The eyes of a princess brightened, casting a magic spell on a castle and its ghoulish inhabitants.
In that distant fortress of gloom, fog began to drift in the minds of ghoul sentries, allowing an agile clown to slip by quietly.
A wide arched doorway opened on a spiral staircase running down from the Grave Tower. The clown saw it as his gateway to freedom, and he knew a princess waited at the end of this avenue of escape. She was hidden in far-off time, somewhere deep in the Earth's eye.
He took flight in the darkness, racing down those winding stairs. Glancing back, he saw a luminous green form appear in the cobwebs above. It raised a sword that cut through the murk like liquid steel, and as it streaked toward his head, he ducked and managed to toss a dagger. The point caught the ghoul's eye. Glowing blood spattered and he heard the ghoul's tumble and death rattle, then he reached the bottom of the stairs and booted open the heavy wooden door.
Daylight streamed in; he saw the ghoul sprawled on the stairs - its thick green tongue protruding and leaking blood.
Ancient objects from plundered graves decorated the slimy stone walls. He pried loose a copper shield, threw it over his back and rushed out the door.
A drawbridge was ahead on the road. Bolts of ghoul lightning rained down, tearing at the ground and deflecting off his shield. Getting across the bridge, he leapt an embankment and landed on a muddy path. A jagged bolt ripped the bark off a nearby oak. Tossing the shield to the ground, he hurried out of range, running through the curling smoke.
Decaying leaves and black earth at the edges of the path's beaten centre met with gargantuan tree trunks. Faint daylight filtered through the canopy of branches above. In his mind's eye, the clown saw the howling face of a ghoul lightning breather. Then another light appeared - far away and crystal. Glancing back, he saw the castle towering over him. Turrets leaned into gruesome visions. Spellbinding sights from the grave flowed in the miasma encircling it.
Deciding to return home to Temagame Forest, he plotted a route in his mind. It meant passing through the City of Zodiax. Brushing himself off he headed down the path, cursing the luck that got him captured by ghouls in the first place. He knew the ghouls hadn't managed to seize his friends, the purple princess and the magician, and he wondered where they had hidden.
A sudden rumble and he turned on his heels. A portion of the castle wall had collapsed and a dark shape stood in a dust cloud on the far side of the moat. Sweat beaded and trickled on the clown's forehead. He couldn't hope to win a fight in his weakened state. All he could do was flee and hope to escape.
The dust cleared, revealing a repulsive thing - a seven-foot ghoul. Hostility pinched its face and it leapt the moat with ease. Blood glazed eyes, rotted fangs and a drooling mouth showed as it moved closer. Filthy brown hair sprang from its chin and it held a rusty iron spike in its fist.
Turning quickly, the clown fled down the path through patches of mud. In places, it was so sticky he had the bad-dream feeling of running in slow motion. Glancing back, he saw the ghoul gaining rapidly.
A brilliant light appeared on the pathway ahead. Dust motes floated in a sunlit octagon, and the clown recognized it as an opening to the magician's nightmare screen.
Cold chills shot up his spine as he increased his speed. The ghoul almost had him spiked, and then a dark object flew down through the trees. Diving, the clown ducked it and rolled to the edge of the path. A glance back to the ghoul and he saw it screaming silently as a disembodied black claw tore into its throat. A moment later green blood jetted and it went down hard in the mud.
Thunder boomed through the nightmare screen and the ground began to tilt. The clown seized a knot in the twisted tree beside him and held on as the mud on the path rolled up like a carpet and split. Then as the earth continued to shake, he jumped up and ran … bushes and thorns flailing at him as he escaped through the forest.
A premonition filled his mind and a rumble shook his bones as he neared the end of the path. Sinister eyes were watching from a window in a Grave Tower, and then electric-blue light pulsed and knocked him to the grass.
Consciousness slipped away in wisps of smoke. Moments later, he rose and saw his dead body lying in the weeds. A patina of death ringed his eyes. Turning he saw fragments from a rainbow spinning skyward to the flaming yellow sun. A princess's face in a crystal ball touched his mind and drew him south. Thick brown grass took him into veils of mist and a jade waterfall rushed nearby. Then he was walking on slippery wet stones and he tripped and fell … into a void.
The clown landed on his feet in long wet grass. He was facing the ghouls' castle, watching as black lighting split the sky and struck one of the Grave Towers. Ablaze in scarlet flames, a ghoul lightning breather fell from the tower window; its ghastly scream echoed from the castle walls, then it splashed into the moat below.
Crocodiles fed. Looking up the clown saw the face of the magician in a white cloud. Slowly it drifted in the direction of the City of Zodiax.
The magician had the clown in mind as he came to ground in a crater. He turned and his golden hair and twinkling blue eyes were the only signs of beauty in the desolate landscape. Wind rushed in and swept the folds of his long coat. Gold sparkled in a sudden beam of sunlight and as he looked to the East, a symbol appeared on a faraway tomb.
Turning and placing his hands on his hips, he gazed at the leaden sky and saw beyond to a pink sun drifting in pale clouds. In the grass below, the clown approached the city…
… Looking ahead the clown saw a dense forest of stone towers and turrets stretching over a flat plain. Beyond the towers, the fall colors of Temagame Forest showed…
… Nightmare's doorway opened in sunset clouds, and the magician appeared, sliding across the sky on a golden beam of sunlight. He landed on the spire of the SunWheel Tower, the highest perch in the city, and stood there in the ephemeral rays of sunset, studying a land of flashing colors and long shadows.
Intricate webs of light and shadow shifted on the stone walls of the towers. Domes reflected the evening light and dazzled his meditative mind with polished illusions and unreal beauty. The City of Zodiax followed the curve of the earth and faded away into the mystic ghosts and dying dreams of fall. Autumn leaves blew on the wind, and in his mind became a river of gold symbols pouring down the steps of time. More leaves swirled to clouds in the streets below and they changed reality to autumn tinted streams.
He turned on the spire and his eyes ignited as he spotted a lone clown traveler approaching the city. A flow of gold twirled to a bolt in the magician's hand. He tossed it and it tumbled across the city toward the clown…
… A macabre creature peeked through a crack in a rubble-stone wall, watching the clown cross the field. The skull face of a demon appeared as it moved swiftly along the wall, the one hundred shrunken heads on its belt swinging as it ran. The demon's belt didn't boast a single clown's head, so it mounted its black stallion and hastily set out to collect one.
A mass of cobwebs blew free as the gate slowly creaked open, unleashing the skull-faced demon. Huge hooves kicked back clods of earth as the laughing horror raced over the fields. Veined eyes bulged behind the skull demon's face of bone. Its mouth twisted with bloodlust. Exhaling a river of steam, it held its sword high. Envisioning a grand moment of victory and a fountain of spurting clown's blood, the demon bit its blackened tongue and spurred its stallion cruelly.
Stopping in his tracks the clown stared at the approaching skull demon. He was certain his last act would be a desperate one, then he saw a golden lightning bolt tumbling down from the sky. He caught it in his white-gloved hand.
The skull demon closed in for the kill. Blades of steel and lightning met, sending a boom of thunder down the wind. The clash sent the skull demon flying from its horse; scorched and deafened it rolled in the grass.
Tracing an arc in the air, the golden bolt radiated fire as the clown brought it down. It caught the demon as it rose; its head thumped to the ground and a jet of black blood soaked the grass. A moment later, its body of bones and armor was ablaze with golden flames.
Turning, the clown faced the City of Zodiax. Charred bones rested next to the hilt of a shattered sword beside him. A belt of shrunken heads circled the bones. The largest of these heads being that of a headhunting skull demon.
In the west the face of the magician showed momentarily in the setting sun…
… The clown galloped along the cobblestone streets of the City of Zodiax on his newly acquired black stallion. Violet rays filtered through thick gray clouds. A spell from the princess was in the air, pulling him onward to the temple of the ghouls.
Ahead of the clown, the source of the spell scaled the side of a building in the twilight. Reaching the rooftop the princess moved quickly and hid in the shadows. Her night-vision eyes glowing faintly as she peered across the street at the ghouls' temple. Green ghoul sentries stood at observation posts built on the thick stone walls circling the buildings. The central structure was an emerald dome with an open roof that made it easy for the ghouls to sacrifice to the Zodiax and the Cyclops moon.
The princess looked to the entrance down on the street. Two broad oak doors set between marble pillars sculpted in the form of entwined cobras stood between the world and the inner temple.
A ghoul slave master pounded the knocker. Behind him a group of female human slaves waited for the doors to open. Moments later one heavy door opened and the women walked into the temple. The ghoul sentry checked his back and the street then he barred the doors and climbed back to his observation tower.
Evil sacrifices performed by the ghouls were legendary, but the princess had not witnessed any of them. As the story went, the ghouls called up a demon from the black abyss. Others things were required - a full moon, women to sacrifice, drums of human skin, ritual knives, unholy priests, torn hearts and the great stolen cup of ghouls…
… Cyclops moon climbed in snow-white veils of mist. The clown dismounted in a cul-de-sac and walked toward a rope ladder at the dead end. Purple eyes appeared in his mind. A spell from the princess sharpened his hearing, and he hid in a corner as clattering hooves came around the bend.
A ghoul dismounted and walked over to inspect the black stallion. Becoming suspicious, he began to move down the alley, stopping every now and again to swish his sword through the shadows.
The clown held the tip of a long dagger he'd taken from the saddlebags of the headhunter demon. His arm relaxed then flashed forward, sending the blade through the night to nail the ghoul to the far wall. Tiny diamonds and drops of blood sparkled on the hilt of the ghoul's new throat decoration as the clown made his way up the ladder. He moved across the rooftop toward a long purple shadow…
… Another crater in the wasteland found the magician busy. Dust was in his hand and from it he tossed a handful of gold symbols into the thin air. Colors transformed to silver, purple and black. He opened his palms, catching new symbols of daggers, lightning bolts and claws. A second toss and the symbols spun through a wrinkle in time and through the nightmare screen above the City of Zodiax. They came to rest quietly and sparkled on the rooftop, next to the purple princess….
… Moonlight revealed a sentry ghoul walking along the crenellated stone wall. A flash of purple lightning shot across the street, slashing a throat with its heated edge. The ghoul's head fell, thumped in the street and rolled into the shadows. Another ghoul rushed up to investigate, but a black claw struck him, and he collapsed on the wall, having only a bleeding hole for a throat.
Ghoul sentries converged on the bodies from their various posts, forming a tight circle around their dead companions. Moonlight pooled around them for a brief moment as they exchanged guttural words, then a rain of daggers, claws and lightning flashes struck them. Gushing blood formed tentacles in the moonlight, scattered drops glistened like dew on the walls and the bodies did a slow collapse into the smoking slime.
The clown scaled the wall while the princess climbed one of the gate pillars. Moments later the oak doors swung open. As the princess looked out her eyes shone, creating an oval of light in the street. Shadows were banished as a brilliant shape took form. A bright mane appeared and a lion emerged, gathering full definition as it bounded past the princess…
… A brilliant ball, the moon dominated the sky above the temple of the ghouls. A dreadful cacophony began as their demon ascended from the black abyss. A giant fiend it took shape out of the depths of darkness. Its eyes glowed red as coals. Its maw shot crimson fire. Malevolence and bloodlust twisted its hideous features. Shaking loose its smoking coils of hair it raised sharpened green claws and looked toward the women.
Crouching low the clown kept out of sight in one of the temple's hallways. Jail shadows from a heavy metal door made a temporary prisoner of him. Staring out at the court he awaited the princess's signal, and it came as lightning flashed near the women.
Paws padded down the hallway. The clown spun around and saw a flaming lion racing at full tilt toward him. Swinging the metal door open, he hid behind it as the creature raced through.
The lion's roar filled the temple as it leapt at the giant fiend. Fire streamed from the demon's maw, striking the cat as it arced through the moonlight. Blazing with red flames and purple light it locked into the demon, tearing at it as it sent it for a fall on the altar floor.
Green blood and putrid flesh spilled from the demon's wounded shoulder. It seized a huge sword as it roared and rose. Wary, the lion slowly backed off, and behind it the women escaped through the open door.
Turning sharply the lion bounded out the door as the demon swung its sword. Metal clanked and scraped on the marble floor and the door clanged shut.
A spiral carpet of silver moonlight appeared in the sky above the temple. The startled demon lifted its face to the moon and saw the magician tossing a handful of gold symbols into the night air.
Thunder boomed and lightning began to flash. Black rays shot from the demon's fiery eyes, blasting the descending silver bolts out of existence. It raised its powerful arms and knocked away several flying claws, then more lightning charges hit it and it staggered back and fell against the sacrificial pillar.
Roaring it shook its fists and opened its claws in anger, but the magician was out of reach and as the demon lashed out at the air two bolts of steel caught its palms and impaled them to the pillar. A blue bolt flew into its fiery maw, completing its crucifixion as the magician landed on the altar.
Standing on one heel the magician began to spin, becoming a blur with a gold shimmer. Waves of symbols streamed into the air, vanished in the darkness and then began to fall as a rain of gold daggers.
Ghastly cries replaced the drumming as fire, steel and claws ripped flesh and limbs from the panicked ghouls. They trampled one another as they rushed to escape, but the clown and the princess got ahead of them and sealed off the exits. They could only turn back to their roaring demon and the attacking magician. In the end, they saw symbols flashing through slime and steam, and they collapsed in the sticky spray of blood filling a temple fast becoming their tomb.
In the pattern of bones and decay, a symbol remains … of a clown, a princess and a magician.
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