by Stephen Williams

He laughed.

As the "Light of Judgement" ripped into the ruined earth, he laughed.

As the three statues crumbled to dust, freeing the magical energy he craved, he laughed.

As he began his horrible transformation, exchanging his delicately painted features for a leathery purple visage, he laughed. As the demonic, feathered wings erupted from his back and tore away his lordly robes, he laughed.

As the Returners commenced their assault, he laughed.

* * * *

She had obeyed his orders all her life.

She hadn't understood why she had to fight. She hadn't understood why she had to kill. She hadn't needed to understand. He gave the orders, and she carried them out. That was the way of things.

(She certainly hadn't understood what was so funny).

But, in spite of everything she had been taught, something had stirred in her soul when she witnessed the sacking of Maranda - so many civilian lives lost, and for no purpose. And when the orders to poison the citizens of Doma came through, she had known for certain that something was wrong.

So she had told him "no". And he had called her a traitor, and laughed in her face.

He had laughed as he threw her into prison. He had laughed as he swung his gloved hand back and forth across her cheeks. He had laughed as he stood and watched his men follow his example.

When he gave the order for her execution, he had been positively ecstatic.

And then, the Returners came, and everything changed.

Instead of secrecy, there was openness. Instead of unquestionable orders, there was discussion and consensus. Instead of threats, there was encouragement. Instead of murder, there was justice. Instead of mocking laughter, there were gentle words.

Instead of fear, suspicion and paranoia, there was love - a simple word, barely spoken within Vector's walls; but a word which carried a depth of meaning that she could never have comprehended, had she not been rescued from him.

For the first time, she knew joy, friendship, and love. And now he intended to take it all away.

She could barely bring herself to look at his hideous face. He towered before her, his head tilted backwards, eyes tightly closed, mouth wide open, laughing hysterically, seemingly unaware of the Returners' valiant attacks pounding at him.

Gripping Ragnarok's hilt with both hands, she held the sword aloft, forcing herself to look at him, forcing herself to think about all he had done, and all he might do.

He'd kill the Returners one by one; slowly, inhumanly, using the vilest of the dark forces which he now commanded, delighting in every miserable moment of their suffering. He'd make her watch, of course. And he'd laugh.

He'd force her to witness the final destruction of what was left of human civilization. One by one, his "Light of Judgement" would raze the few remaining cities to the ground. He'd gaze indifferently upon the scorched bodies; he'd listen amusedly to her desperate pleas for mercy; and he'd laugh.

Finally, her turn would come. As the first person to defy him, she knew that he had a special fate planned for her. She could not imagine what manner of torture he had devised; she knew only that her screams of agony would be lost in the sound of his howling laughter.

She hadn't known love until she joined the Returners. And she hadn't known hatred until now.

Snapping her head back and staring intensely at Ragnarok, she channelled all that she was feeling into the enchanted blade.


Even as the piercing flames rent his wretched body apart, he laughed.