Following is the seventeenth story in a series that tells the tale of the first hero to go on a journey to discover his calling.
He’d been wrong, Little One realized regretfully. Thoroughly and completely wrong.
Up until a few moments ago, he thought, his head heavy in his hands, his elbows pressing into his knees, things still could have turned around. The chaos of the afternoon could have been the dramatic precursor to a rousing victory—two victories, really, if you counted the second reason he’d returned to the City of the Children of the Serpent God—and the strategy he’d been so confident in just hours before could have proved a good one.
It was now abundantly clear that it hadn’t, though he still wasn’t sure exactly where he’d gone wrong. The children in the village he’d come across had asked for his help. He couldn’t just let them starve while an evil demon held their parents captive with a spell, forcing them to help him take over the world at the expense of their homes and families.
Little One had tried and failed to help the children on his own. And it was the Serpent God himself who told him that alone he was powerless—what else could that have meant except that he was supposed to ask for help?
Besides, his siblings—the Serpent God’s other children—had been slow to see the truth in the message he delivered from their father—that all beings are made of light and that their role as the god’s children was to remind everyone of that fact. It was only logical that inviting his siblings to help him defeat the demon would both save the village and allow them to experience the truth of their father’s message for themselves.
But that’s not how things had turned out. Not at all.
Perhaps he should have known his plan was flawed when his siblings didn’t respond to his request with the warmth and enthusiasm that he’d envisioned. Instead, they’d looked at him coldly or not at all. One had asked if there were any princesses involved, and another why he was asking for help if there weren’t even any dragons on the loose. Nobody had expressed any interest in helping, in fact, until he told them how big and powerful the demon was, and how many other heroes had failed to stop him.
That provoked enough interest that the siblings agreed to send a small group of gifted brethren with him back to the village. Little One was happy that at least they’d given him some of the brothers and sisters most talented at flying, fighting, and becoming invisible. There was even one who could make fire sprout out of his palms.
Yet it was probably another bad sign that when Little One began to strategize with these siblings, they started coming up with plans for how to burn down the demon’s headquarters along with everything inside it.
“No, we can’t burn it down,” Little One explained patiently. “The adults from the village are inside, and they’re refusing to leave.”
One of his brothers whose name he’d learned on an earlier visit didn’t understand. “I thought you said the adults were helping the demon,” Corbett said. “You said it was the children we’re there to save.”
Little One sighed and tried not to let their earlier interaction make him impatient. Part of his goal was to help them see that they were made of light, after all; someone with such an important message surely shouldn’t display irritation. “Yes, that’s true,” he agreed, “but the demon has some sort of spell on the adults, at least I think he does, and the children need their parents.” He paused, hearing the edginess in his voice. “Maybe I didn’t explain how young the children are,” he added more kindly.
Corbett had simply nodded, looking more irritated than grateful.
In the end, they settled on a plan to sneak into the headquarters and try to neutralize the demon, thus freeing the adults from his spell. Nobody argued when Little One made it clear that the ideal outcome was to interrupt the demon’s power over the people, not kill him outright, but he wasn’t sure how much he’d actually persuaded his siblings and to what degree they were simply humoring him.
Their entrance into the headquarters, which was the largest building he’d ever seen and had a chimney that belched dark, gray smoke out into the air above it, actually went more smoothly than he’d imagined. He supposed he owed that to his siblings’ superpowers.
The ones who could fly were able to carry the others to the back side of the building to avoid detection, a precaution they’d decided on even though Little One wasn’t sure there was even anyone watching the road. The invisible ones were then able to sneak in the door without being noticed. The rest of them waited for the agreed-upon signal, which came as a bird call letting them know that they’d surrounded the demon.
He barged in with the other remaining siblings to do what he could to overcome the demon. They hadn’t known what it would take, so in addition to the fire-maker, they’d brought several who had superpowers that could be used in a fight, including two brothers and a sister from the same family who were nearly twice as tall as the rest of them, had bulging muscles, and apparently knew how to use them.
The demon’s response to all this was perhaps another indicator that things weren’t going to turn out as planned. Despite being surrounded by a circle of rather determined-looking children of the Serpent God, including three near-giants, the demon didn’t express any sign of fear or even anger. Instead, he just ran a hand through his thinning hair and looked at them with an understated curiosity as if they were a species of bird he’d never seen before. When he saw Little One, he smiled and nodded to himself.
“I had a feeling I hadn’t seen the last of you,” he said almost jovially.
Little One grunted. “We’re here to free these people from your spell,” he called out in response. “If you let them go now, no harm will come to you.”
The demon looked around at the parents, many of whom had stopped to see what was going on, but most of whom still appeared to be trying to peer at their papers at the same time. Little One wondered what could be on those papers that was so important. “I told you before,” the demon said, his voice ice, “they are all free to leave whenever they want.”
Little One heard a murmur go up in the siblings surrounding the demon. “Yes, you say that,” he answered quickly, and more loudly, “but I know they’re under your spell. I cannot believe these parents would leave their children to starve if you were not bewitching them somehow.”
The demon laughed, his thick belly shaking with the effort. “Bewitching, eh? Is that what you call it? I prefer the terms leading, influencing, or perhaps motivating, but whatever you call it, I’m just giving them the opportunity to fulfill their desires. Believe it or not, they are free to go at any time.”
Now Little One knew the demon was lying. There was no way anyone would desire to live in an environment like this one, especially not when he had a family waiting for him at home. “So you will not set them free from whatever trance you’ve forced upon them?” he asked, his voice nearly a growl.
“You are not hearing me, boy. There is no trance.” The demon’s eyes flashed red in the dim light of the headquarters.
“Then I’m afraid we have no choice but to make you do it. Brothers, sisters,” Little One said, looking around him at as many siblings as he could as he pronounced the agreed-upon words, “neutralize him!”
Little One realized in retrospect that it wasn’t the most powerful word choice. Still, it didn’t seem likely that that alone could have caused the disaster that followed.
The three large siblings had moved forward to try to grab the demon, but in the exact moment when their hands should have touched his skin, he disappeared. He reappeared a moment later outside the circle of siblings, cackling maniacally. Fortunately, one of the ones who stood nearest to him was the fire-maker, and he grabbed the demon’s wrist before he could slip away. Unfortunately, what looked like a thin stream of red fire immediately shot out of the demon’s eyes and scorched the brother’s hand, causing him to drop the wrist as the demon disappeared once again.
He reappeared across the room. Little One saw Sebastian, the first son of the Serpent God he’d ever met, try to surprise the demon from above and behind. It didn’t work. Just as Sebastian was about to approach him, the demon simply smiled and stuck a hand in the air without looking, grabbing him around the throat. With superhuman strength, he flung the brother across the room, where he landed with a loud thud against the stone wall.
That’s when all the brothers and sisters went after the demon at once. One by one he burned them, threw them, or evaded them, and all the while the adults of the village simply looked on with their glazed-over eyes, occasionally ducking to get out of the way of a flung sibling, but mostly keeping their eyes on their papers and walking about muttering to themselves about distractions and lost productivity.
Just when Little One thought that it couldn’t get any worse, it did. His siblings weren’t used to losing, but it was becoming clear that their efforts weren’t doing anything to neutralize, let alone vanquish, the demon. Little One watched in horror as Corbett, his face twisted with rage, stood up from where the demon had just thrown him and immediately turned towards the nearest village adult. Before Little One could do anything to intervene, his brother had wrapped his arms around the man, taken off into the air, and disappeared with him out the main door.
As soon as the other siblings saw what Corbett had done, they began to do the same.
Little One tried to yell at them to stop, but the roar of the fighting swallowed his words. Twice when he tried to physically intervene he was thrown to the ground. By the time he was on his feet again the second time, all of his siblings had disappeared with about half of the adults in the headquarters. The remaining adults sat hunkered in the corners, looking around wild-eyed and terrified, clutching their precious papers to their chests. The demon, meanwhile, was nowhere to be seen.
Little One made his way through the headquarters and back out into the light of day. In the reddish light of the late afternoon sun, a disturbing scene met his eyes. The village adults were scattered over the open ground in front of the headquarters, struggling to free themselves or crawl back towards the door. His siblings were having none of it; they were busy tying invisible bonds around the adults, sitting on their chests so they could not move, or in one or two cases, knocking them unconscious with blows to the back of the head.
Once again Little One tried to intervene, to no avail. His siblings either pretended not to hear him as they subdued the adults or told him to go back to the village to take his place with the children if he wasn’t up to the task of rescue. Not knowing what else to do, Little One had made his way to a rock outcropping at the edge of the forest overlooking the clearing and sat down to try to think things through.
That was when he realized that he’d been wrong, that things weren’t going to turn around after all. But after reviewing the events that led to the disaster deepening itself in front of his eyes, he still wasn’t sure where his mistakes had begun, or what, more importantly, he could do about them now.
His body felt incredibly heavy, like it would take more strength than he had to move. His head hurt, and his stomach felt as if it was somewhere near his ankles. He wanted to cry. He wanted to run. He wanted to scream. He was gathering his energy to walk back down to the field and try to reason with his siblings once again when he felt a tap on his shoulder.
When he turned around, he very nearly cried, ran, and screamed all at once.
Ginger stood in front of him, a sympathetic smile on her face that told him she understood exactly what he was feeling. She shook her head and started to say something, but before she got any words out, Little One threw his arms around her and held her tight, breathing in her familiar scent.
He held her for a long time, not wanting to let her go. When he finally did, it was reluctantly, and he held on to one of her hands in his own, unwilling to lose contact completely.
She looked up at him and smiled. “Good to see you again, Little One,” she said, tucking a stray piece of hair behind his ear with her other hand.
“You have no idea how good it is to see you,” he answered, squeezing her hand, unsure of where to begin to catch up on what had happened since they’d seen each other last.
“Oh, I think I have some idea,” Ginger laughed, squeezing his hand in return. Her smile faded as she glanced behind him and took in the scene in front of the headquarters. “That’s a fine mess, isn’t it?” she asked as sounds of their siblings’ struggles floated up the hill.
Little One dropped her hand. “I made a big mistake, Ginger,” he said, shaking his head. “I don’t even know what it was exactly, but I know it was a big one. And I have no idea what to do about it now.”
Ginger put her hand on his shoulder. “Oh, Little One,” she said. “This isn’t your fault.” She was smiling softly again. “This is what happens any time our siblings get it in their head that somebody needs saving.”
“But I brought them here, Ginger. I told them about the village, and the demon, and the spell…”
“I know,” Ginger said quietly. “I spoke with the children in the village. You were doing what you thought best. It was a good plan. You just don’t know our siblings the way I do. They’re good people, but they always get a little…carried away in situations like this. They forget themselves and the real purpose of their efforts. It’s why I started making this in the first place,” she said, squatting down to pick up what looked like a large metal box with a cone on top and another one coming out the side.
“Is that your invention?” Little One asked breathlessly. “The one you were working on when I first met you?”
“Yes,” Ginger said, nodding. “I went back to get it to help the Serpent God. As you well know, he didn’t need it anymore by the time I got there. But he told me you might, and sent me back here to see if it could help.”
“What is it?” Little One asked. It didn’t look like anything he’d ever seen before.
“Mostly it’s just a box for refracting and reflecting light,” Ginger explained, turning the strange contraption over in her hands. “The important piece is here.” She pointed to the spot where the cone on the side attached to the box. “This is the lens of truth.”
“The lens of truth,” Little one repeated, turning the words over in his mouth. “What does it do?”
“It filters out the most illusory aspects of our manifestation,” she answered.
Little One shook his head. “What does that mean?” he asked.
Ginger laughed. “It shows our true nature,” she said as if it were the simplest thing in the world. “In a way that anyone can see.”
Little One thought about this as he took in the scene below. Most of the adults had been tied up or otherwise incapacitated and rounded up into a small circle. Some of his siblings were standing guard over the circle while others huddled in groups of twos and threes heatedly discussing what to do with their prisoners. Little One could see a few said prisoners still struggling with their bonds, and a few more were attempting to scoot themselves awkwardly back towards the headquarters when their captors weren’t looking. As he watched their vain efforts, he finally understood.
“So you’re going to reveal to the adults of the village the true nature of the demon,” he said, turning back to Ginger, “to show them how evil he is and break whatever spell he’s cast upon them.”
Ginger looked at him for a moment with smiling eyes. “Not exactly,” she said after a moment and hoisted the machine onto her shoulders.
Little One was confused. “The demon disappeared a little while ago, Ginger. There’s nobody down there right now who needs to be exposed.”
The only answer Ginger gave was a grunt as she shifted the machine on her shoulder, nearly dropping it as it swung wildly around to point at the closest group of conferring siblings.
Little One started to reach out and help her reposition it towards the headquarters when suddenly the sunlight caught the top cone and a bright, white light began to pour out of the cone on the side. He watched as the light washed over his siblings, making the lines of their bodies hazy wherever it passed. Where their forms blurred, a beautiful golden light began to appear. It pulsed outward in waves as if pushed by a beating heart, and as it did, it began to change colors, from gold to orange to red to purple then blue and green and back to gold. The light was so pure, so rich, so beautiful, that Little One didn’t think he could look away even if he wanted to.
“Wow, that’s…” he started to say to Ginger before realizing there was no word to describe what he was seeing.
Slowly Ginger moved the machine so that its light fell upon more groups of siblings. As she did, all sound ceased. In the ensuing silence, Little One heard a faint thumping sound like that of a heart, but whether it was his or somebody else’s, he wasn’t sure. The light of his siblings seemed to dance to the sound, which vibrated within him, waking every last corner of his being.
When the light reached the first adult from the village, Little One turned to look at Ginger with a question in his eyes, but her attention was wholly on where her machine was pointed. Where the light passed over the villagers, it still transformed them into a multi-colored incandescence, but the shades were less intense, and instead of pouring out in waves, they seemed to organize themselves into shapes.
It was hard to make them out at first, but eventually the forms of large animals began to emerge, some of them recognizable as wolves, squirrels, turtles, boars, birds, and the like, while others were fantastic creatures that Little One had never seen before. Recognizable or not, they were there only for a moment; when he looked at them directly they would disappear into a mist of beautiful colors, but out of the corner of his eyes there was no mistaking the various forms.
After what felt like hours, when there were no more forms to see and the colored light had faded from the field, Little One continued to stare as if in a trance. He longed for the light to reappear, could feel an ache for it in the back of his chest. It had all felt so vibrant, so warm and alive. Now everything felt dull and cold, as if he were experiencing it through a thick cloth.
He was beginning to wonder if it was possible to experience everything that way all the time when he heard a grunt and turned back to look at Ginger just in time to see the machine slip from her shoulder and her knees go out from under her. Without thinking, he grabbed the machine with one hand and slipped the other around her back, keeping her on her feet.
“Thank you,” she murmured, her whole body leaning on him. “I’m still trying to find a better energy source for the machine. As it is, it’s pretty exhausting.”
“It’s amazing is what it is,” Little One whispered. “Shall we go see what it’s done?” Ginger nodded.
As they made their careful way down the hill, Little One saw that some people were frozen, still staring at each other as though the lights might reappear at any moment. Others, however, were beginning to stir. Among his siblings, there were several who were walking around untying the bonds of the villagers. Several more were bending over and helping them to their feet, shrugging their shoulders and smiling apologetically.
For their part, the villagers were dusting themselves off and reaching out hands of gratitude. Little One couldn’t hear what they were saying, but from their gestures and expressions he felt sure it was some word of thanks. Several were looking over their shoulders at the headquarters regretfully, while others had taken a few steps back up the road towards the village and their children.
As they got closer, Little One heard one thanking Corbett for saving his life. “I don’t know what came over me,” he said sadly, “but all I could think about was serving that evil demon and helping him take over the world. Nothing else seemed to matter nearly so much. But thanks to your strength and courage, I seem to be seeing things more clearly now, and can return to my children while they are still well. For that I will be eternally grateful.”
“The honor is mine,” Corbett said in return. “You have shown me the beauty and power of love, which I see in your eyes even now when you speak of your children. For that I will be eternally grateful.”
Little One turned to Ginger, who was bearing more of her own weight now, and smiled. “You did it,” he said softly. “You and your lens of truth did all of this.”
She opened her mouth to speak when suddenly a loud noise crashed through the field. It too vibrated, but with much more violence and turmoil than the light.
“My people,” a deafening voice boomed. “You do not want to return to your village. That is but weakness flowing back into your veins. If you go back, all that we have worked for will be destroyed. Come with me now and you will find the rewards you were promised.”
Little One got ready to argue, but nobody moved a muscle. He looked around quickly for the source of the voice but didn’t see the demon anywhere until Ginger elbowed him in the ribs and pointed to a stocky form half-crouched behind one of the boulders at the top of the hill where she’d found him.
When the demon spoke again, his voice had grown so loud that Little One felt as if it were coming from inside his own head. “If you go back now,” he bellowed, “you will lose everything—your crops, your homes, your children—all will whither and die before your eyes. We live in a perilous land, and only I can offer you true safety and shelter from the storm. Come with me back to the headquarters and you need not fear any danger.”
Some of the villagers’ eyes grew wide as their shoulders slumped; they eyed the headquarters nervously and looked ready to head there, if reluctantly. Others glowered at the demon, their hands forming fists at their sides. Some even took a step or two towards him, looking ready to use their fists however they could.
Ginger tugged urgently at Little One’s sleeve. “The machine, brother,” she whispered. “There’s one person who still needs to see his true nature.”
Little One started to give it to her, then hesitated. “What good will it do?” he asked. “The people already know that he’s evil. Besides, you’re too tired to use it again. Let me go and deal with the demon while you rest and regain your strength.”
Ginger shook her head. “Not me,” she said, reaching over to guide the machine onto his shoulder. “You.” She angled the cone towards the demon.
“I don’t know how this works, Ginger!” Little One said desperately. “What if I do it wrong?”
Ginger smiled weakly. “There’s no way to do it wrong, Little One. Just connect with your own inner light and see what appears. It helps to be curious, but that’s really it. I know you can do it,” she added, putting a hand on his shoulder. “Trust me, okay?”
Little One took a deep breath, allowing the air and Ginger’s confidence to calm him. He brought his attention to his belly and chest. At first he was only aware of what felt like thousands of buzzing horseflies amid muscles contracted with fear. As he continued to breathe, the contraction lessened, and eventually the flies quieted as well. What remained was a feeling of weight and solidity, as if his belly were carved of stone. As he focused on that, he began to feel the stirrings of a warm, golden energy within him. He waited as it traveled from his core up into his throat and head and out into his arms and legs. Finally he could feel its warmth flowing throughout his entire body, pulsing with his heartbeat.
“Okay,” he said quietly. “Let’s do this.” He shifted the machine on his shoulder until the top cone caught the rays of the setting sun. Turning back towards the hill, he watched as bright, white light shot out of the other cone towards the demon half-hidden behind the rock.
At first nothing happened. The demon looked the same—stout, balding, with gleaming red eyes—only easier to see in the brighter light. I knew it, Little One thought, either this is the demon’s true nature, or I’ve found a way to do this wrong. He looked at Ginger, who was staring inquisitively at the demon, and remembered her advice to get curious. He let go of the thought and returned his attention to the demon, wondering what he’d see.
Almost immediately the demon’s form disappeared. It rematerialized again so quickly that Little One wasn’t sure if he’d made it up. Blinking, he stared harder. After a few moments the demon again vanished, this time taking longer to reappear. The next time it happened, the demon looked just slightly smaller when he returned than he had when he’d left. It happened again and again until Little One finally realized with a gasp that the demon was not only growing smaller, but younger as well. Each time he rematerialized, he looked less like a middle-aged man and more like a young adult.
Then finally, after a few minutes of flickering in and out, the demon reappeared and remained visible. By then he looked like a skinny three-year-old with wild hair sticking out from his head at odd angles. His face was twisted into a painful expression, and it took Little One a minute to register that his eyes were no longer red and were in fact overflowing with tears.
The demon looked for all the world like a little boy crying for his mother.
Little One almost wanted to run and gather him in his arms so he could tell the demon that everything would be okay. As he glanced around, he realized that he wasn’t the only one; several of his siblings and most of the village adults had concerned expressions on their faces, and one or two were actually reaching out with open arms stretched wide towards the crying demon.
As Little One tried to make sense of this, he felt Ginger touch his shoulder. “Well done,” she whispered softly. “I knew you could do it.”
Little One looked back at Ginger with another question in his eyes, but she just smiled and turned towards the villagers. “As you can see,” she said, her voice carrying like a bell, “the demon has no power over you which you do not give him. His words have no force of prophecy; they are simply the cries of a frightened and hurting child. You are all free to go. There is nothing he can do to harm you, and nothing you need do to stay him.”
As the adults looked from Ginger to the demon and around at one another, Little One realized it was true. Not only were the adults clearly more powerful and in control of themselves than the demon, but they were also nearly twice his size.
The villagers seemed to be realizing the same thing. Broad smiles broke out on their faces as they said brief words to the siblings and began congregating on the road. The sound of laughter and singing floated to Little One’s ears. Several of the villagers came to thank Ginger for her invention and to shake Little One’s hand, but before long they were all heading back on the road towards the village where their homes, fields, and children awaited them.
Little One suddenly realized how tired he was and let the machine fall softly to the ground. Just as he did he saw a woman cresting the top of the hill stop walking. She looked anxiously ahead towards the village, then down at the demon and frowned. The demon had returned to his previous form, a stout, middle-aged man with glowing eyes.
Little One watched apprehensively, worried that the woman might either return for revenge or else fall under the demon’s spell once again now that he was back to his original appearance. He started to heft Ginger’s invention back up onto his shoulder when he felt Ginger’s hand on his arm. He looked at her, saw her shake her head just slightly while still eyeing the demon, then looked back up at the woman on the hill.
With a set jaw and a firm gaze, the villager pivoted on her foot and marched down to the rock where the demon looked as if he were trying to fry her with his beady red eyes. Then, when she reached out a trembling hand towards the demon, the strangest thing happened.
The demon once again shrank and took on the appearance of a young child. The woman’s eyes grew wide and even the demon gave a start as he looked down at his small body and began to cry once again. Immediately the villager swooped him up in her arms, held him close to her chest, and began stroking his wild hair softly with her hand. Little One thought he heard her murmuring soothingly in the demon’s ear, but he couldn’t be sure.
When he looked back over at Ginger, Little one saw that she was laughing.
“Sometimes if enough people see our true nature,” she explained, “we can’t help but see it as well. Then the illusion loses its power and the truth becomes more…apparent.”
Little One imagined the woman taking the demon into her home and giving him the love and acceptance he perhaps never had as a child. He wasn’t sure if demons were ever children or even had mothers, but he supposed that if they didn’t, that could explain why they were so horrible. As he visualized the demon slowly maturing, learning the village’s customs and contributing to its well-being, a smile bloomed on his face.
It deepened when he saw Ginger’s own grin, nearly the size of his own. It grew bigger and bigger, in fact, the closer he and his siblings got to the village, and by the time they arrived and saw the children laughing and hugging and swinging their parents around by the arms, he thought it might break his face. He didn’t stop, though. His smile didn’t disappear until he fell asleep hours later, and even then a hint of it remained.