Banishing Shadows

Life is fundamentally about incongruity. That is what distinguishes the living from the non-living: unpredictability, mutation, humor. Ugliness and madness are virtues to be extolled for exemplifying that which is most alive, the true nonconformist. True noncomformists inspire discomfort through their asymmetry discharged in laughter. Laughter is the quintessential expression of the path of wisdom. Especially loud, lengthy laughter at inappropriate times.

Followers of the great sage Wastoraskalix, students of the School of the Wisdom of Untimely Humor, erroneously called Laughers by other Anakarix, are widely ridiculed - just as they intend. Not only ridiculed, but also shunned, because the Laughers tend to do what is least expected. They are unpredictable, rude, downright offensive even, and they laugh in the faces of those who get flustered by their antics.

Which is precisely what was happening to Shadowfang.

Starting even before the battle with Goshi something had been making the refugees and soldiers uneasy. Nightmares were increasing in frequency. People sleeping in their tents awoke in the dark screaming, and the SDF continued receiving reports of missing individuals. The idea of looking for a lone missing person in a crowd of 100 million on the eve of the most important battle ever fought was ludicrous. It didn't end with missing persons, though. The nightmares grew worse.

On the first night of the fight the soldiers wept and prayed to the First Minds because every time they closed their eyes they were haunted by visions of their own death. For some that death came on the battlefield, but others never made it through the night. Bodies were found eviscerated in bunkers, spread over 20 meters of tunnel, and bleeding out under their blankets. Some died of lacerations, others from high-powered bullets, others were crushed. There were no patterns except that no one described the killer the same way. Rumors began to spread that the camps had been infiltrated by dozens or hundreds of Goshi assassins.

The panic was the worst part. Among the refugees intense distrust and even violence flared up. The stress of the war compounded by the fear of shadows made people go mad. With every soldier tied up on the front lines, all anyone could do was pray that riots did not break out.

Disdaining participation in the conflict with Goshi, and offering only hearty chuckles for explanations, the Laughers followed the stories of Shadowfang with interest. Through means no one had time to understand the Laughers tracked this silent disturber of the peace. They tracked him, and they pulled his tail.

Up in the forested mountains around Stardown just before dawn, while the whole world flamed furiously with war, a merry game was being played. The Laughers danced, acrobatically around the most imposing Jevumm ever seen, tugging and tweaking his tails, his whiskers, his ears. A flurry of claws and a terrifying roar followed each such taunt. With terrible elegance the cat sliced through lizard scales spraying blood into the air, but the Laughers only giggled louder each time. The wounded party would scamper up a tree out of reach as others took his place. Perched in the branches of the tree his wounds would begin to close of their own accord.

There are nearly 300 students in the School of the Wisdom of Untimely Humor. Every single one of them pinched and prodded and ridiculed Shadowfang mercilessly throughout the night driving him farther and farther into a berserk fury. The roaring of the tiger was drowned out by incessant, maddening, crazy-making laughter. And as Shadowfang grew wearier, the sun was rising and the Laughers were only beginning to wake up.

That is when Boristakan, the Ridiculer, twice ranked Philosopher Degenerate, winner of forty-three debates, the first disciple of Samaranthine the Grotesque, and master of the esoteric art of Qibui dropped into the clearing. Shadowfang wheeled, and recognizing him as the leader hunched in preparation for a leap. Boristakan clacked his lizard tongue against the roof of his mouth in a mocking noise and bobbed his head like a bird. In one breath the Jevumm crossed the intervening space, flying through the air, but Kufu's howl of rage became a whimper of despair.

In Boristakan's hands purple flames sprung to life, doing a merry dance that was reflected in his eyes. Too late to change his direction, Kufu bowled into the chortling Anakarix, feeling indescribable pain as the fire singed his face and neck. Then the whole School was upon him, fists alight with fire, scourging the fur from his body. He twisted and heaved. With Gogajin strength he threw his assailants aside. With Biomade dexterity he sprung through gaps and tried to escape. With Zipsum speed he burst free of that throng and fled squealing across the horizon with his tail on fire.

The members of the School of the Wisdom of Untimely Humor collected themselves. They climbed to the tops of the trees to heal their wounds and greet the rising sun. And they laughed, and laughed, and laughed.

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