Earthworms fled sand and sought moisture, eating tunnels into the deep. Larger worms left larger tunnels in their wakes. Worms thick as wrists webbed the dark with their tracks. 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. One hundred gray fingers caressed the eggs’ moon-like surfaces. Their yolks radiated warmth alien to the underground, like distant stars at night. The creature bent its head to the first egg and then continued bending, coiling its body around the eggs three times. Then its ten pairs of legs gripped the mass with their knees, holding the creature 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 the tunnels. Dan counted the creature’s limbs as it uncurled. “Anihilato?”
It crawled on twenty legs to a dark corner of its cave. It inserted each egg into holes in the walls and whispered gibberish to each one.
“Anihilato, my name is Dan Jones. This is my friend, Faith Featherway.”
The creature turned and blinked at them with its six eyes. “I am the King of Dust.” Its face was dry and cracked. It had ten pelvises connected in series, Dan noticed, and ten human torsos stacked on top of one another. It was strong enough to hold itself upright with snake-like back musculature.
The egg holes leaked clear, protective jelly.
“Anihilato, right?” Dan held out the cricket. “Do you have a lighter we could use?”
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 creature repeated, “and this is my domain. Lost souls who wander here belong to me.” It illustrated the point by eating a worm off the ground. Its mouth had no lips.
“Cool it. The Mountain sent me, and Dainty here’s basically a Zephyr. We’ll take off quick, okay?”
“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 creature retreated to the darkness and returned with a large wooden box. “Your souls are here in my box. I hold your Eternity Cards.”
While Anihilato searched through the box, Dan bobbed the cricket up and down. “If you help us light it, you can help us smoke it.”
“Dan Jones.” Anihilato pulled a sheet of paper from the box and read it with three eyes while the other three squinted at Dan. “Do not make claims to Zephyrhood while I have your soul in my box.”
“Uh, this guy was sent here by Virgil Blue,” said Faith. “Are you gonna tussle with Virgil Blue?”
“Faith, it’s fine.” Dan tucked the cricket behind an ear. “Can I have that paperwork? I want to read it.”
Anihilato hesitated with Dan’s Eternity Card secured in three pairs of its hands. With a sigh, it passed the paper to the almost nude 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.”
“You’re right, I’m pretty sure this is my card.” 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. The teeth had no gums. “The Mountain made you from dust. I am the Master of Nihilism, the King of Dust. I own you. Now I tire of bureaucratic nonsense. I have the right to obliterate you at my leisure.”
“You sure would.” Dan folded the paper. “If you had my Eternity Card in your box.”
Anihilato paused with its jaw hanging open. “…I do.”
“Then what am I holding in my hands right now?”
The King of Dust shook its head. “You saw me take it 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, muscular 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 the whole of 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 grand creator of all things. Unfortunately, you approached me before attaining unity with the Mountain. I, therefore, claim you.”
Faith whispered over her shoulder. “Let’s just get out of here, Dainty. This guy gives me the creeps.”
“I don’t think I’m ready for obliteration, Anihilato.” Dan smiled. “Couldn’t it be that the Mountain claimed my Eternity Card, and you just forgot about it?”
Frustrated convulsions bent Anihilato’s limbs. Froth bubbled from its mouth. “I gave it to you a mere minute ago!”
“Now you remember.” Dan tucked the paper into his loincloth. “Like you said, I’m a mortal who glimpsed enlightenment. I saw that I am an extension of the Mountain. I asked for my Eternity Card, and therefore the Mountain asked for my Eternity Card. You gave it to me, and you gave it to the Mountain. Everything seems to be in order.”
Anihilato stamped its feet. The shake 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 today, but I will wait until the end of the eternities, and I will make you into 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 for sure. I promise.” She leapt and floated by freezing cave moisture beneath her foot-pads. “Let’s get outta here, Dainty. Can’t you see its dangerous? Let me show you around the Mountain.”
“Don’t speak like you’re leaving, wisp,” said Anihilato. “Your soul still belongs to me.” The creature’s next breath sucked wind towards its mouth 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 backwards each step.
Dan grabbed the fox in both hands. Snow flew through his fingers. “Anihilato, stop it! Now!”
Faith fought the roaring wind that ripped her snowflakes away. “Do something, please!”
“I’m so sorry, I didn’t—” Dan watched her body vanish until finally her terrified eyes disappeared. Anihilato sealed its lipless mouth. “She’s my friend. Let her go.”
“Your friend has returned to the dust of creation. You’ll have to satisfy yourself with that.” Its line of legs rolled something along the dirt floor. Its bottom arms passed the object to its top arms, which held it to its face. “She made 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 walls. “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 set it reverently before the beast. “…I will allow this,” said Anihilato, “for Virgil Blue. Had your friend not mentioned the Virgil you would be obliterated already. Only your master’s reputation preserves you.” The King of Dust swapped Faith’s egg for another from the wall. It carried the egg to the monk. “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 the sake of a tiny wisp, whose soul 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.”