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Title: The Legend of the Ancients
Author: jsblume
Style/Genre Prose / Fiction / Science Fiction
Description: Seekers on a quest to find the River of Blood
Notes:

Grul dragged himself out from under the wreckage and got unsteadily to his feet. He'd been lucky on two counts. First, he'd been thrown far enough not to be trapped completely under the rolling wagon. Second, the ribs of the wagon top had straddled him when it struck the ground. Ten meters away he could see that poor Stahl hadn't been so lucky. Grul stumbled through the hot sand to where he lay under the canvas of the wagon top. The canvas was ripped and fluttering in the breeze. Stahl's lifeless eyes stared up from under one of the cracked wagon ribs. It must have struck him pretty hard. Grul knelt down and felt the sticky neck for a pulse, but could not find one. He closed Stahl's eyes and then wiped blood-stained fingers on his pants.

A low moan sounded from the other side of the wagon. Grul pushed himself back to his feet. Shading his eyes from the blinding sun he worked his way around and found Derk lying spread-eagled on his back. Grul fell, and decided to crawl the remaining few meters. Derk moaned again.

"Lie still," Grul whispered. He checked Derk carefully, but could find no sign of injury. "Can you move your fingers and toes?"

"I think so." Derk winced as he lifted his hands and wiggled his fingers.

"Looks good, I guess. Can you move your toes?"

"Yeah."

"I can't tell; your boots are on."

Derk scowled and propped himself onto his elbows. "Oh, have I got a headache." He licked his dry lips and said. "I need water."

Grul helped Derk to his feet and the two men walked to the back end of the wagon. While Grul lifted the canvas in search of the barrel, Derk shaded his eyes to scan the wreckage and the terrain. The right front wheel of the wagon had caught the edge of a low depression and toppled into it, scattering people and supplies over a small area of the desert. He had no idea how the depression had gotten here; he'd never seen it before in all his years traversing the Great Desert.

"There!" Derk called, pointing to the barrel resting on its side in a pool of water.

They trudged as fast as they could over to the barrel.

"All our water is gone!" Grul wailed.

"Not all of it," Derk said as he walked around the barrel and examined it. He stooped down and reached into the opening to check the water level.

"The barrel is not cracked," Derk said. "The cap has popped off and most of the water has poured out, but a good amount still remains."

"How is that possible?"

"The barrel is designed for just such a thing. That's why the opening is in the middle. If the barrel topples onto its side, no more than half the water will spill out."

"Huh. That's pretty smart."

"We've been at this for a very long time." Derk cupped his hand and drew some water out to drink. After two or three swallows, he stood up and examined the horizon.

"What are you looking for?" Grul asked, helping himself to some water.

"The hemels," Derk said. "They must have run off."

"How are we going to pull the wagon?"

"We're not, especially without the animals," Derk said, frowning. "The wagon is in no shape to travel. We'll need to gather what supplies we can carry and walk to the next shelter. Help me with this."

Derk pulled on the canvas to remove it from the wagon.

"Grul!" Derk called. "Help me with this canvas."

He turned to see Grul standing with his mouth open and staring into the distance. He walked over and slapped Grul on the back.

"What's with you?"

"Do you know where we are?"

Derk looked up and down the depression they were in. "No."

"It's the Ancient River of Blood!"

Derk snorted. "I really don't think so. You're hallucinating."

"It is a sign! We must follow it."

"No. We must reach a shelter. We will continue along the route, the next one is about ten kilometers."

"There's a moonrise tonight. A full moon, I think? Yes! Which direction?" Grul turned back and forth, looking first to the west along the depression and then to the east.

"The sun has baked your brain." Derk pulled off his bandana, scooped some water out of the barrel to wet it, and handed it to Grul. "Put this on your head and let me get you into the shade."

Grul ignored Derk. Instead, he looked into the sky and squinted at the late afternoon sun. "We were heading north. Moonrise will be in the east." Grul turned and started walking along the depression.

"Grul!" Derk stared after Grul's retreating back. Derk shook his head and muttered, "Seekers! I need to find a different line of work."

As a Porter, Derk was a practical man. People needed to get from point A to point B, and it was his job to see that they got there. He knew most of the routes of the Southern Continent like the back of his hand. He prided himself on his ability to get from here to there without mishap. There was nothing mystical about travel, and he liked it that way.

Seekers were another breed altogether. Half of the time they didn't even have a destination. They'd hire a Porter to carry them with nothing more than a "head north" or "head east." They were the bane of a Porter's existence.

Grul and Stahl were just such a pair of Seekers. In fact, they were famous for their quest to find the River of Blood. Derk had spoken to many Porters who had been hired to take them north and back again in search if the Ancient River in the Great Desert. It's been said that more once Grul or Stahl, or both, would jump from the wagon and wander off. Most Porters refused their fare. Derk had accepted only because he needed the money.

Well, he was stuck for it now. He'd be better off dead than leave a passenger behind; his reputation would be tainted and he'd never be offered another fare.

Derk turned and started tugging again on the canvas. He noticed Stahl's body. After pulling the body out from underneath, he laid it flat and spoke a quick blessing:

"May your Spirit find its way Home, and may your Body provide sustenance in this Life."

Porters had a simple belief: the body was nothing more than a vessel to carry the spirit on a journey. Once the spirit was done, it left the body and returned home. Derk, like many other Porters, had no idea what the purpose or destination of that journey was, but the belief had been passed on for generations. Seekers claimed there was no destination and the purpose was to experience life.

Derk filled a large backpack with food and supplies. He then grabbed two canteens and filled them from the barrel. With the pack, a bedroll and canteens secured to his back, he wet his bandana again and tied it around his head. After one last drink from the barrel, he set off after Grul.

* * *

The sun was setting before Derk finally caught up with Grul. Fortunately, Grul had stopped and was sitting in a lotus position on the sand. His eyes were closed and his face was turned to the sky.

Derk put his load on the ground and scouted for dry wood to make a fire. He prepared a small fire pit, but decided not to light it yet. The food could be eaten unheated, and they might need the wood to keep them warm tonight. Derk spread out the bedroll and decided to get some rest while Grul meditated.

Grul stirred after a few hours. Derk rolled and opened one eye. The sun had set and the air was finally cooling.

"See!" Grul said, pointing to the east with his hand and smiling vacantly. "It rises."

The edge of the moon had broken over the horizon; a bright and jagged crescent that somehow seamed to span a quarter of the distant mountain range. The glare of it in the night sky was almost as bright as the sun.

Derk opened the backpack and pulled out a food bag. This one had dried beef strips. He took one out and stuck it into his mouth.

"Do you want a beef strip?" Derk asked, offering one to Grul.

"Hm? Oh, no, I can't eat."

Derk put away the strip, pulled out a cup and poured some water.

"At least have something to drink."

Grul took the cup and swallowed the contents in one gulp, never taking his eyes away from the moon. It was inching its way up. Derk had never seen the moon so large before.

"Do you know the Legend of the Ancients?" Grul asked

"No."

Grul dropped the cup and raised his arms as if to embrace the moon.

"It is said that the Ancients could peer into the heavens, into the gates of the Celestial Temple."

"What is the Celestial Temple?"

"It is where our Spirits live when they not on a Journey. It is what you call 'Home'."

"How did they see it?"

"The Ancients had technology that allowed them to see great distances."

"Did they ever travel to the Celestial Temple?"

"It is said they built powerful wagons that could travel the heavens. The Spirits did not wish the sanctity of their Temple defiled, so the Ancients were punished. The Spirits called upon the Sun to scorch the Earth. The Ancients melted into a River of Blood that flowed out of their great cities, leaving them empty and abandoned. In its wake lay the Great Desert."

Derk scratched his chin. It sounded pretty far-fetched to him.

By this time, the moon had risen fully above the horizon. Derk stared at the sight. The moon seemed to fill half the sky.

Derk stared harder. What was that shimmering on the horizon? Grul let out a gasp and rose out of the lotus and onto his knees.

"Do you see it?" Grul whispered.

The shimmering began to coalesce. Two cylinder shaped towers; both appeared to be daubed in blood. The shorter one had a dish on top that opened to the sky, with a stick protruding from the center and pointing to the heavens. Along the horizon Derk thought he could make out a blurred line of trees. The depression they were in became a deepening river bed. A panicky feeling took over as the streaming water rose above his ankles. He reached out to a red ribbon in the water and touched blood.

Derk yelped and turned to run. He tripped over the backpack and fell face first into the knee deep water.

* * *

Someone was calling his name. Derk stirred.

"Derk, are you okay?" a female voice asked.

A wet cloth passed along his forehead, followed by drops of water on his lips.

"Beit?" He tried to sit up, but firm hands pushed him down again.

"You've been exposed to the sun too long," Beit said. "Lie still until you regain your strength."

He heard other voices and the sound of hammering. A tent was raised over him, blocking the morning sun. A piece of food was put into his mouth; he chewed it automatically and swallowed. A little more water and he could feel his strength returning.

A worried face with a nervous smile blocked his view.

"We came looking for you as soon as the sun was up. You always signal from each shelter on your route. I figured something was wrong when I didn't hear from you last night. Boy, I it was a long night!"

Derk sat up and reached an arm around her. "It's good to see you."

"We found the wagon on the route about a kilometer from here. Kedd thinks the axle can be repaired and the wheel replaced. What happened? What are you doing so far off the route?"

"Long story. Seekers."

"Humph! I told you not to take that fare!"

"We needed the money." Derk turned onto his hands and knees at crawled to the tent opening, gazing out. "Huh!"

"What is it, Derk? You should be resting." Beit followed him out as he left the tent. He was standing there looking around in confusion.

"Where's the river bed?" he asked.

"What river bed?"

"The river bed." He gestured vaguely with both hands. "It was here."

"Derk, there is no river bed here."

"That's how the wagon broke. The wheel caught on the edge of the bank."

"Derk, listen to me. There is no river bed here."

Derk placed a hand on his mouth and stared at the eastern horizon. Beit walked over and put a hand on his arm.

"Derk," she said. "One of your passengers has died, your wagon is broken, and you're talking about non-existent river beds. You could be banned from the Porters."

"Where is Grul?"

"He's in that other tent," Beit pointed.

Derk walked over just as Grul was coming out. Grul grinned and hugged Derk.

"Wasn't that magnificent?" Grul asked.

"It was real?"

"It was a vision!" Grul had his hands on Derk's shoulders and was grinning at him. "You have the gift."

"Gift? What gift? I don't want any gift!" Derk backed away.

"Derk, honey," Beit said, taking his hand and stroking it gently. "Let's go home. Take some time off. You've had a terrible experience."

Derk sighed. "Yes. Okay. Some time off."

Beit led Derk to the wagon while others in the rescue party tore down the tents. Derk watched the workers fade into the horizon as the wagon pulled away to take him home.

Copyright @2012 by jsblume. All rights reserved.
jsblume has granted JS Blume Publishing™ non-exclusive rights to display this work.

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