Category Archives: Hero’s Journey

Little One and the Calling

Following is the twentieth and final 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.

They say that Little One—demon conqueror, sorceress tamer, genie liberator, vanquisher of the Great Dissatisfaction, and savior of mankind—was a perfect being with supreme insight and wisdom.

Infinitely intelligent, he was the first to have the idea to go on a quest to find his calling. Son of the Serpent God, he neither possessed flaws nor committed errors in judgment. Precocious in his enlightenment, he saw truths that remained invisible to others until he himself brought them to light. The vast majority of the people who study these things agree, therefore, that if he blundered, there must have been a reason, and if he made missteps, they must have been made on purpose.

Because nobody can deny that up until the very end, Little One made many mistakes.

The question that nobody can answer is: Why?

Why did he return to his village just after a large harvest, when people were most resistant to his message and the key to fulfilling his calling was not yet available to be applied?

It’s well known that at the time of his return, Little One’s village was caught in the throes of what is now known as The Great Dissatisfaction. Responding to a sharp decline in personal fulfillment, villagers had expanded the amount of land under cultivation multiple times in an effort to increase the material resources available to them. Only partially successful, their efforts did lead to improvements in the quantity and quality of the food, clothing, and shelter they enjoyed, but the gains began to require greater and greater inputs, and even these improvements failed to satisfy many for long. Even before Little One left on his journey, the cycle was clearly established whereby villagers worked long hours to grow more crops in an effort to feel more fulfilled, but the results of their efforts, no matter how great, only seemed to add to their dissatisfaction.

Some villagers had noticed this pattern, but they believed the answer lay in new farming methods or more efficient means of production. In fact, the autumn in which Little One returned to the village had seen the greatest harvest ever recorded as a result of these reforms. Villagers’ moods were temporarily assuaged by such wealth, leading some to prematurely declare the Great Dissatisfaction over. Why Little One would choose to return at such an inauspicious time for his purpose is indeed one of the great unresolved mysteries of his day.

Other questions remain as well:

Why, for example, did Little One try to win over the village leaders first, when it is well known that similar efforts had failed to enlighten his demi-god siblings, and besides which, as anyone could have reasoned out, the leaders were the least likely to want to hear what he was saying?

Why did he wait over a year to begin farming again, swearing to any who questioned him that his calling must lie elsewhere?

And when he did once again return to the land, why did he waste an entire season cultivating the same crops as everyone else, in the same manner as everyone else, when his greatest contributions would be to help others find a different way to work?

Unsatisfying as it is, the answer remains that we may never know.

*   *   *

Little One sat across the table from the girl, a plate piled high with pancakes sitting in front of each of them.

“But how do I even know that I’ll find what I’m looking for?” she asked between mouthfuls. He noted with satisfaction that despite her obvious anxiety, her appetite for the pancakes remained undiminished.

“You may not,” he answered between mouthfuls of his own. “You might find something even better.”

“How can you be so sure?” Her brows furrowed, and she noisily put down her fork, but then she immediately picked it right back up and began working on her next bite.

“You feel the dissatisfaction, right? And all your efforts to increase your harvest have failed to relieve it?” She nodded glumly, her mouth too stuffed with pancakes to answer. “That’s because they can’t,” he went on calmly. “Your hunger is of a different nature. The dissatisfaction is a sign that something is calling you.”

“And that is…?”

“You’ll only know if you answer the call. You find it in the searching.”

She frowned briefly before reaching out for more syrup. “But what if I don’t? What if I get lost and can’t find anything?” she asked after a moment, her mouth full again and syrup now dripping down her chin.

Little One smiled, remembering a white-haired woman with a shawl the color of shadows. “You can only be lost if you don’t know the way home.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” There was a familiar edge of frustration in her voice.

“It means that if I can do it, so can you.”

She shook her head, crumbs flying everywhere. “But you’re the son of a God!”

Little One chuckled. “And you’re the daughter of one! We just don’t know which one yet. Answering the call will help you find out.”

“But you know way more than I do.”

Now Little One shook his head. “I didn’t when I first started. When I left the village, I knew less than you do now.”

She stopped cutting her pancakes long enough to look up at him, her brown eyes narrow. “But you’re smarter than me!” she insisted.

Little One burst out laughing. It took him a few moments to compose himself. “Do you remember when I first returned to the village?” he asked when he could finally speak again.

“Yeah. We all ignored you except for your sister, who ran up and gave you a hug.”

Little One smiled at the memory. “Exactly. And even after I went to speak with everyone and told them all my adventures, the village leaders still wanted nothing to do with me. But I insisted on trying to teach them everything I’d learned anyway. Do you remember how that went?”

A small smile bloomed on the girl’s lips. “Not very well,” she said before shoving more pancakes in her mouth.

“Perhaps slightly understated, but correct nonetheless. They wanted even less to do with me after that. And do you remember what I did that first year I was back?”

Her forehead creased as she thought carefully. “No,” she finally admitted.

Little One smiled. “That’s because I didn’t do anything. I walked around anxious about the fact that I didn’t know what to do and swearing that even though I didn’t know what it was, I was sure that my calling had nothing to do with farming.”

She looked up at him quickly. “But then you realized that it did.”

He nodded. “Yes, though I was painfully slow to get it even then. At first I started farming again simply out of curiosity. I’d remembered the seeds that my father the Serpent God had given me and wanted to see what immaculate peas looked like.” Little One laughed. “But that whole first growing year, I worked long days, only grew what I needed, and harvested the fields myself.”

“That was before the rest of us joined,” the girl said excitedly.

“Exactly. It wasn’t until the second year that I noticed you and your friends watching me every afternoon from behind the trees and invited you to help.”

“That’s when you started taking afternoons off.”

“Right again. With all your help, I didn’t have to work the fields late into the evenings anymore. I started using the afternoons to experiment with other ways to farm. That’s how I discovered that certain combinations of crops can actually enrich the soil and help the plants stay strong and healthy over a long period of time.”

The girl’s hands both shot up into the air. “And pancakes! You invented pancakes!”

Little One chuckled. “Learned to make them, really. My father was the one who invented them. But yes. I also rediscovered pancakes. I set them aside for so long because I believed that my mission was too important to have time to worry about food. But with you and your friends working my fields, I had to give something back to your parents for your time, and pancakes were so filling that I figured they would be the best thing I could offer.”

“And the most delicious,” the girl added, pulling one from his plate onto hers.

“Also true,” Little One agreed. “And that’s when I realized that when people eat pancakes, they relax, and when they relax, they see their truth more easily.”

“So you started inviting people over to eat pancakes.”

Little One nodded. “Exactly. And to talk to them about who they really are. Like we’re doing now.” He smiled. “You’d have to try hard to make more miscalculations or mistakes than I did before finally figuring out how best to use my gifts.”

The girl thought this over. “But isn’t it dangerous?” she asked after a moment.

Little One’s eyebrows rose. “Sometimes, I suppose,” he answered. “Occasionally someone gets quite upset if they aren’t ready to hear the truth about who they are.”

The girl giggled. “No, I mean the journey you’re asking me to go on. Isn’t it dangerous?”

Little One shrugged. “Not really,” he said.

“Then why am I afraid?”

“Because you’re human. Because the outcome is unknown. Because like most of us, you’re confused about what really keeps you safe.” He paused, the ghost of a smile passing over his face. “You know, a wise creature once told me that fear is a lack of vision. If you saw things clearly, you wouldn’t be afraid.

“Why is that?”

Because what you’re most afraid of doesn’t exist.”

“What does that even mean?”

“I didn’t understand either at first. Not until I was willing to face my fear directly did I realize that what I fear most isn’t starvation, or injury, or death. It’s losing what matters most. But when I finally understood exactly what that was, I realized that it can’t be lost.”

The girl put down her fork, crossed her arms, and wrinkled her nose at him. “Can’t I just stay here and help out on the farm?”

Little One put down his own fork and met her stare. “Of course,” he answered easily. “But you’ll have to work harder and harder not to hear the call. It’ll just get louder and more irritating until you’re exhausted from trying so hard to deny that it’s there. And all you’ll really manage to do is put off the inevitable anyway.”

She stuck out her tongue at him. “How will I even know where to go?”

The ghostly smile returned as Little One thought he saw a serpentine shape slide through the shadows in the corner of the room. “Lisssssten,” he echoed.

“What does that mean?” the girl asked.

Little One laughed. “Jussssst lisssssten.”

Her eyes grew narrow again. “This is serious, Little One! What if I fail?”

Even after all this time, he was still amazed when he saw that despite their differences, the conversations were all fundamentally the same.  “If you fail, little one, then perhaps you will find that what you were looking for was within you all along.”

She was quiet for a long moment. “You really believe that I’m the daughter of a god? That I have a gift to give the world like you?”

Little One smiled. It was a clever trick of the gods, making it so difficult to see in yourself, so easy to recognize in somebody else. He couldn’t be sure of their reasons, but guessed it had to do with making sure nobody tried to do it all alone. “I’ve been wrong about many things,” he began. “Did I tell you about the time I fell out of bed and broke my nose because I believed a bad dream meant I was doomed to fail?”

The girl giggled. “No,” she said. “You really broke your nose?”

He nodded. “Embarrassingly, yes. I panicked and literally fell on my face, though the dream meant nothing, and I didn’t end up failing. Not irreversibly, anyway. The point is, I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve been wrong about many things. But about this I am certain: the gifts of the gods run through you, as they do in all of us. And there are talents within you that if you don’t share, nobody else can. And the world, which needs your gifts, won’t have them. And if that’s not reason enough to go, then I don’t know what is.”

Her brown eyes stared at her empty plate. “I’ll go,” she said quietly before her eyes suddenly rose to meet his. “But if I need help…”

“I’ll be right beside you,” Little One answered, reaching across the table to put his hand on her arm.

Putting the last bite of pancake into his mouth with his other hand, he thanked the gods that there were fields to work, pancakes to eat, and people in the world for him to walk beside.

*   *   *

Mysteries linger. But regardless of the reasons for his obvious missteps, what remains uncontroversial is the enormous impact Little One had on the world.

During his lifetime, he helped dozens of his fellow villagers, and later hundreds of people in homes far distant, go on quests of their own to find their calling. Some of these people returned to then encourage others to go, creating a ripple effect that continues to this day.

As adventurers returned from their journeys, they began to find new ways of doing things. Some, like Little One, created new technologies and inventive forms of food, clothing, and shelter. Others gravitated towards novel forms of expression, and vibrant arts began to take root in the village. Still others found unique ways to support fellow villagers, so that whenever someone faced a challenge, there were others there to help them through it.

Before long, the villagers began to notice something strange: They hadn’t expanded the land under cultivation for quite some time—in fact, some of the newest farmland now lay fallow, and they were all working fewer hours in the fields—but their level of satisfaction was rising. They were happier with simpler clothes, functional houses, and only moderate levels of food (though demand for pancakes never seemed to lessen). Their lives felt rich and vibrant despite fewer material inputs. Something else was filling them up, though for a long time nobody could say exactly what that was.

Little One knew, of course.

By the time he grew old, people knew, loved, and respected him in villages all around the mountains in which he had his adventures. When it became known that his health was fading, a steady stream of pilgrims began arriving at his house to pay their respects and thank him for his guidance.

In addition to the villagers who had found their calling as a result of Little One’s efforts, they included his siblings from the City of the Children of the Serpent God, an ogre, and a strange, beautiful woman dressed in red. And Ginger, of course, who had helped Little One lead seekers on adventures many times over the years, contributed her own inventions to his ambitious projects, and visited him and his family frequently.

When somebody asked Little One how he had ended the Great Dissatisfaction, he smiled. “I did not end it,” he said. “You did. All of you. By learning how to be filled by your true nature.”

“But you were the first, and you showed us the way,” his wife added.

He shook his head. “I happened to be in a position to go on the first journey,” he agreed. “But many of you have improved on what I did since, or been first in your own efforts in your own way, and you have all taught me at least as much as I have taught you.”

Many others asked questions as well, the answers to which form the backbone of what we now know of Little One’s life and teachings. But they say it was his great-granddaughter who asked the final question, the one most discussed among Little One scholars.

It is recorded that she was crying. “Why are you leaving us?” she asked. “Aren’t you scared to go?”

To which Little One looked up at Ginger, smiled, and replied thus:

“Once, in a moment when I was consumed with self-doubt, a wise woman told me that it was impossible for me to fail in my purpose of helping people remember who they really are. ‘You can’t not do it,’ she said. ‘Because it’s a part of who you are. Like water rolling down a mountain. It can take many paths, but it’s always going to end up in the sea.

“She was right. Fulfilling my purpose was nothing more than connecting with my own true nature, which in turn is like water returning to the ocean. And what is death but the ultimate return? No, my love, there is nothing to fear in this or anything else, for that which matters most can never be lost.”

While it’s true that most believe that Little One was a perfect being, there are some who still insist that he was just a man. This minority asserts that the greatest gift he gave us was not a perfect ideal to aspire to or an impeccable model to compare ourselves against, but rather an example to follow of someone who possessed both human flaws and godly perfection.

He didn’t know everything. He made mistakes. He failed, many times.

And therein lies his gift. Little One changed the world not despite his flaws, but because of them.

Given what the application of curiosity, love, and compassion to his shortcomings made possible, what miracles might the rest of us be capable of, with so many failings of our own just waiting to be transformed?

Photo credit: Randen Pederson // CC

Little One and the Monster Under the Bed (Or, the Surprising Truth About Finding Your Calling)

Following is the nineteenth 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.

She circles unhurried amidst blue mountain peaks, the valley green and lush below. Allowing the wind to buoy her—she can feel it beneath her like a solid force, carrying her effortlessly upward—she loses track of the land and becomes lost in the infinite blue of the sky. Rising, falling, playing with the wind, the excitement of it running through her soul like air between her feathers, she passes countless hours in this way, nothing but sky above, nothing but strength below.

Until an ear-piercing scream breaks her reverie. She recognizes it as her own just before she feels the solidness of the air dissipate beneath her and the feeling of gravity—to which she was previously immune—reach up from the earth and grab hold of her body. Then she is falling, her wings flapping uselessly, the trees spiraling towards her more rapidly with every passing moment.

Just as her body is about to be shattered upon the limb of a giant pine, Ginger wakes up. Covered in sweat and breathing hard, she has a cold feeling in her belly. Somehow, without knowing why, she’s sure this isn’t just a dream. Something is wrong.

Pulling the blanket off of her, she rises from bed and exits her small room as quickly as she can. Instinctively, she turns down the hall away from her siblings’ rooms and towards the guest quarters.

When she gets to the room she’s looking for, she pauses with her hand on the door and takes a deep breath. He has to be safe, she tells herself firmly. There is nothing here that can hurt him.

She pushes open the door and sees the empty bed staring at her like a gaping mouth. There is so much she doesn’t know.

Breathing hard again, Ginger notes the sheets that lie twisted at the bottom of the bed. She increases the intensity of the glow that emanates from the walls—the light itself was not her invention, but the ability to adjust it is—and immediately sees a small pool of dark liquid on the stone floor. Hoping it’s not what she thinks it is, she kneels down, sees the dark red color of it, and realizes that it is.

She can feel her heart beating in her throat now. “Little One!” she calls desperately. Only silence answers. “Little One!” she screams.

Finally, a response: soft noises that sound like a rat chewing on a piece of wood. At first she thinks it’s coming from the corner of the room near the bed, but then she realizes it’s her siblings’ footsteps coming down the hall. The thick, stone walls cause sounds to echo down here, making them difficult to locate.

Thoughts surface while she waits. Thoughts like: Why today, of all days?

Sebastian is the first to arrive in the room. “What’s wrong?” he asks, his voice deep and his hair askew.

Ginger just points to the blood. “Little Bro!” he yells. “What happened? Where is he?”

“I have no idea,” Ginger answers as a few more siblings enter the doorway. “I just walked in and found him gone.”

“The demon came after him for revenge!” Corbett suggests, his eyes wide. “I knew he would!”

“I don’t think—” Ginger begins to say.

“Didn’t he mention something about a sorceress last night?” a sister named Margaret asks. “Maybe she came to claim him after he went to sleep.”

“The sorceress isn’t—”

“It was a dragon!” yells a brother in the back. Ginger can’t see which one. “I saw one circling yesterday and wondered why it was keeping an eye on us.”

Ginger shakes her head and opens her mouth, but her siblings are already racing away from the door and down the halls to pursue their various theories. She frowns slightly, but then shrugs. At least they’re trying to find their brother, and there is much she doesn’t know.

She looks around her one more time then walks out of the room to investigate her own theory. As she does, her thoughts move even faster than her feet.

Her new invention isn’t fully operational yet, she thinks, but if anyone came through the gate into the City of the Children of the Serpent God, it should let her know, and it might even have recorded an impression. She can’t imagine whom—or what—could have made it past the gate, but she did have the dream, her brother is missing, and the blood on the floor was real. Her legs begin to move more quickly.

She wonders briefly if she should have given Little One the other part of her new invention as soon as it was ready instead of waiting to surprise him. Perhaps that could have helped him with whatever happened last night. She thinks then of the other gift she has for him, the one she’s been carrying since leaving the Serpent God’s house. She regrets not having given it to him earlier.

There is so much she doesn’t know.

When she gets to the gate, her invention shows that nobody has crossed the threshold since she set it two days before. There are no impressions either, nor footprints when she checks.

By the time she returns to the living quarters, her siblings are coming back from their searches looking dejected or worried or both. Some are beginning to panic. Ginger can feel her own fear climbing from her belly into her chest and beginning to invade her lungs, making it hard to breathe. As her thoughts grow so rapid that they begin to interrupt one another, it occurs to her that fear is clouding her thinking. Recalling the Tree of Life, she makes space for the apprehension in her chest, gives it room to breathe, then takes a few deep breaths herself.

Just as the panic begins to subside and she feels her stomach settling back into place, she remembers a small, scratching noise from earlier and realizes with a start that she does, in fact, know where Little One is. And she knows why this happened today, of all days. She feels her lungs fill themselves full of air, then release it all at once, as if entirely of their own accord.

Ginger explains to her siblings that she knows where Little One is, that she’s sure he’s alright, but she won’t tell them where he is or how she knows. They want to go with her, but she tells them that it’s not a good idea. They trust her by now, so they stay in place while she heads down the corridor, though the disappointment is clear on their faces.

That’s okay, she thinks. Better that than the alternative.

She makes her way back down the hall towards Little One’s room. When she reaches the door, she knocks on it gingerly even though it’s already open.

“Little One?” she calls softly. There’s no answer. “Little One, I’m by myself. There’s nobody else here.” Silence. “Little One, I know you’re under there.”

Finally a cough comes from beneath the bed. Then the scratching noise again. Ginger stands in the doorway for a few more moments before realizing that he just moved over to make space for her.

She walks over to the bed, goes down on her hands and knees, then has to get even lower to wiggle her way under the bed next to her brother.

They lie there in silence for a moment, both of them on their bellies, looking into the shadows. Finally Ginger asks in a quiet voice: “Little One, what happened?”

His voice is equally soft when he answers. “I’m sorry, Ginger. I didn’t mean to worry you. Or the rest of them. It’s stupid, really.”

She shifts to take his hand in her own. “I’m sure it’s not stupid. What happened?”

“I had a dream. I was an eagle, flying high in the mountains.” Ginger’s skin prickles. “It was…incredible, really, but then suddenly I began to fall.” She feels his hand stiffen. “I woke up just before hitting a huge pine tree. I was already on the floor. I fell out of bed, Ginger. I literally fell on my face. Didn’t you see the blood? How much more obvious could it be?”

She frowns. “What do you mean?”

“The dream was a sign, a foretelling. Just when I think I’m doing great and nothing can go wrong, I’m going to fall. Failure is inevitable.”

“That’s ridiculous,” she says, giving his hand a squeeze.

“It’s not! I’m supposed to return to my family and village today, to complete my journey and help them remember who they really are. But I still don’t know how to do that. Even after all this time, I have no idea. I thought I could use your Lens of Truth, but then I lost it. Or got it destroyed. Now I have nothing, no plan, and no way to fulfill my purpose.”

Despite her best efforts to hide it, Ginger smiles. “Little One, you don’t need the Lens of Truth to help people discover their true selves.”

“No? How do I do it then?”

“How did you do it with the ogre or the Serpent God? How did you do it with me?”

“With you? What are you talking about?”

“I worked on the Lens of Truth for five years. It was the most complex invention I’ve ever created.” She sees his mouth open, can imagine the apology deep in his eyes. “No,” she continues before he can give it voice. “Please don’t apologize. Just listen. My effort to make the Lens of Truth was so all-consuming that I lost track of where it ended and where I began. I began to think that its success was inextricably tied to my own. That its worth was my own. When the Sorceress broke it, for a brief moment I felt like I had lost everything that mattered in life.”

She pauses, then chuckles. “But then I realized how foolish I was being. I’m an inventor, Little One. I’m bigger than any one of my inventions. Some will be great and some will be terrible, but it’s my ability to create new things, not the success of any one in particular, that makes me who I am.”

Her brother is quiet for a moment. She can feel his breath on her arm. “So what,” he finally whispers, “I’m supposed to go back to my village and break things so that people wake up to who they really are?”

This time she doesn’t try to hide her smile. “Maybe,” she laughs.

His eyebrows furrow. “Be serious,” he says. “I’ve learned so much about what I’m here to do, but I still have no idea how to actually do it.”

Words are important here, she knows, so she waits for them to form fully in her mind. “You can’t not do it,” she finally says slowly, then senses the presence of more. “How did you show the ogre who he was? Or our father?” She holds her breath.

“That’s the thing,” Little One answers. He sounds very much like a scared five-year-old. “I don’t know. I didn’t even try.”

She breathes a sigh of relief. The words were good ones after all. “Exactly,” she says. “You didn’t have to try because you do it so naturally. You can’t not do it, Little One. You’ll help people remember who they are no matter what you’re doing because it’s a part of who you are. Like water rolling down a mountain. It can take many paths, but it’s always going to end up in the sea.”

She can feel him breathe more deeply. Then he stops. “But what if I’m not good enough? What if I do it but I still fail?”

This time she doesn’t have to wait for the words; they are already there. “It has always been enough, brother. Look at the people you’ve already helped—the ogre, the Serpent God, the village, Abdul, the genie, me… You are the son of a god. You have a gift, as we all do. Do not ask how big it is. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you give it as freely as possible.”

Little One’s hand touches his broken nose and then the bottom of the bed above him. “I don’t feel like the son of a god right now.”

Ginger smiles, thinks she can feel him silently and perhaps reluctantly do the same. More words come to her. “To be human is to be like a stream, Little One. When you look at it, you see water, rocks, mud, old leaves, and clouds of dirt that get stirred up. We are all of that in our earthly forms. But look at a stream again and you can see the reflection of majestic trees, bright green leaves, and the infinite blue of the heavens. We are that as well. We have both sides, neither one of which can we deny.”

Her brother is quiet for a long time. Ginger stares at the shadows, feels the heat of his body beside her, and wonders where the words keep coming from.

Finally, in a small, very quiet voice, Little One asks, “What if they don’t welcome me back, Ginger? What if they don’t want what I have to offer?”

And so they’ve arrived at the heart of it, Ginger thinks. She’s somewhat surprised to find that she has words for this too. “When the sorceress said You can only be lost if you don’t know the way home, you said you understood. What exactly did you understand?”

Even in the relative darkness under the bed, she can see him blush. “It’s going to sound strange,” he says. “You’ll think I’m crazy.”

She doesn’t hesitate. “Try me.”

“Well, I realized that I’ve never felt more at home than when I’m feeling my own strength, the golden warmth of my gifts, and helping others to see theirs as well. I just feel so natural and relaxed, like I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be when that happens. And I guess one thing I have learned on this journey is how to find that, no matter where I am. So I guess I do actually know the way home, if you look at it that way.”

“Exactly,” Ginger says, nodding with satisfaction as vigorously as she can in the small space beneath the bed.


“Yes, exactly. The people in your village may not welcome you back at first. They may not want what you have to offer. It takes time for people to learn, to wake up, to be able to see what they most need. But as long as you can go home—to the true home you just described—anytime, that won’t matter so much. You’ll be able to wait until the others are ready to hear what you have to say.”

“You think?” he asks, and the uncertainty in his voice makes her want to wrap him in her arms.

There is so much she doesn’t know, but this she does. “Absolutely, Little One. Of this I am certain.”

Silence sits alongside them for several long moments. Finally, in another soft voice, though this one more sure of itself, Little One speaks. “I really don’t want to leave you,” her brother says.

Warm energy rises within her as she remembers that she has something for this as well, though this time it isn’t words. She looks her brother in the eyes. “Me neither,” she says fervently. “Which is why I’ve been working on a new invention.”

His eyebrows go up. “The one that guards the gate and takes the impression of anyone who passes?”

“It started that way,” she says, hitting her head on the bottom of the bed in her excitement. “I realized that taking impressions could also be used for another purpose. So I made this.” She rolls onto her side so she can take the small, mechanical bird out of her pocket. “It records an impression of your voice, then flies to whatever destination you program into it. Then somebody else can replay the impression and, of course, record their own and send it back.”

His eyes are so wide they look like they might break. “So you can talk to me through this bird, and I can talk back?”

She smiles. “Yes, Little One. It’ll take an hour or two to fly from the City to your village, but we can talk to each other this way as often as we like.”

His smile is now bigger than hers. “That’s amazing, Ginger! I have no idea how you come up with these things.”

“I wouldn’t have if it weren’t for you.” Her smile fades as she remembers something. “Perhaps now is a good time to give you the other gift I have for you. Hold on.”

She wriggles out from under the bed, then jogs quickly to her own room and back. When she enters the room again, Little One is sitting on top of the bed waiting for her, running his fingers over his broken nose.

“It becomes you,” she says. “You look distinguished, sophisticated. Like you know something of the world.” Another smile. “Here,” she says, before he can respond. She hands him the folded pieces of paper wrapped together with string.

“Is this another invention?” he asks, thankfully running his fingers over the package now instead of his nose.

“No,” she answers. “It’s a gift. From our father, the Serpent God. I got back to his palace after you’d already left, and he sent this along with me to give to you.” She doesn’t say more, doesn’t know any more, but hopes it will be clear to him.

Little One unties the string and unfolds a piece of paper. Numbers and words cover the inside of it. As he’s reading, he shifts positions and a few small, brown balls slip out the side of another piece of paper in his lap.

When he finally looks up, she raises a questioning eyebrow. “It’s a recipe,” he says, his brows slightly furrowed. “For pancakes.” Suddenly a grin breaks out on his face. “The most delicious food I’ve ever had in my life.”

Ginger laughs. “And those things?” She indicates the small, brown balls.

“Seeds,” Little One answers happily. “For pea plants. Apparently you’re supposed to roast the peas and grind them up, which I’d never have thought in a million years. And the rest is made from the same wheat that we already grow in the village and a few other simple foods. It’s weird. I could’ve sworn they were made from special ingredients that only a god has access to.”

She smiles to herself. It’s a shared condition of all humans, she thinks, this not knowing. And as scary as it can sometimes be, it is also a gift.

She leans over and gives her brother a hug. He returns it, fiercely. They hold each other for a few moments, then finally let go.

“I love you, Ginger,” Little One says shyly.

“I love you too,” she says, emotion choking her words.

She helps her brother pack, then say goodbye to his siblings while avoiding their questions about what happened (she’ll tell them later, in a way they’ll understand). They line up at the gate to see their brother off, all waves and smiles and promises to visit, and she thinks how far they’ve come. All of them, in so many different ways.

The last she sees of Little One, he’s walking into the shadows of the woods, infinite possibilities almost visible as they spread out before him like a fertile field, a cloudless sky, an ocean inconceivably vast.

Click here to read the next story in the series.

Photo credit: Randen Pederson // CC

Little One and the Lens of Truth

Following is the eighteenth 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.

Little One was ready to go home. Now that he knew about Ginger’s invention, he was excited to use it to help his family and village discover the truth about who they were.

The trouble was, some words were stuck in Little One’s mind like food between his teeth. The more he tried to pry them loose, the more entrenched they became.

“I am irrevocably tied to the genie,” they kept repeating. “As he grows strong, so I grow weak. As long as he is fed, we are both prisoners. It is only when somebody sees our true nature that we will be set free.”

The words had been spoken by Abdul, the bony blue man who materialized alongside a fat, overconfident genie when Little One complimented a lamp that appeared in his path while he was searching for his father. Abdul had seemed less than happy with his living situation, and Little One had asked how he could help. He hadn’t understood the blue man’s response at the time, but now he couldn’t stop thinking about it.

It was the phrase “true nature” that reverberated most, the same phrase Ginger had used when describing the purpose of her invention, the Lens of Truth. “It shows our true nature in a way that anyone can see,” she’d explained shortly before revealing their siblings as beautiful, multi-colored light, the villagers as fantastic animals and beasts, and the demon as a lonely and frightened child.

Little One couldn’t help but wonder if Ginger’s invention could somehow help Abdul free himself from what appeared to be an equally obligatory and odious relationship with the genie. When he imagined himself sharing the lamp with such an overbearing and self-important roommate, he began to shudder.

When he said as much to Ginger, telling her the full story of his encounter with the genie, her first response was to frown thoughtfully. “Sure, it’s worth a try,” she said finally, nodding her head slowly. “But Little One, you should know that the Lens of Truth doesn’t always work like it did at the demon’s headquarters. A lot of the time things are more…complicated than that.”

Little One had said he understood even though he didn’t. But despite longing to go home, he was happy to have the chance to try to aid Abdul, who’d gone out of his way to tell him about the Guardian and the Guru, and thus helped him find his father, however indirectly.

The question had then been how to find the lamp. He’d stumbled across it in the endless grasslands beyond the great abyss, and last he’d seen it, it was shooting up into the sky so fast that it quickly disappeared from view. Still, he had an idea.

“It was such a beautiful lamp,” he said loudly, to nobody in particular, once they’d made their preparations. Ginger gave him an odd look. “Such fine craftsmanship, and incredibly shiny. It caught the light like nothing I’ve ever seen, reflecting the rays as if it were the sun itself.” Ginger looked at him even more strangely, but he went on. “And the genie inside! He must have been the most powerful being in existence to grant so many of my wishes so easily. I can’t imagine a more impressive creature exists anywhere in the world.”

Ginger opened her mouth to say something when suddenly a rattling noise caught their attention. Their eyes shot skyward just as a small object came hurtling towards them, shaking back and forth awkwardly and vibrating so much that it looked like it might explode. A few seconds later it struck the earth, and on the rebound two blue forms shot out of a small hole in what looked like a snout, one large and one small, forming themselves into the shapes of the genie and Abdul.

“So you like my lamp,” the genie said as he looked at Ginger, a creepy smile playing across his thick, blue lips. “Wait til you have a chance to appreciate what lives inside.”

Little One cleared his throat loudly. The genie’s massive head swung towards him, his eyes narrowing suddenly as he recognized who it was. “You!” he bellowed angrily. “Why have you called me back? I gave you your wishes already. Everyone knows that three’s the limit.”

“I don’t want any more wishes,” Little One said calmly, trying to inch towards Abdul without calling attention to his movement.

“I already told you, no givebacks, no returns, and absolutely no exchanges.” The genie’s face had taken on a purplish hue.

“I don’t want to return anything,” Little One said slowly. He was almost there. “I have no complaints about anything you gave me.”

“Then what do you want?” the genie asked suspiciously. “My generosity only extends so far. Just like my patience.”

Finally Little One was within arm’s reach of Abdul. Putting a hand on each shoulder, he was happy to realize that the man felt more solid than he looked. “Now, Ginger!” he cried, turning towards his sister.

Ginger uncovered her invention, which was sitting on a large boulder next to her in the clearing they’d chosen for this purpose. As she adjusted the angle of the large box, sunlight began to be redirected and refracted, washing over Abdul in increasingly powerful waves. As it did, the image of half a man began to become discernable.

The man was somewhat larger than Abdul, and not nearly so skinny. He wasn’t blue, either. He had thick, straight hair and a copious moustache, only part of which was visible because all trace of the man disappeared across a vertical line that appeared to slice him in half from head to foot.

The image looked down at himself, its eyes wide. “You have returned me to my former self,” he said, his voice filled with awe. “Almost my former self,” he added as the hand reached across the broad chest, finding only air where the other shoulder should have been. Suddenly Abdul’s voice sounded an octave higher. “Does the sorceress know about this?” His eyes grew even wider. “Do you work for the sorceress?”

“I don’t work for anybody,” Little One assured him. “I wanted to help you since you helped me the last time we met.” A memory tickled the back of his mind. “Wait, what sorceress are you talking about?”

“The sorceress who forced us into that accursed lamp,” Abdul answered. “I used to be a normal man. Well, not normal, I suppose. I was a prince. I was to inherit a kingdom that encompassed all the lands from mountain to sea, from grassland to forest to marsh. I was—” Abdul grunted as what looked like a giant, blue boulder barreled into him, forcing him to stumble several steps to his right and nearly causing him to fall.

As Abdul returned to his previous appearance, the other half of the man appeared in the light of Ginger’s machine. A large, satisfied smile lit his face as he stared down at his body.

“Oh, it feels good to be myself again,” the genie said as Abdul glared at him reproachfully.

Little One wasn’t sure what to do. “You’re the prince too?” he asked doubtfully.

“Too?” the genie asked, chuckling loudly. “I am the only prince. There only used to be one of us—of me.”

“So how did you become a genie?” Little One asked. “And a—whatever he is?” He nodded towards Abdul.

“Well, as he was saying, we were a prince. Ahem. I was a prince. A powerful one too. But even powerful princes can’t get everything they want. I was disappointed to say the least to learn that princes and kings are also subject to illness, old age, and death. Even worse, not every woman finds power seductive. On the contrary, many are intimidated by it. You’d be surprised how hard it is for a prince to find a pretty woman to share a kiss.”

Little One heard a low growl to his left just before he saw another blue streak—this one far skinnier—plow into the half-image of the man. The genie’s eyebrows shot up in surprise just before he stumbled to his left, leaving Abdul back in the light of Ginger’s invention.

“That felt better than I would have imagined,” Abdul said, rubbing his hand over his half-formed head and neck. “Anyway, as I was saying, I was beginning to find that being a prince wasn’t as great as you might expect. That’s when I first met the sorceress. I ran into her on a walk in the woods, and she told me she could give me the power to make any wish come true, no matter how improbable. She said there was a cost, of course, but I never thought—”

Abdul flew, quite literally, almost a full body’s length into the air. The opposite half of the mustached man appeared in the light of Ginger’s machine. Little One heard a resounding thud and sighed loudly.

“I never thought I’d be split in two and forced to live in a lamp,” the genie finished, looking very satisfied with himself. “It also never occurred to me that when the sorceress spoke of making wishes come true, she was only referring to those of other people. I suppose I should have been more specific.”

Little One had an idea. “Tell me about this sorceress,” he said, wondering absentmindedly if she could be the same one. “What did she look like?” He made his way towards Abdul, who was brushing himself off behind the genie and appeared to be trying to bore holes through his back with his glare.

“She was beautiful and tall, with deep brown eyes you could get lost in,” the genie sighed.

Little One gave Ginger a meaningful look. She picked up his intention immediately. “What was she wearing?” she asked the genie, who turned to face her.

“A tight-fitting red dress…” began the genie. Little One didn’t hear the rest as he leaned in close to Abdul.

“I have an idea to help you recover your old self permanently,” he whispered. “Go stand next to the genie so that the machine’s light covers both of you at the same time. You need to see yourselves whole.”

To his surprise, Abdul shook his head, his eyes wide. “No way,” he said. “I can’t do that. He’ll kill me.”

“Come on,” Little One whispered more loudly. “It’s the only way!”

“Uh-uh. Nope. Negative. He’s hard enough to live with when he’s happy. When he’s angry…” Abdul shuddered. “I am sorry,” he added after a moment. “I appreciate your trying.” He looked so miserable that Little One’s frustration almost turned to sympathy.

Almost, but not quite. Abdul was so close to being freed. All he had to do was find the courage to go stand next to his other half. Little One and Ginger had worked hard to give them the opportunity to break their curse or whatever it was that bound them to the lamp, and now they were about to throw it all away.

Grunting, Little One was moving before he realized what was happening. He found himself stooping down to scoop Abdul up over his shoulder, then running back to the genie who was still going on about the sorceress’ beauty. When he dropped Abdul to the ground, the genie stopped talking long enough to turn around and look at them.

“Oh, no,” the genie said. “He doesn’t deserve to be his old self again. Our old self. My old self.” He took a step away from Abdul.

“Oh, for goodness’ sake!” Little One exclaimed, near exasperation. “He’s you!”

Summoning all his strength, he ran to the other side of the genie and pushed him towards Abdul. At first nothing happened as the genie’s weight refused to give way, but then he budged a finger’s width, and then another, and Little One kept pushing, red in the face and nearly out of breath, until he finally bumped up against Abdul. For a split second Little One saw the mirror images of the mustached man almost meeting in the light of Ginger’s machine, the line that separated them shrinking into nothing.

Just as it was about to disappear completely, Ginger yelled and the light from her machine disappeared.

When he turned back to see what had happened, Little One saw that Ginger was surprised but unharmed; her machine was on its side on the ground a few paces from the rock; and a sorceress was standing behind her with one arm extending out towards the Lens of Truth. Abdul and the genie, meanwhile, were now wrestling on the ground, each pulling the other’s hair and struggling to pin the other one down.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Little One growled.

Turning back towards the sorceress, who had lowered her arm, he saw that she was wearing a well-fitting red dress. Tall, with large, brown eyes, she was undeniably pretty. She was equally undeniably the same sorceress he’d met previously on his journey.

He remembered when he first saw her standing behind him in the boulder field. She’d told him that she knew what he was looking for, even though at that point he still didn’t. She asked him to help her kill a monster that was preying on innocent travelers. If he succeeded, she said, she would take him directly to what he sought. If he failed, she’d have no choice but to take him back to where he started.

He’d reluctantly agreed. But the situation was more complex than she’d let on. The monster turned out to be a rather likeable ogre who, like Little One, had left his village because something was calling him to explore the mountains and the legend of the multi-colored lightning. The sorceress had made a similar bargain with the ogre, promising to show him what was calling him if he robbed enough treasure from the people passing by.

When he realized that the monster was just another victim of the sorceress, Little One hadn’t wanted to kill him. Instead, he encouraged the ogre to return to his village and let the sorceress take him back to his own so that he could start his journey again.

Remembering this, and seeing Abdul and the genie rolling around on the ground in front of him, Little One felt heat rise within him. How many people had this evil sorceress tricked? How many lives had she ruined?

Little One thought of the evil demon who was transformed when Ginger’s machine revealed his true nature as a small, frightened boy and made a quick decision. He couldn’t let the sorceress destroy any more lives.

Moving as quickly as he could, he ran towards where the machine lay on the ground. Picking it up, he saw that it was undamaged, so he turned it as fast as he could towards the sorceress, adjusting the angle to catch the sunlight.

For a moment only the machine’s rays washed over her, her form swaying at first as light particles bounced and danced wildly before finally calming and settling down to reveal…the exact same form as before, a beautiful, brown-eyed woman in a red dress.

In the exact moment that Little One’s brain registered this fact, he felt an intense vibration within his skull followed by a deafening boom and a sudden release of pressure. For a split second, Little One thought that maybe his brain had exploded.

Then he realized that his hands were empty and looked down. Horrified, he saw Ginger’s machine in tiny pieces all around him. He groaned and looked to her to apologize, but she just shrugged and looked back to the sorceress.

“What, did you think my true nature might be more beautiful than I am? More innocent or kind-hearted?” the sorceress asked, her lips curving into a dangerous smile. “Perhaps you thought that showing it to me might teach me the error of my ways.” She laughed, an unpleasant sound.

Little One didn’t say anything. “Don’t confuse what you don’t understand with bad intent, Little One,” she continued, her tone sickly sweet. “That mistake has caused more harm than the actions of even the most evil villains.”

Little One’s eyes narrowed. “Are you trying to say that your intentions are good? I find that hard to believe given what you’ve done here today and nearly impossible if you consider all your evil deeds in the past.”

“Evil deeds? Me?” the sorceress asked, her eyes widening in mock surprise.

Little One had no patience for her theatrics. “You tried to get me to kill a perfectly nice ogre!” he yelled.

“Knowing full well that you wouldn’t,” she answered calmly.

“You tricked him into killing passersby and stealing their things!”

“In fairness, he made the decision to do those things himself. I simply encouraged him.” Little One spluttered. “Stealing and killing,” she went on, “are what most ogres do naturally. That one, however, isn’t like most ogres. But he never would have figured out that his path is a peaceful one if he remained in his village. That realization required time on his own, and some extra guidance.”

Little One was beside himself. “So you let him kill multiple travelers so that he could learn that he wasn’t a killer?” he screamed.

The sorceress nodded. “Yes, I’ll admit it wasn’t the best plan, but it was all I could come up with on such short notice. Hindsight is 20/20, as they say. You had just received the call yourself, and I expected you to come play your part in helping him realize his path much earlier than you did. How was I to know that you would resist the call for so long?”

Little One shook his head. “So it’s my fault now? I suppose it’s my fault too that you took me back to my village and I had to start completely over.”

“Of course it’s not your fault,” the sorceress said softly. Little One wasn’t sure if she was mocking him or not. “I’m simply saying that we do our best, but nobody can see what will happen or when. Helping others is a messy process at best.” She smoothed her skirts. “You needed to talk to the ogre so that you would learn that you were the son of the Serpent God, but you wouldn’t have believed me if I hadn’t been slightly sinister. Nobody trusts a kind sorceress. Sometimes I have to play the part that people expect in order to get them to take me seriously.” She took a deep breath. “And I delivered you back to your village because it was the fastest way to get you to the Chamber of Doom. I don’t have to explain to you how important that ultimately was to your journey.”

The heat in Little One’s chest flared higher. “You expect me to believe that you did all that out of concern for my welfare? That you were helping the ogre?”

“I don’t expect you to believe anything, Little One. I am simply offering you a different perspective. A more accurate one, as it turns out.”

“And what about Abdul and the genie? What possible good intentions could explain you splitting them in two and forcing them to live inside this god-forsaken lamp?” Out of the corner of his eye, Little One saw the genie and Abdul stop rolling on the ground as the genie shot him a hurt look. “This beautiful but tiny and cramped lamp, I meant to say,” he quickly amended.

“Ah, yes,” the sorceress said. “Well, he himself told you that he sought to have every wish fulfilled. He suffered under the illusion that getting whatever he wanted would bring him fulfillment. It was not unlike your father’s battle with himself, or your struggle with the Guardian. Only this man was clearly losing that fight. This”—she waved her hand towards the two blue creatures on the floor, who stared back at her curiously—“seemed a fitting way to help him discover the true nature of fulfillment, while perhaps teaching others the same lesson. It seemed to work pretty well with you,” she said brightly.

Little One grumbled under his breath. “What about today? Surely they’ve learned their lesson. Why did you interrupt our efforts to bring them back to their normal state?”

The sorceress smiled gently. “They’ll return to their normal state when they’ve learned everything they need to from the experience. Nobody can rush that, not even me. People wake up in their own time. What you did here today may well make it happen faster, but no transformation would last unless they’re truly ready. I hope you can see as clearly as I can that that’s not yet the case.”

Little One looked again to see that the genie still had a fist full of Abdul’s hair, and Abdul’s knee was pushing into the genie’s groin even as he listened to what the sorceress was saying. “I suppose I can,” he admitted reluctantly. “But they’re obviously suffering. Shouldn’t we try to lessen the pain?”

The sorceress’ eyes grew soft.  “Oh, sweet boy. Would that it were not so, but it is often the pain that wakes us up,” she said kindly.

He looked over at Ginger, who gave him a sympathetic smile. “So what, I shouldn’t try to help anyone, since it won’t do any good anyway?” he asked. “Is that what you’re saying?”

“Oh, heavens no!” the sorceress exclaimed, laughing lightly. “You should absolutely follow your own guidance and do what feels right to you, which is hopefully to help as many people as possible. Just do it humbly, knowing that you can never truly know what’s really going on.” She paused, her smile fading. “And don’t reject anything. Embrace it all. If you try to avoid certain feelings or outcomes, you’ll fall prey to the flip side of the same misunderstanding that trapped the two of them.” She glanced at Abdul and the genie, who had finally let go of each other and were staring at them intently.

Little One took a deep breath. “Okay,” he said. “I have to admit that makes some sense. But did you have to destroy Ginger’s machine? She worked so hard on it, and it would have been so helpful to show the people in my village their true nature. Now I have no idea how to convince them of the truth of what I’ve learned.

“Ginger is already thinking about what her next invention will be,” the sorceress said, her voice a tinkling bell. “And you don’t need some silly machine to help you show people their true nature. That is your gift. Try not to cheapen it with self doubt.”

“But how?” Little One persisted, the knot in his belly too tight to let it go. “How can I convince others of who they really are?”

The sorceress laughed again. “I hope you’ve learned today that you cannot convince anyone of anything that they don’t already believe is true.” She paused, her eyes intent on his. “But as to how you can help them remember who they are, I do not know. You will, however, when the time is right. That I can promise.”

Little One looked around. Abdul and the genie were helping each other up and brushing themselves off. Ginger was staring at the sorceress with wide eyes, a smile playing at her lips. The sorceress was looking at him expectantly.

“I hope so,” he said. “I hope I figure it out. But I’m heading back to my village after this, and though I’ve learned so much, in some ways I still feel as lost as when I left.”

The gentle smile returned to the sorceress’ face. “You can only be lost if you don’t know the way home,” she said softly.

The words sounded vaguely familiar, and for a split second, Little One could have sworn that her hair turned white and her dress became a shawl the color of shadows. Before he could be sure, though, she was a beautiful young woman once again.

Little One looked at her in amazement, wondering at how it was possible that one person could be so complex. Perhaps we all are, he thought, exchanging meaningful looks with Ginger, Abdul, and the genie, seeing for the first time an infinite depth in their eyes. He suddenly realized how lucky he would be if the world continued to surprise him as much as the sorceress had.

“I…I think I understand,” he murmured after a long pause, and was startled to realize that this time it was true.

Click here to read the next story in the series.

Photo credit: Randen Pederson // CC

Little One and the Secret of True Nature

Following is the seventeenth 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.

He’d been wrong, Little One realized regretfully. Thoroughly and completely wrong.

Up until a few moments ago, he thought, his head heavy in his hands, his elbows pressing into his knees, things still could have turned around. The chaos of the afternoon could have been the dramatic precursor to a rousing victory—two victories, really, if you counted the second reason he’d returned to the City of the Children of the Serpent God—and the strategy he’d been so confident in just hours before could have proved a good one.

It was now abundantly clear that it hadn’t, though he still wasn’t sure exactly where he’d gone wrong. The children in the village he’d come across had asked for his help. He couldn’t just let them starve while an evil demon held their parents captive with a spell, forcing them to help him take over the world at the expense of their homes and families.

Little One had tried and failed to help the children on his own. And it was the Serpent God himself who told him that alone he was powerless—what else could that have meant except that he was supposed to ask for help?

Besides, his siblings—the Serpent God’s other children—had been slow to see the truth in the message he delivered from their father—that all beings are made of light and that their role as the god’s children was to remind everyone of that fact. It was only logical that inviting his siblings to help him defeat the demon would both save the village and allow them to experience the truth of their father’s message for themselves.

But that’s not how things had turned out. Not at all.

Perhaps he should have known his plan was flawed when his siblings didn’t respond to his request with the warmth and enthusiasm that he’d envisioned. Instead, they’d looked at him coldly or not at all. One had asked if there were any princesses involved, and another why he was asking for help if there weren’t even any dragons on the loose. Nobody had expressed any interest in helping, in fact, until he told them how big and powerful the demon was, and how many other heroes had failed to stop him.

That provoked enough interest that the siblings agreed to send a small group of gifted brethren with him back to the village. Little One was happy that at least they’d given him some of the brothers and sisters most talented at flying, fighting, and becoming invisible. There was even one who could make fire sprout out of his palms.

Yet it was probably another bad sign that when Little One began to strategize with these siblings, they started coming up with plans for how to burn down the demon’s headquarters along with everything inside it.

“No, we can’t burn it down,” Little One explained patiently. “The adults from the village are inside, and they’re refusing to leave.”

One of his brothers whose name he’d learned on an earlier visit didn’t understand. “I thought you said the adults were helping the demon,” Corbett said. “You said it was the children we’re there to save.”

Little One sighed and tried not to let their earlier interaction make him impatient. Part of his goal was to help them see that they were made of light, after all; someone with such an important message surely shouldn’t display irritation. “Yes, that’s true,” he agreed, “but the demon has some sort of spell on the adults, at least I think he does, and the children need their parents.” He paused, hearing the edginess in his voice. “Maybe I didn’t explain how young the children are,” he added more kindly.

Corbett had simply nodded, looking more irritated than grateful.

In the end, they settled on a plan to sneak into the headquarters and try to neutralize the demon, thus freeing the adults from his spell. Nobody argued when Little One made it clear that the ideal outcome was to interrupt the demon’s power over the people, not kill him outright, but he wasn’t sure how much he’d actually persuaded his siblings and to what degree they were simply humoring him.

Their entrance into the headquarters, which was the largest building he’d ever seen and had a chimney that belched dark, gray smoke out into the air above it, actually went more smoothly than he’d imagined. He supposed he owed that to his siblings’ superpowers.

The ones who could fly were able to carry the others to the back side of the building to avoid detection, a precaution they’d decided on even though Little One wasn’t sure there was even anyone watching the road. The invisible ones were then able to sneak in the door without being noticed. The rest of them waited for the agreed-upon signal, which came as a bird call letting them know that they’d surrounded the demon.

He barged in with the other remaining siblings to do what he could to overcome the demon. They hadn’t known what it would take, so in addition to the fire-maker, they’d brought several who had superpowers that could be used in a fight, including two brothers and a sister from the same family who were nearly twice as tall as the rest of them, had bulging muscles, and apparently knew how to use them.

The demon’s response to all this was perhaps another indicator that things weren’t going to turn out as planned. Despite being surrounded by a circle of rather determined-looking children of the Serpent God, including three near-giants, the demon didn’t express any sign of fear or even anger. Instead, he just ran a hand through his thinning hair and looked at them with an understated curiosity as if they were a species of bird he’d never seen before. When he saw Little One, he smiled and nodded to himself.

“I had a feeling I hadn’t seen the last of you,” he said almost jovially.

Little One grunted. “We’re here to free these people from your spell,” he called out in response. “If you let them go now, no harm will come to you.”

The demon looked around at the parents, many of whom had stopped to see what was going on, but most of whom still appeared to be trying to peer at their papers at the same time. Little One wondered what could be on those papers that was so important. “I told you before,” the demon said, his voice ice, “they are all free to leave whenever they want.”

Little One heard a murmur go up in the siblings surrounding the demon. “Yes, you say that,” he answered quickly, and more loudly, “but I know they’re under your spell. I cannot believe these parents would leave their children to starve if you were not bewitching them somehow.”

The demon laughed, his thick belly shaking with the effort. “Bewitching, eh? Is that what you call it? I prefer the terms leading, influencing, or perhaps motivating, but whatever you call it, I’m just giving them the opportunity to fulfill their desires. Believe it or not, they are free to go at any time.”

Now Little One knew the demon was lying. There was no way anyone would desire to live in an environment like this one, especially not when he had a family waiting for him at home. “So you will not set them free from whatever trance you’ve forced upon them?” he asked, his voice nearly a growl.

“You are not hearing me, boy. There is no trance.” The demon’s eyes flashed red in the dim light of the headquarters.

“Then I’m afraid we have no choice but to make you do it. Brothers, sisters,” Little One said, looking around him at as many siblings as he could as he pronounced the agreed-upon words, “neutralize him!”

Little One realized in retrospect that it wasn’t the most powerful word choice. Still, it didn’t seem likely that that alone could have caused the disaster that followed.

The three large siblings had moved forward to try to grab the demon, but in the exact moment when their hands should have touched his skin, he disappeared. He reappeared a moment later outside the circle of siblings, cackling maniacally. Fortunately, one of the ones who stood nearest to him was the fire-maker, and he grabbed the demon’s wrist before he could slip away. Unfortunately, what looked like a thin stream of red fire immediately shot out of the demon’s eyes and scorched the brother’s hand, causing him to drop the wrist as the demon disappeared once again.

He reappeared across the room. Little One saw Sebastian, the first son of the Serpent God he’d ever met, try to surprise the demon from above and behind. It didn’t work. Just as Sebastian was about to approach him, the demon simply smiled and stuck a hand in the air without looking, grabbing him around the throat. With superhuman strength, he flung the brother across the room, where he landed with a loud thud against the stone wall.

That’s when all the brothers and sisters went after the demon at once. One by one he burned them, threw them, or evaded them, and all the while the adults of the village simply looked on with their glazed-over eyes, occasionally ducking to get out of the way of a flung sibling, but mostly keeping their eyes on their papers and walking about muttering to themselves about distractions and lost productivity.

Just when Little One thought that it couldn’t get any worse, it did. His siblings weren’t used to losing, but it was becoming clear that their efforts weren’t doing anything to neutralize, let alone vanquish, the demon. Little One watched in horror as Corbett, his face twisted with rage, stood up from where the demon had just thrown him and immediately turned towards the nearest village adult. Before Little One could do anything to intervene, his brother had wrapped his arms around the man, taken off into the air, and disappeared with him out the main door.

As soon as the other siblings saw what Corbett had done, they began to do the same.

Little One tried to yell at them to stop, but the roar of the fighting swallowed his words. Twice when he tried to physically intervene he was thrown to the ground. By the time he was on his feet again the second time, all of his siblings had disappeared with about half of the adults in the headquarters. The remaining adults sat hunkered in the corners, looking around wild-eyed and terrified, clutching their precious papers to their chests. The demon, meanwhile, was nowhere to be seen.

Little One made his way through the headquarters and back out into the light of day. In the reddish light of the late afternoon sun, a disturbing scene met his eyes. The village adults were scattered over the open ground in front of the headquarters, struggling to free themselves or crawl back towards the door. His siblings were having none of it; they were busy tying invisible bonds around the adults, sitting on their chests so they could not move, or in one or two cases, knocking them unconscious with blows to the back of the head.

Once again Little One tried to intervene, to no avail. His siblings either pretended not to hear him as they subdued the adults or told him to go back to the village to take his place with the children if he wasn’t up to the task of rescue. Not knowing what else to do, Little One had made his way to a rock outcropping at the edge of the forest overlooking the clearing and sat down to try to think things through.

That was when he realized that he’d been wrong, that things weren’t going to turn around after all. But after reviewing the events that led to the disaster deepening itself in front of his eyes, he still wasn’t sure where his mistakes had begun, or what, more importantly, he could do about them now.

His body felt incredibly heavy, like it would take more strength than he had to move. His head hurt, and his stomach felt as if it was somewhere near his ankles. He wanted to cry. He wanted to run. He wanted to scream. He was gathering his energy to walk back down to the field and try to reason with his siblings once again when he felt a tap on his shoulder.

When he turned around, he very nearly cried, ran, and screamed all at once.

Ginger stood in front of him, a sympathetic smile on her face that told him she understood exactly what he was feeling. She shook her head and started to say something, but before she got any words out, Little One threw his arms around her and held her tight, breathing in her familiar scent.

He held her for a long time, not wanting to let her go. When he finally did, it was reluctantly, and he held on to one of her hands in his own, unwilling to lose contact completely.

She looked up at him and smiled. “Good to see you again, Little One,” she said, tucking a stray piece of hair behind his ear with her other hand.

“You have no idea how good it is to see you,” he answered, squeezing her hand, unsure of where to begin to catch up on what had happened since they’d seen each other last.

“Oh, I think I have some idea,” Ginger laughed, squeezing his hand in return. Her smile faded as she glanced behind him and took in the scene in front of the headquarters. “That’s a fine mess, isn’t it?” she asked as sounds of their siblings’ struggles floated up the hill.

Little One dropped her hand. “I made a big mistake, Ginger,” he said, shaking his head. “I don’t even know what it was exactly, but I know it was a big one. And I have no idea what to do about it now.”

Ginger put her hand on his shoulder. “Oh, Little One,” she said. “This isn’t your fault.” She was smiling softly again. “This is what happens any time our siblings get it in their head that somebody needs saving.”

“But I brought them here, Ginger. I told them about the village, and the demon, and the spell…”

“I know,” Ginger said quietly. “I spoke with the children in the village. You were doing what you thought best. It was a good plan. You just don’t know our siblings the way I do. They’re good people, but they always get a little…carried away in situations like this. They forget themselves and the real purpose of their efforts. It’s why I started making this in the first place,” she said, squatting down to pick up what looked like a large metal box with a cone on top and another one coming out the side.

“Is that your invention?” Little One asked breathlessly. “The one you were working on when I first met you?”

“Yes,” Ginger said, nodding. “I went back to get it to help the Serpent God. As you well know, he didn’t need it anymore by the time I got there. But he told me you might, and sent me back here to see if it could help.”

“What is it?” Little One asked. It didn’t look like anything he’d ever seen before.

“Mostly it’s just a box for refracting and reflecting light,” Ginger explained, turning the strange contraption over in her hands. “The important piece is here.” She pointed to the spot where the cone on the side attached to the box. “This is the lens of truth.”

“The lens of truth,” Little one repeated, turning the words over in his mouth. “What does it do?”

“It filters out the most illusory aspects of our manifestation,” she answered.

Little One shook his head. “What does that mean?” he asked.

Ginger laughed. “It shows our true nature,” she said as if it were the simplest thing in the world. “In a way that anyone can see.”

Little One thought about this as he took in the scene below. Most of the adults had been tied up or otherwise incapacitated and rounded up into a small circle. Some of his siblings were standing guard over the circle while others huddled in groups of twos and threes heatedly discussing what to do with their prisoners. Little One could see a few said prisoners still struggling with their bonds, and a few more were attempting to scoot themselves awkwardly back towards the headquarters when their captors weren’t looking. As he watched their vain efforts, he finally understood.

“So you’re going to reveal to the adults of the village the true nature of the demon,” he said, turning back to Ginger, “to show them how evil he is and break whatever spell he’s cast upon them.”

Ginger looked at him for a moment with smiling eyes. “Not exactly,” she said after a moment and hoisted the machine onto her shoulders.

Little One was confused. “The demon disappeared a little while ago, Ginger. There’s nobody down there right now who needs to be exposed.”

The only answer Ginger gave was a grunt as she shifted the machine on her shoulder, nearly dropping it as it swung wildly around to point at the closest group of conferring siblings.

Little One started to reach out and help her reposition it towards the headquarters when suddenly the sunlight caught the top cone and a bright, white light began to pour out of the cone on the side. He watched as the light washed over his siblings, making the lines of their bodies hazy wherever it passed. Where their forms blurred, a beautiful golden light began to appear. It pulsed outward in waves as if pushed by a beating heart, and as it did, it began to change colors, from gold to orange to red to purple then blue and green and back to gold. The light was so pure, so rich, so beautiful, that Little One didn’t think he could look away even if he wanted to.

“Wow, that’s…” he started to say to Ginger before realizing there was no word to describe what he was seeing.

Slowly Ginger moved the machine so that its light fell upon more groups of siblings. As she did, all sound ceased. In the ensuing silence, Little One heard a faint thumping sound like that of a heart, but whether it was his or somebody else’s, he wasn’t sure. The light of his siblings seemed to dance to the sound, which vibrated within him, waking every last corner of his being.

When the light reached the first adult from the village, Little One turned to look at Ginger with a question in his eyes, but her attention was wholly on where her machine was pointed. Where the light passed over the villagers, it still transformed them into a multi-colored incandescence, but the shades were less intense, and instead of pouring out in waves, they seemed to organize themselves into shapes.

It was hard to make them out at first, but eventually the forms of large animals began to emerge, some of them recognizable as wolves, squirrels, turtles, boars, birds, and the like, while others were fantastic creatures that Little One had never seen before. Recognizable or not, they were there only for a moment; when he looked at them directly they would disappear into a mist of beautiful colors, but out of the corner of his eyes there was no mistaking the various forms.

After what felt like hours, when there were no more forms to see and the colored light had faded from the field, Little One continued to stare as if in a trance. He longed for the light to reappear, could feel an ache for it in the back of his chest. It had all felt so vibrant, so warm and alive. Now everything felt dull and cold, as if he were experiencing it through a thick cloth.

He was beginning to wonder if it was possible to experience everything that way all the time when he heard a grunt and turned back to look at Ginger just in time to see the machine slip from her shoulder and her knees go out from under her. Without thinking, he grabbed the machine with one hand and slipped the other around her back, keeping her on her feet.

“Thank you,” she murmured, her whole body leaning on him. “I’m still trying to find a better energy source for the machine. As it is, it’s pretty exhausting.”

“It’s amazing is what it is,” Little One whispered. “Shall we go see what it’s done?” Ginger nodded.

As they made their careful way down the hill, Little One saw that some people were frozen, still staring at each other as though the lights might reappear at any moment. Others, however, were beginning to stir. Among his siblings, there were several who were walking around untying the bonds of the villagers. Several more were bending over and helping them to their feet, shrugging their shoulders and smiling apologetically.

For their part, the villagers were dusting themselves off and reaching out hands of gratitude. Little One couldn’t hear what they were saying, but from their gestures and expressions he felt sure it was some word of thanks. Several were looking over their shoulders at the headquarters regretfully, while others had taken a few steps back up the road towards the village and their children.

As they got closer, Little One heard one thanking Corbett for saving his life. “I don’t know what came over me,” he said sadly, “but all I could think about was serving that evil demon and helping him take over the world. Nothing else seemed to matter nearly so much. But thanks to your strength and courage, I seem to be seeing things more clearly now, and can return to my children while they are still well. For that I will be eternally grateful.”

“The honor is mine,” Corbett said in return. “You have shown me the beauty and power of love, which I see in your eyes even now when you speak of your children. For that I will be eternally grateful.”

Little One turned to Ginger, who was bearing more of her own weight now, and smiled. “You did it,” he said softly. “You and your lens of truth did all of this.”

She opened her mouth to speak when suddenly a loud noise crashed through the field. It  too vibrated, but with much more violence and turmoil than the light.

“My people,” a deafening voice boomed. “You do not want to return to your village. That is but weakness flowing back into your veins. If you go back, all that we have worked for will be destroyed. Come with me now and you will find the rewards you were promised.”

Little One got ready to argue, but nobody moved a muscle. He looked around quickly for the source of the voice but didn’t see the demon anywhere until Ginger elbowed him in the ribs and pointed to a stocky form half-crouched behind one of the boulders at the top of the hill where she’d found him.

When the demon spoke again, his voice had grown so loud that Little One felt as if it were coming from inside his own head. “If you go back now,” he bellowed, “you will lose everything—your crops, your homes, your children—all will whither and die before your eyes. We live in a perilous land, and only I can offer you true safety and shelter from the storm. Come with me back to the headquarters and you need not fear any danger.”

Some of the villagers’ eyes grew wide as their shoulders slumped; they eyed the headquarters nervously and looked ready to head there, if reluctantly. Others glowered at the demon, their hands forming fists at their sides. Some even took a step or two towards him, looking ready to use their fists however they could.

Ginger tugged urgently at Little One’s sleeve. “The machine, brother,” she whispered. “There’s one person who still needs to see his true nature.”

Little One started to give it to her, then hesitated. “What good will it do?” he asked. “The people already know that he’s evil. Besides, you’re too tired to use it again. Let me go and deal with the demon while you rest and regain your strength.”

Ginger shook her head. “Not me,” she said, reaching over to guide the machine onto his shoulder. “You.” She angled the cone towards the demon.

“I don’t know how this works, Ginger!” Little One said desperately. “What if I do it wrong?”

Ginger smiled weakly. “There’s no way to do it wrong, Little One. Just connect with your own inner light and see what appears. It helps to be curious, but that’s really it. I know you can do it,” she added, putting a hand on his shoulder. “Trust me, okay?”

Little One took a deep breath, allowing the air and Ginger’s confidence to calm him. He brought his attention to his belly and chest. At first he was only aware of what felt like thousands of buzzing horseflies amid muscles contracted with fear. As he continued to breathe, the contraction lessened, and eventually the flies quieted as well. What remained was a feeling of weight and solidity, as if his belly were carved of stone. As he focused on that, he began to feel the stirrings of a warm, golden energy within him. He waited as it traveled from his core up into his throat and head and out into his arms and legs. Finally he could feel its warmth flowing throughout his entire body, pulsing with his heartbeat.

“Okay,” he said quietly. “Let’s do this.” He shifted the machine on his shoulder until the top cone caught the rays of the setting sun. Turning back towards the hill, he watched as bright, white light shot out of the other cone towards the demon half-hidden behind the rock.

At first nothing happened. The demon looked the same—stout, balding, with gleaming red eyes—only easier to see in the brighter light. I knew it, Little One thought, either this is the demon’s true nature, or I’ve found a way to do this wrong. He looked at Ginger, who was staring inquisitively at the demon, and remembered her advice to get curious. He let go of the thought and returned his attention to the demon, wondering what he’d see.

Almost immediately the demon’s form disappeared. It rematerialized again so quickly that Little One wasn’t sure if he’d made it up. Blinking, he stared harder. After a few moments the demon again vanished, this time taking longer to reappear. The next time it happened, the demon looked just slightly smaller when he returned than he had when he’d left. It happened again and again until Little One finally realized with a gasp that the demon was not only growing smaller, but younger as well. Each time he rematerialized, he looked less like a middle-aged man and more like a young adult.

Then finally, after a few minutes of flickering in and out, the demon reappeared and remained visible. By then he looked like a skinny three-year-old with wild hair sticking out from his head at odd angles. His face was twisted into a painful expression, and it took Little One a minute to register that his eyes were no longer red and were in fact overflowing with tears.

The demon looked for all the world like a little boy crying for his mother.

Little One almost wanted to run and gather him in his arms so he could tell the demon that everything would be okay. As he glanced around, he realized that he wasn’t the only one; several of his siblings and most of the village adults had concerned expressions on their faces, and one or two were actually reaching out with open arms stretched wide towards the crying demon.

As Little One tried to make sense of this, he felt Ginger touch his shoulder. “Well done,” she whispered softly. “I knew you could do it.”

Little One looked back at Ginger with another question in his eyes, but she just smiled and turned towards the villagers. “As you can see,” she said, her voice carrying like a bell, “the demon has no power over you which you do not give him. His words have no force of prophecy; they are simply the cries of a frightened and hurting child. You are all free to go. There is nothing he can do to harm you, and nothing you need do to stay him.”

As the adults looked from Ginger to the demon and around at one another, Little One realized it was true. Not only were the adults clearly more powerful and in control of themselves than the demon, but they were also nearly twice his size.

The villagers seemed to be realizing the same thing. Broad smiles broke out on their faces as they said brief words to the siblings and began congregating on the road. The sound of laughter and singing floated to Little One’s ears. Several of the villagers came to thank Ginger for her invention and to shake Little One’s hand, but before long they were all heading back on the road towards the village where their homes, fields, and children awaited them.

Little One suddenly realized how tired he was and let the machine fall softly to the ground. Just as he did he saw a woman cresting the top of the hill stop walking. She looked anxiously ahead towards the village, then down at the demon and frowned. The demon had returned to his previous form, a stout, middle-aged man with glowing eyes.

Little One watched apprehensively, worried that the woman might either return for revenge or else fall under the demon’s spell once again now that he was back to his original appearance. He started to heft Ginger’s invention back up onto his shoulder when he felt Ginger’s hand on his arm. He looked at her, saw her shake her head just slightly while still eyeing the demon, then looked back up at the woman on the hill.

With a set jaw and a firm gaze, the villager pivoted on her foot and marched down to the rock where the demon looked as if he were trying to fry her with his beady red eyes. Then, when she reached out a trembling hand towards the demon, the strangest thing happened.

The demon once again shrank and took on the appearance of a young child. The woman’s eyes grew wide and even the demon gave a start as he looked down at his small body and began to cry once again. Immediately the villager swooped him up in her arms, held him close to her chest, and began stroking his wild hair softly with her hand. Little One thought he heard her murmuring soothingly in the demon’s ear, but he couldn’t be sure.

When he looked back over at Ginger, Little one saw that she was laughing.

“Sometimes if enough people see our true nature,” she explained, “we can’t help but see it as well. Then the illusion loses its power and the truth becomes more…apparent.”

Little One imagined the woman taking the demon into her home and giving him the love and acceptance he perhaps never had as a child. He wasn’t sure if demons were ever children or even had mothers, but he supposed that if they didn’t, that could explain why they were so horrible. As he visualized the demon slowly maturing, learning the village’s customs and contributing to its well-being, a smile bloomed on his face.

It deepened when he saw Ginger’s own grin, nearly the size of his own. It grew bigger and bigger, in fact, the closer he and his siblings got to the village, and by the time they arrived and saw the children laughing and hugging and swinging their parents around by the arms, he thought it might break his face. He didn’t stop, though. His smile didn’t disappear until he fell asleep hours later, and even then a hint of it remained.

Click here to read the next story in the series.

Photo credit: Randen Pederson // CC

Little One and the Two Failures (Or, the Secret to Being Powerful and Powerless at the Same Time)

Following is the sixteenth 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.

The second time Little One found himself in front of the gate to the City of the Children of the Serpent God, his mood was only slightly less ebullient than the first.

After all, he had just saved his father, one of the most powerful gods that existed, pretty much single-handedly. He had subsequently learned how the world began, discovered who he really was, and found his life’s purpose. Perhaps even more exciting, he had tried pancakes for the first time.

As he watched the black and brown metal snakes of the gate writhe above him, he recalled his father’s parting words.

“Do not thank me too much,” the Serpent God had warned when he expressed his gratitude yet again. “I have real reason to be grateful; you brought me back to myself. But all I have done for you is given you knowledge.”

Little One had wrinkled his nose in disbelief. “But isn’t knowledge power?” he asked. He couldn’t remember who had said it first, but he was certain he’d heard the elders in his village repeat the phrase often enough.

His father shook his giant, serpentine head. “Do not misunderstand me: knowledge is valuable and quite necessary. It is a very good first step. But it is not, by itself, enough.”

Little One just looked at his father.

“Knowing something does not change anything,” the god continued in his low rumble. “You must wrestle with the subject of your knowledge, experience it, act on it, defeat it and be defeated by it over and over again for anything to shift.”

Little One nodded, though in truth he didn’t understand. “I see,” he lied. “But surely this knowledge can help others if I share it with them?”

The Serpent God shook his head again, then nodded, then shook until his enormous head looked like it might roll off of his neck and onto the white tiled floor. “Yes and no,” he said as he cringed and massaged what appeared to be a crick in his neck. “The knowledge is helpful, but you can’t just tell others about it. It won’t mean anything to them until they experience it for themselves. You only understood because you’d already felt the truth of it.”

“I see,” Little One lied again. “And how do I help them experience it for themselves?”

His father laughed. “You already know that,” he said so confidently that Little One was afraid to suggest otherwise. “Now, are you ready to go?”

Little One nodded and picked up his backpack, which weighed more than it had when he’d put it down. “Whenever you’re ready,” he said, smiling. He was excited to be teleported for the second time in his life, this time willingly.

When he looked up, he saw that the god was looking at him strangely. “I forgot to say one last thing,” his father rumbled, frowning now. “It is a danger I have seen often when humans first learn who they really are.” He seemed unsure for the first time. “Just don’t forget that though you are all powerful, you alone are powerless,” he said slowly. When Little One opened his mouth, he shook his head and spoke more quickly. “No, I’m afraid I cannot say more than that. As I said, I find it never helps to explain paradoxes. This piece of advice you’ll have to figure out for yourself.”

This one, Little One thought, and all the others as well.

Still, by the time they were standing outside the iridescent walls of his father’s palace, he was smiling again. The Serpent God had seemed genuinely sad to see him go. He’d made him promise to come back and visit, and told him to bring his family with him. He’d even bent down to give Little One a hug, or the closest thing he could, being about a thousand times his size.

Then, after a few moments in which the earth beneath him had shifted uncomfortably and the forest around him blurred into swirls of color, Little One had found himself standing by himself in front of the familiar gate to the City of the Children of the Serpent God. He was eager to find out if what he was looking for was here, and, he admitted silently to himself, to share what he had learned.

This time he knew what to do. Walking through the gate as the metal snakes churned and hissed above him, he didn’t so much as glance at them before approaching a tree and pressing his hand against its trunk. As he did, the earth shifted with a groan and the top of a stairway appeared through the roots. Little One stepped onto it carefully and made his way down.

When he reached the bottom, a large, well-lit chamber opened up before him. The walls glowed with scenes of trees, mountains, and rivers laid over the stone. The images shimmered and moved as if real, so much so that Little One could almost feel the breeze that was stirring them against his own skin. The top of the chamber was blue and infinite, like the sky, but today there were no clouds gathered anywhere.

Little One looked around. After seeing a few new faces he didn’t recognize, he spotted one he did. He walked over.

“Well-met, brother!” yelled Sebastian as he approached, looking up from what he was working on at the table. “Long time no see!” He spoke loudly even though by that point Little One was close enough to reach out and touch him on the shoulder.

“Hi, Sebastian,” said Little One. He was too excited to waste time with niceties. “Has Ginger been here recently?”

Sebastian’s smile turned to a concerned expression. “Yeah, brother, she was here not long ago. She came back to pick up her invention. We asked her what was going on, where you were, what she needed it for…but she said she didn’t have time to explain. She told us she would tell us everything later, said she had something very important to do first. She didn’t even stay for dinner.”

Little One was vaguely aware that he should have been frustrated, but all he could feel was pleasure at having been right. When the Serpent God had offered to teleport him home, he’d politely declined, saying he wanted to find Ginger first. His father’s powers were still recovering from his imprisonment, so unfortunately the god couldn’t tell him where she was. More fortunately, a theory of his own had already begun to crystallize in Little One’s mind.

He’d first thought about it when his father told him he’d had a conversation with someone before Little One returned back to the palace to save him. Little One knew it hadn’t been with him. Then he recalled that during his first visit to the palace, there was a trail through the dust on the floor that he’d originally thought had been made by his father’s captor. Only there was no captor; his father had been in the palace the entire time.

Together these two clues led Little One to deduce that Ginger had managed to make it into the palace before he had. He knew she wouldn’t leave without doing something to help the Serpent God, however, and he was admittedly stumped for a moment until he remembered her invention. He still didn’t know what it did, but she had finished it just before they left the City of the Children of the Serpent God. He concluded that she must have gone back there to pick up her invention so she could return with it to the palace and help their father.

Warm satisfaction bubbled up in his belly as he realized that he’d been right. He felt so good that before he knew it, he’d blurted out a question he hadn’t meant to ask.

“Have you ever met the Serpent God in person?” he asked in a voice like a bell; it was so loud, in fact, that a few nearby siblings looked up from what they were doing.

Sebastian’s eyebrows shot up. “Met the Serpent God? No, man, nobody has. He disappeared a long time ago. Nobody knows where he is or how to find him.”

“I found him,” Little One said quickly.

“That’s impossible,” Sebastian said, dismissing him with a wave of his hand. “A group of older siblings tried before I got here. They were some of the strongest, smartest, most gifted children I’ve ever met. They even knew where to find the palace, but when they got there, they couldn’t get inside. Nobody was home. They tried everything to be able to enter, but nothing worked. Eventually they had to turn around and come back here. If they couldn’t do it, brother, there’s no way you”—he winced—“anybody could.”

“I did get inside,” Little One persisted. He saw out of the corner of his eye that two other siblings, a brother named Corbett that he knew from his previous tenure in the city and a woman he’d never seen before, were walking over to join them. “With Ginger. Well, at least we found it together. We got separated going in. But the Serpent God was there. He was just…unable to greet us.” He didn’t want to share the whole story right now, not with such a large audience. “But after a while we talked, and he explained everything to me.”

“Everything?” the woman who had joined them asked.

“Well, lots of things. Like, did y’all know that we’re made of light?” The woman shook her head slightly while the other two looked at him doubtfully. “Yea, we’re made of the same light that everything else is made of. Only, in these forms we feel separate, and we forget that we’re not. We forget that we’re all made of the same courage, strength, love, joy, wisdom, and all that stuff. That’s why the gods were made, to help us remember. And that’s what our job is as their children, too. We’re here to help others remember who they really are and where they come from.”

Little One smiled as he looked up at his siblings. He didn’t say it nearly as well as their father had, but he was pretty proud of how clear it was nonetheless. As he scanned their faces, however, his smile faded. All he saw were furrowed brows and stubborn frowns. “Maybe I should start at the beginning,” he went on uncertainly.

Sebastian shook his head as if waking himself up. “No, man,” he said forcefully. “You must have met an impostor. There’s no way that was really our father.”

Little One opened his mouth, but before he could respond, his sister was speaking.

“Why would our father only tell you this?” she asked, her eyes narrowed. “Why wouldn’t he come here to tell us all, if that’s really what he’s here to do?”

This time Little One didn’t even have time to open his mouth before Corbett spoke up. “That doesn’t make any sense,” he said, his voice deep. “We’re here to vanquish evil, not help people remember. What’s the use of remembering? It doesn’t make any sense,” he repeated.

“Yea,” said Sebastian. “We’re here to use our superpowers to accomplish things that other humans can’t. That’s why we have them and they don’t. It’s simple.”

“Perhaps,” Little One said when there was finally a moment of silence. “But that reminds me of something else the Serpent God told me. All humans have superpowers of some kind because by now they’re all descended from one god or another.”

Sebastian whistled and rolled his eyes while the others shook their heads. “Now I know you’re confused,” Sebastian said. “Have you ever seen a normal human fly, become invisible, or invent the things that we do?” He shook his head disbelievingly.

“Confused?” Corbett said. “More like delusional. I remember you from when you were here before. You didn’t have a superpower, right? I think you got so jealous that you went off and came up with this big story to impress us and convince us that you’re better than we are.”

Anger flared up in Little One for the first time. He had been trying to stay calm, as he imagined anyone sharing this kind of knowledge should be, but the heat inside him was impossible to ignore. “I did no such thing,” he growled. “I’m telling you exactly what the Serpent God told me. And for the record, I do have a superpower.” As soon as the words left his mouth, he wanted to pull them back in.

“And what would that be?” Corbett asked, a sneer on his face.

The word sensitivity died on Little One’s lips as he imagined their responses. Perception sounded little better. “I—I don’t know yet,” he said softly, staring at the table. Harsh laughter met his ears.

“You still haven’t answered my question,” the woman said. Little One looked up and realized that she wasn’t laughing, just frowning slightly. “Why wouldn’t our father come here to tell us all of this himself?”

Little One opened his mouth, half expecting somebody to interrupt him again, but nobody did. Suddenly it was as if all words had fled his mind. After a moment, he closed his mouth again. “I don’t know,” he finally admitted.

Sebastian moved his chair back away from the table and stood up. “I’ve heard enough,” he said, looking at Corbett and the woman. “I’m going for a walk.”

Corbett didn’t give Little One another glance before spinning on his heel and stomping off as well, but the woman looked at him for a few moments with a flat expression on her face before finally sighing and turning to leave. Little One watched them go, trying desperately to think of something to say but failing to come up with a single word.

Giving a sigh of his own, he walked back up the stairs and out of the City of the Children of the Serpent God with slumped shoulders and heavy feet, nearly as discouraged as he had been excited when he’d arrived just a short time before. He began to walk dejectedly back in the direction of the Palace of the Serpent God, determined at least to succeed in finding Ginger.

By the time he came across the road, he was so caught up in trying to figure out where he’d gone wrong that he nearly missed seeing it. He walked over it lost in thought and only paused when he felt sunlight warming his back. Looking up, he was surprised to see that there were no trees overhead, which caused him to look around, which made him realize he was crossing a road.

He’d never come across a path this large before. Estimating that if he stood with arms wide it could fit three of him across its width, he wondered why it was so big and where it led.

He had just decided against walking along it for a bit to try and find out when he heard footsteps behind him. Turning around, he saw a young girl waving her arms high above her head at him.

“Hello!” she yelled, a big grin on her freckled face.

“Hello,” he said, returning her smile.

“Have you come to try and rescue us?” asked the girl, lowering her arms and coming to a stop in front of him. She sounded breathless, as if she’d been running.

“Um, no, I’m afraid I’m just passing by. But who needs rescuing, and from what?”

“My village,” she answered, her green eyes sad. “It’s just down the road. You haven’t heard? They sent me out to meet you because we thought you were here to help.”

“Who sent you out to meet me?”

“The other children, silly.” She laughed, as if it were obvious. “We’ve put out a call for help because a demon has taken over our village. Many heroes have come, but none have been able to defeat it. Oh, please do help us. You look so strong and smart. I think you might be able to do it.”

“What demon?” Little One asked, flushing despite the ice beginning to form in his belly. “And why the children? Where are your parents?”

The girl glanced back down the road behind herself impatiently. “Our parents are the ones who need rescuing. The demon has taken them hostage. He tortures and abuses them day and night. Oh, say you’ll come; then you can see for yourself.”

Little One thought for only a moment before nodding his head. “Yes,” he said. “Of course I’ll come. I’ll do whatever I can to help.”

The girl clapped her hands excitedly and beamed at him. “I knew you would!” she said happily. “Come, it isn’t far at all.”

It was true. They reached the village after walking only a short while. Soon the forest gave way to fields and then houses with small gardens began to appear next to the road. Little One saw other children, goats, and plenty of chickens, but no grown ups anywhere.

“Where are the adults?” he asked the girl.

“I told you, the demon took them hostage. They’re at the demon’s headquarters.”

Little One scowled and started to ask a question, but the girl skipped on ahead of him.

They walked like that a while longer—the girl skipping as if headed to play, Little One trudging along behind her, his feet growing heavier and his belly more tangled with every step—as they made their way through the center of the village and out to the other side. The girl didn’t slow as trees appeared beside them again and the road climbed a large hill.

When they approached the top and Little One was about to ask where they were headed, he suddenly looked up and swallowed his words. There in front of them was the largest building he had ever seen. It appeared to be made entirely of smooth, gray stone. Little One couldn’t see any windows and could make out only one large door at its base. Nearly twice as tall as the surrounding trees, it had what looked like a huge chimney jutting out of its roof that was belching dark gray smoke into the air above it.

“Come on,” the girl said, and Little One realized she hadn’t stopped skipping. He hurried to catch up to her.

When they approached the door, she finally stopped. “This is the demon’s headquarters,” she said. Little One was about to ask the girl if the demon had any defenses he needed to overcome before entering its headquarters when without warning she flung the door wide open and a terrible stench met his nose. As he covered the bottom half of his face with his arm, he steeled himself as best he could for whatever torment and abuse he might be about to see.

But as his eyes adjusted to the relative darkness within, he saw only men and women walking quickly about, speaking hurriedly with each other in small groups, and sitting in chairs staring intently at small pieces of paper.

“Is everything all right?” he asked a tall man in his middle years who was passing close by.

The man looked at him in surprise. “Of course. But if I don’t get this report done by the end of the day, it won’t be, so if you’ll excuse me…” he said, walking on.

Little One watched the adults go about their business for a few more minutes before turning to the girl. “I don’t understand,” he said. “You said they were being tortured. They look just fine to me.”

“You would say that!” the girl shouted, crossing her arms over her chest. “That’s what all the other heroes said too before they turned around and left. What a bunch of cowards! I know it doesn’t look that bad, but can’t you see what’s really going on? They work here, day and night, never coming home, never eating, never sleeping, never seeing their children. If we come here, they just ignore us or yell at us for getting in the way. They stopped working the fields months ago, and now there’s almost no food left. And they don’t even play anymore!” She was wailing now. “And the worst part is, the demon has some kind of spell on them, because when we tell them to stop, they tell us we’re being silly and say it’s for the best.”

Little One shivered. Looking more closely at a woman passing by, he realized that there was something strange about her eyes, almost as if they were glazed over and not really seeing what was in front of her.

“Okay,” he said. “That does sound strange. So where is this demon? What do I need to do to find it?”

Little One wasn’t sure what he’d expected, but it wasn’t for the girl to immediately point to a normal-looking, rather stocky man who appeared to be starting to lose his hair standing on a balcony on the second floor.

Little One cleared his throat. “Got it,” he told the girl. “I’ll be right back.”

“Be careful,” she said, her eyes wide. “He’s the most dangerous demon I’ve ever seen.”

Little One nodded and walked towards the demon. As he did, he felt his stomach begin to twist around itself once again. The closer he got, the colder he felt as well. By the time he was within shouting distance of the demon, he was nauseated, shivering, and wanted nothing more than to crawl behind a rock and hide.

I am made of light, he reminded himself, planting his feet firmly on the ground beneath the balcony.

“What exactly do you think you’re doing?” Little One called out loudly, cringing as he heard his own words and realized they sounded more like a statement of confusion than the challenge he’d imagined in his mind. I am made of light, he reminded himself again as some of the hustle and bustle around him quieted down.

The demon turned slowly from whatever he had been looking at to study Little One on the floor beneath him. “Why, isn’t it obvious?” he answered after a long silence. “I’ve persuaded these people to do my bidding so I can take over the world.” Little One realized with some discomfort that his eyes were red and shone in the dimly lit interior like flames.

“So you admit it!” Little One yelled. He wasn’t sure what the demon meant by taking over the world, but he could tell it wasn’t good by his tone.

“Of course,” roared the demon. “And why on earth wouldn’t I? There isn’t anything anybody can do about it, much less you.” He spat out the last word like it tasted bad.

Little One felt the heat of anger rising within him. He searched for a feeling of strength and golden light instead. Finally he felt it, a small but steady sense of solidity beneath the anger. “Oh, yes there is!” he shouted. “You don’t know who I am. I have powers you can’t even imagine, and I’m going to use them to help these people fight off whatever spell you’ve put on them so they can return to their village and be with their families!”

The demon threw his head back and cackled towards the ceiling. “Go for it! Be my guest! These people are free to leave whenever they want. Nobody’s forcing them to stay.”

Little One didn’t believe it. He looked around at the men and women who had for the most part stopped what they were doing to watch what was happening, though a few still had their heads bent over scraps of paper or were huddled together speaking quietly in the corners.

“People of the village!” Little One yelled, turning around so he could see everyone in the building. “There is no need to stay here helping the demon! He is using you for his own ends and does not have your well-being at heart. Do his bidding no more! Put down your work, come with me, and I will take you back to your children and your fields so you can once again attend to what matters.”

The men and women looked at him as if confused, shaking their heads and muttering, then turned to go on about their business. With flushed cheeks, he realized that a few had already done so even before he finished speaking.

Little One heard a sharp rasping noise behind him. When he turned around, he saw that the demon was laughing again. “You waste your time, son of the Serpent God.” Little One realized his mouth was open and closed it quickly. “Yes, I know exactly who you are,” the demon continued. “Which is why I’m so confident I have nothing to worry about.” With that, he turned around and walked through a doorway at the back of the balcony, disappearing from view.

Little One looked at all the people around him, but none were watching him anymore. He tried to think of something else he could say or do, but nothing came to him. Sighing heavily, he walked back to where the girl was standing in the doorway.

“I’m sorry,” he told her sadly. “I have failed yet again.”

She looked up at him, her forehead creased. “Again? Have you faced the demon before?”

“No,” Little One admitted as they stepped back out of the building and closed the door behind them, “but I’ve still managed to fail more than once today.”

As they walked back, Little One tried hard to think of a plan, but if the people weren’t willing to leave, he didn’t see how he could make them. He didn’t know enough about magic or spells to be able to do anything there, and he had a feeling the demon wouldn’t allow him to try anyway.

Having no plan and no hope for helping the children of the village, he began to doubt the confidence he had felt while talking to his father, which felt like eons ago, not earlier that morning. It was no wonder his siblings didn’t believe him or his message—he was the wrong person to be carrying it. The idea that he was made of light made him want to laugh and cry at the same time; at the moment it felt more likely that he was made of dung than anything else.

When they reached the village, the children all ran to form a circle around them, chattering excitedly and asking what had happened.

“He failed,” the girl said, her voice miserably low. The other children’s faces fell, and a few began to cry.

“You have a plan for how to go back and beat him, right?” a little boy asked, pulling his thumb out of his mouth to do so.

“Mm-hmmm,” Little One said noncommittally. The faces that stared at him looked drawn and haggard, and he remembered what the girl had said about running out of food. “I do at least have something to give y’all,” he added quickly, thinking of the few rations he still had from his previous journey. As he pulled his backpack from his shoulder, he noticed again how heavy it was, and when he opened it up, he finally realized why.

Inside his backpack, piled on top of his things, were stacks of thick pancakes his father must have slipped in when he wasn’t looking.

Little One smiled. “Have y’all ever tried pancakes?” he asked, pulling them out and handing them over.

As the children eagerly ate their breakfast with a few shouts of pleasure here and there, Little One thought of his father. He now had something else to be grateful for. It’s a good thing I have you helping me, he thought. Without you, I’d be lost.

As if in answer, his father’s words rang out in his mind: “Just remember that though you are all powerful, you alone are powerless.”

This time he heard the words differently than he had before. It wasn’t that he was the only one who was powerless, it was that without others…

Suddenly he knew what to do. He jumped up, grabbed his backpack, and handed out a few more pancakes. “Children!” he yelled. He had to say it again a few times before everyone was listening. “I know what to do! I’m going now, but I’ll be back soon. I am going to vanquish that demon, but not in the way that I thought.”

The kids gave him strange looks but continued to eat their pancakes. Little One smiled to himself and found his way back to the road.

He walked until he was standing in the same spot where he’d first seen the little girl. Turning around to be sure, then nodding to himself when he was, he stepped off the road and into the woods. Hope lightened his steps as he considered the possibility that by returning to the City of the Children of the Serpent God and asking for help from his siblings, he’d soon be able to reverse two big failures in one fell swoop.

Click here to read the next story in the series.

Photo credit: Randen Pederson // CC

Little One and the Serpent God (Or, Why Being Flawed Is a Good Thing)

Following is the fifteenth 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.

“Wait, what?” Little One asked.

He could feel his face flushing as he forced himself to put the strange, black fruit down on his plate. He was horrified to realize that he had actually missed what the Serpent God said because he was so focused on the fruit’s unique—and quite delicious—flavor.

“I said, did you have to do anything to make the rainbow lightning machine show you the memory?” The god’s voice boomed throughout the cavernous, sunlit room they were in, but it remained calm.

“Oh,” Little One said, wiping his hands guiltily on his pants. “No. It just kind of came to life on its own once I got near it.” He thought for a moment. “Actually, I think it was already rumbling a bit by the time I got into the palace.” He picked up his cup and took a sip of the sweet, creamy brown liquid inside. “What is this again?” he asked his father.

“Xocoatl,” the god said. “Also sometimes referred to as food of the gods.”

“I can see why,” Little One said, nearly burning his tongue as he took another gulp.

“And you said you saw me arguing with someone?” the god persisted.

“Yes,” Little One nodded. “I couldn’t see who, but you seemed to be angry at first, then…” His voice drifted off awkwardly as he took a more calculated sip of his drink.

“Then what?” the Serpent God prompted gently. He made a motion with a pitcher for Little One to let him refill his mug.

“Then you seemed kind of frightened and sad.” He swallowed awkwardly but still managed to hold out his mug while his father poured. “You told him that you couldn’t do it anymore, sacrificing yourself in order to keep him happy. You said, ‘You are not who I thought you were. You win. You are free to do what you will.’”

The god’s eyes narrowed as the pitcher dropped back to the table with a loud thump. Little One wondered if he’d said too much. “I only vaguely remember saying that,” his father said. “It’s like my memory has holes in it, and everything else is…blurred.”

Little One moved something that looked like potatoes but tasted much better around on his plate. “That’s why I thought you were kidnapped at first, though I had no idea by whom.”

“So when did we talk?” the Serpent God asked, straightening suddenly and nearly bumping his head on a ceiling so high that Little One could barely see it.

“When I got back,” Little One answered, “after figuring out what had really happened.”

The giant serpent head shook. “No, I mean before you left. It’s blurry, but I remember two visits. One when you helped me to awaken, but one before that too.”

Now Little One shook his head. “I’m not sure,” he said. “I spoke with the memory at first, not realizing it wasn’t you”—he felt his cheeks flush again and quickly took another sip from his mug to hide it—“but the first time we actually conversed was last night, after I returned.”

His father was silent for a moment, his eyes searching his son’s as if probing for the truth. “Yes,” he finally said, “I believe you’re right. And yet I do remember speaking with somebody else, before last night, and getting very angry. It was several days before I could sleep again, and when I did, I slept for two days straight. Perhaps that is when you came to the palace, when I was still inert.”

Little One nodded. “Perhaps,” he agreed. He suddenly thought of the trail he had followed through the halls of the palace, the one he thought had been made by his father’s kidnapper. An idea began to form in his mind, giving him hope.

“So how did you figure out what really happened?” the Serpent God asked.

Little One abandoned whatever thought had been forming in order to answer his father; this was the third time he had asked this same question, after all.

“It was while fighting the Guardian of the Guru,” he said, noticing that his father’s gaze was fixed on something on his face. He hurriedly scrubbed his mouth and chin with his hand and flushed when he realized that the drink had left a foamy mustache on his upper lip. Taking a deep breath, he went on. “I probably should have figured it out right away based on the fact that the Guardian not only looked exactly like me, but fought like me as well.” He went on to tell the god the whole story of their fight.

“But I didn’t really understand,” Little One explained once he’d finished, “until the Guru told me something more. ‘There is no difference between you and me,’ he said. “Just as there is no difference between you and him.’ That’s when I realized: I was very nearly defeated by something that was a part of me. It didn’t want me to hear the Guru’s answer. Though I think the Guru is really part of me as well.” Little One paused, looking at the table in front of him and realizing that it looked as if a tornado had passed through, leaving crumbs everywhere. The cakes—pancakes, his father had called them—had been so delicious he hadn’t been very careful about how he was eating them. He winced. “I realize this sounds crazy, but that’s how I understood that you were also fighting a part of yourself. Because the Guardian wanted me to give up, and that’s what you did in the projection I saw. Somehow it just felt…the same.”

To his surprise, the Serpent God didn’t look at him as if he were losing his mind. Instead, he simply nodded his huge head. “So that’s when you came back to my palace?” he asked.

“Yes,” Little One said. “I figured that if you had been defeated by—if you had surrendered to a part of yourself, it meant you must still be in your palace. I had no idea how I was going to save you, but I hoped it would be clear enough when the time came.” He shrugged uncomfortably. “And I suppose, when the time came, it was.”

His father looked him in the eyes for a long time without saying anything. “I’m impressed,” he finally said, picking up a tray of the black fruits and adding three more to Little One’s plate.

Little One picked up one of the fruits and bit into it. Sweet juice exploded in his mouth and ran down his chin. He wiped it off on the back of his forearm. “Father,” he said. “What is this part of us that wants to defeat us?”

The Serpent God looked thoughtful for a moment. “I believe you know more than you think you do,” he said. “This Guardian of the Guru. Was he familiar at all to you?”

Little One considered the question, then nodded slowly. “Yes, actually. I wasn’t sure, but as I was fighting him, I got the sense that I had…engaged with him before. I think I felt him when the genie was offering me his gifts. He’s the one who wanted me to take them. It was the fear, I think, that convinced me to do it. And I think I have felt his presence other times, mostly when I’ve been afraid.”

The god nodded again. “And what about what you said to me earlier? ‘You have helped me to find my true self,’ you said. What do you know about this true self?”

“It is what told me to stop fighting the Guardian,” Little One answered without hesitating. “And to come back to the palace to find you. It is the courage I found in the Chamber of Doom, the love I feel for my sister, and the strength and freedom I discovered when the Guardian defeated me. It is the antithesis of the fear.”

“That’s exactly right,” the Serpent God said, and Little One felt a wave of warmth crash in his chest. “Except for that last part,” continued his father, as the wave quickly subsided.

“What do you mean?” Little One asked. “It’s not the antithesis of fear?”

“Perhaps it would be most helpful for me to start by telling you the story of how the world began.”

“Sure,” Little One said, smiling. He wasn’t sure if he was more excited to hear the truth about the world or to have time to eat the last two pieces of fruit on his plate.

“Well,” the Serpent God began, “in the beginning, all was one. There were no separate forms or individuals. All was one and all was light. If the light could have been refracted into its various colors, you would have seen courage, strength, love, joy, wisdom, freedom, and clarity. But in the beginning, they all made up a single whole without border or boundary.”

The god paused. “Perhaps it could have gone on that way forever,” he continued after a moment. “And perhaps it should have. But the light did not know itself, and it never could so long as nothing else existed to be able to perceive it. Without self knowledge, without movement, the light was not complete, so it created space and time. It then poured itself into diverse forms that would exist separately in the realm it had created.

At first it seemed that all was now in order. But the forms the light created knew what they were and where they had come from. They had no desire to stay disconnected from their source, and so they let their separate forms wither, decline, and die so that they could return to whence they came.

The light was back where it started, and so it began again. This time it gave the forms it made something special; something that would make them want to live and thrive in the world it had built for them. This part of them would not only want to survive, but help them know how. It would identify threats, seek advantages, and concern itself with their material well-being so their forms would not wither and die before they’d had a chance to know themselves.” The Serpent God had been looking off in the distance; now he turned to look his son directly in the eyes. “This gift, Little One, is the Guardian that you fought.”

“Gift?” Little One asked, remembering how the Guardian had nearly slit his throat.

“Yes, a double-edged gift, as all gifts are,” said the god, his eyes distant again, perhaps remembering his own imprisonment. “You see, it turns out that the same thing that gives us the desire and the means to survive also serves to make us forget. For as the inhabitants of space and time began to proliferate, they became so focused on threats and advantages that they failed to see what else was there; they saw only what their eyes perceived and grew blind to what lay underneath. In short, they forgot who they were and where they had come from.”

The Serpent God grunted and shifted around in his chair. “This situation was no better than the first, for without this memory, self knowledge was again impossible. That’s why the light created us.” He turned to meet Little One’s eyes again. “The gods, I mean. We were charged with helping mortal forms to know themselves, their true selves, before they died.”

Little One thought about what his father had said, and his first experience with the god. “So that’s why you built your palace the way you did, so that whoever sought you would have to discover their own light in order to enter?” he asked.

The Serpent God’s eyes suddenly became sad. “In part,” he said, shaking his head. “But I’m afraid that isn’t the full story.”

Little One looked up at him, a question he didn’t dare ask in his eyes. The god sighed heavily. “Yes, I will tell you the tale, painful though it is.” He looked away again, staring at something Little One couldn’t see. “You see, we gods fall somewhere between form and formlessness. Being immortal, we don’t need the Guardian in the same way you mortal forms do. But we require it in other ways. We are not pure light, after all, but we must remember where we come from, in order to remind you. It is a painful thing, to be separate, to know what it’s like to be whole, and to know you will not return to the source at the end of your lifetime as you mortal beings do. It takes a strong and stubborn Guardian to keep us willing to engage in the world with its separation and forgetfulness for all eternity.”

He looked at Little One again before continuing. “But all of this is perhaps an excuse. Because the truth is, it was me who allowed my Guardian to get too strong, who believed in its demands for power, prestige, and utter perfection. It has always demanded these things—it is part of its nature—but I always knew them to be shallow, unable to satiate or address the true nature of who and what I was.

And yet at some point I forgot. That is the worst thing a god can do—we are charged with helping others remember, after all. But somehow I forgot who I was, and why I was here, and I began to give the Guardian what it was demanding.”

The giant god sighed again. “Even now I am being vague, trying to avoid the truth of it. I know when it began. It was after one of my daughters, a particularly young one, I recall, knocked upon my door. This was before I built this palace, when I still lived with the other gods.

When I came to the door, she was already furious. ‘How could you?’ she asked, and went on to tell me how her entire family had been killed in fighting between her village and the next. ‘I prayed to you every night,’ she said, ‘asking you for help. I thought you were my father! And yet you did nothing, and now my family is dead.’

I remembered her prayers; they had nearly made me weep, in truth. But we gods have very specific purposes; there is much we cannot do. I tried to explain this to her. I tried to help her see her own light, that she might know she did not need me to weather this storm. But she did not feel it, no matter what I did, and she left my house more angry than she was when she arrived. And so I failed her twice: once in being unable to save her family, and once in letting her leave while still misunderstanding exactly who she was.”

The giant serpent head sank. “I could not forgive myself for my failure. Unable to face any more of my children—no, unable to face the prospect of failing any more of my children—I built this palace and hid it from the world. I created the rainbow lightning machine almost as an afterthought. I told everyone that it was because I was too harried and could not handle the number of petitioners I was receiving. I said the rainbow lightning was to make sure that only the worthy were able to reach me. I think I even believed it at the time. But I know now that I was hiding, unable to admit how terrified I was. The rainbow lightning was not a test; it was a way to ask for help without acknowledging what I was doing.”

“Father,” Little One said. “I am so sorry.”

“I am too,” said the Serpent God, his eyes glistening. “The great irony is that in my fear of failing, I failed more people than I will ever know. For a while my children kept coming to find me, and now and then one of them would make it through. But no matter what I did, it never felt like enough; the Guardian always demanded more. More results. More admiration. More devotion. I grew tired of arguing with it, and equally tired of trying to appease its insatiable appetite. Finally I stopped answering my door, and my children stopped coming. That was the last straw. Exhausted, without visitors, without purpose, I finally gave up. I let the Guardian take control and lost myself completely.” The god exhaled loudly. “Until you came,” he added, offering a sad smile.

Little One was surprised to find that he was angry. “The Guardian would not let you forget your failure. It made you believe you were not enough. It sowed so much fear that you hid yourself in your palace and gave up your purpose, and yet you say that it is not the antithesis of light? How can that be?”

The Serpent God’s smile grew both bigger and sadder. “You would think the Guardian is the enemy, based on my story. I’m almost tempted to believe it myself, because it would mean I could separate myself from my mistakes.” He turned to look at Little One. “But the truth is more complicated than that. The Guardian is not all of who we are. But it is part of us, and an important part at that.”

“Yes,” Little One said sourly. “I understand that it helps us survive. But it also destroys that which is best in us!”

The Serpent God shook his head slowly. “No, you misunderstand, my son. The Guardian is a gift, remember? It is inseparable from the light.”

Little One realized that his mouth was open. He closed it quickly and waited for his father to continue.

“In the beginning, when I first came to form and found out what I was to do, I used to fight the Guardian. I believed, much as you do, that it was a necessary evil. I thought that if I could somehow diminish it, or even—such was my arrogance—eradicate it, the humans I helped would remember their light and never forget it again.” He laughed, a bitter sound. “What I found was the same thing you did. When you fight the Guardian, you cannot win. It is as infinitely strong as you are, and it cannot be defeated.

But I found something even stranger when I did manage to weaken somebody’s Guardian. Because instead of remembering who they were and embracing it, they grew even more forgetful. Able to live a comfortable life free of the Guardian’s demands and criticisms, they had no further need of me or anything else that might wake them up to who they were. They lived their lives comfortably, perhaps even happily, but they did now know themselves. Not truly.”

The god paused, his head cocked. “Over the years I found many ways to help people remember who they were. Strangely, one of the fastest and most effective is to let their Guardians run their lives completely for a time. This tends to create such destruction and devastation that at some point they realize something is wrong. They begin to wonder if there isn’t something more to them or the world than what they’ve seen so far, and they become curious about what that might be. In that state, it doesn’t take much to wake them up or help them remember.”

Little One thought about this. He remembered how many times he had broken through to a new discovery after what felt like his darkest moments. “I suppose I can see that,” he finally said. “But I have to say I’m still confused. From what I understand, the Guardian creates fear—in my case, a whole lot of it—and when I’m afraid, I don’t feel that I am made of light. Far from it. So how can the Guardian help us remember, if it creates conditions under which memory is impossible?”

“Ah, yes, well, there’s the paradox,” said the Serpent God. “The Guardian will try to keep you from waking up. But it also makes it inevitable that it will happen, given enough time.”

Little One’s brow furrowed. He was about to ask another question when he realized his father was offering him more pancakes. Still puzzled, he nodded his head quickly.

“I generally find it best not to try to explain paradoxes,” the god said. “It tends to set the mind spinning, which is not conducive to remembrance.” He set three more pancakes on Little One’s plate. “But perhaps this can help clarify. You seem to think that you are afraid more often than you should be; perhaps even more than everyone else.”

Little One nodded, his mouth too full to speak.

“Well, first of all, I can tell you that almost every human I’ve spoken to believed the same thing. It’s a funny habit you all have, assuming that you know someone else’s internal experience from the limited things you can see, and then comparing yourselves to whatever it is you think you saw.”

He shook his head. “At any rate, the thing you miss is this: your pain points towards your true self every time. It is a sign that you have strayed away from it. The pain—whether it’s fear, anger, shame, or any other type of misery—can lead you to the exact place where you forgot who you were. It brings you back to that place where you can remember over and over again. And the truly magical thing, which even I do not understand fully, and which I have seen save untold numbers of humans, is that should you ignore its wisdom, the pain does not give up. It gets greater. It grows in intensity until it is strong enough to overwhelm you and your Guardian, so that you may listen.” He trembled slightly. “It is miraculous.”

Little One had a hard time believing that his fear was miraculous. “But it was only when I overcame my fear that I ever made progress,” he argued. “It was courage, not fear, that helped me.”

The Serpent God smiled. “And how did you overcome your fear? By going around it? Avoiding it? Destroying it? No, my son, you overcame it only by walking through it. In the Chamber of Doom, beneath the Tree of Life, even in the city of my children, you felt your fear completely, and that is what allowed you to move beyond it. It is the only way to overcome anything, because your greatest weaknesses are tied to your greatest strengths. Only by embracing them can you discover your true gifts.”

“What do you mean?” Little One asked, wiping some crumbs from his chin with the back of his hand.

“Your fear is part of your sensitivity,” the Serpent God said, handing Little One a napkin. “You feel things deeply. This is what helps you see beyond the external forms of this world. And seeing beyond the forms of this world is what will allow you to accomplish what you are here to do.”

He said it so matter-of-factly that it took Little One a moment to realize what he had just said. When he did, he nearly spit out the Xocoatl he had just poured in his mouth. “Wait, what am I here to do?” he asked, his eyes suddenly fixed on his father.

“You still do not see it?” the Serpent God asked. Little One shook his head slowly, wondering what he missed. “Long ago we gods realized that we were too few to help all those who needed us. So we began to have children, that they might help us with our task.” The diamonds in the center of the giant god’s eyes grew large. “You are my son,” he said. “You are here to help others remember who they truly are, as we gods do.”

Little One’s mind went blank. He had no words, no ideas, no response, but he was intensely aware of the iridescent walls, the sunlight playing off of them, the soft napkin in his hands, and the light in his father’s eyes. He felt warmth rising in him, as well as a settling sensation, as if all the bones and muscles in his body had just found their perfect place.

“You feel it, do you not?” his father continued. “The fit of it. Just as you felt the call to leave your village and seek me, even before you knew what it was you sought.”

There were still no words in Little One’s mind. He just stared at his father with his eyes wide and his mouth open. He barely registered the food in front of him.

“And you felt which way to go, even if you were not sure of it. It did not really matter, for all paths lead back to the one you’re meant to be on, but you knew which path to take.”

Little One nodded mutely.

“All of our children have this capacity to hear the call, and to follow it, despite uncertainty about where they are going. It is in following the call, mysterious as it is, that they discover who they really are, and what they’re here to do.”

It felt to Little One as if the entire world were vibrating, matching the rhythm of his own heart. “I am here to help people remember that they are made of light?” he finally managed to ask in a breathless voice.

“Yes, my son,” said the Serpent God. “That is your mission.”

Little One felt as if he were suddenly nearly as large as the Serpent God before him.

“But there is one more thing you should know,” his father said. Little One noticed that there was now a glint in the god’s eyes, and his lips twitched slightly. “Most of my children get big heads when they first hear their mission. They are proud to be the son of a god.” He laughed. “As well you should be. But you should also know that while you are special, you are not that special. For by now every human is the descendant of some god. And you all have the mission to help each other remember. You do it in vastly different ways, and you focus on different aspects of the light, but you—we—are all tempted to forget our purpose and use our gifts for the Guardian’s goals, and we need each other to remind us of who we really are.”

The room was still vibrating, but now it was spinning as well. The Serpent God laughed. “You look like your head is about to explode. It’s never happened before, but I’d hate for you to be the first. I have given you much to process. I will leave you to your meal, and afterward you will sleep. I will return after we have both had time to rest.”

Little One nodded. As his father stood up and turned to leave, a lone thought appeared in his mind. “Father!” he called, and the giant serpent form turned towards him.

“Yes, my son?” rumbled the god.

“Thank you,” Little One said. “I am deeply grateful.”

The Serpent God winked. “For the knowledge, or the breakfast? I am still not sure which you enjoyed most.” He laughed to himself, then turned and walked through a towering doorway in the iridescent wall.

Little One turned back to the table. He thought he was too overcome to want to eat anything more, but as he stared at his plate and tried to form a coherent thought, he found himself picking up pieces of pancake, dipping them in syrup, and placing them in his mouth.

His first recognizable thought was a prayer that pancakes be a part of his calling.

Click here to read the next story in the series.

Photo credit: Randen Pederson // CC


Little One and the Key to Power (Or, What Even the Gods Need More of)

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.

To read the first story in the series, click here.

To read the previous installment, click here.

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.

To find the god, you must enter the palace. To enter the palace, you must find the god.

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.

Click here to read the next story in the series.

Photo credit: Randen Pederson // CC

Little One and the Guardian of the Guru (Or, What to Do When You Realize You Aren’t Going to Succeed)

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

Little One and the Disingenuous Genie

Following is the twelfth 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.

Little One was so caught up in his thoughts that he almost didn’t see the strange metal object lying on its side in the middle of the stream.

He had been walking for three days. The landscape hadn’t changed in that time; the water in the stream sometimes flowed smoothly over pebbles and sometimes bounced noisily around large rocks, but otherwise the same immutable green grass, rolling hills, and blue sky stretched on endlessly.

The monotony of the scenery and the gentle bubbling of the stream had lulled him into a kind of waking dream filled with thoughts and images that seemed to come and go of their own accord.

As the minutes stretched into hours and the hours into days, the thoughts moved from an irritated challenging of the fly’s definition of “not far from here” to a curious imagining of the mysterious creature it had told him about, the one who could give Little One everything he was looking for.

Eventually the thoughts moved beyond the creature and on to his father. Little One imagined himself finding the Serpent God and rescuing him from whomever—or whatever—had captured him. He pictured how grateful the God would be, how he would proclaim Little One his favorite son and offer him gifts in gratitude.

Little One went on to think about how he would tell the story to Ginger when he found her again. He imagined walking with her in triumph back to the City of the Children of the Serpent God and telling all his other fancy brothers and sisters who could fly and become invisible and invent miraculous things that he was the sibling—small and frightened and without obvious talents as he was—who had delivered their father from danger. He felt warm, tall, and strong as he considered the possibility.

Then a cold thought struck from nowhere. He didn’t know where Ginger was. Maybe she wasn’t wandering or lost, as he had imagined, but closer to finding their father than he was. Maybe, he thought with a start, she had already found him. He had run into so many delays that it was entirely possible that she had not only found him but also had time to rescue him, receive his accolades, and by now be halfway back to the City to tell their siblings of her success.

Little One suddenly felt chilled, small, and empty. It was then that he belatedly realized that something in the landscape had changed.

He found himself rubbing his eyes, a sharp pain and brightness lingering behind his eyelids. Letting the images of his theoretical defeat fade, he looked around. The stream gurgled happily in front of him, tall, green grass surrounded him on all sides, and the sun bore down on him from the sky directly above as usual. When he turned to look behind him, however, he saw something shining in the middle of the stream.

He couldn’t believe he had missed it even momentarily. It reflected the light like a signal fire, demanding the attention of any living creature within eyeshot.

As he walked up to it, squinting to protect his eyes, he began to make out its form. It was unlike anything he’d ever seen before. It looked like an elongated cup with a handle on one side and a long snout on the other with a hole on the end. When he leaned down to pick it up, he saw that it had a wide base that would allow it to rest evenly on the ground. It was made entirely of thin metal that continued to shine brightly in the sun as he held it up to his face.

“Well, what are you waiting for?” asked a high-pitched voice from behind him. He wheeled around. There was nobody there.

Remembering the fly, he began to search the air and ground around him for insects, worms, or other talking animals. He found none.

“You won’t be able to see me until you do what you’re supposed to do with the lamp.”

“The lamp?” Little One asked, unsure of which direction to address as he spoke.

“Yes, that thing you’re holding. Have you never heard the stories, boy?”

Little One’s face grew warm. “No, I guess not,” he said. “What exactly am I supposed to do with this…lamp?”

There was a frustrated exhalation of air. Little One could feel it like a sudden warm breeze on his cheek. “Everyone’s heard the stories. What cave did you grow up in?”

Little One felt heat rising within him. “No cave, sir, but I’d be happy to cooperate if you would just tell me what it is I’m supposed to do.”

“Nobody in the last thousand years has needed to ask me what do with the lamp,” the voice squeaked unhappily. “My master wouldn’t be happy if he knew. But fine. It’s been such a long time since anyone’s sought him out that I don’t think he would object to me saying, not even to someone as clueless as you.” Little One scowled. “Everyone knows you’re supposed to rub the lamp three times. But my master likes his belly rubbed in a slightly different way.” Shrill laughter that reminded Little One of a baby donkey braying for its mother rang out across the grass.

Growing impatient, Little One prompted him. “And how do I do that?”

The braying stopped. “You need to appreciate the lamp.”

Little One spun the lamp in his hands. “Appreciate it?” He looked at it closely. “Well, it is very shiny.”

He heard a groan. “If you want my master to appear, you’re going to have to do better than that.”

“Okay, it’s very shiny and…pretty. It has a nice shape, and the way it reflects the sun is quite beautiful.”

“That’s better,” said the voice, sounding slightly less squeaky now. “And what else?”

“Well, it has a nice feel to it. It’s so smooth and cool from the water. It feels good in my hands.”

“That wasn’t too terrible. And what else?”

Little One thought. It seemed odd to have to put so much thought into complimenting a piece of metal. “Well, I suppose it’s very well-made. I didn’t work with metal in my village, but I never saw any of those who did make something so consistently thin and even and shapely. It’s pretty impressive I guess.”

There was a short silence. “You guess?”

Little One sighed. “It’s impressive. Very impressive.”

A singe clap of thunder boomed through the cloudless sky. As Little One looked up to see where it came from, the lamp began to tremble in his hands. Soon it was shaking so much that it fell through his fingers and onto the ground in front of him. Its shaking grew so violent that it began jumping back and forth across the grass. A loud clanking noise reverberated from within.

He had just started to wonder whether he should run in the opposite direction when something long and thin shot out of the lamp, disappearing into the grass beside him. Just then, a giant, blue hand erupted out of the snout of the lamp. A thick, blue arm followed it. Just as a shoulder began to emerge, there was a loud clunk and what sounded to Little One like a muffled curse.

After a long moment in which Little One debated once again whether to help or to run, a huge head squeezed its way through the opening, followed in quick succession by another shoulder and arm, a giant trunk, and two thick legs covered in blue smoke. The body was huge and at least six times the size of Little One, but it floated above the lamp as if made of air and settled on its side a little above eye level, a large elbow and hand propping up its enormous head.

“This infernal lamp gets smaller every time I come out of it,” the monster complained to nobody in particular. His loud voice was not exactly shrill, but it somehow lacked bass. He looked around, his eyes finally landing on Little One. “So you like my lamp, eh?” he said, his swollen lips curving into a smile.

“It’s very nice,” Little One said.

The smile disappeared. “Nice?” accused the blue man, his eyes bulging and his chin jiggling. “Nice?” His giant head swirled around, searching the grasslands on either side of them. “Abdul. Abdul, you fool! Where are you?”

The grass to Little One’s left shuddered slightly. After a moment a thin, blue man appeared from between the blades. His face was drawn and his ribs showed; it looked like he hadn’t eaten for weeks. Though his skin was the same bright blue as the other creature, he otherwise shared nothing in common with him. “Yes, master?” he asked in a tremulous voice.

“Abdul, you useless man. We’ve talked about this! Only those who are worthy are to be allowed to summon me.”

Abdul’s body shrank back as his eyes studied the ground in front of him. “Yes, master. I’m sorry, master. You are right. I am a fool. It’s just that it has been so long since anybody came to seek you, and this man—this boy—he said your lamp was beautiful.”

“He did?”

“Yes, and he said it was impressive too.”


“Yes, ‘very impressive’ were his exact words.”

“Well, then,” said the giant, blue man. “I suppose you may not have been entirely useless in this instance.” He turned his large head back to Little One. “So I suppose you are going to ask me now for your three wishes?”

Little One looked at him in surprise. “Three wishes?” he asked.

The giant eyes rolled. “Don’t play dumb with me, boy. Everyone knows when you rub a genie’s lamp, you get three wishes. That’s why everyone comes looking for me. That’s why you’re here, no doubt.” The genie’s chest puffed out and his head rose a few inches higher.

Little One wondered if this was really the same creature the fly had told him about. This genie seemed so much less magnificent than he had been expecting. At the same time, he was offering him three wishes, and the fly had said the creature would be able to give him what he sought. Little One made up his mind.

“Yes, genie, sir,” he said, trying to sound as respectful as possible. “I am here for my three wishes. I would be most grateful if you would help me to find my father.”

“That’s not a wish,” grumbled the genie impatiently. “Ask me for something you can touch, be, or do—something you can hold onto. Something that means something, boy!”

Little One was confused. “Like what, sir?”

The genie looked back at Abdul with disgust. “Where do you find these people, man?” Abdul kept staring at the ground in front of him as he began to mumble a response. The genie interrupted him. “It’s a rhetorical question, Abdul. I don’t really want an answer.” He turned back to Little One. “I’m a powerful genie, boy. Possibly the most powerful in the world. People come from all over to seek me out. Why? Because I am almighty, not to mention generous. I alone can give them anything they want, in the blink of an eye. Anything! They understand that, and they don’t waste their time with wishes as inconsequential and idiotic as that one.”

Little One swallowed. It felt like he had a rock in his throat. “What types of things do they ask for then?”

The genie roared in laughter. “Important things! Gold, silver, everlasting riches! The ability to accomplish such feats as will guarantee them fame for generations to come! Knowledge of their enemies, or the power to vanquish them! You’re thinking too small, boy. Stop wasting my time.”

Little One thought about it. “I don’t mean to waste your time, sir,” he said slowly. “But I don’t see how any of those things could help me right now.”

The genie’s eyes became hard. He pushed himself up from his side and stood to his full height. He looked at least twice as big as he had a moment before. He leaned over until his nose was almost touching Little One’s. Little One could feel the air around him vibrate with power, and his heart began to beat rapidly.

“Not able to help you, boy?” The genie’s voice was as quiet as a viper getting ready to strike. “I ought to kill you and put you out of your misery right now. But I’m a good guy. An understanding guy. I get that sometimes you humans need a little help to appreciate what’s staring you right in the face.” He straightened back up, but that didn’t slow down Little One’s pulse.

“You dream of rescuing your father, no?” the genie asked casually. Without bothering to look for Little One’s response, he continued. “Most unlikely son saves the Serpent God. What a wonderful story. Your siblings will be so jealous. Ginger especially.” Little One’s mouth dropped open. The genie just grinned. “Oh, yes, I know all about you. But then again, I know what to wish for.” He paused. “So you think you have what you need to be successful, eh? With that body and those skills? You think you have the strength you need to find your father and the prowess to defeat whatever is holding him?” The genie laughed, but his eyes remained hard. “I’ll say this: I wouldn’t bet a copper penny on you. Sure, you’ve gotten this far, but you have no idea what evil lies ahead. I assure you, the foes you’ll have to defeat will make those you’ve already faced seem like puppies in comparison.”

Little One felt small and cold again. The genie continued. “Of course, you don’t have a hope to rescue anybody without proper weapons and equipment. And where will you get this equipment? You clearly can’t make it yourself. But with enough gold and silver, you could buy it in the next village. And what about food? You think you’re going to just find what you need forever? That’s not the way the world works, boy. You’ve been lucky so far, but sustenance is scarce. Your survival hangs by a thread. One wish from me and you won’t have to worry about starving or dying of thirst like so many have before you.”

Little One’s mouth was dry. He swallowed hard. “Well, I guess it would be helpful to have plenty of food and water, though I would need to be able to carry it. Maybe in a backpack! Could you give me a backpack that creates an endless supply of food?”

The genie glared at him. “Can I? You dare to doubt my ability? Stand by and watch, foolish human.”

The genie waved a hand and suddenly a backpack appeared next to Little One.

“Well, test it out,” the genie said. “I know you humans need to see it to believe it.”

Little One picked up the backpack and looked inside. There were all kinds of fruits, nuts, bread, and eggs inside. He pulled out one piece of fruit to examine it and saw that another appeared immediately in its place. He smiled. “Wow, that’s amazing.”

The genie’s shoulders settled on his back. “I am, aren’t I?” he said, smiling. “So what’s you’re second wish then?”

Little One thought for a moment. “I suppose if I am to find my father, it would be good to be stronger.”

“Strength?” said the genie. He clapped his hands and it sounded like something had exploded. “Done!” he yelled, a smile showing sharp teeth in the back of his mouth.

Little One looked down. He was taller, and his arms and legs looked almost unrecognizable to him. They were covered with large, well-defined muscles. Flexing, he could feel the inherent power within them. He grinned.

“Now you’re starting to understand,” said the genie. “So what is your third and final wish?”

This time Little One didn’t have to think at all. “Fighting skills,” he said. “I want to be able to defeat any enemy that comes my way.”

The genie’s smile grew bigger. “Coming right up,” he said, and Little One felt a warm breeze blow over him. He felt like something had changed, but he wasn’t sure what it was.

“I can see your doubt,” said the genie, shaking his giant head. “There’s so little trust these days. Abdul! Abdul, come here and show him what he can do.”

Abdul sighed and stepped forward. He held his hands in fists in front of him. Suddenly one of them came rushing towards Little One’s face. Before he knew what he was doing, Little One’s hand flashed out and blocked the punch. In the same moment, his other hand formed a fist and smashed into Abdul’s face.

“I’m so sorry!” Little One said, pulling his hand quickly back to his side. “I really didn’t meant to—”

“Oh, relax,” said the genie. “Abdul is used to it. You’re hardly the first person who’s wanted to test out their newfound power. You’re alright, aren’t you Abdul?” Abdul nodded. “See, he’s fine. It’s part of his job. But how about you? How does it feel?” The corners of his lips peeled back in what looked like part snarl, part smile.

Little One had to admit he felt good. He was excited. With a guaranteed food supply, and strength and physical prowess guaranteed to help him vanquish any adversary, he was sure that he would never fail at anything again. He started to tell the genie this when an image flashed in his mind.

It was Ginger. She was smiling, sharing his excitement. He suddenly felt sad that she wasn’t here with him.

His smile faded. Beneath the sadness he became aware of something else. He wasn’t sure what it was at first. Then he realized—it was nothing. Beneath the excitement in his chest was a vast emptiness that felt almost big enough for him to fall into if he focused on it too long.

The genie suddenly began dusting off his hands as if in a great rush. “Well, no matter. I can see how satisfied you are. Three wishes, fulfilled once again. My work here is done.”

Little One tried to move his attention from the nothingness back to the excitement and the sense of power in his limbs. But something kept nagging at him, bringing him back to the void.

“The greatest compliment you can give is a referral. I’m here 24/7, always waiting to make dreams come true. Come, Abdul, it’s time to go.”

“Wait,” Little One said. He wasn’t sure what he needed to say, but he felt like something important was missing. The abyss swelled, threatening to engulf him and extinguish the flame of happiness.

“No time to wait, boy. I’ve got many more wishes to fulfill. A whole world of them. I gave you everything you wanted; you can’t ask for more than that.” He grunted as he tried to shove his toe into the snout of the lamp and it fell onto its side. “Abdul, hold that cursed lamp still for me!” Abdul bent over to place both hands around the base of the lamp.

Little One realized what was bothering him. The genie was wrong. He still wanted something more than what he had, something far more important. “No, wait!” he said desperately. “I appreciate your gifts, I really do, but I still have no idea where my father is, or where to even go next to try to find him.”

The genie paused in his efforts, looking down at him. His eyes were ice. “I will not stand here and be insulted by your ingratitude. If you are too stupid to know what really matters, that’s your problem, not mine.” He grunted as he finally got his toe into the hole at the end of the lamp. His leg followed quickly. He was inside up to his waist when he growled quickly, “No give-backs. No exchanges. And absolutely no returns.” With that, the rest of his giant, blue form was swallowed by the lamp.

Little One stood looking at Abdul, who shrugged his shoulders. “Nobody really knows what to ask for,” he said, almost apologetically. “Or they don’t until it’s too late.”

Little One searched his face. “Do you know where the Serpent God is? Or how I might know where to find him?”

The thin, blue man shrugged again. “Strength, survival, hunger…those are our specialties. Knowledge and wisdom aren’t really our thing.”

Something inside Little One fell.

Abdul looked at him with something close to compassion. “I know how you feel,” he said. “Ever since I’ve been tied to him, I feel like no matter how much I eat, I’m always hungry.” He looked around himself, as if half expecting the genie to be hiding in the grass surrounding them. He lowered his voice. “I’ll tell you something, though. There is someone nearby whose gift is wisdom. He knows everything, and can answer any question you have.”

Little One stood up taller. “Where can I find him?” he asked.

“Finding him isn’t the problem. It’s accessing him.” Abdul looked around again and leaned in closer. “To ask him a question, you first have to defeat his bodyguard. I’ve met many who have tried, but none who succeeded. He’s a vicious, heartless, inexhaustible fighter. Without mercy, they say. Without weakness. I’m afraid even your new strength and prowess may not be a match for him.”

Little One’s blood grew cold. “Where can I find this man and his bodyguard?” he made himself ask.

“That’s the thing,” said Abdul, who was nearly whispering now. “You can’t find him. But if you believe in him, and if the need is great, he will find you.” He stood up straight. “I have to go now,” he said.

The blue man stared at the lamp with a look of such combined dread and revulsion that Little One felt compelled to say something. “Is there anything I can do to help you?” he asked.

Abdul’s eyes widened. “Nobody’s ever asked me that before,” he said. He sighed heavily. “Not that it matters. I am irrevocably tied to the genie. As he grows strong, so I grow weak. As long as he is fed, we are both prisoners. It is only when somebody sees our true nature that we will be set free.”

Little One started to ask for clarification, but Abdul just shook his head firmly, looked over each shoulder, and dove head first into the lamp. It rattled for a moment, jumping around in the grass, and then finally shot into the sky and disappeared.

Little One looked around. He had so many questions, but there was nobody to ask. Sighing, he picked up his new backpack and started off downstream on legs taller and stronger than they had been that morning.

As he walked, he no longer thought about future victories or defeats. Instead, he wondered about true nature, tried to believe, and fervently hoped that his need was great.

Click here to read the next story in the series.

Photo credit: Randen Pederson // CC

Little One and the Field of Power

Following is the eleventh 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 thinking back on it afterwards, Little One had no idea how he survived the fall.

He plunged through the abyss for what felt like days. Of course he had no way of knowing how long it actually was. All he knew was that despite his fervent hope that something—anything—would begin to take shape beneath him, he kept falling through the endless void.

It was so dark that he couldn’t see anything, not even the rest of his body as it fell. With nothing but unknown blackness surrounding him, his mind began to seek solid ground at least internally by imagining what lay below him.

At first he pictured beautiful landscapes filled with rushing water, lush forests, and mountaintop vistas that extended as far as the eye could see. But as the fall continued with no ground in sight, the images began to turn darker. He couldn’t stop himself from imagining scorched sands, burned tree trunks, and threatening figures moving under an endless night.

At one point his visualizations grew so terrifying that the blackness surrounding him felt almost comforting in comparison. At least he seemed to be alone here, with nothing around to attack. He could even feel the warm air supporting him from below so he didn’t fall too fast, and the emptiness surrounded him with such softness that it almost felt like an embrace.

Little One lost himself in these sensations and nearly forgot that there was supposed to be anything more in the world than this. It was a pleasant, almost entirely unfamiliar feeling.

Eventually—hours, days, or weeks later—Little One was never quite sure—the blackness began to lighten. He was startled when he made out something moving about just in front of him; he was even more surprised to realize that it was his own foot.

As the air about him lightened, he began to be able to discern something green far below. Suddenly fear returned sharp as a knife in his belly as Little One realized the very real danger of what he had been hoping for all this time. He didn’t have a good sense of how fast he was falling, but his speed appeared to be increasing; wind was starting to whip about his head, blowing his hair in his face and tugging his clothes away from him.

The green below him was beginning to look more and more like rolling hills covered in grass. Though it looked softer than rock, it was likely dense enough to easily smash a skull at any significant speed.

He tried to think of a way to break his fall on something softer, but there was nothing below him but undulating grasslands, and nothing with him that he could use to slow himself down.

As the ground hurtled towards him, he made an effort to focus on the air beneath him, feeling its embrace again as he had in the abyss. As soon as he did, the wind whipped less wildly and he felt himself slowing down. The more he focused on the sensation of being held up, the more slowly he went.

He descended the last bit of sky in this way, gradual for a moment like a feather as he felt the air beneath him, then quickly like a rock as his fear took over and the ground rushed up to meet him. Then he would relax into the air’s embrace and become a feather once again.

The last bit he approached like a rock until, just before he landed, he felt a gust of air rushing upward from beneath him; it picked him up as gently as a mother would her child, then deposited him with somewhat less tenderness face-first into the moist ground beneath the grass.

Little One wiggled his fingers and toes. No pain. He lifted one leg, then another, then his arms. Nothing hurt; he seemed to be all in one piece.

His mind struggled to make sense of what had just happened but ultimately failed. He shook his head, pushed himself up off the dirt, and looked around.

Grass surrounded him, waving slightly in the breeze. The gentle hills extended in all directions beneath a blue, sunny sky.

Little One took a deep breath. He decided that this was a beautiful place—the soft green grass as it rippled like giant waves in the wind, the stark blue of the sky, and the light that shimmered in the distance. This was good land, he thought, a kind place, and he felt grateful as he began to walk directly towards the sun in search of the kidnapped Serpent God.

Walking felt extraordinarily good. He enjoyed the sensation of movement in his legs, and he felt free, purposeful, fulfilled. He wasn’t sure at first which direction to go in, but he felt confident that if he just kept walking with open eyes and ears, he couldn’t help but find clues that would help him locate his father.

After some time he passed a stream. Its water was so clear and it made such a delightful noise as it spilled over pebbles and around boulders that he considered changing course and following it downstream. In the end, however, he decided to stick to the direction he had already chosen, having come this far. He drank his fill of the sweet, cool water and filled up his flask, but then continued on his way.

A few hours later, he began to regret his decision. The sun was beginning its descent towards the horizon, and he hadn’t seen any more streams. He’d assumed there would be many out here, given the lushness of the landscape, but he’d seen nothing—no water, no animals, not even a single, solitary bush—that would suggest there was anything out here other than infinite fields of grass.

It occurred to him that this place might not be as kind as he’d thought. It began to feel more desolate. He felt a tightening in his chest as he realized that though beautiful, this land wasn’t very hospitable, and that food and water were scarce.

He decided to return to the stream.

When he turned around, he noticed something strange. The grass—which moments before had a rich, bright sheen—no longer looked quite so robust. Little One wasn’t sure if it was the change in the sun’s angle or something else, but it now appeared yellowish, parched, and almost brittle.

He began to walk and continued for what felt like an interminably long time, but nothing in the landscape changed except the rustling of the dry grass. He was sure he had walked at least as far as he had come, but there was no water in sight. He considered whether he could have gotten turned around, but the sun was directly in front of him and the stream had been perpendicular to his path; he should have come across it regardless.

Little One’s legs suddenly felt tired, and he realized that his foot was starting to ache. He could feel frustration rising within him.

“This place isn’t just desolate—it’s dangerous,” he muttered to himself. “It’s actively trying to deceive me.”

Just then his foot caught the edge of a rock hidden by the grass and he fell, barely managing to get a hand in front of himself to avoid falling again face first into the dirt.

“Oh, you think that’s funny, do you?” he cried aloud. He slammed his fist into the earth. “I don’t think it’s funny at all.” He felt something heavy and malevolent in the air around him, the way electricity charges the air just before lightning strikes.

When he stood up again, the landscape around him had changed. There were jagged cliffs rising in the distance now, fissures were opening up in the earth around him, and the air was darkening even as the sun was still visible above the horizon. A cold wind brushed against his arm, raising goosebumps.

Little One shuddered. This place is turning against me, he thought to himself. I’ve angered it, and it wants me gone.

He began to walk more slowly now, careful where he put his feet. The air got quieter and more threatening with each step. The fissures around him grew bigger, gaping like mouths that wanted to swallow him whole.

This is bad, Little One thought. I need to get out of here, and fast.

Just then Little One heard crackling and felt a searing heat on the back of his legs. Even before he turned, he knew what he would find. The entire field of grass behind him had burst into bright flames of red and orange. He had no idea how it had started, let alone spread so quickly, but he didn’t have time to wonder; the fire was flying towards him with the speed and resolve of a dragon hunting prey.

Little One ran, cursing his luck at having landed in such an evil place.

That’s when another strange thing happened. Where a moment before there had been solid ground beneath his feet, now there was nothing. Little One saw it happen, saw the earth in front of his extended foot disappear in an instant and become a void, nothing more than shadow.

Before he had time to register this fact, he was falling into an abyss for the second time that day.

This one, fortunately, was shorter than the last. And that, perhaps as much as anything else, is what calmed him down. By the time he tumbled to a stop at the bottom of the pit, he was almost laughing at the absurdity of what was happening.

He felt surprisingly clear-headed and calm. “Another chasm,” he said to himself, laughing. “Okay, well, at least I’m getting pretty good at these.”

He heard a buzzing sound but couldn’t find its source. The fissure he found himself in wasn’t large at all—he could touch the walls all around him, but he was a good ways from the top. He figured it wouldn’t take too long to climb out, but when he tried, the earth crumbled; he couldn’t get purchase for a hand or foot, and he sensed that if he tried too hard, he might end up burying himself alive.

The buzzing seemed to be coming from behind him, but when he turned, there was nothing there. It continued, sometimes behind his left ear and sometimes behind his right, as he thought about the first chasm he had fallen into and the snake that had helped him find his way out after he had nearly given up. He hadn’t seen the snake since revisiting that chasm and seeing the whole episode replayed in front of him. He had realized then that the snake wasn’t separate from him; its wisdom was really his own. Recalling that, he suddenly felt stronger. If he could make it out of that pit of darkness, surely he could make it out of this one.

Still, he wished the snake would come and tell him exactly what to do. That would certainly make things easier.

It occurred to Little One that someone or something had helped him overcome nearly every challenge he’d successfully faced on this journey so far. He felt embarrassed by that for a moment until he realized that it meant that there was help available every time he’d gotten stuck. Which meant that there was help available somewhere around here now.

Little One looked around. He said a silent prayer—he wasn’t sure whether it was to the Serpent God, this strange land he now found himself in, or something else—but he asked whatever might be listening for help and guidance.

Nothing appeared. Little One repeated his prayer and waited. These things probably took time, he figured.

As he sat there waiting, the buzzing sound grew louder. A fly appeared from behind his head and hovered close to his eyes. Annoyed, Little One swatted it away with his hands. It immediately came back.

He swatted again, and again the fly returned. This happened twice more until the last time the fly didn’t come back. Little One breathed a sigh of relief.

“You were the one who asked for help,” a deep voice said from behind his head.

Little One whipped around but didn’t see anyone. He began to turn back around when he saw the fly hovering behind him at eye level.

“Don’t swat me again, please,” it said in a voice that was impossibly loud for its size. “I hate that. You have no idea how it messes with my navigational equipment. I’ll fly crooked for days now.”

Little One looked at the fly. “Um, I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t realize…”

“Didn’t realize that something with a mass hundreds of times my own would cause damage when slammed at high speeds against my delicate body? Yes, well, nobody could have seen that coming.”

Little One wasn’t sure what to say. He’d never talked to a sarcastic fly before. “I’m sorry,” he said again.

“Then I forgive you,” said the fly lightly. “Now, I believe you were looking for some help?”

Little One nodded. “How do I get out of here?”

“To get out,” the fly began sagaciously, “you need to first understand how you got in.”

Little One was tired of riddles. “Okay, how did I get in here then?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” asked the fly.

“Um, no,” said Little One, unable to keep the frustration from his voice. “If it were I wouldn’t have asked. The only thing that’s obvious to me is that this place is trying to kill me.”

Little One couldn’t be sure, but he thought the fly was shaking its head in disappointment. “A fundamental misunderstanding. Common, but erroneous. Tell me then,” he asked, “did it feel that way when you first got here?”

“Well, no,” Little One had to admit. “At first I thought it was great.”

“So what happened?”

“I realized that the grass just went on forever and that there was hardly any food or water.”

“And do you know those things for certain?”

Little One considered this. “Well, no, I guess not.”

The fly continued with its deep, commanding voice. “Exactly. So you told yourself a story about the nature of this place.” It paused, apparently waiting for something. “And…”

“And it turned out I was right?” Little One really was tired of riddles.

The fly’s two front legs crossed over its abdomen. “Exactly,” he said with satisfaction.

“Wait, what?” Little One asked.

He saw tiny flashes of white in the fly’s face and realized that it had rolled its eyes.  “You told yourself a story about how great this world was, and you were right. Then you told yourself a story about how horrible it was, and—guess what?—turns out you were right again,” the fly said impatiently. “That’s generally how the stories we tell ourselves work, is it not?”

Little One was confused. “What do you mean?”

“Stories are powerful,” explained the fly, uncrossing its legs. “You tell one, and that’s what’s true. Tell another, and that’s what’s true. The world conforms itself to your expectations. All worlds do, really. This one is just particularly responsive.”

Little One shook his head. “You mean I make things happen with the stories that I tell myself? I can change the physical world with my thoughts?”

The fly laughed. “I’m just a fly. I don’t pretend to understand everything that makes the world the way it is. What I’m saying is that your stories determine your reality. Regardless of what’s actually going on, they create how your world looks, sounds, and feels to you. They define your experience and, even more, what’s possible for you.”

Little One took this in. “So to get out of here, I just need to tell a better story.”

“Well done, Grasshopper!” said the fly, laughing at his own joke.

Little One thought he heard an edge of mockery in the fly’s laughter. It rubbed him the wrong way. He was already feeling stupid for having gotten himself stuck, once again, in a bad situation that was entirely of his own making.

“That’s just another story,” the fly said, as if reading his mind. “Are you sure it’s the one you really want to tell?”

Little One shook his head as if to break free of something. “I suppose not,” he said. “How about this one: I just learned another good lesson rather quickly. And there was really no way to learn it without making that mistake.”

The fly clapped its two front legs together enthusiastically. “And so the student becomes the master. I believe my work here is done.” It put one arm in front of its abdomen and flew down quickly and back up again in what Little One understood to be a mock bow before it started flying away.

Little One had an idea. “Hey, hold on a second,” he said. “Did you see the Serpent God pass this way? I have reason to believe he was abducted against his will, and I’m trying to find him.”

The fly looked at him, all laughter gone from its face. “No,” he said seriously. “I am, once again, just a humble fly. But if what you say is true, that is serious.” He paused for a moment, as if making a decision, before finally nodding his head and continuing. “There is, however, a creature not far from here who can give you what you’re looking for.”

Little One’s heart started to beat faster, and he felt excitement rise within him. “Really? Where can I find this creature?”

“When you get to the surface, you will see the stream you missed from behind the illusion of your story. Follow it downstream and you will find this beast.”

Something in the fly’s manner dampened Little One’s excitement. “You’re sure it can give me what I seek?”

“Of that I am sure,” said the fly. “But it may not be what you think it is.”

“It’s the only lead I’ve got,” said Little One. “That’s good enough. Thank you so much!”

“Best hold your gratitude,” said the fly. “When all is said and done, you may not thank me after all.” And with that it buzzed off.

Little One watched it until it disappeared above him.

He wasn’t sure what the fly meant, but he wouldn’t figure it out by staying in this pit. He took a deep breath, preparing himself. Then he began to tell his story.

This is a good land, he thought to himself. Kind and generous and abundant.

As if in answer, he heard a bird singing, the first animal he’d heard since arriving.

I have everything I need. Assistance is always available to me.

A ray of sunlight appeared on the wall in front of him. He put his hand into its light and enjoyed the warmth.

I can find my way out of here. There are probably lots of ways to climb out; all I need is one.

Just then he felt a drop of rain fall on his face. It was cold and unpleasant.

“You’ve got to be kidding me!” he said out loud. “I’m trying, here, okay?”

He took anther deep breath. “Okay, it’s just rain,” he said, trying again. “It can’t hurt. Plants need rain to grow. Animals need water too. It’s nourishing. Maybe it’s here to help me.”

And suddenly Little One understood. He laughed when he realized what was happening.

He put his backpack on and waited. The rain hit his face over and over, but the sensation felt enjoyable now, not unlike falling through the abyss.

In a short time water puddled in the bottom of the pit. Little One didn’t move. The rain continued, and the puddle turned into a pond. The rain got harder, and soon the pond turned into a lake.

Before long, Little One found himself treading water, buoyed up by the lake towards the opening of the pit.

When he reached the top, he pulled himself up onto solid land and rolled onto his back, where he could see the first stars of the evening that were beginning to emerge from behind the clouds as the sun went down.

That couldn’t have gone any better, he thought, and just then he was flooded with a sense of gratitude, contentment, and a strong desire to find his father.

Click here to read the next story in the series.

Photo credit: Randen Pederson // CC