Little One and the Test of the Sorceress (Or, Why You Should Want to Fail)


Following is the fourth 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.

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

To read the last installment, click here.

Little One regretted his decision the second he felt the monster’s teeth clamp down around his neck.

In the past, he had been pretty good at decision-making.  He knew how to weigh the various possible outcomes, and he usually had a good sense of which option would turn out best.  But the decision he had made this morning was of a different type entirely than any he had faced before.

Nothing about these mountains, in fact, was anything like he’d experienced before.

For one thing, they were huge.  He’d never in his life been so near to anything so large, so implacable, so steadfast in their stillness.  He had the sense that even the most violent tempest would be like a passing summer’s breeze to these giants, not even scratching the surface of their profound serenity.

And it wasn’t just the mountains that were big.  The rivers here cascaded into waterfalls the size of five trees stacked on top of each other.  The trees were so huge that thirty men could have held hands and still not fully encompassed their base.  The wildflowers were taller than he was, and the animals—some familiar, some not—were so large that he could have walked under their bellies with room to spare.

But the strangest thing of all, the thing that disturbed him most, was what he saw after darkness fell.

It happened every night: just as the first stars were beginning to show, clouds would form around the peaks and begin to churn and swirl.  Before long the thunder would start, booming down the valleys and reverberating between the peaks.

Finally came the thing that scared him most—multicolored lightning, huge bolts of it arcing from cloud to earth in blue and gold, red and purple, green and orange.  Each ray reflected its colors off the clouds behind it and sizzled and cracked and scorched the earth where it landed.

In the morning, Little One could still see giant, black marks scarring the ground where the lightning had landed.  He was so alarmed that he was careful to stay below the tree line, far from the peaks and their soot-filled wounds.

It was on the morning of his third day in the mountains, just as he had begun to wonder what he should be looking for in this strange, oversized world, that he met the sorceress.

He had been making his way across a field of giant boulders when he suddenly felt as if someone was watching him.  He paused and turned to look behind him.

There, in the shadow of the boulder he had just passed, stood a woman.  She was tall, slender, and beautiful, and she wore a dress the color of blood.

“Hello, Little One,” she said.  “Are you finding what you’re looking for?”

Little One took a step back.  “Not exactly,” he said.  “And you are…”

“A sorceress who wants to help,” the woman said, staring at him with large, brown eyes.

Little One eyed the wand she held in her hand.  “Help with what?” he asked.

“Why, help you to find what you’re looking for.  Though you still don’t know what that is, do you, poor dear?”  He didn’t respond, and after a moment she went on.  “Well, no matter.  I can assist with that.  And you can help me with a small problem that I have.”

“What problem do you have?” asked Little One, his brows furrowed.

“Even sorceresses have problems,” she laughed, showing perfectly straight, white teeth.  “Things don’t always go according to our plans.”

“I see,” said Little One, chewing his bottom lip.  “So how can I help?”

“Oh my, chivalry isn’t dead, is it?” she said, the corners of her mouth turning up into a smile.  “Well then, here’s the opportunity I can offer.  You take care of one little thing that’s troubling me, and I’ll show you my gratitude by taking you straight to—er—that thing it is you’re looking for.”

She paused, her eyes locked onto his.  After a moment, she continued, “And if you fail, well then, I’m afraid I’ll have to send you back to where you started.”

Little One wasn’t sure what to do.  After considering it for a moment, he answered carefully: “Ms. Sorceress, I’m very sorry, but I think I’m going to have to pass.  I’ve come a long way and can’t afford to go back to where I came from.”

Laughter suddenly reverberated like thunder among the rocks.  “But Little One, I haven’t even told you what the task is yet.”

“Okay,” Little One said.  “Then tell me.”

“At the edge of this boulder field you’ll find a grove of trees, and at the center of this grove lives a terrible monster.  He waits for innocent travelers to pass, then pretends to be a helpless creature in distress.  When the person tries to assist him, he takes his true, terrifying form and demands that they hand over all their possessions.   If they don’t, or if they don’t have enough on them to satisfy him, he eats them for dinner.”

Little One felt his stomach turn in a direction he didn’t like.  It was the same feeling he got when the fire at home had burned through all the logs long before dawn’s gray light; the last thing he wanted was to go out into the cold night to collect more firewood, but he also knew that nobody else was going to do it and if he didn’t, his sister would shiver all night without saying a word.

“If you kill this monster, I’ll take you directly to what you’re looking for.  I can’t tell you what it is—that would ruin the surprise—but I can tell you that it’s very real, and it’s even better than you imagine.”
Little One frowned.  “And if I fail, you’ll take me back to where I started.”

“Well, yes,” said the sorceress, her mouth puckering into a sympathetic pout.  “It wouldn’t be an adventure without some sort of risk, now would it?”

Little One wanted to say “No, thank you” and continue on his way.  It felt too dangerous, too risky.  But he recognized this rise in his belly, and he understood that it wouldn’t go away until he had done what he could to help.

“Very well, I accept your offer,” he said.

He didn’t wait for her response.  Quickly, his stomach rising into his throat, he turned his back on the sorceress and walked towards the edge of the boulders.

Her laughter, which had followed him all the way to the grove, awoke the first inkling of  doubt that perhaps he had made the wrong decision.

The grove had been exactly as the sorceress described.  In the middle of the grove was a rabbit with its leg caught in a hunting trap.  Little One knew that the trap was for him and not the rabbit, but he still wasn’t sure what to do.

“I know you’re not a rabbit,” he said a little awkwardly.  “I know what you’re trying to do.”

“Thank goodness,” said the rabbit, its voice startlingly rough and deep for such a small creature.  “That saves me some effort and a good bit of time.”

As Little One watched, the bunny transformed into an ogre-like creature with legs as big as tree trunks, massive, tattooed arms, and razor-sharp teeth the size of small boulders.

“Give me your possessions,” grumbled the ogre.  “All of them.  Or I will eat you for dinner.”

Little One hesitated.  He didn’t know what to do.  “Okay,” he said haltingly, beginning to take his pack off his back.  Trying to disguise the movement, he reached for his knife, which was tied to the top of his bag.

He was stopped by a guttural scream of fury.  Little One fumbled uselessly with the strings around his knife as the ogre lunged towards him and clamped his teeth around his neck.

Little One felt a sharp pain where the ogre’s teeth broke his skin.  A heavy wave of regret washed over him as he realized that his decision in the boulder field had almost certainly been the wrong one.

And yet, aside from this, Little One was surprised to realize that the situation wasn’t as terrible as he might have expected.  His whole life, he had always feared being powerless in the face of a cruel and malevolent foe.  He had spent hours and hours, in fact, thinking of ways to avoid situations exactly such as this.

But now, with his soft skin and arteries caught between the pointed teeth of a merciless monster, Little One wasn’t panicking, and for some reason he actually felt quite calm and even peaceful.

Little One waited while the ogre breathed heavily.  The teeth remained around his neck, but they didn’t move further.  Then Little One noticed that the ogre had a gash just over its right knee.  He reached out and kicked the wound with his foot.

The ogre howled and let go of his neck.  “Owwwww!” he screamed.  “Why do you have to make this harder than it already is?”

Little One wasn’t sure he had heard correctly.  “Harder than it is…for you?” he asked.

“Yes!” wailed the ogre.  “You think this is easy for me?  Demanding things I don’t even want?  And then killing innocent people if they don’t comply?”

Little One considered this.  “Well, I guess I’m not sure.  It’s not easy for you then?”

“No!” cried the ogre.  “This isn’t my dream job.  I never said, “Hey, I want to be a greedy, flesh-eating ogre when I grow up.  I’m not fighting bad guys.  I’m not exacting vengeance for some great wrong.  It’s meaningless!  I have no purpose!”

“I suppose not,” said Little One.  “So why do you do it?”

“I have no choice!” he wailed.  “She tricked me into making a promise!”

Understanding dawned on Little One.  He could feel the blood rushing through his veins, rising to his heart.  “What happened?”  he asked.  “Why did you promise?”

“I left my village,” the ogre said, his eyes becoming soft.  “I left my family behind.  I began to feel like something more was possible, and I felt this pull, this—this call to find out what else was out there—and I couldn’t ignore it.  They all thought I was crazy.  They told me to stay.  But I had to find out.  I had to know.  So I left them all behind and came up here, to the mountains.”

The ogre looked at him, a question in his eyes.  Little One’s heart moved in his chest.  He nodded.

“I searched for days, weeks, months, but I found nothing.  I wandered all over these mountains and the hills and valleys around them.  I didn’t know where else to go.  I couldn’t figure out what was calling me, and I began to think that maybe I really was crazy after all.”

The ogre was staring at the ground, his voice soft.  “That’s when I met her, the sorceress.  She told me that she could help me find what I was looking for, but I had to help her first.  I was so desperate I agreed before I even knew what she was asking.  I gave her my word.  When she told me what it was, I was shocked.

“She said that it would cost her a lot to help me, and that I had to pay her up front.  She confined me to this grove and told me I had to amass a certain amount of treasure before she could take me to what I was looking for.  She said the only way to do it was to take it from those who passed by, and the only way to do that was to kill those who didn’t comply.

“I didn’t like the idea of it, but what could I do?  I couldn’t return to my village in disgrace and let everyone see that I was wrong all along.”

The ogre’s voice was barely more than a whisper.  “It’s terrible.  I hate it.  But you know what the worst part is?  Every time I steal or kill, the pull gets weaker and weaker.  Last month I woke up and realized I couldn’t even feel it anymore.  That’s when I saw that I couldn’t do this anymore.  I went straight to the sorceress and told her I had given her enough treasure.  I told her I would kill her if she didn’t take me to what I was looking for.”

“What did she do?” asked Little One, his eyes wide.

“She laughed.  She reminded me I had given my word and told me I was close to getting what I wanted.  She told me not to give up, that it would be a pity to fail after how much I’ve sacrificed.

“I felt I had no choice but to come back to the grove.  But ever since then, I haven’t been able to kill anything.  And the people who come by, they sense it.  They’ve started fighting back.  Look at this gash I got just the other day.”

The ogre looked into Little One’s eyes.  “But the truth is, it doesn’t even matter anymore.  The calling is gone now.  I’ve sacrificed everything to answer it, but I’m afraid now I’ve lost it forever.”

The ogre buried his face in his hands as tears streamed down his cheeks.  Little One was suddenly aware that he could kill the ogre right now if he wanted to.  He fingered the knife on his pack and walked quietly towards the monster.

He put his arm around his shoulder.

“I’m so sorry,” he said.  “I know the pull of the call.  I too left my home to find out what it is.  And I can only imagine how painful it must be to know it’s out there but no longer feel its guiding pulse.”

The ogre looked up.  As he studied Little One’s face, an understanding seemed to dawn on him.  “She found you too, didn’t she?  She told you she would help you if you killed me?”

Little One nodded, a vice around his heart.

“You should do it then,” murmured the ogre.  “It would be better for us both.”

Little One shook his head.  “No,” he said gently.  “You have helped me realize that this is not my path.  It would not lead me closer to what I’m looking for.  I don’t think there are any shortcuts to where I am going.  No, I will not kill you and you will not kill me.  We will both continue to look for what it is that is calling us.”

A slow smile stretched across the ogre’s lips.  “Hearing you now, I almost believe that is possible,” he said gruffly.

“I am sure that it is,” Little One said.  He smiled.  “And now that your bond to the sorceress is broken, where will you go?”

“Home,” said the ogre without pause.  “I can’t explain it, but now that I’ve talked about it with you, it’s clear to me that that’s where I’m being led.  I miss them so much.”

“That’s wonderful,” said Little One.

“And what about you?  Where will you go?”

“Back to the beginning, I suppose.  That was the deal I made with the sorceress.”  Little One saw such concern in the ogre’s eyes that he quickly added, “But that’s just fine.  The multicolored lightning here scares me anyway.”  He tried for a smile.

The ogre jumped up.  “You see the colors?” he asked.  “In the lightning?”

“Yes,” answered Little One.  “Don’t you?”

“No!” exclaimed the ogre.  “That’s just it.  I came to these mountains because my people tell a legend about rainbow lightning that guards the gate.  I came here to search for it, but couldn’t find it anywhere.”

“Why, I have seen it the last three nights.  From what I can tell, it’s pretty hard to miss.”

“For you, perhaps,” said the ogre.  “But as I learned, not for me.”

Something occurred to Little One.  After a pause, he said, “You know why that is, don’t you?”

“Yes,” admitted the ogre, nodding.  His voice grew hushed.  “It’s because of what lies on the other side of the gate.”

Little One felt the blood tingle all over his body.  “And what is that?” he asked, sensing that the answer would change his life forever.

“Why, the home of the serpent god,” said the ogre softly.  Little One looked up and saw that his eyes were shining brightly.  “And only the children of the god can see it.”

*   *   *

Little One had bid goodbye to the ogre, who wouldn’t let him leave without giving him a nearly rib-crushing hug.  Despite the monster’s force, there was a lightness to his movements, a barely contained joy.  And there was triumph in his eyes to be free to return home in failure.

Little One walked to the edge of the grove.  There in front of him appeared the sorceress.

“I am disappointed,” she said to him, shaking her head.  “I expected better things from you.”

Little One was aware that it was unusual for him not to care that he had disappointed someone.  But somehow her words didn’t break through the mixture of excitement and determination he was feeling.  Neither did the knowledge that he was about to have to start over.

“You know I have no choice but to take you back to the beginning, right?”

Little One smiled.  “I know that you will take me back to where I started.  But you cannot take me back to the beginning.  For I have learned something today that has taken me far closer to what I seek than you ever could have.  And nothing you do can take that away.”

As he said this, Little One remembered something.  “When you are seeking truth, all roads are good ones,” he said.

The smile faded from the sorceress’ mouth.  Her eyes narrowed.  She raised her wand.

Now Little One laughed.  “Let’s go,” he said.  “What are you waiting for?”

And with that, Little One went back to where he started, smiling the entire way.

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

Don’t Let Failure 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.

Sign up in the gray box below to get just such a reminder emailed to you twice a month, along with tips, ideas, and strategies for discovering your own calling and finding work you love.

Photo credit: Randen Pederson // CC

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