K4. The Return

Faith rode wind back to the Mountain. The dunes seemed more Martian now that she’d confronted Anihilato, but the monster made her distrust Bug Bird for the first time. Her mentor in the Mountain was awfully tight-beaked.

She landed on the Mountain and scratched at the dust until Bug Bird opened a cave and crawled out. “Did you deal with our visitor?”

“Anihilato almost nabbed me,” said Faith. “That was a pretty scary errand.”

“Anihilato is out of my control,” said the Heart of the Mountain. “I’m sorry to hear it was unpleasant. I would have done the job myself if it wasn’t…” They shifted weight and leaned like a tree in the wind.

“Dangerous?” asked Faith.

“Dangerous for me, but not for you.”

“What, am I expendable?”

The Heart sighed. “I was more worried about the Shrieking Teeth than Anihilato. Either way your unusual physiology should make you invulnerable to Anihilato and the Teeth. In any case, if Anihilato consumed you, that would be acceptable for reasons I can’t explain.”

“There’s an awful lot you can’t explain.” Faith peered into the yawning cave. “What’re you hiding?”

Faith leapt for the cave. “Wait!” The Heart blocked her with a blue wing. “I know you’re confused. I will find someone who can communicate on your level.”

The Heart rolled out the white wing. Faith followed them into the Mountain.

The white wing propelled them through the green haze. Faith regarded the Heart stiffly. “You collect worms, right? Why don’t you collect Anihilato? It’s gotta be an OSHA violation, keeping a monster like that in the desert.”

“Just as you are separate from me, so is Anihilato separate from me,” said the Heart. “Anihilato serves a purpose it could not provide if I consumed it. When I find worms I dare not swallow, I know Anihilato will eat them for me.”

“Hmpf.” Faith’s tail flitted impaciently. “Where are we going? And when?”

“It’s not an exact science.” The Heart left the center of the rising wing and directed Faith to stand in their stead. “Direct the wing with your whim. Quest for your questions. Sight what you seek.”

Faith didn’t know what that meant, but she knew how to guide the wing from when she wrapped the Wheel. She leaned to weave the wing back and forth. “I just want to understand what’s happening to me,” she said.

“That’s a lot to ask,” said the Heart. “Would you settle for accepting your situation, whether you understood it or not? That’s more than most manage.”

Faith reflected.

Then she let the wing whisk her where it wanted.

The wingtip burst through the green surface of reality. When Faith opened her eyes, she saw black unreality above. She watched a glacier glide by.

The Heart reached in their sleeves and produced a blue feather. Faith took the feather in her teeth and dipped it in reality below. The wake of the feather shimmered sky-blue and yellow.

“Don’t take too long,” said the Heart. “But take your time.”

Faith leapt into the wake.

“And now I’m here.” Faith rubbed her head against Jay’s hand to direct his scratching. Her hind leg thumped the grass in satisfaction. “So JayJay, what have you been up to while I’ve been gone?”

“I don’t think my story is as important as yours.” Jay extinguished the last of the cockroach in snow. “I’m glad to hear you’re alright, Faith, and I’m doubly glad to see you again.”

“How’s Dainty?”

Jay leaned back on Bob’s porch. “He’s in mourning, let’s say.”

Faith whimpered. “Are you sure I can’t pop in to meet him?”

“I’m not sure he could even see you,” said Jay. “You might be my personal hallucination.”

“I promise I’m not!” swore Faith. “I just want to reassure him everything’s okay. He’s good at hiding it, but he’s a nervous wreck without me.”

“I know it as well as you do.” Jay wagged a finger at her. “But could you make Dan lose you twice? You’ll return to the Mountain eventually.”

Faith opened her mouth to object, but saw Jay’s point and just pouted. “Take care of him for me, then.”

“I’m trying.” Jay stood and brushed off his suit pants. “I’m taking him to the Islands of Sheridan. I’m taking him to the Virgils.”

“You think the Virgils can help Dainty cope?”

“I promise.” Jay crossed his heart. “And if Anihilato is right—if you’re really dead—then you’ll see Dan someday. You’ll meet him in the Mountain.”

“Hmpf.” Faith pawed the dirt. “I don’t think the Mountain is the best place for Dainty. I don’t trust Bug Bird anymore.”

“Me neither,” said Jay, “but they’ve taught you a valuable lesson.” Faith’s ears perked. “When the Heart sent you to discard the tooth-monster’s worms, it was because they couldn’t risk touching the teeth themselves. In the same way, you shouldn’t worry about Dan. Send me to worry about Dan. Trust me to treat Dan’s interests as my own.”

Faith smiled. She turned with Jay to watch the moon. “Okay.”

Her tail’s tip steamed. Her body was buoyed above the horizon.

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