Following is the tenth story in a series that tells the tale of the first hero to go on a journey to discover his calling.
Little One’s smile faded quickly as he glanced around his father’s palace.
The walls looked like they may have at one time in the distant past shared the same iridescent sheen of the palace’s exterior, but they were now coated in what appeared to be a layer of slime covered by a film of dirt.
When Little One looked up at the low ceiling not far above his head, he saw that there were black circles running in a straight row above him. Or rather, most of them were black circles. Every ninth or tenth circle wasn’t black at all and allowed a solitary ray of light to stream through.
Little One guessed that the circles were intended to be lights, but grime was preventing most of them from functioning as such. The result was that the space was dark and grim, with the occasional light serving only to highlight the gloominess.
Beneath the filth, curved columns hugged the walls at regular intervals down the length of the room, which was so long and dismal that he couldn’t even see the far wall.
It occurred to Little One that this is exactly what it might look and feel like if he were to be swallowed by a giant snake.
He wondered if perhaps this was another attempt by his father to assess his worthiness. It hadn’t been easy to find his way into the Serpent God’s palace in the first place. Maybe this was another test to see how he would respond when faced with such unexpected disorder.
In fact, nothing about his father’s palace so far had been close to what he’d expected. He hadn’t even realized he’d had any expectations, but he couldn’t deny that he did when they were systematically shattered one by one.
It started when, rather than being welcomed and congratulated on their cleverness and perseverance when they finally discovered the location of the palace, he and his sister were simply met with impenetrable walls.
It continued when his father had been too deaf or callous to care to respond when they’d screamed and knocked and searched for days looking for a way in, growing hoarse and blistered in the process.
And now that he finally had figured out the riddle and made his way inside, he was greeted not by a spectacular home worthy of the most powerful god in existence, but by a ruined hovel that appeared silent and abandoned.
Well, not entirely silent, Little One realized as he took in his disappointing surroundings. He found that he could now make out a low thrumming coming from beyond the gloom. It came and went, rising and falling in intensity and at times subsiding entirely.
Little One found himself moving down the long, dim corridor towards the source of the sound. He wondered briefly about Ginger as he went, and whether she’d find her own way in. He didn’t think she’d mind that he didn’t wait. They’d come all this way, after all, for a reason, and he figured she’d catch up soon regardless. She might even be ahead of him now, knowing her. He could imagine her taking a look at these filthy walls and saying there’s no way they’d stop her—she’d traveled beside her brother for a long time now, so had clearly seen much worse.
And then his thoughts returned to his questions. They burned within him with a fierce intensity that only grew stronger as his frustration mounted. He wanted to know why he had been called to leave his home and embark on an adventure with no clear purpose or destination, and what exactly it was that he was supposed to do or accomplish on this very ill-defined quest.
He wanted to know whether the call came from his father or someone else, and either way, why his father hadn’t contacted him before, and how it could be, anyway, that he was the son of a god when he felt so humdrum and had two perfectly ordinary parents back home in his village.
For all his irritation, Little One was excited to finally find answers to his questions. Even if the Serpent God wasn’t what he expected, surely he would still be able to provide his son with some wisdom. Little One had worked so hard to find him, after all, and had passed all the requisite tests.
As he traveled farther down the corridor, his unease grew. The sound was getting louder, and he was starting to be able to feel its vibration in his belly. The sensation wasn’t reassuring, though; in fact, there was something intensely disturbing about it.
After what felt like a very long time, Little One finally saw the space before him open up into a large, round room. As he stepped over the threshold, the vibrations suddenly stopped and the noise disappeared.
He looked up and saw a perfect dome above him. Though some light was coming through, it was gray and streaked with grease. Directly beneath the center of the dome was some sort of machine with a black box in the middle and large cylinders extending outward from all sides. He saw a hint of red out of the corner of his eye and had a thought.
Climbing up one of the curving columns in the wall, he managed to reach the dome. Taking a corner of his shirt in his fist, he rubbed it across the grime. It came off easily and revealed a patch of flickering stars in a black sky.
Little One smiled. The dome, it seemed, was made of a substance that was even clearer than the waters of a young mountain stream. Clear, that was, when not covered by a thick layer of grease.
Little One walked around the cylinders next and noted 6 other colors. As he did, he felt a wave of satisfaction expand in his chest. His thought had been a good one, and he knew what this machine was for.
He recalled the first time he had entered the mountains that housed the Serpent God’s palace and the multi-colored lightning he had seen at night. This was the machine that produced that lightning. It clearly hadn’t been used for quite some time, but it would be capable of making colored light that could be seen for miles if the dome were clean and clear.
Little One felt more than a little pleased with himself. Though it didn’t win him anything, he felt like he had passed another test by having pieced this little mystery together. It felt like he had discovered another one of his father’s secrets.
And then something happened that drove the smile from his face and made him realize how much he really didn’t understand at all.
In that moment the machine jumped to life, whirring, moving, and noisily rearranging itself. The cylinders swung from the outside in until they were all pointing up in the same direction towards the center of the dome.
Then all at once the lights came on. At first all Little One could see were the individual columns of light shooting up towards the ceiling. Realizing that what they were forming was happening above the dome itself, he quickly climbed back up the column and used his shirt to clear off as much of the dome as he could reach. He was so shocked at what he saw when he looked through it that he froze there, unable to move up or down from his perch at the top of the column.
Through the clear spot he’d just created in the dome, he witnessed the biggest pair of human feet he’d ever seen in his life. They were attached to legs that were scaly, dark brown and green, and equally large.
The legs extended up from the dome so far that Little One could barely see what was sitting on top of them. He was able to make out a human waist and chest, and arms on either side. They seemed tiny in comparison to the feet.
What wasn’t tiny, he realized as he continued to look at the figure, was its tail. He had almost missed it at first as it rested behind the figure, but it was moving slowly now—slithering slowly, Little One corrected himself—like a snake winding its way between the legs. The top of the figure was almost too far away to see, but Little One made out what looked like a serpent’s head with two glowing, red circles that he took to be eyes.
Just then Little One felt the vibration begin again in his belly, followed quickly by the booming noise in his ears. The red eyes far above him swirled around and then settled, as best he could tell, in an angry glare at the tiny human form attached to a dirty column an incalculable distance below.
It was then that he realized that the booming noise that had been ebbing and flowing was a voice, and it was saying something, to him. He strained to make out its thunderous tones.
“Congratulations,” cracked the voice as the snake-like tail sidled back and forth. “You achieved everything you set out to do.”
Little One wasn’t sure what to make of this. He felt a warmth expand in his chest at the words, but there was something in the tone that belied the commendation. “Thank you, Father, I mean Sir, I mean Mighty One. I’m so grateful to be here.”
The Serpent God ignored him.
“You started with nothing. But you worked hard. Figured things out. Used your god-given gifts. You overcame the challenges, excelled at everything you attempted.” The tail stopped slithering and began thrashing. “And now you have what you’ve always dreamed of. So much so that others are jealous of your success.”
The booming voice fell into silence. It lasted so long that Little One felt he needed to respond.
“Yes, um, thank you again…I think…” he started to say.
The red eyes flashed suddenly and the tail whipped around.
“But for the sake of what?” the God boomed. “What did you really gain?”
The warmth turned icy. Little One shrank back. His throat was dry as he looked up at the giant feet and the swishing tail and swallowed.
“Um, I’m not sure, to be honest.” His voice sounded frail and anemic in comparison to the God’s sonorous voice.
“You have no idea. You. You,” he spat the words. “The one they all come to for help. The one they think has it all. Oh yes, sure, you have plenty of answers for everyone else, but absolutely none for yourself.”
Again the silence and the thrashing tail. Little One swallowed hard again. But before he could speak, the God continued, this time in a tone that Little One couldn’t place.
“And now in your quest for recognition,” he rumbled softly, “in your insatiable hunger for success, you have lost the one thing that you actually cared for.”
There was a pause in which Little One could feel his own heartbeat in his throat. “What do you—” he began, only to be interrupted by a low growling sound, followed by what could only be described as a snarl.
“You stupid, ignorant, earthbound fool!” the God roared. “I can’t believe I ever thought you were anything more than that.” The words crackled and hissed with venom.
Little One felt a lump rise in his throat. His body suddenly felt terribly heavy. He wanted to say something to defend himself, but no words came and his tongue felt like it was made of stone.
And then the tone changed inexplicably once again. “Well, I can’t do it anymore,” the voice said with a hollowness that reverberated off the walls of the palace. “I can’t keep sacrificing myself in order to give you what you want.”
As he watched, the image began to flicker. It went completely black for a moment and then returned. When the God spoke again, there was something familiar in his manner that Little One couldn’t quite place.
“You are not who I thought you were,” said the all-powerful Serpent God, shaking his massive head. “I give up. You win. You are free to do what you will.”
There was a clanking sound just then and the cylinders beneath Little One went black, one by one. Within just a few moments the God had disappeared completely.
Little One waited at the top of the column for what felt like an eternity to see if the voice would resume. It didn’t. Eventually he made his way down to the floor again and sat with his back against the wall.
Tears gathered at the corners of his eyes, which made feel even more humiliated. There was much he didn’t understand, but he did apprehend this: Apparently he had passed all his tests, only to fail the most important one of all. He had no idea what he’d done to disappoint his father so badly, but clearly he had done something unforgivably wrong. He felt nauseated.
He felt the edges of shame, sadness, and confusion threatening to spill over him. He tried to push them away. He focused instead on poring over every part of his journey, seeing possible missteps and failings at every turn.
As he did so, the ache in his belly grew so strong he didn’t think he could take it anymore. It felt like it was going to annihilate him and everything good in the world.
Suddenly he realized that this was a familiar feeling. He had felt it before, back in the forest at the base of a giant tree. He recalled how the excruciating ghosts had passed through him one by one, filling him with jealousy, guilt, rage, despair and every other emotion he’d ever felt. He remembered how he’d thought he was going to die, but how he was actually left with an incredible sense of serenity and peace. And a clear sense of what needed to be done.
Little One made a fast decision. He turned to the shame, sadness, and confusion and welcomed them in. He felt them pass through him like ghosts, one by one. He felt the immutable heaviness, the twisting anxiety, the sense of neverending suffocation. Once again he worried that they would never pass, but one by one they did.
When they were finished, all was quiet and still. Little One felt his mind start to race once again, trying to find his failure. He asked it to be silent for a little bit longer, and surprisingly it obeyed.
He breathed in the stillness. And from the heart of the silence he heard a voice echoing once again: “You are not who I thought you were,” it said. “I give up. You win.”
Something in the words felt important, if confusing. There was something utterly familiar about them, but he couldn’t place what it was.
He closed his eyes, waited for the stillness to return. And then, in a sudden flash of understanding, he knew what it was he had recognized in his father’s speech. He should have seen it at once, he realized, but he’d been distracted by the loudness of the anger and his confusion about the meaning of the words.
It was, as it turned out, more familiar to him than almost anything else in the world. And, like everything else on this journey, it also wasn’t anything he’d expected.
The most powerful god in his world was terrified. And also a little bit sad.
Little One wondered for a while about why that was. He couldn’t come up with anything that made sense. Painfully aware of the paradox, Little One wished he could ask the Serpent God for guidance. His attempts to find answers seemed only to be generating more questions. The irony of it made him smile.
And that’s when, with that same bright flash of understanding, he suddenly understood exactly what was going on.
Little One jumped up from the floor and grabbed his pack. He began running down the corridor in the opposite direction from which he had come. Eventually he came to the end of the hall, which was also the end of the palace.
In front of him was nothing—not even a door. It was complete darkness. He didn’t see any stars in front of him. He didn’t see anything at all. It was a yawning, black abyss that quickly devoured even the faint bits of light that emerged from the corridor behind him.
Little One swallowed hard. His throat was dry. He wondered if he really needed to do what he believed he did.
Maybe he was wrong. Maybe the dirty and abandoned palace didn’t mean what he thought. Maybe the image he’d seen of his father was some sort of security apparatus, or even more likely, another test, and not what he was thinking all.
His gaze drifted down. There, written in the grime on the floor, was his answer. He saw a path through the dirt where something quite large had been dragged over the ground, exposing the iridescent white of the original floor beneath.
Little One’s stomach dropped. He realized he was right. His father hadn’t been talking to him. In fact, it wasn’t his father he had seen at all. It was a memory, some sort of recording of him from before. He had been talking with someone else in the palace. Speaking to his attacker.
Little One had no idea how or by whom, but the Serpent God had been kidnapped by someone he used to trust.
“You are free to do what you will,” his father had said, fear and sadness in his voice.
Little One looked back at the darkness. He really didn’t want to do what he was about to do. It was a good thing, he thought with a short-lived laugh, that he had so much practice entering chasms.
He took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and then filled his lungs once again. Working hard to keep his eyes open, he grabbed the straps of his bag and jumped, following his father into the abyss.
He was going to find the Serpent God and bring him back. Or die trying.