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Chapter 39

Chapter 39: The Table of Accession

We follow a well-trampled path through the snow. Shed possessions litter the way—prayers scratched into scraps of bark, walking sticks with knots polished down to smooth nubs, wave-worn worry pebbles taken from the beach.

But not a single flake dares cling to the wind-blasted summit of Mt. Abdiel—a mass of red-brown stone creased with cracks and gullies filled with queues of waiting souls.

My extremities tingle in anticipation of the coming passage. The goal of all who flee the beaches of Lethe lays only steps away.

For the Ascendants we pass it represents the reward for weeks and months of penitential suffering. For me, it is just the terminus of a day hike. I feel like a pampered recruit arriving at a war zone after an armistice, passing veterans who have just endured a long and brutal conflict.

My symbiont relaxes. Bianca finds a bounce in her stride and a care-free smile.

We come to a queue of people with eyes almost uniformly glossy and opaque. Like one-way mirrors, they shed more light than they take in. I line up behind them, but Bianca drags me away.

“You’re special,” she says. “Come along.”

None complain as we pass them.

Up ahead, out of sight, the steady roar of the wind is punctuated by screams. Like clockwork, every minute or so, we hear a shout or a shriek, sometimes ululant, sometimes a mere squeak. On the verge of asking Bianca to explain, the symbiont suppresses my curiosity.

“Take off your dress,” says Bianca.

I begin to comply without thinking and slip one arm out of a sleeve. But some part of me that had been muffled breaks free and lets me slip the dress back over my shoulder.

“Take it off!” says Bianca.

“Um … why?” I say.

“Where you’re going, you won’t be needing it,” says Bianca. “Same goes for your body as well.”

Further disturbances roil the euphoria that had underlain my disposition ever since we left Zion.

“My … body?”

“Come,” says Bianca, grabbing my hand and dragging me along.

We squeeze up a gully and emerge onto the flat of the summit, which is as large as a couple of tennis courts and tilts slightly upward. Ledges peel like layers of onion forming steps.

My dress flaps wildly in the wind. A line of people files slowly towards a walled area. They block my view; I can’t see what lies beyond.

Again someone screams. Seconds later a man clambers over the wall. Two Guides intercept him and lead him back, cooing to him softly in Portuguese. His legs go limp. He collapses, sobbing.

“What’s going on?”

“Oh, it happens all the time,” says Bianca. “Some souls find the Table of Accession … troubling. Perhaps this one wasn’t entirely Clear.”

“What’s so … troubling?”

“Nothing,” she says. “I don’t find it troubling at all. But some souls are … shy.”

“What if … I’m one of the shy ones?”

Bianca sticks her face inches before mine.

“You do want to Ascend, don’t you?”

“Of course.” My symbiont thrills to my prompt response.

“Then just keep that goal forefront in your mind,” says Bianca. “Remember, the end justifies the means.”

But a fear too vigorous for the symbiont to quell sprouts in the free part of me.

Guides help the Portuguese man to his feet. He hangs his head low and whimpers softly. The Guides console him. I notice one hand clasping the other. A steady stream of blood trickles between them.

“What happened to him?”

“Soon you will see and you will understand,” says Bianca, patting my back.

We pass around the last of the queue to reach a gap in a stone wall enclosing three sides of a roughly rectangular space. The fourth side slopes down to a precipice that spills over the cloud bank and an unspeakable drop.

The ledges inside are slick and gooey. The sensory fog imposed by the symbiont delays my ability to interpret what I’m seeing. Pools of blood back up in gutters carved into the stone behind dams of human offal. Cadavers litter the base of an altar-like table. They look as if they have exploded apart—bodies turned inside out, skin peeled away, skulls cracked in two.

My symbiont works overtime to calm me, dulling my emotions, slowing my breathing, calming my nausea.

Four Guides lead the Portuguese man to the table. Each wields a hooked blade made of some glassy substance that flares with the brilliance of burning magnesium.

The man closes his teary eyes and stands with arms and legs extended, head back, chin poking into the air. The Guides, if that’s what they were, move in with the bored confidence of butchers in a packing plant.

He bellows as they slice him open with quick, brutal slashes, blades moving through him like feathers parting air. They split his chest from belly to gullet and separate the halves of his rib cage, peeling his body away from the Shade within.

The meat collapses wetly, and turns the Table into a bloody fountain. The man’s Shade reaches up to meet a writhing, salmon-pink tendril like a neon snake spiraling down from a high layer of cloud. It wraps around him like a vine and a pulse of light surges down. His body mottles with brown and transitions from chestnut to a milky ivory before igniting into a luminous translucence. The tendril retracts and takes him with it into the clouds.

The butchers flick the blood off their blades and turn to face me. Bianca nudges my elbow.
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