Heathens

Apollo and Dion, a dysfunctional rag-tag pair of demon hunters have been sent to investigate the city of Havenbrook and its inhabitants.

The mission is simple: to find the cultists responsible for a recent string of murders and to bring them to justice. Even if it takes killing dozens of demons on the way there.

But things are never that simple when you deal with the dark arts. Cultists, demon pacts, sacrificial murders all stand in the demon hunters' way as they search for the truth. A truth that will force them to question their own identities, a truth about the absolute evil lurking beyond heaven and earth. The question is, if they find the truth, will they be strong enough to handle it?

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64. Chapter 63

Dion

Dion could not pass or rather, would not, for the wide arches and marble pillars were too imposing. He stood in front of the decayed bowels of the city, the small stone huts, and temples that had crumbled and shambled. Long spiral minarets, Gothic cathedrals, broken down into shanties of rubbles where the insects hid from light. As if someone, someone desperate, had chased after the eras and had failed, fallen to time. No wind blew, but he swore he could hear moaning, like a groan from those decayed homes. Above, dripping. Leaks from the aqueducts that surrounded the city into a circle. The small transports were broken at spots and sprouted waterfalls onto the shattered stone and hay rooftops of the lower level of homes. He breathed in and took a step inside, going up steps until he stopped at another set of arches. These were red and there was a temple further away, a pantheon stood in front. A false god of marble, the head broken and decapitated. He stopped.

His spine felt a chill and he turned his head high up. There were two giant pillars, impossibly high, he thought. Above the pillars, he saw legs dangling. He was being watched by something, he could not see them clearly though, only knew they were there by the shine their black scaled shoulder armor reflected. He narrowed his eyes to see the fine specimens. Their abdomens, exposed, rotten. The legs, skirted, and  the feet, with worn brown sandals. They sat at the tops of the pillars with golden spears. As if they, miniature Zeus’s, sat upon Mt. Olympus, waiting to strike the desecrater. 

Dion drew his guns out and rubbed the handles with his fingers. His heart stood still, his breath quiet. He sucked his lips in and started to flex his legs. One jump, a brief climb, he’d shoot them in the head, he imagined. And then - 

“Stop.” A voice said further away. “You’ll make a mess of things. Stop.”  

It was a voice past the pillars, taking form at the top of the orange stairs, past small shoots of lavender and primroses growing by the sides of the path. Dion could see the red feet descending, he could see the golden sandals and the knee guards that glistened and the loose cape and toga that flew gently. This figure, this heroic figure, waved at the two above the pillars and they sat down, their javelins stabbed through the stone. 

“They’re very protective.” Astyanax said. He came to stand still in front of Dion who still brandished both weapons and who still gripped them tightly. He could feel his fingers twitching at the touch of his trigger. 

“Who are you?” Dion asked.

“Isn’t it obvious? I’m the one who sent the messenger for you.”

Dion lifted a pistol high up to meet the king at the level sight. There was a click, the barrel stared at Astyanax’s pale forehead.

“So you’re the one that deserves a bullet, huh?”

“For what exactly?”

“For everyone you’ve killed.” Dion could feel his blood rise to his head, it made the air seem hotter than it was.

“What are you accusing me of? Defending my kingdom?”

“Don’t play dumb, it’s not just them. It’s about the people of Havenbrook. I’m sure the memory is already lost on you, your highness. But I remember. Always will.”

Astyanax extended both hands out, he flaunted his chest forward and Dion felt his barrel being pushed back.

“Is this modern justice? Oh, how standards have fallen for what is considered impregnable truth.” Astyanax looked up, the two guards had re-pointed their bronze at Dion. He put his palm up, again, and assured them. “Did I kill anyone directly? Did I push the trigger? Did I sink the knife? Tell me.”

“No, but you’re the reason people did. Demon.” 

“Demon? I’m just a man. Like you.”

“Don’t compare yourself to me.”

“And don’t confuse your contempt with dishonesty. I am like you and I deserve a say, considering how gracious I’ve been. I can have you killed, after all.” 

“Wouldn’t be a bad way to die, taking you out with me.”

“If you even could, Dion. If you even could.” Astyanax walked forward again. Dion stepped back “But now isn’t a good time to fight, not here. Let me state what I offer, I’m sure it’d interest you. I have what you’ve chased after this whole time.”

“And what’s that?”

“People. Of course, your people.”

Dion’s gun shook. He looked at the person in front of him. He was smaller, thinner. This man. Dion thought. This man who is pretending to be human, trying to reason like one, after all he’s done. Dion shook his gun. He bit his lower lip. He tightened his face. 

“Let’s talk over dinner.” Astyanax said. “Food and wine softens the soul.”

And then he sighed. He set it aside, let his anger escape him from his shallow breaths. He looked at that smug face that etched itself on Astyanax and walked, both, shoulder to shoulder, into the ruined city.

 


“Your guns.” Astyanax said. Only three rooms into the villa and already, Dion was upset. It was a narrow hall where small half-moon beams of light showed through the half-circles of the window frames. There were purple drapes, vases, dead flowers laying on dry fonts. It looked like a ritual room.

“I’m not giving you my guns.”

“You expect me to break bread with an armed man?” 

Dion looked around, two more armored men were approaching him. He shrugged them for a bit, walked a bit. But he was stopped again, a golden tray lay in front of him. He placed both guns on top of it and watched it get carted off. The wheel spokes creaked.

He couldn’t help but feel worried. He couldn’t help that strange curiosity either, those wandering eyes, as he went room to room through the sprawling villa and the pictures and statues that seemed to sprawl too, endlessly too. They were on the walls or in the latticed light of rotunda glass ceilings, colorful and giant, pictures of a mother and of a father and of a city in flames. 

“Do you like them?” Astyanax said. “I made them all, I stopped some odd five hundred years ago though. Got boring.”

And perhaps he was honest because as the tour went on, the pictures seemed to get worse and hinted at something dwindling. Sanity, perhaps? That's what it was, the flag markings of the King's sanity, like a long mountain climb straight to the cuckoo's nest. And Dion realized very quickly that this was no exhibit, it was the mausoleum of hope and desire. 

The pictures became more terribly violent, dressed with vibrant red lash strokes. There were pictures drawn of horse-dragged tortured soldiers. Dogs mauling people to pieces. Statues of lonely suicides with the expressions of pain permanent in stone. And then, a simplicity. Detailed photorealism became abstractions, geometry. He stopped at last in front of the dinner door. To the right, one final portrait: A single, simple head rolling on the floor. Fire, brimstone, Hell, everywhere around them. It made him freeze for a moment. He turned to look at Astyanax who stared back. Had he even blinked this whole time? Dion thought. His eyes were yellow. Sis red hands carefully moved over to the handle of the door. He nodded for Dion and they both went in.

A slave (he suspected she was a slave at least, by the way she wore her collar and the way in which her hair and her eyebrows had been shaved bald) came up to them and offered a small bowl of water to wash their hands in. Astyanax slapped it away, the bronze bowl rolled and crashed on a table leg to which she scrambled for it. 

“Go get my other guest.” Astyanax said.

She stood, bent herself to apologize and ran, dragging her beige-gray rags onto the dusty floor.

Dion could hear the crackling of kindling wood and above the flames, the long glistening body of a bug. A slug, perhaps. Fat and pale, green spotted along the wide body. It smelled like rancid chicken. 

“I apologize, our cuisine isn't as developed as you're used to,” Astyanax said. “This is the only reliable source of food to feed on.  At least on this island. Mammals are rare, people, even rarer.”

“You’ve eaten people? I thought you were trying to convince me of your civility.” Dion sat on a seat at the end of a long table some feet away from the fire.

“I don’t, personally. The others don't think the same, unfortunately. I’ve often caught them, those demon's as you'd call them, with legs scarfed down their throats. I usually kill them when I catch wind.” He removed one of the sticks and placed it in front of Dion. He reached around the table, found a container and poured. What was inside the cup smelled worse than the food. “It’s made from muddled Sucklefruit. You can find vines of it west from here. They grow like long webs below the dirt and sprout every now and then.”

“Why do they call it Sucklefruit?”

“Picking the fruit is difficult, the plant seems to have a mind of its own. Upon a touch, it's long red flowers latch onto you, like a leech. The name comes from the sound the tendrils make as they drain you, a suckling sound. If you’re careless, it's easy to get caught in the web of vines. And killed, eventually.”

Dion pushed back the drink. “I’ve lost my appetite.”

“I lost five men to make that small glass of wine.” Astyanax pushed the glass back to Dion. “And what a nasty plant it is. Supposedly, the roots run deep, straight down to the first circle of Hell. Though that’s a little far-fetched, even for me.”

Dion took a sip. His lips puckered, it felt like tar going down his throat and stuck to his throat. He coughed a fit, five minutes maybe, of that headache-inducing coughing before he could finally breathe normally. 

“Terrible,” Dion said. “Why do you even need to eat? You’re a soul, aren’t you? Just aether and empyrium.” He rubbed his fingers on his teeth, they came back purple. 

“And yet I see and hear and smell and taste. The qualia of a physical body. And I starve too.” His eyes narrowed. “And starvation here is worse than you can imagine. It’s more than a slow death, it’s like slowly dissolving. You get weaker, lankier, more ephemeral. And then one day, you’re gone, back to the river. You need to eat, have to.”

He took Dion’s plate of slug and chewed firmly down the body. A green liquid splattered on the wood table.

“Would you have preferred a heart?” He asked. “They call your kind the heart-eaters. Is that just hyperbolic or literal?”

“I’m a Vicar. That’s all you need to know.” Dion folded his arms. 

“I heard stories of your kind, your people come down every now and then. You’re great warriors and great wizards, I hear.” He chewed loudly, his teeth dragged the long threads of fibrous slug-guts up and down. “I hear even stranger stories.  That you have the hearts of principal devils inside of you? Of Lucifer himself?”

“That’s half a myth.” Dion pushed back his coat and showed a bit of his chest. A scar ran down his sternum. “And half a truth.”

“Funny.” Astyanax gulped. “What an interesting faith that must be, to be hated and chained and forced to defend the very force that wants you dead. What a hypocritical existence.”

"I've said enough about myself. Out of courtesy." Dion said. “But I didn’t come here to talk politics or philosophy.” Dion began.

“No, you came to talk about people and their fate.”

“I have the right mind to kill you, you know that?”

“Even if you could, it would just guarantee the deaths of all you wish to protect.” He finished chewing. “Would you like to hear my proposal?”

“What is it?”

“Your life for theirs.” 

“Is this a joke?” Dion scoffed.

“I don’t make jokes. My word is plain and honest. I’ve grown an attraction to you and your friend.” He rose. “I can’t have him but I’ll settle for you. I have more of an appreciation for your talents than that silly church.”

He walked over to Dion and rubbed his shoulders. 

“That artisan quality of war is what matters. Here, in this desolate, lonely place. Only strength matters. As it has been, as it will be. Strength. The difference between those that have and those that have not.” He whispered into Dion’s ears. “And I’ve stagnated.”

Dion shook him off, jumped out of the chair and walked away.

“For years the steady surge of slaves have kept the warriors sated. They treat them like trinkets. And like trinkets, I’ve become bored. There’s nothing to it. The shameless masturbation over trivial desires.” Astyanax said. “I want to feel the thrill of war again, I want you to help me.”

“All you want is a cheap thrill? You diseased madman.” Dion bumped into a table. 

“Cheap? What’s been cheap?” His voice rose. He slammed his hand on the table. The wine spilled, it leaked down into the tile floor. “Three thousand years in this Hell! Cheap? The scheming, the madness, the loneliness. Cheap? For what? My only crime was being an unbaptized infant. That was it! A holy bastard. And they stabbed me, threw me, just a babe, over the walls of Troy. Tell me, was that deserved? Was that cheap?”

“Considering all you’ve done, the trickery, the death-dealings. Yeah, it was appropriate."

Astyanax laughed, he grabbed his long hair and slicked it back. “Appropriate? Not even in hindsight. Nothing is appropriate. Nothing and no one is deserving of this prison. You can pretend to imagine three thousand years of solitude, but you’ll never understand it. How crushing it is.”

“All your little armies and all your little soldiers can’t keep you company?”

“The weak attract the weak, the strong to the strong. How could you call these vermin company?” He walked over, a guard stood in the corner of the room with his hands behind his back. Astyanax punched him, made a notch in his neck in the shape of his knuckles and both of them watched as he fell and choked and held his neck. It made Dion stiff with fear. “He fell. He did not struggle, did not hesitate. Did not even try, he just died. Like that. Slaves put up more a fight than these fools.”

“You spent all your life conquering the people of these lands and now you’re disappointed? What a shame, nothing left to conquer?”

“You’re exactly right. I rule this small ant hill, a very slave in the larger scheme of things. There is no freedom but in the base thrills, the pleasures of my nature. I want violence, nothing more. Violence and companionship. I can’t bear the thought again, not another year of this. Not another hour.”

“You’re so shamelessly selfish.”

“Selfishness? Is that contrary to your moral aesthetics?” He asked. His head was down, his voice was low. “Don’t fool yourself. Everyone is selfish. And greedy. And gluttonous. I’m just trying to find my piece. That’s it.”

“And if I refuse?”

“Then the people die. All twenty-four that remain.”

“Twenty-fo-”

“Twenty-four of the fifty-six that came.” Astyanax’s eyes were yellow, large. “And it won't stop.”

“I’ll kill you.” Dion said.

“No, you won’t. You can’t. But It’d be fun, wouldn't it be? If you tried, if you failed, and tried and tried. Endlessly, with me. Just dance and routine.” He smiled.

They eyed each other, firm faced, like two lions in the bone-dry heat, with the low Savannah prickling their feet. 

There was a moment, the height of tension, where they looked just about to pounce. But there was a crack of the wooden door, it sounded like a squeal and from it came the rat. Alestor. Nimble-foot Alestor who walked up and into the kitchen. Astyanax smiled.

“Maybe you could convince him.” He said. Both Hunter and prey unaware of each other, both unreasonably afraid of the other.

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