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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86. Chapter 84

Astyanax

Dion kicked Astyanax’s shield and pushed it aside, revealing the king behind the guard. They locked eyes in that instant, an intense stare in a space and time that seemed to span both blink and eon in their adrenaline stupor. Their breaths, their heart beats, the warping slow sound of the crowd, all blending and crushing and connecting together between the two. It was the first time Astyanax had felt a bond with another. Kinship.

And he believed it to be his last. 

Dion put his finger on the trigger, he aimed down at Astyanax’s face. He could see the barrel pointing at him, still smoking from a previous shot, still lingering with the acrid smell of gunpowder. Astyanax held his breath. And for that brief instant, with his head empty of all thoughts and perversions and scorn, he accepted death. 

Dion pulled the trigger. The hammer drew. The chamber loaded. 

Nothing fired. 

Dion’s eyes widened and Astyanax, hearing the click and nothing but the click, readjusted his spear. His mouth screaming behind his silver mask, the spear screeching as it broke air currents. Dion tried to jump away but looked down, he saw the spear in his stomach long before he felt the pain up through his nerves. He fell on the floor clutching his wound and Astyanax looked around, almost cautious of the victory. His breath was still held, his body still bound together tight by cautious muscles. But the crowd cheered, shouted and he laxed at the reaction. 

He looked at Dion, wounded and coughing on the floor with the pistols thrown meters away from him. His feet readjusted their stance, his arms extended out on both sides and his chest was left exposed. He shouted, he smacked his armor in arrogant showboating and with his chest open, absorbed the glory of the crowd like oxygen itself, like sunlight. Sucking it in, screaming it back, letting the chaos and bedlam of the cathedral fill his heart with joy. 

“He tried, certainly,” Astyanax walked in circles to face every angle of the crowd. “And what a foolish thing it was to fight God’s chosen. Wasn’t it?”

The crowd stood, the noises bizarre and plentiful. Shrieks, claps, roars, hisses. 

Astyanax walked a bit past them all, towards the topmost portion of the cathedral, up to where the cross had once been now laid chains and hooks like curtains. They had been placed here only moments before the fight and now they were drawn down.

“And those that defy the will of God should get their apt abuse,” He walked back, the rattle of metal filling the crowd with his promise for death. “For there is no greater crime,” Astyanax mocked. “Than to go against God.”

The demons laughed. 

Dion lay gasping, holding his wound. Astyanax grabbed hold of his legs and stuck the hooks through his heels. 

Dion shouted, tried to fight it with wild wriggling, but found himself too weak.

“Ready the chariots!” Astyanax screamed. “Send him to every corner of Purgatory, let him be flag-bearer and testimony to my strength and prowess. The mighty Dion, heart-eater, demon-killer; dead. A warrior of God, killed by my hands.”

They cheered and the chains shook and their noises morphed together into metallic shrieks, loud horrific inhumane noises, that boomed and quivered the glass panes and high ceilings. Astyanax once again grabbed the chains. He pulled Dion through the center of the cathedral. Dion’s voice switching between grunt and scream; all of it, noises of pain. He clutched the spear so that it would not wiggle within his abdomen but it only seemed to make the pain worse.

He stirred, he spat. But he did not cry. He groaned, shouted, lashed out in violence and in spite, but he did not cry. 

He would not give them his dignity away, even in death.

They went around three loops across the stage like a dog show display, an auction house where the item at the sale was the very pride of God himself. And there were bids, many of them, many calls of rape and terrible agony. Too many in fact that they began to lose their identity, becoming only more wild shouts in the ocean of noise.

And on the third loop, when he stopped at center mass, when the throes and roars reached their apex, the doors opened.
 
A quick flash, a lightning bolt in the sky. Pluto's’ fire and revenge, Jove’s thunderbolt, flung forward. 

The chains were cut and burned and the metal links lay busted and red-hot on the floor. Dion’s feet struck the floor with a thump. They twitched. Astyanax looked back, towards the flaming sword, towards the open door and the small pillars of light that broke through. The demons turned as well, scurrying from the entrance.  

And what a strange scene and strange hero it was that came through. A starved boy, Astyanax thought, and a crippled youth.

Apollo inched forward, his left leg dragging along the floor on its side. The bags under his eyes were pronounced, a deep purple color. His brown skin, now pale. His long hair, growing every which way and thick and sweaty. Like a mildewed untrained orchard, begging for the cut, begging for the knife. Somewhere too, on his chin, behind the ragged hairs, was a pout. 

The meek boy led Apollo like a blind man’s dog, getting him far and away from the edges of the room where the demon’s looked with curiosity and hunger. 

Branded men, they whispered, they’re not dead yet. Living people. Like the heart-eater on the floor.

They should not be here.

The crowd grew rowdier. The gossiping, more annoying. Astyanax walked some paces off, to a spear rack sitting near a column. He removed a spear and struck the floor with the blunt end. Everyone quieted. Astyanax looked around.

Everyone was quiet, everyone but Horace. Horace who bit his nails and stretched out his skin and who scratched himself bleeding. Every nervous tick going off all at once.

Astyanax slammed again. 

“Be quiet!” He looked back to the two. Apollo leaning onto the boy for stability. “I hope that even a common intruder like you would have a bit of self-respect. Who are you? Oblige me your name, plebeian.”

The boy began to shrink in front of the king, those bleeding eyes of his. The tall white figure whose red arms and legs and silver-masked face brewed feelings of disgust into the child. He shook. And Apollo, tired and bitter, put his hand on his shoulder.

“If things get out of hand, save yourself, alright? Don’t even think about it.” He said, kindly. 

He turned his face the monstrosity, Astyanax as it was.

“Self-respect? I never had any.” Apollo mumbled. He pushed his hair back. “The only thing I can oblige you is my sword through your skull.” 

Astyanax observed him, his face changing from a confused state to an almost nostalgic wry. It struck him.  He laughed. A singular, long-drawn ha.

“You’re the other one, aren’t you. Apillo, was it? Apullo? Apollo. Apollo!” He shook his head in affirmation. “Yes, yes. Of course, not related to the actual Apollo though, are you? You’re much more haggard. You don’t have that glow to you, that beauty. No, no. You certainly don't have the makings of a God. Or even a warrior, for that matter.”

“Jesus Christ, you’re insufferable.” Apollo wobbled. The demon’s hissed.

“Now that's a scary name,” Astyanax laughed.

Horace began to shiver. He rose from his side of the wall and ran towards Astyanax.

“Kill him now, while he’s weak, master.” He begged, tugging his leg. 

“Not now, Horace.” He nudged his leg. Apollo watched, breathing heavily.

“I can’t save you from him,” Horace pleaded. 

“Can’t save me from him?” Astyanax laughed. Everyone laughed with him, except for the three. The housekeeper and the two invaders. “You can’t save me from anything,” Astyanax added.

He thought about it again, save me from him. It seemed stuck, an itch perhaps. A humor of the brain.

Then it began to disturb Astyanax, the echo of the phrase that would not escape his head. Save me from him. He looked down at Horace, who looked up. His face sad, with gloomy eyes determined at staring down Astyanax. Astyanax returned to a dull face, he thought again. Save me from him. He tilted his head back and forth and looked at Dion who laid on the floor. He was holding his wound still. His guns were on both sides, the closest being only feet away from him.  One of them was in his hands, he must have crawled to it in the middle of the conversation. It should have given a reason for Astyanax to kill him, but he looked more closely at Dion, specifically his unconscious state and the fact that he was still pushing down at the trigger, awake or not. Over and over, like routine. 

But he wasn’t impressed that Dion could shoot (or try to shoot) in his sleep. Nor was he offended. He was surprised.

Astyanax walked to him. He picked up the gun and looked at it. Inspecting the bullets and the chambers and the lever. He pointed it at Dion’s head. Apollo shrieked, No and tripped forward as he tried to stop him. 

Astyanax hit the trigger.

Nothing. They were all confused. He checked the chambers. There were three bullets left still there. 

“What’s going on?” Astyanax asked. “What did you do?”

Apollo stood up. He got the boy and ran towards Dion.

Horace fell to his knees

“I only wanted to protect you.” 

“What. Did. You. Do?”

Horace pulled his rags down below his knees and bit his lips and begged, his head falling so fast as to bash himself against the floor. 

“I did everything I could to help you. I always have, young master.”
 
Astyanax dropped his spear and shield. Everyone stood in thralldom, the scene left no room to breathe or even move.

“What did you do, scoundrel?” He slapped Horace across the face, his blood splattered on the floor. 

“I saved you.”

“Tell me now, cretin!” He shouted. “What did you do!”

“I took away his strength,” The words spilled out quickly. “I ruined some of his bullets, that’s it. Only a few! That’s all it took and see? See?! Look at what victory it guaranteed.”

The gossiping began again. Foul play? Foul play, common amongst demons, were they regular demons. But foul play amongst New Troy, and her citizens? From the king, venerable king? Of course, they wouldn't resist to gossip.

Astyanax looked around.

“You…” His voice broke. “You shamed me?”

His eyes fell, his feet fell limp and he loomed over Horace. Horace put his arms around Astyanax to hold him, to apologize. 

“I didn’t know sir, I didn’t know.” Horace cried. “But to throw your life on the line like that, I couldn’t tolerate the anxieties sir. I had to do something.”

Astyanax put an arm around Horace, it felt weak.

“Oh, please master. I’m sorry. But you must understand.” Horace rubbed his head deep into the armor of Astyanax.

Astyanax dropped his spear. He put his other hand around Horace.

“You only wanted to help?” Astyanax asked.

“Yes, I did nothing but help.” 

The demon’s kept speaking in their foreign tongues, some laughing, some mocking, others afraid.

“Then you should be rewarded, my dear Horace,” Astyanax said. “Help is what you give, help is what you’ll receive. Help from this pitiful existence. The only help you need.” 

Astyanax wrapped himself around Horace. 

He held him close. And he pulled, closer and closer. Squeezing.

“L-L-let go.” Horace managed to let out. His chest was squished against the armor and body of Astyanax. 

“I’m sorry.” It sounded more like the hurt plea of a dog than a man. 

Astyanax stood holding the servant, squeezing him, feeling the bones and tendons and muscles break and compress. Slowly, methodically. His arms were the first to give out, the bones popped out of his elbows.

“Ah,” What a painful thing it was to want to scream, but being unable to. The air exhausted from his chest, Horace could only let out squeaks.

His legs dangled and flailed about. His eyes began to bleed, his mouth began to flood with all the fluids trying desperately to escape from his mouth. From his chest up, he was bleeding and going purple and dying that painful death as his heart and lungs and bones were crushed together into an amalgamation of flesh and ivory. He looked up, eyes blurred and covered with a layer of blood, he looked up to Astyanax who held him in his death grip.

Bartholomew turned away. Astyanax narrowed his eyes. Everyone else, the demons, shivered as Horace let out those dying sounds. The bone breaking, lung-popping, pitiful death.

And when he was done and the blood came pouring out of the lesions of his choked flesh and out of his nose and ears and eyes, he let him drop on the floor. The body made a wet plop as it hit the pool of blood and ejected fluids.

There was awe in everyone, awe to the violence save for one.  

Apollo, crafty as he was, adjusted to violence as he was, ran for his blade (as fast a run he could do on tired legs). He picked it up and ran close up behind Astyanax.

He didn’t make it two feet before Astyanax turned. He picked up his spear with a quick kick of his feet. He aimed the spear then flung it out, towards Apollo. 

Apollo stopped, caught in fear.

The wind brushed his hair aside. The spear went past him, to his rear. He turned his head slowly to watch where it landed. A tendriled demon (the awful, nauseous and many-limbed thing it was) lay behind him, pinned to a pillar. He had a weapon drawn, seemingly aimed at Apollo’s back just as Apollo had his own weapon drawn to Astyanax’s back.

Apollo stood still. Blade fidgeting, his breaths loud and quick as he watched the king venture back to the spear rack.

“I won’t thank you,” Apollo said. His voice had a frailty to it.

Astyanax compared spears.

“H-Honor really means that much to you, doesn’t it?” Apollo asked. “It must be terrible knowing you have a faulty win, then.”

“Be quiet,” Astyanax’s voice was low, stern. Like a quick, blunt punch. “Foul play made his death quicker. That’s it. Within minutes, mere blinks, he would have died inevitably.”

“If you were that confident in your victory, if things were really going to play out that way and no other, then why even bother killing your friend. Why make a scene at all? Shouldn't you have been confident, forgiving?” Apollo pointed to the corpse. “It seems to me like you weren’t just angry, it seems to me like you were trying to kill a doubt in your head. A doubt that maybe, just maybe, you would have lost if things played out normally.”

“I know I would have won.” Astyanax yanked a spear out. The loud jerk caused everyone to jump.

“You can’t guarantee that.”

“I foresaw it.”

“You foresaw shit.” Apollo spat. “Don’t convince yourself otherwise.”

Boos. Loud shouts of anger responded back. Astyanax moved his spear across in a sweep like a conductor, and they all silenced themselves.

“What compels me is honor, that’s it. Don’t confuse yourself, I am not delusional in my ego. What I foresaw, what I felt, what I know is that I would have won.” Astyanax said. “But you’re right. Foul play does disturb me. It deflates my authority, it hurts my spirit.”

Apollo slapped his hand like a disobedient pet, trying to straighten it. Trying to make it go still.

“So leave us be then, go on. I’ll give you that right. Take the boy and yourself and leave, let me finish things with this heart-eater.” 

Dion groaned. 

“That’s a kind offer.” Apollo looked back, Dion and the boy stood behind him. “But we’ll all be leaving, together.”

“And how do you expect to do that?”

“With your head on my lap.”

There were murmurs amongst the crowd. The sparks of a new excitement.

“Will you fight in his place?” Astyanax looked at Apollo’s blade and how it shook. “Can you?”

Apollo quaked in place. Astyanax nodded his head, he closed his eyes (cocky thing, isn’t he?). He walked towards Apollo, then past him, towards the pinned demon on the column. Astyanax touched the entry room with his red hands and to everyone’s surprise, cocked his hand back. 

He dug it deep into the corpse's chest. And out came the heart. He threw it, the glowing, heart with the mineral growth about it. Apollo looked at it for a second, then back at Astyanax who settled himself back to his original place. He switched his vision back and forth between the two before, cautious and hungry like a feral, starved animal. He settled for the heart. Apollo pounced on it, stuck his teeth deep into it, tasting and eating it off the floor. A messy meal. 

When he was done (quickly at that), he looked up. Astyanax stared, sad and disgusted.

“Can I even call you a man?” He said. “What depraved ilk you must have come from. Undignified fool.” 

“Dignity? Like him?” Apollo pointed to Dion who groaned. “If it leaves you on the floor bleeding, was it ever useful? I prefer more practical philosophies.”

Apollo could feel his wounds healing, closing, his bruises clearing up. He could feel his legs and arms and the nimble steel of his blade. 

“Honor is what makes the fight worth enjoying, honor and life, the only things worth putting on the scale. Nothing else matters but those two. Nothing.” Astyanax said.

“How you’ve lived this long, this conceited and this stupid is beyond me.” Apollo stretched his body. 

“Most things are beyond a wretch such as yourself.” Astyanax scoffed.

“A wretch, huh.” Apollo jumped up and down in rhythm. “I guess dying to me will be that much more embarrassing, then?”

Silence amongst the crowd. Astyanax twirled his spear.

“Tell me, heart eater. Had I been as injured as you, as rude as you, as crooked as you; would you have given me the same respect I’ve given you?” Astyanax asked.

“No, the golden rule is for fools,” Apollo said. “I would have slit your throat a long time ago.”

Astyanax laughed to himself again.

“Well, the weak fear the strong.” They walked in circles opposite of each other. “And I do not fear you. For what difference will you make of fate, with that simple renewed strength? None. ”

“Well then. You’re strong and stupid.” Apollo could feel a bit of confidence returning. His blade stopped shaking, his eyes were focused. He only hoped it was an authentic article, something that would survive him through the fight.

“I’ve fed you, I’ve allowed you your fangs,” Astyanax said. “So don’t disappoint me, put up a fight. Do me that favor."

Apollo was silent. His blade ready, his heart starting that momentous engine roar. Badum, badum, badum. 

Astyanax stomped on the floor. Both now ready.

“You’re amongst rare and good company, Vicar.” His silver-mask faced away from the light, gaunt shadows across the pale face. “Die comfortably with this knowledge: you are part of the few to face me in open combat. And you will be one of the many to die beneath me.” 

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