Eggshell isolated it like an ivory wall. Egg whites pulsed with its subtle heartbeat. The sunny yolk warmed its joints.
It was gripped by a desire for birth. It spread wings to breach its shell and release the egg whites.
For the first time it felt dirt in its claws. Behind, Anihilato snapped up egg remnants and licked yolk from each fingertip. “Your challenge, Dan Jones.”
It was fist-sized with blue feather-fluff. Its beak bore a scythe’s curve, but its eye held innocent youth. Its left side was a mess of boils and teeth, human teeth, with crowns and roots jutting at odd angles. “Is it a bird?” asked Dan.
“It’s a hobby,” said Anihilato. “My spawn are not long-lived, useful only for warmth.”
“And the teeth?”
“Virgil Blue surely taught you of the Teeth that Shriek,” said Anihilato, “if you studied with him, of course. Surely you know the danger of locking eyes with the afflicted?”
As the words left Anihilato’s lipless mouth, Dan found his gaze fixed on the bird’s black, beady eye. His pupils tightened in concentration.
Seconds passed. The two stared motionlessly.
Anihilato slithered to whisper in Dan’s ear: “I am invulnerable to the teeth. My spawn are not.” It put three hands on both Dan’s shoulders. “Blink, Dan Jones, and you will succumb to the Teeth that Shriek. To end your unimaginable suffering I will claim you.”
The bird turned so its eye faced him, but the thought of teeth still tickled Dan’s brain. He imagined a molar embedded in his throat. He felt a canine burrowing in his cheekbone.
“Peep,” said the bird. It looked down and pecked the dirt. Dan released air from his lungs.
“Well done, Jones.” The King of Dust slapped his back. “Perhaps you have met Virgil Blue, once or twice.”
“Where’s Faith?” Dan crossed his legs and covered his eyes. “I won’t look 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 returns I will not hesitate to reclaim her.”
Anihilato faced the bird and closed five eyes to match its gaze. “Begone!”
The bird blinked. Its flesh bubbled and darkened until it was a black centipede. It wriggled orange legs before Anihilato slurped it down alive.
Satisfied, Anihilato placed Faith’s egg before Dan. “Faith Featherway, you’ve been conjured from obliteration.”
The egg cracked. Faith gasped from the crack in a cloud of fog. “Holy shit!”
“Faith! Are you okay?” Dan hugged her but she evaded his arms like steam. “I’m so sorry I couldn’t—”
“Let’s go!” She deposited into shambling snow. She made a crude leg and shook it at the exit. “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 might be trapped here. Anihilato, let’s make another wager.”
“Are you kidding?” Faith’s eyeballs emerged from the snow to glare at Dan. She carved herself a sharp snout. “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 before Anihilato. “I’ll surface 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 old pals?”
“No, but now I know it’s an option, I can’t think of a better reason. I should have devoted my whole life to this.”
Faith tssk’d. “You’re a bad liar, Dainty. This was your plan all along. You’re right where you meant to be.” She turned tail to him. “I’ll surface, but I won’t wait for you. I’m flying to the Mountain to tell the Zephyrs why I’m late.”
As she left, Anihilato squinted at Dan with three left eyes. “Why should I accept another wager, monk? The first time was a courtesy to Virgil Blue. You dishonor him with your rudeness. 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 entire box and everything inside it.”
“If you dare to challenge me, cease speech and match my gaze!” Anihilato stormed up to Dan in a flurry of limbs. “Lock eyes with the King of Dust and have your ego shredded!”
Dan was fixed on Anihilato’s six shining eyes. He could not even breathe.
“I’ve got you now, monk.”
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 tooth broke the skin on Dan’s neck. He shuddered as blood trickled down his chest.