If we are worthy, our Master will redeem us by justice, and if not, He will redeem us with mercy.
— Rabbinic saying
Evening, May 14, 2017
Sohu pushed the heavy steel door open and entered the throne room.
“Hey,” she said.
The others ran towards her, hugged her, started firing questions at her. Even I ran towards her and hugged her, overcome with the spirit of the moment. Only Caelius stayed where he was, staring at his computer, occasionally reaching out a wavering finger to stab a key or flip a switch.
“You’re alive!” Nathanda said, sounding a little too surprised.
“Thamiel…not gonna bother us…for a while,” she said. “Summoned Uriel. He helped take care of things. I’m…tired. Anything to eat?”
It was hard to judge in the dim glow of the Luminous Name, but she looked drained. In the absence of the usual servants, I ran out to get her something. When I got back with a jar of cookies, there were a couple of soldiers talking to Nathanda.
“The Other King’s broken through the passes,” she announced to us. “Everybody’s retreating. Total rout. He’s flying here. Alone. Less than an hour. A few minutes.”
We were quiet. Sohu grabbed a cookie, jammed it into her mouth.
“While you were away, we’ve been reading up on this Acher,” Jinxiang told Sohu. “Elisha ben Abuyah. Strange guy. No obvious weaknesses. You know anything we don’t?”
“Always,” said Sohu. “But nothing useful.”
Caelius limped over, joined the circle, almost sunk into his chair. “She’s rebooting,” he said. “Don’t know how long it will take. Computer that size…” He trailed off. I couldn’t believe he was even still conscious. None of us dared suggest he leave. For a little while we all just sat there, quietly, in the dark. A few furtive glances at the entrance, as if the Other King was already through the big blast door and could walk in at any moment. Almost hopeful. Anything would have been better than waiting quietly in the dark room.
Finally, Nathanda picked up her book. “I guess I should talk,” she said. “There’s nothing in here about secret weaknesses or magic spells. But there are a lot of stories. There’s a story about how each year, on the Day of Atonement, a great voice would ring forth from the holy places, saying ‘Repent, o children of Israel, for the Lord your God is merciful and shall forgive you. Except you, Elisha ben Abuyah.’
“And the people went to Rabbi Meir, who’d been a disciple of Acher back when he was good, and who still loved him, because in those days people loved their teachers more than life itself, no matter what happened to them, and they told Rabbi Meir to give it up, that even God wasn’t going to forgive Acher, and Rabbi Meir just laughed, and said that the voice was a test, and that if Acher could repent, even knowing that God would not forgive him and it would gain him nothing, then that would be the truest repentance and all of his sins would be washed away, and he would rise up even brighter than before.”
Nathanda’s voice was hypnotizing. I felt myself falling away, I could see the scene, the old bearded Rabbi Meir standing in front of a Torah scroll, arguing with the people, defending his teacher even against God.
“And then I read – that one day Acher died, and the people said that it was not good, because he had never repented, and Rabbi Meir laughed and said that surely had had repented in his heart and was in Paradise. And then flames started coming out of Acher’s grave, and the people were like, we’re not rabbis, and we’re no experts in omens, but that doesn’t seem, to us, like the sort of thing that happens when you’re in Paradise. And Rabbi Meir said very well, but that God would relent and redeem him later. And the people said that, again, we’re no experts and you’re the one with the rabbinical degree, but a voice had very clearly rung forth from the holy places saying that wouldn’t happen. And Rabbi Meir said that very well, maybe He wouldn’t, but if God wouldn’t redeem Acher, then he, Rabbi Meir, would redeem Acher.
“And the people said, what, that doesn’t even make sense, is redemption not reserved for God alone? And Rabbi Meir said that wasn’t exactly true. That what we do during our lives echoes forward into history, and that good deeds that seemed tiny when they happened might grow and grow until they consumed the entire world, and if the recording angels had discounted them when they first reviewed the case, an appeal might be lodged. And that one day, when he was studying Torah under Rabbi Elisha ben Abuyah, Rabbi Meir had gotten something from him, some tiny spark of goodness, and that was what had inspired him to be good himself throughout his life. And so he would train his disciples to be good, and they would train their disciples to be good, until the world was safe and free, and all of it would be because of this one man, Acher, a wicked wicked man who would not repent, and God would be forced to credit those deeds to Acher’s name, and he would rise into Paradise, unrepentant still.”
The ground started to shake, as if someone was pummeling the mountain from afar, but Nathanda didn’t stop talking.
“And the people asked, huh, how does that even work? and Rabbi Meir said that this was all playing out on hidden levels, that the point was to redeem the sparks of divinity that had gotten caught among the klipot of the world, and that each of our actions changes and redirects the flow of subtle currents upon which the sparks are borne. And even though Acher had died without repenting, even though everything he did seemed to the material eye to be evil and without merit, behind the scenes the sparks had been pushed into new configurations, whole fiery rivers of sparks, flowing through Rabbi Meir and through all the other people he had touched in his life, and that when all those rivers met and reached the sea, we would get Moschiach, the savior, and the whole world would be reconciled to God. Say not, he told the people, that anything has worked only evil, that any life has been in vain. Say rather that while the visible world festers and decays, somewhere beyond our understanding the groundwork is being laid for Moschiach, and the final victory.”
The shaking intensified. I thought of that poem again, Erica’s poem. Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne, but that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown – standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.
“I guess that’s what I have to say to all of you today. Father’s gone now. We all thought he was Moschiach – we knew he was Moschiach – but now he’s gone, and sometimes it seems like he’s never been. We felt like we had this burden, of salvaging his legacy, taking what he made and finishing his work instead of letting it come to nothing. I…am not sure that we will. Maybe this strange experiment, this new intrusion of Heaven into history, is going to come to an end with us, and everything Father built will be torn down. But even if that happens, we’ve done good. The world may not remember it, but we’ve done good. The sparks are moving in a different pattern now, I can’t see them, none of us can see them, but maybe they’re moving in huge fiery rivers because of some of the things Father did, maybe if we could peel back the veil we would just see this amazing endless light, this inevitable tide, ready to sweep over everything, this tide that all of us helped draw. That’s…that’s what I think Rabbi Meir would say if he were here.”
I would never have dared follow Nathanda, never have dared to speak at a solemn council of the Cometspawn, except that Sohu felt my thoughts and prodded me on. [Yes, Aaron,] she thought. [Speak.] And then when I still held back, she stood up. “Aaron has something he wants to add to that,” she said. Then sat back down.
“Um.” Four pairs of eyes watched me. “When I first learned the Vital Name, my friend asked me what I wanted to do with it. And there were all of these possibilities, you know? Um. Get rich. Take power. Run for President. I told her we couldn’t do any of those things. I said…I said I wanted to become the next Comet King.”
I waited for the Cometspawn to laugh at me. They didn’t laugh. Far away, I heard a terrible crash.
“I said that, because I’d heard about everything your father did. I’d heard about him standing up to Thamiel single-handedly in Silverthorne. I heard about how he stopped the Drug Lord. I’d heard about his Crusade, where he marched to Yakutsk with a million men to try to save the souls of the damned. Everyone heard about these things. In a world that had the Comet King, it was impossible to just want to be rich or famous or important. You wanted that same thing he had. Call it goodness. Call it holiness. It was the most powerful thing I ever encountered. Acher might have inspired Rabbi Meir, but your father inspired everyone. And so did you. I’m nowhere near as good a kabbalist as any of you, but the sparks that you guys have kindled aren’t even hidden. They’re in plain sight. I’m glad I got to know you and I’m glad you existed. For whatever it’s worth.”
Then the door shattered and the Other King entered the room.
I don’t know if I’d thought to contribute to the fight somehow, but the symbols and energies flaring across the room from both sides the moment the door began to creak disabused me of the notion instantly. [Spectral Name!] Sohu thought at me, and I spoke it faster than I’d ever spoken anything in my life and become invisible. The Other King floated almost leisurely through the mystical armaments hurled against him, pausing only to wipe away a few incantations here or there with a crimson sleeve.
Nathanda leapt onto the Black Opal Throne and traced a mem, lamed and kaf. Melek, meaning “royalty” or “kingship”, but also reminescent of malak, meaning “angel”. A powerful double meaning, the natural weapon of a queen descended from Heaven.
The Other King didn’t even flinch. Just pointed, adding with his finger a single dot, changing the vowels. Moloch, the god who accepted child sacrifices. The evil King Ahaz had offered his sons and daughters to Moloch, inciting the wrath of Jeremiah and causing him to prophecy the fall of Israel. The forces twisted, the symbolic meanings changed. The children of kings slain by demonic forces. A great nation falling. Nathanda gasped, collapsed to the ground, and before she could recover the Other King struck her with his bare hand. She screamed something unintelligible, then it became a gurgle, then her eyes closed.
At almost the same time, Caelius dragged himself up from his chair. He was barely able to stand, but still he stepped into Yetzirah. Moloch, god of child sacrifices. He drew upon the thread. Sacrifice. Here he was, broken, almost dead. He would offer himself as a sacrifice, sacrifice his life for Colorado and victory. Sacrifice. Korban. Kuf, resh, bet.
Without even taking his eyes off Nathanda, the Other King crossed the threads. Kuf, bet, resh. Keber. Grave. No sacrifice. Just a miserable death. Caelius opened his mouth to say something, then dropped to the floor. He crawled behind THARMAS, trying to use the supercomputers’ bulk to shield himself from the killing blow. The Other King pointed at him, and computers and Cometspawn alike burst briefly into blue flames before settling into ashes.
Jinxiang stepped back out of Yetzirah then, faced the Other King. “YOU MOTHERFUCKER!” she shouted. “YOU KILLED MY SISTER! YOU KILLED MY BROTHER! FUCK YOU!” Sohu was doing something with her hands, muttering to herself, bending the energies, quietly funneling power into Jinxiang, watching warily. “WELL GUESS WHAT? I HAVE YOUR TRUE NAME!”
The Other King didn’t answer, just stood there, as if waiting to hear her case.
“You’re Elisha ben Abuyah! You saw a kid steal a sparrow from a fucking tree and felt like it was some big deal and so you declared war on God! Well, guess what? When I was nineteen years old I saw my father drop out of the sky! You know why? Because you fucking killed him! And then you motherfuckers tried to keep his body, and I had to kill a hundred of you just to get him back! My father is more valuable than any sparrow! And instead of declaring war on God like a fucking maniac, I told myself I’d just kill the fucking hell out of everyone involved! Nathanda, all she ever wanted was to be a good wise queen! And Caelius, he just wanted to build nice things that made people happy! And you killed them! So now you’ve got me! And me? All I ever wanted was to plunge my magic sword into your motherfucking skull! So come on, motherfucker! I HAVE YOUR TRUE NAME!”
The great sword Sigh was in her hands, and she lunged at the Other King. Sohu’s magic spurred her on, and a thousand Hebraic and Enochian symbols whirled around her. She looked like a shooting star as she flew across the room, lambent with magic, sword fixed in front of her like a lance.
Somehow she managed to miss the Other King entirely.
[ELISHA BEN ABUYAH IS NOT MY TRUE NAME] thought the figure in scarlet.
I saw Jinxiang pick herself up, dust herself off, no longer sure of herself.
“Who are you?” she asked.
The Other King reached back and pulled the hood off his crimson robe.
What I remember from that moment was the total lack of surprise on Jinxiang’s face when she saw her father, as if she had known it all along on some level too terrible to mention.
Sigh flew from her grip, leapt into the hands of the Comet King. He lunged at her. She was unarmed. She jumped away, tripped, fell. A slice of Sigh. She screamed as she died, cursing her father’s name.
The Comet King advanced on Sohu.
I saw her marshal her powers. Symbols blazed around her, circling like fireflies, shooting off ten-colored light in all directions. I felt the mountains shake as she gathered strength. Whole passages of Torah, entire facets of Adam Kadmon multiplied and congealed around her, patterns of dizzying complexity.
“I don’t want to do this, Father,” she said. “I don’t want to fight you. This isn’t you. Stop.”
He kept advancing.
“But,” she said, “I swore to you I wouldn’t die before you did. See, Father. I won’t break my promise.”
Then she loosed her power, and I was briefly knocked over as a wave of ineffable white light filled the room. It crashed into the Comet King, stripped away his clothes and skin and muscle, left him a skeleton. But he didn’t fall. Slowly, painfully, the muscle and skin and clothes regenerated themselves out of light and magic, and he kept coming. He raised his sword.
“The prophecy says I’ll die screaming and cursing your name,” she told him. But I’m a celestial kabbalist. I stand above prophecy. You can kill me, Father, but I won’t curse your name. I trust you, Father. I won’t curse you. I won’t – ”
I closed my eyes in horror, but through the telepathic connection I still felt her die. It was awful and excruciating and sudden, but she didn’t curse him, even in her mind.
I opened my eyes.
The Comet King was staring straight at me.
“Aaron Smith-Teller,” he said.
He sat on the Black Opal Throne like it was the most natural thing in the world. He had taken off his scarlet robes, and now wore the familiar black and silver. “Come,” he said, and I moved slowly, foggily, like I was in a dream. He’d always used chashmal as the Other King. Never spoken aloud. Because his voice was sorrowful and wise. The voice of the Comet King. No one could ever have mistaken it for anything else.
I sat on a chair, right in front of him, feeling naked before his deep brown eyes. “Aaron,” he asked me. He sounded kind, compassionate, he sounded like a good person, like I wanted to give him everything he wanted even though I’d just seen him kill all four of his children, and it made no sense and the tension made me want to burst, but terror held it in so I just sat there and stared at him. “Aaron, do you know the Name?”
Of course I knew it. I’d heard the true version during Sohu’s ill-starred attempt to ensoul THARMAS, now destroyed. ROS-AILE-KAPHILUTON…
“Not that Name,” said the Comet King, reading my mind. “The real Name. The Shem haMephorash.”
“No,” I said.
“Hmm,” said the Comet King. He looked concerned.
As far as I could tell, my life was still in danger. The laws of physics had been broken and the world was crumbling all around me. And my childhood hero had suddenly appeared in the middle of all this, in the most horrifying and spectacular way possible, killed everyone, and was now watching me intently. This was a situation that required immediate decisive action.
I broke into tears.
I cried and cried and cried. Everyone was dead. Nathanda, Caelius, Jinxiang, Sohu. Even Ana and Erica were dead, I could feel it, a loosening of the links to where their minds ought to be. Bromis was dead. Sarah was dead. Uriel was dead. And they’d been ready for anything but this. Nathanda had pretty much said that as long as they could still keep their good memories of their father they could die happy. And then this! No, he was dead too. Everything was dead. I cried and cried.
By the time I stopped crying, the Comet King was kneeling in front of me, his hand on my knee. “Aaron,” he was saying, “Stop crying. We’ve won. Aaron, we’ve won.”
He pulled up a chair, not the throne, just another chair, sat right in front of me. “Seventeen years ago I tried to speak the Shem haMephorash and destroy Hell. I failed. I was too far. I thought I could fight my way to Lake Baikal, and then I’d be near Hell and I’d have a clear shot. It doesn’t work that way. Hell’s not just a place. It’s like Milton said – the mind can make a Heaven out of Hell, or a Hell of Heaven. I was in Hell, but I wasn’t of it.
Isaiah says that the Moshiach will be counted as the worst of sinners. I realized I wasn’t going to destroy Hell from the outside, but getting into Hell is easy. Millions do it every day. I could do the same. Wipe out a lifetime of accumulated good deeds through terror and oppression.
The only thing that stood in my way was my own conscience. I couldn’t accumulate sin in order to get into Hell. I’d be doing it for the greater good. That itself would make me unworthy of Hell. A perfect paradox.
I would have given up then except for Robin. She saved me. She sacrificed herself to give me a chance.
Do you understand what I’ve done? I didn’t become a genocidal tyrant to save the billions of souls in Hell. I did it to save her. Fifteen years of murder and oppression, and I never once thought about anyone else. And if there had not been a single soul in Hell besides hers, I would have spent those fifteen years just the same. Do you realize how wicked that is? I damned myself, Aaron. Where all my angelic powers failed, my human weakness succeeded. My father must be laughing so hard right now.
I found the shreds of a defeated death cult in Las Vegas, made myself a backstory out of their ramblings. I borrowed a golem from Gadiriel, killed myself off, took on the new identity, and never showed my face. If they’d known it was me, they would have figured out my plan, and gone willingly to their deaths. There would have been devastation without suffering. It wouldn’t have worked. I thought I could do it. Conquering the West was easy. Killing people…easy, once you…get used to it. But part of me always knew it wasn’t enough. A million lesser sins don’t sum up to abomination. There was still good in me. I didn’t want to kill my children. I thought I could avoid it, thought if I just committed enough other sins, or studied until I found a loophole, I might still avoid it. Then you arrived. If your computer idea had worked, Colorado would have become invincible. I wouldn’t have been able to stand up to it. My children would have ushered in a new golden age, there would have been peace and plenty for everyone, and it would have been the greatest disaster the world had ever known. None of it would have mattered a hair’s width as long as Hell stayed intact, do you understand? They would have beaten me, I would have revealed myself or died a saint, and Hell would have continued regardless. I couldn’t let that happen. I was like Acher, pushed past the point of no return. My poor Robin, taken from her nest. How could I let God let that pass?
So I did the only thing I could. My uncle knew all along. I got in touch with him, told him to destroy the project. Then I destroyed Uriel’s machinery to prevent them from trying the same thing again. Then I came here. I couldn’t let Thamiel kill my children, I couldn’t. If they had to die, I would do it myself. And here we are. They died screaming, just like I always knew they would.” He was quiet for a second. “I despise myself, Aaron. I despise myself and I want to die. I’m not worried about not going to Hell. I’m in Hell already. But – when I first decided to do this, the archangel Metatron got angry, said that I was profaning the Name, that I couldn’t hold the Shem haMephorash in my head and be a murderer. He said that at the end of everything he’d give it back to me, if there was still enough left of my soul to speak it. I think there is. I think I am bound for Hell, that I’m utterly, atrociously evil, that pull every loophole he will Thamiel can’t keep me out, but that I still have the divine spark, the love of goodness. I can still speak the Name. But someone needs to give it to me. Have you ever read the Sepher haBashir?”
I nodded weakly.
“God writes the Shem-ha-Mephorash on the forehead of the high priest Aaron. And here you come, an Aaron, at the end of everything. Too many coincidences. Too strange a path that brought you here. You have the Name for me, whether you know it or not. Think!”
He said it like a commandment. So I thought. For some reason I thought of the poem, how they enslave their children’s children who make compromise with sin. I thought of Las Vegas, where I’d glibly quoted it, used it to justify risking the whole world to save Ana. Quoted it to convince myself that allowing any evil, even for a greater good, was a compromise with sin. I thought of the Comet King. Who in one sense had just confessed to striking the greatest such compromise of all time. But who in another sense might have been the only person in history never to compromise with sin at all. He’d decided what was right. Then he’d done it. No excuses. No holding back. Just a single burning principle followed wherever it might lead, even to Hell itself. I thought of what Ana would think.
And then I thought of Ana. Memories not my own came flooding in. She had gone to the Captain’s cabin, confronted him, told him he was the Metatron and she wanted answers. He had asked her if she wanted the Explicit Name. She’d said no. I knew she would have said no. She’d always only wanted one thing. She demanded the captain produce the answer to Job she’d always wanted, and he’d given it to her. God is the summum bonum, the ultimate good, an unstoppable force maximizing joy and perfection among everything that existed. But in order to create, He had to withdraw; the more He withdrew, the more He created, endless forms most beautiful bought with those two silver coins of wickedness. The world was a delicate balance between a perfect good empty of thought and a multiplicity so unhappy that their scraps of goodness seemed a mockery. The created universe itself was set with fixing the balance, and when all the sparks had finally been sorted out, the good and the evil placed back in their respective vessels and every color pure, we would decide anew and the cycle could begin again.
“Oh God,” I said. “I’m so sorry. My friend Ana was supposed to get the Shem haMephorash from your ship, the same one you took, but when she found Metatron she didn’t want the Name, she asked him about theodicy instead. He never told her. Now she’s gone.”
But the Comet King was smiling.
“Yes,” he said. “I read your mind. It’s all in there. I had figured most of it out myself, but it is good to hear it spoken.”
“Because any good enough description of God is also a notarikon for His Most Holy Name.”
“God is One and His Name is One. God is One with His Name. People always say God isn’t a person, but then what is He? To me, He’s always been a sort of logical necessity. The necessity for everything in the cosmos to be as good as possible. Understand goodness and you understand God. Understand God and you understand His Name. Understand the Name and you can remake the world. That’s the kabbalah. The rest is just commentary. Excruciating, unbearable commentary that kills everyone you love.”
He stood up, started walking to the throne. “If anyone ever asks you what happened here, tell them everything. Don’t whitewash any of it. Tell them they screamed when they died.”
“Sohu didn’t scream.”
He stopped for a second. “No, I guess she didn’t. Faith is a strange thing.”
He sat on the Black Opal Throne. He took the great sword Sigh in his right hand, pointed it at his breast. Held back for a second, stared at it, black metal coated with blood.
I saw it as if in a vision. He would die. He would go to Hell, go for real this time. He would stand on a pillar, looking out at the fields of flame below him, hearing the screams for the last time. He would speak the seventy-two letters of the Explicit Name of God. The flames would cease. The cages would crumble. He would point a finger, and his wife would fly towards him. They would stand there together, above the wreckage. Rain would fall. Rivers would flow through the broken landscape. Flowers would spring from the ground. The people would limp forth, and by the waters they would sing the same song Miriam had sung at the Red Sea. ‘Sing to the Lord, for He is highly exalted. The Lord reigns, for ever and ever.’
I saw all of this, and at the same time I saw the Comet King on his throne, holding his sword. Afraid, regretful, broken-hearted – any of a million things could have been holding him back. I thought of the old verse from the Rubaiyat, the same one I’d thought of when Ana read Job to us, long ago:
Oh, Thou who burns in Heart for those who burn
In Hell, whose fires thyself shall feed in turn;
How long be crying, ‘Mercy on them, God!’
Why, who art Thou to teach, and He to learn?
Then the Comet King muttered to himself, almost too soft to hear: “Somebody has to and no one else will” and he plunged the sword into his heart and died.
The sound of my breath rose and fell. The blood made little rivulets, as if exploring the terrain, then settled down into irregular stagnant lakes. I just sat there, stunned. Sat in the chair, staring at the body of the Comet King, until the light of the Luminous Name dimmed and went out and everything was black. Nothing stirred. I wondered if the other inhabitants of the citadel had all run away, or if the Other King had killed them, or if they cowered in their chambers behind locked doors. The quiet and solitude were like a womb, or like the emptiness before Creation. In the beginning, the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep. Then the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters, and God said…
It was a faint voice, almost too faint to detect, audible not to the ears but to the innermost chambers of my thought. Had the darkness and silence been any less complete I might have missed it entirely. And the voice said:
[Blowhole-y of holies.]
An epilogue will be published on Wednesday.