Flames were licking up the sides of the walls as she knelt on the floor, coughing up blood. Her hand was pressed to her side, the wound pumping blood out against her palm, her robes slick with it as she tried to stay conscious.
“You are finished.”
The voice rang out from the other side of the room, where her foe was slumped, panting hard as he tried to climb to his feet. He used his sword to push himself up, hauling himself upright once more. His face was covered in grime and sweat, blood matted his hair, and his lip was swollen and split.
Shadows swirled around her as she tried to summon her magic, but the smoke was stinging her eyes and making it even harder to breathe. She choked on the words of her spell, and it sputtered out, pain shooting through her again as she doubled forward with a shriek.
“Enough, you have no power left.”
“I have more than enough to defeat you, hero.”
She held her bloody palm out to him, tears streaming down her face, the incantation spilling past her lips before he could dodge out of the way, shadowy hands bursting into life, dragging him back to the floor. They tore the sword from his grasp, pinning him to the ground.
“I have fought my whole life to be here, to dethrone you. I will not let you leave here without some punishment.”
“You cannot kill me, hero. I am more than a person, now, I am legend. Even if you kill me, they will remember me, the black terror, the horror that stalks them in their dreams at night. You cannot kill a nightmare, boy.”
“I will kill you.”
“You will die trying.”
He growled and strained against the hands holding him, but the magic was too strong. She raised her hand, catching a flame, and pressing it to her side, crying out as the wound was sealed shut. She caught her breath with a chuckle, staring down at the soot-smeared armor of the man before her.
“You have failed, hero. Whether you live today or die, there will be no way to rid the world of me. I am beyond your grasp.”
“I will see you dead before my life leaves me.”
She knelt before him, caressing his cheek with her bloody hand, leaving a scarlet trail in its wake. His eyes burned with hated as she smiled, directing the hands holding him to haul him up to meet her eye. He struggled again, lashing out with his teeth, but she was beyond his grasp.
“You would know, monster.”
She laughed, smearing his other cheek with blood as well, before tracing ruins over his forehead, the spell seeping into his skin with a soft flicker of purple light.
“Who is the monster, now?”
“What have you done?”
She stood carefully, drawing herself up gracefully, her chin raised defiantly as she looked down at him. He growled and fought the bonds on his hands once more, desperate for freedom. She ran a hand through his hair, smiling, before she struck him across the face.
“What have you done to me?”
“You will survive this, hero. And you will always remember that it was by my hand that you did. I have spared your life, while you would have stolen mine away.”
She stalked toward the door, stooping to recover her staff, canting her head to the side.
“Would you rather live the lie that you are the hero, or die in the knowledge that the world will remember you as such?”
“I would die before I would become your toy.”
“Then you will live. You will remember.”
“Because heroes slay villains, it is the way of the world. But we do not kill heroes, oh no. We are crueler than that.”
She retrieved her mask from the wall, pulling the porcelain-faced guise back into place, the wicked beak of the raven swinging round to look at him, the obsidian eyes boring into his.
“We destroy you.”
He screamed, but it was lost to the flames as she vanished in a whisper of silks, her black wings bearing her far away from the fallen hero. Her spell broke, releasing him, and he stood, snatching up his sword as he looked about the burning ruin that held him.
He would stay, and be consumed by the flames, be remembered as a hero who had tried to slay the evil, or he could escape and live on, a disappointment to those who had tried to raise him up.
He thought of the woman who had left him here and felt tears sting his eyes. She had been right, death would have been kinder, but he still had a choice. He reached for the fire, but found he could not feel its heat. Tears fell as he floundered forward, stepping into the dancing flames fully, the heat no more than a warm ripple through his body.
He screamed, crumpling to his knees, and cursed to the skies for the gift he had been given.
Miles away, black wings filled the dreams of a little girl as the woman landed outside a small hut, removing her mask before she stepped inside, her daughter sleeping peacefully in her bed.
“There, now, darling. No more heroes to keep you up at night. Mother’s made them all go away.”