“Dear, beautiful spectator,” said the magician, his knuckles dove-white from his clasp on an amethyst, shimmering top hat. The audience was wide eyed as the young man reached inside his polka-dotted blazer. “I ask you to look inside yourself, unlock the chest of your lonesome soul,” his eyes glinted, “tell me what you find.”
He waited a few seconds before continuing. “You will find, binding your very being, two padlocks. If you look closer at the first, you’ll find yourself with a third-degree burn on your nose and a spirit full of harmony and grace. It’ll feel you with such jubilation that you’ll never want to look away, but you risk blindness the longer you peer at the blazing bolt.” Pulling a gilded key strung on a strip of speckled lace, he added: “With haste, this first lock of lust can be overcome.”
“Now you’re left with one obstacle, to unlock the soul – you’re full potential. If you focus hard enough, you’ll make out a black padlock; its cloak of darkness shrouds the brightest light.” He pulled a twisted obsidian key from his blazer. It shone under the spotlight like a thousand black candles. His mouth was pulled back in a sneer, his heart racing. “This one is infinitely more difficult to handle than the first. Every second you peer into this bolt is an eon of torment.” Several spectators coughed in their red, cushioned seats, disturbed. “You must face your demons, peering into the boiled face of the devil, before the lock drops and the restraints are lifted. In this battle, the deepest force of the universe is concentrated on you. Bleak vultures will try and tear at your shoulders; shadowed serpents will sink their fangs into your heel.” A viewer bellied over and vomited on the black tarp.
The magician grimaced as he dropped the key, reaching within the ornate top hat. “Let the dancing fumes wash away your glowing, painted wings. As the toxin slithers into your conscience,” the magician pulled a skeletal, writhing creature from the hat, “I will exonerate you.”
Suddenly, the viewers fall to the floor, scratching at their chests and throats. Children’s eyes turn vermillion, their skin splintered like blistered glass, as their parents stumbled to their side. Whispers muted the indignant bellows. Cloaked specters carried the babies to the ceiling, sending their fragile bodies back to the ground, smashed and mutilated. Every breath was an inhalation of bladed powder and cyanide. Boiling slime expanded across the tarped floor, an ocean rife with starving, scaly beasts.
The magician groaned, snapping the patchy, wiry neck of a vicious rodent – its squeal a nightmare siren. Virulent typhoons of shadow and disgrace protected him from the evil consuming the theatre. Flickering emerald flame followed his footsteps, as he approached the door. With every step closer, blurry phantoms shouted: “You’re not invited!” One flung an infant’s decapitated corpse at him. “NOT INVITED!” The banshees’ shrieks nearly brought him to his knees, but he forced himself to reach the locked door.
Trained on the shimmering, golden deadbolt keeping him contained in this infernal trial, the magician pushed in the key and turned. The padlock opened with a pop and dropped to the floor. In a flash, the charred tarp turned into soft prairie grass; the intestine-adorned walls faded to reveal a sunlit forest and a diamond-specked pond, disgusted incantations a chorus of mockingbirds.
For the first time in an eternity, the magician smiled and laughed, rolling around on the damp grass. “Free at last!” he shouted.
The magician’s expression changed, however, when he cut himself on the teeth of a charred, barbed statue resembling the Bringer, the evil entity from his dreams. Elation melted to malice. Ravens obscured the beaming sun, and the forest collapsed to a frozen graveyard.
The Bringer’s silhouette was etched on the horizon. “For years you relied on slight-of-hand to deceive unwitting spirits. Now you shall wear their souls and walk through the inferno you so dexterously illustrated.” Sharp winds ripped the clothes off of the magician, the great entertainer reduced to a bumbling, naked boy in a bed of sweltering snow. “You will forever chase the jester of your former being, always falling short of vindication.”
“Please,” the magician begged, “make me forget all of this. Give me a fresh canvas to start anew.” His tears evaporated against the hot snow. “I’m so sorry, for everything.” He wept. “I know I shouldn’t have touched those kids. I’ve learned my lesson! Please!”
The Bringer roared, cracking the frozen earth. “Something tells me you enjoyed that first trial too much to ever be forgiven.” It cackled. “Granted you survive the night, you’ll find your black key somewhere in the winding river of tar up north; the padlock is deep within the Salahrin Mountains, but I’ve got a feeling the army of vengeful infants and tortured toddlers will pick you off far before you reach the border.”