In its caverns under the desert, Anihilato coiled all twenty arms and twenty legs around a man-sized egg to catch every ounce of warmth pouring from its yolk.
A worm fell from the cavern ceiling onto Anihilato’s cheekbone. Anihilato plucked the worm and inspected it with six eyes, then opened a lipless mouth to swallow it whole.
Anihilato paused. It whispered, as if to let the egg sleep. “You’re the first worm I’ve seen in eons,” said the King of Dust. “The eternities are ending and worms are growing scarce. Perhaps you and I are the last worms left.”
The worm squirmed in Anihilato’s grasp.
“Don’t worry. Worms are easy to digest,” said Anihilato, as if that made any difference to the worm. “When I meet more complicated creatures, I must consume them twice. First I excrete them as eggs and enjoy their warmth until their egos soften. Only then can I digest them totally. In my previous life I could soften egos using other mystical powers, but I’ve lost that talent and must resort to eggs. My last egg is almost ready. I’ve eaten all the rest.”
Anihilato let the worm crawl across the egg. Then it snatched the worm and ate it.
It wrapped itself around the egg and slept for a long time.
It awoke to a crack.
“I’ve indulged in your warmth enough.” Anihilato felt the egg’s crack with its fingertips. “Time to eat!”
Anihilato opened its mouth.
The egg exploded.
The caverns collapsed. Shifting sands rained like monsoons. Anihilato was buried.
After the collapse, Anihilato dug to the surface. It shook sand from its body and blinked in the sunlight. Anihilato would dig back into the depths, but not before reclaiming what had hatched from its egg. “Monk!” Anihilato scanned the sand. It snapped up scraps of eggshell and crunched them in its teeth. “Jones! Dan Jones! You can’t run from me!”
“Why would I?” Jay sat nude, cross legged, on a pile of eggshells. He’d removed his gray rag from his waist and was tying it like a blindfold over his eyes. “I’m right where I meant to be.”
Anihilato stormed up to Jay in a flurry of arms and legs. “I’ve softened you, Dan! In my limbo you’ve been blunted as I feasted on your yolk’s warmth. I’ll best your eye-contact and reduce you to a nematode. Your rag won’t protect you long!”
“My egg had two yolks.” Jay pulled the blindfold taut. “Make no mistake: the rag’s for your protection, not mine. You’re already a worm. If you blinked in my gaze, you’d turn into a slug.” He rest his hands on his knees.
“You think I’m afraid? Me, Anihilato? King of Dust? Master of Nihilism?”
Jay allowed himself a slanted smile. “You are Anihilato,” he said, “and you are King of Dust, but you are not Master of Nihilism. There is no Master of Nihilism. There’s just you and me, right here right now.”
“You belong to me! I own you!” Anihilato reached six arms around Jay to untie his blindfold. “I put your Eternity-Card in my box of souls. Even if I allowed you to escape out of pity, you’d never find that box. I’ve hidden it deep under the desert!”
Jay giggled. “You think I still care about your stupid box?” Anihilato, taken aback, hesitated untying the blindfold. “If I found your box of souls, you know what I’d do?” Jay laughed. “I’d piss on your box. What worthless trash!”
Anihilato tore off the blindfold.
Scrutinized by six eyes, Jay felt all his muscles lock.
Anihilato, too, felt muscles lock. Jay’s gaze had grown more potent in the egg—or perhaps Anihilato had drawn too close untying the blindfold, and was now paralyzed by its own reflection in Jay’s eyes.
Just before it froze completely, Anihilato swept sand in Jay’s face. Jay cringed—his left eye closed and wouldn’t open.
Anihilato’s mouth curved into a grin. Through the petrifying battle of glares, it managed to speak. “You can’t win, Dan.”
“My name’s Jay now, but call me what you want.”
“You can’t win, DanJay.” Anihilato’s grin spread wide. “Remember teaching me this trick?” It closed its bottom pair of eyes. It reopened them and closed its central pair of eyes. It reopened them and closed its top pair of eyes. “By repeating this, I’ll keep four eyes on you forever. My vision is eternal. Soon you will wink and turn into an earthworm for me to slurp.”
Tears streamed from Jay’s closed left eye.
“Cry, mortal,” said Anihilato. “I’ll savor squashing your hubris.”
Jay’s tears deposited sand-grains from his cornea onto his cheek. He winked his left eye repeatedly. It was red and wet, but now he stared down Anihilato with both eyes.
“DanJay, you only delay the inevitable.”
“I am the inevitable,” said Jay, “and so are you. What happens happens. I’m reality, just like you.”
Anihilato chuckled. “What do you know of reality?”
“Doubtlessly less than you,” said Jay. “You contain every Virgil Blue. Nemo. Jango. Thank you for joining me at the end of the eternities. I couldn’t do this alone.” Anihilato sneered. “But it doesn’t matter. I know well as any Virgil that God is just what happens—no more or less than exactly what exists. God waits between us now.”
Two of Anihilato’s eyes peered into the sky. “If I’m not God, He’s on my side. It’s high noon, DanJay. You’re on borrowed time.” Jay didn’t understand until the sun descended and shined directly in his vision. He had to squint. Anihilato laughed. “Soon, DanJay. Soon.”
“Not soon enough for your sake,” said Jay.
Now Anihilato didn’t understand until noticing its own shadow. As the sun descended, Anihilato cast shade over Jay’s face. Jay’s eyes relaxed. Anihilato tried to move the shadow, but couldn’t lean an inch. “Terrible monks like you make the tastiest worms. I can wait for your surrender.”
“I’m no monk.” In Anihilato’s shadow, he could keep his eyes open a while.
A drop of sweat disturbed his right eyelash. The eye clenched shut instinctively.
“Aha.” Anihilato snickered. “Your humanity betrays you.”
More sweat tickled Jay’s nose. It pooled in his ears.
A drop touched his left eyebrow. Jay grunted and tried reopening his right eye, but salty sweat stung it closed again. The drop on his left brow rolled toward his eyelash. Jay shook. Anxiety clutched his chest. He felt teeth take root in his throat.
A cool breeze froze the sweat to his forehead.
Faith Featherway inhaled and blew more chill wind over Jay’s face. “Is that better?”
“Thank you, Faith.”
“Hey!” Anihilato tensed twenty shoulders as if to smack Faith, that white fox, but couldn’t move its arms. “Scram!”
Faith turned and let her misty tail moisten Jay’s eyeballs. “How’s that?”
“Perfect, Faith.” Even with both eyes open, Jay was comfortable as if they were closed. “I can’t thank you enough.”
Faith disconnected her tail and let it envelop Jay like a cloud. “I’m flying back to the Mountain,” she said. “Bug-Bird asked me to keep an eye out for Anihilato. I gotta report this.”
“That’s alright,” said Jay. “I’ll take it from here.”
“You know, butt-head over there ate me alive one time?” She jerked her head at Anihilato. “I think it ate Dan, too.”
“It sure did,” said Jay.
“Good luck.” Faith bounded away with a new tail billowing behind her.
“Wait!” Anihilato tried to inhale her, but that trick only worked in the confines of its caverns. “If you can grow more tails, then give one to me!”
Faith rolled her eyes. “I’ll give my tails to whoever I want. Fuck you! Fuck off!” She flew into the sky.
Anihilato’s lipless mouth twitched in frustration and its six eyes shook. Jay just stared. His eyes were moist and cool and shaded. Reassured, the teeth in his throat retreated.
“This doesn’t mean anything,” said Anihilato. “You’ve failed. You and that frigid rat!”
“You’re half right,” said Jay. “This doesn’t mean anything.”
Anihilato rest one pair of eyes while the other two pairs kept Jay paralyzed. “That cloud will disperse. You will sweat and your eyes will shut. Then I’ll consume you. You can’t outlast me.”
“I don’t need to,” said Jay.
“What—” Anihilato let two eyes look left and right. “What do you mean?”
From the distance, a sonic boom roared over the dunes.
“No!” Anihilato quivered in fear. “Not that! Anything but that!”
Jay shrugged. “It is what it is.”
“Let’s adjourn!” Anihilato wished it could decompose into teeth, and felt more than enough anxiety to do so, but the clarity of the Blue Virgils kept it intact. “We’ll finish our contest underground!”
“Then just release me, no contest! You win! You’re the Master of Nihilism, DanJay! You’re King of Dust! You’re Anihilato!”
“Call me what you want.”
“If I could move, I’d beg on twenty hands and twenty knees!”
“My box of souls is yours! Take it and leave me!”
“You’re bargaining garbage, Anihilato.” Jay sighed. “I’m here because I’ve seen the emptiness of all things and it’s led me to unconditional compassion—but that doesn’t mean I gotta be nice to you. I’m not surprised this kindness looks like wrath.”
In his peripheral vision, Jay saw the Heart of the Mountain, the Biggest Bird, sweep over the desert on a forty-foot wingspan.