Following is the eighth story in a series that tells the tale of the first hero to go on a journey to discover his calling.
In retrospect, Little One realized that he had made a terrible mistake.
The thought occurred to him as he and Ginger walked through a stretch of woods so dense that no sunlight filtered down to touch the path beneath their feet.
They had been walking through this same seemingly endless forest for the past two weeks. Little One was the one who had suggested they enter the woods in the first place.
He had sensed that they weren’t far from the Serpent God’s palace, and their only options had been to cross a giant river filled with raging rapids, try to ascend what looked like an incredibly steep and slippery cliff face, or try their luck in a forest that looked completely devoid of light even on a sunny and cloudless afternoon. Even Ginger had agreed that the forest was the best option until they heard the voice.
They had just stepped into the shadow of the first densely packed trees when they heard it, deep and booming above them. “Warning!” it said. “Go no further!”
They looked all around them but couldn’t see anybody or anything other than gnarled tree trunks, twisting limbs, and fallen leaves. They started to walk again.
“I said: beware!” came the booming voice again. It was so loud it made Little One’s heart pound. He stopped, looking at Ginger. She shrugged her shoulders.
They started walking again.
“GO NO FURTHER!” The words echoed around them, reverberating off the trees. “You will not escape unscathed!”
Little One’s stomach leapt into his throat, but this time he had a sense of where the voice was coming from. He cocked his head, looked to his left, and thought he saw something swaying between the limbs of a tree just in front of him.
“No!” said the voice, its pitch a bit higher now. “Do not look for who says this! I am the earth, the trees, the sky itself! I am the power and the will of all the gods who have ever ruled! All you need to know is that what I say is absolutely, unquestionably true!”
That’s when Little One saw it: the tendrils of a web shifting in the breeze between two mighty branches, and in the middle of the weaving was a tiny black dot with wildly crooked legs.
“You’re a spider!” Little One called out, pointing so Ginger could see. “Why are you trying to scare us?”
“I am not trying to scare you!” said the spider, his voice breaking. “I am simply telling you the truth!”
Little One and Ginger walked towards the web. As they approached, they saw a small spider with an absurdly wide abdomen that was white with black spots and lined with large, sharp points that looked like giant thorns.
“Why don’t you want us to go further?” asked Ginger. She sounded like she almost felt sorry for the spider, and in fact Little One’s own heartbeat had slowed considerably since he spotted the awkward-looking creature.
“These woods are cursed!” the spider yelled, his voice booming once again. “Long ago a hunter wandered into this forest and came across an evil monster more terrible than any he’d ever seen before. It was stronger than a minotaur, faster than an arrow, and more relentless than a harpy. After a great battle it defeated the huntsman. Ever since, all the men and women who have dared to enter these woods have lost their minds. When they wander back to their villages years later, they cannot even recall their own names.”
Little One wasn’t sure what to believe.
“Do not doubt!” screamed the spider. “I speak the truth!”
In the end, Little One decided not to heed the spider’s warning. He had a strong sense that their father’s palace lay just on the other side of the woods, and losing his mind seemed both less likely and less risky than losing his life in the river or on the cliff faces they’d seen.
Ginger wasn’t convinced. She wanted to go back the way they’d come and try to find a better path downriver.
After an impassioned argument, Ginger gave in to Little One’s wishes.
“I trust you when you say the Serpent God’s palace is just past these woods,” she said. “You have a good sense of these things. Let’s go on.”
They’d continued down the path into the darkening woods to a loud series of progressively dire warnings from the spider, whose efforts didn’t wane until sometime after they were well out of earshot.
That had been two weeks ago. Since then it had become abundantly clear to Little One that he had made not just the wrong decision, but possibly a disastrous one. He could see how after wandering these dark woods for a little while longer he might really lose his mind.
He was thinking about this, considering what he might have done differently, when he first heard the voice in his head.
It was a deep growl, harsh, and blunt.
“You’re an idiot,” it said. “It’s bad enough that you deluded yourself into thinking that you actually know something about where the Serpent God lives, but to convince Ginger to override her good sense was stupid and selfish. Bad enough that you’re blind, but to be a bully too? Unforgivable.”
Little One’s shoulders sank as he followed Ginger on the trail.
“You realize that this is all your fault, right?” the voice continued. “Any normal person would have found the Serpent God’s palace by now. It’s really not that hard. Nobody else would have struggled so much or worked so hard to be as lost and confused as you currently are. It’s pathetic.”
Just then Ginger turned around to look at him. He thought he saw a flash of anger in her eyes.
“Can we take a break?” she asked. “I’m getting tired.”
“Tired of wandering pointlessly through a cursed forest?” said Little One. “Sure, no problem.”
“What’s wrong with you?” Ginger asked as she slipped off her pack and pulled out some jerky. He heard more anger in her voice.
“What’s wrong with me? Nothing, Ginger. But if you’re not happy about coming this way, you can say it to me directly. You don’t have to pout and try to make me feel guilty for getting us lost.”
“I’m not trying to make you feel guilty,” she answered. “If you do, that’s your problem.”
She stared him in the eyes.
“Oh, that’s just great. So that’s my fault too.” Little One felt the heat rising within him. “This is the last thing I want to deal with right now,” he said. He looked away. “I’m going to go look for water.”
He walked so long he couldn’t see Ginger anymore and then walked a few more minutes just to be sure. He heard what sounded like a stream in front of him and decided to go check it out.
The noise got louder and soon he saw that it wasn’t a stream but a spring making the gurgling sound. And then he saw something that made his heart beat faster: a point of light dancing on the pool’s surface. He followed the point up and saw a few solid rays of sunlight reaching down between the branches.
It was the first sunlight he’d seen in weeks, and he could almost imagine how warm and delicious it would feel on his skin. He walked faster towards the spring, then broke into a run.
And that’s exactly when his foot hit something and he tripped, tumbling to the ground. By the time he stopped moving, he realized he was hopelessly entwined in tendrils of something both sticky and surprisingly strong.
He heard the deep, harsh growl again. “Seriously? Do I even need to point out how idiotic that was?”
Only this time it sounded different. Little One realized abruptly that it wasn’t coming from inside his head anymore.
He managed to whirl his head around. There behind him was the biggest monster he’d ever seen in his life.
It looked…well, it looked almost exactly like the spider they had seen at the entrance to the woods. Only this one was huge, twice the height of an average man. It was so large that he could see its huge pincers this time, along with eight giant black eyes. Its legs were bent at grotesque angles, and the spikes on its back were each the size of a small bear.
“Oh, dear,” the spider growled. “You chose not to listen to me. And so we meet again.”
Little One swallowed. His mouth was achingly dry. “So…so you’re the evil monster you told us about? You’re the reason everyone who comes here goes insane?”
“Well, yes,” said the spider. “But evil? That’s just a matter of perspective. The way I see it, I’m just trying to keep people safe.”
“By tying them up in your giant web?” asked Little One.
“Well, I have lots of ways of doing it. But, yes,” spat the spider. “For the stupid ones I find that binding them is the only way to get them to listen. You were going to get yourself in trouble, my dear boy. This was the only way to protect you from yourself.”
“What are you talking about? Protect me from what?”
“Oh, I know where you’re headed, Little One” said the spider. “Yes, I know who you are. I know you believe you’re the son of the Serpent God, and that you hope to enter his palace. And I know that no matter what happens, you must not be allowed to attempt it!”
Little One just stared at him. His mouth was terribly dry. He licked his lips. “And why not?” he finally managed.
“Because you’re an idiot!” the spider growled. “Because you’re going to ruin everything! Don’t you see? You thought it was a good idea to come into these god-forsaken woods, and look what happened! You waste two weeks wandering around and getting nowhere, you pick a fight and hurt Ginger, the one person who truly understands you in this world, and then you get yourself caught in a giant spider’s web.”
Little One’s stomach felt hollow. He felt a familiar sinking feeling in his gut.
“You know, anybody who was halfway capable would have found the Serpent God’s palace by now. But not you! The harder you try, the more lost you get!”
Little One felt a burning sensation all over his face. He wanted to crawl into a hole in the ground and stay there.
“You overestimate your talents over and over again, and it’s getting dangerous!” the spider screamed. “You should realize by now that you’re not good enough to do this! You need to turn around and go home right now, before you destroy everything we hold dear!”
The word we surprised Little One. A vague realization began to stir at the edges of his mind.
“You left to come on this insane adventure because you thought something was calling you, that you were meant to do something more. Not three days later you got lost and couldn’t find your way. When you finally did manage to get untangled from that, you managed to get trapped underground, scared yourself nearly half to death, and very nearly became nothing more than a pile of bones in a forgotten cavern.”
The smoky thought in Little One’s mind consolidated as the spider continued.
“As if that wasn’t bad enough, you immediately ran into a malevolent sorceress, failed to defeat an ogre, and then had to start all over again. At which point you discovered the City of the Children of the Serpent God, got promptly humiliated by every brother and sister you have, and realized that you have absolutely no significant talents at all.”
The thought became clear to Little One. It made him angry, but he let the spider go on.
“Let’s see…what’s left. You blindly fell into a pit due to being a coward and very nearly drowned. Then you wasted the wish you got beneath the Tree of Life because you’re an overly sensitive crybaby. And finally, you decide to enter a haunted forest to start the next foolish phase of an increasingly shortsighted and futile quest born primarily out of your greed and arrogance.”
“Wow!” Little One whistled and clapped his hands in mock admiration. “That’s quite a summary. I’m really impressed.”
The spider seemed taken aback. “Well, you know, I do my best.”
“So where does that leave us?” Little One asked. “After we decided to enter these woods? Let’s see, we were walking into a forest that you say is cursed. But I think it’s not cursed at all. I think you knew that we were close to the Serpent God’s palace and you didn’t want us to actually find it. So you made up a story about a battle between a huntsman and a monster to scare us away and to keep us from finding what we’re looking for.” He watched the expression in the spider’s four sets of eyes, focusing on the largest pair in the middle as he continued.
“And when I ignored your warning, you whispered in my ear to get me angry with myself so I would fight with Ginger and come out here by myself.”
The spider lowered its head in acknowledgement. “Pretty much,” he said in a low growl. “You listen to me better when you’re by yourself.”
Little One wasn’t sure what the spider meant, but he was more concerned about a different question. “What I don’t understand is why,” he said. “Why don’t you want me to find the Serpent God’s palace?”
The spider looked up. Its eyes had softened. “You really don’t know?”
“No!” said Little One. “I mean, I see now that you’ve been with me this entire time, since I left my village.”
“Well, yes,” said the spider. “I go everywhere with you. It’s just what I do.”
“So you know that this is important to me.”
“Yes,” answered the spider. “I know exactly how important this is.”
“So why would you try to stop me from finding what I want most?”
The spider’s eyes were sad. “Because I want it too, Little One. More than you’ll ever know. But I have a job to do. Something more important even that that.”
The spider didn’t say anything else, so Little One prompted him. “And that is?”
“To keep you safe, Little One. I can’t stand it when you’re in pain. It hurts me more than it hurts you. So I protect you.”
In that moment the world seemed very still to Little One. He felt a slight breeze on his cheek. The earth was warm beneath him. He saw the spider’s eyes in front of him, large, dark, and nearly liquid in their sadness. He realized something.
“You’re afraid?” he said. “That’s why you tried to stop me?”
The eyes trembled. “Yes,” said the spider. “I’m terrified. Please don’t be mad. I only want what’s best for you.”
Little One didn’t know what to say. He weighed the words. He considered whether he believed them. Then he looked at the giant spider, its huge pincers, sharp spikes, and tender eyes, and he knew that he did. Something within him melted.
“I understand,” he said. “You’re doing your best to protect me, even if it is in kind of a backwards way. I mean, I get it. Things have been a little crazy, huh? It’s not easy, all this adventure into the unknown. But do you think I did all those things without realizing how dangerous they were?” He shook his head. “Believe me, I didn’t. I get scared too. But I’m looking out for us. I’m being careful. And I know that we’re capable of doing this. I know deep down that we are. Can’t you feel it too?”
The spider’s eyes trembled. Then he nodded his head. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, I can.”
“Great,” said Little One. “Can we keep going towards the palace then, if I promise to be careful and listen when you have a real concern?”
The spider nodded vigorously and opened its mouth to say something.
“A real concern, my friend,” said Little One. “Not an invented story.”
There was a noise then, of air escaping a small space. Little One wondered if it was the sound of a giant spider laughing or sighing. He couldn’t tell which.
“Great. Help me up then, and we’ll be on our way.”
The spider just stood there. “I can’t help you,” he said solemnly. “But you don’t need it anyway. Just stand up.”
“I can’t,” Little One insisted. “I’m covered in sticky spider spit.”
The spider just shook his head. “Just stand up,” he said again.
Little One could have sworn he’d attempted that before, but he gave it one more try. To his surprise, he was able to move. He put his feet beneath him and pushed up off the ground. He moved upward with such force that the trees seemed to swirl around him and he almost lost his balance.
He looked around to try to find the spider. He didn’t see anything. He was starting to worry that he’d made the whole thing up and was losing his mind after all when he felt something soft and tickly on his foot. He looked down.
There, crawling up over the top of the arch of his foot, was the spider. It was about the size of his thumbnail again.
He picked it up and smiled at it, then put it on his shoulder.
It was amazing how small it was in comparison to him when he was standing on his own two feet, especially since it had felt so much more powerful just a few moments before.
They made their way back to Ginger, and Little One told her what had happened. Then all three of them began to walk together through the dark woods towards the Serpent God’s palace.
Little One knew that the spider was a part of him and would never leave, but he didn’t mind so much; the little guy felt kind of like a guileless friend, and he knew that he could stand up again if he ever felt trapped in its web.