This is one of the stories they tell about the Exile God.
There was a world in the sky, circling a star. One of many. It was covered by ocean for a long time. The floor of the ocean twisted and heaved until one day, a rock broke the surface. Now on the whole world there was only one island. Before long, on the island there grew a sapling, and the sapling became a huge tree. One tree on one island on one world.
It was the simplicity that drew him there.
The rain came from across the sea, curtains of it closing around the island. As the downpour struck, there suddenly appeared a man. He had blown in on the wind and fallen out of the clouds. He didn’t have a name, but there was something people called him: the Exile God. To be perfectly honest, he did not remember whether he really was a God, or even an Exile, at this point in his story.
But he knew he had a purpose.
He sat among the roots of the enormous tree, listening to the rain. Then he stood and looked into the distance, over the waves, knowing that this was the only tree on the only island in the world.
This place had been an idea in his mind. He had thought of it, and it was here.
“Listen,” he told the tree. “I am the Exile God and I made this place. The whole world I made, I’m pretty sure. I imagined it exactly so and wanted it this way.”
He patted the trunk of the tree. “What do you think? You must have an opinion on the matter.”
The tree said nothing. It couldn’t really do much of anything, except very slowly. The Exile God figured that if he waited a few hundred years he might get a reply, if he listened very carefully. But he was in a hurry and had places to be.
Whether or not the Exile God really did make everything, it is undeniable that he had magic. He had a great and sometimes terrifying power. The Exile God stayed on the island for a while and did magic things there, and studied and experimented and bent the full wealth of his power to the issues he faced in another universe that this story does not concern. When it was time for him to leave, he smiled at the tree and patted it once more.
“Well. I’m finished with this world,” the Exile God said. “I’ll leave it to you, the only thing there is. Enjoy it.”
And he turned away and gazed once more over the ocean. Then he was gone.
The tree was alone for a long time.
However, the Exile God was wrong. The tree was not the only thing in the world. The ocean teemed with tiny life. The tiny things became bigger things, and those still bigger things. After a few billion years, the world had changed. The island was now a mountain on a field of green hills.
At the very top of the mountain the tree still grew, huge and ancient. The mysterious things he had done on the island preserved it. Like him, it could only sleep, never die.
If the Exile God had stood there beside the tree for all those years and watched the world grow, it would have made him wiser. However, it wasn’t until about ten billion years after his first visit that he thought to return, purely out of curiosity, to see how the world he had created was getting on.
The Exile God came strolling out of a fissure in reality and found himself in a vast hilly countryside. He looked around, confused, seeing nothing but rolling green. He looked up and saw blue sky and fluffy white clouds.
“I guess a lot can change in ten billion years,” he said.
He had half a mind to leave then and there, and if he’d had any idea how long trees are supposed to live, he would have. Still, he had come a very long way and his other business could wait a little longer.
He walked around for a few weeks until he found another living thing that could speak to him. He had tried the grasses and shrubs but found them just as tight-lipped as the tree from long ago. None of the birds he had seen circling would stop and listen when he called to them.
He passed by a rotting wood fence and found a plump woman kneeling in a field. She was ripping turnips from the ground, dropping them in a wicker basket by her side.
“Excuse me,” he said, startling her.
“Oh my!” she exclaimed. “Where did you come from?” She looked him up and down, wiping sweat from her brow with the back of her sleeve.
He jabbed a thumb back over his shoulder. “Over there.” He’d been gone a long time from this world, but he didn’t know exactly how long . “How old are you?”
She snorted and heaved herself to her feet, clapping dirt from her thick hands. She wore an apron at her waist, black with soil. “That’s an impertinent question to ask a lady, young man.”
“Sorry.” He was trillions of years old. She must be ludicrously ancient. He said so.
She waddled up to him and whacked him with a rag from her pocket. But she was smiling. “Asking’s one thing. Now you’re just bein’ rude. You’re lucky I’m not a sensitive lady. Now, what do you want?” She crossed her arms and looked at him haughtily.
“Oh.” The Exile God was somewhat mortified. “I’m sorry. I just wanted to know if I made this place.”
“The world.” He gesticulated widely. “Did I make it?”
She frowned at him. “The whole world?”
“Don’t be stupid. The Exile God made the world.” She whacked him again with her rag.
He grinned at her. “So,” he said presently. “I’m looking for a very big, old tree.” He mimed the branches pluming upwards.
She scowled at him. “What, the tree? The Eon Tree?”
“I don’t know its name,” he said, a hand at his chin.
With sudden decision, she said, “I think you need a doctor, young man.” Her expression had softened. “Why don’t you come in and have some tea while I send for the doctor?” She took him gently by the arm.
“Do you know where I can find the tree?”
“Where it’s been for thousands of years,” she said. “On the mountain.” She pointed. Sure enough, there was a huge mountain in the distance, overshadowing everything, capped with snowy white. He had missed it entirely.
“Well then,” he said. “I suppose it couldn’t hurt to stop by and visit.”
He extricated himself from her and started off for the mountain.
“Wait!” She pawed after him. “It’s a hundred miles! Won’t you stay and wait for the doctor?”
“No, thank you very much!” He waved at her over his shoulder without looking as he fled.
The woman hesitantly went back to work, but the landscape was such that she could still see him an hour later, far away, going up one emerald hill and down the next.
By the next morning, the Exile God was already at the foot of the mountain. He was staring up at its vastness and preparing to make his ascent.
The road had grown disused here, and though he had seen houses and other buildings, their windows were dark. And, though he hadn’t noticed it, the air had grown colder here as the land grew higher. The mountain he looked upon was more than five miles tall. It was the tallest point in the world. Over the eons since it had broken the water’s surface, its’ ascent had slowed and other peaks had shot up enviously, but none reached its heights.
“That is very tall,” the Exile God said as he gazed up. The sun was blocked out behind the behemoth.
Long though his stride was, and mysterious though his means of travel were, he found he could not climb the mountain by conventional means. Every time he made headway, he found himself blocked. First by sheer cliffs, then by deep gorges, and finally by impassable tracts of snow.
He frowned, and his body melted into a puddle on the ground. He evaporated, tediously, and spent most of the night drifting up the mountainside. In late morning, he found a suitable spot and snowed down upon the summit. For a moment, it appeared someone had made a half-hearted snowman there. Then he burst forth from within and tramped on through the drifts.
Before him there was a cylindrical tower jutting up from among the crags. It added a good fifty meters to the top of the mountain. Windows and balconies adorned the sides and at the base stood a huge set of double doors. Dark gargoyles, fringed with frost and snow.
The Exile God, at that time as well versed in the structures of man as he ever really got, thought to himself that this must be man-made. Either that or the tree had learned to build protection for itself. Both seemed equally likely.
With a grin, he walked up to the doors, laid his hands on the wood, and pushed them open.
Before him he found the tree itself. The same tree he had met billions of years before when the world was nothing but a single island on the ocean.
It was very different now. Where before the bark had been brown and new, now it was brittle, grey, as hard as the mountain at its feet. The leaves had all gone, leaving only gnarled and tortured branches. And it was tall, at least five times as tall as he had left it. It filled the whole of the tower. The tower had been built around it, he realized, with a huge space in the centre to contain the tree. Staircases spiralled around the sides. He couldn’t see the ceiling.
The trunk was as thick as ten people standing side by side.
The Exile God smiled and went to say hello.
Don descended the rest of the way down the staircase and breathed on his cold hands before putting them in his pockets. He watched the stranger go to the trunk of the Eon Tree and touch the bark
“Hello, pilgrim!” Don called with a smile, stepping over the twisting roots of the Tree with ease. The stranger turned. Don lifted his arms high and came to embrace him. “You’re the first visitor all year! You’ve made a difficult journey. How do you feel? You will need to rest. Would you prefer to do that first? How is your breathing? Do you feel light-headed? The magic of the mountain robs our breath, you must have noticed. Can you feel all of your fingers and toes? We may need to look at them.”
The stranger returned the hug and Don felt his concern abate. In fact, the man seemed to be in excellent health. He wasn’t even wearing furs. His boots were thin, his cloak nothing but wool. The stranger slapped his back and disengaged from the hug. “I’m fine, really. The journey didn’t take too long. I ended up snowing most of the way here.”
“I see,” Don said automatically, turning aside to lead the stranger by the shoulder. “Please accept refreshment in my solar.”
It was warm in his chambers, with the huge fireplace and pelt rugs. Don stripped off his outer layers of fur and hung them. Then he took a seat in his favourite chair, deep and plush. He rang for a servant, and the stranger sat in a similar chair across from him.
Don looked at the man with some curiosity. He was tall and of medium build, of indeterminate age. He was the single most unprepared person Don had ever seen make the climb. The strangeness of it only seemed to grow as Don thought about it. No gloves. No pack of supplies. His fingers should have been purple and dead. And he seemed to have no trouble breathing, as though the mountain did not affect him. Normally it took weeks or months to acclimatize to life here.
Don shook his head, marvelling. “You’re very mysterious. How did you survive as you are? Or did you leave your supplies outside? Or lose them recently?”
“I don’t have supplies.” Don’s servant reappeared and the stranger accepted a cup of tea.
Don took his own tea. “Usually,” he said, taking a sip, “pilgrims arrive in large groups, exhausted, wearing heavy furs and carrying food. Climbing equipment.” He became dour. “Sometimes they lose friends along the way. You’ve made the journey alone, without trouble. I can scarcely,” he chortled, “believe you are human.”
The stranger laughed with him. “I’m not.” Don’s chuckle turned nervous and he sipped his tea thoughtfully.
“So what would you ask me?”
“Can you tell me about the tree? How long exactly has it been since—well…how old is the tree?”
Don set his tea down with a frown. “Are you foreign?”
Don was surprised by that. This man must be a new convert, and yet he had still made the climb. “Well, I’m happy to tell the story.”
He steepled his fingers. “The Eon Tree is the oldest living thing in the world. It stood on this mountain at the dawn of time when the Exile God came down to view his work from on high. He stood on a spot very near here and gazed down over the whole world and was happy with it, and the tree stood next to him. He blessed the tree with long life and magic power and bid it to watch over and protect us for him. That was ten thousand years ago now. That’s how old the Eon Tree is. It’s been protecting us all this time.”
The stranger looked at him for a long moment, tea poised at his lips, frowning quizzically. Then he spoke.
“No,” he said. “No no. No no no. No no no no. No.” He smiled. “You’ve been misinformed.”
“I beg your pardon, sir—”
“The tree is billions of years old. It must be.”
“Don’t be ridiculous—”
“And when I last saw it, there was no mountain here at all.”
“There’s always been a—”
“And no people!” The stranger laughed and shook his head, setting his tea down.
“It’s a well-documented fact that—”
“Not that there’s anything wrong with people,” the stranger went on heedlessly, setting down his tea. “It’s just not what I expected. They seem to turn up where you least expect them. Not everybody likes them, but I happen to.”
“Now listen!” Don shot to his feet, sweating, his face hot with fury. He spilled his tea. “I am Prior of the Eon Order, the foremost authority on the Eon Tree, and the second largest of the sects of the Church of the Exile God. Who are you to insult me and say such lies?”
“I’m the Exile God.” The stranger spread his hands and smiled. Seeing Don’s expression his grin faltered.
“I can only stand so much blasphemy in one day.” Don crossed to his desk and rang for the servant.
Don’s servant peeked inside, saw Don coming towards him like an avalanche, and flinched. “Summon Lord Shrin and his best men to my solar,” hollered Don.
The servant cast a harried look at the stranger and fled.
Don rounded back upon him and scowled. “I find it hard to believe that someone would make so difficult a journey just to mock and insult us. Why are you doing this?”
The stranger seemed oblivious to his plight. “No, no, I just came back to see the tree. Besides, the journey wasn’t difficult. I told you I snowed most of the way.”
Don went to the mantelpiece and took his ceremonial sword from its stand. Long, slender and jewelled, it was nevertheless sharp, and well-balanced. He’d never thought to use it before now. He held it sheathed in one hand and faced the blasphemer.
“You’re not the first, you know,” Don spat. “Many claim to be the Exile God. Many pretend to his greatness. But none have dared to mock and insult us with lies about the very creation of the world.” He unsheathed the blade and the firelight shimmered along it. It was meant to be menacing, but Don hadn’t a clue how to actually wield it. He hoped that Lord Shrin would arrive soon, but either way the stranger didn’t seem to be reacting in a hostile manner.
“But I am the Exile God,” the stranger whined. “Shouldn’t you worship me?”
Don said coldly, “The Exile God has eyes of lighting and flesh like smoke.”
“Not all the time,” the stranger grumbled, almost to himself.
At that moment, there came a polite knock at Don’s chamber door. He wrenched the door open and saw Lord Shrin, bearded, barrel-chested and muscular, with three of his men. They wore black fur cloaks, clasped at the shoulder with the lightning-bolt sigil of the Exile God. They had swords at their sides, not jewelled but drab, functional.
“Prior,” Shrin said calmly. “You wanted—”
“Get in here!” Don said, throwing the door wide open, pointing at the stranger. “Arrest him and place him in the darkest of our cells.”
Shrin frowned as he entered, hand on his sword. “Who is he?”
Don opened his mouth, but the stranger stood and waved. “I’m the Exile God.”
Shrin nodded in greeting, waved back, then scratched his beard and looked at Don. “Another one? That’s disappointing. But criminal? I don’t know.”
“He said terrible things. Terrible lies about the Eon Tree and the Exile God. Heresy.”
Shrin’s fingers drummed on the pommel of his sword. “What lies?”
Don grimaced wearily. “He said the Tree used to stand on an island and that there were no people here then. That the Tree is millions of years old.”
“Billions,” the stranger said unhelpfully.
Shrin tried to work through the sacrilege. He lifted a finger. “Ah, but the Eon Tree was put here to protect us. How could there have been no people?”
The stranger stood and strolled to the bookshelf. “No, I didn’t put it there to protect you. How could I have? I didn’t even know you’d be here. It was just…there.”
“Well then,” Shrin’s expression darkened. He drew his sword and his men followed suit. “Prison it is, since you insisted.”
The stranger turned to look at them, hands clasped behind his back. He said grimly, “I won’t be going to prison. I have big important things to do.”
Don drew back half a step, lifting his sword. He wasn’t really sure how best to go about cutting someone with it. Truthfully, he didn’t even know how effective Shrin and his warriors would be in a real fight. They trained daily but had never seen actual combat. Don found himself wondering if the stranger had weapons under his cloak. No one like this had ever climbed the mountain. He must truly be a bitter enemy, of the faith or of the country, to go to this much trouble.
“Your crimes are irrefutable,” said Shrin. “Do you admit them?”
“By the storm, and the moon, and the sword I sentence you to prison, heretic.”
“But those are mine,” said the stranger incredulously. “You have no right to them.” He stalked over to Don, fuming with anger. “Don’t play idly with these toys.”
He grabbed Don’s sword by the blade and yanked it away, then snapped it over his knee like a branch. Don stepped backwards again, terrified by the casual strength.
Shrin raged at what was yet more blasphemy, not even appearing to see the impossibility of what had happened. “To destroy a sword—the sword is the holy instrument of the Exile God!”
The stranger smiled thinly. “I know.”
The monks closed in together and made to kill him. The stranger lifted a hand palm up as though welcoming them to dance with him.
The two men closest to him chopped at his head simultaneously, as perfectly as they did every morning in training. The stranger stepped aside. There was a shriek of metal on metal as though they had hacked into invisible steel. Both the swords were sheared cleanly in half, and the severed pieces flew up to stick point-first in the ceiling. The men who wielded them stared up in disbelief at their neutered weapons.
“Get the others,” Shrin said quietly as he closed in with his last soldier. The two defeated ones fled the room. Don shrank back from the conflict, staring. The stranger’s eyes had begun to glow faintly blue. “That’s impossible,” Don said.
“It’s magic,” Shrin responded grimly as he and his man flanked the stranger. “He’s an evil spirit. An enemy of the God and of all humans. We must kill him if it’s the last thing we do.”
Don heard shouting from outside the room and then a drumming of feet.
The Exile God gazed at the man called Shrin. The overzealous one, pumped up in his cloak and somewhat majestic beard. Of all things, this was a thing he hadn’t intended or expected.
“Don’t make me cut you,” the Exile God said.
“I’m armoured by my faith and by the holy protection of the Exile God and the Eon Tree. No weapon may cut me.”
“Don’t be foolish.” He touched the first two fingers of his right hand to his nose. He held his left hand balled in a fist behind his back. “This isn’t one of your shadows. This is the thought of cutting. This was the idea of cutting before there were worlds full of things to cut. Before things existed, I knew that I would want to cut them in half. So I thought this up.” To demonstrate, he raised his hand and Don’s desk split apart in four places.
“You don’t scare me,” growled Shrin.
Don was in the midst of lifting a hand mournfully at his desk when the door behind him burst open and twenty men tried to rush through as one. None of them could, though. They just squeezed against the door frame for a moment until, sheepishly, they decided to come in single file.
“There is no escape,” Shrin said.
“Sure there is,” the Exile God said. “I won’t stop you. Go ahead.”
“There’s no escape for you.”
“Oh.” The Exile God was baffled. “Would you really prefer I kill everyone?” He lowered his hand, lost in introspection. It was rare to discover a religion dedicated to oneself. To slaughter them all seemed wasteful. And he was not one of the faceless gods of the fissure, who hated and feared the living. If anything, he had a silly affection for living people.
“We will give our lives if we must,” Shrin declared even as Don edged towards the door.
“Well then, I surrender,” the Exile God said, sticking his hands back in his pockets dejectedly.
“I’ll go to your prison,” he said. “I’ll look at it. I’ll go in. I’ll sniff it. But I warn you, I’m smack in the middle of some very important business. It cannot wait, so I may have to leave suddenly.”
The twenty men who’d crammed themselves into the room all fanned out around him with their swords at the ready. Don snuck forward and cleared his throat. “Um. The sentence for, uh, that is to say, the length of penance to be served for gross sacrilege and heresy is fifty-two years.”
Everyone looked at the Exile God.
He smiled and threw up his hands, relieved. “Well, why didn’t you just say so? Let’s go then. Show me to my prison cell!” And he laughed.
They led him out of the room and down again to the bottom floor, but as they made for a narrow stairway further down, he caught sight of the tree and hesitated.
“I’d like to speak to the tree for a moment. It’s why I came.”
Don and Shrin looked at each other. Don said, “It’s true that prisoners are allowed a prayer before the Eon Tree before their sentence is carried out.”
The Exile God shrugged. “Might as well.” He leaped up into the tangle of roots and bounded over them until he was at the base of the trunk. A shout went up as the soldiers tried to follow him.
He laid his hand on the grey bark.
“Listen,” the Exile God said. “I am the Exile God. Do you remember me? It’s been a long time. I’m older and wiser now. I suppose you are as well. I told you, didn’t I?, that I imagined this place in my mind and that it appeared. And didn’t I tell you that I had made the world? But I’m older and wiser now. I’ve seen and done more things, and gone to many more worlds. And now I wonder to myself, and to you, was this world here all along? Did I really make it, imagine it into existence? Or did I only detect it with my mind? Certainly I did not imagine this. All the changes. The people.”
The tree said nothing.
So the Exile God went back to his entourage, wondering and puzzling, deep in thought, ignoring whatever it was the others were saying or doing. They brought him down a deep tunnel, far down into the mountain. They showed him a small prison cell, caked in shadow.
“You’ll die in here,” Shrin said with a shake of his head, almost regretful.
“Hm,” said the Exile God, stroking his chin as he strolled into the cell. He crossed his arms and leaned against the back wall for fifty-two years, then came back out.
The door creaked as he opened it, startling a young man who had been trudging up the tunnel towards him with a torch in his hand. He yelped and stumbled against the wall. He had big bulbous eyes and a long nose. “Exile God!” he swore.
“Yes?” said the Exile God warily. Nobody had believed he was the Exile God. He had the feeling it was a trap.
“Were you in that cell? That one?” The boy pointed.
“But…” The boy frowned. “I thought nobody was in there.”
“I was in there.”
“For how long?”
“Fifty-two years. It just now finished. My sentence.” The boy grinned. Then he stopped grinning. “You’re joking. You’re not joking?” His eyes grew rounder. “Are you the demon? From the stories? The one they say was down here?”
“I’m the…” He hesitated. “I don’t know.”
“How’d you know your sentence was up?”
“One billion, six hundred forty million, nine hundred sixty thousand one hundred fifty.”
“That’s fifty-two years.”
The boy scoffed. “That’s not true.”
“Sure it is. Count it yourself.”
The boy sighed. “So why were you in prison?”
The Exile God hesitated. He had an image in his mind of telling them that he was the Exile God and that he’d been imprisoned for saying that he was. Then more years in the room. It could conceivably be an endless cycle.
He glanced furtively left and right. “Oh, you know. Crime.”
The boy frowned at him. “Maybe you’re in the prisoner register. What’s your name?”
“That’s not important. I’m going to see Prior Don.”
“I’d better come with you.”
The man in Don’s solar didn’t look much like Don. He was an old man with wispy white hair and gold-rimmed spectacles. He looked up at them pleasantly and set down the fountain pen he had been writing with.
“Bren, my boy! You’ve brought us a pilgrim?”
“No, sir. He’s a prisoner I found wandering downstairs. I—”
The old man frowned and stood. “Who let him out?”
“My sentence is up,” the Exile God said. “I thought I should let you know I was leaving.” He knew that humans decayed with time so he said, “Are you Don?”
“Me? No. Prior Don died, oh, eleven years ago now,” said the old man. “I’m Prior Able.”
“That’s a shame,” said the Exile God. “How did he die?”
“A bad belly,” Able said, going to the expansive bookcase at the wall. “But he was old and it was his time.”
“How’d you know it was his time?”
Able had taken a huge book down from the shelf and was leafing through its yellow pages. “Because, the Exile God chose that time to take his life.”
Then the Exile God felt a dark anger within him. He couldn’t hold back any longer. “I never took him. I never would have taken him unless I had to. I chose not to. I’m not like the others. I’ll fight for the living, while others fear them. I did not kill Don.”
After a moment Able smiled thinly, closing the book. “So. You are the demon in the cell. I remember your face now. I saw you when I was barely a man. You cut my sword in half. You haven’t aged in the slightest.”
“I’m no demon. I’m not who you think I am.”
“I know,” said Able with a sigh. “Bren, will you leave us alone please?”
“You’ll be alright?” The boy looked skeptically at the Exile God. “With him?”
“I’ll be fine, thanks.” The boy left them and they were alone.
After a moment, Able said, “We put out food, for the first few weeks, but it always spoilt.”
“Oh. I didn’t realize. I do like food, actually. Thank you.”
“And after that, some of us wanted to go in and see if you were dead. But they ordered us to leave it sealed. We put up paper spells. Things like that to keep evil away.” The Exile God shrugged.
“To be honest we forgot you were in there. Well, others did. You were always somewhere in the back of my mind. It’s right there in the register, though.” He let his hand fall on the thick book on his desk. “Fifty-two years ago to a day. ‘Evil spirit posing as the Exile God.’”
“I was just standing against that back wall.”
“For the whole time?”
“I see.” Able scratched his cheek thoughtfully.
“I’m not,” said the Exile God with a frown, “who you think I am.”
“I know, I know,” Able said, closing his eyes. He laid his hands atop each other on his desk. “I’m sorry. You’re no demon, or evil spirit. You could have killed us all, that day, is that right?”
“But I don’t think you are the Exile God. Are you one of his allies, here to test us?”
“No, no. You misunderstand me, what I say. I, The Exile God, am not who you think I am. I’m not who I thought I was. Maybe that’s how this all started. When I told the tree that I had made the world. It wasn’t pride. It wasn’t arrogance. I didn’t care one way or the other whether I’d made the world as I saw fit, or found precisely the world I was looking for. I just jumped to a conclusion maybe I shouldn’t have jumped to. It was carelessness, that’s it. I’m very careless. In that way, it’s all my fault. I’m sorry.”
There was silence for a moment as Able peered at the Exile God through his spectacles. His expression had grown glum. “So you maintain you are he. You are the Exile God.”
“Yes. Don’t”— The Exile God held up a meaningful hand—“call your guards or arrest me. I’m out of patience for that sort of thing.”
“I won’t. Don’t worry.” Able smiled. “But how am I supposed to believe you? I know you have power over swords, as the Exile God is said to have. But the storm, and the moon, are his as well.”
The Exile God lifted his hand and thunder crashed outside the tower. His eyes glowed lightning-blue. He went to the window and threw open the shutters. A gust of snow blew in and Able shrank back from the sudden cold with his arms crossed. It was nighttime, but only the stars shone down. Already the single cloud that had formed to bear his lightning was drifting away.
“There’s no moon up. It is a new moon. It sleeps.” The Exile God turned back to Able. “Who told you it was my sign?”
“The followers of the Exile God. His prophets.”
There was a silence as the Exile God absorbed that. “I don’t have followers.”
“They brought us teachings from the Exile God.”
The Exile God sat down in a reverie. “I don’t have teachings.”
There was a silence. Eventually Able said, “So what do you think of all this?”
“I think someone is using my name for their own ends. These things do happen to us Big Gods,” the Exile God said wearily. “From time to time. No fault of yours.”
Able fidgeted. He looked uncomfortable for a moment. “It’s clear you’re a spirit. Whatever they call you.”
“Can you tell me of the Fissure? Of the worlds beyond our own?”
The Exile God shrugged, sitting back in the chair with a foot on a knee. “The Fissure is nothing but the crack between worlds. As the name implies. A dark place, where only dark things stay. Things whose light is gone. There is no place for the living there.”
“And what of us, when we die?” Able sat forward. “The Exile God will take us? And make us safe? And make us like himself. Undying. Wandering the endless spaces, beholding the endless beauties. Til we choose to sleep, and forget, and wake and adventure again.”
For a moment, the Exile God was silent. “Who told you that?” he asked finally.
“Your followers.” Able caught himself and looked strangled. “The Exile God’s followers, that is to say.”
The Exile God considered for a long moment. When he’d first heard Able speak of these followers, he had thought that they must be pranksters. Liars who lied for some evil end. That was the way that he had seen it go before. Few spirits liked or even tolerated the living. His inclination was to think that anyone who could tell a lie on a scale of this sort must be malicious.
But now he saw the temptation to lie.
There was a reason most spirits, or many, at least, hated and feared the living. They were sentient but temporary. They lasted a fraction of a moment and then were gone. Gone where? Nobody knows. And there were more of them all the time. Spreading to every membrane of every cosmos, where before there had been only the Dark. Not death, not life. Just the sentient Dark, where thoughts thought to themselves forever, who observed from a direction perpendicular to all others. They had never conceived that a thinking thing could disappear from existence. To them there was something almost unholy about the living. Something twisted and wrong. The living had brought death into existence.
“It’s a secret, isn’t it?” Able sighed and took of his glasses and rubbed his eyes. “I understand. If you told us, what room would there be for faith?”
“What does faith have to do with anything? There’s a truth there somewhere. I don’t know it, but I’m sure someone does…”
“You don’t know?” Able was disturbed. “You must know.”
“I hadn’t given it much thought.”
Able laughed bitterly. “Then I don’t believe you’re the Exile God after all. Just another pretender.” He seemed to be building up, regaining his convictions. “If you did not create us, and have no designs on our unmaking, then you are not the Exile God.”
The faith that they had was not in him. It had nothing to do with him. It was only his name they used, he thought. Of course Able would never believe him. The story was wrong. But it wasn’t the truth they wanted.
He stood tentatively. “I must not be him after all.” He gazed at the wall for a moment. “I should…go and rethink all of this.”
“Perhaps you should, spirit.” Able looked at him with sympathy. “You have renewed my faith. There is a world of heavenly beings out there beyond our own. And from that world the Exile God watches over us. Even now I imagine he laughs at you.”
“Perhaps he does.”
Able said, “Thank you for coming here, spirit. Thank you for testing us.”
“Oh not at all, not at all,” the Exile God waved a hand at him. He lifted his tea and drained the cup. “It’s been edifying.”
“I apologize on behalf of my people for imprisoning you all those years ago.”
The Exile God set his cup down. “Don’t trouble yourself.” He put his hands together and bowed slightly. “I must be going, though. Big important irons in the fire.”
Able stood and reached to him. “If you meet prophets of the God, send them to us.”
“Yes, yes of course. I’ll keep a look out.” The Exile God smiled. He looked at the teacup on the table. It had width, and length, and height. But perpendicular to those directions was another that extended far, far away like the submerged portion of an iceberg. The Exile God nodded politely, put hands in pockets and walked away in that other direction, the cup and the room and the confused old man curving away behind him as he gazed over his shoulder.
The man-shaped imprint that was only part of him disappeared from the world.
A few billion years later he returned.
Under a different name, with a different face, with wildly different clothing, but the same boots. They were very good boots.
This time he trekked across a desert that had no sand. The ground was cracked and hard beneath him. The sun above shone pinkish and huge. He waded through flows of lava and climbed a sagging melted hill to look over the land.
There stood the tree. It was black and rose only to his shoulder.
“Well,” said the Exile God. “Hello again.”