Earthworms fled sand and sought moisture, eating into the deep. Larger worms left tunnels in their wakes. The largest worm carved caverns with twenty arms and twenty legs. When it exhaled it filled its labyrinths with frost.
It cradled ten eggs, one in each pair of hands. A hundred gray fingers caressed the eggs’ moon-like surfaces. Their yolks radiated warmth alien to the underground, like distant stars at night. The largest worm bent its head to its first egg and continued bending, coiling around the eggs three times. Then its ten pairs of legs gripped its mass with their knees, holding the worm in a tight wheel. Secured like this, it slept.
It woke when it heard a voice. “Yo, Dainty. Over here.”
It unwound to sight the intruders with three pairs of eyes. A snow-white fox and a man nude but for a grimy loincloth had entered its lair from its labyrinth. Dan counted the worm’s limbs as it uncurled. “Anihilato?”
It crawled on twenty legs to a dark corner of its cave. It whispered gibberish as it stuck each egg in the wall.
“Anihilato, my name is Dan Jones. This is my friend, Faith Featherway.”
The worm blinked with six eyes. “I am the King of Dust.” Its face was cracked and dry. It had ten pelvises connected in series, Dan noticed, and ten stacked human torsos. It was held upright with snake-like musculature.
The egg holes leaked jelly.
“Anihilato, right?” Dan held out the cricket. “Do you have a lighter?”
Anihilato, King of Dust, Master of Nihilism, said nothing.
“I told you this was a waste of time,” said Faith. “C’mon, Dainty. Let’s scram.”
“I am the King of Dust,” the worm repeated, “and this is my domain. Souls who wander here belong to me.” It illustrated this by eating worms off the ground. Its mouth had no lips.
“Cool it,” said Faith. “The Mountain sent me, and Dainty here’s basically a Zephyr.”
“Irrelevant,” said the King of Dust, “and I can tell the monk is no Zephyr. He has man-smell. I own his soul now.” The worm retreated to the darkness and returned with a wooden box. “Your souls are here in my box. I hold your Eternity Cards.”
While Anihilato searched the box, Dan bobbed the cricket. “If you help light it, you can help smoke it.”
“Dan Jones.” Anihilato pulled a paper from the box and read it with three eyes while the other three squinted at Dan. “Make no claims to Zephyrhood while I have your Eternity Card in my box.”
“Uh, this guy was sent by Virgil Blue,” said Faith. “Are you gonna tussle with Virgil Blue?”
“Faith, it’s fine.” Dan tucked the cricket behind his ear. “Can I have that paperwork? I want to read it.”
Anihilato hesitated with Dan’s Eternity Card in three pairs of hands. With a sigh, it passed the paper to the monk. “It’s shameful a teacher so great has students so foolish. If you were to be a Zephyr you would have gone to the Mountain. Instead, you have fallen to my domain.”
“This is my soul, alright.” Dan held the paper. “Thanks for taking care of it.”
“The box of Eternity Cards is my deed to creation. Everything within belongs to me.” Anihilato smiled. Its teeth had no gums. “The Mountain made you from dust. I am the Master of Nihilism, the King of Dust. I own you. I tire of bureaucratic nonsense. I have the right to obliterate you now.”
“You sure would.” Dan folded the paper. “If you had my Eternity Card in your box.”
Anihilato’s jaw hung open. “…I do.”
“Then what am I holding?”
The King of Dust shook its head. “You saw me take that from my box moments ago.”
“I sure did.”
“Then you admit your soul belongs to me.”
“I don’t follow. You don’t have my Eternity Card.”
Anihilato reared. Its flared limbs made a manta’s mantle. “Mortal, for the honor of Virgil Blue, I humor you momentarily. I am the Master of Nihilism. Whether or not I claim you now, when the eternities end I will subsume creation. You cannot cheat me with sleight of hand. You,” it continued, jabbing at Dan with a finger, “glimpsed enlightenment and believe you deserve immortality as a facet of the creator of all things. Unfortunately, you approached me before unifying with the Mountain. I, therefore, claim you.”
Faith whispered over her shoulder. “Let’s get outta here, Dainty. This guy gives me the creeps.”
Dan smiled. “Maybe the Mountain claimed my Eternity Card, Anihilato, and you just forgot.”
Frustration bent Anihilato’s limbs. Froth bubbled from its teeth. “I gave it to you a mere minute ago!”
“Now you remember.” Dan tucked the paper in his loincloth. “Like you said, I’m a mortal who glimpsed enlightenment. I saw I’m an extension of the Mountain. I asked for my Eternity Card, and so the Mountain asked for my Eternity Card. You gave it to me, and you gave it to the Mountain. Everything is in order.”
Anihilato stomped so hard the floor shook and made Faith jump. “You cannot avoid obliteration by feigning knowledge of matters you cannot comprehend! Such horrid students make the best eggs, Dan Jones! You escape on technicality today, but I will wait until the end of the eternities, and I will make you a fantastic egg!”
“Glad to hear it, Anihilato.”
“You Zephyrs are crazy.” Faith forced a worried smile with her vulpine muzzle. “I found this guy naked in a furnace, Anihilato. He’s the real deal. I promise.” She leapt and floated on cave-moisture. “Let’s scram, Dainty. Can’t you see its dangerous here? Let me show you to the Mountain.”
“Don’t speak like you’re leaving, wisp,” said Anihilato. “Your soul still belongs to me.” The worm’s next breath sucked wind from every corner of the endless caverns.
Faith yelped as her airy tail drifted towards the King of Dust. “Help! Dainty! What’s it doing?” She tried to run but slipped back each step.
Dan grabbed the fox in both hands. Snow flew through his fingers. “Anihilato, stop it! Now!”
Faith fought the wind that ripped her snowflakes away. “Help, please!”
“I’m so sorry, I didn’t—” Dan watched her body vanish until finally her terrified eyes flew into Anihilato’s lipless mouth. “She’s my friend. Let her go.”
“Your friend has returned to the dust of creation.” Its line of legs rolled an object on the dirt floor. Its bottom arms passed the object to its top arms, which held it to its face. “She’s a terrible egg. Pale color. Too transparent.”
“Hatch her. Please.” Dan knelt and pressed his nose into the dirt. “She met Virgil Blue. Twice. They traded gifts. He would be devastated to know.”
“Not worth hatching.” Anihilato slithered to the egg wall. “Begone, Dan Jones. You waste my time.”
“I’ll bet you mine for hers.”
In mid-turn, Anihilato looked back at the monk. Dan unfolded his Eternity Card and rest it reverently before the worm. “…I will allow this,” said Anihilato, “for Virgil Blue. Only your master’s reputation preserves you.” The King of Dust swapped Faith’s egg for another from the wall. It carried the new egg to Dan. “Out of respect for Virgil Blue, I will do this unwashed, nude, and prostrate fool the favor of allowing him to wager his soul for a tiny spirit who did not even produce a nice egg.”
It set the new egg before him.
“But your challenge will prove fatal, if you lied. Only a true disciple of Virgil Blue could hope to survive.”
The egg cracked.
“Your challenge, Dan Jones.”