Desert heat baked the sand rust-red. Mile-high dunes crawled over infinite plains. The mustard sky veiled a distant mountain on a natural stone step, so massive its hazy features extended into space.
A lone, cottony cloud rolled over the sky. It zipped one direction and another, surveying the desert, spilling vapor in its wake. Rising currents of hot air worked the cloud to a boil as it searched. Eventually it hovered over a particular valley between two dunes, apparently satisfied.
Then it fell six feet, drifting left, and another six feet, drifting right, building momentum for a corkscrew descent. With each downward loop it boiled more slowly, returning to its 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 on one end like an egg to elevate its bulk above the sand. “Damn.” She shook legs from her snow nubs. With two slender forelimbs she brushed snow from her eyes. She sharpened her ice claws in the sand and used them to sculpt her snout. Crystal whiskers quivered in the dry air. She kicked frost from her back 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 into the dune with her claws and paused only to eat the struggling earthworms she uncovered. When she found nothing else she collapsed into loose snow, absolutely inert.
Then she collected herself and scraped at the dune again, throwing sand until she found a stone corner five feet deep. Another hour’s digging unearthed a cobblestone wall with a hinged panel.
She sat before it, straightening her tail and biting sand from her fur.
Hours later the hinged panel clicked. A sand curtain fell away to reveal a stone box.
“Well, it’s about time.” She strutted to the box. “The Heart of the Mountain is waiting. Come out already!”
The man inside the box pushed the panel open. He sat with crossed legs in a cramped compartment, completely nude. He had short brown hair. Ash and grime smeared his pale skin.
“The wheel is spinning,” she said. “I’ve gotta fly you to the Mountain.” She put her front paws on the lip of the compartment to look him over. She gagged. “Get a loincloth. It’s too early in the morning for me to see monk junk.”
He leaned forward. “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’ve got another think coming.”
“Something’s wrong,” said the monk. “I thought I’d wake up on the Mountain, greeted as an equal 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?”
“So I’m told.”
“Sorry, sir. When you’re ready.” She sat on her haunches. “The Mountain isn’t in any real hurry. The wheel isn’t spinning faster than usual.”
The monk nodded. He pulled himself from the gray box, pouring ash and soot onto the sand. “Hot today, huh.”
The fox nodded respectfully.
The monk brushed grime off his belly. In one hand he held a folded gray cloth. “If we’re not on the Mountain now, where are we?”
“The Deserts of Anihilato,” said the fox, rigidly poised, “where lost souls fall into Nihilism’s grasp. We should leave before it finds us.”
“Really? The Deserts of Anihilato?” He pulled the washcloth around his waist and tied a tidy loincloth. “Here, is this better?”
“I’m sorry I disrespected you, sir,” said the fox. “I usually reign in regular old lost souls, like earthworms and stuff. The Zephyrs meet people like you themselves.”
“To be honest, I’m relieved,” he said. “I’ve lived in a monastery for the last 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!”
“Are you serious? Dainty! No wonder they sent me!” Faith the fox leapt four feet into the air. At the height of the hop she hovered on water vapor. “Gosh, you look different covered in soot. Dainty Jones… Let’s talk as we fly to the Mountain.”
“Hold on.” Dan smiled in the four directions. His grin widened when he looked South to the Mountain on a plateau like a throne. His eyes traced the impossible heights. He leaned so far back to see the invisible peak he fell prone on the dune. He laughed and made a sand angel with his arms and legs.
“You, uh, having a good time?”
“Oh, Faith.” His cheeks strained to hold his smile. “I’ve studied the Mountain for years, but it still took me by surprise.”
“Glad to see you’re happy about it. Not everyone takes this so well.” Faith dropped from the air to stand beside him. “You’re filthy, Dainty. Are you sure you’re okay?”
“It’s good to be here,” said Dan. “Its good to see you. I think I need to sit down and take it in.”
“Well, the Zephyrs won’t mind if we kick back for a while. I haven’t even felt the chain pulled, there’s no rush.” She collapsed into snow. “I don’t suppose you have any, uh, smokables?”
Dan shook his head, but thought again and reached into the furnace for Virgil Blue’s cricket. It was long and thin with its legs and antennae removed and its wings wrapped around itself—a tan smokestack with ten black eyes around its head. “I’ve got a cricket,” he said.
“Hallelujah. It’s nothing but cockroaches over here. I can’t stand it!”
“Didn’t know you could smoke on this side.” Dan twirled the insect to admire the wing-work. “Virgil Blue wasn’t above a cricket every once in a while, but I figured this would be a no-smoking zone.”
“I’ll bet the Zephyrs have centipedes, but they only share their cockroaches,” Faith complained. “Light it up.”
“I didn’t bring a lighter.”
“Shucks.” Faith turned to the Mountain. “We’ll smoke once we’re up there. We can find a lighter somewhere.”
“Hold on. This is the Desert of Anihilato, right?” Dan swallowed, sat up, and stared at the yellow sky. His hands twitched. “Let’s ask the King of Dust.”
“Nah, nah. Anihilato’s such a hard-ass.” Faith sighed. “The last time we met, it tried to grab me.”
“Then I definitely want to meet. It lives underground, right?”
“You can do it without me,” she said. “The desert is dangerous enough without crawling underneath.”
“Let’s take a nap, here, then,” he said, “before we head to the Mountain. Maybe you’ll change your mind.”