Echoes of the Last Laugh [Story]
A vigilante jester always has the last laugh, until he runs into an enemy with just as big a grin as his, in this psychotic and chilling tale of murderous rampage. Told by Grandmaster Bard Holt Ironfell, the fourth short story in the ‘Before the Moongate’ series.
[Audio Narration Coming Soon]
Echoes of the Last Laugh
by Holt Ironfell
There’s no beating around the bush when it comes to Jobi Mockery, and no real way of putting it delicately. He was a psychopath. An artist, yes, without any doubt — but the model of a psychotic jester if there ever was one… and he always got the last laugh.
Jobi was my oldest friend, and I mean that in two ways. He and I have been friends since before I can remember — before our youth had escaped us. Perhaps somewhat more importantly, we are both of us over two hundred years of age, and this is because he and I stole a certain sorcerous elixir — one I may have mentioned before, here and there. An elixir of everlasting life. Who better to split the prize with than a trusted sidekick?
Naturally, no great adventure of Grandmaster Bard Holt Ironfell’s, no story of vengeance upon the villains of a past time and place, no escape into a whole new world would be complete, without my ‘trusted sidekick’.
Jobi made a living of his art, and an art of his killing. Assassination: that is the graceful name it is sometimes called. In the North, assassination was a High art, a thing practiced by license for a very exclusive audience. One was expected to keep the grand performance a secret, and let the mystique of reputation speak for itself. Still, the morbid light in his eyes, the angle of his smile — Jobi was without a doubt a murderer, and if you are the type that could find that sort of thing funny, then he was quite hilarious.
His exploits brought grief to whomever so dared cross him. He was a master of disguise, of infiltration and sabotage, of scaring the hell out of people and having a good time. Legendary, to be sure.
There was a pivotal time when I was still trying to figure out whether he was more killer than artist, and what price he would ‘sell out’ for. Most people do have such a price, and it is a useful thing to learn. Doubly so if you need a partner in crime. Soon enough, in our youthful days, ever so long ago, a more than illustrative situation unfolded.
A higher-up with a Great Merchant House, by profession a jeweller, wished to hire Jobi to take out an independent craftsman who had managed to scale his own operations to a point where he threatened the House’s monopoly. They were locked in a stalemate, due to the craftsman’s cunning. So, quite a bit of money went into finding someone of Jobi’s skill.
They had to twist his arm a bit, as the job wasn’t ‘poetic’ enough for his standards. Jobi gave him a bit of a hard time about that particular point.
“If you don’t do the job, then we’ll have two marks to deal with.”
Jobi was a little taken aback by such brazen threats. “Very well, I will require four times the pitiful bounty you are offering, and I want it all in coin. Your people may deliver it to the address I’ll give you.”
“Four times??” The jeweler gaped. “You must be joking.”
“I never joke.” Said the jester, pointed seriously, and showed a toothy, angled smile that just screamed bloody murder. Needless to say, the weighty sum of coins was delivered.
He did the job, but in his own way. One day when the aforementioned fellow was wandering down the street to his home, his sharp eye caught a tiny ruby in the dust, and praising his good fortune, he bent down to pick it up… Which, unpredictably, led directly to his death, as Jobi dropped an exceedingly large bag of coin atop him from a balcony above, crushing him and sending money clattering everywhere across the street! Nearly caused a riot too: most folk were desperately poor and that street was certainly no exception. The soldiers of the city state eventually broke things up. The merchant’s death was quite comfortably explained away as having been due to the trampling mob.
When the crowds and coin had at last cleared away, the body left behind hadn’t been the hard working independent craftsman at all. It’d been the jeweler who’d hired Jobi — killed, literally, with his own bloody coin. Justice. Arbitrary vigilantism, perhaps, but closer to justice than most stories ended in my world.
Like I said, he always had the last laugh, and he always impudently mocked the upper classes with that signature mimicry of his: “Haw, Haw, Haw, Haw!”
That was when I knew Jobi wasn’t in it for the money, and so did everyone who might have ever thought to mess with him. “Wax Poetica” was the motto of Poets’ Circle, and he waxed poetic on his enemies. He was a true artist. And from that point forward, I knew he was a man I could trust. Artistry, above all, has its own code of honour.
This was the type of man who prospered in the world I was from. Insane. Unrepentant. He was one of the very first of us, when the Circle was a mere troupe, and I was barely more than an apprentice still plying my trade at whichever local tavern or inn would have me.
Strange, looking back at a life of over two centuries, how things change but stay the same. It was not long now before all our mischief came to its climax and our absence be oh-so vital.
That is where the moongate came in. The second we had ever located. The first, in our younger days it was a beautiful sight, but alas, it lay destroyed by the magic-fearing tyranny of the Sisterhood. We were young when we saw it first open, young when we first saw into another world. First saw that not every world was filled with wickedness, like ours. Saw there might be an escape.
We so greatly needed to find another moongate — to make our exit — that we had orchestrated a fragile plot that spanned across the lifetimes of normal men. Leave it to Jobi to go out with a bang.
With a few clues from coveted and illegal tomes of knowledge I’d managed to liberate from their enslavement upon the dusty shelves of upper-class collectors, my dependable friend, Moonblade had finally found it: that legendary second moongate. He had searched years in the deserts, relentless.
When I received the news, I knew my plans could finally be set into motion, the dominoes tipped — and when the cascade reached its ultimate climax, when the whole thing came crashing down around them, there’d be no trace of me, nor any of my companions, anywhere.
It had been several years we’d been out of touch. Yet, when I investigated, I found traces of Jobi’s stylistic shenanigans in rumours coming from the South, where my grandson Ceridwen and his apprentice Kialyra were coincidentally enjoying some sudden and, I am afraid to say, inexplicable form of success. So I would kill two birds with one stone and rescue the three of them from whatever trouble they’d undoubtably gotten themselves into without me. And then Jobi would help me in the North, with the matter of Caitlin-Ji, and we’d be done with it. Through the moongate.
The South was as it always seemed to me, and that was destitute of compassion, a spiritless waste. The people were just so heavily oppressed, but you’d almost think they deserved it, the way they behaved. You couldn’t walk down any street in the city-state and feel quite at ease, neither from the corrupt militia, the power-tripping Templarate or the desperate and impoverished people everywhere. There had been food riots, mass killings. I passed before the water-temple, which was the only place in the region you could really get water at all, and behold in the square was a heap of rotting bodies — unthinkable barbarity for a Northman like myself, but, there it was.
It would not be difficult to find Jobi, even if he was undercover or in disguise. He would be precisely in the center of the most horridly ironic situation possible. It didn’t take a creative genius like myself to figure out the main event was a masquerade ball being hosted by some ‘mysterious and eccentric Lord’ in the Noble Quarter a week from my arrival. It was even simpler to get a pass through the said-Quarter so that I might show up in person. And, it was quite logical what disguise I should wear, as I had brought a fitting one with me.
When the date arrived, the noble quarter was inordinately calm. Soldiers had been diverted to other quarters due to the very real potential of another food riot, while word of the sheer magnitude of the ball’s feast undoubtably filled every empty-bellied ear. No one even checked my pass, and no one gave my costume a second look. It was something Jobi had personally given me, when he literally hung up his hat and left the North: a featureless white mask, save for bloody red streaks above and below the eyes, attached to a cruelly angled jester’s cap. Twas the very mask he’d used for the majority of his murderous work.
Reaching at last my destination, I slammed the bone door-knocker upon the front of the estate a few times. It took a few minutes, and looking around I was growing a bit more uneasy about the situation with the soldiers. At first I had been happy not to have any trouble from them. Mood swings are funny like that, because now I found myself questioning the kind of trouble that might happen without them.
Suddenly, the tall doors flung open, and a bright, handsome young lord with an angled smile and a morbid light in his eyes spread his arms and exclaimed: “Grandmaster Bard Holt Ironfell!”
“Hope I’m not late?” I said, stepping in and taking off the jester’s cap and mask. Hardly a disguise to the fellow who’d given it to me.
“Fashionably late, my friend. But come! Come! You’ll want some wine. Quite a helping of it possibly!” He looked around irritably as if in search of a servant, but grabbed a bottle all himself as he passed a rack down the hall, tossing it to me nonchalantly.
Jobi seemed very at home. Myself, I could but note the lack of servants, and the abrasive silence, save for our own footsteps and a faint violin playing from within the depths of the estate. It was an absolutely enchanting piece I had never yet heard, and a haunting female voice accompanied it with a wordless cry. It sent an absolute chill up my spine.
“Oh I have told my guests much about your appearance.”
“I didn’t get an invitation.” I perked an eyebrow. “Jobi, we have things that need doing, I am here because–”
“Oh I know why you are here, Holt,” Jobi said, narrowing his eyes cleverly with a dark smile. “Perhaps even more clearly than you do. But come! We can’t keep our guests! These are very important persons. Their time is extremely valuable!”
He brought us before the ballroom’s double doors and turned toward me, grasping either handle behind his back. The music had ended and there was not a sound to be heard. At all.
“They’re just dying to meet you.”
Certain scenes are beyond tactful description, and have a gravity that is ill put into words, yet nevertheless draws the body forward. And so I stepped into this slaughter, this nightmarish farce — I’d not have thought him capable of such a crime, but it was all too real now, lain bare before my eyes.
Before me, in various final stages of horror, was much of the nobility of the South, and at least half of the Senate, exquisitely garbed in the finest of costumes, all masquerading quite convincingly as exceptionally fresh corpses.
“What… have… you done?” I managed to breathe. My eyes followed through to the stage, where I found the source of the recent music — Ceridwen and Kialyra, blindfolded, standing very still. Kialyra seemed strangely calm, but my grandson’s forehead was sweating. It was quite plain to me they were beginning to suspect what had happened to their audience.
“Now that I think of it, perhaps you really ought not have any wine.” Jobi said, delicately plucking the unopened bottle from my rigid hands.
“Jobi… you can’t possibly get away with this. This is too much. You’ve killed these innocent people–”
“Innocent!” Jobi shouted, foppishly in-character to his noble persona. Hurling the bottle of wine onto the floor amidst the bodies with theatrical and unrestrained anger, he repeated. “Innocent? Don’t insult me.”
“Alright, alright. Let’s just calm down a moment.” I said, feeling a bit anxious about things.
“This is my masterpiece.”
I nodded my head slowly, and looked up at the stage. “And my grandson. And his apprentice? Did you need to tangle them up this?”
“Oh, haven’t you heard? Everyone has just gone insane for their music. Quite all of a sudden.”
“And so you used them to lure…”
“Most of the nobility and Senate to a ball…” Jobi continued, prompting me to put it into words.
“…and the feast was all poisoned?”
“Haw, Haw, Haw, Haw!”
Then, tapping his chin in retrospect, Jobi wrinkled his nose and pointed his finger at me idly. “You aren’t putting any effort into this, you know, it sounded much better in my head when I pictured you telling ‘the tale’ of it. Something to work on I suppose…”
“I’m not telling the tale of it, Jobi.”
He ignored me, raising a palm over to our two silent witnesses on stage. “You know these nobles in the South don’t allow musicians eat when they perform in the estates? Can you believe that? Such oversight.”
I looked up toward the blindfolded couple. They looked tense. “Ceridwen, Lyra. Are you two alright?”
“Granddad?” Ceridwen asked at long last, as if he’d been holding his breath.
“Oh, take the cursed blindfolds off you fools.” Jobi barked. “Yes, it’s Holt!”
“They’re terrified.” I said with my voice low, frowning at Jobi.
“Well one of them is,” he levelled an unimpressed glare at Ceridwen, but then arched an eyebrow toward Kialyra. “The little lady seems to have a bit more of a stomach for show business. I really think–”
“I don’t give a damn what you think!” I said, and threw the jesters cap at the fool. He blinked, and stared at me, seeming heartbroken.
“Holt. You’re being insensitive.”
I widened my eyes at this clown, dressed up like a noble Lord, and shook my head, furious. I pointed at the only other two living people in the room. “They don’t have elixirs of everlasting life, Jobi!”
“You mean bottles of worser things than death–”
“Whatever! Have you lost all concept of the danger into which you’ve put those charged to our care? Friends. Family!”
And then he surprised me, as strangely as he often can. Playing me, like he does. Letting it go on until he reveals he is no fool at all.
“You’ve never figured it out, have you, my old friend. The elixir, how it works. Such a shame… you think it’s something that happened to you, that it’s inside of you.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“No! Of course you don’t. All you think about is how it is a curse. You fail to realize the mechanics of the thing, how it truly functions. How it twists fate, protects us. I know you must have found a second moongate! It is the only explanation as to why you are here, and it is the only way we are going to live. You have a way to escape the repercussions, so none of us will die. That’s how the elixir works! It twists fate for us, and you forever underestimate my ability to make an exit. Haw!” Jobi laughed, shaking his finger at me.
“It’s not funny.” I said.
“Posh! You haven’t had a sense of humour in almost a century. You miss the point entirely.”
He was clever, but not wise. I looked him square in the eye then sighed a long sigh, shaking my head, scanning the bodies.
“No, Jobi. I just miss… Her.”
And for a moment he was human again, not this monster he’d worked himself into being. For a brief moment he was truly younger, as if the memory of our past had resurrected his compassion just a moment. We were silent a respectful length of time, while he looked to his ‘captives’ on stage, and then with fresh eyes around the ballroom at the massacre surrounding him.
“Yes… Alright, Holt… Yes. Let’s go.”
And the rest is history, really. There is just one more thing now to tell of, and that is what happened to Jobi after we made it through the moongate.
I have told of the moons rising exactly as they must, that fateful night upon which the portal would activate and send us to another world. We ended up deep in the underground, lost. I described to you how we searched for the exit and encountered a terrifying beast that split our company apart, feeding upon our minds, giving us hallucinations, stealing memories and secrets.
What I have not told you is Jobi’s story after that beast from the depths rose to confront us. As the spectres of those he had killed began walking the caverns around him, it became clear to him that he had not escaped our world, not fully. That he had brought one of the most dangerous aspects of it with him — himself. He knew then he would never see the light again, knew that he was truly doomed.
Then, he ran. Ran from fear, from panic, from madness. Ran blindly through the caverns until the gibbering of the psychic beast was a distant silence. Tumbled through precarious passages and across broken caverns with abandon that would have ended in death for someone who could actually die. He knew not where he was going and did not settle for some breathless hours.
Then he was alone, in the humourless darkness of the Underworld, in a silence that seemed menacing and resentfully disturbed by his breath.
He searched his pouches for matches and lit a torch from his pack, looking about the place he now found himself. It was immediately clear that this entire new world was messing with his mind. Somehow, of all the places, he had found himself in a cavern that was shaped almost naturally, as a great amphitheatre. Stalactites and stalagmites protruded like teeth in random and natural formations, but some ancient structure had been carved like steps and seats, descending into a clear flat area. Yes, it was unmistakably an amphitheatre, but its only audience consisted of large rough boulders hewn here and there, as if from minor cave ins over time.
He was taken aback a moment when huge crystals around the cavern began to dimly glow, providing scant otherworldly light, and he threw his torch down into the staging area to light it ahead of him as he carefully climbed down, watching his surroundings.
Then, before his eyes, the boulder near his thrown torch began to move and morph its stony shape. He drew his dagger swiftly, dropping into a readied stance, and to his surprise, so did the boulder. Except it looked ever more human, and ever more… a mirror of himself!
“Doppelgänger!” Jobi cried, and so did the creature, more or less, quickly picking up the language. This couldn’t have been worse a thing, from Jobi’s perspective. He had outwitted all sorts of enemies, but the nature of this Underground place was swiftly revealing itself. First the spectres of his victims, now this.
Jobi’s task was to face his inner demons.
Yes! He thought. This was his chance for redemption, his chance to lay things to rest and escape his past, truly. A new world, a new Jobi. This was his final opponent. He would never kill again! He would make jokes — funny ones! — and make children laugh. Occasionally make some coins disappear. But that would be the worst of it! His eyes lit up and his smile took on that old Jobi angle.
He threw his dagger with shrewd and calculated aim, and it smacked straight into the clone’s shoulder. Two things then happened simultaneously: His dagger did a very unsatisfactory amount of damage to his target, as if its skin still had the quality of stone. And, he was knocked back by a fierce force against his own shoulder, as the creature hurled a knife in precisely the same way, except with tenfold the strength!
“Ugh!” He cried as he stumbled, thrown back against the seating of the amphitheatre. The doppelgänger taunted him by mimicking the effects of the blow, and theatrically said “Uinngh” itself!
Jobi didn’t like being made fun of.
But now there was some unscripted movement. The creature rose first, and Jobi found himself rising as an afterthought, captivated by his opponent. It was the doppelgänger’s move. He would be on the defensive now. The jester’s mind raced for a solution. Plan for the worst, hope for the best.
This creature would know his moves before he did them, and copy or counter them precisely and with more force. Though he was certain no other being could kill him — as the mechanics of the elixir of everlasting life prohibited such an outcome — he did wonder if there was a technicality surrounding attempts at one’s own life, or something to do with copies of oneself. It was best not to find out.
Or was it?
Slowly, the solution dawned on Jobi. How does one slay the monster within? Ah, there is indeed such a way. Hadn’t it been obvious all along? His fiery glare sparked a morbid cunning and he was himself again, Jobi Mockery, the psychotic jester of old. Forever underestimated; Fortune’s Fool.
Slowly now he drew out a longknife from his belt, taking a step, and another step, toward his foe, while it mirrored him perfectly, an exact and meticulous duplicate. Hesitation was fading. He must not allow the doppelgänger to take his place, to use his knowledge and find Holt and his party, to sow the unbridled discord he knew that evil things of the depths like this must, by their nature, sow. He belonged down here, with them. A tragic end, but necessary.
And with that, Jobi raised his knife with an upward jerk, his wicked companion following suit, and then plunged it straight into his own heart!
Or would have, except at the very last moment, a strange and unconquerable force interfered with his will. The blade penetrated his flesh, sunk into a rib, breaking it, and then stopped. Jobi looked down, completely taken off guard and startled the knife stuck pointlessly in him by its tip.
He lifted his gaze into the dimly lit stage, and saw that his foe had not been so lucky. It had hit itself with such force that it had broken into fragmented pieces, defeated.
“Huh. I’m alive…” He said. Then, “Ouch!” as he bled with a broken rib, grunting. He stood looking about, allowing his perception of the situation to ferment calmly.
It had been a risk, and he couldn’t be certain in retrospect if it had been his own hesitation or the elixir’s strange effect, but here he was. Victorious! What an epic climax! The hero outwits all odds and behold: The new Jobi! Saved by the grace of–
The sound of an individual clapping his hands together began, echoing throughout the dim, crystal-lit chamber. A fell gust of cold air throughout the cavern blew the torch out. A horrid chill crept up the poor jester’s spine, as one by one, more clapping hands joined in applause. He looked up, peering out into the audience to see just who it was comprised of. He dropped his bloodied longknife to the ground,
There were no boulders to be seen in the seats nor aisles of the amphitheater now. From darkness his audience gave a standing ovation, their claps echoing together fiercely at the dramatic scene they had just witnessed.
“Haw!” Came a shout from the clapping audience. Jobi froze on stage, his blood running cold.
“Haw! Haw!” The echo came.
“Haw! Haw! Haw! Haw!”
My dear friend is still alive, for he is, shall we say, a capable survivor. But I also know he ran. He ran, as is his way, when confronted with such frightful mirrors into his own soul. And now there are several psychotic jesters causing chaos in his name, all over this new world. We had tried so hard to leave the wickedness of our home world behind us, only to bring it forward within ourselves.
I shouldn’t make jokes, but one must try look on the bright side in times like these. There is, at least, one way to tell which is the real Jobi… and that is: the others can be killed.
A small comfort, but perhaps it is just enough to save me from despair.