Faith rode wind back to the red mountain. If nothing else, Anihilato convinced her to distrust Bug-Bird. Her mentor was awfully tight-beaked.
She landed on the mountain and scratched the dust until Bug-Bird opened a cave and crawled out. “Did you deal with our visitor?”
“That was some errand,” said Faith. “Anihilato almost nabbed me!”
“Anihilato is out of my control,” said the Heart of the Mountain. “I’m sorry it was unpleasant. I would do 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. Regardless, your unusual physiology makes you invulnerable to both. In any case, if Anihilato consumed you, it 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’ll find someone to communicate on your level.” The Heart rolled out the white wing to cover the cave walls. Faith followed them into the red 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? Keeping a monster like that has gotta be an OSHA violation.”
“Anihilato is separate from me just like you are,” said the Heart. “Anihilato could not provide its service if I consumed it. When I find worms I dare not swallow, I know Anihilato will eat them. It may even try to eat me.”
“Hmpf.” Faith’s tail flitted. “Where are we going? And when?”
“It’s not an exact science.” The Heart directed Faith to stand in the center of the white wing. “Guide 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. She weaved it left and right. “I just want to understand what’s happening to me.”
“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.”
She let the wing whisk her where it wanted.
The wingtip burst through the green surface of reality. Faith watched razor-glaciers glide by.
The Heart produced a blue feather. Faith took the feather in her teeth and dipped it in reality’s surface. The feather’s wake shimmered sky-blue.
“Don’t take too long,” said the Heart, “but take your time.”
Faith leapt into the wake.
“And now I’m here!” Faith’s hind legs thumped the grass in appreciation of Jay’s scratching. “So JayJay, what have you been up to while I’m gone?”
“My story’s not as important as yours.” Jay extinguished the cockroach-butt in snow. “I’m glad you’re alright, Faith, and doubly glad to see you again.”
Jay leaned on Bob’s porch. “He’s in mourning, let’s say.”
Faith whimpered. “Are you sure I can’t pop in and meet him?”
“I’m not even sure he could see you,” said Jay. “You might be my personal hallucination. After all, your story is suspiciously like an anime I just watched while totally bug-eyed. You’re a figment of my imagination.”
“I promise I’m not!” swore Faith. “I just want to tell him everything’s okay. He hides it, but he’s a nervous wreck without me.”
“I know it well as you do.” Jay wagged a finger at her. “But you’ll have to return to the red mountain eventually. Would you make Dan lose you twice?”
Faith opened her mouth to protest, but saw Jay’s point and just pouted. “Take care of him for me, then.”
“I’m trying.” Jay stood and brushed dust 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 that mountain is right 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, don’t worry about Dan. Let me 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 steamed. Her body was buoyed back above the horizon.