Revival Tent Blitz
rating: +34+x

“That was a disaster,” Herman snarled. The horse flattened its ears and danced sideways under a low-hanging branch. He hauled back on the reins and gave it a sharp, open-palmed slap on the top of its head. “No one asked you.” The horse blew out a breath between its lips, and huffily cantered back to pace its usual harness-mate, which Hezekiah was riding.

Zeke hadn’t stopped laughing since they’d loosed the horses from the picket line and left the pandemonium behind them. “It was magnificent,” he said, dabbing tears of mirth with an only-partially-bloodied silk handkerchief. “Absolutely magnificent. I wish my cousin could have been there.”

“Get the horses.”

“I can’t lose sight of him!”

“Get. The. Horses.”

He turned away, and felt himself seized by the back of the neck. Herman's face was inches from his own. Zeke, normally a sanguine soul, shrank back from the light in the preacher’s eyes.

“We'll find him - I can smell his fear. And yours.”

Herman’s arm shot out to grab Zeke by the front of his jacket, dragging him halfway off his horse by main strength. When he spoke, it was almost a whisper. “You planned this.”

For half a dozen heartbeats, Zeke fought for breath, unable to speak. Herman relaxed his grip. Gasping - and, incredibly, still smiling - the salesman sputtered, “I didn’t… know that was going to happen. We… we’d used that supplier… before. Unreliable.”

The horses, who’d slowed to a walk, began to shift under them, sensing an opportunity to be rid of the unaccustomed weight. Herman shoved Zeke back into a rough balance; the other man grasped at his mount’s mane clumsily, trying not to let the blanket slip out from under him. He’d ridden bareback before, but part of him hoped the trousers at least weren’t a total loss.

They rode through the moonlit woods in silence for a minute or two. Herman’s shoulders slumped as he got his arms around his rage and wrestled it back down.

“What. Was that thing. Supposed to do.”

Despite Herman’s best efforts, the revival tent was coming down. His former congregation had left off brawling to stumble outside; the kerosene lanterns hung throughout the interior had begun to set the drooping canvas alight.

He struggled with the flap at the back entrance, only for a scrawny figure who’d stood in the back of the crowd to shove past him, the wreckage of Hezekiah’s damned device cradled in their arms like a child. The thief pelted off into the woods to the south as if the hounds of hell were after them.

Zeke fought his way to Herman’s side, his hat gone, his eyes wild. “Where is he?” he shouted over the din. “Which way did he go?”

“Make the words of the person speaking into the microphone sound like the veriest truth to everyone who heard them. And lower the natural inhibitions of the audience.”

Herman chewed on that for awhile. “I can think of a dozen things I’d do with a piece like that. But it didn't work."

"Manifestly not."

"What did your uncle want it for?” Herman reined his horse to a stop.

It was a potent threat; Zeke knew next to nothing of woodcraft and would never be able to pursue the thief alone. He'd be lucky to find his way back to the highway before morning.

The salesman weighed the consequences of revealing his uncle’s plan against the consequences of not being able to return with the device. Even if it was broken.

“We run an auction house.”

Zeke stood composed, hands clasped behind his back before his uncle. Ruprecht smiled in self-satisfaction and exhaled, wreathing his nephew in cigar smoke. As he spoke, his eyes kept straying to the line of lace that fringed his companion’s corset.

“Make them gullible, and then make them stupid. It's perfect. But I'm sending you personally, Hezekiah, because this is no matter for common gossip. Once they've seen it in action, the other partners will see I was right about this, but we've got to keep it quiet till then." He gave a sharp nod, as if he considered the matter settled. "Our goods are real, all right, but with this, the marks would buy dogshit and lie to their friends about it afterwards just to save face.”

The old man’s laughter echoed off the gilt-trimmed walls.

“Ah.” That brought a low chuckle. “Hadn’t thought of that one, but I see it.”

“And you didn’t hear that from me. Or at all.”

The preacher glanced back over his shoulder. From the looks of it, something back in the meadow was still on fire. He raised his eyebrows pointedly.

“Just because it doesn’t work doesn’t mean I’d be any less dead for not keeping my mouth shut.”

“Merciful man, your uncle.”

Zeke was a hair away from launching into one of his usual speeches about the power of the firm when he realized this statement had been bitterly sincere.

Mitterling waved urgently at Hezekiah’s assistant as they elbowed their way through the throng and out of the tent. “No, nein my friend! Back this way. My wagon will be in the path of the evacuation. I must disarm it.”

The assistant stumbled over his feet for a moment, turning to follow the engineer. His expression was wary. “Do mean it’s booby-trapped? It might explode?”

”Hah! Youth.” He shook his head. “No, I take great care to prevent theft, but do not condone the needless loss of life. The defenses are merely - ”

The two men sprang aside as Brother Winter darted past them. He fled up the narrow dirt road, past Mitterling’s wagon and its proliferation of tools, satchels and gadgets. His speed was impressive for a man well past his middle years.

A gaggle of angry men followed in hot pursuit. One of them waved an improvised club in the direction of the wagon and shouted, “There! Look there! Get a rope!” His accomplices rushed to obey.

Mitterling had been about to speak, but hearing this, stopped in his tracks and folded his arms across his chest. The assistant hung back, stealing a nervous glance over his shoulder. The tent was beginning to tilt at a rakish angle and the sounds of fighting had not diminished.

When the first man laid a hand on the wagon, a sharp clank sounded from its depths. Four enormous nets launched out from each of the wagon’s sides. Unable to halt their momentum in time, the shouting men went down in a tangle of waving limbs and loud curses.

He could almost feel the ideas in his head coming together. A man who could smell fear. A preacher who cast off his religion like a cloak. A man who greeted the chaos of a bloody riot like a farmer settling down at a familiar hearth after a long day in the fields.

“That,” he gestured at the long, raised ribbon of flesh down the center of Herman's chest, visible where his shirt had been torn open in the melee. “That is not a scar.”

“Says who.”

“I’ve seen fleshcraft before.”

Herman looked him up and down, the muscles of his jaw working. He turned and spat into the underbrush. “And you still have your original shape.”

“He was a buyer.” The sound of hoofbeats was loud in the darkness. “Before the war. My family… grew tobacco, mostly. Father used to motivate his workers by selling the least productive ones to him. Or their children, if we were short on men. Father… had reason to suspect what was coming. He felt it was time to divest, and this man always paid in cash.”

“How many people did you have?”

People. Hezekiah shifted uncomfortably. He supposed, to a Sarkite, anyone not of their own number was viewed with the same disdain he himself felt for the slaves his father had sold that day. He briefly regretted opening the topic, but the urge to satisfy his curiosity was too strong.

“Twenty-two, by then. Mostly field workers, a few in the house. A few children.”

“What did he show you?”

The senior preacher was already outside, pursued by a handful of red-faced men, one wielding the back of a broken chair like a club.

Herman wove through the embattled crowd with the grace of a dancer at a high society ball: a punch to this one's face, kick that one's feet out from under her, toss another one bodily out the front entrance. His expression was one of childlike delight, shot through with a sort of hunger that put a lump of ice in the salesman's belly despite the stifling heat.

Peering up from where he'd crouched protectively over the loud-speaker to shield it with his body, it took Zeke several minutes to realize what Herman was doing: keeping the scrum from knocking the tent poles over. Entranced, he had no warning at all when a portly gentleman tumbled backwards out of the crowd, arms windmilling in a futile attempt to regain his balance. He crashed down on top of Zeke, who found himself pinned between the stranger and the now-ruined equipment.

“He… bound their hands together. Their hands themselves, you understand. The flesh stuck, like it had grown that way.”

Herman was smiling now, one corner of his mouth showing teeth.

Zeke pressed on. “He said - he brought out an ordinary length of rope, and barely knotted it around each one’s wrists. He said if they wanted to keep their eyes, they wouldn’t struggle. None of them did.”

“Tall, thin fellow? Pencil moustache and the world’s worst cravat?”

Zeke shook his head in disbelief. “You know him?”

“There aren’t all that many of us. Of them,” he added thoughtfully. “Volkus, Jozsef Volkus. He practically lived on Mother’s doorstep when I was a boy. Said she was the only American-born he considered a proper blackblood, like he’d be doing her a favor by taking her dead husband’s place.” He made a brief rasp that might have been laughter. “Heard he died in a fire.”

“I had wondered.”

Brother Winter loomed over the two boys, his normally snowy visage flushed with wrath. He raised his fist again, and they cowered, clinging to each other. "You defile the house of the Lord," he bellowed. "Sodomites! Blasphemers! I will not abide such wickedness - "

"That freak struck a white boy!" A woman's voice, thin and piercing, rose above the clamor of worshipers squabbling over bread. Pale as he was, Winter had been born to black folk and he had overstepped the rules of this woman's universe. That was all she knew or cared to know. Her bonnet had come loose, leaving wisps of blond hair to straggle across her face. "You all saw! How dare he. How DARE he!"

The heads of several men turned at this, their eyes seeking out Winter like hounds who'd caught the scent of prey. The boys, pale hand and dark clasped together, scrambled out into the night.

"GET HIM!" the woman commanded.

Winter broke and ran.

Herman shrugged. "A lot of them died in fires. Was hoping you'd know more."

Zeke shook his head. He hesitated. An opportunity like this wasn't likely to come twice. "Can I ask something?"


"I saw a lynching once, as a boy."


Zeke grimaced. "Mother considered them coarse and forbade me to go. I had no desire whatsoever to see such a thing again, so I obeyed her."

This inspired a contemptuous snort.

"Some years later, when I learned that… that people like your family exist, and what their practices are, I was reminded of it. I had always been curious, if there was a connection."

Herman rolled his eyes and rubbed a hand over his face. "That's your question? That's your fucking - " He paused, waving a hand in the direction they had come. "Look. All those people in the tent back there. If you stopped them on the street and asked, how many d'you think would tell you that Jesus Christ was the only person who was ever crucified?"

Completely baffled, Zeke started to say, "There were three - "

Herman waved this away. "All right, you know what I mean. But everybody wants to pretend it's something special, something outrageous and different from the things you do every day. Crucifixion, right? Death by torture. Standard punishment for thieves, or anyone who defied the Roman empire." He shot Zeke a look to make sure he was following this. "When they had a slave rebellion, they would line the highways with crucified rebels. Imagine what that looked like. Imagine what it smelled like."

"So, it's been done before." The salesman remained unenlightened.

"Don't get me wrong: the Americans definitely innovated. Take some superficial regional variations in skin and facial features, and tie everyone's belief in the power structure to that? Stroke of genius. But holding it all in place with public torture, that's not new. Hell, it never went away. The English, your ancestors, right? You were great at it. Drawing and quartering. The pillory, where the fun came from passersby who knew nobody cared what they did to a convicted criminal. Burning at the stake." He was beginning to warm to his topic. "The Norse had this thing they called the blood eagle, where - "

"What is your point?" Zeke snapped. He'd already listened to one sermon that evening.

"That's not Nälkä. That's civilization. Humanity is a breed of brutal, inventive predators." His tone was admiring. "Civilization gathers up that hate, that tremendous destructive potential, and points it all in the same direction. Harnesses it for the use of whoever's in charge. And it works, as long as there's a clear line of dominance from the greatest to the least. Top man gets the cash, low man gets the lash."

Riding in silence, Zeke tried to think of an objection. To him, civilization conjured up images of clean, brightly lit avenues, noble explorers, comfort and security. Yet he had seen with his own eyes the cost of that security, paid in toil and blood by those who had none. He pictured his uncle Ruprecht, but could only imagine the old man nodding along in agreement.

"Now, Mother might say - if she let you speak on it - maybe there's a connection in a philosophical sense. Animals naturally form into a pecking order. Human animals, after enough centuries of grubbing in the dirt, came up with rough, clumsy approximations of things we know how to do right. When a Karcist makes a sacrifice… " Herman's voice trailed off.

Zeke could have sworn he looked bereft, like a sinner who'd been cast out of Paradise.

"When a Karcist makes a sacrifice she gets something out of it. For any lesser purpose - there are more ways to inspire terror, to crush someone under your heel, than there are bones in the human body. And none of them involve wasting perfectly good flesh by allowing it to die." He grimaced. "Ma hates wastefulness."

A thousand reactions cascaded through the salesman's mind, chief among them an urgent need to immediately hire this man. Cost was not a consideration in the face of such rarity. Which made his designs a perfect fit for the brand.

As they spoke, the noise behind them had grown rather than abated; Herman was shouting for calm without success. "In what way are the Aethers disturbed here?"

"Quite ingenious, now that I see it," Mitterling replied. "The fog collects on every person's head and enfolds the breath with which each word is spoken, imbuing it with some force. In appearance, it is as though they stand in deep cold, breath turning to mist as they speak. The more they speak, the more it condenses - a cumulative effect."

"Every person?" He stared around the tent in dawning horror. Rather than only the voice of the preacher, every individual's words rang with power, and many of them had spoken aloud. Now, as if drunk on too much wine, they felt their own desires more keenly, and heard one another's words cut deep with the weight of perceived truth. Several scattered figures burst into hysterical tears. The boys huddled by the back entrance threw their arms around one another's necks and began to kiss. A harried-looking woman with two young children in tow took a swing at a man in tattered clothes who was stuffing bread into his mouth as fast as he could. A burly fellow snarled at someone next to him and, picking up one of the flimsy chairs, smashed it over the other man's head.

Zeke turned to his assistant and Mitterling and shouted, "Run!"

The thief by now had run a considerable distance on foot, carrying an unfamiliar burden. Why they continued to flee deeper into the tangled forest, and how they had maintained a speed that continued to outpace two horses moving at a modest trot, was a matter of some puzzlement to the two men. Zeke remained confident that whoever the probable co-conspirators turned out to be, they could be negotiated with. He had nonetheless cracked and inspected his hidden pistol for the sake of prudence.

As their horses plodded up a shallow hill, they spotted the person they had been pursuing. At first they seemed to have simply collapsed on the ground, and Zeke began to knee his horse forward. Herman held up a hand. "Look out," he hissed. "What's he got there?"

Moonlight flashed off something silver as the hand of the thief swept down. A high, clear tone echoed across the meadow. "A tuning fork," Zeke whispered back. "What the devil -"

Thus far, the device seemed to be having the desired effect. The crowd had heard the sales pitch for the loud-speaker with appreciative ooh's and aah's, and had now settled back to listen to the junior preacher with every evidence of rapt attention. His sermon focused on God's infinite generosity, which bestowed spiritual and material gifts on the faithful according to their needs. Herman delivered these humdrum points of doctrine with great enthusiasm, as if they were punchlines. Zeke only half listened; his main focus was inward, trying to discern the device's effects in himself.

A tap on his shoulder broke Zeke's concentration. He looked around with a start. "Herr Mitterling! Exceedingly good of you to come."

The engineer's brief handshake was hard. It felt as though he wore an iron gauntlet under his riding gloves. His steel-framed lorgnettes might almost have been fashionable. However, in defiance of both fashion and good sense, the lenses were tinted a smoky grey, casting his eyes in shadow, and were held in place by a delicate chain that stretched up beneath his hat. "I am a busy man, as I told you, Mister Carter. But in the end, the possibilities intrigued me, and I could not stay away." His smile was warm, his voice thoughtful as he turned to survey the meeting. "The sound quality is not bad. But I wonder - "

Herman had been reading a passage from the New Testament, wherein the formerly doubting disciples distributed miraculously multiplied bread and fish to a crowd of five thousand. He raised a hand to two young men in their mid-teens, one black and one white, who'd been standing alert near the back entrance. At this signal, each boy tugged on a cord that ran up into the shadows. What had appeared to be the roof of the canvas tent folded back, a series of false panels retracting to shower the congregation with fresh-baked rolls.

The revival tent grew momentarily too loud for discreet conversation. Gesturing for the engineer to follow, Zeke began to pick his way around the edges of the crowd to the low table where the loud-speaker had been set up, tended by one of the salesman's assistants. Mitterling leaned in close to Zeke, and continued as quietly as he could into the salesman's ear. "I see what you mean about the unfeasibility of the design. In an enclosed space, such a great volume of fog in the air would make most commercial applications impossible."

"Fog?" Zeke inquired, looking around the interior of the tent.

Illumination from the kerosene lanterns hung from each tent pole did leave something to be desired, but the air was perfectly clear. The apprentice preacher was having some difficulty focusing the congregation's attention back on himself. Each seemed to be trying to collect the greatest quantity of the free food for themselves, in competition with their neighbors. The boys near the entrance giggled and whispered excitedly to one another, standing so close together their shoulders touched.

"Ah, that explains the effect, my friend," Mitterling exclaimed. "Look, look, come. I cannot show you what I see, but - to you, a man of understanding - I will show you how I see it." The engineer turned to face the canvas wall, drawing an arm around the salesman's shoulders, their backs to the room at large. He touched a small control on the side of his eyeglasses, which split apart at the center.

Where Mitterling's eyes should have been were twin fires, red as the setting sun. Zeke's lips parted in astonishment, though he managed not to pull away. The heat of a forge spilled out through the opened steel clasp. As quickly as the lorgnette had opened, the engineer reached up to snap it closed again, his face alive with merriment. "I conceived of a way to see into the Aethers, though I do not otherwise possess an alchemical aptitude. Needless to say this design is - not Standard."

Low tremors shook the ground; the horses bucked and shied and had to be calmed or they would bolt. When the preacher and the salesman looked up again, a crack as long as a wagon had opened in the grass in front of the kneeling thief. With the steady, basso rumble of distant clanks, it crept wider and wider. When the door had opened completely, the sounds increased rather than diminishing.

Rising up from its circular maw, they saw a feminine figure, great black wings sweeping up from their back. Their arms gleamed silver to the shoulders, and a cascade of tight braids spilled down to frame the darkness of their face. The air seemed to blur and shift around them at first, obscuring them from view, then abruptly cleared.

"Lottie!" cried a musical alto voice. The figure strode forward to crouch by the thief. A gleaming hand stretched out to clasp her by the shoulder and give it a gentle shake. "Where have you been? Are you hurt? How many times have I told you to bring your transmitter and leave word with the duty guard!"

"Seven," Lottie replied, hanging her head with shame. She gestured to the pile of broken equipment. "Inventor, I have brought you - "

"Spies!" A deep voice sounded from the woods behind them. The air blurred as it had around the Inventor, then solidified abruptly into four more people, hovering around the two men on wings of iron.

The horses reared in panic, throwing Zeke and Herman to the ground, and galloped off into the forest. The one who'd spoken lifted a wingtip to let them pass. As soon as the animals were clear, a chorus of heavy chains, each one tipped with an iron spike, shot out from the guards’ wings to form a circle in the grass around the two men. Although it was dark and the guards were hovering, the angles were mathematically precise. Zeke was briefly grateful that he had had no opportunity to draw his gun.

Bleary-eyed, Zeke peered up through a forest of ironclad legs to see the would-be thief, her expression wracked with guilt, scrambling up the side of the hill behind the Inventor.

The Inventor nodded to the guards, murmuring a word of thanks. The circle of wings expanded, a half-dozen chains reeling back up to make an opening.

"I am Inventor-Militant Antoninah diLuca," the Inventor said, gazing down at her captives with evident exasperation. She clasped Lottie's shoulder - by her wince, less gently this time - with one hand, and with the other pointed a steel forefinger directly at Herman's chest. "And you two, and my foolish acolyte, here, will explain very quickly how you came to bring FLESH to the door of MY WORKSHOP."

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