I remember it.
Faint, like an echo, it was there as I was falling, pulled into this world from the afterlife or whatever that place was.
A sound of laughter.
And now, I hear it again.
The same, cackling, maniacal laughter.
As the Fort’s wooden gate is torn open, a man walks inside.
Tall, covered by a large mantle with tattered edges that sway in the wind.
Pale skin, his bald head trembles as he cannot contain his laughter.
His eyes are teary, and he holds his belly with his gaunt hands.
All around me, the soldiers are rushing towards the man, sword in hands.
Swiftly, they surround him. Archers from above, while spear-armed soldiers form a circular line around the laughing man, holding tower shields and pointing the metal spearheads towards the lone man.
The laughing man spins around, slowly, hopping on his bare feet almost as if he’s dancing. Like a clown’s performance.
And yet, he’s the only one who is laughing.
He points his finger towards the sky and stands still.
For a moment.
He lowers his hand with a sudden movement. The soldiers around him are blown off their feet.
Arrows are fired from above, but something swats them down, like flies.
The laughing man raises both of his arms, and the shadows around him start…condensing. It’s like the night grew even darker, taking form beside the laughing man.
Large pillars of bubbling blackness burst from thin air, reaching up to the sky above, twisting and shuddering, swaying in the night sky.
A nightmarish view. But…it’s not the sudden manifestation of his power that shakes my mind, nor the chilling laughter cackling in the air. It was the single phrase that the man muttered between his maddening cackles.
I heard it clearly.
<<By the Gods! Evacuate all civilian! All arms, attack the intruder!>> Wolve bellows his orders, sword in his hand, he himself rushing towards the scene.
More soldiers join the attack, rushing in formation to assault the intruder.
Arrows are raining on the lone man, piercing his body, maiming the bald skin.
And yet, he laughs.
The arrows embedded in his pale skin are pushed out, and the wounded flesh simply closes itself.
Something is forming on the swaying pillars.
Eyes and mouths, wide open, looking down on the soldiers below.
Each eye is bloodshot with fury.
And the mouth join in laughter with their master. A thousand voices cackling in madness.
The pillars shuddered again, and then the nightmare begun.
Crashing down with unbelievable speed, the…things fell onto the soldiers with a thundering sound.
From the black mass, tentacles emerged and attacked everything.
Slashing, crushing, biting.
While hell was all around him, the Laughing Man was dancing, clumsily, without any semblance of coordination or grace.
The soldiers went down in an instant, torn apart by the overwhelming, insane power of a single man. Is he even a man? I wonder.
A one sided massacre. Soldiers and civilians alike, they all fall prey to the swirling black chaos.
Although…it seems the things are avoiding the slaves, swaying away from them. Perhaps it is just my imagination, and they are simply being spared by pure chance?
During all this commotion I fall down, crawling to hide and run away from the insanity taking place before my eyes.
But I cannot flee, as something, deep inside my soul, wants to see.
It is not out of curiosity, nor some ill desire of experiencing violence and death from a safe distance.
It is because the man held the same skill as me.
The magnitude of it is way different of course. The skill shows overwhelming power used by the laughing man, crushing and killing without giving any possibility to retaliate.
And this power scares me. Will I become like that man…that thing out there, if I keep using my skill? Losing sanity, trading it for power…the simple thought of it should make me shiver. Instead, although I refuse this kind of thought, something inside me is pleased by what I see. Even yearning for that absurd power.
A small hand pulls my shirt, making my heart jump from fear and breaking that chain of ill thoughts.
I turn around, facing Julia’s large smile.
<<I told you he would come>> she says, innocence in her eyes.
The simple thought of this made me want to puke. It was this…thing, it whispered to little Julia’s mind. Her friend, the Funny Guy.
<<He laughs, and he’s gonna free us from the bad guys>> again, her expression shows complete trust in the man, like he’s some sort of knight in a shining armor instead of being the embodiment of madness itself.
<<Did…did you call him here?>> I ask her, panicked…
<<No, silly! He was on his way here to punish the bad guys, but then he found me and decided to save everyone!>> she cheered.
<<No, no…he’s dangerous we need to flee. It’s not safe here!>> I say with a hushed voice. My hands tremble, frantically.
The screams are terrible, all around us. There was still sound of clashing metal, before, but now only laughter and death remain.
One of the wooden buildings collapses, few meters away from us. I turn around, just in time to see Wolve’s figure being pierced by spears of solid darkness. He’s being lifted, his limbs swaying like a marionette in the hands of a clumsy puppeteer.
Screaming, Wolve tries to cut himself free, but his sword simply goes through the shadows pierced into his belly.
Slowly, the Laughing Man comes forward to him, still dancing his bizarre ballet.
He reaches Wolve, and lets himself be hit by his sword.
Laughing, he just pulls the sword embedded in his shoulder and yanks it away.
With his pale fingers, he caresses Wolve’s face.
A gentle gesture, so out of place in this carnage.
With a creaking sound, the Laughing Man snaps Wolve’s neck.
The shadows devour Wolve’s corpse.
Before, I thought my skill was repulsing when it consumed the worm. But this, what I am seeing now, simply makes me question this world ‘s sanity.
He’s eating the body. Literally. From the condensed shadow, countless mouths sink their white, human-like teeth in the thorn flesh and maimed body.
Mouths that are done eating resume their cackling laughter. The same is happening all around. Fallen soldiers are being swallowed by the countless mouths.
The remaining soldiers flee. All of the surviving ones have since dropped their weapons, leaving behind all pretense of a fight in order to save themselves.
But the shadows take them anyway.
The slaves, however, are going in the opposite direction.
Towards the man and his shadows, they walk. Some of them sing, others mutter with their hands joined.
Julia too is moving towards him, trotting on her small feet on the dusty soil.
I leap out of my hiding place, embracing her and lifting her small body to take her away from this madness.
<<Stop! He’s calling me!>> her small fists hit me, and her teary voice is painful to hear.
And the man turns toward us.
I feel his gaze on me, and fear grips my mind.
I cannot move, frozen by a single stare. Pathetic. I realize how pathetic I am, not being able to even save one little girl from this senseless slaughter.
As I stand there, gripped by fear, the slaves are reaching toward the Laughing Man.
They kneel in front of him, touching their head to the ground.
Some of them cry in joy.
What is this madness?
<<Get away from him!>> I yell with all my might.
Shadows approach the slaves, twisting in the air before reaching them.
I close my eyes. I do not want to see any more carnage.
And yet, no scream reaches my ears.
As I open my eyes again, all the slaves are standing still.
The shadows are around them, retracting towards the Laughing Man.
It’ s like a gentle caress. That’s the only way that I can define what the shadows are doing to the slaves.
A light touch, before pulling away from them.
As the shadows touches each slave, their metal collar snaps open and falls on the ground.
Every single one of them looks…healed.
Their wounds are gone, and their face regains the proper beauty of a human being.
Like a newfound energy flows into their veins.
The Laughing Man stands tall. There is no more any hint, any trace left of his maliciousness, as the shadows are gone.
There is only a man surrounded by the slaves he freed, standing under the moonlight. Even his laughter is now different, a meek, joyful sound. The kind of laughter you would expect from a kind old man.
He turns toward me, again. With his palm reaching outwards, like he’s inviting me to join him.
Julia takes my hand, pulling me gently towards the crowd.
I am still shaken, contrasting feelings running wild into my mind.
Shocked by the senseless slaughter, and then taken back by the sudden kindness this man is showing to the former slaves.
I gulp my saliva down, and let Julia lead me to the man.
He’s taller than I thought, and his eyes have a deep, kind gaze as he pats little Julia’s head, while the child throws herself at his leg, embracing him like a long lost relative.
He shifts his attention from the little girl to me.
Staring in my eyes.
His expression shifts, for a moment I can see a deep emotion rise up on his face.
A deep sadness.
The laughter resumes, but his eyes are crying, dripping tears.
He extends his hand to me, his index pointing at my forehead.
The tip of his finger pokes my head.
<<Boop!>> he says, before bursting out in laughter.
What the hell is going on?
I thought him to be cruel while he was killing the soldiers, then I reconsidered as I saw him freeing the slaves, perhaps thinking that this…man could have some kind of morals, albeit questionable but…he’s just plainly mad!
The man turns his back to me and walks away. At least, it looks like he’s walking, but his speed is incredible. In a few steps, he’s out of the fort.
<<Wait! I need to speak to you!>> I shout at him, running towards his silhouette now far away from the camp, vanishing in the distance.
Not that he could have answered my questions if I managed to ask him. He would probably just laugh at me and do something silly. Or outright kill me.
And like that, the Laughing man is gone.
He came like a storm, leaving destruction behind him.
And yet…he showed mercy to the slaves, freeing them.
A noble gesture and a massacre…I know that black and white don’t exist, and morale is gray…but this is a bit too much, isn’t it?
Still, all around the camp the slaves…the former slaves are rejoicing and celebrating. Pillaging the supplies from the fort’s ruins, singing merry songs beneath the two moon’s light.
They share some food with me, inviting me to dance and sing with them. But…I cannot join their celebration. I am glad for their newfound freedom, but I cannot bring myself to celebrate the deaths of people that did me no harm.
I end the night sleeping inside the broken barracks building, occupying a bed that belonged to some soldier.
Sleep came quickly, as my mind was exhausted by the sudden developments. In my dreams, the laughing man was there, standing still and inviting me.
I joined him, and we sat on the bare ground beside a waning fire.
<<Was it you that brought me here, in this world?>> I asked him.
<<No, I do not have that kind of power. He does>> As he said so, he pointed his pale finger towards the night sky.
There, between the twin moons, a shadow darker than night itself pulsed, twisting and twitching in an unknown dance.
<<Who…what is that thing?>>
The laughing man kept silent for a moment, staring me with sorrowful eyes.
<<A god. Brother to the one that spoke to you>> he answered.
I did not doubt his words.
<<No more questions now. Just…look. And pay attention>>.
The world around us shifted and swirled as the Laughing Man finished his sentence.
I ended up, alone, inside a dark place.
Walls of hard rock as black as coal, and shapes hiding inside every shadows were besides me. I felt danger from that place, and yet, the Laughing Man’s voice invited me to walk further.
I advanced, ignoring the distant sounds of clashing metal.
In front of my eyes, a tall obsidian door stood embedded in the wall. Symbols were carved on the obsidian surface, reflecting light in strange ways. The door started creaking as I approached.
<<To reach the truth, you must find it- said the Laughing man- and, perhaps, once you understand it we will laugh together.>>
With his words still ringing in my head, I wake up. The Sun is high in the sky, and the fort’s ruins are bursting with voices and sounds. I stroll out of the barracks, finding people busy with reparations.
Julia sees me, and comes running towards me with some fruit in her hands.
<<Did he talk to you? My friend is great, isn’t he?>> she says.
I simply pat her head and give a tired smile. Honestly, I don’t know what to think about that man. I cannot consider this night’s dream like a normal one. It was some sort of message, as if the Laughing Man could only convey his thoughts in that way, using dreams.
I spend the rest of the morning with Julia and her mother. It seems the former slaves want to build a new settlement here. I learn from them that the soldiers destroyed their village and several others, killing, raping and pillaging in the name of their faith.
Julia’s mother invites me to stay here.
But, I decline.
I feel that this is not my place. And so, after taking some of the pillaged items, I depart from the fort, leaving it behind.
I follow the small road leading out of the fort, towards the hills. The Marsh lies in the opposite direction, while following the road, after roughly tree days, I should end up in a small village named Nudria. From there, another week on the road should lead me to Sendria.
I decide my destination by looking on a worn, yellowed map painted on one of the scrolls that I took from the late Commander’s barracks.
Chuckling to my disrespect of the dead, I took what I could. Money, a spare armor, weapons and goods. Even a sleeping bag.
Donning new clothes, who belonged to one of the civilian followers of the army, a boy named Donovan, I walked inside the ruins, rummaging through lost belongings and memories.
I left the most precious-looking things that I found to the former slaves, as they will probably need to sell them to support their new settlement.
I walk, consumed in my thoughts. I try as hard as I can to push forward, to ignore this swelling feeling that rises in me.
I think about how it was some kind of retribution for their bad actions, for how they treated the slaves and destroyed their villages.
But, in the end, I can’t do it. I cannot think those soldiers like less than humans, no matter how despicable their action were. They did not deserve to be slaughtered like animals, simply erased from this world by a laughing mad man. Maybe they deserved some punishment, but what happened was simply too much to accept.
Perhaps their actions were bad, misled by some kind of twisted logic, but they were still people, and I watched them die.
I fall to my knees…who knows how many times did I end up like this since I woke up in this world?
Emilia’s face comes into my mind. I don’t know what has become of her, my first friend in this damned place.
On my knees, shaking like a baby I cry away all the sadness, all the frustration that held its grip into my soul.