The rat man dashed through the woods, dodging trees, skating across fallen autumn leaves, stumbling over rocks. There was no time left for caution.
The cocoon was about to open.
He'd sensed it the night before. As he lay curled up under the stars, he felt his master's presence—a consciousness arising, piercing his heart, filling the world. For a few minutes, the night sky lit up like day.
It was a sign. The Rat Messiah was about to ascend.
The rat servant was faster than ever, his senses sharpened, his reflexes quicker. The run was exhilarating—the wind through his mane, the crunch of leaves under his feet.
As a human, he wouldn't have covered a third of the distance he did now. Not that he ever ran in his human life. Back then, he'd been consumed with idleness and despair. He spent most of his time doped up and passed out on his mother's couch, wishing for more. Now, that was only a distant memory—a shadow eclipsed by the dazzling brilliance of new purpose.
The autumn colors gave way to the decaying browns and rotting blacks of the trees that surrounded his master's cocoon. He was almost home.
What would the master say? What would he look like? Would he give his servants new names? He tried to recall his own name. It took a moment to remember.
Dennis. That's right.
He'd had a mother. She was gone now. And somewhere in this beautiful new world, he might still have a sister.
What had become of Ruby? Did it matter? If she saw him today, she'd run away. He wasn't the man she once knew.
As he crested a ridge, he caught sight of his destination.
He stopped and stared. So much had changed. The once forested area was now barren, baked earth with no evidence of the apartment building that once stood here. A dome of shadow obscured the cocoon, a palpable darkness that did not admit the morning light. A wall of rock twenty feet high ringed the cocoon itself. Where had that come from?
The wall was so high—no handholds for climbing. Would he be able to reach his master in time?
As he approached, the ground shook beneath him. A section of the seamless rock wall descended. The edges curved down as if the solid rock were only clay. Beyond it, another rat servant stood waiting in the shadow.
The rat servant nodded to his fellow. He searched his memory for his former name. "Kyle."
"Seems odd to use the old names."
"Maybe the master will give us new ones."
As they walked together in the shadow, the stone wall rose once more, sliding into place with the sound of granite slabs scraping together.
"Did you do this?" Dennis asked.
Kyle smiled. "The master has granted me so much power."
"I know. I faced a lamia—a snake woman with the power of a goddess. All I did was touch her, and she cried like a little girl."
"All praise to the master."
Dennis nodded. "Why is the wall necessary?"
"There were... people."
"They moved like zombies. Not dead, but grinning like scary clowns. They approached the cocoon."
"Why didn't you kill them?"
"Claudia and I killed plenty, and plenty more disintegrated when they touched the cocoon. But there were so many, and they disturbed the tranquility. We built the wall to keep them out."
They walked in silence for a minute.
"The cocoon is fading," Kyle said.
"I know. I can feel it."
"He'll fill the world with his light."
They passed through the shadow in silence. There was nothing left to say. A swirling glow of colors lit the darkness ahead.
"Oh, God," Dennis whispered.
The master remained in his place, brighter than ever. He glowed, the diminishing wisps of the cocoon passing like strips of cloud drifting over the sun.
Claudia, the third rat servant of the master, stood before the cocoon, her arms outstretched, her head thrown back in rapturous anticipation. "He's awake," she cried, tears streaming from human eyes down her rodent cheek.
Dennis and Kyle joined her, standing in a semi-circle, their arms raised. Waves of blissful power washed through them as the strands of vapor evaporated. Dennis laughed and cried, his chest heaving. He is awake .
The master's light intensified. Dennis wanted to see, wanted to witness every moment, but the blazing light forced his eyes shut. He threw an arm over his face.
And then the light disappeared. Dennis opened his eyes. All was black.
"Why's it so dark?" a new voice asked.
Dennis dared not speak or even breath. The voice was ordinary, that of a man, but it carried a gravity that shook Dennis to the core.
A beam of sunlight pierced the black shroud. The dome of darkness remained, but a column of illumination caught the three disciples, along with the one they'd waited for.
He stood naked before them, hairless, his head tilted back, an expression of wonder in his eyes.
Dennis and the others fell to their knees, they lowered their eyes. He is here. He is finally here.
"Holy crow, I'm nude," the master said. "Does anyone have... hang on." He snapped his finger.
When Dennis dared to steal a look, the master wore a bathrobe and fuzzy slippers.
"That's better." The master glanced down at his disciples. "Oh, um, rise."
Dennis was too overwhelmed to move, his legs locked in place.
"Seriously, guys, stand up."
They stood up, their eyes still cast down.
"And look at me when I'm talking to you."
"But, you are our god," Kyle whispered.
"Yes, I know, but I'd like to keep things informal, at least for now. Oh, for God's sake, look at me!"
They looked. He appeared as a man, bald, without even eyebrows on his face, dark circles surrounding his eyes, which glowed with green fire.
"How long was I in that thing?" the master asked.
It had felt like eons to Dennis. He didn't know.
"Fifty-five days," Claudia answered.
The master put a hand to his head. His eyes widened as he ran it over his bald scalp. "Whoa, that's new. I'm as bald as a baby. I wonder why."
"Master," Dennis said, stepping forward. "What have you been doing these long weeks?"
"Hmm? Oh, you know. Contemplating the universe and all that. I've—" he paused and stared down at his hands. "I've touched the infinite. With these hands, I touched eternity. It was..."
He frowned and looked up—looked Dennis in the eye. Dennis felt his whole soul laid bare before the new god.
"And I dreamed. So many dreams, about the past, this world, which is way different from the world we once knew."
"Yes, the changes you wrought in the world are truly amazing," Claudia said.
"Oh, I didn't do all this. That was my nephew. But I guess I put him up to it. Anyway, I've learned a few things in the last few hours."
"But," Kyle began, then paused. "Aren't you all-knowing?"
"Me? Well, I know a hell of a lot more than everyone else. I've seen the threads binding the universe together. And yet..." he held up a hand and watched as it glowed with fire, then darkened again. "And yet, I don't know the extent of my own power. I am like a toddler piloting a 747. I don't know how to use all this yet. But what I learned last night concerns me. I learned that I can be harmed."
Dennis couldn't believe this. The master was a god. Maybe the god. Who dared touch him?
The master brushed his hands together, then held them out. The earth shook and, although the ground remained below Dennis's feet, the pull of gravity intensified.
The dome of shadows fell away. Dennis now stood on a broad column of rock, rising out of the earth. It was a hundred yards wide at least, with the master and his disciples at its center. As the earth fell away, new formations from the stone arose, jutting up, forming walls, slanting roofs, high windows, portals and stairways. Soon, they stood in a broad chamber of stone. Tapestries appeared on the walls. A fireplace appeared with an already blazing fire.
"Is this a castle?" Dennis asked.
"Yep. It's like the castle Lila and I visited on our vacation to Scotland. We thought it would be cool to live in a place like this."
"Lila?" Claudia asked.
"Yes. Lila. All of this—everything that's happened—it's all about Lila, your future goddess. She's the reason you're here now."
So, there was a plan. Dennis's heart took greater courage, knowing he had a purpose.
"What would you have us do?" he asked.
The master shrugged. "I can do most of what I need by myself. I can see the whole world if I think about it. I can see every person and every creature. I can feel the shifting tides in the earth's core. But there's one person I can't see. You three will need to protect me from him. His name is Eddie Foster."
Dennis frowned. Someone threatened his master? "We will kill him," he said.
"No," the master said, raising a hand. "I may need him. But you'll need to keep an eye out."
The master's face screwed up with irritation. "Don't call me that. You sound like freaking Igor. Just call me Tim."