph. After getting his three wishes from the genie and learning about the existence of the wise man from Abdul, he had immediately set out to look for him so that he could ask him where his father was.
Abdul had warned him that to ask the wise man a question, he was going to have to defeat his bodyguard. He had also told Little One that there was no way to find the wise man. “But if you believe in him, and if the need is great, he will find you,” he had said.
After wandering the grasslands for days on end, Little One had realized his need may not be as great as he had thought.
He had tried walking determinedly in each of the four directions. He had tried staying in one place, waiting to be discovered. He had tried following streams, the wind, and the stars, but none of it had worked.
Fortunately, food and water weren’t a problem with his new, genie-designed backpack that gave him access to a continuous supply of both.
Trying to control his thoughts and feelings was a different story. Each morning he woke up optimistic and determined; each night he went to bed filled with hopelessness and despair.
He had time to think about all the reasons he was failing, then to refute them, only to come up with new ones later on.
He spent many hours thinking about his father, how he was kidnapped, and what in the world could possibly be strong enough to overpower the Serpent God.
Most of the time he worried about what the bodyguard of the wise man would be like, and whether he could defeat him. Abdul had warned him that the strength and fighting prowess the genie had given him may not be enough to vanquish the bodyguard. Little One tried to come up with fighting plans and strategies, but it was hard to do when he wasn’t even sure what type of creature he would be facing. He worried that he wouldn’t be strong enough to beat the bodyguard, then resolved that he would have to be, then gave over to doubt once again in endless ongoing cycles.
After weeks of this, Little One finally began to give up hope of ever finding the wise man. He figured he didn’t believe enough, or his need wasn’t sufficient. He had no other clues about where to go to look for his father, but he began to make plans to backtrack the way he had come in an effort to rediscover the trail.
Then one night after dinner when he was pleading, praying, and yelling at the stars in frustration, a habit he had fallen into of late, he suddenly realized that for the first time, something had answered him.
It was a deep voice. At first Little One didn’t realize it was a voice at all because it sounded like distant thunder. But the thunder kept repeating itself, and eventually Little One could make out the words:
“What is it that you seek, Little One?”
Little One looked around, but he didn’t see anything except shadows of grass and stars expanding in endless patterns above. “I seek the wise man,” he said loudly, trying to project his voice in all directions at once.
There was only silence for a moment. “I prefer to be called guru,” the voice finally rumbled.
Little One sat up quickly. “Guru, I’ve been looking for you. I have an important question to ask.”
“To ask a question of me,” boomed the voice, “you must first face my guardian.”
Little One felt a lump in his throat and swallowed uncomfortably. “Yes, Guru, I understand,” he said. “I am willing to do whatever you ask.”
“Good,” the voice said. “That is as it should be. He will come with the dawn. Be prepared.”
Little One looked around again but still saw nothing. “Yes,” he said. “I will be. But who is he? How will I recognize him?”
Thunder rumbled like a laugh in the distance. “You will know him,” was all the voice said. “Though not as well as you think.”
Little One asked what he meant, but received only silence in answer. The voice didn’t come again, and he spent the night trying to sleep but thinking instead of what the dawn would bring.
As the black sky began to turn gray in the east, Little One sat up, dressed himself, and tried to eat something. He watched the Eastern horizon carefully, scanning it for strange shapes, shadows, or any sign of life.
He was so focused on his vigil that he nearly jumped out of his skin when something tapped him on the back of his shoulder. He whirled around and found himself face to face with…
He was so surprised that for a moment he couldn’t move. In front of him was an exact replica of himself. He had only seen himself this clearly a few times in his life when staring in water that was perfectly still, but even so he was certain. The face, the body, everything were exact copies. He even had the scar on his forearm from a childhood fall. At the last moment, Little One realized something else.
His opponent was not the Little One who left his village so many moons ago, or even the one who discovered that the Serpent God had been kidnapped. No. His opponent was the Little One who had already visited the genie—bigger, stronger, and—he could only assume—gifted with greater fighting prowess.
As if hearing his thoughts, his foe reached behind his back to grab something. A weapon, Little One guessed. He spun to the side to get out of its path and found himself staring directly at his foe, who had effortlessly turned along with him. His mirror image was holding out his hand, offering a sword hilt first.
Little One didn’t move. ”What are you?” he asked.
His replica just shook his head then nodded towards the hand holding the sword. Reluctantly, Little One reached out and took it. As soon as his fingers closed over the hilt, he saw something metallic reflecting the first light of the sun fly towards him faster than a diving hawk.
Without having to think about it, Little One ducked, turning the movement into a spin from which he let loose an upward stroke of his own. His replica blocked it and immediately countered with another attack. Little One noticed that the Guardian’s face was expressionless as he moved, as if he were doing nothing more than tilling fields or watching the clouds.
They exchanged blows in rapid succession, each evenly matching the efforts of the other.
After multiple rounds of this, Little One began to realize something. The two of them weren’t just evenly matched; they were perfectly equated. Each time he evaded and countered, the Guardian did the same. If he took a deep breath and summoned his strength for a particularly aggressive attack, his foe almost immediately followed. Even when he thought he’d figured out a weakness to exploit—he somehow knew that his replica was weaker on his left side, for instance, and always followed a jab with some sort of slice—his opponent seemed to instantly find some flaw in his own defense and would shortly begin to take advantage of it.
Before long, an insistent thought began tickling the back of Little One’s mind. The realization that he couldn’t defeat this enemy, no matter how well he fought or how hard he tried, hit him with the force of a blow.
He staggered as his sword deflected a deafening strike that fell on him like a boulder.
Even as he came back with his own series of slashes and jabs and cuts, he wondered if all his triumphs so far had really been for naught, leading him to nothing more than crushing and certain defeat. He resolved with grim determination to keep fighting and find a way.
The Guardian regained the upper hand and began pounding on him from all directions at once. As he parried the blade away, Little One became aware that he was growing weary. His movements were getting slower, and his arms were trembling in between blows. When he thrust one leg forward to make his next strike, it nearly gave out. As he defended against the immediate counterattack, he realized that in this alone his opponent was not his equal; his replica appeared to show no signs of lethargy or fatigue.
It occurred to Little One that the genie’s gifts had been a double-edged sword. The stronger he felt, the more powerful his opponent became. The better he fought, the more skillfully his replica opposed him. He remembered how the genie had acted as if he had some sort of secret knowledge he wasn’t sharing, as if he had known this would happen. Heat rose in Little One as he realized that the genie had tricked him.
Furious, Little One gave a sudden backhand slash with his sword, forcing his replica to take half a step back. Breaking his previous rhythm, he pressed his advantage and hacked angrily at his foe, his sword in constant motion.
The Guardian used the space he had won with his half step to deftly avoid all the blows. Then, just as Little One’s arm was starting to tire, his replica gave a savage upward cut that left his side momentarily exposed. Howling with rage, Little One put all his weight behind what he meant to be one final, punishing thrust.
When the Guardian turned away at the last possible moment, evading his sword with an abundance of ease and grace, Little One’s momentum carried him forward faster than his feet could keep up. He belatedly realized that it had been a trap; by then, however, there was nothing he could do.
His opponent swept his feet out from under him with his foot, and Little One fell heavily to his knees. A split second later he felt cold metal pressed against his throat.
A wave of despair washed over Little One. He was debilitated, alone, and powerless. There was nothing more he could do. He was now at the mercy of the Guardian, a creature infamous for having none.
As he knelt and the sword remained motionless on his throat, shame followed hot on the heels of despair. The genie may have tricked him, but he was the one who made the wishes. He had willingly walked right into that trap, just as he had eagerly jumped into this one. He deserved whatever happened next.
A single thought arose, as undeniable as it was hard to believe.
It is over. I have failed.
As if reading his mind, the Guardian spoke for the first time. It was strange to hear his voice coming from outside his own head. “Do you give up?” his replica asked.
Little One considered that if he admitted that much, perhaps the guardian would spare his life. He hung his head, trying to form the bitter words in his mouth.
But in this too he failed. Instead of saying anything, he heard a hissing sound, followed by a familiar voice.
“Sssssso what does failure look like? What does it sound or smell like? Tell me so I know how to recognize this failure in the future.” He wasn’t sure if the voice came from inside or out of his head. He decided it didn’t matter.
It looks like this, Little One thought sadly. It looks like me on my knees with a sword at my throat. Like my father remaining captive forever. Like me letting Ginger down. Like never seeing my family again. I didn’t make it up this time, Snake. I’m afraid this time my failure is real.
“Fear is a lack of vision. What you are most afraid of doesn’t exist.”
A lack of vision? Little One asked silently. What am I not seeing?
He considered what he could be missing. Failure was what he most feared, and now it was upon him. Other than that, facing the Guardian of the Guru had scared him most. But the Guardian did exist, and he was even stronger and more dangerous than Little One had feared.
A thought started to form at the edge of his mind, but when he tried to pursue it, a rough, urgent voice interrupted him.
“Do you give up?” the Guardian asked again. Little One turned around to look and saw that his face was no longer expressionless; his eyes were narrowed, and his mouth was set in a snarl.
Little One tried again to say the words, but he choked before he could get them out.
He heard another hissing sound, this one even louder.
“If you fail, Little One, then perhaps you will find that what you were looking for was within you all along.”
The thought tried to surface; he could feel it consolidating, trying to make itself clear. It was there, calling to him, just beyond the edge of his reach.
“This is the last time I will ask,” the Guardian growled. “Do you give up?” The metal pressed more firmly against his skin.
Suddenly the thought crystallized in Little One’s mind. What he was looking for was already within him. Before receiving his wishes from the genie, he had successfully navigated every challenge he faced. He hadn’t needed size, or power, or fighting prowess; what he already had had been enough.
He’d had enough strength to face every obstacle he’d encountered head-on and enough wisdom to know what to do even in the most difficult situations. Though he was constantly terrified, he somehow found enough courage to keep doing what he had to, and enough compassion to forgive himself for doing it less than gracefully. It occurred to him that he’d always had everything he needed, even if he hadn’t known it at the time.
With a start, Little One understood that his greatest fear hadn’t really been failure or even letting his family down. It was that when put to the test, he would find that what he had—that who he was—simply wasn’t enough.
He almost laughed out loud as he realized that the snake was right; what he feared most didn’t exist. He had always been more than enough. But believing the fear and acting as if it were true had nearly caused him to fail.
Despite being on his knees with a sword at his throat, he felt a sense of lightness and power. He could feel the strength of his gifts filling all the hollow spaces within him. He realized that it didn’t matter so much what happened now. What he thought was at stake wasn’t, and never had been. He still wanted to save his father and find Ginger and return to his family, but he didn’t have to. They were all as bright and indestructible as he was at their core. True failure was impossible. He laughed again, understanding that he was free.
As he turned to look back at his replica, he understood what he had to do.
“No,” he said in a low voice. “I do not give up.” He turned his head back and saw the Guardian’s eyes grow wide in surprise, then narrow once again. The sword left his throat as his replica pulled it back and prepared for another assault.
Little One spoke quickly. “But I also will not fight.” Praying he was right about what would happen next, he flung his sword as far as he could to his right.
At first the Guardian’s face grew red and the snarl returned to his lips. Little One flinched, wondering if he had been wrong. But as his replica raised his hand as if to strike, it was as if it hit an invisible wall. Hand and sword bounced back down by his side. He tried to lift it again and hit the same unseen barrier. Then he watched with wide eyes as his arm hurled the sword to the side, where it landed next to Little One’s, even as the muscles and tendons of his arm strained beneath the skin as if attempting to resist the motion.
The Guardian looked at Little One in disbelief. As he did, Little One turned around to face him and saw that something strange was happening. His replica was shrinking. Little One looked down and saw that the same thing was happening to him. They were getting shorter, their large muscles melting away. A few moments later, he found himself facing a mirror image of himself as he had looked when he first left his village.
Little One gave a sigh of relief. His replica, eyes bulging, looked down at his body. Even as he did so, it began to fade as if becoming a ghost or a shadow or the shadow of a ghost. Within a few moments, he had disappeared entirely.
Little One fell on his back, breathing deeply and looking up at the sky, which was an uninterrupted deep blue around a glowing orange sun. Despite the lack of clouds, Little One heard thunder in the distance.
“Well done,” the thunder said. “How did you know to do that?”
Little One sat up and looked around. Even in daylight, he couldn’t see anything other than grass, sun, and sky.
“We were perfectly matched,” he said, addressing it all. “The harder I tried, the stronger he got. I figured—hoped, more like it—that if I didn’t fight, then he wouldn’t either.” He paused. “And he was my mirror image. I guessed that if I tried to go back to the old me, the one without the genie’s gifts, then perhaps he would as well.” Little One shrugged slightly. “I’m not really a fighter at heart,” he admitted.
The thunder rumbled once again like laughter on the horizon. “Very good,” the Guru said.
“So can I ask you my question now?” Little One asked, scrambling to his feet.
“Yes,” said the Guru. “But only if I can ask you a question first.”
Little One’s eyebrows furrowed in confusion. “Sure,” he finally said. “I suppose that’s only fair.” He wondered what the Guru could possibly want to know from him.
“Where is your father the Serpent God?” boomed the deep voice, sounding as if it were coming from all directions at once.
Little One’s mouth dropped open. “But that was my question for you!” he said, sounding more like a child than he’d intended. “I don’t know! That’s the point! The whole reason I fought your guardian was so you would tell me.”
There was silence for a moment. Finally, in a quieter rumble, the Guru said, “There is no difference between you and me. Just as there is no difference between you and him.” A slight breeze rippled the grass where the Guardian had been.
Understanding, like the first edges of the sun breaking over the horizon at dawn, began to light Little One’s mind.
“So I ask you again,” said the guru, and the land seemed to vibrate with the bass of his voice. “Where is your father the Serpent God?”
Little One looked at the sun, the deep blue sky, and the grass where his replica had been. He felt the vibration of the Guru’s words in his belly. He could still feel the strength and fullness of his gifts pulsing through his body with a golden warmth.
Suddenly the sun broke free from the horizon in his mind and lit every corner of his being. He knew exactly where his father was. And he knew too how wrong he had been, how big his misunderstanding. He hurriedly began to gather his things in preparation for a long journey back the way he had come.
A few minutes later, he was ready to go. “Thank you, Guru” he yelled at the sky, the grass, the rumble of his own heartbeat.
“Thank you,” rolled the deep voice, and Little One could feel now how it began in his own mind before extending out over the infinite grass.
Click here to read the next story in the series.
Photo credit: Randen Pederson // CC