evaporated as soon as it beaded out. Lead smiled and whispered a prayer of salvation under his breath. This was penance. This was castigation for not apprehending the old man. He’d gone against God’s will and the Church’s will and had been set against by the Holy. It made him afraid but also relieved that he was within God’s vision and judgment. He might survive and be made clean again. He smiled.

The first time Lead fell was unexpected. He was deep in the mind, contemplating God and walking straight and he simply tumbled into the sand. One foot caught the other and he plunged. He held his face from the grit and breathed peppered air.

Lead pulled himself up. His steps took on an uneven sway. He drifted from left to right, spinning to avoid clumps of dead brush.

Lead fell again when the sun reached mid-sky. He dropped to his knees in a patch of tumbleweed. Lead rolled out of the brush and regained his legs. He picked thorns out of his left hand. The scar left by Century’s dinner knife was numb, would always be numb.

Lead promptly fell again shortly thereafter. His body had reached a place where the solidity of muscle ebbed and flowed and he could no longer trust functions taken for granted. He rolled to his stomach and looked at the sand. It was an ocean of quartz and pink gypsum flakes built into wave-like dunes by wind, then shifted by wind and shifted again into infinity. It got his mind wondering again about time and God. Lead pushed himself back to his feet and strode forward.

After the fourth collapse, Lead contemplated staying down. He looked to the sun and counted to one- hundred. He whispered a prayer to the Lord and found tenuous strength; enough to get up, enough to move forward.

Over the next dune a thin line of smoke crept and showed through the heat waves. Lead shaded his eyes and stumbled forward towards the smoke. He smiled again. God had spoken and revealed salvation. He wasn’t going to die.

Lead continued his jagged trek through the desert, past rock and dead brush. Over the dune he spotted tents set around a large cooking fire. The blurred images of people shuffled from tent to tent, a group in brilliant white robes walked towards him.

Lead held out his Preacher’s cross.

“Attention,” he croaked, his dry throat stung with the effort. “I demand sustenance and sanctuary. In the name of our Lord and Savior and on behalf of the Church I demand sustenance and sanctuary.”

Lead shook his cross at the approaching villagers. They were pale despite the intense sun. Each wore a robe cut from white linen, kept immaculate despite living outdoors. The faces of their young showed the inbred traits of kinship, they all bore the same sharp nose, cleft chin, and asymmetric eyes. An ancient woman stood with them, dressed in the same linen but with a rattlesnake skin tied around her forehead. She opened a black, toothless maw and barked into the desert wind, like an animal. The villagers surrounded Lead.

Lead fell hard to the ground, cross still clutched in his hand.

“Sustenance and sanctuary,” he whispered.

His head pounded. He waved his cross meekly from villager to villager, to each unknowing stare. One of the men lifted Lead to his feet and brought him to the elderly woman.

“You be of the Stormbringer?” She asked. Her breath was powerful. Lead tried to focus on her face though it blurred in and out of his vision.

“You be a harbinger? You know the Stormbringer?” She asked. The villager who had picked Lead up, wrapped arms around him from behind.

“You in Crystal. You look a wraith. You touch the Noumenal, we find you true or leave you to sand.” She nodded her head and hissed. The villager dragged Lead into one of the tents and dropped him into the embrace of its shade.

Lead woke in darkness. His tongue was large and heavy. Thirst and sun stroke tilted his world on an axis appalling and unnatural. Lead turned his head and vomited into the sand. The stench turned his stomach, he vomited again.

The tent’s flap rippled in the wind, revealing a flicker of firelight. Near the flap lay a wooden bowl of water. Lead tried to stand but couldn’t find his legs. He thought of going back to sleep but stopped by the knowledge that he would probably die if he did. He whispered a prayer for salvation and crawled out of the tent, dragging the bowl with him.

The sun had quite the day, leaving a darkness cut only by the firelight. Nothing was visible but the tents at fire’s edge and villagers scurrying in and out of the illumination like phantoms. Lead observed and took a small sip of water. His body wanted to gulp it down but his mind knew better. He watched a group of villagers erect an iron frame and cauldron over the fire. Lead took another sip. He saw no well but knew a water source must be near. The water tasted of alkali and minerals. Water from bottle reserves did not taste this sharp and earthy.

One of the villagers leaned back let out a long howl. Villagers answered the call and came into the firelight. They hovered near licking flames and watched the cauldron boil and hummed a song, some chorus from the Broken Times. They perpetrated a scene ancestral to all of humanity though sometimes forgotten and sometimes found again; food, and fire, and song to break the fear of the darkness. Lead watched them dance and sway to the wordless song. Arms flailed without rhythm. Feet kicked up clouds of dust which mixed with the smoke of the fire.

“End!” shouted the old woman with the rattlesnake headband. “End! End!”

The villagers stopped dancing, but the hums continued uninterrupted. The old woman pointed at Lead.

“You,” she said. She licked her lips with a large pink tongue.

“You walk from waste,” she said over the hums. “You come from land of No Man, like Stormbringer. You eat Jimson Datura. You touch the Noumenal. You people, you stay. You harbinger you become sand.”

Lead wanted to understand, but her words were alien and his mind was bruised by the sun. He brought the water bowl to his lips and finished it in a single swallow. He wiped his mouth with his sleeve.

“I’m here on behalf of our Lord and Savior,” he said.

The old woman smiled. A villager handed her a steaming bowl of stew. She offered it to Lead, who traded it for his empty water bowl.

“Jimson Datura,” she said.

Lead’s stomach clenched at the smell of boiled vegetables.

“I and the Lord thank you,” Lead said gratefully.

The villagers hummed in unison with crickets and cicadas and all the other creatures accustomed to night.

Lead watched villagers dip bowls and cups into the cauldron. He smelled the stew and took a sip. It tasted like water, dirt, and potatoes. On the surface, white petals of some native flower floated. Lead took another sip and chewed the petals which were thick and flavorless. The villagers danced around the fire without a break in the hypnotic humming. A primal chant rose from the dancers.

“Noumenal, Noumenal, Noumenal.”

Lead watched and ate.

Lead woke with sweat pouring down his face. It was deep into the night. The stars had shifted long on their sphere and those which Lead had seen before were replaced by other gods and constellations. The fire still blazed, still cut the night, but the villagers were silent. They all stared at Lead; a sea of large misshapen eyes with pupils dilated to black pits and mouths that gave no sign of friend or foe. One of the villagers barked. Lead got to his feet.

“You’re in violllaaa ub…” Lead’s tongue and lips were too heavy, his lungs felt tight. Words refused to take proper form in his mouth. One of the villagers smiled in the darkness, another barked. Teeth and eyes sparkled in the moonlight and all remained silent.


Gibberish spilled forth from Lead’s mouth. The villagers circled the fire, the old woman stepped forward.

“You of Stormbringer,” she yelled with an accusing finger pointed at Lead. A low chant rose among the villagers.

“Ohhhh, ohhhh, ohhhh, ohhhh…”

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