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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60. Chapter 59

Jeremiah

And Jeremiah thought, only thirty-two remained of the fifty that had come here. Thirty-two people, with their broken clothes and their broken spirits, traveling with bleeding feet across the desert. 

They were not in chains because they were not threads. They wandered, endlessly it felt, endless in a world that did not turn and did not sleep. Like a projector with a never-ending film of grey, flat, lifeless picture. They spent days (or what felt like days) walking and had no hungers or thirsts to bog them down, only a growing weakness and ache in their limbs as they traveled through the hot sands and the pavement stones that felt cut sharp beneath their feet. 

Jeremiah looked up to that bright shine in the sky and he felt as if the red ring was glaring at him and looked around instead. There was an odd number of what he saw as the devil’s army, what he called them at least.

They came to a large hump of land and it was at that instant that Jeremiah had the inkling of an idea. A brief one and he went to Bartholomew who was some paces behind him and then to Sam who walked with a bowed head further behind.

“I’ll make a scene, you take the kid and run.” Jeremiah said. 

“Are you insane?” Sam said. He looked at Jeremiah, specifically to the torn lips on his face and the crooked nose that whistled with his breathing.

“No. I just figure that it can’t get any worse, can it?” Jeremiah said. They spoke in whispers, in nods and jerks. Jeremiah paced a bit further from them, Sam tried to stop him by grabbing his shoulders but he was too far gone. Then he waited, with quivering shoulders at what he thought would be the signal. Or the scene, rather.

Jeremiah moved fast. He moved right, mostly because his left eye didn’t work so right was all he could see and what he saw was a soldier, a demon, walking casually with his sword exposed. He grabbed it, held it with shaking hands and was dumb enough to pass glances at Sam and Bartholomew. 

They didn’t move. They were too afraid, too scared. And the demon looked at Jeremiah, he made what appeared to be a smile, toothless and sinister.  They were yellow, broken too. And he walked to Jeremiah, taunting him almost and all the demon’s around smiled and took turns at betting. Jeremiah made eyes with him, looked around to a circle forming and began to move rather stupidly in quick shuffles. He slipped. On his own feet. He fell, tried to stand and felt a hand grip his neck and force him down. 

“You’re the feistiest one here.” The demon said. Jeremiah could feel the spit running down on his face. It felt like grime, like sewer water washing over him. “How should I play with you? Breaking a man is only really as fun as how hard it is. You really need to savor the method and the journey, know what I mean?”

He put his send hand on Jeremiah's neck. It felt like lizard skin, whatever was underneath those gauntlets.

“Don’t.” A voice said at the front of the line. Jeremiah could only see the plumed helmet amongst the crowd, it looked like a walking peacock as it came up to Jeremiah and when it came to him, he could feel his neck ease and relax for the demon on top him came straight, tall, with his hand to his forehead to signal the commander. Or what Jeremiah felt was the commander.

“You don’t have a right to make a judgment. That belongs to the strong.” The commander said. He slapped the yellow-toothed demon and sent him down, holding his cheeks and lips.

“And you.” He turned to look at Jeremiah, Jeremiah who was stood by two more soldiers. “What compels a man to make such a rash decision? Who do you defend and why?”

Jeremiah said nothing. He only glared with that defiant intensity.

“What an odd and stupid look you have.” The commander came up to him. “ Odd, because I think you might have inspired the rest. Stupid, because I’m not sure that rebel spirit of yours has ever been tested.”

The air went cold. The other thirty-two stared at Jeremiah, looked at him for answers. These strangers they had only met in passing, these strangers that traveled and in their travels had shared that same sacrifice. And they looked at Jeremiah, fright-eyed, looked with weak and lifeless faces. 

I just wanted to help out the kid, Bartholomew thought. Just the kid.

“Well, let's test you then. We’ll see where your tension breaks.” 

The demons hollered now. A rowdy bunch that jeered and made small passing laughs at the people. They banged their chest armors, slammed their helmets on cacti and dead trees and stones and made drums of the desert, joyous, warring drums.

“Everyone, get in lines of eleven.” The commander turned to smile at Jeremiah. “As for you, I will give you the honor of the draw. Pick a number, any number, please.”

And those creatures of base desires kept laughing. Slapping each other into slack-jawed messes, drooling, rolling on the floor. Some started picking guesses.

“Well, are you going to choose?” The commander looked to Jeremiah who stood afraid and mute. Afraid to speak, afraid of what was coming next.

“Pick!” The commander shouted. Jeremiah shook.

“Choose what?” His fingers felt numb. “How do you expect me to choose when I don’t know what’s what?”

“Yes, there it is! It’s not what you stand to gain, but what you stand to lose.” The commander smiled. His teeth were jagged. “Choose a number or else I’ll kill everyone there. That should be proper inspiration, don’t you believe?” 

Jeremiah fumbled his thoughts, it was all too fast. He could feel it, all his life's experience leading up to this moment. All manners of juvenile joy, all manners of sorrow, all manners of redemption finally coming together in this singular moment. It overwhelmed him, his heart felt like it would break. He asked himself, a number for what? For how many will die? For how many will live? I don’t understand. His head felt the blood rush like a hot flash on his forehead. The sun seemed blistering now, so fiery hot as to ignite his scalp into flames. And he bit his tongue, and he began to sweat.

“Th-three.” He said quietly. “Three.”

The demons looked around. Then laughed.

“What a terribly low number.” One said.

“God damn, you’re insane!” Another one.

"Three? You really like killings, don’t you?" 

“Three is your answer then.” The commander said at last.

Everyone looked confused in their lines of eleven, wondering which three it would be. The question and chatter went on until a silencing smack fell upon them all. They looked to the front. One, two, three. The third man from the front of the line starting from the right, dropped dead. His body collapsed in two thumps, severed from the waist. The blood smeared against the shirt of another. 

The commander killed the third man in line.

They were silent all of a sudden, eyes wandering aimlessly as if they were falling into that deep, mesmerizing sleep. It felt like a nightmare, at least. For the thuds continued and the people kept dropping. And dropping. Every third person in every line of eleven was going to die. It was unbearable, counting down and realizing whether they were safe or not. How couldn’t it be? Facing death, knowing death, and being weak to it. 

“No, no I’m next.” A woman shouted. She tried to run. She made it two meters past Jeremiah before the blood splattered against his face. He looked to see and wished he didn’t. Her head was missing from a spear that had gone clean through her, that had landed and impregnated itself in a rock nearby. It had happened too fast for him to have shielded his face, and it had been too horrible for him to forget. And Jeremiah fell on his knees as he felt the woman’s life fade away into the ether. It was this instant, this climax, where he felt for the first time humility. And it was a strange feeling, humility, it was the feeling of powerlessness and the feeling of dread and the feeling of acceptance. It felt like the hot blood of a stranger dripping down his cheeks.

“Get back in line.” The commander smiled. “New numbers for everyone.”

Some breathed relief, others began to sob.

"That's unfair. She moved. It's not supposed to be my turn." A man said.

"Fairness? Where can you find that? Where if only in the lands of man? For fairness is what weak men invent when they cant come to terms with the unprejudiced chance of the universe.”

The man fell before he could make a rebuttal. He splattered quite horribly on Sam and Bartholomew, both who finally released their breaths as the soldiers passed them. Their bodies were tight, but they were smiling, not out of joy as much as relief, smiling and crying. For in one direction they could hear sighs and soft sobbing. And in the other, where the commander traveled like a walking scythe, they heard nothing but obscene silence.

 

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