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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87. Chapter 85

Apollo

They were close enough that Apollo could hear the chinking metal sounds. The loud scrapes were audible, even amongst the crowd that berated and that applauded. The heat of Apollo’s sword warmed him, its glowing edge pointed directly in front of him.

Astyanax hid behind his shield, only an eye remained of what was him. His spear was high above his head, pointing down towards Apollo. And Apollo began counting the meters of distance and range between the two. His lips quivering as he did so. His feet inched towards Astyanax, his clothes were wet with blood.

His courage had not survived even mere minutes. And for all his gloating, here he was now, afraid.

All of him was fidgeting and buckling and all he could find comfort in was that blade of his and its dying glow.

“Aye, what’s wrong heart-eater?” Astyanax took a step forward. The corner of his slight smile appearing past the shield.

“At a loss of enthusiasm, already?” Astyanax took a step forward. Apollo a step back.

“Aren’t you aware of what I’ve done? Doesn’t it make you angry?” He thrust his spear forward, into empty air. Apollo moved instinctively. There was no fight, not yet. Just tests.

Apollo moved his head and scanned the room, he lost track of all the demons around the two. He inspected the size of the building instead, every tower and its shadow, every corner and its set of curious eyes. The surrounding perimeter of the building was hidden, almost completely dark and what few torches were there could not illuminate past five feet. The center, where they fought, was the most illuminated and up above, Apollo saw the painted glass pane.

Jesus Christ, quite literally, stared down at him.

The demons hid in that darkness, cheering.

He returned back to the fight, surprised he hadn’t be stabbed in his absentmindedness.

Five meters of range, ten meters apart. Apollo thought.

He stopped moving. Astyanax took steps forward.

“The scum and the men,” Astyanax tapped his wide shield against the floor. It rang. “The women and the children, all dead by my command. All to deliver you and Dion unto me. All it took was a promise, words. A few simple words directed at a few simple creatures. Clever, don’t you think?”

Apollo twitched at the word ‘children’.

“Words lead men. Words destroy empires, delete religions, reduce cultures. So are you surprised then, that words could kill children? It’s not like they were that tough, to begin with.”

Apollo’s eye flinched, his stance changed. His face winced.

“Oh? Already hurt? It’s your choice to be offended or not, you know. And I don’t think someone who was so hurtful only moments ago should be this offended now. Don’t take it so hard, would you?” He paused two meters from striking distance. “She was just a child, a dumb child. I don’t even think she was aware of death as it happened. I was there, you know, as a simple rat. The albino.”

Apollo’s grip clenched. He felt something crawl down his spin, anger.

“What was her name again? Opie? Souve? Mmm. Sophie?”

And of all things to go wrong, this was the worst.

Apollo rushed first. Blade forward. The spear zoomed towards him. He dodged. The wind pushed his hair to its side. He heard his blade whistle, then bang.

Astyanax had his shield high in front of him, absorbing the blow. The leather began to burn behind the blade. The smell traveled up Apollo’s nose. He kept banging down at the shield, beginning to melt the metal. On the fifth, he was pushed away.

Astyanax riposted Apollo.

He exposed his body and kicked him. Apollo flew, his face dragging across the floor. He could taste the granite in his teeth, he could feel the specks of dirt stuck to the roof of his mouth. Blood was coming out from a cut brow, his temples rattled.

His left ear rung as Astyanax approached. The heavy footsteps were dulled to him, only a reverberation.

Stand up. He thought. He stabbed his blade into the ground, the stone softened underneath the heat.

The spear shot out again. He rolled to the side. It struck the floor where he was, rope and wood and the metal tip all shattering. The splinters shot out like a compressed shrapnel grenade, hitting Apollo’s sides.

It wasn’t good enough for Astyanax. No, not him.

Astyanax screamed, both hands out high above him. He grabbed his shield with both hands and slammed it towards Apollo. Apollo who put his elbows up to block. He was tackled. Thrown. Tossed. Pushed out, towards the edge of the cathedral where the demons laughed and taunted him. Apollo stood, only to feel another push from behind. The audience was pushing him forward, to Astyanax.

His chest ached, he could feel his broken bones stabbing his skin and muscles. He could feel his body trying desperately to repair itself, like a warm sting all across his body. A wave of heat and pain. The red steam rose from his inconsistent healing. Cuts and gashes were disappearing and reappearing all the same.

Astyanax struck him again, over and over, with the face of his shield, with the edge of it. Apollo dashed away after the tenth blow.

His legs were heavy. His grip was weak. He dropped his blade twice before he picked it up.

All the while Astyanax watched, spitting, screaming.

“Dion had spirit!” He walked towards the spear holder, a collection of barrels on top of a cart. He grabbed the handle and pushed it towards the center of the cathedral. “He stood and fought. He! He had in him the strength of will to suffer through agony. Do you?”

Apollo’s head rose. His lips were burst, his tongue rolled around to feel the wound. And he shook his head, trying to fix the triplets of blurry images that plagued his vision.

He could see the hordes of demons and their long tendrils or hands and bizarre shapes cheering who in his tossed-head looked like three times the people. He shook his head.

The three images aligned at once. Just in time. A spear was screeching, coming for him. Hungry.

He dodged to the right. The demons behind him were struck by the blow. The cathedral wall behind him broke, the head of a feline-creature was stabbed through the cracked surface. Apollo could hear the dying moan and further around the body, the frightened shock of the audience. It was an infection that grew and grew and all around the demons were beginning to fear.

Apollo caught it, eventually. A little later than most.

His heart beat fast, his eyes focused. He ran laps around the arena, the spears were shooting out. Like machine gun fire, whizzing and shattering air and concrete. The pops and sharp sounds of bone and stone breaking near him. The columns were collapsed, perforated and weak. The demons were killed for every spear Apollo dodged, their bodies hung and spasmed on the walls they were pinned to. The torches collapsed. The glass and ceiling broke. A new darkness overtook the arena, one filled with the sporadic caustic sounds of death and collapse.

He ran twelve laps, Apollo counted, twelve laps around the cathedral before the javelin's stopped flying.

Bartholomew and Dion were both low to the ground, Dion now silent in his deep state of unconscious, Bartholomew with his hands to his head as his body laid prone on the floor.

Some demons had decided to leave. They rushed through the door, trampling smaller creatures who could not manage. Some still stood, out of paralyzed fear or obligation. Some were forced to stay, half-dead on the broken Gothic walls.

Glass and wood and stone littered the floor. The once sharp and precise architecture was reduced to broken gaps and shattered cement. The building looked sieged, it was in a way, by a single man who stood, breathing heavily, at the center of the cathedral.

Apollo reared his head out of the trunk of a half-standing column. Most of it was lying on the floor, only the stem remained. He pulled his coat away from him, it was sticking.

All his clothes were sticky. Why?

He looked down. Blood. So much of it, trickling down his pants and filling his feet. He was still alive, barely. He wasn’t punctured, yet. Rather, he had been cut up by rosy-tinted church glass and other such gaudy shrapnel. His body had tried to heal but now, in his tired state. He couldn’t. His blade still in his hands, its bright glow now dimming, its radiant heat now cooling.

“I’m surprised you didn’t run with the rest.” Astyanax said. He reached inside the barrel, only one spear left. He raised it above him, eyed it against the unfiltered light of the broken glass ceiling and spun it like a propeller.

He slammed it three times on the floor, it had a good weight to it.

“Out of conversation, jester?” He painted towards Apollo.

Apollo put his blade forward, he ran.

“I guess you are.”

They went at it, the steel and leather and armor all clanking into a harmonious symphony of violence. The way blood rained and sprayed on the floor, the way their sweat trickled down, the intimacy of their bodies interlocked into holds and bouts of strength, all of it seemed like passionate theater. A dance, perhaps. Or lovemaking, to some perverted extent.

And like a dance, like the loss of the self in the moment, they stopped thinking after a while. Both of them.

Apollo just rushed. And rushed. And rushed. His blade banging down on the shield, the heat of his very sword beginning to melt and sawing through the bronze and leather. The sparks flew. The fire spread across the face of the shield. Astyanax pushed Apollo away. He looked at his flaming bulwark. The metal was melted through, it was branding his arm. He threw it to the side.

He looked at his spear. It was half its size, a portion of the wooden handle having been burned out. The ash came down from the ruined end like a used cigarette.

Apollo lowered himself. He galloped forward. An opening, he hoped.

A mistake.

Astyanax saw the man leap. He moved quickly and launched his spear through Apollo’s shoulder. His body would not heal that. It would not even reject the stake in his shoulder blades.

Apollo dropped. He rolled on the floor, away from Astyanax and faced him. He pulled out the wood. His wound suckled pursed and suckled air as the stake came out. Apollo felt the jolt of pain, then the burn, and eventually, the weak wetness of his blood escaping his body.

And Astyanax, weary and angry, annoyed and confidant, reached down to the side of his metal skirt. He took out his gladius and walked forward. His pace was slow. His head hung forward.

Apollo saw the shadow approaching. He could feel his stomach turning, his cowardice returning. As if all confidence had bled out of that wound as well and all that remained was the frightened fidgeting of a boy. He looked at his sword, then to Astyanax, then back. One of his arms was useless.

Of course it was. It was stabbed through.

It didn’t matter now. He had to try anyway, he had to fight. He stood and steadied his blade as best he could with his only good hand.

“This is the land of warriors,” Astyanax said. “And your existence here is a mockery. Coward and Clown, whichever you be, know that this charade ends here.”

Apollo looked around. Desperation guided him. The collapsed walls, the broken ceiling. The dark ring around the cathedral now growing and covering the corpses and stray observers. The torches unlit. A veil of complete blackness was nearly enveloping them both, and they remained just in the center, just in the last circle of light. Them and Dion and Bartholomew.

And he looked down at his shaking arm.

“Keep your blade up, die with decency,” Astyanax said.

Apollo could feel the king approaching, his long shadow covering Apollo completely.

And he looked down at his broken arm. It was warm now.

Was it warm? Why warm? It ought to be numb.

He looked at his useless arm, below the black coat, below the cufflink and even further below the white undershirt.

He looked around himself, towards the ring of darkness. Complete darkness. He looked at his sword. It wasn’t glowing anymore, still a bit hot. But not glowing.

His heart almost stopped. His breathing hastened.

His arm was losing blood, that’s why he hadn’t felt it at first. That terribly tight, terribly hot string of fate. That lasso, that bondage wrapped around his arm, bright and hot at the presence of demons and monstrosities. Though not to Astyanax, not that immortal monstrous soul of a man. But to the audience? To the very crowd Astyanax had invited? Oh, yes, it burned for them bright.

And it was hidden. Underneath the rags of his coat, underneath his shirt. Hidden well.

“How will you die?” Astyanax threw his helmet off. His white hair fell down. “Standing or begging. What suits you best?”

Apollo smiled. He ran away.

Far from Dion and Bartholomew. Towards the edge of the cathedral, into the absolute darkness where only the moans of the dying demons remained.

“With a sword through your back, then, is it!” Astyanax ran after him, thinking to throw his gladius. But Apollo had run too far deep into the darkness by then.

Astyanax stopped inches from the tapered end of the deep shadows, near a pillar. He tried to look inside the darkness and saw nothing.

“Shadows and trickery, do you think it’ll keep you safe?” Astyanax screamed.

He heard a scoff repudiate him. His face scowled.

“Die in the bowels of darkness then, snake. I offered you a quick death, but now you will writhe.” Astyanax put his blade forward as he came in.

 

 

Apollo saw nothing in the darkness of the edge of the cathedral. Not even with his crimson eyes. He was coming in and out of doors, passing walls and columns and disappearing further into the false night.

He touched something.

He jerked his foot away.

He stepped down on it, the soft flesh. Oh, just a corpse on the floor. His foot made a light noise.

Astyanax heard him. And he jumped away. He felt his hair move from the wind of a passing blade. Again, and again. He was fighting in that darkness, fighting invisible knives and noises. He danced. He dodged. He ran.

And once again bid his time in darkness. His heart raced. And he thought, only for a brief moment, of what he stood to lose. The thoughts flooded him, images of death and misery. The deaths of himself, of Dion, of Bartholomew.

Then, as if stabbed again, he saw the terrible image. Of the girl, Sophie, on that rooftop, split open.

He wanted to groan. He held his mouth shut.

He focused, holding his breath. The footsteps were coming closer, judgment was coming closer.

He hid his blade in his coat and almost as if in surprise, found something else underneath. Whatever it was, he held it in his mouth and bit down hard on it to stop himself from screaming.

Whatever he did was hot and painful and almost made him wail, had he not held the strange object in his mouth. He heard the footsteps approaching. His blade was still down, beneath his clothes, hiding its light glow.

Closer. The light, nimble steps. Closer to Apollo. Near him, next to him.

He heard the breath of Astyanax, he felt the hot air hit him.

And Apollo threw something forward.

Something that made a plopping noise as it hit cement. Something that sounded like flesh. Something that glowed in the dark.

Astyanax, near, and quick stabbed at it. His gladius struck flesh and bone and the floor, the sound was loud. Clear. Obvious in the darkness.

And they both knew at that moment what would happen next, with Astyanax in that darkness, having stabbed the floor and cement and having made that noise. With Apollo, behind him, with the steady hot blade.

He aimed at the noise, put all his strength into it. Astyanax moved, tried to.

Apollo felt his blade hit armor, then as the heat began to reduce the metal, felt it hit flesh. Blood boiled in the wound and escaped. His blade cooled within the human sheath. And with one final burst of will, Apollo reached for Astyanax in that darkness, his crimson eyes only appearing as a flash, and threw Astyanax back, into the light at the center of the church.

Astyanax rolled on the floor, each bump sinking the blade deeper into his chest. He laid there for a moment, above a bed of broken glass. Surprised by pain, of his injury. Surprised by the black leather wrapped handle of a sword sticking out of his chest.

So very confused, his eyes wandered around to Bartholomew and to Dion and to Horace. Bartholomew who screamed, not jovial or triumphantly, but in shocked horror.

Astyanax stood there in the center. He dragged the wreckage of the church, nails and wood and glass, below his trembling feet. He took his helmet off to see properly. His two braided bangs of hair falling down his face. Ruined. They looked like worn ends of a disciplinary whip.

Why am I so weak? He wondered. There are no lungs, no organs like the other three, living people have. I’m just a spirit, just a mighty soul.

Then why can’t I stand still? Astyanax thought again. He wobbled left and right.

Why can’t I fight? He thought. He tried looking for the gladius to his rear. He found it at last and widened as he looked at it.

There was an arm hanging from the tip of the blade. There was string wrapped around it, and it glowed gold.

He laughed. Then tried to pick it up like a broken crane, he took an inch off the floor only to drop it.

He couldn’t bend his knees. His poise was shaky, at best.

“Where are you?” Astyanax wheezed out.

There was a noise. Something in front of him, a scream, a scuffle that kept going and growing.

Oh, that’s why. Astyanax thought.

He looked into that darkness from where he had been shot out of. Towards the staccato. He smiled. He understood.

Apollo’s eyes shined through the absolute black of the cathedral. Those crimson eyes. Then a new face appeared, one Astyanax could only imagine, one that would haunt him to oblivion. Apollo came out, red-eyed, with his mask. That which hid in his jacket, that which possessed Astyanax with fear. The white mask, engraved with black lines. A rorschach that revealed something in Astyanax that he did not want to accept: he was to die, sad and alone in these remote lands.

The rest of Apollo appeared, slowly materialized. One armless half, the other tightly clenched into a fist. The knob of his arm was cauterized. The skin was burned black.

He walked close up to Astyanax who could barely stand. Astyanax fell to his knees.

Apollo pulled his amputated limb close to his chest.

Astyanax, as a final attack, grabbed onto Apollo's severed hand. He gripped the amputated arm, dug his fingers into the burned flesh and began some foreign enchantment. Apollo screamed, felt a bolt of pain stride his arm nerves, straight to his chest and his neck. He put his foot down at Astyanax and pressed him down on the floor.

“A gift.” Astyanax’s eyes rolled to the corners of his skull. “So you never forget me, heart-eater.”

Apollo looked at his wound. It felt strange now, weak and cold. He didn’t understand it, couldn’t, not in his ravaged state.

Whatever, Apollo thought. I'll deal with this later. He comes first.

He looked back at Astyanax who spewed blood from his mouth. 

“Was it worth it?” Apollo said. “Everything you did. Did you get the good fight you wanted?”

Astyanax focused his dying eyes back at Apollo. Yellow, hardened.

“Don’t patronize me, Apollo.” He said.

“I’m not. I’m trying to understand you.”

“But can you? Can you understand my loneliness, could you ever?” Astyanax said. “A loneliness so strong it makes you wish for love. For hate. For anything, just to feel. Can you understand that?”

Apollo kneeled down at Astyanax, whose blood sprawled out of his mouth and onto the floor.

Apollo put his hand on the handle of his blade. “Yes, yes I can.” He pulled out his blade. Blood poured out. It covered his armor, then overwhelmed.

The ceiling broke off a chunk and the cement fell behind him. The sound signaled a reaction amongst the crowd.

Behind them, frightened voices whispered in the dark. Some faces appeared through the doors. 
Astyanax rolled his head around. He was trying to find someone. He looked at Dion first. Then to Bartholomew.

He spat, a long string of blood came out and to his rear.

He stopped at Horace. Horace, broken on the floor, both sad and happy that he would join him soon.

At last, he faced Apollo who still had his foot down his abdomen. With his blade ready.

“Curious about me, aren’t you?” Astyanax asked. “Of who I was and who I am then?”

His head jerked forward, a last rebellious move.

“I was not born in Troy. I died there. I was raised, nurtured in Hell. Understand that.” He said. “Understand a man who did not get to experience his own history, but was forced to hear of it. Who was of noble line but stranger to it. A man who wanted more of life, but wished to die.”

He shouted now, his face shaking left and right. Tears coming down his face.

“I killed thousands and I would have killed thousands more.” Astyanax coughed. “And am I wrong for that, to kill for pleasure? As what was done to me? Only the naive say aye. Because only the naive make judicious claims of what a life, any life, is worth. For the wise know, nothing matters. And that every act of wills is nothing more than the chance game of the universe, of God. I lived. I desired. I took and killed. And you do the same, don't you, Vicar?" 

Apollo cocked his arm back. Astyanax felt the blood collect in his throat. He swallowed.

“You have no right to judge me, Apollo.” He shouted. “You who live behind that mask, fearing God. You who live, shamelessly in sin. You tainted soul. You mutt of man-!”

He looked at Apollo, solemn and tall. Past him, in the growing darkness of the room, somewhere where his vision could barely make out figures, he saw a form. A figure, coming together seemingly through the dissipative light and darkness of the outer edge of the room.

Not a pinned man, not a corpse on the floor. A four-legged creature. Walking with a passive gait, grin in full view. Spotted skin, he noticed.

His eyes widened. His muscles tensed.

“Trickster,” He whispered. His last words.

Apollo’s hand came down, through the hole in his armor, into his chest. He dug his hand deep into the cavity of the body. Astyanax stifled a scream, grabbed the bloody arm and held it tight. At first out of protest and instinct, then, as he felt his innards searched, out of merciful touch. He wanted to hold someone, for some reason.

And after a while, he wanted nothing. Had nothing to want, for there was no one there anymore. Just false-flesh, a puppet where a man once was. An empty vessel.

Astyanax let go. His red limbs receding to pearly white. The yellow in his eyes, turning white. All of him, going white and dead.

Apollo drew his hand back, the blood dripped from his gripping palm.

In his hand; the beating heart of King Astyanax, sultan of the desert, throne to degenerates, emperor of none. 

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