The desert baked the sand rust-red. Mile-high dunes crawled over infinite plains. The mustard sky veiled a mountain on a natural stone step so massive its hazy features extended into space.
A lone, cottony cloud zipped across the sky. It surveyed the desert spilling vapor in its wake. Hot air worked the cloud to a boil as it searched. Eventually it hovered over a particular valley between two dunes, apparently satisfied.
The cloud fell six feet left, and six feet right, beginning a corkscrew descent. With each downward loop it boiled more slowly, returning to cottony thickness. Soon the cloud was cool fog approaching the desert at incredible velocity.
On impact it popped like a bubble. Forty pounds of snow hit hot sand, jumping and steaming and clumping together.
“Oh! Ow, ow, ow!” The snow balanced like an egg to elevate its bulk above the sand. “Damn.” She shook four legs from snow nubs. With slender forelimbs she brushed snow from her eyes. She sharpened ice claws in the sand to sculpt her snout. Her crystal whiskers quivered in the dry air. 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 catching her breath she sniffed the sand. She dug at the dune and paused only to eat the struggling earthworms she uncovered. She threw sand until she unearthed a cobblestone wall with a hinged panel.
She sat before it, straightening her tail and biting sand from her fur.
After six minutes the hinged panel clicked. A sand curtain fell to reveal a stone box.
“It’s about time.” She strutted to the box. “Come out already!”
The man in the box pushed the panel open. He sat crossed-legged in a cramped compartment, nude. He had short brown hair. Soot smeared his pale skin.
“I gotta fly you to the Mountain.” She put her front paws on the lip of the compartment to inspect him. She gagged. “Get a loincloth. It’s too early in the morning for me to see monk junk.”
He leaned over her. “You’re a fox.”
“And you’re a hobo,” said the snow-white fox. “If you think you’re attaining Zephyrhood naked and sooty, you got another think coming.”
“Something’s wrong,” said the monk. “I thought I’d wake on the Mountain, greeted by the Zephyrs themselves.”
“Well, the Zephyrs sent me. Who sent you?”
The fox’s tail fell behind her. She returned to all fours and looked at the sand. “You’re one of Virgil Blue’s?”
“You’re the real deal, then? One of the arch-Zephyrs, for whom the chain is pulled?”
“I think so.”
“Sorry, sir.” She sat on her haunches. “We’ll go when you’re ready.”
The monk nodded. He pulled himself from the stone box, pouring soot on the sand. “Hot today, huh?”
The fox nodded respectfully.
The monk brushed ash from his belly. He held a folded washcloth. “If we’re not on the Mountain, where are we?”
“The Deserts of Anihilato,” said the fox, poised rigidly, “where lost souls fall into Nihilism’s grasp. We should leave before it finds us.”
“I’m not so worried about Anihilato.” He pulled the washcloth around his waist and tied it into a loincloth. “Is this better?”
“Sorry for my disrespect, sir,” said the fox. “I usually reign in regular old lost souls, like earthworms and stuff. The Zephyrs meet guests like you themselves.”
“To be honest, I’m relieved,” he said. “I’ve stayed in a monastery for seven years. I’ve had enough of Zephyrs and Virgils. What’s your name?”
“Faith,” she said. “I’m a Will-o-Wisp.”
“Faith? Faith Featherway?”
The fox looked up. “Do I know you?”
He pat his chest. “It’s me! Dan Jones! I haven’t seen you in years!”
“Dainty! No wonder they sent me!” Faith the fox leapt and hovered on water vapor. “Gosh, you look different covered in soot. Dainty Jones… Let’s talk on the way to the Mountain.”
Dan looked to the Mountain sitting on a plateau like a throne. His eyes traced the impossible heights. “Is Beatrice there?”
Faith sighed. “If she is, I haven’t seen her.” She dropped to stand at Dan’s feet. “You’re filthy, Dainty. Are you sure you’re okay?”
“These are the deserts of Anihilato, right?” Dan swallowed and stared at the yellow sky. His hands twitched. “If Beatrice isn’t in the Mountain, maybe she was claimed by the King of Dust.”
“I hope not. Anihilato’s such a hard-ass.”
“Let’s ask it anyway.”
Faith shook. “The last time I met Anihilato, it tried to grab me.”
“Then I definitely want to meet. It lives underground, right?”
“You can go alone,” she said. “I don’t wanna see that thing again.”
“I’ll protect you, I promise,” said Dan. “I just want to ask if Beatrice is alright. I’ve even brought Anihilato an offering.” Dan reached into the furnace for Virgil Blue’s cricket. It was long and thin with its limbs removed and its wings wrapped around itself—a tan smokestack with ten black eyes around its head. “A cricket from Virgil Blue. You can help us smoke it.”
“Well… okay. But only because there’s nothing but cockroaches over here. I can’t stand it!” Faith led Dan over a dune. “Light it up! Let’s smoke on the way.”
“I didn’t bring a lighter. Let’s ask for one from the King of Dust.”