Worms fled sand and sought moisture, eating into the deep. Larger worms left tunnels in their wakes. 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. A hundred gray fingers caressed the eggs’ moon-like surfaces. Their yolks radiated warmth alien to the underground, like distant stars at night. The largest worm bent its head to the first egg and continued bending, coiling around the eggs three times. Then its ten pairs of legs gripped its body with their knees, holding the worm 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 all three pairs of eyes. A snow-white fox and a man in a grimy loincloth entered its lair. Dan counted the worm’s limbs as it uncurled. “Anihilato?”
It crawled on twenty legs to a dark corner of its cave. It whispered gibberish as it stuck each egg in the wall.
“Anihilato, I’m Dan Jones. This is my friend, Faith Featherway.”
The worm blinked its six eyes. “I am the King of Dust.” Its face was cracked and dry. It had ten pelvises connected in series, Dan noticed, and ten stacked human torsos. It was held upright with snake-like musculature.
The egg holes leaked jelly.
“Anihilato, right?” Dan held out the cricket. “Do you have a lighter?”
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 worm repeated, “and this is my domain. Souls who wander here belong to me.” It illustrated this by eating worms off the ground. Its mouth had no lips.
“Cool it,” said Faith. “The Mountain sent me, and Dainty here’s basically a Zephyr.”
“Irrelevant,” said the King of Dust, “and the monk is no Zephyr. He has man-smell. I own his soul now.” The worm retreated to the darkness and returned with a wooden box. “Your souls are in my box. I have your Eternity Cards.”
While Anihilato searched the box, Dan bobbed the cricket. “If you help light it, you can help smoke it.”
“Dan Jones.” Anihilato pulled a paper from the box and read it with three eyes while the other three squinted at Dan. “Make no claims to Zephyrhood while I hold your Eternity Card.”
“Uh, this guy was sent by Virgil Blue,” said Faith. “Are you gonna tussle with Virgil Blue?”
“Faith, it’s fine.” Dan tucked the cricket behind his ear. “Can I have that paperwork? I want to read it.”
Anihilato hesitated with Dan’s Eternity Card in three pairs of hands. With a sigh, it passed the paper to the 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.”
“This is my soul, alright.” Dan held the paper. “Thanks for taking care of it.”
“The Eternity Cards are my deed to creation.” Anihilato smiled. Its teeth had no gums. “The Mountain made you from dust. I’m the Master of Nihilism, King of Dust. I own you. I tire of bureaucratic nonsense. I have the right to obliterate you.”
“You sure would.” Dan folded the paper. “If you had my Eternity Card.”
Anihilato’s jaw hung open. “…I do.”
“Then what am I holding?”
The King of Dust shook its head. “You saw me take that from my box moments ago.”
“I sure did.”
“Then your soul belongs to me.”
“I don’t follow. You don’t have my Eternity Card.”
Anihilato reared. Its flared limbs made a manta’s mantle. “Mortal, for the honor of Virgil Blue, I humor you momentarily. Whether or not I claim you now, I will subsume all creation. You,” it continued, jabbing a finger at Dan, “glimpsed enlightenment and believe you deserve immortality as a facet of the creator of all things. Unfortunately, you approached me before unifying with the Mountain. I, therefore, claim you.”
Faith whispered over her shoulder. “Let’s get outta here, Dainty. This guy gives me the creeps.”
Dan smiled. “Maybe the Mountain claimed my Eternity Card and you just forgot.”
Frustration bent Anihilato’s limbs. Froth bubbled between its teeth. “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 I’m an extension of the Mountain. I asked for my Eternity Card, and the Mountain asked for my Eternity Card. You gave it to me, and you gave it to the Mountain. Everything’s in order.”
Anihilato stomped so hard the floor shook and 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 on technicality today, but I will wait until the end of the eternities, and I will make you a fantastic egg!”
“Pleasure doing business, 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. I promise.” She leapt and floated on cave-moisture. “Can’t you see its dangerous here, Dainty? Let me show you to the Mountain.”
“Don’t speak like you’re leaving, wisp,” said Anihilato. “Your soul still belongs to me.” The worm’s next breath sucked wind 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 backward each step.
Dan grabbed the fox in both hands. Snow flew through his fingers. “Anihilato, stop! Now!”
Faith fought the wind that ripped her snowflakes away. “Help, help!”
“I’m so sorry, I didn’t—” Dan watched her body vanish until finally her terrified eyes flew into Anihilato’s lipless mouth. “She’s my friend. Let her go.”
“Your friend is mine.” Its line of legs rolled an object along the dirt. Its bottom arms passed the object to its top arms, which held it to its face. “She’s an awful egg. Pale color. Too transparent.”
“Hatch her. Please.” Dan knelt and pressed his nose in the dirt. “She met Virgil Blue. Twice. They traded gifts. He would be devastated to know.”
“Not worth hatching.” Anihilato slithered to the egg wall. “Begone, Dan Jones. You waste my time.”
“I’ll bet you mine for hers.”
Mid-turn, Anihilato looked back at the monk. Dan unfolded his Eternity Card and rest it reverently before the worm. “…I will allow this,” said Anihilato, “for Virgil Blue. Only your master’s reputation preserves you.” The King of Dust swapped Faith’s egg for another from the wall. It carried the new egg to Dan. “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 spirit who did not even make 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.”