Following is the eighteenth story in a series that tells the tale of the first hero to go on a journey to discover his calling.
Little One was ready to go home. Now that he knew about Ginger’s invention, he was excited to use it to help his family and village discover the truth about who they were.
The trouble was, some words were stuck in Little One’s mind like food between his teeth. The more he tried to pry them loose, the more entrenched they became.
“I am irrevocably tied to the genie,” they kept repeating. “As he grows strong, so I grow weak. As long as he is fed, we are both prisoners. It is only when somebody sees our true nature that we will be set free.”
The words had been spoken by Abdul, the bony blue man who materialized alongside a fat, overconfident genie when Little One complimented a lamp that appeared in his path while he was searching for his father. Abdul had seemed less than happy with his living situation, and Little One had asked how he could help. He hadn’t understood the blue man’s response at the time, but now he couldn’t stop thinking about it.
It was the phrase “true nature” that reverberated most, the same phrase Ginger had used when describing the purpose of her invention, the Lens of Truth. “It shows our true nature in a way that anyone can see,” she’d explained shortly before revealing their siblings as beautiful, multi-colored light, the villagers as fantastic animals and beasts, and the demon as a lonely and frightened child.
Little One couldn’t help but wonder if Ginger’s invention could somehow help Abdul free himself from what appeared to be an equally obligatory and odious relationship with the genie. When he imagined himself sharing the lamp with such an overbearing and self-important roommate, he began to shudder.
When he said as much to Ginger, telling her the full story of his encounter with the genie, her first response was to frown thoughtfully. “Sure, it’s worth a try,” she said finally, nodding her head slowly. “But Little One, you should know that the Lens of Truth doesn’t always work like it did at the demon’s headquarters. A lot of the time things are more…complicated than that.”
Little One had said he understood even though he didn’t. But despite longing to go home, he was happy to have the chance to try to aid Abdul, who’d gone out of his way to tell him about the Guardian and the Guru, and thus helped him find his father, however indirectly.
The question had then been how to find the lamp. He’d stumbled across it in the endless grasslands beyond the great abyss, and last he’d seen it, it was shooting up into the sky so fast that it quickly disappeared from view. Still, he had an idea.
“It was such a beautiful lamp,” he said loudly, to nobody in particular, once they’d made their preparations. Ginger gave him an odd look. “Such fine craftsmanship, and incredibly shiny. It caught the light like nothing I’ve ever seen, reflecting the rays as if it were the sun itself.” Ginger looked at him even more strangely, but he went on. “And the genie inside! He must have been the most powerful being in existence to grant so many of my wishes so easily. I can’t imagine a more impressive creature exists anywhere in the world.”
Ginger opened her mouth to say something when suddenly a rattling noise caught their attention. Their eyes shot skyward just as a small object came hurtling towards them, shaking back and forth awkwardly and vibrating so much that it looked like it might explode. A few seconds later it struck the earth, and on the rebound two blue forms shot out of a small hole in what looked like a snout, one large and one small, forming themselves into the shapes of the genie and Abdul.
“So you like my lamp,” the genie said as he looked at Ginger, a creepy smile playing across his thick, blue lips. “Wait til you have a chance to appreciate what lives inside.”
Little One cleared his throat loudly. The genie’s massive head swung towards him, his eyes narrowing suddenly as he recognized who it was. “You!” he bellowed angrily. “Why have you called me back? I gave you your wishes already. Everyone knows that three’s the limit.”
“I don’t want any more wishes,” Little One said calmly, trying to inch towards Abdul without calling attention to his movement.
“I already told you, no givebacks, no returns, and absolutely no exchanges.” The genie’s face had taken on a purplish hue.
“I don’t want to return anything,” Little One said slowly. He was almost there. “I have no complaints about anything you gave me.”
“Then what do you want?” the genie asked suspiciously. “My generosity only extends so far. Just like my patience.”
Finally Little One was within arm’s reach of Abdul. Putting a hand on each shoulder, he was happy to realize that the man felt more solid than he looked. “Now, Ginger!” he cried, turning towards his sister.
Ginger uncovered her invention, which was sitting on a large boulder next to her in the clearing they’d chosen for this purpose. As she adjusted the angle of the large box, sunlight began to be redirected and refracted, washing over Abdul in increasingly powerful waves. As it did, the image of half a man began to become discernable.
The man was somewhat larger than Abdul, and not nearly so skinny. He wasn’t blue, either. He had thick, straight hair and a copious moustache, only part of which was visible because all trace of the man disappeared across a vertical line that appeared to slice him in half from head to foot.
The image looked down at himself, its eyes wide. “You have returned me to my former self,” he said, his voice filled with awe. “Almost my former self,” he added as the hand reached across the broad chest, finding only air where the other shoulder should have been. Suddenly Abdul’s voice sounded an octave higher. “Does the sorceress know about this?” His eyes grew even wider. “Do you work for the sorceress?”
“I don’t work for anybody,” Little One assured him. “I wanted to help you since you helped me the last time we met.” A memory tickled the back of his mind. “Wait, what sorceress are you talking about?”
“The sorceress who forced us into that accursed lamp,” Abdul answered. “I used to be a normal man. Well, not normal, I suppose. I was a prince. I was to inherit a kingdom that encompassed all the lands from mountain to sea, from grassland to forest to marsh. I was—” Abdul grunted as what looked like a giant, blue boulder barreled into him, forcing him to stumble several steps to his right and nearly causing him to fall.
As Abdul returned to his previous appearance, the other half of the man appeared in the light of Ginger’s machine. A large, satisfied smile lit his face as he stared down at his body.
“Oh, it feels good to be myself again,” the genie said as Abdul glared at him reproachfully.
Little One wasn’t sure what to do. “You’re the prince too?” he asked doubtfully.
“Too?” the genie asked, chuckling loudly. “I am the only prince. There only used to be one of us—of me.”
“So how did you become a genie?” Little One asked. “And a—whatever he is?” He nodded towards Abdul.
“Well, as he was saying, we were a prince. Ahem. I was a prince. A powerful one too. But even powerful princes can’t get everything they want. I was disappointed to say the least to learn that princes and kings are also subject to illness, old age, and death. Even worse, not every woman finds power seductive. On the contrary, many are intimidated by it. You’d be surprised how hard it is for a prince to find a pretty woman to share a kiss.”
Little One heard a low growl to his left just before he saw another blue streak—this one far skinnier—plow into the half-image of the man. The genie’s eyebrows shot up in surprise just before he stumbled to his left, leaving Abdul back in the light of Ginger’s invention.
“That felt better than I would have imagined,” Abdul said, rubbing his hand over his half-formed head and neck. “Anyway, as I was saying, I was beginning to find that being a prince wasn’t as great as you might expect. That’s when I first met the sorceress. I ran into her on a walk in the woods, and she told me she could give me the power to make any wish come true, no matter how improbable. She said there was a cost, of course, but I never thought—”
Abdul flew, quite literally, almost a full body’s length into the air. The opposite half of the mustached man appeared in the light of Ginger’s machine. Little One heard a resounding thud and sighed loudly.
“I never thought I’d be split in two and forced to live in a lamp,” the genie finished, looking very satisfied with himself. “It also never occurred to me that when the sorceress spoke of making wishes come true, she was only referring to those of other people. I suppose I should have been more specific.”
Little One had an idea. “Tell me about this sorceress,” he said, wondering absentmindedly if she could be the same one. “What did she look like?” He made his way towards Abdul, who was brushing himself off behind the genie and appeared to be trying to bore holes through his back with his glare.
“She was beautiful and tall, with deep brown eyes you could get lost in,” the genie sighed.
Little One gave Ginger a meaningful look. She picked up his intention immediately. “What was she wearing?” she asked the genie, who turned to face her.
“A tight-fitting red dress…” began the genie. Little One didn’t hear the rest as he leaned in close to Abdul.
“I have an idea to help you recover your old self permanently,” he whispered. “Go stand next to the genie so that the machine’s light covers both of you at the same time. You need to see yourselves whole.”
To his surprise, Abdul shook his head, his eyes wide. “No way,” he said. “I can’t do that. He’ll kill me.”
“Come on,” Little One whispered more loudly. “It’s the only way!”
“Uh-uh. Nope. Negative. He’s hard enough to live with when he’s happy. When he’s angry…” Abdul shuddered. “I am sorry,” he added after a moment. “I appreciate your trying.” He looked so miserable that Little One’s frustration almost turned to sympathy.
Almost, but not quite. Abdul was so close to being freed. All he had to do was find the courage to go stand next to his other half. Little One and Ginger had worked hard to give them the opportunity to break their curse or whatever it was that bound them to the lamp, and now they were about to throw it all away.
Grunting, Little One was moving before he realized what was happening. He found himself stooping down to scoop Abdul up over his shoulder, then running back to the genie who was still going on about the sorceress’ beauty. When he dropped Abdul to the ground, the genie stopped talking long enough to turn around and look at them.
“Oh, no,” the genie said. “He doesn’t deserve to be his old self again. Our old self. My old self.” He took a step away from Abdul.
“Oh, for goodness’ sake!” Little One exclaimed, near exasperation. “He’s you!”
Summoning all his strength, he ran to the other side of the genie and pushed him towards Abdul. At first nothing happened as the genie’s weight refused to give way, but then he budged a finger’s width, and then another, and Little One kept pushing, red in the face and nearly out of breath, until he finally bumped up against Abdul. For a split second Little One saw the mirror images of the mustached man almost meeting in the light of Ginger’s machine, the line that separated them shrinking into nothing.
Just as it was about to disappear completely, Ginger yelled and the light from her machine disappeared.
When he turned back to see what had happened, Little One saw that Ginger was surprised but unharmed; her machine was on its side on the ground a few paces from the rock; and a sorceress was standing behind her with one arm extending out towards the Lens of Truth. Abdul and the genie, meanwhile, were now wrestling on the ground, each pulling the other’s hair and struggling to pin the other one down.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Little One growled.
Turning back towards the sorceress, who had lowered her arm, he saw that she was wearing a well-fitting red dress. Tall, with large, brown eyes, she was undeniably pretty. She was equally undeniably the same sorceress he’d met previously on his journey.
He remembered when he first saw her standing behind him in the boulder field. She’d told him that she knew what he was looking for, even though at that point he still didn’t. She asked him to help her kill a monster that was preying on innocent travelers. If he succeeded, she said, she would take him directly to what he sought. If he failed, she’d have no choice but to take him back to where he started.
He’d reluctantly agreed. But the situation was more complex than she’d let on. The monster turned out to be a rather likeable ogre who, like Little One, had left his village because something was calling him to explore the mountains and the legend of the multi-colored lightning. The sorceress had made a similar bargain with the ogre, promising to show him what was calling him if he robbed enough treasure from the people passing by.
When he realized that the monster was just another victim of the sorceress, Little One hadn’t wanted to kill him. Instead, he encouraged the ogre to return to his village and let the sorceress take him back to his own so that he could start his journey again.
Remembering this, and seeing Abdul and the genie rolling around on the ground in front of him, Little One felt heat rise within him. How many people had this evil sorceress tricked? How many lives had she ruined?
Little One thought of the evil demon who was transformed when Ginger’s machine revealed his true nature as a small, frightened boy and made a quick decision. He couldn’t let the sorceress destroy any more lives.
Moving as quickly as he could, he ran towards where the machine lay on the ground. Picking it up, he saw that it was undamaged, so he turned it as fast as he could towards the sorceress, adjusting the angle to catch the sunlight.
For a moment only the machine’s rays washed over her, her form swaying at first as light particles bounced and danced wildly before finally calming and settling down to reveal…the exact same form as before, a beautiful, brown-eyed woman in a red dress.
In the exact moment that Little One’s brain registered this fact, he felt an intense vibration within his skull followed by a deafening boom and a sudden release of pressure. For a split second, Little One thought that maybe his brain had exploded.
Then he realized that his hands were empty and looked down. Horrified, he saw Ginger’s machine in tiny pieces all around him. He groaned and looked to her to apologize, but she just shrugged and looked back to the sorceress.
“What, did you think my true nature might be more beautiful than I am? More innocent or kind-hearted?” the sorceress asked, her lips curving into a dangerous smile. “Perhaps you thought that showing it to me might teach me the error of my ways.” She laughed, an unpleasant sound.
Little One didn’t say anything. “Don’t confuse what you don’t understand with bad intent, Little One,” she continued, her tone sickly sweet. “That mistake has caused more harm than the actions of even the most evil villains.”
Little One’s eyes narrowed. “Are you trying to say that your intentions are good? I find that hard to believe given what you’ve done here today and nearly impossible if you consider all your evil deeds in the past.”
“Evil deeds? Me?” the sorceress asked, her eyes widening in mock surprise.
Little One had no patience for her theatrics. “You tried to get me to kill a perfectly nice ogre!” he yelled.
“Knowing full well that you wouldn’t,” she answered calmly.
“You tricked him into killing passersby and stealing their things!”
“In fairness, he made the decision to do those things himself. I simply encouraged him.” Little One spluttered. “Stealing and killing,” she went on, “are what most ogres do naturally. That one, however, isn’t like most ogres. But he never would have figured out that his path is a peaceful one if he remained in his village. That realization required time on his own, and some extra guidance.”
Little One was beside himself. “So you let him kill multiple travelers so that he could learn that he wasn’t a killer?” he screamed.
The sorceress nodded. “Yes, I’ll admit it wasn’t the best plan, but it was all I could come up with on such short notice. Hindsight is 20/20, as they say. You had just received the call yourself, and I expected you to come play your part in helping him realize his path much earlier than you did. How was I to know that you would resist the call for so long?”
Little One shook his head. “So it’s my fault now? I suppose it’s my fault too that you took me back to my village and I had to start completely over.”
“Of course it’s not your fault,” the sorceress said softly. Little One wasn’t sure if she was mocking him or not. “I’m simply saying that we do our best, but nobody can see what will happen or when. Helping others is a messy process at best.” She smoothed her skirts. “You needed to talk to the ogre so that you would learn that you were the son of the Serpent God, but you wouldn’t have believed me if I hadn’t been slightly sinister. Nobody trusts a kind sorceress. Sometimes I have to play the part that people expect in order to get them to take me seriously.” She took a deep breath. “And I delivered you back to your village because it was the fastest way to get you to the Chamber of Doom. I don’t have to explain to you how important that ultimately was to your journey.”
The heat in Little One’s chest flared higher. “You expect me to believe that you did all that out of concern for my welfare? That you were helping the ogre?”
“I don’t expect you to believe anything, Little One. I am simply offering you a different perspective. A more accurate one, as it turns out.”
“And what about Abdul and the genie? What possible good intentions could explain you splitting them in two and forcing them to live inside this god-forsaken lamp?” Out of the corner of his eye, Little One saw the genie and Abdul stop rolling on the ground as the genie shot him a hurt look. “This beautiful but tiny and cramped lamp, I meant to say,” he quickly amended.
“Ah, yes,” the sorceress said. “Well, he himself told you that he sought to have every wish fulfilled. He suffered under the illusion that getting whatever he wanted would bring him fulfillment. It was not unlike your father’s battle with himself, or your struggle with the Guardian. Only this man was clearly losing that fight. This”—she waved her hand towards the two blue creatures on the floor, who stared back at her curiously—“seemed a fitting way to help him discover the true nature of fulfillment, while perhaps teaching others the same lesson. It seemed to work pretty well with you,” she said brightly.
Little One grumbled under his breath. “What about today? Surely they’ve learned their lesson. Why did you interrupt our efforts to bring them back to their normal state?”
The sorceress smiled gently. “They’ll return to their normal state when they’ve learned everything they need to from the experience. Nobody can rush that, not even me. People wake up in their own time. What you did here today may well make it happen faster, but no transformation would last unless they’re truly ready. I hope you can see as clearly as I can that that’s not yet the case.”
Little One looked again to see that the genie still had a fist full of Abdul’s hair, and Abdul’s knee was pushing into the genie’s groin even as he listened to what the sorceress was saying. “I suppose I can,” he admitted reluctantly. “But they’re obviously suffering. Shouldn’t we try to lessen the pain?”
The sorceress’ eyes grew soft. “Oh, sweet boy. Would that it were not so, but it is often the pain that wakes us up,” she said kindly.
He looked over at Ginger, who gave him a sympathetic smile. “So what, I shouldn’t try to help anyone, since it won’t do any good anyway?” he asked. “Is that what you’re saying?”
“Oh, heavens no!” the sorceress exclaimed, laughing lightly. “You should absolutely follow your own guidance and do what feels right to you, which is hopefully to help as many people as possible. Just do it humbly, knowing that you can never truly know what’s really going on.” She paused, her smile fading. “And don’t reject anything. Embrace it all. If you try to avoid certain feelings or outcomes, you’ll fall prey to the flip side of the same misunderstanding that trapped the two of them.” She glanced at Abdul and the genie, who had finally let go of each other and were staring at them intently.
Little One took a deep breath. “Okay,” he said. “I have to admit that makes some sense. But did you have to destroy Ginger’s machine? She worked so hard on it, and it would have been so helpful to show the people in my village their true nature. Now I have no idea how to convince them of the truth of what I’ve learned.”
“Ginger is already thinking about what her next invention will be,” the sorceress said, her voice a tinkling bell. “And you don’t need some silly machine to help you show people their true nature. That is your gift. Try not to cheapen it with self doubt.”
“But how?” Little One persisted, the knot in his belly too tight to let it go. “How can I convince others of who they really are?”
The sorceress laughed again. “I hope you’ve learned today that you cannot convince anyone of anything that they don’t already believe is true.” She paused, her eyes intent on his. “But as to how you can help them remember who they are, I do not know. You will, however, when the time is right. That I can promise.”
Little One looked around. Abdul and the genie were helping each other up and brushing themselves off. Ginger was staring at the sorceress with wide eyes, a smile playing at her lips. The sorceress was looking at him expectantly.
“I hope so,” he said. “I hope I figure it out. But I’m heading back to my village after this, and though I’ve learned so much, in some ways I still feel as lost as when I left.”
The gentle smile returned to the sorceress’ face. “You can only be lost if you don’t know the way home,” she said softly.
The words sounded vaguely familiar, and for a split second, Little One could have sworn that her hair turned white and her dress became a shawl the color of shadows. Before he could be sure, though, she was a beautiful young woman once again.
Little One looked at her in amazement, wondering at how it was possible that one person could be so complex. Perhaps we all are, he thought, exchanging meaningful looks with Ginger, Abdul, and the genie, seeing for the first time an infinite depth in their eyes. He suddenly realized how lucky he would be if the world continued to surprise him as much as the sorceress had.
“I…I think I understand,” he murmured after a long pause, and was startled to realize that this time it was true.