The Last Laugh by Ron Shiflet

Never underestimate an inferior.

Maug stopped his sweeping and picked up one of the many colorful vials on the old sorcerer's work table. The light from Yutran's second sun reflected off the glass container and delighted Maug with an array of exotic colors, causing the stooped young lad to to laugh in childlike merriment. Unfortunately this unexpected sound in the otherwise hushed and gloomy stone tower attracted the unwelcome attention of Maug's master, Mesuvial.

"Put that down, you walking dung heap!" screamed a tall, ascetic looking man of incalculable age. "Do you wish to bring down the wrath of Chor-Tal upon us?"

Maug's round, pudgy face blanched white at the sound of the old god's name. With trembling hand he replaced the vial and uttered a string of guttural sounding gibberish in his most repentant and placating manner. He returned to his sweeping, hopeful that he had succeeded in avoiding another beating from his harsh master.

Mesuvial glared at the feebleminded boy and continued perusing the ancient scrolls that took up so much of a great priest's time. "Cursed spawn of Yortoi," he impatiently muttered to himself. "No one can imagine the hardships endured as an unwavering priest of 'The Laugher.'"

Mesuvial was of course referring to Chor-Tal's designation as "The God of Hellish Laughter." In reality the old sorcerer frequently resented being priest to one of Yutran's lesser respected deities, as opposed to serving one of the Great Old Ones such as Cthulhu, Nyarlathotep, or even He Who Is Not To Be Named. Still, serving a deity noted for his irony and destructive jests was far preferable to tilling crops under Yutran's three dying suns. Mesuvial wisely kept his thoughts shielded when in these morose moods, shuddering to think of his fate if Chor-Tal was to take notice of his ungrateful minion.

Mesuvial returned to his study of the arcane arts and hopelessly sighed as Maug clumsily bumped into the larna-wood table upon which rested the wizard's sphere of seeing. He would have struck the young dolt had anything of length been nearby and had he not been in such a self-pitying mood. Instead he absentmindedly flicked a bazooli bug from the yellowed parchment upon which it had lighted. The spherical-shaped, eight-legged creature landed on the floor and exploded, sending forth a minute but noxious gas that smelled like rotten Yorg eggs. Mesuvial sadly shook his head and instructed Maug to go tend the herb garden.

The unhappy mage stroked his long, graying beard and reflected upon his sorry lot. He painfully recalled how Maug had come under his care as a result of catastrophe brought about during the yearly festival to honor and pay homage to Chor-Tal. It had occurred ten long years ago in the village of Answarvia. Mesuvial's conducting of the affair had been a resounding and glorious success up to the climax of the observance at which time Chor-Tal had decided to amuse himself by raining down a hail of Sand-Biters upon the massed celebrants.

When all was said and done, fully two-thirds of the pilgrims present had been mutilated or devoured by the enormous sand bugs and Mesuvial's reputation was forever stained. Stealing a cart and narrowly escaping with his life from the vengeful survivors, the humiliated priest retired to a quiet life of study and reflection in a small village many miles distant from the scene of his disgrace. He was much chagrined to learn that during the tumult he had carried away a sleeping child and at first resolved to use the boy as a sacrifice in hopes of appeasing Chor-Tal for whatever perceived sin that he had committed. However, in an unusual mood of pity, perhaps brought about by a fit of pique at the sadistic god, he at the last moment decided to spare the child's life. "Chor-Tal -- the Ungrateful God is a more fitting title," he sulked while carefully shielding his thoughts.

Mesuvial slyly determined to turn the unexpected circumstance to his advantage. He could always use a servant and if the lad showed even a modicum of promise, then he might in due time be instructed in the arts of necromancy. The aged conjurer had often fancied the notion of having an apprentice and in Yutran there were few desirous of becoming part of the perverse Chor-Tal's disreputable cult. After the tragedy at Festival, it would now be almost impossible to convert new members.

Not many cycles of the moon had passed before it became painfully evident that Maug was utterly unsuited for any but the most menial of tasks. The husky, blonde haired youth had been thoroughly untouchable in the areas of writing, reading and formulae. He could speak but few words and most of these issued forth in a garbled and incomprehensible gibberish.

The old sorcerer's initial disappointment soon turned to a wrathful contempt and he took to physically abusing the poor lad. Maug was horribly overworked and malnourished and, had it not been for the Priest Guild's timely intervention, he might have indeed perished.

Mesuvial still smarted from his colleague's threatening rebuke. In fact he would not have brooked such unwelcome meddling if his position had not been so tenuous. He had no allies to speak of and considered himself lucky to have received no retribution from the other cults who had lost no small number of followers in the infamous debacle of Answarvia. However, Mesuvial did in fact ease up on the boy and confined his ire to verbal abuse and the occasional backhand.

Maug seemed pretty much oblivious to the altering of his circumstances. Life around the old stone tower seemed to lurch onward toward whatever obscure goal that Mesuvial might entertain.

Mesuvial contemplated these events and many other things as well, one mist-laden morning, while returning to his obsidian tower from an expedition to find a fairly rare plant that grew only in a nearby bog. He was in a dark, foul mood due to his lack of success in procuring the desired flora. The fruitless search had netted him nothing but aggravation and some rather painful and irritating insect bites.

The opened doorway into his tower was the initial sight that greeted the disgruntled priest upon his return. Mesuvial's wrinkled face turned as red as Yutran's second sun and he forthwith vowed to eviscerate Maug, regardless of his peer's unsubtle warnings in the matter. The wizened mage stormed through the doorway's stone arch and immediately headed toward the winding onyx stairs that led to his chambers. He placed one foot upon the first stone step and suddenly halted upon hearing a strangely melodious voice drift from the rooms above. Shock quickly turned to a white-hot rage at the old priest's realization that his inner sanctum had been breached. Then it dawned on him that some audacious, but doomed fool must have slain the unfortunate Maug in order to gain entry and blasphemously rifle through his forbidden books.

"Well, the cursed fool will pay with his soul," muttered Mesuvial, wondering where the body of his poor addle-pated attendant lay.

The infuriated priest of Chor-Tal cautiously climbed the stone stairs and mentally readied a spell of dismemberment. At the top of the stairs he turned left and stopped before the closed wooden door wherein were kept his most holy relics and tomes. He hurled the thick door open using only his mental powers and prepared to confront the violator of his domain.

Mesuvial was stunned almost beyond comprehension by the sight that assailed his steely blue eyes. There in the center of the room stood Maug, holding Mesuvial's ancient and worm-eaten copy of Summonings of Chor-Tal, an unbelievably dangerous text that was perused and studied only with great reluctance by the knowledgeable priest. However, the most astonishing sight was that of Maug expertly and fluently reading aloud the abhorrent words used to call forth the sinister and unpredictable deity.

Mesuvial reeled in disbelief. Maug was apparently a savant in the reading of the ancient Yutranese text, known only to a few. An imbecile in almost all other matters but extraordinarily adept in this one particular area of knowledge.

The priest's jaw hung slack and his eyes bulged in stark, unrelenting terror as he recognized the words that Maug was intoning. It was the "Summoning of Sacrifice," a ritual that once uttered could not be concluded until mad Chor-Tal had received that for which he been summoned. "Stop, you dimwitted fool!" screamed the horrified mage in mindless panic.

"Cease the spell or we're doomed," he wailed.

Maug seemed to be in a deep trance like that of a sleepwalker and payed no heed to his master's desperate entreaties. He continued reading and the room began to slowly darken. A scent of ozone seemed to permeate the premises, forcing Mesuvial to his senses. He made a desperate leap toward his servant but was repulsed by some invisible force that apparently encircled the youth. Urgently he sought to break the barrier, but to no avail. The priest's chambers now filled with a wild cacophony of sound that shook vials and instruments upon the many work tables. Horrible mewling cries of tortured souls and a deep, tower-shaking rumble caused the priest's blood to freeze and paralyse whatever will he had sought to summon.

Suddenly, there was a deathly silence except for the inordinately loud hellish laughter that spewed forth from a monstrously large, grotesque creature that had materialized in thick, purplish mist that reeked of rancid meat and opened tombs. Chor-Tal had arrived.

Mesuvial vainly attempted to conceal his trembling and maintain a pose of reverent composure as he gazed into the alien visage of the powerful entity that towered above him. Chor-Tal stood almost twice as tall as the height of an average mortal. His grayish-green skin oozed a pustule-like substance from between mottled scales that reeked of unspeakable corruption. His legs were as thick as large tree trunks and his feet had dagger-like talons that had been used to disembowel more than one unfortunate soul. From his oversized head protruded a crown of horns almost a foot in length and behind the massive musculature of his back was folded dark, leathery wings. Saliva dripped from an unnaturally wide mouth, filled with an excessive number of long sharp teeth.

Chor-Tal leered at Mesuvial and laughed.

"I have answered the summons, maggot. Where is my offering?"

Mesuvial glanced at Maug who still appeared to be entranced. "Before you, my Lord . . ." stammered the appalled priest.

Red-rimmed eyes rested on the unaware Maug for a brief moment and returned to rest upon Mesuvial. "Do not utter falsehoods to your master, you pathetic wretch.

"This boy is the one who summoned me. Therefore I can only surmise that you are, in fact, the offering."

"But my lord," pleaded Mesuvial, "this lad is an idiot and incapable of such ritual."

Chor-Tal roared hideous laughter that almost unhinged Mesuvial's shaken mind. "You were the fool, Mesuvial, when you chose to deny me the boy as sacrifice."

Mesuvial blanched and made whimpering sentences of denial. "No my lord, I never intended . . ." but his pleading voice was drowned in more roars of unholy laughter.

Maug at this juncture seemed to awaken and gasped at the horrid scene before him in the priest's chambers. He stood frozen in place though he greatly longed to flee.

"Begone boy. Your time here is ended."

Maug drunkenly staggered from the room leaving only Chor-Tal and Mesuvial.

Mesuvial fell to his knees and began begging for mercy from the deity which he had served up until this moment. The god grasped the ancient figure in one large claw and lifted him into the air until he was but inches from the foul, dripping teeth.

"You fool," laughed Chor-Tal. "You sealed your doom when you allowed the idiot child to live after first promising his life to me. I suppose you thought to have a good laugh at Chor-Tal's expense. Well, worm, your pathetic attempts to shield your thoughts were as nothing to me. A rather ironic turn of events, is it not? It seems that I, Chor-Tal, will have the last laugh!"

Mesuvial tried to summon the power to scream but his attempt was cut short as the obscenely huge maw of Chor-Tal gaped open to accommodate the priest's writhing form. In two enormous swallows Mesuvial was no more and as huge leathery wings carried a minor, but terrible god to unknown destinations, the old tower room was filled only with the sound of a terrible, hellish laughter.

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© 1997 Edward P. Berglund
"The Last Laugh": © 1997 Ron Shiflet. All rights reserved.
Graphics © 1997 Old Arkham Graphics Design. All rights reserved. Email to: Corey T. Whitworth.

Created: September 18, 1997; Updated: August 9, 2004