At first, there had been fourteen.
So far, twelve had been killed by the Minotaur, and Despair had watched every one of them die. Their screams still echoed through the void of emptiness within his mind, refusing to leave. Mortals had such piercing screams, each one like a dagger to his conscience. It was stupid, really, that they refused to leave his head.
Now, the thirteenth scream sliced through the corridors of the labyrinth, cutting into his mind again. Despair took a shaky breath, and let the smoke engulf him. For a moment, there was the pleasant scent of burning, and then he was suddenly before the shrieking maiden, and the burning aroma was replaced instantly by the overwhelming odour of death.
Already, tsunamis of the maiden's desperation started forcing into him, bleeding from her grimy mortal skin in rivers of helplessness. Each wave fuelled his existence with energy.
Energy that he hated, loathed, despised. Energy that sickened him, revolted him, disgusted him. Energy that he could not live without.
It was over in an instant. The Minotaur charged, slicing open her stomach with horns of ruthless malevolence, and Despair started to absorb the final remnants of her anguish. Sometimes, he wondered if Hades felt like this. If he, too, was brimming with melancholy, crushed beneath an ocean of souls.
Probably not. The gods were too arrogant to notice things like that. Too arrogant, even, to notice him, even though every single one of them was weak to the despair that he was the master of. It wasn't fair, that they were weaker and yet got everything, but life wasn't fair. It hadn't been, ever since Pandora. Curiosity had been her downfall, but her life had been short. She'd died, just like the maiden before him, not eternal like him, or the other Great Evils. Curiosity was worse than him, worse than even Fear. It had cast them into this endless hell, after all.
The sound of tearing flesh filled his ears, and he turned away, trying to escape. Focusing on anything - anything! The blackness of the Labyrinth; the blood stains on the walls.
He drew a sharp breath, and looked up.
She seemed so out of place, almost as strange as it would be to see Zeus in Poseidon's ocean realm. The whiteness of her presence was too bright for this place, too pure, too innocent. Revulsion plastered her face in thickened layers as her blue eyes flickered from him to the mortal's corpse, and a ripple of hatred undulated through his body.
"You're a monster," she whispered. It was so easy for her. So easy, to simply throw out the disgust at his very existence, ignorant as he struggled to maintain it.
"Why are you here?" he hissed.
"Because there will be hope. Somebody will be brave enough to hope, tonight," she declared.
"There is no hope in the Labyrinth of Crete," he replied coldly. "Leave me alone, if I'm really so much of a monster."
"I need to stay," she stated. "You need to be defeated."
She didn't understand. She never had, being the only one among them who wasn't ostensibly evil. Hope had always believed in some clear line between black and white. Clear lines were delusions - there was only grey, pale grey and dark grey. Good and evil weren't so easy to distinguish. He'd know.
"Just go away," he growled, but already, he was the one walking away, ignoring the cold of the stone beneath as it sent needles through his bare feet. The quicker he could leave, the better. Only one victim left: he could depart soon.
As he left to collect the next mortal's anguish, he caught another glimpse of the woman's remains. Bones. Discarded scraps of flesh. He swallowed the rising bile in his throat.
He'd never liked mortals; they looked just like him, but their bodies were easy to break. Rather a broken body than a fractured soul.
With each shaky breath, his pace increased, every step becoming quicker. Hope's footsteps echoed through the labyrinth behind him, and he scowled. She'd been less irritating when she was just the insignificant little sister, still trapped in the jar.
"You're going to lose, Despair!" she called after him. He ignored her. To pay attention would just be to satisfy her perverse, twisted view of justice, and that would do little for either of them.
The tendrils of despair were growing stronger from the fourteenth mortal, now, which meant two things. Firstly, that they were getting closer. Secondly, that they were even more distraught than they had been before the thirteen other deaths, before the thirteen screams had started to echo through his heart.
The scent of smoke - a brief pleasantry - entered the air. The alleviation was short lived.
He stepped from the smoke, his black cloak flowing from his shoulders as he flicked a stray strand of obsidian hair from his face.
"Sorry I'm late," he grinned. "Phobos was just playing with a few mortals."
Despair stopped. Glared at Fear.
"What is it now, little brother? You don't like to see me? Afraid I'll do better than you?"
Scowling, Despair tried to push past him, but Fear grabbed his arm. Why him? Even Disease would have been better.
"A contest? See how many mortals we each get to steal from?"
Despair snatched his arm away, storming ahead. "There's only one left."
Pouting, Fear caught up with him. "Just one? Shame. I wanted to watch them all scream. I love it when they scream."
Breaking into a jog, Despair tried to keep ahead of his brother. And Hope thought he was twisted.
"Is that... Hope?" Fear asked. A callous laugh erupted from his lips. "Really? Why's she here?"
"I've come to fight you," she said defiantly. Fear simply grinned again, revealing a set of crooked, yellowed teeth.
"If you say so, little sister."
Despair ignored them, trying to catch up to the fourteenth victim. Why did they insist on dragging these things out? Fear seemed to think everything was a game; Hope refused to give in.
"Wait!" Fear called after him. He didn't wait, but Fear caught up, inhaling deeply as they ran.
"I can smell the terror. Can you smell the despair?"
Still, Despair neglected to reply. What would be the point in conversing to such a fool?
Behind them, another set of footsteps, too loud to be Hope's. Mortal footsteps. The predator was finally catching up to the prey, it seemed. Hopefully, this would end quickly. He didn't want the screams to echo for longer than necessary; didn't want the image of the broken humans to remain imprinted in his mind for too long. Ahead, as the tunnel straightened out, he caught a glimpse of the last victim, running and panting and practically begging for the Great Evils to gather around him.
Despair remembered him: the first to enter the Labyrinth of Crete, with no hope of escape. Daedalus had built this place, and anything designed by him was guaranteed to work. He was probably the smartest mortal Despair had ever heard of - and the cruellest. His labyrinth had been the grave of too many mortals.
He still remembered the day in which the Minotaur had been cast into the Labyrinth. Feared. Outcast. Hated. Despair knew that feeling all too well, and he'd pitied the Minotaur. Had pitied the being who had been cast into eternal darkness, and yet had fed upon his despair. When the Minotaur had first entered the Labyrinth of Crete, he'd possessed a name. Asterion.
The hunter ran past them, oblivious of their presence. His arms rippled with sheer muscle; a predatory aura surrounded his very being as he ran, each step a reverberation of intimidation.
"Speed up!" Fear laughed. "I really want to see this!"
Despair ran after him. He hardly cared about Fear's pathetic little game, but he couldn't put up with his constant boasting, because that would bring up the pain of the screams, and the memory of the bodies, and the lingering smell of decay.
They rounded the corner to witness the fight.
The predator, and the prey.
Despair's eyes widened as he realised that the human was winning, had actually cornered his prey.
Hope finally caught up, a victorious smirk on her face. The mortal was radiating hope, fuelling her with power as her eyes lit up.
Please, he begged silently. Please don't let her win.
The predator suddenly lunged forwards, a rapid motion of fluid trickery, and with one sharp slash, the victim's chest was opened.
He could feel the despair suddenly leave the Minotaur's body, dispelled instantly by the hope, feeding his sister with energy.
The predator stepped back, and the Minotaur crumpled to the floor, crimson blood spilling from his chest. Hope's laughter rang through the tunnels. To her, it must have been beautiful - all that hope, swelling within the Minotaur's chest before the monster destroyed him. All that hope - hers, all hers.
"See?" Fear nudged his arm, grinning. "She's more of a maniac than me."
Despair wanted to say that he was lying, but the look in his sister's eyes was enough. There was joy, there - joy at the victim's death, joy at the spilling of his blood. Joy, because of the Minotaur's hope: hope that he could finally escape the Labyrinth; that everything was over; that death had broken his endless existence of infinite struggle.
Hope was a strange thing, sometimes a hateful thing, but he supposed that was beautiful to Hope.
Blind to her glee, the monster stood his full height. "Theseus, brave slayer of the Minotaur," he muttered to himself, a smirk crossing his lips. He cast his sword aside. "The hero who felled the beast with his hands alone."
Such people did not exist. There were only people who lied, people who pretended that they were filled with justice, with valour, with courage. Nothing but liars.
Despair turned away.
Liars, tricking the rest of their race into believing they were some great beings of superior power. Mortals were little better than the gods.
Now, all that was left of Asterion - of the Minotaur - had been crushed beneath a mortal's resolve, had been shattered by the guilt, by the driving hunger that forced him to feed on his own. He was little more than a victim. What difference did a bull's head make? Did it really make him the monster - above the heartless forger of lies, above the immortal who found elation at another's death?
Despair cast one last look at the labyrinth before fading into smoke.
At first, there had been fourteen.
Now, only bodies remained.