فصل 26-28

مجموعه: نیروی اهریمنی اش / کتاب: دوربین کهربایی / فصل 10

فصل 26-28

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26

The Sun has left his blackness and has found a fresher morning, And the fair Moon rejoices in the clear and cloudless night …

• WILLIAM BLAKE •

THE ABYSS It was dark, with an enfolding blackness that pressed on Lyra’s eyes so heavily that she almost felt the weight of the thousands of tons of rock above them. The only light they had came from the luminous tail of the Lady Salmakia’s dragonfly, and even that was fading; for the poor insects had found no food in the world of the dead, and the Chevalier’s had died not long before.

So while Tialys sat on Will’s shoulder, Lyra held the Lady’s dragonfly in her hands as the Lady soothed it and whispered to the trembling creature, feeding it first on crumbs of biscuit and then on her own blood. If Lyra had seen her do that, she would have offered hers, since there was more of it; but it was all she could do to concentrate on placing her feet safely and avoiding the lowest parts of the rock above.

No-Name the harpy had led them into a system of caves that would bring them, she said, to the nearest point in the world of the dead from which they could open a window to another world. Behind them came the endless column of ghosts. The tunnel was full of whispers, as the foremost encouraged those behind, as the brave urged on the fainthearted, as the old gave hope to the young.

“Is it much farther, No-Name?” said Lyra quietly. “Because this poor dragonfly’s dying, and then his light’ll go out.”

The harpy stopped and turned to say:

“Just follow. If you can’t see, listen. If you can’t hear, feel.”

Her eyes shone fierce in the gloom. Lyra nodded and said, “Yes, I will, but I’m not as strong as I used to be, and I’m not brave, not very anyway. Please don’t stop. I’ll follow you—we all will. Please keep going, No-Name.”

The harpy turned back and moved on. The dragonfly shine was getting dimmer by the minute, and Lyra knew it would soon be completely gone.

But as she stumbled forward, a voice spoke just beside her—a familiar voice.

“Lyra—Lyra, child …”

And she turned in delight.

“Mr. Scoresby! Oh, I’m so glad to hear you! And it is you—I can see, just—oh, I wish I could touch you!”

In the faint, faint light she made out the lean form and the sardonic smile of the Texan aeronaut, and her hand reached forward of its own accord, in vain.

“Me too, honey. But listen to me—they’re working some trouble out there, and it’s aimed at you—don’t ask me how. Is this the boy with the knife?”

Will had been looking at him, eager to see this old companion of Lyra’s; but now his eyes went right past Lee to look at the ghost beside him. Lyra saw at once who it was, and marveled at this grown-up vision of Will—the same jutting jaw, the same way of holding his head.

Will was speechless, but his father said:

“Listen—there’s no time to talk about this—just do exactly as I say. Take the knife now and find a place where a lock has been cut from Lyra’s hair.”

His tone was urgent, and Will didn’t waste time asking why. Lyra, her eyes wide with alarm, held up the dragonfly with one hand and felt her hair with the other.

“No,” said Will, “take your hand away—I can’t see.”

And in the faint gleam, he could see it: just above her left temple, there was a little patch of hair that was shorter than the rest.

“Who did that?” said Lyra. “And—”

“Hush,” said Will, and asked his father’s ghost, “What must I do?”

“Cut the short hair off right down to her scalp. Collect it carefully, every single hair. Don’t miss even one. Then open another world—any will do—and put the hair through into it, and then close it again. Do it now, at once.”

The harpy was watching, the ghosts behind were crowding close. Lyra could see their faint faces in the dimness. Frightened and bewildered, she stood biting her lip while Will did as his father told him, his face close up to the knifepoint in the paling dragonfly light. He cut a little hollow space in the rock of another world, put all the tiny golden hairs into it, and replaced the rock before closing the window.

And then the ground began to shake. From somewhere very deep came a growling, grinding noise, as if the whole center of the earth were turning on itself like a vast millwheel, and little fragments of stone began to fall from the roof of the tunnel. The ground lurched suddenly to one side. Will seized Lyra’s arm, and they clung together as the rock under their feet began to shift and slide, and loose pieces of stone came tumbling past, bruising their legs and feet—

The two children, sheltering the Gallivespians, crouched down with their arms over their heads; and then in a horrible sliding movement they found themselves being borne away down to the left, and they held each other fiercely, too breathless and shaken even to cry out. Their ears were filled with the roar of thousands of tons of rock tumbling and rolling down with them.

Finally their movement stopped, though all around them smaller rocks were still tumbling and bounding down a slope that hadn’t been there a minute before. Lyra was lying on Will’s left arm. With his right hand he felt for the knife; it was still there at his belt.

“Tialys? Salmakia?” said Will shakily.

“Both here, both alive,” said the Chevalier’s voice near his ear.

The air was full of dust, and of the cordite smell of smashed rock. It was hard to breathe, and impossible to see: the dragonfly was dead.

“Mr. Scoresby?” said Lyra. “We can’t see anything … What happened?”

“I’m here,” said Lee, close by. “I guess the bomb went off, and I guess it missed.”

“Bomb?” said Lyra, frightened; but then she said, “Roger—are you there?”

“Yeah,” came the little whisper. “Mr. Parry, he saved me. I was going to fall, and he caught hold.”

“Look,” said the ghost of John Parry. “But hold still to the rock, and don’t move.”

The dust was clearing, and from somewhere there was light: a strange faint golden glimmer, like a luminous misty rain falling all around them. It was enough to strike their hearts ablaze with fear, for it lit up what lay to their left, the place into which it was all falling—or flowing, like a river over the edge of a waterfall.

It was a vast black emptiness, like a shaft into the deepest darkness. The golden light flowed into it and died. They could see the other side, but it was much farther away than Will could have thrown a stone. To their right, a slope of rough stones, loose and precariously balanced, rose high into the dusty gloom.

The children and their companions were clinging to what was not even a ledge—just some lucky hand- and footholds—on the edge of that abyss, and there was no way out except forward, along the slope, among the shattered rocks and the teetering boulders, which, it seemed, the slightest touch would send hurtling down below.

And behind them, as the dust cleared, more and more of the ghosts were gazing in horror at the abyss. They were crouching on the slope, too frightened to move. Only the harpies were unafraid; they took to their wings and soared above, scanning backward and forward, flying back to reassure those still in the tunnel, flying ahead to search for the way out.

Lyra checked: at least the alethiometer was safe. Suppressing her fear, she looked around, found Roger’s little face, and said:

“Come on, then, we’re all still here, we en’t been hurt. And we can see now, at least. So just keep going, just keep on moving. We can’t go any other way than round the edge of this …” She gestured at the abyss. “So we just got to keep going ahead. I swear Will and me’ll just keep on till we do. So don’t be scared, don’t give up, don’t lag behind. Tell the others. I can’t look back all the time because I got to watch where I’m going, so I got to trust you to come on steady after us, all right?”

The little ghost nodded. And so, in a shocked silence, the column of the dead began their journey along the edge of the abyss. How long it took, neither Lyra nor Will could guess; how fearful and dangerous it was, they were never able to forget. The darkness below was so profound that it seemed to pull the eyesight down into it, and a ghastly dizziness swam over their minds when they looked. Whenever they could, they looked ahead of them fixedly, on this rock, that foothold, this projection, that loose slope of gravel, and kept their eyes from the gulf; but it pulled, it tempted, and they couldn’t help glancing into it, only to feel their balance tilting and their eyesight swimming and a dreadful nausea gripping their throats.

From time to time the living ones looked back and saw the infinite line of the dead winding out of the crack they’d come through: mothers pressing their infants’ faces to their breasts, aged fathers clambering slowly, little children clutching the skirts of the person in front, young boys and girls of Roger’s age keeping staunch and careful, so many of them … And all following Will and Lyra, so they still hoped, toward the open air.

But some didn’t trust them. They crowded close behind, and both children felt cold hands on their hearts and their entrails, and they heard vicious whispers:

“Where is the upper world? How much farther?”

“We’re frightened here!”

“We should never have come—at least back in the world of the dead we had a little light and a little company—this is far worse!”

“You did a wrong thing when you came to our land! You should have stayed in your own world and waited to die before you came down to disturb us!”

“By what right are you leading us? You are only children! Who gave you the authority?”

Will wanted to turn and denounce them, but Lyra held his arm; they were unhappy and frightened, she said.

Then the Lady Salmakia spoke, and her clear, calm voice carried a long way in the great emptiness.

“Friends, be brave! Stay together and keep going! The way is hard, but Lyra can find it. Be patient and cheerful and we’ll lead you out, don’t fear!”

Lyra felt herself strengthened by hearing this, and that was really the Lady’s intention. And so they toiled on, with painful effort.

“Will,” said Lyra after some minutes, “can you hear that wind?”

“Yes, I can,” said Will. “But I can’t feel it at all. And I tell you something about that hole down there. It’s the same kind of thing as when I cut a window. The same kind of edge. There’s something special about that kind of edge; once you’ve felt it you never forget it. And I can see it there, just where the rock falls away into the dark. But that big space down there, that’s not another world like all the others. It’s different. I don’t like it. I wish I could close it up.”

“You haven’t closed every window you’ve made.”

“No, because I couldn’t, some of them. But I know I should. Things go wrong if they’re left open. And one that big …” He gestured downward, not wanting to look. “It’s wrong. Something bad will happen.”

While they were talking together, another conversation had been taking place a little way off: the Chevalier Tialys was talking quietly with the ghosts of Lee Scoresby and John Parry.

“So what are you saying, John?” said Lee. “You’re saying we ought not to go out into the open air? Man, every single part of me is aching to join the rest of the living universe again!”

“Yes, and so am I,” said Will’s father. “But I believe that if those of us who are used to fighting could manage to hold ourselves back, we might be able to throw ourselves into the battle on Asriel’s side. And if it came at the right moment, it might make all the difference.”

“Ghosts?” said Tialys, trying to hold the skepticism from his voice, and failing. “How could you fight?”

“We couldn’t hurt living creatures, that’s quite true. But Asriel’s army is going to contend with other kinds of being as well.”

“Those Specters,” said Lee.

“Just what I was thinking. They make for the dæmon, don’t they? And our dæmons are long gone. It’s worth a try, Lee.”

“Well, I’m with you, my friend.”

“And you, sir,” said John Parry’s ghost to the Chevalier: “I have spoken to the ghosts of your people. Will you live long enough to see the world again, before you die and come back as a ghost?”

“It’s true, our lives are short compared to yours. I have a few days more to live,” said Tialys, “and the Lady Salmakia a little longer, perhaps. But thanks to what those children are doing, our exile as ghosts will not be permanent. I have been proud to help them.”

They moved on. And that abominable fall yawned all the time, and one little slip, one footstep on a loose rock, one careless handhold, would send you down forever and ever, thought Lyra, so far down you’d die of starvation before you ever hit the bottom, and then your poor ghost would go on falling and falling into an infinite gulf, with no one to help, no hands to reach down and lift you out, forever conscious and forever falling …

Oh, that would be far worse than the gray, silent world they were leaving, wouldn’t it?

A strange thing happened to her mind then. The thought of falling induced a kind of vertigo in Lyra, and she swayed. Will was ahead of her, just too far to reach, or she might have taken his hand; but at that moment she was more conscious of Roger, and a little flicker of vanity blazed up for a moment in her heart. There’d been an occasion once on Jordan College roof when just to frighten him, she’d defied her vertigo and walked along the edge of the stone gutter.

She looked back to remind him of it now. She was Roger’s Lyra, full of grace and daring; she didn’t need to creep along like an insect.

But the little boy’s whispering voice said, “Lyra, be careful—remember, you en’t dead like us—”

And it seemed to happen so slowly, but there was nothing she could do: her weight shifted, the stones moved under her feet, and helplessly she began to slide. In the first moment it was annoying, and then it was comic: How silly! she thought. But as she utterly failed to hold on to anything, as the stones rolled and tumbled beneath her, as she slid down toward the edge, gathering speed, the horror of it slammed into her. She was going to fall. There was nothing to stop her. It was already too late.

Her body convulsed with terror. She wasn’t aware of the ghosts who flung themselves down to try and catch her, only to find her hurtling through them like a stone through mist; she didn’t know that Will was yelling her name so loudly that the abyss resounded with it. Instead, her whole being was a vortex of roaring fear. Faster and faster she tumbled, down and down, and some ghosts couldn’t bear to watch; they hid their eyes and cried aloud.

Will felt electric with fear. He watched in anguish as Lyra slid farther and farther, knowing he could do nothing, and knowing he had to watch. He couldn’t hear the desperate wail he was uttering any more than she could. Another two seconds—another second—she was at the edge, she couldn’t stop, she was there, she was falling—

And out of the dark swooped that creature whose claws had raked her scalp not long before, No-Name the harpy, woman-faced, bird-winged, and those same claws closed tight around the girl’s wrist. Together they plunged on down, the extra weight almost too much for the harpy’s strong wings, but they beat and beat and beat, and her claws held firm, and slowly, heavily, slowly, heavily, the harpy carried the child up and up out of the gulf and brought her limp and fainting to Will’s reaching arms.

He held her tight, pressing her to his chest, feeling the wild beat of her heart against his ribs. She wasn’t Lyra just then, and he wasn’t Will; she wasn’t a girl, and he wasn’t a boy. They were the only two human beings in that vast gulf of death. They clung together, and the ghosts clustered around, whispering comfort, blessing the harpy. Closest at hand were Will’s father and Lee Scoresby, and how they longed to hold her, too; and Tialys and Salmakia spoke to No-Name, praising her, calling her the savior of them all, generous one, blessing her kindness.

As soon as Lyra could move, she reached out trembling for the harpy and put her arms around her neck, kissing and kissing her ravaged face. She couldn’t speak. All the words, all the confidence, all the vanity had been shaken out of her.

They lay still for some minutes. Once the terror had begun to subside, they set off again, Will holding Lyra’s hand tightly in his good one. They crept forward, testing each spot before they put any weight on it, a process so slow and wearisome that they thought they might die of fatigue; but they couldn’t rest, they couldn’t stop. How could anyone rest, with that fearful gulf below them?

And after another hour of toil, he said to her:

“Look ahead. I think there’s a way out …”

It was true: the slope was getting easier, and it was even possible to climb slightly, up and away from the edge. And ahead: wasn’t that a fold in the wall of the cliff? Could that really be a way out?

Lyra looked into Will’s brilliant, strong eyes and smiled.

They clambered on, up and farther up, with every step moving farther from the abyss. And as they climbed, they found the ground firmer, the handholds more secure, the footholds less liable to roll and twist their ankles.

“We must have climbed a fair way now,” Will said. “I could try the knife and see what I find.”

“Not yet,” said the harpy. “Farther to go yet. This is a bad place to open. Better place higher up.”

They carried on quietly, hand, foot, weight, move, test, hand, foot … Their fingers were raw, their knees and hips were trembling with the effort, their heads ached and rang with exhaustion. They climbed the last few feet up to the foot of the cliff, where a narrow defile led a little way into the shadow.

Lyra watched with aching eyes as Will took the knife and began to search the air, touching, withdrawing, searching, touching again.

“Ah,” he said.

“You found an open space?”

“I think so …”

“Will,” said his father’s ghost, “stop a moment. Listen to me.”

Will put down the knife and turned. In all the effort he hadn’t been able to think of his father, but it was good to know he was there. Suddenly he realized that they were going to part for the last time.

“What will happen when you go outside?” Will said. “Will you just vanish?”

“Not yet. Mr. Scoresby and I have an idea. Some of us will remain here for a little while, and we shall need you to let us into Lord Asriel’s world, because he might need our help. What’s more,” he went on somberly, looking at Lyra, “you’ll need to travel there yourselves, if you want to find your dæmons again. Because that’s where they’ve gone.”

“But Mr. Parry,” said Lyra, “how do you know our dæmons have gone into my father’s world?”

“I was a shaman when I was alive. I learned how to see things. Ask your alethiometer—it’ll confirm what I say. But remember this about dæmons,” he said, and his voice was intense and emphatic. “The man you knew as Sir Charles Latrom had to return to his own world periodically; he could not live permanently in mine. The philosophers of the Guild of the Torre degli Angeli, who traveled between worlds for three hundred years or more, found the same thing to be true, and gradually their world weakened and decayed as a result.

“And then there is what happened to me. I was a soldier; I was an officer in the Marines, and then I earned my living as an explorer; I was as fit and healthy as it’s possible for a human to be. Then I walked out of my own world by accident, and couldn’t find the way back. I did many things and learned a great deal in the world I found myself in, but ten years after I arrived there, I was mortally sick.

“And this is the reason for all those things: your dæmon can only live its full life in the world it was born in. Elsewhere it will eventually sicken and die. We can travel, if there are openings into other worlds, but we can only live in our own. Lord Asriel’s great enterprise will fail in the end for the same reason: we have to build the Republic of Heaven where we are, because for us there is no elsewhere.

“Will, my boy, you and Lyra can go out now for a brief rest; you need that, and you deserve it; but then you must come back into the dark with me and Mr. Scoresby for one last journey.”

Will and Lyra exchanged a look. Then he cut a window, and it was the sweetest thing they had ever seen.

The night air filled their lungs, fresh and clean and cool; their eyes took in a canopy of dazzling stars, and the shine of water somewhere below, and here and there groves of great trees, as high as castles, dotting the wide savanna.

Will enlarged the window as wide as he could, moving across the grass to left and right, making it big enough for six, seven, eight to walk through abreast, out of the land of the dead.

The first ghosts trembled with hope, and their excitement passed back like a ripple over the long line behind them, young children and aged parents alike looking up and ahead with delight and wonder as the first stars they had seen for centuries shone through into their poor starved eyes.

The first ghost to leave the world of the dead was Roger. He took a step forward, and turned to look back at Lyra, and laughed in surprise as he found himself turning into the night, the starlight, the air … and then he was gone, leaving behind such a vivid little burst of happiness that Will was reminded of the bubbles in a glass of champagne.

The other ghosts followed Roger, and Will and Lyra fell exhausted on the dew-laden grass, every nerve in their bodies blessing the sweetness of the good soil, the night air, the stars.

27

My Soul into the boughs does glide: / There like a Bird it sits, and sings, Th en whets, and combs its silver wings …

• ANDREW MARVELL •

THE PLATFORM

Once the mulefa began to build the platform for Mary, they worked quickly and well. She enjoyed watching them, because they could discuss without quarreling and cooperate without getting in each other’s way, and because their techniques of splitting and cutting and joining wood were so elegant and effective.

Within two days the observation platform was designed and built and lifted into place. It was firm and spacious and comfortable, and when she had climbed up to it, she was as happy, in one way, as she had ever been. That one way was physically. In the dense green of the canopy, with the rich blue of the sky between the leaves; with a breeze keeping her skin cool, and the faint scent of the flowers delighting her whenever she sensed it; with the rustle of the leaves, the song of the hundreds of birds, and the distant murmur of the waves on the seashore, all her senses were lulled and nurtured, and if she could have stopped thinking, she would have been entirely lapped in bliss.

But of course thinking was what she was there for.

And when she looked through her spyglass and saw the relentless outward drift of the sraf, the shadow particles, it seemed to her as if happiness and life and hope were drifting away with them. She could find no explanation at all.

Three hundred years, the mulefa had said: that was how long the trees had been failing. Given that the shadow particles passed through all the worlds alike, presumably the same thing was happening in her universe, too, and in every other one. Three hundred years ago, the Royal Society was set up: the first true scientific society in her world. Newton was making his discoveries about optics and gravitation.

Three hundred years ago in Lyra’s world, someone invented the alethiometer.

At the same time in that strange world through which she’d come to get here, the subtle knife was invented.

She lay back on the planks, feeling the platform move in a very slight, very slow rhythm as the great tree swayed in the sea breeze. Holding the spyglass to her eye, she watched the myriad tiny sparkles drift through the leaves, past the open mouths of the blossoms, through the massive boughs, moving against the wind, in a slow, deliberate current that looked all but conscious.

What had happened three hundred years ago? Was it the cause of the Dust current, or was it the other way around? Or were they both the results of a different cause altogether? Or were they simply not connected at all?

The drift was mesmerizing. How easy it would be to fall into a trance, and let her mind drift away with the floating particles …

Before she knew what she was doing, and because her body was lulled, that was exactly what happened. She suddenly snapped awake to find herself outside her body, and she panicked.

She was a little way above the platform, and a few feet off among the branches. And something had happened to the Dust wind: instead of that slow drift, it was racing like a river in flood. Had it sped up, or was time moving differently for her, now that she was outside her body? Either way she was conscious of the most horrible danger, because the flood was threatening to sweep her loose completely, and it was immense. She flung out her arms to seize hold of anything solid—but she had no arms. Nothing connected. Now she was almost over that abominable drop, and her body was farther and farther from reach, sleeping so hoggishly below her. She tried to shout and wake herself up: not a sound. The body slumbered on, and the self that observed was being borne away out of the canopy of leaves altogether and into the open sky.

And no matter how she struggled, she could make no headway. The force that carried her out was as smooth and powerful as water pouring over a weir; the particles of Dust were streaming along as if they, too, were pouring over some invisible edge.

And carrying her away from her body.

She flung a mental lifeline to that physical self, and tried to recall the feeling of being in it: all the sensations that made up being alive. The exact touch of her friend Atal’s soft-tipped trunk caressing her neck. The taste of bacon and eggs. The triumphant strain in her muscles as she pulled herself up a rock face. The delicate dancing of her fingers on a computer keyboard. The smell of roasting coffee. The warmth of her bed on a winter night.

And gradually she stopped moving; the lifeline held fast, and she felt the weight and strength of the current pushing against her as she hung there in the sky.

And then a strange thing happened. Little by little (as she reinforced those sense-memories, adding others, tasting an iced margarita in California, sitting under the lemon trees outside a restaurant in Lisbon, scraping the frost off the windshield of her car), she felt the Dust wind easing. The pressure was lessening.

But only on her: all around, above and below, the great flood was streaming as fast as ever. Somehow there was a little patch of stillness around her, where the particles were resisting the flow.

They were conscious! They felt her anxiety and responded to it. And they began to carry her back to her deserted body, and when she was close enough to see it once more, so heavy, so warm, so safe, a silent sob convulsed her heart.

And then she sank back into her body and awoke.

She took in a shuddering deep breath. She pressed her hands and her legs against the rough planks of the platform, and having a minute ago nearly gone mad with fear, she was now suffused with a deep, slow ecstasy at being one with her body and the earth and everything that was matter.

Finally she sat up and tried to take stock. Her fingers found the spyglass, and she held it to her eye, supporting one trembling hand with the other. There was no doubt about it: that slow sky-wide drift had become a flood. There was nothing to hear and nothing to feel, and without the spyglass, nothing to see, but even when she took the glass from her eye, the sense of that swift, silent inundation remained vividly, together with something she hadn’t noticed in the terror of being outside her body: the profound, helpless regret that was abroad in the air.

The shadow particles knew what was happening and were sorrowful.

And she herself was partly shadow matter. Part of her was subject to this tide that was moving through the cosmos. And so were the mulefa, and so were human beings in every world, and every kind of conscious creature, wherever they were.

And unless she found out what was happening, they might all find themselves drifting away to oblivion, everyone.

Suddenly she longed for the earth again. She put the spyglass in her pocket and began the long climb down to the ground.

Father Gomez stepped through the window as the evening light lengthened and mellowed. He saw the great stands of wheel trees and the roads lacing through the prairie, just as Mary had done from the same spot sometime before. But the air was free of haze, for it had rained a little earlier, and he could see farther than she had; in particular, he could see the glimmer of a distant sea and some flickering white shapes that might be sails.

He lifted the rucksack higher on his shoulders and turned toward them to see what he could find. In the calm of the long evening, it was pleasant to walk on this smooth road, with the sound of some cicada-like creatures in the long grass and the setting sun warm in his face. The air was fresh, too, clear and sweet and entirely free of the taint of naphtha fumes, kerosene fumes, whatever they were, which had lain so heavily on the air in one of the worlds he’d passed through: the world his target, the tempter herself, belonged to.

He came out at sunset on a little headland beside a shallow bay. If they had tides in this sea, the tide was high, because there was only a narrow fringe of soft white sand above the water.

And floating in the calm bay were a dozen or more … Father Gomez had to stop and think carefully. A dozen or more enormous snow-white birds, each the size of a rowboat, with long, straight wings that trailed on the water behind them: very long wings, at least two yards in length. Were they birds? They had feathers, and heads and beaks not unlike swans’, but those wings were situated one in front of the other, surely …

Suddenly they saw him. Heads turned with a snap, and at once all those wings were raised high, exactly like the sails of a yacht, and they all leaned in with the breeze, making for the shore.

Father Gomez was impressed by the beauty of those wing-sails, by how they were flexed and trimmed so perfectly, and by the speed of the birds. Then he saw that they were paddling, too: they had legs under the water, placed not fore and aft like the wings but side by side, and with the wings and the legs together, they had an extraordinary speed and grace in the water.

As the first one reached the shore, it lumbered up through the dry sand, making directly for the priest. It was hissing with malice, stabbing its head forward as it waddled heavily up the shore, and the beak snapped and clacked. There were teeth in the beak, too, like a series of sharp incurved hooks.

Father Gomez was about a hundred yards from the edge of the water, on a low grassy promontory, and he had plenty of time to put down his rucksack, take out the rifle, load, aim, and fire.

The bird’s head exploded in a mist of red and white, and the creature blundered on clumsily for several steps before sinking onto its breast. It didn’t die for a minute or more; the legs kicked, the wings rose and fell, and the great bird beat itself around and around in a bloody circle, kicking up the rough grass, until a long, bubbling expiration from its lungs ended with a coughing spray of red, and it fell still.

The other birds had stopped as soon as the first one fell, and stood watching it, and watching the man, too. There was a quick, ferocious intelligence in their eyes. They looked from him to the dead bird, from that to the rifle, from the rifle to his face.

He raised the rifle to his shoulder again and saw them react, shifting backward clumsily, crowding together. They understood.

They were fine, strong creatures, large and broad-backed—like living boats, in fact. If they knew what death was, thought Father Gomez, and if they could see the connection between death and himself, then there was the basis of a fruitful understanding between them. Once they had truly learned to fear him, they would do exactly as he said.

28 For many a time I have been half in love with easeful Death …

• JOHN KEATS •

MIDNIGHT

Lord Asriel said, “Marisa, wake up. We’re about to land.”

A blustery dawn was breaking over the basalt fortress as the intention craft flew in from the south. Mrs. Coulter, sore and heartsick, opened her eyes; she had not been asleep. She could see the angel Xaphania gliding above the landing ground, and then rising and wheeling up to the tower as the craft made for the ramparts.

As soon as the craft had landed, Lord Asriel leapt out and ran to join King Ogunwe on the western watchtower, ignoring Mrs. Coulter entirely. The technicians who came at once to attend to the flying machine took no notice of her, either; no one questioned her about the loss of the aircraft she’d stolen; it was as if she’d become invisible. She made her way sadly up to the room in the adamant tower, where the orderly offered to bring her some food and coffee.

“Whatever you have,” she said. “And thank you. Oh, by the way,” she went on as the man turned to go: “Lord Asriel’s alethiometrist, Mr.…”

“Mr. Basilides?”

“Yes. Is he free to come here for a moment?”

“He’s working with his books at the moment, ma’am. I’ll ask him to step up here when he can.”

She washed and changed into the one clean shirt she had left. The cold wind that shook the windows and the gray morning light made her shiver. She put some more coals on the iron stove, hoping it would stop her trembling, but the cold was in her bones, not just her flesh.

Ten minutes later there was a knock on the door. The pale, dark-eyed alethiometrist, with his nightingale dæmon on his shoulder, came in and bowed slightly. A moment later the orderly arrived with a tray of bread, cheese, and coffee, and Mrs. Coulter said:

“Thank you for coming, Mr. Basilides. May I offer you some refreshment?”

“I will take some coffee, thank you.”

“Please tell me,” she said as soon as she’d poured the drink, “because I’m sure you’ve been following what’s happened: is my daughter alive?”

He hesitated. The golden monkey clutched her arm.

“She is alive,” said Basilides carefully, “but also …”

“Yes? Oh, please, what do you mean?”

“She is in the world of the dead. For some time I could not interpret what the instrument was telling me: it seemed impossible. But there is no doubt. She and the boy have gone into the world of the dead, and they have opened a way for the ghosts to come out. As soon as the dead reach the open, they dissolve as their dæmons did, and it seems that this is the most sweet and desirable end for them. And the alethiometer tells me that the girl did this because she overheard a prophecy that there would come an end to death, and she thought that this was a task for her to accomplish. As a result, there is now a way out of the world of the dead.”

Mrs. Coulter couldn’t speak. She had to turn away and go to the window to conceal the emotion on her face. Finally she said:

“And will she come out alive?—But no, I know you can’t predict. Is she—how is she—has she …”

“She is suffering, she is in pain, she is afraid. But she has the companionship of the boy, and of the two Gallivespian spies, and they are still all together.”

“And the bomb?”

“The bomb did not hurt her.”

Mrs. Coulter felt suddenly exhausted. She wanted nothing more than to lie down and sleep for months, for years. Outside, the flag rope snapped and clattered in the wind, and the rooks cawed as they wheeled around the ramparts.

“Thank you, sir,” she said, turning back to the reader. “I’m very grateful. Please would you let me know if you discover anything more about her, or where she is, or what she’s doing?”

The man bowed and left. Mrs. Coulter went to lie down on the camp bed, but try as she would, she couldn’t keep her eyes closed.

“What do you make of that, King?” said Lord Asriel.

He was looking through the watchtower telescope at something in the western sky. It had the appearance of a mountain hanging in the sky a hand’s breadth above the horizon, and covered in cloud. It was a very long way off—so far, in fact, that it was no bigger than a thumbnail held out at arm’s length. But it had not been there for long, and it hung there absolutely still.

The telescope brought it closer, but there was no more detail: cloud still looks like cloud however much it’s magnified.

“The Clouded Mountain,” said Ogunwe. “Or—what do they call it? The Chariot?”

“With the Regent at the reins. He’s concealed himself well, this Metatron. They speak of him in the apocryphal scriptures: he was a man once, a man called Enoch, the son of Jared—six generations away from Adam. And now he rules the Kingdom. And he’s intending to do more than that, if that angel they found by the sulphur lake was correct—the one who entered the Clouded Mountain to spy. If he wins this battle, he intends to intervene directly in human life. Imagine that, Ogunwe—a permanent Inquisition, worse than anything the Consistorial Court of Discipline could dream up, staffed by spies and traitors in every world and directed personally by the intelligence that’s keeping that mountain aloft … The old Authority at least had the grace to withdraw; the dirty work of burning heretics and hanging witches was left to his priests. This new one will be far, far worse.”

“Well, he’s begun by invading the Republic,” said Ogunwe. “Look—is that smoke?”

A drift of gray was leaving the Clouded Mountain, a slowly spreading smudge against the blue sky. But it couldn’t have been smoke: it was drifting against the wind that tore at the clouds.

The king put his field glasses to his eyes and saw what it was.

“Angels,” he said.

Lord Asriel came away from the telescope and stood up, hand shading his eyes. In hundreds, and then thousands, and tens of thousands, until half that part of the sky was darkened, the minute figures flew and flew and kept on coming. Lord Asriel had seen the billion-strong flocks of blue starlings that wheeled at sunset around the palace of the Emperor K’ang-Po, but he had never seen so vast a multitude in all his life. The flying beings gathered themselves and then streamed away slowly, slowly, to the north and the south.

“Ah! And what’s that?” said Lord Asriel, pointing. “That’s not the wind.”

The cloud was swirling on the southern flank of the mountain, and long tattered banners of vapor streamed out in the powerful winds. But Lord Asriel was right: the movement was coming from within, not from the air outside. The cloud roiled and tumbled, and then it parted for a second.

There was more than a mountain there, but they only saw it for a moment; and then the cloud swirled back, as if drawn across by an unseen hand, to conceal it again.

King Ogunwe put down his field glasses.

“That’s not a mountain,” he said. “I saw gun emplacements …”

“So did I. A whole complexity of things. Can he see out through the cloud, I wonder? In some worlds, they have machines to do that. But as for his army, if those angels are all they’ve got—”

The king gave a brief exclamation, half of astonishment, half of despair. Lord Asriel turned and gripped his arm with fingers that all but bruised him to the bone.

“They haven’t got this!” he said, and shook Ogunwe’s arm violently. “They haven’t got flesh!”

He laid his hand against his friend’s rough cheek.

“Few as we are,” he went on, “and short-lived as we are, and weak-sighted as we are—in comparison with them, we’re still stronger. They envy us, Ogunwe! That’s what fuels their hatred, I’m sure of it. They long to have our precious bodies, so solid and powerful, so well-adapted to the good earth! And if we drive at them with force and determination, we can sweep aside those infinite numbers as you can sweep your hand through mist. They have no more power than that!”

“Asriel, they have allies from a thousand worlds, living beings like us.”

“We shall win.”

“And suppose he’s sent those angels to look for your daughter?”

“My daughter!” cried Lord Asriel, exulting. “Isn’t it something to bring a child like that into the world? You’d think it was enough to go alone to the king of the armored bears and trick his kingdom out of his paws—but to go down into the world of the dead and calmly let them all out! And that boy; I want to meet that boy; I want to shake his hand. Did we know what we were taking on when we started this rebellion? No. But did they know—the Authority and his Regent, this Metatron—did they know what they were taking on when my daughter got involved?”

“Lord Asriel,” said the king, “do you understand her importance for the future?”

“Frankly, no. That’s why I want to see Basilides. Where did he go?”

“To the Lady Coulter. But the man is worn out; he can do no more until he’s rested.”

“He should have rested before. Send for him, would you? Oh, one more thing: please ask Madame Oxentiel to come to the tower as soon as it’s convenient. I must give her my condolences.”

Madame Oxentiel had been the Gallivespians’ second-in-command. Now she would have to take over Lord Roke’s responsibilities. King Ogunwe bowed and left his commander scanning the gray horizon.

All through that day the army assembled. Angels of Lord Asriel’s force flew high over the Clouded Mountain, looking for an opening, but without success. Nothing changed; no more angels flew out or inward; the high winds tore at the clouds, and the clouds endlessly renewed themselves, not parting even for a second. The sun crossed the cold blue sky and then moved down to the southwest, gilding the clouds and tinting the vapor around the mountain every shade of cream and scarlet, of apricot and orange. When the sun sank, the clouds glowed faintly from within.

Warriors were now in place from every world where Lord Asriel’s rebellion had supporters; mechanics and artificers were fueling aircraft, loading weapons, and calibrating sights and measures. As the darkness came, some welcome reinforcements arrived. Padding silently over the cold ground from the north, separately, singly, came a number of armored bears—a large number, and among them was their king. Not long afterward, there arrived the first of several witch clans, the sound of the air through their pine branches whispering in the dark sky for a long time.

Along the plain to the south of the fortress glimmered thousands of lights, marking the camps of those who had arrived from far off. Farther away, in all four corners of the compass, flights of spy-angels cruised tirelessly, keeping watch.

At midnight in the adamant tower, Lord Asriel sat in discussion with King Ogunwe, the angel Xaphania, Madame Oxentiel the Gallivespian, and Teukros Basilides. The alethiometrist had just finished speaking, and Lord Asriel stood up, crossed to the window, and looked out at the distant glow of the Clouded Mountain hanging in the western sky. The others were silent; they had just heard something that had made Lord Asriel turn pale and tremble, and none of them quite knew how to respond.

Finally Lord Asriel spoke.

“Mr. Basilides,” he said, “you must be very fatigued. I am grateful for all your efforts. Please take some wine with us.”

“Thank you, my lord,” said the reader.

His hands were shaking. King Ogunwe poured the golden Tokay and handed him the glass.

“What will this mean, Lord Asriel?” said the clear voice of Madame Oxentiel.

Lord Asriel came back to the table.

“Well,” he said, “it will mean that when we join battle, we shall have a new objective. My daughter and this boy have become separated from their dæmons, somehow, and managed to survive; and their dæmons are somewhere in this world—correct me if I’m summarizing wrongly, Mr. Basilides—their dæmons are in this world, and Metatron is intent on capturing them. If he captures their dæmons, the children will have to follow; and if he can control those two children, the future is his, forever. Our task is clear: we have to find the dæmons before he does, and keep them safe till the girl and the boy rejoin them.”

The Gallivespian leader said, “What form do they have, these two lost dæmons?”

“They are not yet fixed, madame,” said Teukros Basilides. “They might be any shape.”

“So,” said Lord Asriel, “to sum it up: all of us, our Republic, the future of every conscious being—we all depend on my daughter’s remaining alive, and on keeping her dæmon and the boy’s out of the hands of Metatron?”

“That is so.”

Lord Asriel sighed, almost with satisfaction; it was as if he’d come to the end of a long and complex calculation, and reached an answer that made quite unexpected sense.

“Very well,” he said, spreading his hands wide on the table. “Then this is what we shall do when the battle begins. King Ogunwe, you will assume command of all the armies defending the fortress. Madame Oxentiel, you are to send your people out at once to search in every direction for the girl and the boy, and the two dæmons. When you find them, guard them with your lives until they come together again. At that point, I understand, the boy will be able to help them escape to another world, and safety.”

The lady nodded. Her stiff gray hair caught the lamplight, glinting like stainless steel, and the blue hawk she had inherited from Lord Roke spread his wings briefly on the bracket by the door.

“Now, Xaphania,” said Lord Asriel. “What do you know of this Metatron? He was once a man: does he still have the physical strength of a human being?”

“He came to prominence long after I was exiled,” the angel said. “I have never seen him up close. But he would not have been able to dominate the Kingdom unless he was very strong indeed, strong in every way. Most angels would avoid fighting hand-to-hand. Metatron would relish the combat, and win.”

Ogunwe could tell that Lord Asriel had been struck by an idea. His attention suddenly withdrew, his eyes lost focus for an instant, and then snapped back to the moment with an extra charge of intensity.

“I see,” he said. “Finally, Xaphania, Mr. Basilides tells us that their bomb not only opened an abyss below the worlds, but also fractured the structure of things so profoundly that there are fissures and cracks everywhere. Somewhere nearby there must be a way down to the edge of that abyss. I want you to look for it.”

“What are you going to do?” said King Ogunwe harshly.

“I’m going to destroy Metatron. But my part is nearly over. It’s my daughter who has to live, and it’s our task to keep all the forces of the Kingdom away from her so that she has a chance to find her way to a safer world—she and that boy, and their dæmons.”

“And what about Mrs. Coulter?” said the king.

Lord Asriel passed a hand over his forehead.

“I would not have her troubled,” he said. “Leave her alone and protect her if you can. Although … Well, maybe I’m doing her an injustice. Whatever else she’s done, she’s never failed to surprise me. But we all know what we must do, and why we must do it: we have to protect Lyra until she has found her dæmon and escaped. Our Republic might have come into being for the sole purpose of helping her do that. Let us do it as well as we can.”

Mrs. Coulter lay in Lord Asriel’s bed next door. Hearing voices in the other room, she stirred, for she wasn’t deeply asleep. She came out of her troubled slumber uneasy and heavy with longing.

Her dæmon sat up beside her, but she didn’t want to move closer to the door; it was simply the sound of Lord Asriel’s voice she wanted to hear rather than any particular words. She thought they were both doomed. She thought they were all doomed.

Finally she heard the door closing in the other room and roused herself to stand up.

“Asriel,” she said, going through into the warm naphtha light.

His dæmon growled softly; the golden monkey dropped his head low to propitiate her. Lord Asriel was rolling up a large map and did not turn.

“Asriel, what will happen to us all?” she said, taking a chair.

He pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes. His face was ravaged with fatigue. He sat down and rested an elbow on the table. Their dæmons were very still—the monkey crouching on the chair back, the snow leopard sitting upright and alert at Lord Asriel’s side, watching Mrs. Coulter unblinkingly.

“You didn’t hear?” he said.

“I heard a little. I couldn’t sleep, but I wasn’t listening. Where is Lyra now, does anyone know?”

“No.”

He still hadn’t answered her first question, and he wasn’t going to, and she knew it.

“We should have married,” she said, “and brought her up ourselves.”

It was such an unexpected remark that he blinked. His dæmon uttered the softest possible growl at the back of her throat, and settled down with her paws outstretched in the manner of the Sphinx. He said nothing.

“I can’t bear the thought of oblivion, Asriel,” she continued. “Sooner anything than that. I used to think pain would be worse—to be tortured forever—I thought that must be worse … But as long as you were conscious, it would be better, wouldn’t it? Better than feeling nothing, just going into the dark, everything going out forever and ever?”

His part was simply to listen. His eyes were locked on hers, and he was paying profound attention; there was no need to respond. She said:

“The other day, when you spoke about her so bitterly, and about me … I thought you hated her. I could understand your hating me. I’ve never hated you, but I could understand … I could see why you might hate me. But I couldn’t see why you hated Lyra.”

He turned his head away slowly, and then looked back.

“I remember you said something strange, on Svalbard, on the mountaintop, just before you left our world,” she went on. “You said: Come with me, and we’ll destroy Dust forever. You remember saying that? But you didn’t mean it. You meant the very opposite, didn’t you? I see now. Why didn’t you tell me what you were really doing? Why didn’t you tell me you were really trying to preserve Dust? You could have told me the truth.”

“I wanted you to come and join me,” he said, his voice hoarse and quiet, “and I thought you would prefer a lie.”

“Yes,” she whispered, “that’s what I thought.”

She couldn’t sit still, but she didn’t really have the strength to stand up. For a moment she felt faint, her head swam, sounds receded, the room darkened, but almost at once her senses came back even more pitilessly than before, and nothing in the situation had changed.

“Asriel …” she murmured.

The golden monkey put a tentative hand out to touch the paw of the snow leopard. The man watched without a word, and Stelmaria didn’t move; her eyes were fixed on Mrs. Coulter.

“Oh, Asriel, what will happen to us?” Mrs. Coulter said again. “Is this the end of everything?”

He said nothing.

Moving like someone in a dream, she got to her feet, picked up the rucksack that lay in the corner of the room, and reached inside it for her pistol; and what she would have done next, no one knew, because at that moment there came the sound of footsteps running up the stairs.

Both man and woman, and both dæmons, turned to look at the orderly who came in and said breathlessly:

“Excuse me, my lord—the two dæmons—they’ve been seen, not far from the eastern gate—in the form of cats—the sentry tried to talk to them, bring them inside, but they wouldn’t come near. It was only a minute or so ago …”

Lord Asriel sat up, transfigured. All the fatigue had been wiped off his face in a moment. He sprang to his feet and seized his greatcoat.

Ignoring Mrs. Coulter, he flung the coat around his shoulders and said to the orderly:

“Tell Madame Oxentiel at once. Put this order out: the dæmons are not to be threatened, or frightened, or coerced in any way. Anyone seeing them should first …”

Mrs. Coulter heard no more of what he was saying, because he was already halfway down the stairs. When his running footsteps had faded, too, the only sounds were the gentle hiss of the naphtha lamp and the moan of the wild wind outside.

Her eyes found the eyes of her dæmon. The golden monkey’s expression was as subtle and complex as it had ever been in all their thirty-five years of life.

“Very well,” she said. “I can’t see any other way. I think … I think we’ll …”

He knew at once what she meant. He leapt to her breast, and they embraced. Then she found her fur-lined coat, and they very quietly left the chamber and made their way down the dark stairs.

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