Dan’s Staring Contest

(A chapter of Akayama DanJay.)


The year is… Um…

The desert sand was baked rust-colored. Mile-high dunes crawled over infinite plains. The mustard-yellow sky veiled a red mountain on a natural stone step so massive its hazy features extended into space. Pink earthworms fell from the stars one at a time like rare raindrops, hit the sand, and immediately dug themselves deep.

A lone, cottony cloud zipped across the yellow sky spilling vapor in its wake. It hovered over a particular valley between two dunes, apparently satisfied with them. Then the cloud fell six feet left and six feet right, beginning a corkscrew descent. With each downward loop, it thickened and cooled. Soon the cloud was a falling hailstone, but on impact with hot sand, it popped like a bubble into forty pounds of pure white snow.

The snow jumped and steamed and clumped together. “Oh! Ow, hot, hot, hot!” The snow’s voice was feminine. “Damn.” She shook out some slender legs and used them to brush ice from her cold blue eyes. She sharpened her claws in the sand and used them to sculpt crystal whiskers on her snout. She kicked frost from her hind feet, leaving a fluttery, airy tail behind her, and tiptoed to the shadow of a dune, where the sand was cooler.

After a quick nap, she dug at the dune, pausing only to eat the earthworms she uncovered, and any which landed nearby. She finally excavated a cobblestone wall with a hinged panel. She sat before it, straightening her tail and biting sand from her fur.

Eventually the hinged panel clicked. A sand-curtain fell to reveal the wall was one side of a gray stone box. “Well, it’s about time!” She strutted to the box. “Come out already.” The monk in the box pushed the panel open. It was Dan, sitting crossed-legged in a cramped compartment, nude. Soot smeared his pale skin. “How am I supposed to fly you to the Mountain? You’re way too big for me.” She hopped her front paws onto the lip of the compartment, and gagged inspecting him. “Get a loincloth! It’s too early in the morning to look at monk junk.”

Dan leaned over her. She reminded him of the white powder spewed into the Wheel to begin the eternities. “Something’s wrong. You’re that fox!”

“And you’re a hobo,” said the snow-white fox. “What’s so wrong with a fox, huh?”

“When I smoked centipede, you took some of my worms to Anihilato.”

“I’ll take bad worms to Anihilato. I’ll take good worms to the Mountain. It’s really up to me, so if you think you’re attaining Zephyrhood naked and sooty, you’ve got another think coming!”

“But my worms are stuck together, aren’t they?” Dan checked his hands to make sure he was one solid piece, no extra teeth or anything. “I thought that meant the Biggest Bird would collect me in person.”

“Bug-Bird sent me,” said the fox. Sheridanians might call the Biggest Bird ‘the Heart of the Mountain,’ but the nickname ‘Bug-Bird’ was news to Dan. “Who sent you?

“Virgil Blue.”

The fox stopped wagging her tail and returned to all fours. “Really? You’re one of Virgil Blue’s?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Well, maybe you’re alright, then.” She sat on her haunches. “Clean yourself up quick and let’s start moving. In the desert, it’s only a matter of time before Anihilato finds us. I can just fly away from it, but you look like you’re landlocked.”

Dan pulled himself from the stone box, pouring soot onto the sand. “I knew Anihilato would be a problem for me. The idea of worms kept from the Mountain—even bad worms—it just doesn’t sit right.” Dan used his washcloth to wipe off all the ash he could. “I’m not sure why I could take a washcloth to the next eternity but not my robes. I guess the desert’s too hot for robes anyway.” He pulled the washcloth around his waist and tied it into a loincloth. “Is that better?”

Much better.” The fox brushed Dan with her tail as she turned to lead him away. “I usually rein in a few worms at a time, so there ain’t no way I can carry you. You’re right, Bug-Bird should be doing this instead of me.”

“I’m kind of relieved, actually.” Dan followed her up a steep dune. He struggled with the slippery sand slope, but Faith walked like she was weightless. “I’ve studied with monks and Virgils for the last seven years. The way Sheridanians describe the Biggest Bird sounds pretty intimidating, like an angel who tells you to be not afraid of all their flaming eyeballs. What’s your name? Are you a Zephyr?”

“Faith,” she said. “I’m a Will-o-Wisp.”

Dan had never heard of a Will-o-Wisp in Sheridanian folklore, not even in LuLu’s, but he recognized the fox’s name. “Faith? Faith Featherway?”

Faith the fox looked back to him. “Do I know you?”

He pat his chest. “It’s me! Dan Jones! I should’ve known it was you!”

“Dainty! No wonder Bug-Bird sent me!” Faith leapt up and hovered on water-vapor to walk next to him at eye-level. “Gosh, you’re older than I last saw you. I didn’t recognize you all covered in soot. Good ol’ Dainty Jones… We’ve got a nice long hike ahead of us, so we’ve got plenty of time to catch up on our way to the Mountain.”

Sliding one step back for each two forward, Dan finally came to the top of the dune. Countless miles away, the red mountain sat on a tall plateau like a throne. Dan stopped atop the dune to let the Mountain’s impossible heights fulfill him, but he couldn’t smile quite yet. “Is Beatrice there with you? Are her worms Zephyrs, yet?”

Faith sighed. “If she is, I haven’t seen her. But just look at me! If BeatBax’s worms have made it to the Mountain, I probably wouldn’t pick them out of a crowd.” She dropped from the air to wait by Dan’s feet. “You’re filthy, Dainty. Are you sure you’re okay?”

Dan swallowed and stared at the empty yellow sky. His hands twitched. “If Beatrice isn’t in the Mountain, the King of Dust might take her worms for itself.”

“I hope not. Anihilato’s such an ass. I don’t deliver it many worms, but when I do, I drop them from really, really high up. The one time we did meet, it tried to grab me.”

“Then I definitely want to stop by. You said we’re in its desert, right? Let’s take some of its worms to the Mountain with us.”

“Do it yourself.” Faith turned to the Mountain and climbed empty air like a staircase to leave Dan behind atop the dune. “I don’t wanna see that thing again.”

“I’ll protect you, I promise!” Dan chased after her, but could only slide down the dune while she ascended away from him. “I just have to make sure Beatrice is alright. You know how I worry about her. I’ve even brought Anihilato an offering.” Dan took his cricket from behind his ear and held it up for her to see. “A cricket from Virgil Blue! You can help us smoke it.”

“Well… okay.” Faith circled back and glided down to him like she was on a playground slide. “But only ’cause there’s nothing but cockroaches over here. I can’t stand it!” Faith walked down the dune with Dan. “Lemme light that cricket for you, Dainty! We’ll get bug-eyed on the way.”

“We’ve got to share it. We’ll bum a lighter off the King of Dust.”

When worms dropped from the yellow sky onto the hot dry sand, they dug deep into the darkness, seeking cool moisture. Longer, larger worms left tunnels in their wakes. The longest, largest worm carved cold caverns with twenty arms and twenty legs, eating all the other worms it found along the way. When it exhaled, it lined its labyrinths with frost.

The longest worm cradled ten eggs, one in each pair of hands. Their yolks radiated warmth alien to the underground, like distant stars at night. It admired them with six eyes on a head shaped like a man’s, but larger, cracked, and dry. It bent its head to the first egg and continued bending, coiling around its eggs three times. Then its ten pairs of legs gripped its body with its knees, holding the worm in a tight disk. Secured around warmth like this, it slept.

It woke when it heard a voice. “Aren’t you chilly, Dainty?”

“Yeah. I thought it’d be hotter down here.”

It unwound, then wound around a few cavern corners to sight its intruders with all three pairs of eyes. A snow-white fox had entered its lair, and a monk in a grimy loincloth was following her. “Whoa! I don’t like this, Dainty. It’s bigger than last time I saw it!”

Dan counted the longest worm’s limbs as it curled and uncurled like a cobra. It had ten pelvises connected in series and ten stacked torsos held upright with serpentine musculature. Each pelvis and torso was a little larger than a human’s, so the total shape was like an orderly queue commanding others to wait behind it in line. “Anihilato? O King of Dust?” It didn’t answer. It whispered gibberish as it stuck each of its ten egg in a cave-wall. “I’m Dan Jones, I’m a monk. This is my friend Faith Featherway, she’s a Will-o-Wisp from the Biggest Bird. She once brought you some of my worms.”

The longest worm blinked its six eyes at them one eye at a time. It had no nose, but slim nostrils. “Anihilato? King of Dust? Don’t forget, mortal, I’m the Master of Nihilism, too!”

“I’m still learning.” Dan wouldn’t remark that the idea of a Master of Nihilism didn’t make any sense. Surely a nihilist would know there was nothing to be mastered. Dan held out the cricket. “Do you have a lighter?”

Anihilato, King of Dust, Master of Nihilism, said nothing, just appraising its invaders. Its long body threatened to surround and constrict them. “C’mon, Dainty. Let’s scram.” Faith turned to the exit. “I told you this was thing was freaky.”

“I’m the Master of Nihilism,” Anihilato repeated, “which means all worms are rightfully mine.” It illustrated this by eating worms off the ground with six hands at once, becoming slightly larger with each one. Dan was revolted knowing some of his own worms contributed to the monster’s mass, but he kept his disgust to himself. Its mouth had no lips, so when worm-blood leaked, Anihilato wiped its chin and licked its hands. “If the fox let you keep some of your worms, then she didn’t do her job right.”

“Cool it,” said Faith. “Bug-Bird sent me to bring him in, ’cause Dainty here’s basically a Zephyr—his worms are all stuck together! You’re lucky he’s decided to visit you on his way to the Mountain, because that’s where his worms belong!”

You’re lucky,” said Anihilato. “Your worms are about to join the winning team and contribute to my ultimate victory. I’m almost large enough to eat the Biggest Bird when she comes to claim me, so eating you will secure my inevitable triumph. But the monk’s worms are stuck together, so before I swallow him whole, I’ll do the supreme favor of proving I own him, and why that’s for the best.” It retreated behind a dark corner and returned dragging a metal filing-cabinet eight cabinets high, four feet deep, and almost as long as Anihilato’s whole body. It looked out-of-place in the worm’s grungy labyrinth lair, as if it came from an abandoned office-building. “The Heart of the Mountain gave me this box of souls with a certificate for every worm.”

Anihilato’s twenty arms opened and searched through all the filing-cabinets at once. Dan peeked inside: each cabinet had countless compartments, and each compartment held a Rolodex full of pink business-cards. Anihilato plucked more cards from these Rolodexes than it seemed possible for a Rolodex to hold. Was this filing-cabinet legitimately produced by the Biggest Bird? Where else could it’ve come from? Dan bobbed the cricket. “If you help light it, you can help smoke it.”

“Dan Jones.” Anihilato slammed all the cabinets shut, holding innumerable pink cards in every hand. It read through the cards with three eyes while the other three squinted at Dan. “See? Make no claims to Zephyrhood while I hold your worm-certificates.”

“Uh, this guy was sent by Virgil Blue.” Faith’s tail puffed up aggressively. “Are you gonna tussle with Virgil Blue?

“I already have!” said Anihilato. “Your Blue Virgil’s worms were among the first I ever ate!”

Faith leapt like she was pinning down a snake. “Nuh-uh! No way!

“Faith, it’s fine.” Dan didn’t believe a single word from Anihilato, but he’d play along to learn more about the filing-cabinet. If Anihilato actually believed in the merit of these certificates, then they might be a way to save some worms—and if Anihilato was almost large enough to eat the Biggest Bird, Dan had to save every worm he could! He tucked the cricket behind his ear. “Can I have my worm-certificates? I want to read them.”

Anihilato hesitated, but, with a sigh, gathered the pink cards into one pair of hands. The innumerable cards miraculously stacked to the mere thickness of a poker-deck. “I’m only humoring you because the Blue Virgil’s worms make me so patient with fools.” It passed the pink cards to the monk.

Dan nodded appraising the cards as if he accepted their legitimacy. He’d never learned to read Sheridanian very well anyway. “Why did the Heart of the Mountain give you permission to eat all these worms, O Master of Nihilism?”

“The Mountain can’t collect worms for itself. Worms must find the Mountain, not vice-versa. The Mountain thinks I’m helping worms along their way.” Anihilato grinned. Its dull teeth had no gums. “If I’m large enough when the Biggest Bird comes to fetch me, I’ll eat her alive, and I won’t need her paperwork for permission. Then I’ll be large enough to eat the whole Mountain at once! You should be glad I’m eating your worms. I’m carrying them toward absolute conquest over our supposed creator.”

“Hmm.” Dan still wasn’t sure Anihilato was telling the truth, but a betrayal of the Biggest Bird was worth opposing regardless. “Well, Virgil Blue once told me the Biggest Bird made our worms from dust. As the King of Dust, I guess it just makes sense that you’d own me.” Dan shuffled the pink cards together and forcefully folded them in half. “If you had my worm-certificates.”

Anihilato’s jaw hung open. “…I do.

“Then what am I holding?” Dan held up the folded cards.

Anihilato shook its head and pointed at its filing-cabinet with ten hands. “You saw me take those from my box of souls mere moments ago.”

“I sure did.”

“So all your worms belong to me.”

“I don’t follow. You don’t have my worm-certificates.”

Anihilato reared, bumping the filing-cabinet. Its flared limbs were like a manta’s mantle. “Mortal, I’ll explain it one more time!” It jabbed at Dan with pointing fingers. “You think you deserve to be an immortal facet of the Mountain, but, you came to me first. I, therefore, claim you, here and now!”

Faith whispered over her shoulder. “Let’s get outta here, Dainty. This gives me the creeps.”

Dan just smiled. “Maybe the Mountain already reclaimed my worm-certificates, and you just forgot?”

Frustration bent Anihilato’s limbs. Froth bubbled between its teeth. Its slim nostrils opened and closed. “I gave them to you less than a minute ago!”

Now you remember.” Dan tucked the folded cards into his loin-cloth. “I’ve seen the Mountain in me. I asked for my worm-certificates, and the Mountain asked for my worm-certificates. You gave them to me, and you gave them to the Mountain. Everything’s in order. My worms are my own.”

Anihilato stomped so hard the caverns shook and knocked over the filing-cabinet; frost fell off the labyrinth walls. The quakes made Faith jump. “You can’t escape nihilism by faking knowledge you don’t comprehend! Such awful students make the best eggs, Dan Jones! You escape on technicality while I pretend to follow the Biggest Bird’s command, but when I’m large enough to ignore paperwork and eat the Mountain, I’ll slurp you out of it and make you a delicious 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 box, Anihilato. He’s the real deal, I promise!” She leapt and floated on cave-moisture. “Can’t you see it’s dangerous here, Dainty? Lemme take you to the Mountain.”

“Don’t talk like you’re leaving, wisp. You still belong to me.” Anihilato’s next breath sucked icy wind from every corner of the endless caverns.

Faith yelped as her airy tail drifted towards the King of Dust. “Help! Dainty! Make it stop!” She tried to run, but slipped backward each step.

Dan grabbed the fox in both hands. Snow flew through his fingers. “Anihilato, quit it! Now!”

Faith fought the wind that ripped her snowflakes away. “Help, help!”

“I’m so sorry, I didn’t—” Her body vanished bit-by-bit until finally her terrified eyes flew into Anihilato’s lipless mouth. “She’s my friend. Let her go.”

“Your friend is mine.” Anihilato’s legs rolled an egg over the cavern-floor. Its bottom arms passed the egg to its top arms, which held the egg to its face. “She’s an awful egg. Frigid. Pale. Transparent. Why, she hardly has any worms at all! I’ll eat them once they’ve split apart.”

“Hatch her. Please.” Dan knelt and pressed his nose into the dirt. “She met Virgil Blue. Twice. They traded gifts. If you really have his worms, you know this would devastate him.”

“She’s not hatching. She’s fermenting until her worms are digestible.” Anihilato slithered to the egg-wall. “Begone, Dan Jones.”

“I’ll bet you my worms for hers.”

Anihilato looked back at the monk. Dan unfolded his worm-certificates and rest them reverently before the longest worm. “…I’ll allow this,” said Anihilato, “because you say you’re a student of Virgil Blue. Having eaten your master’s worms, I can’t resist administering a test.” It swapped Faith’s egg for another from the wall and carried the new egg to Dan. “For Virgil Blue I’ll allow this unwashed, nude, and prostrate fool the honor of wagering his worms for the sake of a frigid rat who didn’t even make a warm enough 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.”

Eggshell isolated it, an ivory wall. Egg-whites pulsed with its subtle heartbeat. Yellow yolk sunned its joints. Prematurely, it was gripped by desire for birth. It pecked and spread wings to breach its shell and release the egg-whites. It felt dirt in its claws. Behind, Anihilato snacked on eggshell and licked yolk from each fingertip. “Your challenge, Dan Jones.”

It was fist-sized with blue feather-fluff. Its beak bore a scythe’s curve, but its one eye held an innocent youth. Where its other eye would’ve been, its left side was a mess of boils and teeth with crowns and roots jutting out at odd angles. “Is it a bird?” asked Dan.

“It’s a hobby,” said Anihilato. “My eggs are useful only for warmth—and for separating self-assured worm-tangles like you.”

“And the teeth?”

“Virgil Blue must’ve taught you of the Screeching Teeth… if you did study with him, of course. Surely you know the danger of locking eyes with the afflicted?” As the words left Anihilato’s lipless mouth, Dan found his gaze fixed on the bird’s beady black eye. His pupils tightened in concentration. The two stared motionlessly. Anihilato wriggled near to whisper in Dan’s ear. “Virgil Blue’s worms make me invulnerable to the teeth. My spawn aren’t so lucky—and they’re infectious!”

“I’m beyond the teeth.” Dan tried to leave worry behind. “You took my bad worms. That’s all you’ll ever get from me.”

“Your trembling disagrees.” Anihilato put three hands on both Dan’s shoulders. “Blink, Jones, and you’ll succumb to Screeching Teeth. To end your unimaginable suffering, I’ll claim you. Your worms will soak in an egg until your ego melts, and then I’ll eat your soul!

The bird turned its head so its eye faced him head-on, but thoughts of the teeth on the other side still tickled Dan’s brain. He imagined a molar embedded in his throat. He felt a canine burrowing behind his cheekbone. “Peep,” said the bird. It looked down and pecked the dirt. Dan released his breath.

“Well done, Danny-boy!” The King of Dust slapped his back. “Perhaps you really have met Virgil Blue, once or twice.”

“Where’s Faith?” Dan crossed his legs and covered his eyes. “I won’t look until I hear her voice!”

“Oh, hush, Jones. I’ll hatch her, but I’m keeping her worm-certificates.” It climbed over the filing-cabinet to choose Faith’s egg from the wall. “If she returns, I’ll reclaim her—and once I’m large enough to eat the Mountain, she’s mine, just like you, whether I’ve got your worm-certificates or not!”

“Peep.”

Anihilato faced the bird and closed five eyes to match its gaze. “Begone!” The bird blinked. Its flesh bubbled and darkened until it was a black centipede with wriggling orange legs. Anihilato slurped it down alive. Satisfied, Anihilato gave Faith’s egg to Dan. “Faith Featherway, you’ve been conjured from the edge of oblivion.”

The egg cracked. Faith gasped from the crack in a cloud of fog. “Holy shit!”

“Faith! Are you okay?” Dan hugged her, but she evaded his arms like steam. “I’m so sorry, I couldn’t—“

“Let’s go!” She deposited behind him into shambling snow. She made a crude leg and shook it at the exit. “Dainty, run!”

“Faith—” Dan held himself back and shook his head. “Leave without me. I’ll be up soon.”

“What?” Faith produced another snow-leg and hobbled away. “Don’t tell me you wanna stay down here!”

“I just bet my worm-certificates for you.” Dan pointed at Anihilato’s box. “That means I’m not done. Anihilato’s already bigger than any bird I’ve ever seen, and I’ll be damned if I let it get any bigger eating all those other eggs. I can’t leave if Beatrice’s worms might be trapped here—or anyone’s, really. Every worm deserves the Biggest Bird, and the Biggest Bird deserves every worm. Anihilato, let’s make another wager.”

“Are you kidding?” Faith’s eyes emerged from the snow to glare at Dan. She carved herself a sharp snout. “Dainty, you’ve used up all our luck already!” When Dan didn’t turn, she jumped and shouted. “You’re a Zephyr! You’re supposed to go to the Mountain!

“The Mountain is in me.” Dan stayed seated to show he wasn’t afraid of Anihilato, but Faith saw fear in his shaking hands. “I’ll join you up there when I’ve got Beatrice’s worm-certificates. And Jay’s. At least. Don’t they belong in the Mountain?”

“Dan! I miss them too, but there’s an order to things here!” She growled and bared her teeth. “Did you spend seven years in a monastery just to gamble your worms for old pals?”

“No, but now that I know it’s an option, I can’t think of a better reason. I should’ve devoted my whole life to this!”

Faith tssk‘d. “You’re a bad liar, Dainty. This was your plan all along. You’re right where you meant to be.” She turned tail to him. “I’m flying to the Mountain to tell Bug-Bird why I’m late.”

As she left, Anihilato squinted at Dan with three left eyes. “I won’t waste eternity gambling with you, monk. If I can’t have your worms, I’ll find more elsewhere.”

“Then let’s make it quick.” Dan pushed his pink cards toward the King of Dust. “I wager all my worms against your entire box of souls, right here, right now. I’ll drag you to the Mountain myself. It’s nice and warm up there, I promise.”

“…You cur! That warmth should be mine! Shut your mouth and match my gaze!” Anihilato stormed up to Dan in a flurry of limbs. “Lock eyes with the Master of Nihilism and feel your consciousness shred!” Its six shining eyes transfixed him. He couldn’t even breathe. “I’ve got you now, monk.” 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. Don’t you realize? All these eggs were heroic monks like you. You’re the biggest failure yet, and you’re giving me all the worms I’ll need to swallow the Mountain whole!”

A tooth broke the skin on Dan’s neck. He shuddered as blood trickled down his chest. He’d tried dying for Beatrice—for the Mountain! For the Zephyrs! For everyone! But now he knew it was only ever vanity.

Dan blinked.

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