Hershel of Ostropol came to an inn and asked for a warm meal. The innkeeper demanded he pay in advance, and when Hershel had no money, he told him to get out. Hershel raised himself up to his full height, looked the innkeeper in the eye menacingly, and said “Give me my meal, or I will do what my father did? You hear me? I will DO WHAT MY FATHER DID!” The terrified innkeeper served the traveller a nice warm meal. After dinner, when Hershel was calmer, he ventured to ask exactly what Hershel’s father had done. “That is simple,” answered Hershel. “When my father asked someone for a meal, and they refused to give it to him – then he would go to bed hungry.”
— Old Jewish folktale
May 13, 2017
Blood bubbled up from the ground in little springs. The trees were growing skulls where the fruit should be. I concluded that I was somewhere from Aztec mythology. Probably not one of the good parts.
It was neither a jungle nor a desert. More of a grassy valley with bushes and occasional trees. The sun had a face locked in a perpetual grimace. I had a vague memory that Aztec mythology was really bad.
There was a directionality to the world. I followed it. It led me up a hill strewn with rocks. I spoke the Ascending Name. Nothing happened. Okay. This was somewhere else. The usual rules didn’t apply. Things started coming back to me. The Drug Lord. Peyote. I had taken peyote. Now I was…where?
[Ana?] I asked.
[Aaron!] came the answer. Then a flood of pure relief and happiness. No affection, no confusion, just gladness that I was here.
[What happened? Where are you? Are you safe?]
[I’m not sure. Somebody must have drugged my dinner. I’m…fine. The Drug Lord tried to extract the Vital Name from me. He couldn’t. That’s all I know.]
I reached the top of the hill. Below me lay a city. I recognized it and drew its name out of half-forgotten memories. Teotihuacan. Birthplace Of The Gods. The greatest city of the pre-Columbian Americas. The great street down its center was the Avenue of the Dead. The two great structures that towered above the rest were the Pyramid of the Sun and Pyramid of the Moon. The pictures I had seen made them look austere and crumbling. Here they were covered in bright colors and streaming banners. Also, a waterfall of blood was flowing down the southern staircase of the Pyramid of the Moon, looking for all the world like a macabre escalator.
The real Teotihuacan had been dead for millennia. This one teemed with activity. Ghostly shades, all. I wondered if they were the souls of the Drug Lord’s captives. I double-checked my own arms. At least I looked normal.
[Where are you?] I asked.
[On top of some sort of demonic ziggurat.]
[A demonic ziggurat. That’s wrong on so many levels.]
Ana didn’t laugh, which under the circumstances I guessed was kind of predictable.
[Is it the one with the blood escalator, or the other one?]
[The one with the blood escalator, definitely.]
I started walking down into the city.
[I’m coming to rescue you,] I said. [Hold on.]
There was no answer, which again made sense given the circumstances.
I broke off a branch from one of the skull-trees, a process which was terrifying but ultimately went without incident. It also proved unnecessary. The shades in the city had less than no interest in me. This was just as well, since the stick pretty clearly wouldn’t have hurt them. Some of them passed right through me. I felt nothing. My only moment of panic was a sudden hissing noise near my feet. I smacked what I thought was a snake, only to barely miss what looked like a spinal column with a skull at one end. It slithered away, hissing and scolding. Aztec mythology really sucked. I gained a sudden appreciation for Hernando Cortes.
My other problem was getting up the pyramid. The Ascending Name wasn’t working, and the stairs were covered in flowing blood. I circled around until I found another staircase. It looked more promising. Using my branch as a staff, I climbed the steps.
Atop the pyramid was a ball court, and in the middle of the court was Ana. I ran to her and hugged her. She hugged me back.
Then a sort of mist or glamour fell away, and I saw the Drug Lord.
I had expected something horrible, worse than the spine-snake, but he was more humanoid than not. He stood about six feet tall. His skin was pale green like cactus-flesh, with tiny little thorns sticking out of it. His two arms were big and broad, like the arms of a cactus. His face was big and round like a cactus barrel. He wore a modest brown poncho, but his mien was kingly, and there were gold flecks in his eyes. He was sitting in a rocking chair, rocking back and forth, and in one hand he held a wooden cane.
“Welcome,” he said, in an aristocratic Spanish accent. I couldn’t understand why I hadn’t seen him before. Maybe he could just appear and disappear at random? Maybe this was all his dream, and he had total control over what we saw or didn’t? Whatever it meant, it didn’t bode well for my ability to take him on with a skull-tree branch and zero Names.
“I came,” I told him. “Now you have to let her go. You promised.”
The Drug Lord smiled. “Many years ago,” he told me, “I used to watch the Teotihuacani sacrifice captives to the Sun God, to give him the strength to fight off the Night Goddess. Sometimes, their wars would go poorly, and there would be no captives. Then one of the priests of Teotihuacan would step up to save the day.”
He paused for a second to see if I appreciated the pun. I hate to admit it, but I did.
“You,” said the Drug Lord, “remind me of one of those priests. This is admirable. But also bad, for you.”
“All I said was that I’d take the drugs. I didn’t say I’d cooperate with you.”
I saw another smile play on the Drug Lord’s big face. “I didn’t say you would have to.”
“I don’t even know the Name,” I told him. “We forgot it. Both of us. I don’t even care if you believe me. It’s true.”
“Yes,” said the Drug Lord. “I gathered that from Ana’s mind.” After hugging me, she had gone sort of frozen. I had a suspicion something bad had happened to her mind. “I will have to pull it out of wherever it has vanished to. That will be easier with two people than it would be with one.”
Then he was in my head, and I could feel him like a wind, scouring my thoughts, blasting me to the bone until I felt like I would end up like one of the spine-snakes. Every distraction was batted away, all my attempts to direct my own train of thought pushed aside like reeds. He zeroed in on the Vital Name.
For a moment I wrested control of my awareness from him and I was back on the ball court. He was right in front of me now, one broad green hand touching my forehead, the other still holding the cane for support. I lunged at him with the branch; he knocked it out of my hands. I punched him in the face. “Ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow!” I screamed. Punching somebody made of cactus had been the worst idea.
Then he was back, searching for the Vital Name, and there was nothing I could do. Closer and closer he came, winding through my memories. Not enough left of my consciousness to object, to even form a coherent thought, but not enough gone that I didn’t feel the violation on some deep level.
He was in the right part of my brain now. I could feel it.
ROS-AILE-KAPHILUTON, he pulled from me, as if with tweezers. MIRAKOI-KALANIEMI-TSHANA. Something instinctual in me doubled down like a bear trap, but he gave it no heed. KAI-KAI-EPHSANDER…
A second time I broke away from him. This time I ran. I ran to the edge of the ball court, only to find that the staircase up the pyramid was shifting places, like the winding of a snake, moving too fast for me to get a foothold on it.
The Drug Lord walked up beside me, leisurely, like I was a wayward puppy. Ana followed. The three of us stood on the ledge and stared down at Teotihuacan below. From this vantage point, I could see that its architecture encoded some of the same glyphs as the Lesser Key of Solomon.
“A beautiful city, is it not?” asked the Drug Lord. He placed a broad arm against my back, cutting off any hope of escape. “I made it. A long time ago. I came here from a distant place, and found people who lived in mud huts. I went into the cacti, and the cacti went into the people, and they learned new things from me. I was Quetzalcoatl the feathered serpent, Tezcatlipoca the smoking mirror, Huitzilopochtli the left-handed hummingbird. I built as I pleased until Uriel closed the gates that fed me, and now that the gates are open I will build again.”
[Ana, do you have any ideas?]
[I think we’re past the point at which we had much choice in any of this.]
Then he was in my mind again, right where he had left off, like a dog digging a hole, flinging dirt everywhere. GALISDO, he drew from my mind. TAHUN. Then suddenly we were back on the ledge, the Drug Lord using a hand to shield his eyes from the sun and peering down at the city below.
A figure was walking down the Avenue of the Dead, alone. Tall, lithe. Very fast. As we watched, it reached the base of the pyramid. It didn’t bother to go around, just started climbing the staircase, wading through the blood as if it wasn’t there. The face came into focus.
“Jane!” I shouted.
Then she was with us on the ball court. For a second, we all just looked at each other, taking stock. Me. Jane. The Drug Lord. Ana.
“Let them go,” said Jane, “or I’ll do what my father did.”
I was familiar with the Hershel of Ostropol stories. Ana was familiar with the Hershel of Ostropol stories. And that, I presumed, meant the Drug Lord was now familiar with the Hershel of Ostropol stories. Which meant that, as far as bluffs went, this left something to be desired. Sure enough, the Drug Lord lifted a spiny arm and pointed it at Jane. Some sort of unseen force lashed out at her, knocked her off the pyramid with the force of a freight train, smashed her into the stony street below.
“Mortals,” said the Drug Lord, dismissively.
With all my strength, I rushed at the Drug Lord, kicked him right in the gut. Of course, the spines pierced my shoe and stabbed my foot and I fell down, doubled over in pain. “Ow!” I said. “Ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow!” The Drug Lord looked down at me bemusedly, a smile still playing on his features. Ana covered her face with her palms.
“Aaron,” said the Drug Lord. “Stay calm, stop moving, just a second more, then nobody else needs to die.”
He reached an arm out toward my head.
Then something moved behind him, and the Drug Lord wheeled around to confront it. Jane walked towards us from the far end of the ball court. She still wore her black leather jacket and black leather pants, but her long black hair had streaks of white in it now, and her eyes had flecks of silver, and her face looked…different? Somehow more? She looked almost happy. I knew who she was now. There was a very big sword in her hand, so big that by rights she shouldn’t have been able to hold it. It definitely hadn’t been there before. “Let them go,” said Jane, “or else I’m warning you, I’ll do what my father did.”
For the first time, I saw the Drug Lord’s little smile fade. “Go away, mortal!” he commanded, and a wave of fire and wind crashed against her.
But Jane raised her hand, and the attack dissipated. “Mortal?” she asked. “You call me mortal, you overgrown weed?” The fire passed all through her and all around her, as effortlessly as air. “I was born of sky and light. I am the ending of all things in beauty and fire. I am Cometspawn. And if you don’t let those two go, then as God is my witness, I WILL DO WHAT MY FATHER DID!”
The Drug Lord paused, collected his thoughts. “Jinxiang West,” he said. “Forgive me. I didn’t recognize you when you weren’t yelling.” He placed his cane before him like a weapon, and I saw for the first time the strange ideoglyphs burnt into the surface. But Jane held the great sword Sigh in front of her, and they began to circle one another, cannily, warily.
What happened next was bizarre, and something I had never seen before with mortal eyes. Maybe something was flowing back into me from the Drug Lord; maybe it was some feature of this place. Jane somehow took Teotihuacan, lopped off the Teotih, and somehow analogized it to TOTAKH, the the Hebrew word “cannon”. Then she shot the Drug Lord with it. The Drug Lord grabbed the remaining half-word, Huacan, and analogized it with Hebrew HACHAN, meaning gracefulness, and gracefully avoided the cannonball.
Jane grabbed and flipped HACHAN around, making it NUACH, to rest, and with a pull at the word she exhausted the energy out of the Drug Lord. He took pronunciation of HUACAN and made it into the English word WAKEN, restoring his energy. The two of them circled each other warily, waiting for an opening.
“I have your True Name!” said Jane. “You were an angel in days of old! I have your True Name! You fell from heaven back when Sataniel was pure! I have your True Name! You built Babel when mankind was young. I have your True Name! You invented alcohol to keep men compliant! I have your True Name! The Comet King knew all angels, and vouchsafed me their secrets! I have your True Name! You are Samyazaz, first of watchers! Release your prisoners, or I will do what my father did!”
The Drug Lord teetered on the edge of the ball court, but he didn’t yield. Instead, he took the T, O, and T from the front of Teotihuacan to make TOT, the German word for “dead”, tried to strike a mortal blow at Jane. Jane took a C, H, A, and I from the same word to make CHAI, Hebrew for “life”, and deflect the attack. Then she took the remaining letters, NAUE, flipped and twisted the U into an M to get NAME, and spoke the Fulminant Name. A lightning bolt hit the Drug Lord straight in his cactus head. He caught on fire, burnt to ashes within seconds. It didn’t help. A new Drug Lord avatar just appeared on the other side of her, rushed on her with his cane. Jane parried just in time.
“Gonna hide from me, are you?” she shouted at him. “I can tear this whole dimension apart if I have to! Give up!”
[Aaron], said Ana. [I think I have a plan. Give me the Vital Name.]
The Drug Lord was trying to rearrange Jane’s NAME into MANE, the Latin word for a dead spirit. He was having some success, and already the dead spirits of the city floor were coming to his aid, swarming Jane, who sliced through them with her magic sword but seemed a bit outnumbered. She tried to wrench the word back into NAME, but the Drug Lord held firm.
[Look, I know this sounds crazy. But the Drug Lord’s in my mind. And that means I’m in his. You’ll notice it too when you’ve been here a little longer. We’re not supposed to be in this realm intact, we should be manes like the others, he’s left us intact so he can get the Name from us, but I’m starting to…know the things that he knows. This dimension. It’s part of his mind. But not only part of his mind. He built it. If I can give it a soul, it becomes separate from him, it’ll drag him out. I think there’s just enough of Jinxiang’s NAME left to make it work.]
[That is the craziest idea I have ever heard, and it was my crazy idea that got us into this whole mess.]
[I know it sounds ridiculous, but I can see it. It’s what he’s thinking right now. He’s terrified of it.]
[I don’t even know the Name!]
[That’s the other thing. I can see how he’s going to piece it together, once he has both of our misinterpretations. I think I can do the same.]
Jane and the Drug Lord’s tug-of-war over MANE shattered the word into a thousand AMENs. Jane tried to piece together SHEM, Hebrew “name”, by turning the S into an SH, but the manes wouldn’t cooperate. She scowled and slashed them into pieces with her sword, only for the Drug Lord to almost knock her off balance.
[Ana, this is seriously the craziest thing I’ve ever heard. Not to mention that if I told you the Name, the Drug Lord, who’s listening in on us for sure, would overheard.]
[The Drug Lord can’t use Names himself. He’d have to find a human to use it for him. If Jinxiang can kill him before then…]
[You can’t kill the Drug Lord!]
[Aaron. Please. Do you trust me?]
In brilliance born of desperation, Jane dropped to the ground and touched the ball court, drawing out the essence of the ancient Mesoamerican ball game. From the first two and the last two letters of MESOAMERICAN, she got another NAME, and used the Fulminant Name on the Drug Lord again. Another body gone. Another body springing up in seconds. But this time she was ready. She lunged at him with Sigh. They started fighting physically now, sword against cane.
[I trust Ana,] I said. [But I just realized that a lot of things would make more sense if this voice were actually the Drug Lord.]
[Aaron!] she pled. [Please! Orca the covenant! Shabbatlenose dolphin! Manatee of manatees, all is manatee!]
[You already used the first one before. And the second one is terrible. And the third one isn’t even about whales.]
[It’s about marine mammals!] Ana thought. There was a tinge of desperation to it.
[You cannot serve both God and mammal] I quoted at her.
[Aaron, please! This is serious! We met one night while I was on a ladder and you were working at Cash for God! When you said you loved me, I made you eat a habanero pepper! The last time we talked you were in a hotel room and you said you went kayaking with a pretty girl!]
[All things that the Drug Lord could know if he could read your mind.]
Jane had drawn up another Name from somewhere and used the Avalanche Name, trying to collapse the pyramid. Bits of it crumbled off, but overall it held firm. The Drug Lord was trying to summon more of the dead grey spirits to his aid.
[Anything I can say is something the Drug Lord could know if he read my mind! I could tell you my deepest loves and fears, how much you mean to me, what I felt when I said I was coming to rescue you. I could preach to you about theodicy, say things that are so Ana no one else in the world would ever come up with them. And you could still just say the Drug Lord was reading my mind, or was running my mind for his own purposes, or had taken over my mind. I agree. There’s nothing I can do to prove anything to you. Sometimes you have to have faith. My name is Ana Thurmond and I am your friend. You trusted me enough to sacrifice everything to come here. Please trust me now.]
[I’ll trust you,] I thought [if you can answer me one question]
[Ana ba’ey mishal b-shlamek?] I asked her.
[It’s a simple question, Ana. Ana ba’ey mishal b-shlamek?]
[Aaron. Please. I don’t know what you think you’re doing. But you have to trust me.]
[Ana ba’ey mishal b-shlamek?]
[I’m sorry, Aaron. I don’t know what you mean.]
The ball court was swarming with shades now. Jane was trying to twist the kabbalah into something, but the Drug Lord was matching her every movement, unraveling her work before anything she did could take effect.
[Samyazaz,] I said. [You tried so hard. You almost had me. And why shouldn’t you? Anything Ana can think, you can think. Anything she can feel, you feel. And what are we humans, you asked yourself, besides bundles of thoughts and feelings? So easy to play. So easy to manipulate. Well, maybe. But there’s one thing you’ll never be able to do. One part of being human that God’s own laws decree you can never copy, no matter how hard you try. You forgot one thing, Samyazaz. And that was – ANGELS CAN’T UNDERSTAND ARAMAIC!]
I grabbed my branch from the ground and hit Ana as hard as I could. At the same time, I took all of my rage, all of my love for Ana and anger at anyone who would dare to harm her, and sent it through the telepathic link, a weaponized scream of hatred and defiance.
And for just a second, the Drug Lord was distracted.
And in that second, Jane unraveled the kabbalistic knots, broke apart the MANES, used the aleph to mean divinity, twisted the M into a W into a vav, and got V’NES. “And a miracle…”
And a miracle occurred. Her sword glowed white with holy fire, she plunged it into the Drug Lord, and it struck true. Not a killing blow. But a disabling one. The cactus-man sunk to his knees.
“Now,” said Jane. “Release your prisoners. Or I swear to God, I will do what my father did.”
“The prisoners are yours,” set the Drug Lord, and his body started to fade. Everything started to fade. The bright colors of Teotihuacan dulled, the shades flickered and sputtered, the stones paving the Avenue of the Dead began to melt together.
I felt a presence in my mind.
[Aaron, you are such an idiot, I can not believe you were going to destroy everything to come here and rescue me, I am so angry, and if you’re talking about this years from now don’t you dare say that you felt that the anger was mixed with affection, because it’s just anger, and the Drug Lord could have gotten the Name, and you could have died, and…] It’s awkward to say so, but I could feel through the telepathic link that the anger was mixed with affection. I knew at once that it was the real Ana. It sounds crazy, but if had been this Ana who talked to me atop the pyramid, I would have trusted her absolutely.
[…and if I ever make a pun as bad as “shabbatlenose dolphin”, you should just assume I’m possessed by the Drug Lord again.]
[Ana ba’ey mishal b-shlamek?]
[Fine. A little bit frazzled, and I think I’m going to need to sleep for a long time, but basically fine. And thank you for asking. Really.]
I tried to send her an update on where I was, what was happening, but I was literally shaken out of my trance. “Aaron!” said Jane. She was the one shaking me. “Where are you? Physically. In Las Vegas. Where is your body?”
I hesitated. She was Cometspawn. Something primal in me leapt to obey her. On the other hand, I was finally free. I could flee Las Vegas, flee Nevada, find the name error correction books, everything could still go as planned.
“Snap out of it!” she said. “I don’t know where you are, but he does.” She said he like I should know exactly who she meant. “The Other King. He has spies in the Drug Lord’s mind. He knows exactly what’s going on. He’s looking for you right now. Trust me, you don’t want him finding you.”
“Oh, fuck,” I said, because it made sense. “Jane, how are you even here?”
“It was too dangerous to let you tell the Drug Lord all your secrets, so I took peyote myself. Now where is your body? Tell me now, or else the Other King will beat me to you.”
“How did you even get peyote that quickly?”
“This is Las Vegas, you idiot, how hard do you think it is to find a drug dealer? Tell me where you left your body.”
The hallucinatory landscape was beginning to dissolve. The pyramids of Teotihuacan were crumbling.
“I’m on top of Trump Tower,” I said.
“Stay there,” said Jane, and her form melted away.