aleph symbol with title UNSONG

Chapter 40: In Terrible Majesty

In a large and complicated system there might be various things that are pleasing in His eyes.
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Evening, May 13, 2017
Las Vegas

Holy Scripture only mentions vampires once, but once is enough.

The context is Isiaiah 34. God is doing His usual thing where He talks about all of the horrible curses that will befall someone who pissed Him off – in this case the Edomites. He starts with standard fare; everyone will die, the stink of their carcasses shall fill the land, the mountains will be melted with their blood. The stars will fall from the sky like withered leaves on a grapevine, the skies will dissolve, the streams will be filled with burning oil.

Then He gets creative. He starts naming all the horrible animals that will come to dwell in Edom. Exactly which ones depends on your preferred translation. The King James Version translates these as unicorns, satyrs, and screech-owls.

The original Hebrew word translated “screech-owls” is “lilit”, and we may question King James’ judgment. If God starts by promising unicorns and satyrs, screech-owls are going to be something of a let-down. What is being hidden from our tender sensibilities?

We turn to the New International Version, which glosses “lilit” as the more promising “night creatures”. A couple more translations along these lines and we get to the New Revised Standard Version. It translates the same word as “Lilith the Night Monster”, which you have to admit is more interesting than “screech owls”.

For the next reference to this figure, we have to go forward about a thousand years to the Talmud. Rabbi Hanina writes “One must never sleep in a house alone, for whoever sleeps in a house alone shall be seized by Lilith the Night Monster.” Have I mentioned that the Talmud is kind of crazy?

From there we go another thousand years, to a mysterious little tenth century text called the Alphabet of Ben Sira. One day King Nebuchadnezzar asks the saint Ben Sira to heal his infant son. The saint speaks a holy Name, curing the baby instantly, and the king asks him to tell the story of how that Name came to have such power. Ben Sira explains that when Adam was alone in the Garden of Eden, God created a female companion for him named Lilith. The two of them decided to have sex, but both of them wanted to be on top, and they got into a big argument, and finally Lilith spoke a Name that granted her the power of flight and flew away. God sent a bunch of angels to get Lilith back, and they confronted her over the Red Sea, telling her that her purpose was to serve as a helpmate for Adam and primordial mother of the human race. Lilith said that she had a better idea, which was to become a night monster and kill a hundred babies every day. The angels admitted that this sounded pretty awesome, so they let her go, but first of all they made her swear that she would desist from her baby-killing at the sound of a certain holy Name. Thus Nebuchadnezzar’s son’s sudden recovery.

Rabbi Isaac ben Jacob Cohen, who manages to have an unusually Jewish name even for a rabbi, continues the story by saying that Lilith married the demon Samael, seventh among Thamiel’s lieutenants. Together they birthed a race of accursed children, the lilit, who roam the night and suck men’s blood for sustenance.

Moffatt’s translation of the Bible just glosses “lilit” as “vampire”, and I don’t blame them.

But Jewish legend usually portrays the lilit as universally and visibly female, which meant the skeletal black-robed forms attacking me right now were probably something else.

I’d spotted them flying towards me right after waking up from my drug-induced haze. I’d spoken the Spectral Name, tried to hide. Then when they got closer I’d found they didn’t have eyes anyway and had no problem zeroing in on my location. I shouted the Tempestuous Name and blew two of them off the edge of Trump Tower, smashing them into the big gold T beneath. The other four kept coming. Legend says the merely human dead can speak Names – but whatever these things were, they were silent. Didn’t matter. One glance at their faces – not skulls per se, but human faces so gaunt and pale as to look skull-like – and I didn’t doubt their lethality. I had just enough time to shout another Tempestuous Name, but they were ready for it this time, kept coming…

Then Jane rocketed up from the street below. Fire flew from her fingers. She didn’t even speak; these weren’t the ordinary Names of mortals, this was the magic of Yetzirah, the higher level that only saints and prophets could even access. Saints, prophets, and Cometspawn. The undead withered and burnt.

“Thanks,” I said.

“You are such a moron and I am so angry,” she answered.

Jinxiang West. Daughter of the Comet King. I saw it now, the same face I had seen in the newspapers. The Drug Lord had said he didn’t recognize her because she wasn’t shouting. I didn’t have that excuse. She stood atop Trump Tower and surveyed the city of her arch-enemy, the man who had killed her father and was slowly besieging her people. She looked defiant. But then, she kind of always did.

Then it seemed like all over the city, black forms were rising into the sky and heading to Trump Tower. More than I could count. Swarms. Jane turned to me, grim but not afraid. “Tempestuous Names and Purifying Names,” she said. “Aimed at whoever’s closest. I can handle the rest.”

Dozens of them descended on us at once then, coming from all sides. Jinxiang answered with fire and light as I spoke Tempestuous Name after Tempestuous Name, trying to keep them from us long enough her to catch them with her flames. Dozens fell. None of them made a sound, not even the ones who were on fire.

I missed one of the dead. It landed on the roof, moved with more than human speed, and grabbed Jane’s right arm. The great sword Sigh appeared in Jane’s left hand and she cut off its head. But her hand had turned grey where the creature’s arm had touched it, and she was shaking it, as if willing away the pain.

While she was distracted, at least a dozen undead landed on the tower. Jane raised her hand, tried to fry them, but only small bursts of fire came out. I screamed Names at them, Purifying Names, Tempestous Names, even the Fulminant Name. A few stopped coming. The rest continued. “Jane!” I shouted. “Do something!”

Jane just glared at me. She was overwhelmed and she knew it.

Then someone else was on the roof, someone moving so fast I could see only a blaze of gold hair. One of the creatures fell, then another. A new voice sang Names clearly; a lithe body kicked and twirled with the precision of a martial artist.

The undead were gone. There, in the middle of Trump Tower, I saw the same face I had seen in movies and comic books a hundred times – mostly in situations just like this one. The same blonde hair. The same bronzed skin. The same beautiful blue eyes.

“Holy God,” I said. “Are you Buffy the Vampire Slayer?”

She blinked. “Don’t you recognize me?” she pled. “I’m your computer, Sarah. Did I do good?”

“I FEEL LIKE I AM BEING KEPT IN THE DARK ABOUT CERTAIN THINGS,” Jinxiang said menacingly.

We felt it before we saw it. A sense of something stirring. Of old power awakening. Then a form in a dark scarlet robe shot out of the Luxor pyramid, started flying towards us. The black-robed swarms stopped what they were doing and all flew towards him at once, a single red spark with an army at his flank.

I saw Jinxiang flinch in horror. “We’ve got to get out of here,” she said.

“How?” I asked.

The Vanishing Name would just go back to UNSONG or somewhere equally horrible. They could see through invisibility, they could fly through the air. Our options were shrinking down to zero. Jane said nothing.

“Okay,” I said. “Wait a second. Um. Jane, I know this sounds stupid, and I’m really sorry, but, in theory, if I had your seventh Beanie Baby, would that mean that there was – ”

“GIVE IT TO ME,” said Jinxiang, and she tore the backpack off my back. When all she saw in it was dirty clothes and the Apple-Aid, she unscrewed the top of the bottle, took out the seventh sparkling purple dragon, gave me a glare that could have frozen Hell, and then took the other six out of her own pack. She arranged them on the ground in the shape of a heptagram, started tracing invisible lines between them with her fingers.

“Whatever you’re doing, it better be fast!” I said. I hate to use a cliche like “blotted out the sky”, but there was no other way to describe the legions of the dead. They rushed towards us, a huge black sheet settling over Las Vegas Strip, and at their head the Other King, who as far as I knew hadn’t left his pyramid since that fateful day at Never Summer. Until now.

“Step in the heptagram!” Jinxiang ordered. Sarah and I joined her inside the ring of purple dragons. Sarah looked at me pleadingly for guidance. I had nothing to say, so didn’t say it.

“Vanishing Name!” said Jinxiang. “Now!”

“But won’t it just – ”

“NOW!”

Jinxiang, Sarah and I all spoke the Vanishing Name. DASAT-ZAM-RUSH-SHAN-SEVER-LAS-KYON-

The other two were faster than I. She, a Cometspawn. She, something new, something I didn’t understand, but built to be the fastest Name-speaking system in the world. They vanished before I did. I stood there, alone, chanting, as the black-robed forms split in two sides, parted like the Red Sea to let their ruler pass. Through the opening came the Other King, dressed in scarlet. I couldn’t see any hint of his body, no hands, no face, just that robe.

“-DAL-ATHEN-TRY…”

It was so close to me now.

[AARON SMITH-TELLER] spoke the Other King, directly into my mind.

I freaked out. How could it do that without a kabbalistic marriage? Also, was there anyone who didn’t know my true name anymore?

[Go away go away go away go away go away go away…] I thought, and I panicked, my tongue tripping over itself, almost flubbed the last part of the Vanishing Name.

“-KOPHU-” I said as quickly as I could. “-LI-MAR-”

[AARON SMITH-TELLER] it said again.

This was the thing that had killed the Comet King. This was the thing even the Drug Lord was afraid of. This thing could raise the dead, maybe was dead itself. This was the thing that ruled over a city named after the fallen ones, the thing that had toppled empires and broken the back of the free West. Somehow I knew, even then, that it wasn’t over between us, that whatever I had been given the Vital Name for, whatever divine plan had saved me from the Drug Lord and my own idiocy, this thing was a part of it.

But I had only one syllable left in the Vanishing Name. Whatever reckoning was going to happen wouldn’t happen today. The thought of impending safety filled me with a wild recklessness, a freedom bordering on rage.

[Go away,] I thought at the thing, [or, as God is my witness, I’ll do what my father did! You hear me? I WILL DO WHAT MY FATHER DID!]

The monstrosity stopped, and I thought I detected in the vast mind abutting mine something interrogative, almost a touch of curiosity.

“-TAN!” I concluded, and as the power of the Vanishing Name swirled around me, I sent a final thought to the Other King:

[I will disappear somewhere far away, and spend the rest of my life trying not to think about the fact that you exist.]

Then I felt space snap and resigned myself to whatever awaited me on the other side.


End of Book 2
Happy new year!

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