Jay stared at the birthday-cupcake while the world fell away. He didn’t know why Dan paced and wrung his hands. He didn’t recognize Faith barely breathing beside him. Finally the coffee-table, walls, and floor all spun into void.
When Jay blinked, he sat naked on a dune. Heat from the mustard sky baked the sand rust-colored. “Oh no.”
He tried to stand but his legs buckled under him. He rolled down the dune’s hot slope. Deeper sand was cooler and damper until he tumbled into a moist, shadowy gorge. He pressed his limbs against the narrow walls but found little purchase with the sand. Falling sand revealed tiny tunnels left by worms.
At the bottom of the gorge, Jay panted and desperately felt his body. No bones broken. Two arms, two legs. He counted his fingers. “One, two, three, four, five,” he counted on his left hand. “Six, seven, eight, nine, ten,” he counted on his right. “I’m not dreaming. I’m awake right now.”
This only worried him. In dreams he could count beyond ten on his fingers to assure himself he was safe, but if he had ten fingers, he was really lost in a desert where the sky wasn’t even the right color.
He stood using the East and West gorge-walls for leverage and looked North and South. To the North the gorge steepened into an overhanging sand-cliff. To the South the gorge expanded into a wide valley. He limped South.
As his hands traced the walls, Jay noticed more worm-tunnels. Some seemed dug by worms thick as wrists. Could this gorge be the collapsed tunnel of a worm four feet wide? The ground now seemed to undulate underneath him.
He sprinted out of the gorge into the valley. Safe from danger, he hoped, he sat on warm sand. The dunes still trapped him, but the dune to his South was barely half a mile high with a shallow slope.
A red mountain’s rounded summit peeked over the dune. To be visible from Jay’s deep vantage point and from many miles away, it must have been titanic. Olympian.
As he rest, he noticed he was nude. This would be fine in a dream, but in a desert he would shrivel like a raisin. He also noticed he had no genitals. His crotch was round like the summit of the red mountain over the dune. He didn’t even have a belly-button.
The idea made him anxious and he decided to move. He stood and jogged up the Southern dune. He had to scramble on all fours as it steepened. Halfway up, the dune eclipsed a forty-degree angle, and his climbing made loose sand flow like a waterfall. He had to crawl like a meticulous caterpillar.
When he finally crested the dune, he surveyed the desert. The red mountain sat on a mesa like it ruled the rippling sand from a throne. The sky was cloudless, but the sun seemed small. It led two tumbling moons like misshapen potatoes.
Jay noticed a sky-blue triangle on the mountainside. He squinted, deciding if its rounded curves were those an animal or if its sharp angles were man-made.
The triangle widened. Sapphire wings unfolded. The shape rocketed skyward on a burst of steam. “What the hell?” Jay put his hands on his hips and watched the shape surpass the red mountain’s peak on a vapor-trail. When the sound of liftoff reached him, it was a cannon-shot. He puzzled over the shape until he realized it was coming right for him. “Oh, shit!”
Jay jumped down the way he’d climbed. He slid down the dune on his back and steered with his hands to avoid the sharpest rocks. At the bottom of the valley, he turned to see if the shape had followed him.
A giant bird with great green bug-eyes joined the mountain in peeking at Jay over the dune. The bird stepped into full view: twenty feet tall in billowing sky-blue robes, it glided down the dune on a forty-foot wingspan.
Jay backed into the gorge; he’d rather deal with worms. He was deep in the gorge before he heard the thunder of wing-beats behind him. The bird landed without visible legs or claws, just robes to sand. It withdrew its wings into its sleeves and inserted its head into the gorge, but was too wide to follow Jay. It opened its squat yellow beak. “The Chain is pulled and the Wheel spins,” it said. “You have arrived.”
Jay retreated further.
“I am the Heart of the Mountain. Be not afraid.”
Jay did not. He backed away until he bumped against the steep North wall of the gorge.
The bird’s body morphed under its robes. From its right sleeve, a blue tentacle puckered slimy suckers. “Your fate is with the Zephyrs in the Mountain.” The tentacle snaked through the gorge and wrapped around Jay’s waist. Jay clawed at the sand-walls, kicking and shouting as the tentacle dragged him away. “Speed is quintessential.”
Having said that, the bird flung Jay over the dunes.