Anissa had no clear memory of rain. Thick clouds of moisture and bolts of white light were mere phantom flashes from her dreams, like the dim recollection of straits and streams time had parched of water and life. She looked down at the dry, cracked surface of the empty creek and a momentary shudder took her as she saw Harding laying facedown and unconscious.
She heard the men behind her as she walked toward his body, but would not watch them. Pitiless cowards, she thought. They left Harding here to die, these men— men he’d once called brothers, men who’d followed the now cataleptic man into a mission no one could survive. He’d been their leader and Anissa thought, perhaps, leaving his thin body in the dry earth was a punishment. Judgment sent for his failures, for theirs at believing victory was at all possible.
Anissa began to brush back the dry hair from his face, but resisted. The comfort and familiarity of their bodies touching had long been lost to her. Time and survival had stolen the ease and frequency in affection and now she found herself frightened, unsure. He seemed so different to her, a foreign shape that held only slight resemblance to the man she loved. But when the closed slit that was Harding’s swollen lids opened to reveal bloodshot eyes and a labored moan released from his throat, Anissa forgot her hesitation, ignored her discomfort and touched him.
His skin felt hot, was rough, blistered and Anissa’s fingers slipped against the sweat and blood on his body, the smell of him like the burnt odor of coal and sulfur. She struggled to roll him into the pushcart and tried to forget how he’d once been, how she could never manage to bear much of his weight those drunken nights, years ago, before the skies dried and the End began its decent. She carried him home with a strength she’d never possessed, perhaps stealing what remained of his own, leeching the remnants of power left from before his mighty fall.