Eggshell secluded it from the world like an ivory wall. Egg whites pulsed with its subtle heartbeat. The sunny yolk warmed its joints.
A desire for birth gripped its heart. It spread its wings to breach the ivory wall and release the egg whites.
For the first time it felt dirt in its claws. Behind, Anihilato snapped up egg remnants and licked yolk smear from each fingertip. “Your challenge, Dan Jones.”
It was fist-sized with gray-blue feather fluff. Its beak bore a scythe’s curve, but its beady black eye held an innocent youth. Instead of another eye its left side bore a mess of boils and teeth, human teeth, with crowns and roots exposed and jutting at odd angles. “Is it a bird?” asked Dan.
“It is a hobby,” said Anihilato. “My spawn are not long-lived, useful only for their warmth.”
“And the teeth?”
“Virgil Blue must have taught you of the Teeth that Shriek. If you did study with him, of course,” said Anihilato. “Surely a monk like you knows the danger of locking eyes with the afflicted?”
As the words fell from Anihilato’s lipless mouth, Dan realized his gaze was fixed on the bird’s black, beady eye. His jaw froze. His fingers clenched. His pupils tightened in concentration.
Seconds passed. The two stared motionlessly.
Anihilato slithered by on twenty feet. As it passed Dan it whispered in his ear: “I am invulnerable to the teeth. My spawn are not.” It placed three hands on each of Dan’s shoulders. “Blink, Dan Jones, and you will succumb to the Teeth that Shriek. To end your unimaginable suffering I will claim you for my Nihilistic Limbo.”
The bird turned its head so its eye faced him directly, but Dan still sensed the teeth on the other side of its face. The thought of teeth tickled his brain. He imagined a molar embedded in his throat. He felt a canine burrowing behind his cheekbone.
“Peep,” said the bird.
It looked down and pecked the dirt. Dan released the air in his lungs.
“Very good, Jones.” The King of Dust slapped him on the back. “Perhaps you really have met Virgil Blue once or twice.”
“Where’s Faith?” Dan pulled himself into a seated position with his eyes clamped shut. “I won’t open my eyes until I hear her voice.”
“Oh, hush, Jones. I’ll return her soul but her Eternity Card remains in my box.” He chose Faith’s egg from the wall. “If she ever returns to my lair I will not hesitate to reclaim her.”
Anihilato faced the bird and closed five eyes to match its beady stare. “Begone!”
The bird blinked. It rolled on the ground, flesh bubbling and darkening, until it was a black chitinous millipede an inch across and a foot long. It wiggled its orange legs in pain until Anihilato plucked it from the dirt and slurped it down alive.
Satisfied, Anihilato placed Faith’s egg in front of the monk. “Faith Featherway, you have been conjured from nonexistence.”
The egg cracked. Faith gasped from the crack in a cloud of fog. “Holy shit!”
“Faith! Are you okay?” When Dan tried to hug her she evaded his arms like steam. “I’m so sorry I couldn’t—”
“Let’s get out of here!” She deposited herself behind Dan into a pile of shambling snow. She made a crude leg and shook it towards the mouth of the cave. “Dainty, run!”
“Faith—” Dan hesitated to touch her. Instead, he shook his head. “Leave without me. I’ll be up soon.”
“What?” Faith produced another snow-leg and hobbled away. “Don’t tell me you want to stay down here!”
“I just bet my Eternity Card for your soul.” Dan pointed at Anihilato’s box. “That means I’m not done. I can’t leave if Beatrice’s soul could be in that box. Anihilato, let’s make another wager.”
“Are you kidding?” Faith’s eyeballs emerged from the snowball to glare at Dan. She carved a sharp snout on her face. “Dainty, I was just annihilated, and as far as I know that’s not generally reversible. That’s all our luck used up already.” When Dan did not turn she jumped and shouted. “You’re a Zephyr! You’re supposed to go to the Mountain!”
“The Mountain is in me.” Dan sat with folded legs before Anihilato. “I’ll come back when I’ve salvaged Beatrice. And Jay. At least.”
“Dan! I miss them too, but there’s an order to things here,” she growled. “Did you spend seven years in a monastery just to gamble your soul for your pals?”
“No, but now I know it’s an option, I can’t think of a better reason to have done so. I should have devoted my life to this.”
Faith tssk’d. “You’re a bad liar, Dainty. This was your plan the whole time. You’re right where you meant to be.” She turned her tail to him. “I’ll go back to the surface, but I’m not waiting for you. I’m flying to the Mountain to tell the Zephyrs why I’m late.”
As she left, Anihilato squinted at Dan with its left eyes. “What makes you think I’ll accept another wager, monk? The first time was a courtesy to Virgil Blue. I don’t have all eternity to waste gambling with you.”
“Then we’ll make it quick,” said Dan. “I wager my Eternity Card against your whole box and everything inside it.”
Anihilato’s sneer revealed gumless upper teeth. “Such dishonor has never been shown to me, monk. If you were truly Virgil Blue’s student you dishonor him with your rudeness. Why should I bother?”
“Because you’ve never tasted arch-Zephyr,” said Dan, “and I know you want to.”
“If you think you can challenge me, then cease speech and match my gaze!” It stormed up to Dan in a flurry of arms and legs. “Lock eyes with the King of Dust and have your ego shredded!”
Dan could not respond. He was fixed, now, on Anihilato’s six shining eyes. Every muscle was frozen. He could not even breathe.
“I’ve got you now, monk.”
A minute passed.
Dan closed his left eye. When his right eye burned he opened his left eye and closed his right.
“Don’t waste my time, Jones.”
A minute passed.
A tooth broke the skin on Dan’s neck. He shuddered as blood trickled down his chest.