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RDM Whittaker


Western Dawn

1

‘The Inquisition send you?’ he asks, scraping the red poker

out of a black brazier.

You say nothing.

The end of a scrawny roll-up glows under his hood. The

smoke he exhales, thick and blue, smells sweet. It is a

reprieve from the acrid stink of metal and body odour. He

releases the poker and it remains aloft, suspended by

invisible force. The glowing tip of the poker weaves lazily in

the air.

‘Keep watching the poker,’ he says, tracing a line in the air

that the poker mimics. ‘Consider how I’m going to use it.

Consider that secrets will not keep you alive. Here, secrets

will condemn you to pain and then to a preventable, and

severely unpleasant, death.’

You ignore the poker.

You look at the metal hanging on the north wall. Gleaming

tools, weapons and armour dangle by the reinforced wooden

door. They tap-tap-tap on the wall, snagged in the currents that

swim around your captor, the so-called Apex. In your hands,

any one of those weapons could mulch his face, turn his brain

to pulp.

The fire in the brazier pops and crackles. You wince,

unable to grip the arms of the chair.

‘Again! What is your name? Who is with you? Where is

your next target?’

The window is a small rectangle near the ceiling, some

metal bars, no glass. Dust, lit by the flames outside, rolls

through the aperture. Soldiers’ boots stamp on street cobbles.

The city will be ash before morning, it just doesn’t know it

yet.

He paces in front of the big furnace on the eastern wall,

patting a rag at his face. He looks like a corpse, drained of

blood. His waxen skin, the colour of moonlight, writhes with

black veins that spread from his eyes. His eyes are black and

wet, utterly inhuman.

He shuffles beyond your vision, clutching at his ribs.

You’d track him, but the clamp around your neck keeps you

looking forwards. Swollen flesh compresses your right eye

shut. The stumps of your wrists throb. You feel pins under

fingernails that are no longer there.

You glance at the black knuckles crackling in the brazier.

A clever move, that. Can’t cast nothing if you got no

hands.

‘How many are in your conspiracy?’ he asks. He sways

gently. ‘What is your name?’

White light slashes the gloom, slanting from window to

wall. Thunder rattles your metal chair, drills the cold stones

under your feet.

He staggers to the little window by the ceiling and peers

out. ‘Stormcasting?’ Little fragments of hail rattle through the

hole. He paces between the window and furnace, alarm

twitching across his features. His mouth is moving, inaudible,

swallowed by the elemental assault outside.

He is counting to himself, trying to work things out. He

hasn’t realised yet.

Good.

You tinkle your chains to attract his attention. Perhaps you

will finally talk? Perhaps fear has broken you. He has nothing

to lose by talking to you, nothing but time.

The belts of his coat clink as he leans against a workbench.

He cranks the handle on a creaking pulley.

Eek. Eek. Eek.

The chains about your limbs and neck clank as they

tighten. The glowing tip of the poker continues to weave in

the air, like a firefly on a lonely summer evening. The metal

is cold, despite the heat from the row of furnaces. Some fine

workman filed the edges smooth.

Got to appreciate the little things.

‘How many are in your conspiracy?’

A wave of his fingers and the metal collar leaps into the

recesses of the smithy. It lands with a dull clang.

Cool breeze hits your neck. It’s as if you’ve never felt air.

Rivulets of sweat roll from your hair to the linen on your

back. Your head lolls to one side and you try to blink away

the—

Skin squeals, rupturing into steam. The glowing tip fills

your eye socket, hovering on the edge of your eyelid. You’d

scream, but your shredded throat can only rasp. Don’t move,

just don’t move. He needs information, not a corpse.

The poker dives into a trough of shrieking water. Vapour

mushrooms upwards and when it clears you spy flecks of

skin swirling in dark liquid.

You try to blink away the pulsing purple smear burned on

your vision. Your eye is dry and your eyelid is raw and

splitting.

‘Who are you?’ he asks. Despite his steady voice, sweat

rolls down his features.

Pain floods in from your cheek. The shocked numbness is

being washed away by a raging glow. He’s burnt you. Again.

And your face won’t ever be the same; it has a new range of

rosy flesh mountains. Your crotch is saturated with urine.

You’re a disfigured cripple, now. Your skin throbs, each pulse

a fresh scourge. You feel hands that aren’t there being burnt

again.

No. Your skin is made of lies. You are as immune to pain

as the dead. All of this hurts no more than a blacksmith

branding leather. Your pain can be folded up, placed under

cold earth. You are Death. You have killed him, he just doesn’t

know it yet.

He lifts something. You struggle to focus.

‘A glass dagger,’ he says, balancing your broken weapon,

turning it over in his hands. His voice is even but his fingers

tremble.

You nod.

‘Very clever to use glass.’

Sticking him with it was exquisite, a real treat for the

senses. His face collapsed from smug to confused, to disbelief.

You plunged until the edge squeaked on bone and the blade

cracked. Before he reacted, you twisted it, splaying the shards

like petals inside him. You hope it hurt.

That’s when he grabbed you, crushed your neck. You

survived.

‘Difficult material to turn into a weapon, glass,’ he says.

‘Fragile, difficult to work. Nobody uses it anymore, of course.

I suppose that’s why it worked. All you needed to do, you

imagined, was to use it once; to poison me. And the

Inquisition knew you couldn’t use metal.’ He looks upwards

and you follow his gaze to the metal objects circling on the

ceiling. Hammers, tongs and rasps drift like leaves in a

whirlpool. ‘Makes sense that the Inquisition would attempt

a countermeasure. They already sent armies, I turned them

to piles of slag. Did you hear about that?’

You smile your wet, gummy smile back at him.

‘Yes, well,’ he says, his voice momentarily unnerved. ‘You

alone have landed a blow on me. Impressive, certainly, but

ultimately you have only doomed yourself.’

The metal objects rain down, pinging and clanging around

you. You squeeze your eyes closed.

When they open, you see the glass dagger sticking out of

your shoulder, the handle moving with your shallow breaths.

He crunches the glass in your wound and drags the weapon

out wetly. He places the cracked blade onto the workbench

where it leaks viscous black liquid onto your lone silver coin.

There is no pain in your shoulder, just numbness.

He uncorks a heavy flask on his belt. It sounds half-empty.

He takes a deep swig and tosses some at your face. The

distilled alcohol burns the exposed flesh from cheekbone to

ear. He knocks the last of the liquid back, swallows and gasps.

His fingers don’t tremble anymore. ‘Glad to see that your …

spirits are up,’ he says.

Torture is one thing, but wordplay is evil.

He slaps his hands together and the blacksmith’s grotto

blooms an unstable, sickly white-green. The light swells and

recedes from the unholy tattoos on his arms. ‘I think we know

each other well enough. I needn’t hide the fact I can heal

anymore, eh? There’s nobody watching us. I could heal your

wounds, would you like that?’

You turn from his blasphemous display. You shake your

heavy, dripping head.

‘You’re a fanatic,’ he says, jabbing each word into your

skull. ‘I’m the Apex. A fanatic can’t kill the Apex because he

disapproves of what the Apex has to say. You can’t just

murder your way through a city to get to me. I’m beyond that.

I’m an idea, a movement. I’m making a stand here, the

people, they…’

You don’t care. These are the squealings of a boar with a

broken dick, nothing more. The shoulder wound feels… cool.

Two images of him circle in front of you, patting at their

chests, making grandiose gestures.

‘…for all those people out there. That’s why the Inquisition

sent you to stop me. They’re desperate. The Inquisition knows

I’m too powerful, and there’s nothing they can do to stop me.

The world will be better after, when the Inquisition is gone,

surely you must see that? When the people, people like you,

real people, are free from–’

You spit blood, hoping it will land on his face. It just

dribbles uselessly down your chin.

‘No interest in politics, eh? No matter. If you want to avoid

liberation, that’s your business. Live how you like. This is my

offer, I will only make it once – I want your name, the names

of your co-conspirators. I must stop this senseless murder.’

All you need do is wait him out.

‘You need not suffer. You will be released after the

Inquisition has been destroyed, free to live the life of an

anonymous cripple. As long as you do not threaten my

subjects. Refuse and the torture will continue. I am merciful,

but I am not without limits.’

True. This thing has its limits, despite what his cult says.

His ability to talk about himself, however, that may be

limitless.

‘The revolution is underway, assassin, and I will see it to

its completion. Humanity’s course will be corrected.

Someone, somewhere, will know who you are, who your

family are. You cannot protect them unless you help me, now.’

You gurgle and wheeze. He squints at your neck.

‘Is your voice damaged? Did I damage it?’

You nod. He lifts your coin and releases it. It falls, bounces

and circles to a stop on the workbench.

‘The penny drops!’ he says.

He grips your neck and holds his other hand up,

contorting his fingers so the tattoos form a specific symbol —

decay— but inverted. The intricate lines of the symbol glow

pus-green, the sickly light arcing and dancing between the

geometric shapes across his flesh. The glow flows out of him

and pushes inside you, spreading through your veins and

tissues. Warm tendrils filling the gaps inside you, spreading

and uncoiling. The tears inside knit and twist themselves into

their correct alignments; ligaments twang, and bones grind

and reset.

Your skin covers the wound in your shoulder but the

inside remains cold and numb. His tattoos sputter green

sparks and he releases his grip.

Your hands remain charring in the brazier.

Your voice croaks in your throat. You stretch your new

vocal chords.

‘Speak now,’ he says, positioning a black iron nail in the

gap next to your kneecap. He weighs up a wooden mallet in

his other hand.

You groan. ‘Torture don’t work on me.’

‘What is your name? Who are your conspirators?’

‘Gods and fortune.’

Thock. You flinch. Cold metal pierces soft tissue and

embeds in bone. ‘You a gods-fearing man, mister Apex?’

‘No, not especially.’

You stare forwards. A flash. Thunder. Wind. The flames in

the brazier flutter.

‘Can’t say I’m surprised. My advice? Pray.’

‘Pray?’

‘Aye, pray, mister Apex. We’ll be meeting them soon

enough.’


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