When Faith landed on the red mountain, she scratched its dusty surface and a cave opened. Nakayama crawled out. “Yes, Faith?”
“My friend Jay dragged Anihilato above-ground,” said Faith. “He’s got it pinned!”
“Thank goodness. I worried Anihilato would never surface.”
“You’d better go quick!”
“I will.” Nakayama pointed her wings to the cave. “You too.”
“Huh?” Faith tiptoed to the cave-mouth. “But you haven’t wrapped that white wing around yet. Do you mean—”
“You’re due for Zephyrhood,” said Nakayama. “Make haste.”
“Oh gosh.” Faith nervously tapped her paws. “Am I really ready?”
“You were ready the instant we met, but your unusual physiology made delayed gratification more useful. Observe.” Nakayama brushed Faith’s muzzle with one wing and showed the snowy powder she scraped off. “At the dawn of time, I produced this white powder to accelerate the cycle of life and death. Your personality resonates with the powder, so it accumulated around your psyche to expedite my whim.”
“My soul’s just… helpful dust?” Faith wrapped her tail around her haunches and forelegs. “But why?”
“Be glad. If it weren’t so, you’d be a pile of worms squirming in different directions. I couldn’t have managed the afterlife without you.”
Faith surveyed the desert for the last time. “What’s it like being a Zephyr?”
“The description will seem unpleasant, but don’t be afraid,” said Nakayama. “Your body and mind will disintegrate and spread throughout the Wheel. From there you’ll be a boon to all sentient beings.”
Faith approached the cave again. “You mean I’ll help people?”
“Good enough for me.” Faith leapt into the cave. The red mountain swallowed her. Nakayama turned to the desert and unfolded a forty-foot wingspan.
Her launch rolled a sonic boom over the dunes.
In seconds she found Anihilato and Jay.
Her touchdown raised swirls of sand.
Anihilato tried to squirm under Jay’s debilitating gaze. “Stay away!” it shouted.
“Stay away?” Nakayama drew near. “Oh Anihilato, I knew you’d reject me—and in rejecting me, your task is complete!”
“Careful!” said Jay. “I’ve got to keep eye-contact.”
“I’ll take it from here.” Nakayama’s wings scintillated and morphed. Every feather became an eyeball. The wings formed a dome over Anihilato with eyes facing inward. Anihilato was too petrified to even blink. Jay took the chance to rub his own eyes.
Nakayama popped off both wings and stepped away from them. “Thank you, Jay. If you hadn’t held it here, Anihilato might have hid for all time.”
“I’ve got questions,” said Jay.
“I’ve got answers, but I can’t guarantee they’re to your questions.” Nakayama unsleeved ten blue arms to lift one corner of the dome of wings. Through the lifted corner, Jay saw Anihilato frozen in fear. “Ask away.”
“If I understand correctly,” said Jay, “my world isn’t the real one, right?”
“That’s a matter of perspective.” Nakayama put all her hands on Anihilato’s ten hind legs. The legs popped off easily and Nakayama swallowed them whole. Anihilato groaned. “From my vantage point, your world is as real as anything else. It’s subsidiary to another world, but if it weren’t real, it couldn’t be subsidiary to anything.”
Jay nodded. Even freed from Anihilato’s glare, he stayed stationary. “The strangest thing, though,” he said, “is that some aspects of your original world slip into my subsidiary one. For example, I heard the story of a Blue Virgil who read manga from a library of texts supposedly from the future. After reading the manga, they visited Japan to meet the author while they wrote it. Unless I’m mistaken,” he wagered, “the Blue Virgil’s copy of the manga actually came from you, from your original world. But it was also being written in my subsidiary world. What are the chances of that?”
Nakayama shrugged all ten shoulders and popped off Anihilato’s remaining legs. “Your world’s an unsupervised machine-learning algorithm. If anyone could understand how it worked, it probably wouldn’t work at all.”
Jay nodded. “Did your original Earth have Hitler? Or Stalin?”
Nakayama popped off Anihilato’s twenty arms and ate them one-by-one. The worm-monster crumpled whimpering on the sand. “Who?” asked Nakayama.
“Their regimes killed millions.”
“Oh! I remember now.” Nakayama took Anihilato’s tail and whipped its body to snap its spine. “You must be from the early 2000s.”
“How’d you know?”
“By 2399, Hitler and Stalin don’t even make the top-ten list of murderous authoritarian dictators.”
“Wow. My subsidiary world’s in for a few rough centuries.”
“Every century is rough for the same reasons. What changes is us.” Nakayama merged her five left arms into a jet engine. Blue fire spewed forty meters.
“No! Please!” Despite the protest, Nakayama scorched Anihilato’s scalp. “Aaaugh!” Its six eyeballs boiled and burst.
Nakayama reabsorbed the dome of wings under her robes, then strode to Anihilato’s writhing tail and caught its end in her beak. Nakayama inhaled, stoking Anihilato’s flaming head to char. It stopped screaming as the flames spread to its shoulders. Nakayama blew smoke toward the sunset, then inhaled again, searing Anihilato to its first waist. “Phooo.” Nakayama blew more smoke. “Jay, care to help out? I’m drowning in this thing.”
Jay nodded. Nakayama put Anihilato’s tail in Jay’s mouth. Jay breathed deep. When he finished coughing, Jay opened his eyes and they were jewel-like and green. “Oh. Oh. I can see forever. I am forever. Nothing is salvaged except through me. I am the all.”
“Eh. You get used to it.” Nakayama inhaled though Anihilato again and the monster crumbled into ash. “You and I contain enough data to recreate Earth’s population within any degree of accuracy. Time to end this. I’ll unite you with the other Zephyrs.”
“I’m already united with the Zephyrs,” said Jay. “I contain Beatrice and Faith and Dan and Leo and everyone else, and I always have, and I always will.”
“I’m taking you to the Mountain.”
“The Mountain is in me.” Jay couldn’t stand. Smoking Anihilato had wrecked his sense of balance. “Carry me?”
Nakayama cradled him in both wings. “I can’t carry you and fly. I could throw you to the Mountain or I could swallow you here and now.”
“Do what you’re gonna do.”
“Of course. How could I possibly do what I’m not gonna do?” Nakayama swallowed Jay and launched into the sky.