Sunday, January 17, 2021

ARTICLE: Gumby and the Flying Saucer: Dealing with Imposter Syndrome

(This article was originally published in The Footy Almanac in March 2020.  You can read the original article here:

“What am I doing here?” I wonder as I slink into the University library just after noon.  It’s a Tuesday, and the designated quiet zone is sparsely populated by students.  I move past a girl’s laptop and catch a glimpse of her screen: a diagram of the respiratory system.

James Patrik: Dealing with Imposter Syndrome

“At least she’s doing something productive with her time”, I chide myself as I sit down nearby and open up the TV script that I’ve been working on for the last six months.  “Other people have jobs. They do things that matter” I internally berate myself as I summon my focus.  You see, I’ve been trying to act like a writer.  A proper writer I mean – one who writes every day and sets achievable goals.  My theory is that by acting like one, I’ll one day actually be one.  If only it were that simple.  No matter how much I accomplish – self-doubt is never far away.

Imposter Syndrome is my constant companion.  If you’re unfamiliar with the term, it’s the psychological condition of thinking oneself a fraud.  It means I’m convinced that it’s only a matter of time before I (and the more talented writers I hang around with) realise I haven’t the faintest idea what I’m doing.  I’m just “winging it”, having lied my way into the company of people of good character and considerable ability.  Annoyingly, all this angst and self-doubt occurs in the face of objective evidence that I can (at the very least) string a few words together coherently.

I’ve never really aspired to any specific vocation – let alone writing, but strangely, I’ve always written.  Nervously.  Secretively and out of sight.  Ever since that day in second grade when my teacher tore up a story I had written, sending the pieces of shredded paper cascading over my seven-year old head.

Why would a primary school teacher do such a thing?  I had dared defy her, ignoring the mind-numbing brief of composing an account of ‘what I had done on the weekend’.  Instead, I elected to regale the class with a tale concerning a flying saucer I’d seen.  The craft landed in my back yard.  I watched, slack jawed, as a figure emerged from one side of its hull.  Tall and green with a lopsided head, the mysterious traveler bore a joyful countenance.  Upon closer inspection, I realised that the green man was someone I had seen before – on television.  It was Gumby – plasticine adventurer of choice for children (and adults) of a certain age!

“That wasn’t the assigned task” said Mrs. Merchant, after I read it aloud to the class (who, incidentally, responded with rapturous applause).  A dinosaur from a bygone era (and a stickler for the rules) Mrs. Merchant tore up my story to punish me for disobeying her, forever consigning it to one of the forgotten rooms in my mind.

I’ve always tried to ignore the opinions of people who try and chip away at my confidence, and so, even as a child, I was angry that she’d destroyed something precious.  Statistically speaking, she has to be long gone.  But Mrs. Merchant is still very much alive and well in my subconscious – always ready to cast a shadow over my modest accomplishments and extinguishing any glowing embers of self-belief I may still be nurturing.

It so happens I’m in good company.  Imposter Syndrome is the same condition that afflicted Maya Angelou – one of the pre-eminent writers of the last century.  An author whose distinctive voice was so celebrated that someday, humans living in space will read her most famous work  I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Alas, apparently, no amount of adulation or professional success could ever quell the fire of her own self-doubt.

As I sip my coffee – still trying to summon inspiration – I wonder the very same thing.  What level of achievement will finally enable me to believe in myself as a writer?  Will it ever happen?  What if my nascent screenplay comes to life one day – breathed into existence by actors and producers?  Will I finally be able to call myself a writer and believe it?

Probably not.

Be that as it may, I’ve come to recognise self-doubt as a barrier to inspiration and an enemy of imagination.  It comes to me in the form of a ghost of a teacher who simply didn’t care for Gumby.  Some days I’m able to overcome her specter, other days not so much.  It’s a constant battle, and one that I imagine all sorts of creative types wrestle with daily.

Of course, to offer an amusing anecdote, I’ve focused on a teacher from my past who valued conformity over creativity.  Thankfully, they weren’t all like that.  One in particular, a man named Joe Herran.  In high school, he taught me the eloquence of the English language, he nurtured my talents by pushing me to be better and to reach for more creative, original ideas.

It takes bravery to extend a middle finger to your detractors and, dare I say it, write from the heart.  So, if you happen to see my name appear in the opening credits to a TV sitcom at some point over the next few years – know that it means I’ve conquered my self-doubt long enough to produce some half decent work.  And know that I wrote it because of – and in spite of – my teachers at school.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

SHORT STORY: Into The Valley Of Harlots

(Part One of Two)

Many months had passed since Percival and the girl had left the town in which she had been imprisoned.  Unencumbered by the undue prejudice of her community and the vitriol from her own mother, the girl had slowly come alive like an unfolding flower.  Easily falling in with Percival’s itinerant existence, the two had made their way through the woods, past the cliffs of despair and into the plains of ghosts and memory.

As travelers, they were perpetually on the move; thusly the girl’s conception of the world grew broader with each passing step.  Each new plant or animal she encountered was a novelty, and every small town, enclave or village they arrived at, she met fresh and without preconception.  Though grown enough to look after herself, more or less, she saw the world through the lens of a child.  An amateur scientist, all things were subject to intense questioning and eager investigation.  Percival envied the gift of clarity she possessed, even though it had been hard won via a life of cruel treatment. 

Though never having seriously contemplated fatherhood, Percival found himself in the unlikely position of guardian to this child.  Having witnessed the awfulness of her mother firsthand, he decided to be for her a suitable role model, the kind he wished he’d had as a young rat.  He showed her compassion and dignity and taught her to treat others likewise.  Though not outwardly demonstrative of his emotions, he cared for her in his own way, from a distance and without fanfare.  Day by day he warned her of dangers while allowing her to commit her own mistakes in instances where the lesson might prove valuable.  One night, while they both camped by a lakeside, the girl decided to finally resolve an issue of great importance.

“I think I should finally like to choose a name”, she announced as they sat both bathed in light from moonlight and campfire combined.

“You know my feelings on the subject”, replied Percival, “This is an honour you should reserve for yourself.  I can provide you with a name no more than I can give you wings with which to fly”.

“What sort of name do you favour, Percival?”, the girl asked as she gazed up at the night sky.

“In spite of Soraya’s wisdom, I’ve never given much thought to the matter.  I see no requirement for them to be powerful or symbolic, though I do suppose they should be chosen with due care.  Few things stay with us in life quite like a name”.

“I like the moon”, she began, “I know not what it is, but I find the sight of it pleasing.  Even though it changes its shape, it feels dependable and reliable.  I wish to be called Moon”.

Percival smiled in approval at the girl’s choice, “Very well.  From this day onward you will be known as Moon”.

A few moments later, Moon heard a low rumbling sound, “Do you hear that?  A low noise, it comes and goes, and sounds far away”.

“I hear nothing, but rats are not renowned for exceptional hearing”.  Percival looked at Moon, her young face illuminated by fire light.  She looked fatigued.  “It’s probably just the weather.  A far-off storm or perhaps the Gods are quarreling.  Either way, you should get to sleep.  Choosing one’s name is monumental enough for one day”.


The Preparation Suite, as it was called, seemed a peculiar room to Moon.  A large communal space at the centre of the village, it was the site at which all of its women congregated.  Only women were allowed in – a rule strictly enforced and adhered to.  She and Percival had found themselves welcomed by the unusual ladies after chancing upon one of their acolytes as she washed her hair in the lake upon which they’d made camp.

Though their hosts – each one a preternaturally gorgeous woman - seemed benevolent, Moon could not resist a reflexive pang of apprehension.  She’d shared a cautious, wordless exchange of glances with Percival as they entered the community.  The scenario itself seemed acutely familiar, except this time there were no shackles or soldiers or pious townsfolk.  Just women – beautiful women - piling out to greet them warmly and catch a glimpse of a new face. 

The village itself was a small affair, a few sturdy structures arranged around a metallic obelisk which immediately caught Percival’s eye.  As the two entered the village, Moon could hear the rumbling sound again, emanating from off in the distance.  Percival speculated that the mountain itself might be a volcano, but that was a word Moon did not know.

Their leader, a striking lady named Prune One introduced herself, “This is the Valley of Harlots.  You are welcome here, so long as your deeds remain clean”.

Percival could not help but notice Prune’s exquisite features and her authoritative nature.  Of indeterminate age, she wore her raven hair long and bore eyes that seemed at once exhausted yet alluring.  It was an expression shared by many of the woman here, prompting Percival to mentally recall the many examples of physical beauty he’d been privileged to admire.  Even now, on occasion, he still visited with Soraya in his dreams, but these women seemed different to her, as did Prune.  If in Soraya’s eyes he saw a banquet, Prune’s eyes beheld an empty plate.

That is of course not to disregard the sheer lunacy of each woman’s loveliness.  Each one boasting uncommonly comely features.  Tall, round, short, brunette – they were each undeniably gorgeous.  It was as if each woman represented an exemplary variant of the feminine form itself.

Impervious to their charms, Moon’s attention drifted from their outward appearance and more to their demeanour.  There was a defiance about these women, almost as if they were daring the very world to pass judgement upon them.  Of course, this audacity found purchase in the brazen manner with which Prune regarded the two as they arrived.  She’d been unable to avoid noticing Percival’s stunned reaction at the term ‘harlot’ being bandied about so casually.

“You disapprove, rat man?”, she asked him, her tone near challenging.

“Not at all”, replied Percival, careful to offer a measured tone so as not to offend, “Do not conflate surprise with disapproval.  As should be true of all sentient things, your bodies are yours to do with as you please”.

Placated by his measured response, at least for now, Prune’s demeanour softened as she welcomed the two travelers into the village.  Declaring that in their midst, “Men and women do not associate”, Percival was duly escorted to the ‘Men’s Compound’ while Prune cast a maternal arm around Moon.

“How wonderful that you’re here, child.  We are always glad to provide Steven with a larger pool of women from which to draw”.

“Come”, she said, her tone matronly, “You must join us in the Preparation Suite, the girls are making themselves fancy”.

Unwilling to seem rude, Moon obliged, following the group of women as Percival was cordially led away, before flashing Moon a reassuring smile. 

“It’s all right”, he silently mouthed, he too apparently satisfied that their hosts were relatively benign.  It was the first time since leaving her own home town that Moon had been separated from him, and she felt uneasy - no greater distance had ever separated them before. 

Prune and the women led Moon to the Preparation Suite, which was where she presently found herself standing, uncertain how to react.  The large room was lavishly furnished and adorned with luxurious décor.  Fine satin drapes caressed the windows and doors and a crackling fire and candle light coloured the space with soft glowing amber hues.  As Moon looked around, she could see women of all types, sat at small dressing tables with mirrors attached.  Each woman was busily engaged in the art of grooming and preening themselves.  With keen focus, they all styled their hair and applied garish makeup in thick layers.

“Do not be alarmed.  Steven favours a woman who reeks of excess”, came a voice from behind Moon.  She turned to see two young girls – just as heavily painted – who appeared only a few years older than her.  Noticing how overwhelmed she looked, the two girls welcomed her warmly.

“I’m Cataline Twenty-Four”, the first one said, “And I am Dianna Sixteen”, came her friend.  Cataline was tall with a fulsome bust while Dianna’s proportions were more even and curvaceous.

“Will you allow us to make you fancy?”, Cataline asked, her pleading eyes beseeching.

“Err…I…suppose”, stammered Moon.  She had never regarded herself as old enough to be overly concerned with her appearance, and, until recently, had never considered the prospect of one day utilising her physical traits to attract another.

As Prune excused herself with a slight nod, Cataline and Dianna descended, hawk-like, and sat Moon down before a dressing table.  Getting to work, one girl began by gently running a comb through her hair and pinning it back while the other began liberally applying bright pink rouge to her cheeks.

“Who is that man you travel with?”, asked Dianna as she reached into a small bag containing different coloured lipsticks.

“His name is Percival.  I am his companion and he is mine”.

“Did you see the way he looked at us?”, Cataline chimed.

“We know what men think of us, but we are careless”, replied Dianna.

“Tis true, we are whores, but we do not spread our legs for just anyone”.

“That’s right.  I’d only permit Steven’s digits twixt my nethers - if and when I am chosen”.

With a flourish Dianna lifted her blouse to reveal a mark upon her skin – the number sixteen – etched in scar tissue just to the right of her navel.  Cataline lifted her clothes similarly, exposing the cauterised number twenty-four in roughly the same place.

“Why do you wear those numbers?”, asked Moon, her head cocked to one side.

“In case we are chosen”, replied Cataline, “We wear the numbers and we make ourselves ready”.

“Every day?”, asked Moon.

“Every day and every night.  Making ourselves more attractive is our entire life.  We must be prepared in case we are selected to go up to the Mill, and so, we stay here in the Preparation Suite, beautifying ourselves.  It goes without saying that as a result, we are all visions of perfection”.

Some more than others”, added Dianna snidely as she adoringly cupped her own breasts while admiring her reflection in a mirror.

“Who is Steven?”, ventured Moon finally.           

“Steven lives up in solitude in the Mill upon the mountain.  Each week, three of us are selected by lottery to make a pilgrimage to serve him”.

“Serve and service”, added Dianna with a coy smile, “Our lives and bodies are his to do with as he wishes, and we surrender them to him willingly”.

“Is this your entire life?”, asked Moon, trying to mask her amazement.  She did not mean to appear judgmental, but these women and their way of life were alien to her.

“What else is there?”, retorted Dianna in a brassy tone, “Friendship?  Family?”, she sneered.  “How could any of those things compare to the immortal bliss of Steven?”

As Cataline continued styling her hair, Moon took a few moments to compose a thoughtful response.

“I know I am young, but I have always supposed that I would one day like a family of my own.  A husband, and a young child.  Perhaps two”.

Pfft!  Family!”, spat Dianna, repulsed at the very idea.

“Family means men.  Those barbarians are better suited to life among their own kin”, added Cataline.

“Have you no men among you?”, Moon asked.

“We have.  But we’ve not had need of their touch in almost a cycle.  Not since Steven arrived”.

“Ahhhh Steven”, swooned Dianna excitedly, “I hope when my moment comes, he splits me in twain!”

Cataline handed Moon a small mirror and she was startled by the reflection. She saw herself as never before – at a crossroads between childhood and adulthood.  Her wild locks tamed into a sensible ponytail, her cheeks ostentatiously coloured and her lips painted blood red, Moon looked ripe beyond her years.  Still, there was another aspect to this transformation, an element of the uncanny, Moon thought.  It felt as though a most special part of her childhood had been shorn away - severed prematurely.  Through cosmetic smoke and mirrors, time had been accelerated, and Moon saw a harlequin staring back at her, mockingly.

Prune returned from wherever she had been and proudly inspected Cataline and Dianna’s handiwork.

“You might be tender, child, but still of age enough to please Steven if called”.

“What happens next?”, asked Moon.

Prune held out a black iron rod, about three feet in length, with a tapered tip at one end.

“Would you like a number of your own?”, she asked with a smile as the other two girls closed in around her.

“There is no obligation”, came Cataline. “None at all, you may leave at any time you choose.


“The women changed”, began Trevor, “From the moment Steven entered our village”.

Trevor was a grizzled beast of a man whom Percival had met at what was euphemistically termed the “Men’s Compound”.  It was, in actuality, a featureless room containing only the slightest of amenities.  A nondescript table.  A few wooden chairs.  The walls were bare, save for a coating of paint haphazardly applied; a queasy shade of urine yellow.  With no bedding apparent, Percival presumed they slept uncomfortably on the hard-wooden floor.  After spending less than an hour in the place, he was convinced that the room’s purpose was punitive in nature – a sort of ‘holding pen’ designed to contain the village’s disruptive elements.  Trevor, the man he’d encountered upon entering, was one of a handful of residents.  He now held Percival’s complete attention as the poor man wove a sorrowful tale.

“If I ever catch sight of him”, Trevor began, “I’ve a good mind to wring his neck for what he’s done to this place”. Trevor’s sunken eyes betrayed his burly construction – it was clear that he’d never actually seen Steven for himself.

Trevor explained that life in the small village had been normal, if a tad parochial.  That was until a few weeks ago when the Prospector arrived.  An emissary of Steven, he appeared one day seeking women for his “master’s consumption”.  Soon after, the women began segregating themselves and allowing their bodies to be mutilated as part of an arbitrary lottery system.  On a weekly basis, Steven would send his envoy to collect three women at a time and lead them up the mountain, never to be seen again.  Whispered rumour suggested that they were all living up there with him in some form of ungodly harem.

“Have you tried talking to them?”, Percival asked, perhaps somewhat naively.

“What do you think?”, spat Trevor, his eyes wide with desperation, “They don’t listen!  Their minds have been…confused somehow.  Poisoned!”.

Percival regarded the other men in the room.  Some sat silently, staring at the wall.  Others quietly wept with their heads in their hands.

“They think we like it here, but I feel the flames of bedlam lapping at my feet”, said Trevor as he looked over the sorry assembly of broken males.

“Why don’t you just leave?”, dared Percival.

“We may leave at any time”, Trevor explained.  It was a phrase Percival had heard him use a few times already.  Indeed, the men’s compound remained woefully unguarded, nor did any of the unlocked doors and windows preclude an easy exit.

“We were thirty strong only a short time ago, but many of my compatriots left once they had made peace with the loss of their women.  Dead to them, if not in body then at least in spirit.  They left to find their fortunes elsewhere, or perhaps begin again with other women who would have them”.

Percival’s heart leapt with compassion for the man, and the overwhelming sense of sadness with which he spoke.  “And why do you stay?”, he asked Trevor gently.

“My Annabelle.  She forsook our home together and took in with that den of trollops, wasting her days primping and preening.  I appealed to her, but she spurned me, insisting she now only bent her knees for Steven.  It was as if she were no longer my wife, rather some other woman – hollowed out and placed in her stead.  She ascended to the house upon the mountain when her number was called, and I know nothing after that.  I attempted entry, but was denied.  I beg answers from the other women, but I am ignored”.

Flustered, Trevor clumsily wiped a tear with his sleeve, “I know not what fate befell her.  She remains in limbo, and thusly, so do I”.

Though his tale of a broken marriage tugged at his Percival’s heartstrings, there was one particular detail which had piqued his interest, something Trevor had mentioned just before.

“Tell me about the numbers”, he asked.


Having sauntered out of the Men’s compound unimpeded, Percival mulled about the village, driven by curiosity and a fermenting sense of dread.  Only a short walk from the Preparation Suite, the obelisk had caught his attention earlier, its stark, modern appearance standing out among the simple structures of the village.  Trevor had explained its connection to the women and the weekly lottery, and Percival was eager to see the device for himself.  Standing almost eight feet tall, the four-sided device was constructed of folded metal sheeting and emitted a low ticking sound not unlike a clock.  On one side, there was a small indent at eye level that contained a scrolling mechanical counter with space enough for three numerical digits.  Presently, the counter appeared inactive, reading ‘000’.

Behind him, Percival could hear a flurry of activity and turned to see the women approaching.  Bustling excitedly, they quickly moved expectantly towards the obelisk.  Prune was there, scowling at him disapprovingly for having transgressed their rules, as well as a few other faces he recognised from before.  Cutting through the small crowd was Moon, who immediately rushed toward him, clamping him in a bear hug.  Percival was surprised to see the little girl looked quite different.  She’d been given a new dress to wear; her hair was neatly arranged and her face was filled with colour.

“Look, I’ve taken a mark”, she reported, showing off a freshly cauterised number fifty-one.  Percival had known the tradition of tattoo, but this looked different – artless - as though Moon’s young body had been somehow desecrated.

“You don’t like it?”, asked Moon, her eyes catching his involuntary grimace.

“Not at all”, Percival conceded, “I merely hope it was not too painful”.

“It’s time!”, exclaimed Prune as she clapped her hands together in rapturous anticipation.  The obelisk’s ticking sound increased in volume precipitously.  More women soon appeared and mulled about nervously as clunking, clockwork sounds brought the inanimate object to life.  The mechanical counter whirred into motion, numbers scrolling rapidly then stopping with a jolt upon the number sixteen. Percival and Moon looked on, captivated by the display. 

“Sixteen!!”, called Prune, loud enough for all to hear.

“Yes!”, shouted Dianna as she jumped up and down with excitement, “My garden will finally be tended!”

“Thirty-Nine!”, announced Prune as the corresponding girl - just as ecstatic as Dianna - bid hasty farewells to her friends near her.

A lull among the crowd followed by a cresting wave of anticipation as the mechanical numbers rolled on for a third and final time.

“Fifty-One!”, called out Prune, as she looked over the crowd, then over to their newest recruit – Moon – presently stood next to Percival.  Suddenly in the spotlight, Moon looked to her surrogate guardian for guidance.

“May I go?”, she asked.

“I am not your keeper, Moon.  Do you wish to go?”

“Yes.  These women have shown me kindness and a new way of being.  I do not wish to leave you, but I am compelled by the mystery”.

“Your spirit of independence is why I freed you.  To cage you was a crime in the first instance.  I need not relish the choices you make, merely afford you the ability to make them yourself”.

And so, after sharing a bittersweet hug, and issuing a promise to return to each other, Percival and Moon said their goodbyes.  He watched, quietly, as Moon and the two other girls left the boundaries of the village and began their ascent up the mountain to meet Steven.  Concealed by a building and his own sense of helplessness and shame, Trevor watched them leave, his face twisted in horrible grief.


The front door to the house was modern and elaborate, much at odds with the rock face that the well-to-do home was embedded into.  The house itself was almost a part of the mountain, like a façade springing fourth from the terrain, existing merely for the sake of appearances.  The walk had been far less arduous than Moon had expected.  Along the way she had heard the same low rumbling as before, this time emanating from beneath her feet.  She had never seen a mill before and had no idea what it would look like, expecting to see some form of grandiose structure.  But as the women approached the front door, no structure made itself apparent.  After a few knocks, they were greeted by a portly man who introduced himself simply as “The Prospector”.  An oily caricature of a person, he leered at the women the way a starving man views a feast.

“Right this way, ladies”, he said cordially as he ushered them through a sumptuous foyer and down an unremarkable hall. 

Moon observed that the walls around them changed gradually as they proceeded – they seemed composed of the same metallic material as the obelisk.  That wasn’t the only unusual thing she noticed – there was a sound.  Separate from the rumbling, this one was new – it sounded heavy and mechanical and was coming from very close by.

“Steven will see you now”, said the Prospector with a crooked smile as he opened a locked door, allowing the women to enter first. 

Dianna took a few moments to tend to her appearance, straightening her hair and plumping her bosoms in preparation to meet the man of her dreams.  The door opened, and immediately Moon heard an awful, piercing scream followed by a series of sickening chopping sounds.  Like a tree being mulched, the first girl – number thirty nine - had walked right into the blades of a giant turbine set into the floor.  The sounds were of her bones and flesh being ground up before their eyes, sending an aerosol spray of blood into the air and onto every surface in the room.

Behind them, the Prospector licked his lips and grinned, “Steven requires protein in the form of animal matter to continue.  This is the most efficient way”.

Frozen in terror, Moon reacted instinctively and reached out for Dianna’s hand.  She’d been closer to the turbine and her face and clothing were caked in blood.  She turned to look at Moon, shaken by what she had just witnessed.  A chunk of brain matter fell from her hair.  Moon had expected a plush sitting room containing a handsome bachelor, but instead the only thing in the room was the giant spinning blades of the turbine set into the floor flanked by metallic walls that now resembled the inside of an abattoir.

Ever so slowly, Moon felt Dianna’s hand release itself from hers as she stood before the blades, a vacant expression of horror etched upon her face.

“For Steven…”, she whispered before stepping forth into the blades where her body was violently crushed.  The disgusting process was as quick as it was mortifying.  Dianna was no more, only pieces of her remained, scattered about the room.

“Step forth and do your duty, whore”, came the Prospector from behind Moon, his face too now glistening with human blood.

How could I have been so stupid?  Thought Moon as she stared at the charnel house before her.

Separate from the nightmare of seeing people chopped up before her very eyes was the feeling that she’d been led astray so easily.  Blindsided by the harlots who’d shown her kindness, the path she had traveled was suddenly clear to see.

This was the mill and Steven would not, could not be found within it.  Steven wasn’t in the mill – Steven was the mill.




Saturday, January 2, 2021

SHORT STORY: The Most Powerful Magic

Percival walked through the woods; his bindle once again slung over his shoulder.  It was a familiar sensation – his few meagre possessions and he – upon an uncertain road once more.  Though he reasoned that such frequent changes were an intrinsic part of the life he’d chosen, acknowledging that fact never rendered the weight of bidding farewell any lighter.  Along his journey, he’d been fortunate to don many guises: labourer, housekeeper, apple picker and layabout. A vagabond open to the smiling fortunes of the universe, he typically made his livelihood at the behest of strangers, who, more often than not, received him with kindness.

In response his itinerant existence, Percival had developed a cavalier attitude toward his life, accepting that which came his way with near monastic serenity.  His most recent diversion had seen him take up with a fearful scarecrow.  Though he had imagined staying with the fellow a while longer, his stay was cut short when the scarecrow (and his house) disappeared under peculiar circumstances.  Their next-door neighbour had been little help in piecing together precisely what had occurred.  An elderly woman, she spun a fantastical tale that Percival thought more a product of senility than actual fact.  Still, he felt badly for his scarecrow friend. 

Poor Raymond – frightened of his own shadow, he thought as he wordlessly wished his absent friend well. 

He hoped to see him again, perhaps one day, further down the proverbial road.  In spite of his temporary stability evaporating, Percival found travelling a bracing endeavour.  It was a life he’d selected after watching his parents march through their own unhappy union.  The road ahead was both a real-world construct (sometimes a quite literal beaten path) as well as a metaphor for the future.  Growth and forward momentum were essential to Percival’s philosophy, and he was insistent upon growing to his fullest extent.  Much like his time at the house with Raymond, he was sure that life would not fail to present him with his next adventure.

Soon enough, the universe obliged, in the form of a scream – a piercing cry for help from up ahead.  More priest than mercenary, and plenty capable of fear, Percival overrode the flash of apprehension that rose within him and moved briskly towards the direction of the distress.

The cry for help was coming from a human girl, no more than ten years old, rapidly moving towards him as fast as she could ambulate.  Bearing a satchel slung across her chest, the girl’s feet pelted across the uneven ground.  Percival recognised her desperate strides.  Free from self-consciousness, she cast her spindly arms and legs about as though her life depended on it.  As the girl grew closer, he could see the cause of her wild abandon.

Trailing behind were four giant figures whose very bodies seemed to cut a swathe of destruction through the woods as they moved.  They were the Sisterhood of the Face – soldiers about whom Percival had only a cursory understanding.  Well known throughout the kingdom, the Sisterhood carried a well-earned reputation as ruthless warriors.  Human women of vigorous proportions, they donned featureless metal helmets welded permanently onto their faces as a mark of their dedication.  Seeing through a narrow slit, the heavy masks only added to their terrifying presence, causing them to appear faceless and inhuman.

The girl dove into Percival’s arms, half collapsing from exhaustion.  He caught her as her knees buckled, his own head whipping round to hear the sound of a spear strike the ground only a few feet away.  The angry projectile had only narrowly missed them both.

“Stand aside, rat, or my sisters and I will tear you apart like bread!”, bellowed the largest of the women whose body armour distinguished herself from the others with a bloody red stripe. 

Even from underneath the mask, her booming voice inspired apprehension.  Percival had heard that the Sisterhood’s fervour was near religious, and that they were skilled in the deadly arts, so he proceeded cautiously.

“Who are you to demand this poor child’s life?”, he asked, his voice quavering as he maneuvered his body between the girl and the giant women.

“I am Primus, head Archon of the Sisterhood of the Face.  I have orders to retrieve this creature”.

Primus’s harsh tongue stood in stark contrast to the girl that presently cowered behind Percival.  Despite being barefoot and dressed only in her nightgown, she faced danger with a quiet composure that Percival could only envy.  His heart was pounding, yet the girl seemed stoic.  Still, she was unmistakably a child, with innocent eyes not yet soiled by cynicism, commerce or any form of carnal knowledge.

“Oh no”, exclaimed the girl, her voice soft and breathy. 

She rushed over to where Primus’s spear had landed and knelt before a snake that had inadvertently bisected by it.  Unafraid, the girl picked up the two halves of the serpent and sorrowfully held them in her hands.  Through her violent act, Primus had stolen something that was not hers to take – a life.

“The time for empty words has ended!”, announced Primus clapping her gloved hands together, “Sisters, take them both!”.

The other three large women advanced on Percival and the girl, but not before the little child could surreptitiously scoop up both halves of the dead snake and collect them in her satchel.

“Be careful with her!”, shouted Percival as the women placed a pair of heavy shackles on the little girl, then slapped a similar set upon his own wrists.

“Have a care, rat”, cautioned Primus, “Lest I take you for my supper”.

Rapidly realising that Primus was not a woman to be trifled with, Percival wondered where they were taking him and the girl as they frog marched them both through the woods.

“Where are we headed?”, asked Percival, summoning some courage.  Primus glared at him through the narrow slit in her helmet.

“If I had my druthers?  To the guillotine.  Fortunately, I am bound by duty.  I will bring you before Allozade.  He will decide your fate”. 

Percival’s eyes met the girl’s a few times during their journey, her expression one of silent contrition, shame for having embroiled him in such an unpleasant circumstance.  Without conversation, the party trudged through the woods for about an hour before the tree line subsided revealing a small town comprised of a straight road with shops and buildings on either side.  Percival took in the scene, noting the many people casually going about their business.

At one end of the street a group of children, both boys and girls, kicked about a leather ball.  One of the boys ventured too close to the returning party, when Primus forcefully seized the small child by his arm.

“Go and fetch Allozade”, she barked, clearly a command rather than a request.  Mortified, the boy obeyed, scurrying off into a nearby building.  A few moments later, he emerged with an old man in tow.

“Master Allozade”, began Primus, her tone now reverent, “I bring back the beast after she fled from her keep”.

Presenting her two trophies in full view of the town, Primus stood straight, her sisters filed neatly behind her.  Were her face visible, her expression would have been that of a hunting dog, proudly presenting its quarry.

“Excellent work, Primus.  I know not how she fled this time”, the old man said examining the shackled child with disdain. “And who is this?” he queried after casting his milky eyes upon Percival.  Done protesting, Percival simply glared at the man in quiet defiance.

“Some type of rat man, Master.  I suspect him of being in league with the beast”, reported Primus.

“Nonsense.  Just look at him.  He is a man of the road, not a keeper of monsters”.

Percival stayed silent.  He wasn’t often given to anger, but on this occasion, he could not resist indulging.  Above all he detested bullies, and he sensed that he was most assuredly in their presence, now.

“Return the girl to her place, and unshackle this one, post haste!”, ordered the old man, “I would speak with him alone”.

As Percival was escorted away, the little girl caught a glimpse of her reflection in one of the shop windows and saw something terrible looking back at her.


“Magic”, began the old man, his voice twisting to conjure a sense of mystique as he paced about the small wood panelled room where Percival had been taken.

“What is magic?”, he asked, mostly to himself, “Magic is the bedrock of our town.  It is songs and stories and incantations, secret words and ritual, passed down by generations of my family.  This is a community sheathed in magic, and you have arrived at a most fortuitous time young wanderer”.

“It seems your magic does not yet encompass compassion”, replied Percival, his wrists still raw from the shackles recently removed.

“You must forgive the Sisterhood.  I’m afraid subtlety has not yet made their acquaintance”.

The magician shuffled about his quarters, absent-mindedly opening drawers and cabinets as he searched for some unknown object.  As he did so, Percival drank in his surroundings: an unremarkable table and chairs surrounded by feathers, crystals, star charts and many other magical accoutrements he’d never seen the like of.

Percival was still unclear on his status - prisoner or tentative guest?  A few scant moments ago, he’d been restrained against his will, and was dubious of the magician’s intent.  Still, he was a far more palatable alternative to that awful Primus. 

Standing no more than five feet tall, he was by far the oldest human that Percival had ever seen.  Shocks of snow-white hair emerged intermittently from the rumpled flat cap upon his head and a velvet cloak concealed a body that Percival suspected was far from robust.

“Forgive me”, he said, casting both hands skyward, “My name is Allozade.  Town magician”.

“Percival”, he replied in kind as he shook the old man’s bony hand, “I have no talent or skill of which to boast, other than my character and a persistent case of wanderlust”.

“We don’t get many of…your kind…visiting the town these days”, he equivocated haltingly as he opened yet another drawer and finally located the pipe he’d been searching so doggedly for.

“My…kind?”, asked Percival, hoping Allozade had not issued an unfortunate slander.

The magician deftly filled his pipe with practiced expertise and began filling the room with rich plumes of tobacco smoke.  Percival could now feel the old magician’s eyes upon him, scrutinising his rodential features.  It was true, in his brief time in the town square, he hadn’t noticed any other non-humans at all.  It was uncommon to say the least.  Skill and a willingness to work together was the typical criteria for most towns and villages in the kingdom.  Communities were diverse mixtures of sentient creatures, coexisting peaceably.  By contrast, this place was far more homogenous.

“Tell me, what were you doing in the company of the beast?”, Allozade asked, waving away his earlier remark.

“You mean the little girl?”, Percival replied, “I wasn’t doing anything, really.  She simply ran towards me, arms akimbo, pleading for assistance.  I followed my most basic instincts and cast my arms around her.  The far greater danger came from your metal faced constable who I think will not be satisfied ‘till she has tasted blood”.

“Your assessment of my Primus is not inaccurate, but do not be deceived, young traveller, for she is no mere girl.  She is a beast - an obscenity – born from a mother’s loin, but not from nature.  She’s unlike any creature my magic can fathom.  Do you not see the broken skin?  The rotting teeth?  In truth I am not certain how you could bear to look upon her face, let alone walk beside her!”

“But…she is only a girl.  Precocious of course, but isn’t that the way of all children?  How can you disparage one so innocent?”.

“She is a beast!”, roared Allozade, “With foul features and a dark manner about her.  She has been the root of many a malady and misfortune in this town.  Accordingly, it was decided that such a beast would spend the remainder of her days in the holding cell in the station house of the constabulary.  It was the most humane solution”.

Humane?  Are you mad?  She’s not a beast, but a little girl! As far as I can see, besides profaning her name, she does not stand accused of any specific crime or misdeed.  I do not wish to make trouble for you magician, but I intend to free her.  My conscience will permit not less”.

His posture straightening, Allozade’s tone suddenly became sharp, “I’m afraid I cannot allow that”, he stated flatly. 

“My days remaining may not be many in number, but while I am head magician, I have a sacred duty to safeguard this town from evil”.  His tone abated, “Though you are, of course, free to enjoy the amenities of our community”, he added as an insincere smile split his face.

In spite of the literal meaning of his words, Allozade offered his town’s hospitality begrudgingly.  Percival felt neither welcome nor comfortable.  His keen sense of self-preservation prevailing, he resolved to depart as soon as was practical – and he intended to take the poor girl with him.  After his terse encounter with the old magician had ended in a polite stalemate, he walked the main street, admiring the small selection of shops and residences. 

Though he was not naturally predisposed to paranoia, Percival bore a sneaking suspicion that the magician would be keeping a keen eye on his movements.  If he wanted to liberate the girl, then guile and finesse would be required. 

Casually ambling down the street, he began to perceive a growing unease from the townsfolk.  Cutting a path through the people as he walked, they stared at him with a curious mix of fascination and fear.  Other bystanders offered more deliberate expressions.  Had their eyes been daggers themselves, Percival would have surely found himself impaled by their open contempt – a dislike for the unlike.

The shops themselves were a pedestrian affair, a tailor, a cooper.  Strolling past the tavern, he considered entering - such places had typically brought him pleasure in the past - but he could not shirk his honour and place pleasures before obligation.  The image of a child unfairly imprisoned offended him.

I wonder why they consider her a beast? he mused as he finally stopped before a storefront that caught his attention.  Inscribed upon the entrance was a word that he did not know:

LIBER’, read the sign, rendered in elegant font. 

Seeing that the place appeared open, Percival pulled open the door and entered. 

As his nose and lungs beheld the musty scent of paper and parchment, he realised that this store did not contain merchandise, rather an impressive array of books. Books arranged on oak shelves that lined the walls and filled every vacant space.  Organised and neatly filed together, Percival had never seen so many books in his life and did not know that such a great number of them could gather in one place.  In his youth, he’d had cause to study a book or two, and his parents owned a dozen or so, but to Percival books had always signified wealth and refinement.

“Hello”, came a silky female voice from across the room.

Percival turned to see a woman sat at a desk in the centre of the store, as though she herself were the epicenter of the immense collection.

“I’m sorry, you caught me unaware”, replied Percival, instantaneously self-conscious and powerfully stricken by the woman’s beauty.

About forty years of age, she rose from her desk and approached him.  Percival had rarely entertained notions of human beauty, but there was something about this particular specimen that he found bewitching.  It wasn’t just her velvet tone or chocolate hair; it was the alluring way she moved - her motions fluid and her dusky eyes fixated upon his.  She drew herself near and gently ran her hand across his face, savouring the sensation of his soft fur against her hand.

“You are very handsome”, she stated simply with a coy smile.

Initially speechless, Percival fumbled a half muttered “Thank you” as the enigmatic woman inspected him, apparently pleased with what she saw.  It had been a long while since any person had regarded him as an object of desire, and Percival could do no more but be flattered at the prospect.

“I don’t think I can readily recall one of your kind regarding me in such a manner”, he breathed, surprised by the breadth of his own excitement.

“I’ve spent more time with books than with people”, she began, moving back towards her desk, “And besides, similarity is not required for the appreciation of beauty, nor attraction”.

She now sat back down; her legs crossed over each other confidently as Percival took a few more tentative steps into the library.

“What is your name, rat, and what does it mean?”

“Percival.  And I do not know what it means.  It was given to me by my parents”

“Names are powerful totems.  You should not be so ignorant of your own.  My name is Soraya.  It means ‘princess’”.

“Are you the keeper of these books?”

“Yes.  I watch over them, by duty and by choice, but my services are rarely required these days.  This town has no appetite for books, let alone the knowledge contained therein.”

“What kind of knowledge?”

“All manner of things”, Soraya whispered, her eyes widening with excitement, “How to repair the injured body, instruction on words and numbers, ancient lore of plants and herbs.  Useful knowledge contained within, if only anyone cared to open them.  Instead, our young boys while away their years in the tavern and our girls encase themselves in steel and join the sisterhood.  Philistines the lot of them, drunk on superstition and the ramblings of that old charlatan”.

Percival looked quizzical.

“I take it you’ve already met with our esteemed magician?”, she asked sarcastically as she spoke his name through gritted teeth.

“Yes.  He said my visit was fortuitous.  Why would he say that?”

At that moment the clarion call of a bell rang out throughout the town, its noise reverberating through the walls of the building into the pit of Percival’s stomach.  Through the library window he could see people abruptly stop whatever they were doing and begin to form a congregation around the magician’s quarters where a small dais had been set up.

“I think you’re about to find out”, said Soraya with a raised eyebrow as she stood up from her desk and collected Percival.  The two walked out into the street towards the gathering crowd.  Interlocking her arm with his, Soraya began whispering into Percival’s ear in a low, conspiratorial tone.

“Another one of Allozade’s pointless affairs, no doubt.  The old man is withering and refuses to accept the ruling of time.  He is obsessed with magic and ritual, and has fashioned them into the official fiction of this place”.

Percival watched as the obedient crowd all flocked towards Allozade, who emerged in a resplendent red robe, waving incense that smelled of sage and blue bark.  Flanking him on either side were two members of the Sisterhood of the Face, each one appearing involuntarily expressionless in their helmet.  As more of Allozade’s entourage fussed about him, he intoned an otherworldly incantation in a language Percival did not recognise.  Upon the dais was a bubbling cauldron of unspecified liquid, into which he then peeled off the red leaves of a Calamander tree, causing a plume of pungent smoke to rise.  Unimpressed, Soraya rolled her eyes at the elaborate spectacle.

“I wonder why he was so afraid of that little girl?” wondered Percival aloud.  He turned to see Soraya’s gaze upon him, her expression suddenly electric.

“The girl?  She is here?”

“Yes, the poor lamb is apparently locked away in the constabulary.  She beseeched me for assistance but we were set upon too quickly”.

Percival could see that this news had come as a surprise to Soraya whose eyes darted back and forth as her mind rapidly began considering her next action.

“Come”, she began, both hands clasping Percival’s shoulder, “We must use this moment wisely and free her”.

Though Percival’s morals mostly prevented him from interfering too deeply in the affairs of others, he’d been unable to shake the image of the frightened girl from his mind.  Her imprisonment seemed unjust – what crime could she possibly stand accused of at such a tender age?  This was mainly why he did not object when Soraya dragged him through the crowd of people and snuck into the empty offices of the constabulary.  The holding cells were located in the rear, down a featureless corridor.

Sat by herself, clutching her satchel, the little girl waited patiently inside one of the cells, her cherubic features obscured by iron bars.  She looked up to see Percival and Soraya enter quietly and her face softened with an expression of recognition.

“Do not worry small one – we mean to free you”, she whispered, but the little girl’s smile soon dissolved as she looked past her would be liberators and saw a sight which caused a wave of panic to spread across her face.

Primus – standing motionless in the corner, observing the fumbled jailbreak through her faceless mask – waiting for the right moment to reveal her presence.

“At last, little rat”, she spoke, “I have an excuse with which to do you harm”.


Percival, Soraya and the little girl sat quietly in the holding cell.  Only a few feet wide, the featureless room contained only a stone slab for sitting and sleeping and a nondescript wooden bucket for answering nature’s requirements.  Soraya looked rueful, her downcast expression marring her comely features.

“I regret that my impulse was so foolhardy.  I did not intend for you to be drawn into strife”, she apologised to Percival, “And you little one”, she began, now addressing the girl, “I have failed you not once but twice”.

“Do not be sad, Soraya.  The fault is not yours”, she offered kindly.

Percival found himself pleased at the sound of the little girl’s voice.  It was reassuring to hear her speak, if only for confirmation that her spirit had not been hammered down by incarceration.

Failed you twice?  Percival thought, as he arrived at sudden realisation.

“Then it was you who released her in the first place”, he whispered to Soraya.

“You are correct”, she began, “I only wished for her to flee this awful place.  The people here permit themselves to see her only one way.  Perhaps eyes belonging to others would see her as something else.  Something other than a beast”.

Their exchange was interrupted by the sound of the door to the hallway to the cells, and the noise of footsteps moving slowly towards them.  A female figure appeared, her face and head sheathed by a head covering which she drew back to reveal a middle-aged woman bearing a pointy face marked by lifetime of anger.

“Mother”, breathed the little girl, expressing both surprise and terror.

“That’s right”, said the woman, “I thought I smelled your foul stench”.

The little girl’s eyes fell to the floor as her mother’s words struck her like jagged rocks.

“We do not mean cause offence, merely correct the injustice of this poor child behind bars”, came Percival as he stood to squarely face the lady.  From her demeanour, it was clear that she was brimming with a barely contained rage at the sight of her daughter.

Child?”, the woman scoffed, “That’s a lark.  I used to see her as such as well, unwanted though she was, I welcomed the miracle of birth.  But day by day, as she caused my burden to grow, I watched her skin blacken and her shadow grow longer”.

The woman moved closer, taking hold of the prison bars with both hands as she locked eyes with the little girl, “Our lives would have been better without you, beast of burden!”, she hissed, “And I curse the day I shat you out”.

“That’s quite enough!”, snapped Soraya, weary of the woman’s abuse.

Having expunged the contents of her mind onto the now weeping child, the woman stepped away from the bars and floated down the hallway, but not before firing a parting shot.

“Has she spoken her name yet?”, she asked with a wry smile.

Percival and Soraya looked at each other and realised that despite their indignance at her mistreatment and their noble plan to spring her, they did not know the little girl’s appellation.

“Her name is Disease.  I named her so because she was the cause of my dis-ease”.  And with that thorny remark and a swish of her robes, the woman left, leaving stunned silence in her wake.

“Is it true?  Your name?”, Soraya asked the girl.

“Yes”, she replied sheepishly, “I dare not speak it aloud”.

“Is that the reason the townsfolk claim to see you in beastly form?”, asked Percival.

“I do not know; they merely call me a beast and have done so since I was an infant.  They say my skin is black and that my face is put on sideways with seven eyes and fifteen mouths”.

As she spoke, the girl reached into her satchel and extracted the two halves of the snake that had been killed by Primus’ spear.  Soraya grimaced, for the sorry carcass was a gruesome sight.  Holding the two pieces together, the girl closed her eyes and inhaled deeply as she concentrated upon the dead animal.  A moment later, the serpent reanimated, whole again and with no sign of injury.   

“Astonishing”, gasped Soraya.

“Be careful”, cautioned Percival, “Snakes can be deadly”.

“Not to me”, said the girl, “When I look into his eyes, I can feel the heartbeat of all creation”.

The girl unhanded the snake who happily slithered away, disappearing through the bars of the cell.

“This must be it”, reasoned Soraya, “Your gift of healing.  This is the truth beneath the people’s fear of you”.

“If that is fact, then we must leave this place”, Percival knelt before the girl, lowering himself to meet her eyes, “I bring tidings from happier places – free from scorn.  I know this because I have been there and known their kindness for myself.  We can leave this town – together if you wish – and you need never be a beast again”.

The girl beamed at him, hearing the earnestness of his tone.  She rose and nonchalantly moved to the cell door.  Placing her hand upon its fastened iron lock, she closed her eyes just as she had done with the snake.  A soft “clunk” could be heard from inside the lock as the door swung open.

“If you could do that the entire time, then why do you stay caged?”, Soraya asked the girl, incredulous.

“The people’s iron bars do not cage me so much as their words”.


Outside the constabulary building Percival, Soraya and the girl were pleased to see the assembled crowd’s attention was still directed towards the small platform where the magician was busily incanting.  Soraya threw her arms around the girl and whispered crucial instructions:

“You must leave here at once.  If you travel eastward past the old mill you will come to my brother’s house.  Tell him I have sent you.  He will provide you with a hardy steed and provisions for a few days”.

“Beast!”, shouted an old woman, causing others in the crowd to turn and face the three fugitives, “Beast!”, the crone called out again, pointing at the girl with a haggard index finger.

Of the assembled group whose attention had been caught, among them was the girl’s mother.

“Disease!”, she spat, her tone razor sharp.

Just then a great gasp went up from the crowd, originating from those closest to the incantation.  Unbeknownst to Percival and Soraya, Allozade had paused – mid sentence – and was tightly grasping at his chest with both hands.  He fell forward, his face contorting in agony as all eyes were quickly diverted by the old man’s distress.  Primus and the members of the Sisterhood snapped into action, surrounding him as the mass rushed forward to gawk at the occurrence.  Moving gracefully through the crowd, Soraya approached the stage with Percival – now clasping the little girl’s hand – trailing behind her.  The sight of the girl, brazenly moving about in the open made the townspeople bristle.  Recoiling, they moved aside, making a clear path through which she could pass.  Conscious and now laid upon his back, Allozade’s face had grown pale and his breathing shallow.

“It looks to be his heart”, diagnosed Soraya, “It has given up.  No spell can heal it.  Allozade is not long for the world.  Soon he’ll return to nature”.

“Silence”, barked Primus who suddenly appeared, enraged that her prisoners had escaped, “I might have known.  The beast and her defenders.  Your words are not welcome here!”.

“Hush, Primus”, snapped Soraya, “You’ll find your mouth an able cage for your tongue if you’d simply close your teeth.  Or are you incapable of thoughts not provided by Allozade?”

Incensed, Primus contained her temper, finding no value in continued sparring.  She issued forth orders to her fellow Sisters, “You – move those people back – allow us some space!  You – run and fetch sage and tallow root so that we might conduct a healing spell!”

Braving the commotion, the little girl stepped forward, separating herself from Percival’s protective grasp.

“I can save him”, she said softly, seeking Percival’s eyes for permission, “If you permit me, I can drag him from the void”.

Even through her mask, Primus’s appeared sceptical.  Soraya too raised a wary brow, certain that such a supernatural demonstration in full view of the entire town would likely result in their execution.

“It’s true”, came Percival, “I have seen her abilities for myself”.

“No!”, yelled Allozade as he gasped for air, “Do not allow that goblin to approach me – I intend to leave this world untouched by blackness! 

Spraying saliva with his words, the old magician seemed ferociously angry, even as his final moment approached him. 

“You have been touched by ignorance, magician.  This girl can save your life”, chided Soraya.

“My magic will save me, in this life, and the hereafter!”

“Your magic is false, Allozade, don’t you see?”, started Percival, “It is words without meaning.  Ritual with no purpose.  You offer sedation to the masses while decrying the very thing you have been complicit in creating”.

Soraya offered Percival a sly grin, impressed by his outburst.  Percival reached out for the little girl’s hand, “When I met her, I knew not her name, and accordingly I saw only a girl.  If she is truly a beast then she is a beast of your own creation.  You deny the simplest magic of all – words”.

Percival looked out upon the crowd and locked eyes with the girl’s mother, “You called this child disease and so that is what she became.  Her name was not given as a blessing but a curse – borne from a mother’s resentment.  She has the ability to bestow life where none exists.  Only a fool would refuse her ministration”.

“No!”, repeated Allozade his desperate grimace twisting even further, “I will not be tainted by agents of the underworld.  Wretched child!  I will denounce you until my final breath!  May you enter the fire and be damned!”

Clutching at his chest once more, Allozade let out an unholy cry as he writhed about the floor as the searing pain of his failing heart sliced through him.  Bearing the items they’d been ordered to retrieve, the Sisterhood formed an iron ring around him as the concerned crowd surged and rushed closer.

“The wheel turns for Allozade”, whispered Soraya to Percival and the girl, “If he craves the void, I say let him have it.  Avail yourself of this distraction and leave as I instructed”.

“But what of you?  Are you not imperilled here?”, replied Percival.

“I think not.  They are backwards but they are my people.  I will remain and tend my books.  With Allozade in his grave perhaps I can one day light the path from ignorance”.

“You have my thanks, Soraya”, said Percival, as he hastily clasped the woman’s hand.

“There is no need of gratitude. To gaze upon your aspect, was no chore”.

With a reassuring smile, Soraya bid farewell to Percival and the girl as they crept away from the crowd.

Thoughts create words, and our words in turn create the universe around us.  If this precept is true, then words themselves are the most powerful magic of all.  Names are also words, and so they themselves determine and forge us in ways we do not always comprehend.  The names our parents give us may be either tribulation or benediction in equal measure.  Conversely, the names we choose ourselves form a covenant with the future and are the shape we willingly choose to assume.

As the two swiftly made their way down the street and further away from the town, the girl caught a glimpse of herself in one of the shop windows.  She paused, momentarily, to look upon the most extraordinary sight she had ever beheld – the image of a little girl – reflected back at her.

SHORT STORY: The House Always Wins