Earthworms ate tunnels under the desert, fleeing dry sand and seeking moisture. Larger worms left larger tunnels in their wake. Worms as thick as snakes webbed the deep with their holes. The largest worm used twenty arms and twenty legs to carve caverns in the dirt. 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’ smooth, 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, 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 awoke when it heard a voice. “Yo, Dan, over here.”
It unwound itself to peer at the intruders with six eyes. A snow-white fox and a man, nude but for a loincloth and covered in grime. Dan counted the creature’s limbs as it uncurled. “Anihilato?”
It crawled on twenty legs to a dark corner of its cavern. It carefully placed each egg into holes in the wall, whispering quiet gibberish to each one.
“Anihilato, my name is Dan Jones. This is my friend, Faith Featherway.”
The creature turned and blinked at them with six eyes. “I am the King of Dust.” Its face was dry and cracked. It had ten pelvises, Dan noticed, connected in series, and ten human torsos stacked one on top of 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 can use?”
Anihilato, the King of Dust, said nothing.
“I told you this was a waste of time,” said Faith. “C’mon, Dainty, let’s get out of here.”
“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 make this 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, returning with a large wooden box. “Your souls are here, in my box. I hold your Eternity Cards.”
While Anihilato opened 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 when 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,” said Dan, tucking the cricket behind an ear. “Can I have that paperwork? I want to read it.”
The creature paused, holding Dan’s Eternity Card in three pairs of hands. With a sigh, it passed the paper to the almost nude monk. “A shame 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. I tire of bureaucratic nonsense. I own your Eternity Card, which is all that matters. Prepare for annihilation.”
“You’re right, I’m pretty sure this is my card.” Dan held the paper. “Thanks for taking care of it.”
“Everything in that box belongs to me.” Anihilato smiled. The teeth had no gums. “The Mountain made you from dust. I am ruler of Nihilism, the King of Dust. The box of Eternity Cards is my deed to creation. I own you.”
“You sure would,” said Dan, tapping the paper with two fingers. “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 that from my box. Moments ago.”
Dan folded the paper and tucked it into the side of his loincloth. “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 cloak. “Mortal, for the honor of Virgil Blue, I humor you momentarily. I am the Master of Nihilism. When 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 looked over her shoulder at Dan. “Let’s just get out of here, man, 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?”
A series of frustrated convulsions bent Anihilato’s limbs as froth bubbled from his lips. “I gave it to you a mere minute ago!”
“Now you remember.” Dan retrieved the paper from his loincloth. “Like you said, I’m a mortal who glimpsed enlightenment, and saw that I am an extension of the Mountain. I asked you for my Eternity Card, and therefore the Mountain asked you for my Eternity Card. You gave it to me, and you gave it to the Mountain. All seems to be in order.”
Anihilato stamped three feet against the ground. The shake made Faith jump into the air. “You cannot avoid obliteration by feigning knowledge of matters you cannot begin to comprehend! Such horrid students make the best eggs, Dan Jones. If you’re lying, it will not save you. You escaped today, but I will wait until the end of the eternities, and I will make you into a fantastic egg.”
“It’s always a pleasure, Anihilato.”
“You Zephyrs are crazy,” said Faith, vulpine mouth forcing worried smile. “I found this guy naked in a furnace, Anihilato, he’s the real deal for sure. I promise.” She leaped into the air and floated on cave moisture. “Let’s get out of here, Dan, I want to show you around the Mountain.”
“Do not make small talk as if you are leaving, wisp,” said Anihilato. “Your soul still belongs to me.” With the creature’s next inhale, the winds blew towards it from every corner of the endless caverns. Faith yelped as her airy tail was drawn towards the King of Dust.
“Help! Dainty! What’s he doing?” She tried to run, but slid backwards with each step.
Dan grabbed the fox in both hands, snow flying through his fingers. “Anihilato, stop it! Now!”
Faith fought against the howling 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 his lipless mouth. “She’s a friend. Let her go.”
“Your friend has returned to the dust of nothingness from which she arose, and 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. “Not a good egg. Pale color, too transparent.”
“Hatch her. Please.” Dan knelt with both hands on the ground, then pressed his nose into the dirt. “She met Virgil Blue. Twice. They traded gifts. He would be devastated to know.”
“Not worth hatching.” Anihilato turned back to the egg wall. “Be gone, Dan Jones. You waste my time.”
“I’ll bet you mine for hers.”
In mid-turn, Anihilato looked back at the monk. Dan took his Eternity Card from his loincloth and set it reverently before himself. “…I will allow this,” said Anihilato, “for Virgil Blue. Had your friend not mentioned the Virgil, you would be obliterated already. It is only your master’s reputation that preserves you.” The King of Dust pulled a large, pure white egg from the wall and carried it to the monk. “Out of respect for Virgil Blue, I will do this insignificant, dirty, unwashed, nude, and prostrate monk the sublime favor of giving him the chance to wager his soul for the sake of a tiny, insignificant wisp, whose soul did not even produce a nice egg.”
It placed the egg before the monk.
“But your challenge will not be easy, if you lied. Only a true disciple of Virgil Blue could hope to survive.”
The egg cracked.
“Your challenge, Dan Jones.”