A Blessed Day
rating: +11+x

"…you two, and my foolish acolyte, here, will explain very quickly how you came to bring FLESH to the door of MY WORKSHOP."

Inventor-Militant Antoninah diLuca's voice was stern, but now that he saw she wasn't going to strike him down immediately, Herman mentally revised his chances of survival sharply upward. "You've got to help me," he wailed. "I can't go back!"

Lottie stared up at her commander. "You used the f-word," she whispered. "I've never heard you say the f-word."

The hovering guards snickered at this; one raised a hand to their face, trying and failing to disguise snorts of laughter as a cough. The heavy chains extending from their wings to form a circular cage around Herman and Zeke rattled musically. "Wait'll you get your wings, kid," quipped a booming voice. "You've never been on a raid with us."

"Not now, Philip!"

"Apologies, Inventor," the burly guard replied. His lips twitched with suppressed mirth, but his iron wings never wavered.

Antoninah tilted her head at the young acolyte and blinked expectantly.

"That man," Lottie pointed at Zeke, "brought a… a heretic device? To that man's church tent," her hand moved to indicate Herman.

Both men did their best to look helpless and innocent. Sprawled in the grass where the horses had thrown them, they gazed up at six nearly identical expressions of suspicion in varying shades of brown.

Herman took advantage of the momentary silence. "My livelihood was destroyed! What will I do now?"

"The device belongs to my uncle." Zeke added, nodding at Lottie. "She stole from me." And more importantly, Zeke thought to himself, from his uncle's firm.

"It belongs with us, doesn't it?" Lottie said hesitantly. "To bring into harmony with God's design. That's the Operating Rule."

Antoninah sighed. "When we have an active mission, it is. But these - did you even know this one was marked by the enemy?"

The acolyte shook her head.

"Tch, Lottie. What am I going to do with you? We've been idle too long," said Antoninah, before turning again to her captives. "Tell me your names."

"Herman P. Fuller, at your mercy, ma'am!"

"Hezekiah August Carter, Senior Client Services Representative, Marshall, Carter & Dark." He dredged up a wan smile. "I would give you my card, but I don't wish to give Philip the wrong impression."

The Inventor stood in thought for a long moment, raising a metal hand to stroke her chin. She turned to the acolyte. "Lottie, run downstairs and fetch me Darius. And a jar. Philip, Flange, Danise, at ease. Doris, search them."

"Yes, ma'am!" Lottie grinned and dashed off into the moonlit meadow. At the massive circular door in the ground, she leapt straight down, landing somewhere inside with a CLANG.

A flurry of rattles and whickering thunks sounded, as the guards rearranged the chains stuck into the grass around the prisoners. One - evidently Doris - shook her wings and folded them back, every chain but one retracting into the iron folds.

She hunkered down on one knee next to Zeke, resting a fist in the grass. A single spike wove gently through the air, inches from his face. "Now, I'm an easygoing gal," Doris informed him. "You just lay quiet - Hezekiah, right? And don't make any sudden moves. We'll get through this in no time at all."


The first thing the Inventor looked over was Herman's letter from his mother. It had not even been opened, which lent force to his overly dramatic protestations of woe and innocence. As it turned out, Madame Fuller had tactfully avoided asking the reason for his long absence from his kin and desired him to return home at once.

Having learned the home address of a group of Sarkites, the Mekhanists intended to mount a military strike against them immediately. Herman practically demanded to help. His eagerness to assassinate his own family appeared, to Zeke's surprise, to be entirely genuine. He was allowed to sit up, and awaited events with an abstracted look.

The "jar," when Lottie arrived with it, was a wheel-thrown pot of ochre clay, unglazed. It seemed common, almost crude, until she lifted the lid. The same red sunset glow Zeke had last seen in Mitterling's eyes poured out. Even at this distance, the chilly autumn air grew a little warmer.

"Alchemical fire, attuned to the ideal temperature for atomizing flesh. You see?" The Inventor smiled down at Lottie. "Sometimes the word is precise, and not just vulgar."

"Understood."

"Keep that by. We'll need it to dispose of the alteration, once I remove it."

"Yes, ma'am." Despite the intense heat generated by the jar, Lottie seemed content to hold it in her bare hands.

Darius proved to be a short, stout, wingless man, introduced further as a "Scribe, Faithful to Chock." His hands and the left side of his head were sheathed in smoothly joined sections of steel plate; an arc light shone from his left temple. Although admirably placed to assist the scribe in reviewing documents at the edge of a forest at night, its beam stabbed into Zeke's eyes each time the other man looked up.

After a cursory review of their other possessions, he and Antoninah spent some time inspecting the blueprints for the loud-speaker. They peppered Zeke with questions which drew heavily from the arcane dialect of engineers, in which Zeke was regrettably not fluent.

"What was the primary use-case of the device?" This, from Darius, was the first question that had actually made sense.

"More or less the use to which it was put," Zeke said carefully. "To enhance the inclination of customers to look upon a potential purchase with favor." That, he thought, was as far as he could go without placing himself in more peril. If they were willing to return the thing — if they were willing to repair and then return it — he might rescue this trip from disaster.

Antoninah tapped the folio. "This shows some skill with alchemy, though the authors' grasp of structural design is poor. Our previous source of alchemists' fire has recently relocated… elsewhere. My operating orders empower me to acquire resources as best I see fit." She pursed her lips, tilting a shining hand from side to side. "The parameters can be… somewhat flexible."

If he hadn't been sore, damp, flat on his back and surrounded by Mekhanist soldiers with very good aim, Zeke would have leapt for joy. He wasn't going to die that night. He was going to make a sale.

In the course of a brief but thorough haggling session, Zeke was surprised to learn that Mitterling's case was known to the Inventor. The Fabricator, or cleric-foreman, of Mitterling's home factory was a high stickler. Banishing a member of his congregation at the local level for unauthorized self-modification was well within the Fabricator's scope. However, a formal declaration of heresy took time, and the Legates had not yet ruled. A plea for clemency, or even better, retroactive approval by the Inventor could potentially halt it before it ever reached a Legate's desk. And would thereby gain the old man's considerable alchemical knowledge for Antoninah's benefit.

Furthermore, Mitterling would have the Inventor's blessing to take on occasional projects for the benefit of Hezekiah's employers, at the engineer's own discretion.

The salesman and the Inventor shook hands on the deal; she hauled him to his feet as they did so. Darius, who had appeared to be meditating during the negotiations, raised his head and announced that a transcribed copy would be brought from the workshop momentarily for their signatures.

He had not exaggerated. An iron raven, bearing a scroll in its talons, labored up through the gate and sailed across the meadow.

Zeke gripped the stylus the Scribe pressed into his hands and looked down at the scroll. "You spell your first name with a 3?"

Antonin3 scratched the back of her head and waved this away. "Long story."

"Hm!" He nodded appreciatively, and signed.

"Now for this," Antonin3 said, and turned to Herman. The anticipation in her face was both familiar and utterly alien to him. It was not, he judged, that she was going to enjoy doing it. Rather, she looked forward with immense satisfaction to the thought that it would soon be done.

She raised her right hand, which spread, retracted a layer of armor and spread again, articulated joints appearing as scores of fine wires unraveled from their cores.

"My apologies; this is going to hurt."


Herman was screaming. It made him feel like a kid again. He hadn't screamed in years; his family hadn't let him. He knew he'd had worse, but damn if he wasn't out of practice. Maybe this would be the last time. He reached for the kernel of silence in the darkness of his mind, and found something else there in it with him. A sound —

bright wheels that ring along rails with a chime
the breath of engines deepens, quickens, swells
brass wind, bisected on the lips of bells
the sway and thrum of towers too vast to climb

— one note, high and low and past the edge of hearing, its keen unbearable, full of awe. A stillness of its own, vaster than his. It slid across his loneliness like a blade.

He hated it. He hated it. It had to stop. It was everywhere.

He screamed again, but for a very different reason.


The trip had not been uneventful, but it had at least been swift. Sitting in the front parlor of the house where he'd grown up, Herman felt like a stranger. The wires Antonin3 left behind, she said, would stop the alteration his brother had carved in his flesh from growing back, in case she'd missed any pieces. She had given him a pocketwatch; when an opportune moment to strike arose, he was to set its hands to a number and then smash it. It would send a signal in a single pulse to Darius, who would relay the number of troops that Herman expected would be sufficient to deal with the threat. They could arrive in as little as six hours.

He didn't think for an instant that these were the Mekhanists' only preparations. He just hoped they would bother to come at all.

"How have you been, Mother?" Carefully, he handed her steaming tea in a delicate china cup.

"Well enough, my son." Madame Fuller took a sip, then set the cup down with a clink. "I've got cancer again."

"Congratulations."

"A blessed day." Madame Fuller gave a rare, thin smile. "I had not thought to need to summon you home. Though I suppose it must be… decadent, to surround oneself only with the lesser, who may be commanded to one's whim." Though her voice was level, her narrowed eyes made this a question.

Herman cleared his throat. The Mekhanite wires under his shirt made him feel horribly conspicuous. The pocketwatch dangled from his waistcoat, heavy as lead. "It was certainly a learning experience, Mother."

"And what did you learn?"

"Logistics."

The unthinking honesty of this reply startled them both into silence.

Madame Fuller sipped tea, recovering her usual grace. "I have decided it is time to bring you more fully into our life, Herman. Although there are many tasks for which, of course, you are not suited, you are my offspring nonetheless. No child of mine can languish on the periphery for ever."

The words struck him like a blow to the stomach. Most of his life, this was all he had ever wanted. The boy he'd been two years ago would have wept with joy to hear Madame Fuller say she had a use for him. Now, when he was committed to revenge - it was too little, too late. Whatever plan she had in mind, he would never be more than a minor player among their ferociously competitive kind.

He pictured his own name on a sign, painted three feet high, like the ones the revival caravan had put up outside the larger towns. Crowds flocking to see him. She could never give him that. And she would never let him go.

"I'm… speechless, Mother," he said, a little breathless. "In all honesty I had lost hope. Truly, this is… this is a blessed day."

"Eloquent as ever, my son." She patted the side of his face, a gleam of anticipation in her eye. "There is to be a gathering tonight, in town; your arrival is timely. Tomorrow, we depart for the ceremonial site. For now, we aim to see and be seen. Dress accordingly."

He thought of the state of his wardrobe, and hoped he hadn't outgrown it all.


Herman, Madame Fuller and Aloysius rode to the center of town in the carriage. After a few snide remarks about his brother's attempts to cobble together a fashionable outfit, Aloysius lapsed into an uncharacteristic, brooding silence. Neither was inclined to disturb their mother's meditations. This left Herman to stare out the window at the waxing moon.

George was driving. He and his wife, Bertha, who doubled as the cook and as Madame Fuller's maid, had been with the family since the time of the senior Mr. Fuller. Sarah and John had been hired separately, and later, as Madame Fuller judged it needful to have extra help to manage a household of unruly and precocious children. Black people were rare in this part of the country. As far as Herman could figure it, having these four in her sway was a deliberate snub by his mother against their distant, and increasingly few, Southern kindred.

We have the power to keep what we have, he imagined her saying. And the law of the state of Massachusetts is no obstacle to us.

There was something more to that thought, something that nagged at him, but it slipped away as the carriage pulled up to the gates of a mansion. Squinting, Herman could make out a few protective ürma chalked on the gateposts. These glyphs, derived from the ancient Adytite language, distracted the untrained so that they failed to notice the gate at all or ignored it as impassable. Madame Fuller had evidently prepared George for this; the carriage proceeded through.

Lucretia greeted them warmly at the door, looking radiant as she always did after an extended use of her talents. She turned to Madame Fuller with a shy smile as she led them down a tastefully sumptuous hall. "Mother, I hope you'll enjoy what we've done with the place. Katarina wanted a more classic style. She did need my help with some of the centerpieces, but as far as I'm concerned, we really captured the aesthetic. Even her father couldn't find anything worse to say than we 'took long enough.' "

Their mother gave a soft hmph and small, fluid movement of her shoulders. "Mr. Jellick would find fault with a river of blood if the temperature was off by one degree," she said dryly.

"Funny you should say so," Lucretia replied, now unabashedly grinning.

Another ürma, this time done in reddish-brown calligraphy on vellum, hung on the wall above a modest set of doors. A pair of bland-faced Irish servants swept them open with a bow at the Fullers' approach. Behind the doors, a grand staircase spiraled down into a space larger than the Jellick mansion. Crossing the threshold, Herman felt something different about the space itself. As the clack of a falling rock sends echoes across the width of a lightless cavern, he could feel himself gauging the invisible weight of the room with some new sense that was neither hearing nor sight. It felt subtly unreal, as though it had been made, and he racked his brain for scraps of lore about how such things were done.

The room was a circular dome. At the far end, another staircase identical to the one they were descending rose into the darkness. Thick grey fog circled to encompass the room instead of walls. Above the center of the room, a half-sphere glowed soft white, with an Adytite sigil Herman read as triumph etched in red across its face. Lucretia described points of interest as they came into view, her voice tight with excitement.

Suspended from the ceiling with artful randomness, people splayed like beached starfish, their intestines garlanded from one to the next. These dripped steadily, softly, atomizing into a fine red mist above the heads of the partygoers. What appeared from a distance to be plush, if somewhat lumpy furniture resolved on closer inspection into more distorted human bodies. There were people everywhere, distended into long sofas, bent and flattened into occasional tables or near-skeletal groupings of high-backed chairs. Guests in their most expensive finery sat in small conversational groups or drifted languidly around the room, hats and jackets or flowing skirts fading to red where the fabric was light enough to show the stain. A string quartet nestled near the edge played soothing music under a low awning which shielded their instruments from the mist.

In the center, six unlucky souls were contorted into a circular buffet, various delicacies heaped at intervals along its surface. Three pairs of faces had been fused together at the hinge of the jaw, mouths stretched wide to form three enormous punch bowls. Little red and yellow globes, the swollen abdomens of tiny creatures that looked insectile, browsed along the lips. Towering up from the center of that was a viscous monstrosity, puckered with tumorous growths. It had presumably also once been human and might have the misfortune to be so again. Those who could carve, partook - there were no implements of any kind here.

On the one hand, Herman admired his sister's ingenuity in making the line between the somebodies and the nobodies, even among the guests, so starkly public. On the other, he seethed with resentment at the reminder of which side of that line he was on.

Lucretia broke off from the narrative of how she and Katarina had divided up the work, voice dropping again to a whisper. "Oh, and I almost forgot. In each area we made one or two partly insensate - "

"Seems a waste," Aloysius muttered. Madame Fuller silenced his sour grapes with a pointed look.

"Except for their hearing," the young woman finished acidly. "So they won't be distracted. They're going to tell us everything that's said tonight, afterwards."

"A word to the wise is sufficient," their mother said, smiling for the second time that day. She took her daughter's hand and squeezed it gently. "Truly, this is… very fine."

Lucretia's face flushed, her own smile incandescent. "Thank you, Mother," she breathed, and ducked her head as Madame Fuller swept into the crowd.

"Thaank youu, Motherrrr," Aloysius repeated in a sing-song voice.

Lucretia turned on her heel, gesturing around the room and the hidden listeners there. "Some of us know you can drive a mule farther if you use a carrot once in awhile instead of just a stick," she snapped.

Then, with a shrug, she let her eyes flick - once - at their mother's retreating back. "It even works on me."


Herman wasn't exactly bored. In a place this enthralling - he refused to admit to intimidating, even to himself - it was impossible to be bored as such. He found himself idly reviewing the family conversation at the foot of the steps. Lucretia had always been a prodigy, but at the rate she was coming along it was time to start laying odds on Ma's probable lifespan. Then again, if his own plans succeeded, the question was moot.

As the party wore on, he couldn't decide which was worse: the guests who eyed him like he was part of the furniture and wouldn't speak to him at all or the ones who sidled up to make some supercilious comment, probing for a reaction. He tried the punch and found it startlingly sweet, but quickly retreated from the embarrassment of having to drink out of his own cupped hand in front of the other guests. The jewel-like insects had proven to be ants, and he made a mental note to ask his sister where she had gotten them.

A server passed by, their extended hands molded into a tray and smeared with condiments like a painter's palette, a tidy pile of glistening red cubes in the center. A splash of matching, bloody cavities across their muscular chest left little room for doubt where the pile had come from. "Decadence, sir?"

With a sigh of resignation, Herman took a cube and picked a smear at random. He cast a shrewd eye over the server's face, chewing glumly. Damn, that was spicy stuff. "You one of my sister's listeners?"

"Sir?"

That level of calculated blandness could not have come from a mind that was less than alert. He swallowed, grinned and jostled the server's elbow. "You're good. You tell her I said, I bet Ma's gonna taste great. Only a matter of time."

A swirl of blood-dampened skirts behind him announced someone else's presence. He turned, and was surprised to not recognize the other guest's face.

"Olga Koszlova," she said, smiling, and extended a hand. Her accent was Russian. "I hear you are new come to Adytum's Wake."

That answered, to some extent, the puzzle of where the other staircase led. The notion that this room might have as casual a relationship to geography in general as it did to the visible extent of the Jellicks' property had previously occurred to him. He'd read, but never before seen proof, that Nälkä was still practiced in secret across Russia. It had originated there among tribal peoples on the icy tundra, but aristocrats under the tsars had evidently adopted a more modern style. He shook Olga's hand, returning the smile. "Herman P. Fuller, at your service, ma'am. Not new come as such, but newly participating."

"Ah." She glanced around, her expression openly skeptical. "And what do you think of it, now that you are here?"

He took a risk, hoping for a laugh. "If this is Adytum's Wake, when is Adytum's funeral?"

Olga scoffed, her mouth pinching into a moue of disgust. She turned and stalked away without saying goodbye.

The server wandered off. As Herman stood there, mentally kicking himself, Lucretia approached, towing a staggering Aloysius by the elbow. "There you are. I've been looking all over for you. I'd be lucky to smell a bonfire in this crush."

"What happened to him? Is he drunk?" Herman asked, ignoring their brother's slurred attempt to reply. On the level of fleshcraft at which his siblings operated, it shouldn't be possible for a person to get drunk unless they deliberately allowed it. Which made this circumstance all the more fascinating.

"It was the ants," Lucretia said, glowering at Aloysius. "He ate too many red ones. I told him, we got them from a friend of Mother's from… elsewhere. Even I needed time to get used to the difference. And he had seven." She waved her free hand in the air, fingers curling into a fist.

"What do they do?" Elsewhere was apparently as distant from Russia as it was from Massachusetts. He filed this tidbit away for later study.

"The ruby ants enhance sensation," Lucretia recited, rolling her eyes. She had apparently delivered this speech a number of times that night. "The citrine sharpen the memory and enhance cognition. One will wish to appreciate a delicacy of this nature in moderation," she finished with a growl.

Herman had to bite his lip and turn away to keep from roaring with laughter. And he thought he had embarrassed his sister in ways he'd soon deeply regret.

"Get him out of here, Herman. Take the carriage. Katarina will send Mother and I in one of her father's. Go!"


George allowed himself a single, wary look at the Fuller brothers as they approached, but helped Aloysius up into the carriage without comment. Herman briefly considered sitting outside, then decided he might need to point his brother's head out the window sometime before they got home. He just hoped there wouldn't be any chunks that might be identifiable the next morning as human body parts.

"'S ironic," Aloysius mumbled, his customary vicious hauteur less impressive in his dishevelment. "Tent preacher t' tent. One fell swoop. M'th'r's a genius."

"What are you talking about?" Dread lifted the small hairs at the back of his neck.

"Can' be a prop'r Order 'thout a Kiraak. Show'm we mean b'zness." Aloysius paused, stifling a monstrous belch. "You're th' fuggen… hist'ry buff."

His brother began to snore.

The carriage seemed to spin around Herman, his mind coated in a layer of ice. In the ancient days, when the faith was ruled by superstition, a Karcist might make themselves into a Kiraak - an enormous, living temple grown from the body of a single person. Nobly sacrificing their own humanity and individuality, or so it was written, to create a place of safety for their kin. But modern practitioners thought differently. Those with the greatest power ruled, and turned the lesser to their service. That was the natural order.

That was why Mother had needed a spare.

He spent the rest of the ride home in silence, trying not to panic.

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