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By Phil Partington
The man wearing priest’s robes had been leading James along the desert trail for nearly half a day. He was no more a priest than James was a magician, yet when James had asked about the garb the broad-shouldered gent responded with an eerie kind of laugh followed by, “Best not to ask questions you don’t want the answers to.”
After that, they walked mostly in silence. James was fine with that. He had come out here for one purpose and one purpose only: to find the man they called Po, if he existed at all. If legends were true, he was somewhere out here and if James was right the medallion around this priest-man’s neck meant he knew the way.
“Bumbling FOOL!” The voice in his head belonged to his brother–it had been speaking to him more and more these days. “You never give a guide ALL the money up front–he’s sure to leave you for dead now!”
But it was too late to whine about that now—he’d spent the last of what he had on this man who called himself Mr. Smoke, and there was no choice left but to trust him. He had to find Po and learn the secrets of the Well.
Mr. Smoke stopped dead, reaching his arms up to the sky and standing on his tip-toes in an absurd stretch of sorts. He let out another gravelly laugh—he always laughed, it seemed—before turning back to face James.
“Well, there it is,” he said.
James squinted on up ahead. “There what is?”
Mr. Smoke gave a scowl of annoyance. “Don’t look so hard. Relax your eyes a bit; look slightly away and you should be able to see it.”
Without fully understanding what he meant, James made his best attempt to follow the priest-man’s instructions. “I…I don’t see anything.”
Mr. Smoke grumbled, grabbed the side of James’ head and gave it a hard yank so he was looking at a manmade stone structure standing along the side of the road. It looked like several rocks piled upon one another, each a tad bigger than the last, so it formed a kind of rock tree.
“See that?” Mr. Smoke said with a growl. “This here’s the marker—it’s the only way to find the City of Flames, and it’s at this very spot where you got to look straight away, but at a slight angle. Then you’ll see it.”
When the confusion on James’ face persisted, Mr. Smoke pulled his hands away and grumbled, “Worthless,” and then continued walking.
And then a peculiar thing happened—James began to notice a difference in the rocky hills ahead of him. At first it was subtle, like a shadow that doesn’t quite align the way it ought to. But after a moment or so, he finally began to see what Mr. Smoke was talking about.
How did I miss that?
But he knew how, just as he knew how so many others would have missed it—how it had been able to stay so hidden for all these decades.
The desert plays tricks on the eyes—and Po must know it.
“We’re heading there?” James asked, as if to confirm what he already knew.
Mr. Smoke only grunted and that was all the answer James needed. He was going to see Po, going to learn of the Well’s secrets…
…he was going to live after all.
Word Count: 571