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Chapter 17

Chapter 17: Unexpected Conjunction

Bianca pads lightly up the ellipsoid tunnel that pierces the heart of her gallery. A soft orange light highlights dimples and welts on the honeycombed walls—a mosaic of hexagonal cells, many with blurry forms darkly visible behind translucent membranes. Unoccupied cells, though sparse, shine like windows in a skyscraper at night.

The tunnel is alive, flexing and twisting from the movements of the countless Ascendants jostling like corpuscles through capillaries. Through the mob, Bianca spots her own empty cell and glides over to it, anxious to be alone, to meditate and perchance to dream.

Bianca slides in feet-first through a flaccid, spindle-shaped slit. Folds collapse and conform to her shape. She reclines on the stretchy membrane that spans its center like a hammock.

Before she can settle in and receive her cell’s consolation and nurturing and consolation, the membrane snaps shut and the cell shuttles rapidly away from the corridor, bumping and sliding through layer after layer, slithering past a queue of other cells waiting to mingle with their Mentors.

Bianca is alarmed, never having experienced such a rapid and unexpected transport. Panic-stricken at the unplanned encounter it portends, she scrambles for a way to explain why she has come back from Lethe so soon. Would it suffice to say she felt lost and confused and needed to collect herself?

Her cell’s emanations fill her soul with gentle warmth, the essence of clannish communion. But Bianca’s anxiety overrides its influence. She rubs her face nervously, a vestigial habit providing no physical benefit. She awaits the inevitable.

Even before she reaches it, she senses the proximity of Mother Ebbani’s cell. Other cells already crowd around it, but none are yet locked into conjunction. They are waiting for her.

“Our daughter … close … yes.” Bianca feels her Mentor think, but the thoughts are muffled by the insulating effect of the membranes. She senses a strong but indistinct communal reply from the others.

Something filamentous pulls away from her Mentor’s cell. It whips over to Bianca, lingers a moment, then retracts.

Her cell seals against Mother Ebbani’s. Conjunction achieved, opacity becomes translucence and the petite shape of her fetally folded Mentor becomes visible.

“Mother Ebbani, that strand … was that our Primentor?”

“Yes, my child.”

“I was being discussed behind my back. I felt it.”

“I will be frank,” says Mother Ebbani. “The matron is losing patience. Luckily for you … she does not fully grasp how far you are from resolving this situation. There is still a chance for you to correct your errors, but you are running out of time.”

“I tried to convince him, but he insists on being stubborn. And it’s not just Marco’s influence. I just don’t think he wants to Ascend. I’m not sure how to handle this.”

“Surely not by hiding in your cell.”

“But … I needed to think.”

“You have to learn to think on your feet, child. A Guide should never flee simply because she encounters some resistance. You have tools. Use them.”


“You know full well your resources.”

“Yes, but I’d much rather rely on persuasion than force. What’s the point of getting him onto the mountain if he refuses to climb?”

“Persuasion.” Mother Ebbani shifts in her cell and sniffs. “We have seen how far that has gotten you. If the situation deteriorates any further, others may be forced to intervene, and I have to warn you, it may not be gentle.”

“I assure you, there’ll be no need for force, Mother. Daniel is reachable. I can see it in his eyes. He just needs the right approach.”

“Remove the Unfettered One and you won’t have to worry about a right or wrong approach. You will have only to reach out your hand. I am certain Sabonis has corrupted your charge. You never should have allowed him to accompany you onto the mountain.”

“That’s not true. Daniel descended on his own. He came down to Marco’s stratum on his own.”

“Because he knew Sabonis was waiting for him. He had planted the seed of temptation.”

“I don’t believe that to be the case, Mother. This stubbornness, it comes from Daniel himself. He believes his death to be in error.”

“Don’t we all?” Mother Ebbani mutters.

Bianca tries to brush her hair back with her fingers. It does not budge.

“Listen closely.” Bianca leans in. Mother Ebbani speaks so softly, her words are barely perceptible above the background hum. “You will find yourself … assisted … next time you visit Daniel.”

“How do you mean? I don’t need any assistance.”

“On the contrary. Once again, you allow your feelings for the Unfettered One to get in your way. I have arranged for a Facilitation.”

Bianca gapes. “No! Don’t hurt him! I’m sure I can reach Daniel. I can turn him around. He will see his error once his stratum begins to shift.”

“We don’t have time for that, Bianca. You saw the Primentor visiting with me. Next time she will not be as merciful … with any of us.”

“Mother, please. I’ll go back and fetch him. I just needed some time to rest and to think.”

“No,” says Mother Ebbani. “No more thinking. Now is the time for doing. I need you back there now for Daniel. You will find the Unfettered One no longer an obstacle once the Facilitators finish their work. Alecto has sent her best hunters after him. It is for the best, my dear.”

“Alecto?” Bianca would have blanched were she not bloodless and transparent. “Mother, please. There is no need. Marco is harmless.”

“It is already done. They should be reaching him as we speak. Don’t worry. They are professional and efficient. He will feel little pain. And it is not as if he is unfamiliar with Avernus.”

Membranes spiral in like a camera shutter.

“Wait! Call them back! I can go get Daniel. I know I can convince him.”

“Too late. You had your chance and you walked away. Our dear Primentor will soon be inquiring on your charge’s progress. This I guarantee you. And this time I intend to give her a satisfactory report.”

“Mother Ebbani, no! Wait!”

But the membranes seal and darken. Bianca is whisked back to her corridor, her cell open wide, her shame and distress exposed to all who pass. No amount of willpower can force her cell to seal.
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