Note: Written for the Review Game's August Writing Challenge Contest, with the prompt "Hope is a cruel beast." Check out the other entries and vote for your favorites from the 8th-14th.

The Breaking

"What do you think?" Hope asked, as the man in the bloodied coat fell to the ground once more. "Shall I play with him some more or is it your turn?"

Arms linked as they strolled up behind him, Hope and Despair inspected the man's hunched form.

He was clearly weak, from exhaustion and a seeping wound in his side, and violently shivering in the cold evening mist, but there was still determination in the set of his muscles. Iron will animated the weary flesh, showing he needed only a push to continue. "He's only taking a break, not broken. Have at him, love."

Hope grinned and crouched over the man, caressing his filthy temple with eager fingers. A shock ran through the man, dark eyes feverish but turning with renewed determination toward the forest path ahead of him.

Hope's touch birthed an upwelling of emotion that made Despair hungry for its turn, eager to finish him off. But Hope liked to toy with the humans first and Despair so enjoyed watching. It was always better when Hope drew out the hunt. More emotions bubbled to the surface, more energy ripened for the was only a matter of time before their prey crumbled.

The man pulled himself up, took one limping step forward and then another. He hobbled and staggered down the wooded trail, waiting for a promised vision just over the next rise or around the next bend.

Hope sidled up beside Despair and they trailed behind him.

"What did you promise this time?" Despair asked. "The usual things? A grateful friend, his lady to swoon and fawn over him, his victorious army welcoming him with open arms?"

"The last one," Hope said, and frowned. "Am I so predictable now?"

"Not you, love. Just the humans."

Hope sighed and touched the back of the man's neck, driving him faster. "They've no imagination anymore. I can only make him believe what he thinks is possible."

"I wasn't complaining, love. You excel at breaking them either way."

The man stumbled and leaned against a tree, dark red from his hands staining the bark as he panted and looked ready to fall.

For a moment, Despair thought it was its turn. But Hope stayed its hand with a mischievous smile and whispered in the man's ear. He opened tired eyes and a smile crossed his face. One foot, then the next, he moved on with manic joy tinging the pale skin.

"And this time?" Despair asked.

"I merely told him to listen for the snap of flags, the rattle of tack... He's sure the army's just around the corner."

Despair listened and paused. "I hear it too."

"Well come, love, and see!" Hope led Despair down the path, to where the man knelt in the dirt, face cradled in his hands.

A flag snapped in the breeze, held half-aloft on a broken pole by an equally broken man. Tack jingled on wandering horses searching futilely for their masters. Save those sounds, and the quiet sobs of the man at their feet, the battlefield remained silent, the promised army present only in body after lifeless body strewn across the field. The man wept as his side did, red pooling unchecked in the dirt alongside his tears.

Hope took in the glorious sight with pride, laying its head on Despair's shoulder. "I've had my fun, love," it said, pushing Despair forward. "Your turn."