A hard ivory wall separated it from the outside world. Egg whites pulsed with its subtle heartbeat. The sun-like yolk warmed its joints.

A desire to be born gripped its heart. It pressed its limbs against its container, splitting the ivory wall and spilling the egg whites. 

For the first time, it felt dirt between its claws. Behind, Anihilato snapped up the remains of the egg, licking yolk from each fingertip. “Your challenge, Dan Jones.”

“Is this a bird?” asked Dan. It was the size of a fist, with fluffy, grey-blue feathers. Its beak held a scythe’s curve, but its one black, beady eye held an innocent youth. Instead of a second eye, the left side of its face was a mess of boils and teeth. Human teeth, with crowns and roots exposed and jutting at odd angles.

“It is a hobby,” said Anihilato. “My spawn are not long-lived, useful only for their warmth.”

“And the teeth?”

“I’m sure Virgil Blue taught you of the Teeth that Shriek. If you did know him, of course,” said Anihilato. “Surely a monk like you knows the dangers of meeting eyes with such an afflicted bird?”

As the words left Anihilato’s lipless mouth, Dan realized he was transfixed on the bird’s black, beady eye. His jaw froze. His fingers clenched. His pupils tightened in concentration.

Seconds passed, the two staring motionlessly.

Anihilato slithered by on twenty feet. As it passed Dan, it whispered under its breath. “I am invulnerable to the teeth. My spawn are not.” It placed three hands on each of Dan’s shoulders to speak into his ear. “Blink, Dan Jones, and you will succumb to the Teeth that Shriek. To end your unimaginable suffering, I will claim you for my realm of Nihilism.”

The bird had its head turned so that its eye faced him, but Dan could still sense the teeth on the other side of its head. The thought of the teeth he could not see tickled his brain. He thought of a molar embedded in his own throat. He felt the pressure of another tooth’s roots burrowing behind his right cheekbone.

“Peep,” said the bird.

It looked away and pecked at the ground.

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 in your life.”

“Where’s Faith?” Dan pulled himself into a seated position, his eyes clamped shut. “I won’t open my eyes until I hear her voice.”

“Oh, hush, Jones. I 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.”

“Peep.”

Anihilato faced the bird and closed five of his six eyes, matching the bird’s stare. “Begone!”

The bird blinked. It fell on the ground, flesh bubbling and darkening, until it was black millipede an inch across and twelve inches long. As if in pain, it squirmed its orange legs and chitinous body.

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, her ethereal body passed around his arms. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean—”

“Let’s get out of here!” Behind Dan, she deposited herself into a crawling pile of snow. She made a crude leg and shook it towards the exit. “Quick, let’s go!”

“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. “Why would you want to stay down here?”

“I just bet my Eternity Card for yours,” said Dan, pointing a finger at Anihilato’s box. “That means I’m not done down here. Anihilato, let’s make another wager.”

“Are you serious?” Faith’s eyeballs emerged from the snow-ball just in time to glare at Dan. She carved a sharp snout on her face. “I was just annihilated, and as far as I know, I’m not supposed to be able to come back from that. That’s all our good luck used up already.” When Dan did not turn, she jumped and shouted. “You’re a Zephyr! You’re supposed to be on the Mountain!”

“Go to the surface without me.” Dan sat with his legs folded in front of Anihilato. “I’ll come back once I’ve salvaged Beatrice. And Jay.”

“Dan! I miss them, too, but there’s an order to things, here!” She growled. “Don’t tell me you spent seven years seeking enlightenment just to gamble your soul for your old mates!”

“I see no better reason.”

Faith tssk’d and turned her back to him. “I’ll go back to the surface, sure. But I’m not waiting for you. I’m going back to the Mountain and telling the other Zephyrs why I’m late.”

As she left, Anihilato squinted at Dan with all three left eyes. “What makes you think I’ll take your wager again, monk? The first time was a courtesy. I don’t have all eternity to waste gambling with you.”

“Then we’ll make it quick,” said Dan. “I’ll bet you my Eternity Card for your whole box, and all the papers inside it.”

The King of Dust sneered, revealing his 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 Zephyr before,” said Dan, “and I know you want to.”

“Then stare me in the eye, if you think you can challenge me!” it shouted, storming up to Dan in a flurry of legs and arms. “Lock eyes with the King of Dust and have your ego shredded!”

Dan could not respond.

His gaze 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, feeling the blood trickle down his chest.

Dan blinked.

Commentary: The First Chapter

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