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.
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.