The Last Laugh
Jaycee backed away as Shadow Kahn made his way closer. “It was you,” she said. A feeling of anger was rapidly overtaking the fear inside Jaycee. “It was you who made me see those horrible things. Why would you do that?”
“I know not what you are talking about,” said Shadow Kahn. “Everything that you see here is a manifestation of your deepest, most inner thoughts. I have less control over what happens here than even you do.”
Jaycee stopped abruptly, prompting Shadow Kahn to do the same. “Then where am I?” she asked. “What is this place?”
“Just look around. Can you not tell where you are? This is a cold and empty place. It is without love, without compassion. Are these not the things that you find yourself without? Are these not the things that you were raped of?”
“Where am I?” exclaimed Jaycee.
“Very well,” said Shadow Kahn. “If you are so eager to know, then I will tell you. You are standing within the depths of your very own soul.”
The shock that hit Jaycee was so great that her staff slipped from her grasp.
Aiko awoke to find herself shackled to the wall in a dark and musty dungeon. When she turned her head to survey her new surroundings, she was immediately reminded of how she got there as the pain from Sage’s blow still lingered in her neck.
Rage began to take hold of Aiko, but the focus of her rage was not Sage. The only person Aiko felt worthy of blaming for her predicament was herself. “How could I have been such a fool?” she thought. “Why didn’t I see it coming? Why didn’t I listen to those feelings? From the very start . . . they were warning me.”
James and Archer ran frantically through the forest as they had quickly become caught in the middle of a severe downpour. With such violent thunder and lightning looming above, the two were in desperate need of shelter.
Like the answer to a prayer, an inn became visible ahead.
Upon entering, James and Archer found their new surroundings shrouded in darkness and seemingly without another living soul.
“Hello,” called out Archer. “Is anyone here?”
“This is strange,” said James. “Someone should be here to greet us.”
Archer made his way to the front desk in search of something that could help explain where everyone was. He discovered nothing. “I’m sure everyone is just asleep,” he assured James. “It has gotten quite late.”
James had missed what his teacher had just said as he was already halfway up the stairs. Archer hastily followed.
Once he was on the second floor, James made his way to the end of the hall. Once there, he opened a door. To his relief, there was nothing of concern inside the room.
James and Archer then proceeded to open every door upstairs. The result from each room was the same. Nothing was found that could tell them why the inn had been deserted. The only significant piece of information found was that the rooms were clean, showing that the abandonment was recent.
“What now?” asked Archer. “There’s nothing here.”
“There has to be something.”
The sound of something breaking downstairs captured James and Archer’s attention. It was now clear that they were sharing the inn with somebody else.
Downstairs James and Archer discovered a vase that had been resting on a table now lying in pieces on the floor. The fact that the broken vase was a good distance from the table showed this was no accident.
“Well,” said Archer, “that certainly got our attention.”
What sounded like pieces of wood tapping against each other became audible from inside a yet explored room.
James and Archer entered what turned out to be an immense room. But with so little light inside, it was difficult to see just what kind of room they had entered. The two took a few more steps inside, and when they did, the doors slammed shut behind them.
Sage was sitting at the head of a grand table. To his right sat the leader of the brigands, a ruthless man named Kiedas.
“When are you expecting the master’s return?” asked Sage.
“Well, it’s hard for me to say,” replied Kiedas. “Lord Shadow Kahn rarely honors us with his presence. The last time I saw him was when he came with urgent news. But that was quite some time ago.”
“That’s a shame,” said Sage.
“What should we do with the girl? There are so many ways for us to make her tell us what we want to know.”
“The best way to torture a person with as much spirit as that one is to keep her locked away. It won’t take long for her to break.”
While Sage and Kiedas discussed their plans, Aiko was in her cell trying with all her might to pull her shackles out of the wall. But the harder Aiko tried, the worse the pain in her neck became. This forced her to take unwanted breaks just when she felt she was making progress in her attempt to escape.
“When I get out of here, there’s going to be trouble,” she said. Aiko again began pulling on her shackles but was far too weak to pull very hard. “Like I said. When I get out here, there’s going to be trouble.” Her head then lowered. “If I ever do get out.”
James ventured deeper into the darkened room, while Archer stayed back to prevent any surprise attacks from the rear. But before James could reach the other end of the room, he walked into something. It was only the lower part of his body, however, that had made contact with the unknown structure.
“I found something,” said James.
After not receiving an answer, James turned to face Archer but he could barely make out his teacher through the darkness. “Archer?” asked James. “Is something wrong?” At that moment, the sound of a jingling bell filled the room.
“James, move,” said Archer.
“What’s going on?” asked James, trying desperately to see through the darkness.
“Get out of the way now!”
James intensified his focus on Archer, and when he did, he was able to spot the tip of an arrow pointed in his direction. The instant it was fired, James leaped out of the way and was able to avoid being struck.
Archer immediately drew another arrow.
James pulled himself off the floor and glared in Archer’s direction. “What are you doing?” he demanded to know.
“I can’t control my body.”
After drawing his sword, James crouched. He then stared in Archer’s direction and was once again able to spot the tip of an arrow being pointed at him. But this time, James was able to spot something else.
The instant the arrow was fired, James charged. It took no time for him to reach striking distance of Archer, and when he did, James unleashed a powerful swing. His blade sliced through two thin strings tied around Archer’s wrists.
After regaining control of his arms, Archer began removing the strings as quickly as he could. “What is this?” he asked.
“Someone was controlling you like some kind of puppet.”
“What could have done this?” asked Archer.
It was immediately after Archer had asked his question when the most hideous laughter either had ever had the misfortune of hearing filled the room. Numerous candles on the walls then lit themselves, illuminating the room and revealing it to be a theater.
Aiko was growing extremely weak from hunger and was only barely able to keep her eyes open. She believed it to be only a matter of time before she succumbed to her fatigue and fainted. But fainting would have to wait as Aiko heard someone outside her cell.
Two guards entered, one of which was carrying a bowl of broth. Aiko cared not for the company but did care that she was going to be fed.
One of the guards stood by the door, while the one with broth made his way to Aiko. For some reason there was a smirk on his face. “You want some of this?” he asked, passing the bowl under Aiko’s nose. “I know you do.”
Knowing she was being toyed with, Aiko directed a glare at her tormenter.
“Then have some,” said the guard, thrusting a spoon full of broth into Aiko’s mouth. Some of the broth made it in but most of it dribbled down Aiko’s chin. She grimaced after having a taste of the foul tasting food.
“Is it too cold?” asked the guard in a mock sympathetic tone. He then turned to face his partner, prompting both men to begin laughing.
Aiko said something to the guard but it was far too quiet to be heard.
“What was that?” asked the guard, leaning in so he could better hear what was being said. The closer he got, though, the softer Aiko’s voice became. He then motioned for the other guard to join him in trying to hear what was being said.
There was a temporary break in Aiko’s dialogue, but soon thereafter, she let out a shout that forced both guards to jerk away.
Noticing the guard with the bowl of broth was holding it at an elevated position, Aiko swung her head, the only body part not chained to the wall, using it to strike the bowl and knock the contents into both men’s faces.
“I can’t believe you fell for that!” exclaimed Aiko. “If you two are the best this group has to offer, then you’re all in serious trouble!”
“You little!” shouted one of the guards, looking ready to strike.
“That’s enough,” exclaimed someone at the door. Everyone looked to the far end of the cell and found Kiedas watching them.
“General Kiedas,” said the guards in unison.
“You two are a disgrace. Go clean yourselves up.” His men did as were told, leaving Kiedas alone with Aiko.
“Please tell me I can expect the same level of intelligence from you as from your men,” said Aiko, acting as if she was the one in control.
“You and your friends have caused our lord quite a bit of trouble,” said Kiedas, closing the door behind him. “And because of you, me and my men have yet to be paid. Needless to say, we’re all a little upset about this.”
“I wasn’t expecting to hear such good news today. I really should thank you for making me feel better.”
“I’m so delighted that this news has brought you such pleasure,” said Kiedas, making his way to Aiko. “It’s a shame I don’t feel the same way.” Kiedas then delivered a blow to Aiko’s stomach, knocking the wind out of her.
Though the strike had caused her a great deal of pain, Aiko refused to give Kiedas the satisfaction of knowing he had done her any real harm. “Hasn’t anyone ever told you you’re not supposed to hit a lady?” groaned Aiko.
“You, a lady?” asked Kiedas. “The only thing I see when I look at you is a little fool with a sharp tongue that needs to be taught a lesson.”
“I suppose it was foolish of me to expect someone like you to know what a lady is. Spending so much time around only men must have done something to you. And I think you know what that something is, don’t you?”
“It’s comments like those that get people into trouble,” said Kiedas before delivering another blow to Aiko’s stomach. Unlike after the first blow, Aiko was unable to mask her pain as a grunt burst from her and her head lowered.
Having said what was on his mind, Kiedas departed.
“Bastard,” groaned Aiko.
On his way up the stairs, Kiedas encountered Sage. “Just who I’ve been looking for,” he said. “I was talking with one of my men and he informed me that a scout has returned with very good news. Lord Shadow Kahn plans to visit us in a day or two. He said he would be here sooner, but he has important matters to tend to.”
“Thank you for that report,” said Sage. He then made his way around Kiedas and continued down the hall.
“Oh, you shouldn’t be thanking me,” whispered Kiedas.
James and Archer once again rammed their shoulders into the theater doors but they once again had no success in breaking them down.
“This is doing us no good,” said Archer, rubbing his throbbing shoulder.
“You’re right,” said James, also rubbing his shoulder. “We have to find another way out. There might be a way out behind the stage.”
The now familiar hideous laughter once again filled the room. It was followed by the sound of a jingling bell.
“Who is that?” Archer demanded to know. Instead of receiving an answer, he and James were treated to more boisterous laughter. “Show yourself, coward!”
A puppet that was a clear depiction of James lowered onto the stage. In one of its hands was a wooden sword. It was shortly thereafter when a puppet depicting Shadow Kahn lowered down, as well. In one of its hands was its own wooden sword.
“What is this?” asked James.
The puppets then proceeded to engage in a slow moving sword fight. As the scene played itself out, the familiar laugh once again filled the room.
The Shadow Kahn puppet soon began overpowering the James puppet. And with one precise blow, it sent the James puppet crashing to the floor. As had come to be expected, the hideous laughter broke out again.
Both puppets were then swiftly pulled up and off stage. Once they were out of sight, a jester dropped to the stage. He was wearing a mask with a smile that was just exaggerated as his laugh. The jester then took a series of bows.
“You think this is funny!” shouted Archer.
Unable to take the taunting, James drew his sword and charged.
“James, wait!” shouted Archer.
The jester waited for James’ arrival. When his foe had closed to within a few yards, the jester made a sweeping motion with his hand. A near invisible string dropped from the ceiling and wrapped tightly around James’ throat, stopping him with such ferocity that it was a minor miracle that his neck hadn’t been broken.
Archer immediately drew an arrow and fired. The arrow tore across the room and slashed through the string ensnaring James. The shot was so precise that after freeing James, the arrow struck the jester between the glazed eyes of his smiling mask.
James fell to his knees and began coughing uncontrollably as he attempted to catch his breath. Archer rushed to his side, and as he did, the jester fell to his knees, clutching his battered face. “I doubt he found that very amusing,” said Archer.
The jester began breathing so heavily that James and Archer could clearly hear it. He then removed the broken halves of his mask and once again began laughing as hysterically as ever. It was clear that the attack had done little more than force the jester to reveal what his face looked like. When the jester stood back up, he lifted his head to show James and Archer that his face was nothing more than a bare skull.
“What in the world?” asked Archer.
For its next trick, the skull-faced jester tilted its head back and opened its mouth as wide as it could. It then reached in and pulled out a sword. The skull-faced jester was so proud of its latest exploit that it took a bow.
It was immediately after the skull-faced jester had finished its bow when James had reached a suitable distance from which to strike. With one powerful swing of his sword, James brought the twisted show to a dramatic end.
It was the dead of night and Aiko was asleep in her cell. The sleep, however, was a very uneasy one as everything that was happening was weighing heavily on her mind, forcing Aiko to wake numerous times throughout the night.
The sound of jingling keys was more than enough to wake her. The door opened and in entered a guard. It was shortly thereafter when Sage entered. The rage that had been growing dormant erupted when Aiko saw the one responsible for her captivity. “It’s you,” she said through clenched teeth.
“I thought you would be happier than that to see me,” said Sage.
Aiko tried to break free from her shackles. “You dirty traitor,” she exclaimed. “How dare you show your face after what you did.”
“You’re calling me a traitor? How can I be a traitor when I was never on your side to begin with?” He then drew his sword. “Do you remember when I said you were going to be saved for last?”
Aiko was far too angry to supply Sage with an answer.
“Well, I lied.” Sage then placed his blade near Aiko’s throat. “Are there any last words from the condemned?”
Rather than give a reply, Aiko spat in Sage’s face.
Sage wiped his face, making sure to keep his attention focused squarely on Aiko as he did. “You just made this so much easier for me,” he said, drawing his sword back. Aiko shut her eyes tightly and waited for the inevitable.
After a few excruciating seconds, Aiko heard what sounded like a grunt. She opened her eyes and found Sage removing the keys from the guard, who was now lying motionless on the floor. Sage then proceeded to free Aiko from her shackles.
“Did you . . .” asked Aiko.
“He should wake up in an hour or so,” said Sage, making his way to the door. He then stopped at the exit and turned to face Aiko, who was still staring at the motionless guard. “Are you coming?” he asked, prompting Aiko to join him.
The fleeing tandem hurried up the stairs. After reaching the top, they discovered making it out of the castle would be no easy task as Kiedas was waiting for them. His sword had been drawn and he was ready for a battle.
“Did you really think Lord Shadow Kahn would allow such a thing to happen?” asked Kiedas. “The day you turned on him, he told us. Killing you two might just catapult me to his new second in command.”
Sage drew his sword and prepared for a fight. But something unexpected happened next. Aiko extended her arm before Sage to keep him where he was.
“What are you doing?” asked Sage.
“Stand back, Sage,” said Aiko.
“You can’t fight him. You have no weapon.”
“I said stand back.”
“You have no idea what you’re getting yourself into,” said Kiedas. “I’m going to cut you in half, then do the same to that traitor.”
When Kiedas attacked, Aiko spun and avoided the pierce of his blade. She then slammed the back of her fist into her opponent’s head, then kicked him in the stomach, sending Kiedas into the wall. With his head taking the brunt of the impact, Kiedas slumped to the floor.
Aiko stood before her beaten foe. “Get up,” she demanded. Kiedas was in no shape to obey or even give a reply. Still in a highly provoked state, Aiko thrust her knee into his face. She then lifted Kiedas off the floor and propped him against the wall so that she could land a series of furious blows to his face.
Realizing what might happen, Sage pulled Aiko away from Kiedas before she could do something she would no doubt later regret. It came as an utter shock to Sage to find just how much strength it took for him to accomplish the feat.
Having no reason to prolong their stay, Sage and Aiko departed from the castle. But unlike before, the two walked side by side rather than one in front of the other. It was a small gesture but it spoke volumes about where the two now stood with each other.
Knowing what she had to say would only become more difficult to say the longer she kept it inside, Aiko blurted out what was on her mind. “I’m sorry,” she said.
“You don’t have to apologize,” said Sage. “Had I been in your position, I probably would have done something far worse than just spit in your face.”
“It’s not because of that. I want to apologize for the way I’ve been treating you. If not for you, I probably wouldn’t even be standing here right now.”
Sage’s green eyes met with Aiko’s, which were of the same color and shade. “I accept your apology,” he said.
“I knew you would!” exclaimed Aiko. “And just to make things all the better between us, I think we should take this opportunity to start over.” Aiko then extended her hand toward Sage. “It’s nice to meet you. My name is Aiko.”
It wasn’t immediate but Sage eventually accepted Aiko’s handshake.
Jaycee backed away from Shadow Kahn, unable to believe what he had just told her. “You want what?” she asked.
“I want you to be my queen,” said Shadow Kahn, placing his hand on Jaycee’s shoulder to keep her from fleeing further. “Why suffer the same fate as the others? Come with me and you will have everything that your heart desires.”
“No!” exclaimed Jaycee, pulling free.
“Why would you refuse such an offer?”
“Because you’re a monster!” exclaimed Jaycee. “That’s why!”
“A monster?” asked Shadow Kahn. “My dear Jaycee, I know all too well what monsters are, and I assure you, I am no monster.”
“You’re filled with nothing but hate,” said Jaycee. “You want only to hurt people. What else could you possibly call yourself?”
“Then perhaps I am a monster,” said Shadow Kahn. He then grabbed Jaycee by the shoulders and pulled her to him. “But I happen to be a monster that can make your every dream come true. All you have to do is ask.”
Jaycee was unable to look Shadow Kahn in the eye.
“What is it?” asked Shadow Kahn.
Jaycee’s mouth began to quiver. “I . . . hate my dreams.”
Shadow Kahn released Jaycee. “Very well. If everything brings you such pain, then perhaps you are perfectly suited for this place.”
Jaycee then watched as Shadow Kahn began his departure. “Wait,” she said in a voice far too faint to be heard. When Shadow Kahn was completely out of sight, Jaycee’s voice became louder. “Don’t leave me. I don’t want to be alone.”
A twinkle of golden light appeared in the distance behind Jaycee. It grew to such an incredible brightness and size that even with her back turned Jaycee could feel its radiance. When Jaycee turned, she found an angel made of the golden light facing her. She was the most beautiful thing Jaycee had ever before seen.
“Mother?” whispered Jaycee.
Shadow Kahn once again sat upon his throne in his darkened room. “There is more than one way to vanquish an opponent,” he said. “You can either break their body . . . or break their spirit. And I find the latter to be all the more pleasurable. Though it pains me to do so, even you have to be taught a lesson that you will not soon forget.”
Jaycee awoke from an unexpected sleep to find herself lying in the forest. She got to her feet and immediately began surveying her surroundings but nothing about the area was familiar. A bitter wind then swept across, sending a chill through Jaycee’s body. She crouched and held herself tightly, all the while fighting back tears. “I’m still alone.”