Dennis slid a probing finger into his mouth and felt around. He opened wide, and with his thumb and forefinger, he plucked out a tooth. His tongue flooded with the salty metallic tang of blood, nearly choking him. He tossed the tooth aside, spat out a red wad, and dropped his hands back to his knees.
His apartment had crumbled days ago. He'd spent one last night sleeping on the couch in a room that hung skewed to one side. Then he abandoned it to its decay.
Now he spent almost all his time with the two other disciples, sitting cross-legged on the crumbling pavement before the magnificent cocoon, sometimes rocking, sometimes chanting, but always gazing wholeheartedly up at the Master.
He had not learned the names of the other two devoted followers, a woman and a man. They almost never spoke except for in an occasional bout of rapturous ecstasy. "Praise him." "Yes, praise him and his power and grace."
Dennis had not eaten in days. He only left this place once or twice a day to drink from the stream. The water tasted sweet, but something foul within it had given him a fever. Now he sat drenched in sweat, his head swimming from exhaustion. He had no strength to return to the stream now. It didn't matter. He would die before the Master. He would prove his devotion and gladly sacrifice himself to spend a few more moments of bliss within the divine presence.
The sun fell towards the trees, another cycle nearly spent. This was the best part of the day, when the sun would fall behind the cocoon, its red rays scattering through its layers, exploding into colors that filled Dennis's eyes and overwhelmed his senses.
The woman gasped beside him. "Glorious," she whispered. Dennis spared her only a glance. Her hair had fallen slack and tangled around her head. Her skin was waxy. Fleetingly, Dennis guessed she was sick with her own fever. Then the glory of the sunlight scattering through the cocoon overwhelmed him.
For just a moment, he saw the Master within, gazing down with beatific power.
It passed quickly. The sun dropped to the horizon, the sky faded. The stars burned above. A dim illumination persisted within the cocoon, a radiation that comforted Dennis in the darkness.
A stranger came from the sky. Dennis turned, the movement bringing a wave of disorienting dizziness. He might have hallucinated the huge winged creature in the fading light. A robed figure leapt from the beast's back.
Dennis turned back to the Master. This interloper was only a distraction.
The intruder was a woman. As she approached, she spoke in a clipped, hard language that Dennis did not recognize. She walked past Dennis and stopped in front of him, blocking his view of the cocoon with her dark robe. Dennis sighed as he rocked. At least he still felt the presence of the Master.
The woman stood with hands on hips, staring defiantly up at the cocoon. Then she turned to Dennis and his companions and shouted alien curses at them. No one replied.
" Vin tacht die sker'rt jansho," she exclaimed. "Te umber fikk Gahn Shikvaht grallyt."
When no one replied, she swung her open palm across Dennis's face. She held something hard there, a metallic disk. It connected with his temple and sent him toppling sideways. His head hit the broken asphalt.
She bellowed. She shrieked. She hit the woman next, who fell without protest. Once she'd knocked down the other man, she screamed with rage.
The robed figure turned and held her hand towards the cocoon. A blast of blue energy erupted from her palm, blinding Dennis. The light hit the soft edge of the cocoon and seemed to dissolve there. When nothing happened, she screamed and raised her palm for another assault.
Dennis wanted to rise and stop her. How could she attack such a benevolent being? The Master sat in placid stillness. He had done nothing to her. Yet she attacked.
But turning to the Master, Dennis's heart stilled with peace. The Master needed no defense. He was all-powerful. Dennis lay still as the woman hit the cocoon with another blast, twice as bright as the first.
When the blast subsided, a flickering light played at the edge of Dennis's vision. The woman's attack did not harm the cocoon, but some of her energy deflected towards the rubble of the apartment building, and a pile of decaying wood caught fire. This light caused shadows and fireflies to flicker deep within the cocoon. Dennis found new ecstasy in the beauty. The woman who lay beside him sighed.
The intruder stomped away barefoot. Dennis turned to follow her movement. She retreated to her beast, a huge dragon, and returned a moment later with a sword. She stood defiantly before the cocoon and shouted " Te umber fikk Gahn Shikvaht grallyt." With that, she swung her sword into the cocoon.
It passed through as if it had sliced through air. This threw the woman off balance, and she nearly twisted right off her feet. She grunted with frustration and turned back to the cocoon. She took a step forward, reaching out with her hand. Another step, and she made contact.
The sword clattered to the ground. The woman in the robe disappeared, blinked out of sight in an instant.
Over the next hour, the dragon, which Dennis could only hear behind him, stepped forward a few paces but did not near the cocoon. It sniffed. It let out a low reptilian groan. After a moment's hesitant investigation, it leapt into the air and whooshed away.
Over time, Dennis found the strength to sit back up. Over time, the others did too. The sun rose on another day. Dennis watched the cocoon, waiting for those moments when the inky haze would subside and he could glimpse the Master.
Over time, Dennis discovered his new purpose, and his strength returned.