The desert heat baked the sand into brown-red dust. The air carried the wafting scent of cumin and coriander. Sand dunes a mile high crawled over the infinite plains. The bright yellow sky veiled a distant mountain sitting on a natural stone step, each part so massive that their hazy features extended into space.
A lone, cottony cloud rolled over the sky. It zipped one direction and then another, surveying the desert, spilling trails of vapor into its wake as it moved. 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.
When it landed, it popped like a bubble. Forty pounds of snow hit hot sand, jumping and steaming and bunching together.
“Oh, ow, ow, ow.” She balanced on one end, like an egg, to elevate her bulk above the sand. “Damn.” For a few minutes she sculpted herself, shaking limbs out of snow nubs. With two slender legs, she brushed snow from her eyes. She sharpened her ice claws in the sand before using them to carve her snout. Crystal whiskers shuddered in the dry air. She kicked frost from her legs, leaving a fluttery, airy tail behind her, and tiptoed into the shadow of a dune where the sand was cooler.
After catching her breath, she sniffed at the ground. She dug into the dune with her claws, pausing only to eat the struggling earthworms she uncovered. When she had dug for some time, finding nothing, she collapsed into a pile of loosely packed snow and remained like this for some time, absolutely inert.
Then she collected herself once more and scraped more sand from the dune, throwing it behind her with her hind legs until she finally felt a stone corner buried almost five feet deep. Another hour’s digging unearthed a stone wall with a hinged panel on its front face.
She waited in front of it, adjusting her tail and picking sand from her fur.
Hours later, the hinged panel clicked. More sand fell away to reveal a stone box.
“Well, it’s about time,” she said, stepping up to the box. “The Mountain’s waiting, come on.”
The man inside the box pushed the panel open. He sat with his legs crossed in a small, dingy compartment, completely nude. His head was shaved bald, and his skin was smeared with ash and grime.
“I gotta take you to the Mountain,” she said, “and I don’t have all day.” She placed her front paws on the lip of the compartment, looking him over. She gagged. “Get a loincloth or something. It’s too early in the morning for me to be looking at monk crotch.”
He leaned forward. “You’re a fox.”
“And you’re a hobo,” said the snow-white fox. “If you think I’m taking you to the Mountain while you’re naked and sooty, you’re going to be disappointed.”
“Something’s wrong,” said the monk. “I was expecting to be greeted by the Zephyrs.”
“Well, the Zephyrs sent me. Who sent you?”
The fox’s tail stopped waving behind her. She returned to all fours and looked at the sand. “You’re one of Virgil Blue’s?”
“So you’re the real deal, then? A new Zephyr-to-be?”
“So I’ve heard.”
“Sorry, sir. Take your time.” She sat on her haunches. “The Zephyrs are waiting for you on the Mountain.”
The monk nodded, smiling. He pulled himself from the gray box, pouring ash and soot onto the sand. “Hot today, huh.”
The fox didn’t look up, paralyzed.
“I don’t know this place,” he said, brushing the black grime off his body. In one hand, he held a long, gray cloth. “Where am I?”
“The Deserts of Anihilato,” said the fox, still rigidly poised, “where lost souls bumble into Nihilism’s grasp. I’d rather leave before he finds us.”
“Really? The Deserts of Anihilato?” He pulled the washcloth around his waist, tying it into a tidy loincloth. “I knew this would come in handy.”
“I’m sorry I disrespected you, sir,” said the fox. “I usually reign in regular old lost souls, like earthworms and stuff. The Zephyrs usually meet people like you themselves.”
“To be honest, I’m glad,” he said. “I’ve lived in a monastery for the last seven years, I’ve had enough of Zephyrs. 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 patted 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 leaped four feet into the air. At the height of the jump she hovered in place, finding support on invisible water vapors. “Man, you look different… Dainty Jones… The Zephyrs wanted you as quick as possible, so let’s get up the Mountain. We can talk on the way.”
Dan turned his head slowly, smiling in the four directions. When he looked South to the incredible mountain sitting on a plateau like a throne, his grin widened and widened as his eyes traced the impossible heights. Eventually he leaned so far back to see the invisible peak that he fell prone on the dune. He laughed, making a sand angel with his arms and legs.
“You, uh, having a good time?”
“Oh, man, 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 is as prepared as we were.” 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. “It’s good to see you. I think I need to sit down for a while and take it all in.”
“Well, the Zephyrs are pretty patient, they won’t mind if we kick back for a while.” She collapsed into a pile of snow. “I don’t suppose you have any, uh, smokables?”
Dan shook his head, but then thought again, and reached back into the furnace for Virgil Blue’s cricket. It was long and thin, with its legs and antennae removed, wings wrapped delicately around itself. All that remained was a tan cylinder with barely recognizable features around its head. “I’ve got a cricket,” he said.
“Aw, it’s been nothing but crickets since I got here.”
“Didn’t know you could smoke crickets up here,” said Dan, turning the insect over in his hands. “Virgil Blue wasn’t above a cricket every once in a while, but I figured the Mountain would be a no-smoking zone.”
“I’ll bet the Zephyrs smoke centipede dust, but they only share their crickets,” Faith complained. “Light it up.”
“I don’t have a lighter.”
“Shucks.” Faith turned to the Mountain. “We’ll smoke it once we’re up there. We can find a lighter somewhere.”
“Hold on,” said Dan. “This is the Desert of Anihilato, right?” He swallowed, lifting himself up and staring at yellow sky. His hand holding the cricket twitched. “Let’s go ask him.”
“Nah, nah, he’s such a hardass.” Faith sighed. “The last time I met him down here, he tried to grab me.”
“I want to meet him anyway. He lives underground, right?”
“You can do it without me,” she said. “The desert is dangerous enough without crawling underneath it.”
“Let’s take a nap, here, then,” he said, “before we head to the Mountain. Maybe you’ll change your mind.”