aleph symbol with title UNSONG

Chapter 65: The Fruit Of My Mysterious Tree

We find that the pattern unifies with the conclusion of the rule which God hath spoken in his holiness
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Afternoon, May 14, 2017
New York City

Brenda Burns spoke the Fulminant Name and shot a lightning bolt at Malia Ngo. It missed by a fraction of an inch and lit her desk on fire. Clark Deas had been in the process of lunging over the desk to get at Malia; his grunted as his shirt caught fire and started hitting himself against the wall, trying to put it out.

“I challenge you to a placebomantic duel!” Dylan repeated, and everyone continued to ignore him.

Mark McCarthy was doing…something…with his hands and his staff. Malia Ngo sliced at him with the fiery sword she had summoned, and the sword seemed to dull and fizzle. She cursed, then spoke the Incendiary Name. It missed Mark. Another corner of the office went up in flames.

“I challenge you to a placebomantic duel!” said Dylan again. Brenda and Malia turned to face each other. Clark Deas looked like he would have facepalmed if he hadn’t been on fire.

Erica was saying something, but tripped over a syllable and cursed. Clark grabbed a branch from the potted plant, tried to club Malia. Malia spoke the Incendiary Name again. It hit home, and Brenda Burns went up in a conflagration of nominative determinism.

“I challenge you to a placebomantic duel!” Dylan kept trying to say, over the din.

Clark finally scored a direct hit on Malia’s skull, but it only seemed to make her angry. Erica spoke the Tempestous Name, which was a terrible idea. Everything stopped for a few brief seconds as the wind flung fire and paper and paper-that-was-on-fire around the room. The window shattered, and Malia caught herself just in time to avoid being flung out of it. “I chall…mmmmph!” said Dylan, as a burning piece of paper almost flew into his mouth.

Mark and Malia spoke Names at each other at the same time. The Fulminant Name hit Malia, seemed to half-knock her out. The Kinetic Name hit Mark and flung him out the shattered window. Dylan stared for a second, his mouth open in horror.

“MOTHERFUCKER!” yelled Dylan Alvarez. “YOU KILLED MARK! HE WAS MY FRIEND FROM COLLEGE! COMPADRE PARA SIEMPRE!”

A pause in the darkness.

“HE WAS PART OF MY NARRATIVE!

Another pause.

“THAT’S IT, MOTHERFUCKER. I CHALLENGE YOU TO A PLACEBOMANTIC DUEL!”

He rushed at Malia, tried to hit her with his boojumwood staff. At the last second, she raised her sword of fire, held him off. Clark was stuck on the wrong side of the burning desk. He made a valiant effort to climb over it, shoving the metal nameplate and more forms into the flames while speaking the Extinguishing Name. Malia saw him coming, looked like she was analyzing the situation.

Then she asked: “What is a placebomantic duel?”

Dylan turned to Clark, held up his hand. Clark made it to the near side of the desk, but stopped coming closer.

“Many people mistakenly believe,” said Dylan, who had suddenly regained his composure and was now speaking in a professorial tone, “that the race is to the swift, or the battle to the strong. This is false. The world has its own peculiar narrative logic that determines the course of a fight far more surely than skill ever could. Placebomancers are those who embrace this. A placebomantic duel is two masters casting off pretense and using the narrative against each other directly.”

“This is where you give a speech about your childhood in Mexico.” Erika could tell Malia was buying time, and she could tell that Dylan could tell this too, and she could tell that he was letting her do it.

“You know,” said Dylan, “those speeches – Mark used to tease me about them too, may God have mercy on his soul. But – ” He opened his eyes unnaturally wide, as if willing them to produce tears. Eventually they did. One fell down his cheek. ” – I was telling them for him.”

He waited to see if someone would say “For him?” Malia and Clark just stared at him. Finally, Erica said, “For him?”

“Poor Mark. Such a guy. But in the end, he didn’t have the fire. So I went overboard. I started telling him about how I was tortured as a child in Baja, about how my whole village was destroyed, about how they killed my father and made me watch – I wanted to get to him. And I never could.”

He leaned on his staff, let out a sigh.

“If you have to know – I was born in a nice suburb of San Diego. My father was a Mexican-American businessman, my mother was a schoolteacher. My childhood was happy. I was prom king of my high school.” He struck the floor with his staff. “Prom king. And this is the point where I’m supposed to tell you the one day it all went wrong, but there wasn’t one, I kept being secure and happy while everything else burned around me. That was the part I could never accept. Knowing that I was on an island of comfort in the middle of – ” He gestured to the city outside, which was starting to burn in earnest now. “There were times I wished I could be like Mark, wished that I could just shrug off all the injustice of the world and be like…” He half-sat, half-slid into Ngo’s desk chair, placed her coffee mug theatrically in front of him, and announced in the middle of the encroaching flames “This is fine.

He stood back up and started pacing across the increasingly-limited not-on-fire part of the room. “If I’d gotten bullied in school, or had one lousy relative die of cancer, I think it would have been bearable. I’d be stuck in the mud along with everyone else. But I didn’t. Barely so much as a stubbed toe! An entire world devouring the weak in the ugliest ways imaginable, and it didn’t even have the courtesy to take the tiniest bite out of me to let me discharge my survivor’s guilt by ritually identifying with them. So of course I had to become a terrorist. The Comet King once said that he could hear the voices of everyone in Hell, calling out to him. Then he admitted he couldn’t, said he lied because it was the only way it would make sense to them. I lied for the same reason he did, to try and make it make sense. You know, I think I would have made a good Comet King.”

He paused for a second, as if admiring the accuracy of what he had just told her. “All my life, I wanted to do better than just accept the privilege I was born into. And all my life, I wanted, needed, to convince people that the world was on fire all around them. Well, now it’s the apocalypse, and I couldn’t be happier. And before I walk into the flames with a giant grin on my face, I’m going to kill the figurehead of the old order, Ms. Follow-The-Rules-And-Ignore-The-Human-Cost herself. So come on. Give me your best shot.”

“I also have a story,” said Malia. “I was born in Hell. To Robin West, the Comet King’s dead wife. And Thamiel, the Lord of Demons.”

She paused to see if anyone would challenge her. No one did.

“My first memories were…much like this. Black smoke-filled skies, and a world on fire. The first sounds I heard were the cries of my mother being hacked to pieces without dying. My father I think ignored me; he has many children, and if they survive and stay sane they become the minor nobility of Hell. We are drawn to evil, Dylan. It is a fascination to us, me and all my part-demon kin. I felt the draw every moment of my life, since the beginning. But I also felt something different. I stayed with my mother, tried to console her. I talked to her and tried to learn from her, and she taught me things about the upper world, in between her screams. She told me about the Comet King, who claimed to be able to hear the voices of the damned from thousands of miles away, when I was half-deaf to them even within earshot. And maybe it was the little part in me that was human, but there was something I was able to respect in that, some part of me that didn’t have feelings but was able to model what they might be like. So when I turned a year old, I left Hell and went into the world, trying to trace his path.

“I wanted to do good, but my birthright was evil. It was my only talent. And then I found UNSONG. It was beautiful, as if it had been made just for me. Maybe it had been; who knows what the Comet King could or couldn’t see. Out of a campaign to conceal the light of God on Earth, to persecute the desperate and poor, come gifts a hundredfold more potent, powers strong enough to hold back Hell and give humanity a fighting chance. But it was a wreck. The Comet King’s successors were weak; too merciful to use his weapons to their full potential. My only talent is evil. But sometimes that’s enough. With the help of a family member in, ah, high places, I rose through the ranks and became Director-General, tried to give UNSONG the best chance I could. Now Uriel has fallen, the lights have gone out, and all the world has to save itself with are the Names I’ve fought to give them.”

She coughed. The air was thick with smoke now. Clark was tensed like a predator. Erica was in the far corner, hunched to the floor.

“My part is over now. I find myself wondering if my mother will be proud of me. I’ll meet her again soon enough. There is no reason I should not let you have your grand exit. Except, as I said, I am evil. And I am vindictive. And I find that of everyone I have worked with, and all the sob stories I have heard, yours makes me the most annoyed. I was born to do evil. I made peace with my nature and tried to save the world. You had every opportunity to do good, and you squandered it in childish games. I find I cannot forgive you.”

“Well,” said Dylan. “That is quite the…”

Before he could finish his sentence, Clark attacked. Malia spoke a name, a new Name Erica had never heard before, and Clark exploded into a shower of glass. Then she wheeled around to Dylan, attacked him with her flaming sword just as he attacked her with his boojumwood staff.

Somehow, inexplicably, the staff missed Malia entirely.

The flaming sword cut straight through Dylan’s neck and severed his head.

Malia let out something resembling a sigh.

“Wait,” said Erica, from the far corner of the office.

Malia frowned at her.

“My name is Erica Lowry,” said Erica, advancing toward her. The fire seemed to frame her face, as if the placebomancy had settled into her, using her as a vessel. “And I think you’re wrong. I don’t care if you were trying to do good or not. I think it’s not up to you to decide who does or doesn’t get the light of God. I think that they enslave their children’s children who make compromise with sin. And I don’t have any cool origin story. I don’t have any deep personal conflits. But I have something better. I have your True Name. Do you hear me? I have your True Name!

“Malia Ngo is my True Name,” said Malia, confused.

Erica lunged forward and thrust the molten metal nameplate through Malia Ngo’s throat as the flames closed around them both.


[There is a new Author’s Note up here]

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