Following is the third story in a series that tells the tale of the first hero to go on a journey to discover his calling.
I believe that all of us who are attempting to uncover what the world is asking for from us are on our own hero’s quest.
It takes tremendous courage to step out of the mainstream and into the unknown. And as any hero will undoubtedly encounter numerous obstacles along the way, so will we. In overcoming these challenges, we discover the truth about ourselves and all that we have to offer the world. And for this reason as well our quest to answer the call is heroic, as it will no doubt benefit the world at least as much as it benefits us.
Little One woke up in darkness.
As his mind slowly came to, he was startled to realize that he had no idea where he was or how he had gotten there.
He sat up, blood rushing to his head, and looked around. He couldn’t see anything.
Butterflies took off in his belly.
His eyes strained harder to see through the darkness, but it was impenetrable; just when he thought he could make out a shape, the darkness would thicken and shift and he couldn’t be sure it wasn’t his imagination.
His heart began to beat faster. His mind was slow and obstinate, like a horse that didn’t want to leave the stable. He willed himself to focus and looked for the most recent memory he could find.
It came to him suddenly, in a flash: He was running for his life. His feet pounded the earth. Trees flew by in the darkness. He heard nothing except the ragged rhythm of his breathing, felt nothing except his lungs nearly exploding in his chest.
Only he couldn’t remember what he was running from.
Little One rubbed his scalp gently, as if trying to read the memories with the tips of his fingers. Aside from a tender spot on the side of his skull, he found nothing.
He looked around him again. He still couldn’t see anything, but he noticed that the air was humid and smelled of earth. He extended his arms and found rock all around him. He realized suddenly that he was in some sort of underground cavern or cave.
Using his hands as feelers, he found an opening in the wall to his left. Feeling his way on his hands and knees, he made his way through into even deeper darkness.
The tunnel sloped down sharply, getting narrower and narrower. Before long, he was on his belly, slithering like a snake to make his way forward. He tried not to think about getting stuck or what might be waiting for him at the end of the tunnel.
The passageway continued sloping down more and more steeply. Then suddenly the earth disappeared and there was nothing supporting him—only a slight breeze and a drop in temperature and a sense of infinite empty space.
Little One felt dizzy as his torso swung over nothingness and his stomach dropped into his feet. He couldn’t see anything at all. He yelled, but heard no echo. He dropped a rock into the empty chamber in front of him but couldn’t hear it land.
Anxiety rose into his throat and threatened to choke him. He took a breath and shuffled backwards onto solid ground, slowly making his way back to the original chamber.
He decided to continue exploring.
Using his hands, Little One searched the rock again. When he reached the wall directly opposite the first tunnel he had been down, he found another opening. Carefully this time, he made his way through.
After a few minutes he saw a faint light up ahead. As he got closer, a cavern the size of several houses opened up in front of him. Small points of bluish light glowed all over the ceiling, illuminating moist stalactites and a shallow lake beneath.
At first Little One was breathless from the beauty of the starry blue light and its reflection on the water. But then his blood began to run cold as he realized that there was something sinister about this cavern, something evil.
Smoke rose from the surface of the water. The water itself was moving, shadows rising to the surface and rippling outward as if in a slow boil. Suddenly Little One felt the heat emanating from the depths and noticed a strange smell that was sickly sweet and burned the back of his throat.
He stood up. The air became thicker and the smell worse. He began to cough. Then, looking out upon the water from his higher vantage point, he saw them.
There, just in front of him, just beneath the water’s surface, were bones upon bones upon bones.
Little One screamed and dove into the tunnel he had just come out of. Scrambling, trying not to breathe in the poison, he made his way back to the chamber he came from as fast as he could.
Once he was back to safety, he leaned against the wall while blood pounded through his temples and his stomach exploded with terror and dread. He tried desperately to remember how he had gotten here—and how he might leave.
The last thing he could recall before running for his life was deciding to sleep at the base of a hollowed-out tree. He had wanted to keep walking on the path that he’d worked so hard to find, but the night had grown darker and darker until he could no longer see the path at all. So he’d decided to stop for the night and had curled up between the tree’s roots and laid his head on the top of his pack. That was the last thing he could remember.
Almost instinctively Little One’s fingers returned to the tender spot he’d found on his skull. The pain made him realize something, and an idea materialized.
Feeling his way along the rock, he stood up and found an opening at the apex of the cave. It was the passage he realized he must have fallen down to arrive in this chamber of horrors.
The hole was about three times the width of his body. He made his way up by wedging his arms and legs all along the sides. As he approached the top, the darkness didn’t get any lighter, but the air did, and the tunnel around him began to feel less subterranean.
Hope began to build in his chest as fresh air entered his lungs. And then, when he was about a head’s length from the top of the hole, he heard a noise that froze him in place.
It wasn’t loud—just a low growl—but suddenly he couldn’t breathe as he realized that he had heard it before. The memory came flooding back to him.
He had awoken to that same noise impossibly close to his ear in the base of the hollowed-out tree. When he turned his head slightly, he was staring into the largest, reddest, angriest eyes he had ever seen in his life. They looked demonic, and they were a finger’s width from his face. Beneath them were white, glistening teeth dripping with saliva.
He had grabbed his pack and begun to run. The beast, whatever it was, had followed.
After some time he began to tire. His legs grew heavy and his chest felt like it would explode. He couldn’t keep running forever, but he passed no trees with branches low enough to climb and saw no other shelter or protection anywhere.
Then, just as he was beginning to despair, his foot hit a black shadow that wasn’t a shadow at all and he was sliding, falling, tumbling downward. He didn’t remember hitting the bottom. The earth had swallowed him whole.
The memory made his stomach drop into an abyss of darkness as he realized he was stuck. He had three escape routes only, and three forms of imminent death awaiting him. He felt his heart beat wildly in his chest.
He couldn’t stay where he was, and yet every route available to him led to certain death and destruction. Poison, carnivorous beast, or deathly drop-off—all seemed dangerous, painful, impossible.
He put his hands over his face as the fear turned to despair. Images of home fluttered into his mind. His heart sank further as he realized he would never see his family again, never make his sister laugh.
He would never get to climb the mountain. He would never see what lay beyond.
He would never find out who or what was calling him, or why.
He sat in darkness for a long time.
Eventually he felt something move over his feet. It was soft and smooth. Then all of a sudden it disappeared. “Am I imagining things?” he asked aloud.
“It is hard to tell imagination from reality, is it not?” said a familiar voice.
Little One’s heart stirred. “Snake?” he asked. “Is that you?”
He heard the movement this time a little to his left. Two dark eyes sparkled in the shadows like glittering, black diamonds.
“Yessssss,” hissed the snake. “I am me.”
Little One heard a funny noise he hadn’t heard before.
“Are you laughing?” he asked, disbelieving.
All he heard was hs-ss-ss-ss-ss.
“What’s so funny?” he demanded, but there was no answer. Suddenly Little One was angry. “I’m stuck in a cave of horrors with only death and destruction in my future, and you’re laughing about that? What could possibly be so funny?”
The snake’s dark eyes bored into him.
“You have a good imagination.”
“A good—what? What are you talking about?”
“You are not stuck, Little One. You are afraid.”
Heat rushed to Little One’s cheeks. “I am not!” he said quickly, though the words sounded hollow as they reverberated off the walls.
“It’s okay,” said the snake. “Fear is not the problem. You are a human being. You are programmed to feel this way.”
“So what is the problem then?”
“Fear is simply a symptom. Your real problem is with your vision.”
He waited for more, but there was only silence. “What do you mean?”
“If you saw things clearly, you wouldn’t be afraid.” Little One scowled. “You don’t believe me. Go see for yourself. Go back and look at the lake again. Look with your eyes this time, not with your fear.”
Little One didn’t want to, but he had no other ideas. He took a deep breath. Climbing into the tunnel to his right, he retraced his steps.
When he got to the lake, he saw the same glowing lights, the same stalactites, the same shallow water beneath. But he saw no moving shadows, no ripples of movement, and when he knelt on the shore, he saw no bones beneath the surface. The air remained clear and cool.
He went back to the snake. “Okay,” Little One said. “You were right. It was my imagination I suppose. But there’s still no passageway out.”
“Yes,” said the snake. “You’re beginning to see. What you’re most afraid of doesn’t exist.”
“It doesn’t exist?” Little One asked. “What do you mean?” Then understanding dawned and hope lit like a spark in his chest. He gestured towards the opening above him. “So if I climb this shaft and continue past the growling, I’ll find there’s no beast and I can continue on my way?”
“Oh, no,” came the voice from the darkness, and then: hs-ss-ss-ss-ss. The black eyes sparkled. “You will get eaten alive if you do that. The beast is hungry and quite determined.”
The spark died in Little One’s chest and his stomach sank. “I don’t understand,” he said softly.
“Why does the beast make you afraid?”
“Because if he catches me, he’ll kill me and eat me, and then I won’t be able to continue on my quest.”
“And why does the bottomless pit you found make you afraid?”
“Because I can’t escape through a bottomless pit! And I’ll never find what I’m looking for if I’m unable to leave this cave.”
“So in the chamber of the lake you encountered the unknown. And you were afraid because you thought you saw something terrible in the darkness.”
“I suppose so, yes.”
“But it didn’t exist. You were only afraid of your own imagination.”
Little One was silent.
“And then in the passageway to the surface you encountered a threat that did exist, something quite dangerous and also quite real. And you were afraid because it threatened something you want very much.”
“But again this is a problem with vision. You fail to see that what you want may not be what is best. You think you know what is good and what is bad. But the beast has done you a great favor. You will see this once you have walked a little bit farther along your path.”
Little One considered this. “And the bottomless pit?” he asked.
“In the bottomless pit you encountered an obstacle and thought you saw failure.”
“Yes,” Little One said. “If I am unable to leave this cave, then I have failed.”
“So what did failure look like? What did it sound like or smell like? Tell me so I know how to recognize this failure in the future.”
Little One thought hard. “I suppose I can’t say I found failure in the pit. I suppose that was my imagination as well.”
“Yessssss,” said the snake. “You encountered an obstacle and were afraid because you saw only impossibility. What you failed to see were your own strength and power.”
“Fear is a lack of vision,” Little One repeated.
“Exactly. Because what you are most afraid of does not exist.”
“And if I do fail, if I get permanently lost or starve to death or fall over a cliff and never make it beyond the mountains? Are those not real possibilities?”
The snake’s eyes glittered in the darkness. “Yes, of course they are. But if you fail, Little One, then perhaps you will find that what you were looking for was within you all along. Success is not something out there. It can be discovered only in the truth that is already within you.”
Little One became aware of the ground under his feet, the cool rock all around him. “So if what I’m looking for is within me, what should I do? Am I to be happy rotting in this cave forever?”
The snake just laughed. “That would not be the worst thing, Little One. But no. Your call is leading you elsewhere. Though what you are looking for is within you, it is your journey that will help you discover it. All you need to remember is that when you are seeking truth, all roads are good ones.” Little One could swear he saw a smile in the darkness and then the glittering black eyes blinked and disappeared.
And then, as soon as they were gone, Little One knew what to do. He grabbed his pack and pushed it into the tunnel that led to the bottomless pit. He made his way on his belly until the ground disappeared in front of him again.
He stood up on the ledge. Using his hands as feelers, he explored the rock above him. It was filled with protrusions and ridges.
Strength flooded his core as he saw the possibility in front of him. Somehow he knew that the protrusions would go all the way up the cavern wall. He could picture his body propelling him upwards step-by-step towards the surface. He could imagine what relief he would feel upon breathing fresh air again and finding once more the path that would lead him to the mountains.
When he did reach the top after a long period of careful climbing, it was even more beautiful than he had imagined. The air was crisp, filling his lungs with life. The sun’s light was warm, golden, and promising in the east. The birds sang loudly, as if to celebrate his achievement.
But the best part by far were the mountains, which were no longer mysterious shapes on the horizon. They were immediately in front of him now, enormous in their majesty and breathtaking in their splendor.
The snake had been right, and Little One thanked the beast for its immeasurable help.
For the mountains’ green slopes beckoned him, inviting him to set foot upon them. And looking up at their unfathomable heights, breathing in their infinite beauty, Little One became aware of something else.
The mountains had been waiting for him, perhaps for a very long time. They were waiting for him to climb them. Waiting for him to discover their many hidden secrets.
Don’t Let Fear Stop You
When the next step feels too dangerous to take, sometimes all we need is a little help remembering that we’re strong, we’re not alone, and what we long for is possible.
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