There was a giant sitting on a mountaintop outside town. The giant was so large that he was actually larger than the mountain, and he hadn’t moved in a long, long time.
The giant was a former god, who’d stopped being a god when people no longer worshipped him. The people of the town said that he was sitting there thinking about why he was no longer a god, and that someday he would realise why. That day he would stir, and rise from the mountain, and he would crush the town like an anthill in his fury, before going out to destroy the earth.
For many years, the priests of the town gods had tried to find a way to keep the giant quiescent. They could not, of course, worship him, because he was no longer a god. Nor could they beseech their own gods to keep him quiescent. To point out that they, too, would inevitably drop from divinity when people no longer worshipped them, and that other, future gods might then be called on to imprison them in turn, would only rouse them to fury. And yet, with every year that passed, the day the giant would finally stir grew ever closer.
“I thought I saw his knee twitch this morning,” one of them reported one day. “But it was only for an instant, and I saw it from the corner of my eye, so I can’t be sure.”
“We must keep a closer watch,” the other priests declared. “We will have to build an observatory with a telescope at the foot of the mountain, to keep him under constant surveillance, and let us know of every movement, no matter how slight.”
So they built a mighty observatory at the foot of the mountain, with a huge telescope trained on the gigantic figure sitting on the crag. All day the junior priests watched the giant, ready to rush to report at the first sign of movement. As sometimes happened, clouds would hide the giant, and then they waited with the greatest anxiety for the skies to clear again. And at night, they still watched, as best they could, by the light of the moon and the distant, glittering stars.
Then one day the High Priest of the Grand Temple called a meeting. All the archpriests and assistant priests, the sub-priests and the acolytes, gathered together – all but the team at the observatory, which, of course, had to keep watch. The High Priest ran his fingers through his beard as he looked gravely upon the throng.
“It is clear,” he said, “that the day the giant arises cannot be far off. With every day that passes, more and more do we see him stirring. It is only a matter of time until he wakes in fury.”
“What can we do then?” an archpriest asked. “Should we evacuate the city? Ask everyone to take their things and move away?”
“Where to?” another archpriest asked. “It’s not as though the giant will sit down and go back to silence if he finds the city empty. His fury will be such that he will not be content until he destroys the land.”
“Could we...destroy him?” one of the sub-priests suggested timidly. “Is it possible?”
“How?” the High Priest asked, raising a hand to cut off the contemptuous jeers of all the archpriests and assistant priests, not to mention the other sub-priests, who jeered more loudly than everyone else. “He might be a former god, but he still has enough powers that no mere human power can harm him.”
“Only another god can kill him,” an archpriest snapped, “and of course they will not help.”
The sub-priest, who was very young, only just more than an acolyte, gulped. “In that case,” he said, even more timidly, “we must look for a god who will help.”
“And where can you find a god who will do that?” the High Priest asked, amused despite himself. “Where does such a god exist?”
“Maybe he should go and find the god,” the arch-priest who’d spoken earlier said. “It would be of more use, at least, than his making such ridiculous suggestions.”
“Yes, send him,” everyone else added, the other sub-priests loudest of all. “Send him to go find such a god.”
“Very well,” the High Priest shouted above the jeering. “Go and find a god who will help, so that we can get some discussion done.”
“And don’t take too long about it,” the archpriest called. “Or the giant will get up and do for the world before your god can do him in.”
So the young sub-priest, having no way out, walked sadly away. He left the Grand Temple, passed the other temples, and then came to the streets of the city. He had no idea what to do. Where do you go looking for a god whom you don’t know to exist? Besides, he didn’t even know the city; he was from a village far away, and had never left the temple complex before since he’d first arrived as an acolyte, years ago. So all he could do was wander about, glancing up once in a while at the distant giant on his mountain. It was a clear day, and the giant was very visible.
“Why does a priest look so sad?” a voice asked at his elbow.
The sub-priest turned around to see who had spoken. It was a plump old woman at the door of a shop. She smiled at him warmly.
“What’s the matter?” she repeated. “Why is a priest so sad?”
“I’m not a priest,” the young man confessed. “I’m only a sub-priest, and I don’t think I’ll ever rise any further.”
“Well, then, sub-priest, you still don’t have to look so sad. Why don’t you come in here and tell me about it?”
Having no other option, no idea what to do, the sub-priest followed her into the shop. It was old and dark, and after the sunlight outside the young man could see little. The woman motioned him into a chair.
“Tell me,” she said. “What is the problem?”
So the young sub-priest started telling her, and once he started talking it became difficult to stop. She listened without interruption till the end and nodded. “So all you need to do is find a god to destroy this former god before he wakes, is that so?”
“You talk as though that’s a little thing,” the sub-priest said bitterly.
“It’s not that difficult,” the old woman said, her plump cheeks dimpling. “I can tell you where to get a god. Only, you have to be quite sure that you want him.”
“Quite sure? Of course I’m sure. I’ve just told you, haven’t I?”
“So you have.” The old woman didn’t seem put out in the slightest. “My dear young sub-priest, I wouldn’t tell you something if I didn’t mean it. Now, if you want a god, I can tell you where to get one.”
“Where?” the sub-priest asked. “Do you have one to sell or something?”
“Almost,” the old woman said, and there was a strange note in her voice. “But they aren’t for sale.”She picked up and lit a tiny candle. “Come.”
“What do you mean?” But even as he said this he found his legs carrying him behind the woman into the depths of the shop. It seemed to go on and on, much longer than it should have. And in the half-light the things on the shelves grew more and more strange, their shapes bizarre and twisted. The sub-priest moved in a dream.
“What is this place?” he asked, finally, when they seemed to have been walking for hours, and the things on the shelves bore not the slightest resemblance to anything seen in the normal, everyday world. “Where are we going?”
“To answer your first question,” the woman said, and her voice had changed, become more powerful, “you aren’t in the town anymore. You aren’t even in the world you call yours anymore. This place is...between the worlds.”
“What are...what are you?” the sub-priest whispered.
“Think of me as a guardian of the spaces,” the woman said. “In your world, I am an old shopkeeper woman, who dabbles a little in spells and cures on the side. In the world on the other side...to where you are going, to answer your second question...I’m merely a keeper of the gate. But this space, in between...this is my domain.”
“The other world,” the sub-priest repeated. “What’s there?”
“Everything else.” The woman’s voice was almost unrecognisable. The tiny candle, which should have melted down to nothing long ago, was still burning somehow, and when the sub priest saw the shadows it threw, he didn’t want to look at the things whose shadows they were. Least of all did he want to look at his companion.
“This god,” the sub-priest began.
“Yes,” the woman said. She stopped, holding her candle high, and its light illuminated a square panel in the floor. “Lift that,” she ordered. “There will be stairs. Go down them, and you will find what you want.”
“I don’t understand,” The sub-priest had to swallow several times before he could make himself speak. “You say there’s a god down there? How?”
“Not just one,” the woman told him. “You can choose the one you want.”
The sub-priest knelt and pried up the panel with his fingernails. It came up surprisingly easily, as though it weighed almost nothing. Wooden steps vanished down into darkness. “I don’t understand.”
“Of course you don’t. If you did, you wouldn’t be here.” The woman held her candle so that it illuminated the stairs. “You come looking for a god, to save you from a god who is no longer a god. And you haven’t even thought what that means.”
“What does it mean?” The sub-priest looked down the stairs. They were steep and narrow, and made of wood which looked warped and cracked.
“When a god is no longer a god, it’s because you replaced him with other and newer gods. Well, have you thought of where those new gods come from?”
The sub priest blinked. “I...no.”
“Go down,” the woman said, and her voice was ancient and terrible. “And mind you choose well, because the gods are not all the same.”
“Aren’t you coming?” the sub-priest asked. He was suddenly very reluctant to descend those stairs, and he’d rather have the woman, or whatever she was now, with him than to go down them unaccompanied.
“No. From here on you go alone.” The woman’s candle flame dimmed abruptly. “Go now.”
Abruptly terrified of being with her in the darkness, the sub-priest began climbing down the steps as quickly as he could. The candle flame dimmed rapidly, spurring him on, and from behind and above him he heard something that sounded almost like laughter. “You really should have thought this one through,” she said. And the next moment the candle flame went out and he was in darkness.
But not for long. Only a little ahead of him, there was a dim glow, which crawled and flickered around the stairs and the walls, from a myriad of pinpoints of light that came and went like twinkling stars. They seemed almost close enough to touch, but as he advanced down the stairs they seemed to be as far away as ever. Then he realised that they were very far away, and they were much larger than he’d thought. And then, at last, when he’d gone so far down the stairs that they were no longer pinpoints, he realised what they were.
They were baby gods.
They were all shapes and sizes, a million different gods. Some were hard to see, little more than pulsing flashes of light. Some were huge-horned and leathery, with tusks sprouting through their mouths. Some writhed and twisted on innumerable tentacles, snapping at the air with sharp-toothed jaws. And there were those who looked human, like the sub-priest, but were not.
“Which god should I take?” he asked aloud. “How can I choose?”
One of the gods curled up nearby opened little black eyes and stared at him. “Why would you want to choose a god?” it asked.
The sub-priest stared at the god. It looked human enough, though he couldn’t determine its gender. It uncurled itself and yawned delicately.
“Well?” it asked. “Here we wait for the aeons to pass, until someone, somewhere, thinks of a god who is just like one of us, and begins worshipping him or her. And then, only then, can we be born. Some of us have been waiting since the start of time. And you want to choose one of us?”
“I need a god,” the sub-priest confessed. He explained his problem. “Will you help and be our god?”
“It might be eternity before my chance to be born comes round,” the baby god said. It stepped out of its little pool of light and on to the stairs next to the sub-priest. “Of course I will go with you.” It was already no longer a baby. “Let’s go. No, not that way,” it added, as the sub-priest began climbing the steps. “A god has powers to go the way he wants.”
A shaft of light appeared overhead, like a spear poking down from the ceiling, and the god stepped inside. With a moment’s hesitation, the sub-priest joined him. The shaft of light rose, carrying them with it.
They emerged into the inner yard of the Grand Temple, where the High Priest had been holding his meeting. There was no meeting now. The archpriests and assistant priests, the sub-priests and the acolytes, and the High Priest himself were still there, but they were rushing around in terror and confusion.
“The giant,” they were screaming. “The giant has risen!”
And over the roofs of the Temple complex loomed the giant himself. His head touched the sky, and as he turned it from side to side, blinking slowly, his immense beard shook with the sound of a million cyclones. He took one slow step forward, and another. The ground shook.
“Do something,” the sub-priest pleaded to his god. “Do something, please.”
The god grew. And it grew, and grew. It hurtled up towards the sky. Its shadow blocked out the sun. Night fell across the city. The giant halted, looking up at something many times its own size, astonished.
And then the god struck. It struck with an enormous fist, a blow that might have been felt in all the many worlds, and the giant crumbled. One moment it was there, and the next there was only a puff of powder, blowing away.
The new god came down again to the Temple yard. “All done,” it said.
The High Priest and the other priests had gathered around in awestruck silence. It was the sub-priest who made the introductions.
“You asked me to find a god who would save us,” he said. “I did.”
“Only this god could have saved us,” the High Priest declared. “From this moment onward, it is our god, and none other.”
“Wait...” The sub-priest said, appalled, recalling the woman’s last words as he’d started down the steps. But it was already too late.
And the next morning there were giants sitting on all the mountains around the town.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2016