The world shifted, becoming an island. Mechanisms far beyond conventional understanding went to work. The dead, repurposed and wiped of their old identities, returned to life as babes in bellies. The deformed, driven to bizarre acts of existence gone wrong, were suddenly righted without explanation. A new species of tree sprouted by the thousands in the far south of the Indy Plains, their uppermost branches festooned with babbling gerbils.
No one ever asked why this happened. Nature is mysterious like that.
People fell asleep. Those who could dream, dreamed. Those who could not, did not. A deep, lingering darkness ate the sky, swallowing the sun and the moon. Only the stars remained, and these twinkled differently than before, each pinprick a tiny one or a tiny zero. Watching over the world they told a story that only one man could see, and if he knew how the story went, he kept it to himself.
Time passed. The man read a book as he waited, chortling occasionally as he came across silly passages and bad decisions. Eventually, when two days had elapsed, he went back indoors. The stars shifted back to normal, and after five hours they surrendered to the rising sun.
No one ever gets to see this, the man thought, climbing down the stairs of his house and opening the rune-covered door at the bottom. He spared a quick look at the half-snake, slumped across his kitchen table and snoring, before stepping through. I guess they're not missing much, but they were never even asked. How is that fair?
More stairs waited beyond the door, winding stairs that spiraled a thousand steps into the earth or more. The man had not taken this path many times in his life - comparative, of course, to the number of years he'd lived, too many years - but he travelled it as easily as he travelled from bed to commode each morning. The darkness did not daunt him at all. He mumbled quotations to pass the time, occasionally laughing when he thought of one he particularly liked.
He emerged almost an hour later, a passage from Nester's Guide to Power only half completed, into a circular temple.
The temple, the man knew, was a constant. For all the variations of the world that might be, this temple would always exist. Lined with dozens of carvings of regulators, their tails upturned and their eyes on a central dais, the temple was notable only because it had not suffered from the wearing effects of the sands from the desert above. It looked as cleanly pristine now as it had a thousand years prior, and it would look as pristine a thousand years from now.
When I build my own world, the man thought, smiling sourly at one of the sculptures, I'll stick this place right on top. And I'll get rid of these fucking statues. That'll be fun.
Somebody coughed nearby.
Assuming, the man amended, that I'm still alive to build said world. We'll find out in a few minutes.
He was not alone in the temple. Upon the dais rested a wanderer, one who'd travelled far to find the temple. He snorted out another cough, exposing twin gaps in his teeth. Off to the side of the dais, wrapped in a blanket and sleeping peacefully on a pile of sand, was the man's student. Not his best student, perhaps, but the most dutiful. The most loyal.
Beside the student was a cage. Inside the cage was a rat. It did not sleep, preferring to glower at the man. He grinned happily at the rodent, gave it the finger, and shuffled over.
"Plato," the man murmured, nudging the duckbill protruding from the blanket with his foot. "Wake up, Plato. It's time for you to leave."
Plato snuffled, eyes fluttering. He honked and yawned, accidentally drawing a big breath of sand into his lungs. Sleepy curiosity changed to a coughing fit, and the platypus rolled out of his bag and across the floor, gripping his stomach. The man laughed, clutching his wide belly, thinking of the old days. He missed his school.
Once he'd recovered, Plato stood. Nodding to his teacher, he gathered up his blanket, picked up the cage with the rat in it, and turned to go. No questions, no comments. He'd barely said anything in weeks, ever since the man had saved him from death by spectres.
The man smiled. "Thank you, Plato. For bringing him so far. We wouldn't be here now without you."
The platypus didn't turn around. He did, however, open the cage containing the rat. It scurried onto his shoulder and stared at the man, tiny eyes narrowed.
"Ah. I see you've... bonded." The man bit his lip. "I would rethink that if I were you. Our kind... and theirs... don't mix."
Plato shook his head. Then, to the man's surprise, Plato spat on the floor of the temple. The man's smile broadened as his student walked away, leaving through the temple's only door to return to the surface world. I guess you know what kind of person I am, now. You were always better suited to my brother.
Wiping away a tear, the man turned to the dais. He was greeted by a snore. Stuffing his sleeves firmly together, the best to hide his alien hands, the man cleared his throat, willed his beating heart to calm the hell down, and spoke.
"Wake up, Dragomir." Iko seated himself upon the dais with legs folded, opposite the prone body. "Wake up. We have an appointment."