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The sun beat down, hot and harsh, from a lead-colored sky. I stood at the end of a dusty, winding trail. Behind me lay gray marsh and scrubland, grassy plains, forest and woodland, and finally the rivers and gardens of my home. But before me was a harsh, arid land, parched and withered and hostile, bleak and savage and yet inhabited: my destination. The desert.

In front of me rose an arch of crumbling red stone, pitted and scoured by wind and blowing sand, the words once engraved deeply into its keystone now too worn and faded to read. In the distance past that portal, the sand rose into high, rolling dunes sculpted into fantastic, serpentine shapes. The heat shimmer over the dunes made it impossible to tell what lay beyond them, save in the far distance where jagged mountains rose.

It had been three years since I’d last walked the sands of the desert. On my last journey, I’d stayed too long and gotten lost on the way back – an error I was determined not to repeat. But although I’d stayed away for a long time, I couldn’t seclude myself forever. Despite all the torments this place would bring, I had a responsibility to go back. There were people here, dwelling in this wasteland – some by choice, some imprisoned, either by others or by their own self-built delusions. If I could free some of them, persuade them to go back with me, I would have achieved my purpose in returning to this place. I knew it was possible, and though I wasn’t looking forward to the trip, I had a duty to try.

I checked my canteen, safe in my backpack, and ran my hand along the sturdy length of my walking stick for reassurance. There were strange things that lived on the border of the desert, old superstitions and hauntings that had taken physical form; the fear of encountering them probably kept many people in. I had yet to come across any of them on this trip, but even if I did, I was prepared. Nothing could be allowed to dissuade me from my mission.

“Time to go,” I told myself, trying to work up my courage, and then stepped forward. The wind swirled up around me as I passed through the arch.

To be continued…

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...