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The Amber Spyglass, Page 2

Philip Pullman

Chapter 2 Balthamos And Baruch


  "Be quiet," said Will, "just be quiet. Don't disturb me. "

  It was just after Lyra had been taken, just after Will had come down from the mountaintop, just after the witch had killed his father. Will lit the little tin lantern he'd taken from his father's pack, using the dry matches that he'd found with it, and crouched in the lee of the rock to open Lyra's rucksack.

  He felt inside with his good hand and found the heavy velvet-wrapped alethiometer. It glittered in the lantern light, and he held it out to the two shapes that stood beside him, the shapes who called themselves angels.

  "Can you read this?" he said.

  "No," said a voice. "Come with us. You must come. Come now to Lord Asriel. "

  "Who made you follow my father? You said he didn't know you were following him. But he did," Will said fiercely. "He told me to expect you. He knew more than you thought. Who sent you?"

  "No one sent us. Ourselves only," came the voice. "We want to serve Lord Asriel. And the dead man, what did he want you to do with the knife?"

  Will had to hesitate.

  "He said I should take it to Lord Asriel," he said.

  "Then come with us. "

  "No. Not till I've found Lyra. "

  He folded the velvet over the alethiometer and put it into his rucksack. Securing it, he swung his father's heavy cloak around him against the rain and crouched where he was, looking steadily at the two shadows.

  "Do you tell the truth?" he said.

  "Yes. "

  "Then are you stronger than human beings, or weaker?"

  "Weaker. You have true flesh, we have not. Still, you must come with us. "

  "No. If I'm stronger, you have to obey me. Besides, I have the knife. So I can command you: help me find Lyra. I don't care how long it takes, I'll find her first and then I'll go to Lord Asriel. "

  The two figures were silent for several seconds. Then they drifted away and spoke together, though Will could hear nothing of what they said.

  Finally they came close again, and he heard:

  "Very well. You are making a mistake, though you give us no choice. We shall help you find this child. "

  Will tried to pierce the darkness and see them more clearly, but the rain filled his eyes.

  "Come closer so I can see you," he said.

  They approached, but seemed to become even more obscure.

  "Shall I see you better in daylight?"

  "No, worse. We are not of a high order among angels. "

  "Well, if I can't see you, no one else will, either, so you can stay hidden. Go and see if you can find where Lyra's gone. She surely can't be far away. There was a woman - she'll be with her - the woman took her. Go and search, and come back and tell me what you see. "

  The angels rose up into the stormy air and vanished. Will felt a great sullen heaviness settle over him; he'd had little strength left before the fight with his father, and now he was nearly finished. All he wanted to do was close his eyes, which were so heavy and so sore with weeping.

  He tugged the cloak over his head, clutched the rucksack to his breast, and fell asleep in a moment.

  "Nowhere," said a voice.

  Will heard it in the depths of sleep and struggled to wake. Eventually (and it took most of a minute, because he was so profoundly unconscious) he managed to open his eyes to the bright morning in front of him.

  "Where are you?" he said.

  "Beside you," said the angel. "This way. "

  The sun was newly risen, and the rocks and the lichens and mosses on them shone crisp and brilliant in the morning light, but nowhere could he see a figure.

  "I said we would be harder to see in daylight," the voice went on. "You will see us best at half-light, at dusk or dawn; next best in darkness; least of all in the sunshine. My companion and I searched farther down the mountain, and found neither woman nor child. But there is a lake of blue water where she must have camped. There is a dead man there, and a witch eaten by a Specter. "

  "A dead man? What does he look like?"

  "He was in late middle age. Fleshy and smooth-skinned. Silver-gray hair. Dressed in expensive clothes, and with traces of a heavy scent around him. "

  "Sir Charles," said Will. "That's who it is. Mrs. Coulter must have killed him. Well, that's something good, at least. "

  "She left traces. My companion has followed them, and he will return when he's found out where she went. I shall stay with you. "

  Will got to his feet and looked around. The storm had cleared the air, and the morning was fresh and clean, which only made the scene around him more distressing; for nearby lay the bodies of several of the witches who had escorted him and Lyra toward the meeting with his father. Already a brutal-beaked carrion crow was tearing at the face of one of them, and Will could see a bigger bird circling above, as if choosing the richest feast.

  Will looked at each of the bodies in turn, but none of them was Serafina Pekkala, the queen of the witch clan, Lyra's particular friend. Then he remembered: hadn't she left suddenly on another errand, not long before the evening?

  So she might still be alive. The thought cheered him, and he scanned the horizon for any sign of her, but found nothing but the blue air and the sharp rock in every direction he looked.

  "Where are you?" he said to the angel.

  "Beside you," came the voice, "as always. "

  Will looked to his left, where the voice was, but saw nothing.

  "So no one can see you. Could anyone else hear you as well as me?"

  "Not if I whisper," said the angel tartly.

  "What is your name? Do you have names?"

  "Yes, we do. My name is Balthamos. My companion is Baruch. "

  Will considered what to do. When you choose one way out of many, all the ways you don't take are snuffed out like candles, as if they'd never existed. At the moment all Will's choices existed at once. But to keep them all in existence meant doing nothing. He had to choose, after all.

  "We'll go back down the mountain," he said. "We'll go to that lake. There might be something there I can use. And I'm getting thirsty anyway. I'll take the way I think it is and you can guide me if I go wrong. "

  It was only when he'd been walking for several minutes down the pathless, rocky slope that Will realized his hand wasn't hurting. In fact, he hadn't thought of his wound since he woke up.

  He stopped and looked at the rough cloth that his father had bound around it after their fight. It was greasy with the ointment he'd spread on it, but there was not a sign of blood; and after the incessant bleeding he'd undergone since the fingers had been lost, this was so welcome that he felt his heart leap almost with joy.

  He moved his fingers experimentally. True, the wounds still hurt, but with a different quality of pain: not the deep life-sapping ache of the day before, but a smaller, duller sensation. It felt as if it were healing. His father had done that. The witches' spell had failed, but his father had healed him.

  He moved on down the slope, cheered.

  It took three hours, and several words of guidance, before he came to the little blue lake. By the time he reached it, he was parched with thirst, and in the baking sun the cloak was heavy and hot - though when he took it off, he missed its cover, for his bare arms and neck were soon burning. He dropped cloak and rucksack and ran the last few yards to the water, to fall on his face and swallow mouthful after freezing mouthful. It was so cold that it made his teeth and skull ache.

  Once he'd slaked the thirst, he sat up and looked around. He'd been in no condition to notice things the day before, but now he saw more clearly the intense color of the water, and heard the strident insect noises from all around.


  "Always here. "

  "Where is the dead man?"

  "Beyond the high rock on your right. "

  "Are there any Specters around?"

  "No, none.
I don't have anything the Specters want, and nor have you. "

  Will took up his rucksack and cloak and made his way along the edge of the lake and up onto the rock Balthamos had pointed out.

  Beyond it a little camp had been set up, with five or six tents and the remains of cooking fires. Will moved down warily in case there was someone still alive and hiding.

  But the silence was profound, with the insect scrapings only scratching at the surface of it. The tents were still, the water was placid, with the ripples still drifting slowly out from where he'd been drinking. A flicker of green movement near his foot made him start briefly, but it was only a tiny lizard.

  The tents were made of camouflage material, which only made them stand out more among the dull red rocks. He looked in the first and found it empty. So was the second, but in the third he found something valuable: a mess tin and a box of matches. There was also a strip of some dark substance as long and as thick as his forearm. At first he thought it was leather, but in the sunlight he saw it clearly to be dried meat.

  Well, he had a knife, after all. He cut a thin sliver and found it chewy and very slightly salty, but full of good flavor. He put the meat and the matches together with the mess tin into his rucksack and searched the other tents, but found them empty.

  He left the largest till last.

  "Is that where the dead man is?" he said to the air.

  "Yes," said Balthamos. "He has been poisoned. "

  Will walked carefully around to the entrance, which faced the lake. Sprawled beside an overturned canvas chair was the body of the man known in Will's world as Sir Charles Latrom, and in Lyra's as Lord Boreal, the man who stole her alethiometer, which theft in turn led Will to the subtle knife itself. Sir Charles had been smooth, dishonest, and powerful, and now he was dead. His face was distorted unpleasantly, and Will didn't want to look at it, but a glance inside the tent showed that there were plenty of things to steal, so he stepped over the body to look more closely.

  His father, the soldier, the explorer, would have known exactly what to take. Will had to guess. He took a small magnifying glass in a steel case, because he could use it to light fires and save his matches; a reel of tough twine; an alloy canteen for water, much lighter than the goatskin flask he had been carrying, and a small tin cup; a small pair of binoculars; a roll of gold coins the size of a man's thumb, wrapped in paper; a first-aid kit; water-purifying tablets; a packet of coffee; three packs of compressed dried fruit; a bag of oatmeal biscuits; six bars of Kendal Mint Cake; a packet of fishhooks and nylon line; and finally, a notebook and a couple of pencils, and a small electric torch.

  He packed it all in his rucksack, cut another sliver of meat, filled his belly and then his canteen from the lake, and said to Balthamos:

  "Do you think I need anything else?"

  "You could do with some sense," came the reply. "Some faculty to enable you to recognize wisdom and incline you to respect and obey it. "

  "Are you wise?"

  "Much more so than you. "

  "Well, you see, I can't tell. Are you a man? You sound like a man. "

  "Baruch was a man. I was not. Now he is angelic. "

  "So - " Will stopped what he was doing, which was arranging his rucksack so the heaviest objects were in the bottom, and tried to see the angel. There was nothing there to see. "So he was a man," he went on, "and then. . . Do people become angels when they die? Is that what happens?"

  "Not always. Not in the vast majority of cases. . . Very rarely. "

  "When was he alive, then?"

  "Four thousand years ago, more or less. I am much older. "

  "And did he live in my world? Or Lyra's? Or this one?"

  "In yours. But there are myriads of worlds. You know that. "

  "But how do people become angels?"

  "What is the point of this metaphysical speculation?"

  "I just want to know. "

  "Better to stick to your task. You have plundered this dead man's property, you have all the toys you need to keep you alive; now may we move on?"

  "When I know which way to go. "

  "Whichever way we go, Baruch will find us. "

  "Then he'll still find us if we stay here. I've got a couple more things to do. "

  Will sat down where he couldn't see Sir Charles's body and ate three squares of the Kendal Mint Cake. It was wonderful how refreshed and strengthened he felt as the food began to nourish him. Then he looked at the alethiometer again. The thirty-six little pictures painted on ivory were each perfectly clear: there was no doubt that this was a baby, that a puppet, this a loaf of bread, and so on. It was what they meant that was obscure.

  "How did Lyra read this?" he said to Balthamos.

  "Quite possibly she made it up. Those who use these instruments have studied for many years, and even then they can only understand them with the help of many books of reference. "

  "She wasn't making it up. She read it truly. She told me things she could never have known otherwise. "

  "Then it is as much of a mystery to me, I assure you," said the angel.

  Looking at the alethiometer, Will remembered something Lyra had said about reading it: something about the state of mind she had to be in to make it work. It had helped him, in turn, to feel the subtleties of the silver blade.

  Feeling curious, he took out the knife and cut a small window in front of where he was sitting. Through it he saw nothing but blue air, but below, far below, was a landscape of trees and fields: his own world, without a doubt.

  So mountains in this world didn't correspond to mountains in his. He closed the window, using his left hand for the first time. The joy of being able to use it again!

  Then an idea came to him so suddenly it felt like an electric shock.

  If there were myriads of worlds, why did the knife only open windows between this one and his own?

  Surely it should cut into any of them.

  He held it up again, letting his mind flow along to the very tip of the blade as Giacomo Paradisi had told him, until his consciousness nestled among the atoms themselves and he felt every tiny snag and ripple in the air.

  Instead of cutting as soon as he felt the first little halt, as he usually did, he let the knife move on to another and another. It was like tracing a row of stitches while pressing so softly that none of them was harmed.

  "What are you doing?" said the voice from the air, bringing him back.

  "Exploring," said Will. "Be quiet and keep out of the way. If you come near this you'll get cut, and if I can't see you, I can't avoid you. "

  Balthamos made a sound of muted discontent. Will held out the knife again and felt for those tiny halts and hesitations.

  There were far more of them than he'd thought. And as he felt them without the need to cut through at once, he found that they each had a different quality: this one was hard and definite, that one cloudy; a third was slippery, a fourth brittle and frail. . .

  But among them all there were some he felt more easily than others, and, already knowing the answer, he cut one through to be sure: his own world again.

  He closed it up and felt with the knife tip for a snag with a different quality. He found one that was elastic and resistant, and let the knife feel its way through.

  And yes! The world he saw through that window was not his own: the ground was closer here, and the landscape was not green fields and hedges but a desert of rolling dunes.

  He closed it and opened another: the smoke-laden air over an industrial city, with a line of chained and sullen workers trudging into a factory.

  He closed that one, too, and came back to himself. He felt a little dizzy. For the first time he understood some of the true power of the knife, and laid it very carefully on the rock in front of him.

  "Are you going to stay here all day?" said Balthamos.

  "I'm thinking. You can only move easily from one world to another if the ground's in
the same place. And maybe there are places where it is, and maybe that's where a lot of cutting-through happens. . . And you'd have to know what your own world felt like with the point or you might never get back. You'd be lost forever. "

  "Indeed. But may we - "

  "And you'd have to know which world had the ground in the same place, or there wouldn't be any point in opening it," said Will, as much to himself as to the angel. "So it's not as easy as I thought. We were just lucky in Oxford and Citt¨¤gazze, maybe. But I'll just. . . "

  He picked up the knife again. As well as the clear and obvious feeling he got when he touched a point that would open to his own world, there had been another kind of sensation he'd touched more than once: a quality of resonance, like the feeling of striking a heavy wooden drum, except of course that it came, like every other one, in the tiniest movement through the empty air.

  There it was. He moved away and felt somewhere else: there it was again.

  He cut through and found that his guess was right. The resonance meant that the ground in the world he'd opened was in the same place as this one. He found himself looking at a grassy upland meadow under an overcast sky, in which a herd of placid beasts was grazing - animals such as he'd never seen before - creatures the size of bison, with wide horns and shaggy blue fur and a crest of stiff hair along their backs.

  He stepped through. The nearest animal looked up incuriously and then turned back to the grass. Leaving the window open, Will, in the other-world meadow, felt with the knifepoint for the familiar snags and tried them.

  Yes, he could open his own world from this one, and he was still high above the farms and hedges; and yes, he could easily find the solid resonance that meant the Citt¨¤gazze-world he'd just left.

  With a deep sense of relief, Will went back to the camp by the lake, closing everything behind him. Now he could find his way home; now he would not get lost; now he could hide when he needed to, and move about safely.

  With every increase in his knowledge came a gain in strength. He sheathed the knife at his waist and swung the rucksack over his shoulder.

  "Well, are you ready now?" said that sarcastic voice.

  "Yes. I'll explain if you like, but you don't seem very interested. "

  "Oh, I find whatever you do a source of perpetual fascination. But never mind me. What are you going to say to these people who are coming?"

  Will looked around, startled. Farther down the trail - a long way down - there was a line of travelers with packhorses, making their way steadily up toward the lake. They hadn't seen him yet, but if he stayed where he was, they would soon.

  Will gathered up his father's cloak, which he'd laid over a rock in the sun. It weighed much less now that it was dry. He looked around: there was nothing else he could carry.

  "Let's go farther on," he said.

  He would have liked to retie the bandage, but it could wait. He set off along the edge of the lake, away from the travelers, and the angel followed him, invisible in the bright air.

  Much later that day they came down from the bare mountains onto a spur covered in grass and dwarf rhododendrons. Will was aching for rest, and soon, he decided, he'd stop.

  He'd heard little from the angel. From time to time Balthamos had said, "Not that way," or "There is an easier path to the left," and he'd accepted the advice; but really he was moving for the sake of moving, and to keep away from those travelers, because until the other angel came back with more news, he might as well have stayed where they were.

  Now the sun was setting, he thought he could see his strange companion. The outline of a man seemed to quiver in the light, and the air was thicker inside it.

  "Balthamos?" he said. "I want to find a stream. Is there one nearby?"

  "There is a spring halfway down the slope," said the angel, "just above those trees. "

  "Thank you," said Will.

  He found the spring and drank deeply, filling his canteen. But before he could go on down to the little wood, there came an exclamation from Balthamos, and Will turned to see his outline dart across the slope toward - what? The angel was visible only as a flicker of movement, and Will could see him better when he didn't look at him directly; but he seemed to pause, and listen, and then launch himself into the air to skim back swiftly to Will.

  "Here!" he said, and his voice was free of disapproval and sarcasm for once. "Baruch came this way! And there is one of those windows, almost invisible. Come - come. Come now. "

  Will followed eagerly, his weariness forgotten. The window, he saw when he reached it, opened onto a dim, tundra-like landscape that was flatter than the mountains in the Citt¨¤gazze world, and colder, with an overcast sky. He went through, and Balthamos followed him at once.

  "Which world is this?" Will said.

  "The girl's own world. This is where they came through. Baruch has gone ahead to follow them. "

  "How do you know? Do you read his mind?"

  "Of course I read his mind. Wherever he goes, my heart goes with him; we feel as one, though we are two. "

  Will looked around. There was no sign of human life, and the chill in the air was increasing by the minute as the light failed.

  "I don't want to sleep here," he said. "We'll stay in the C'gazze world for the night and come through in the morning. At least there's wood back there, and I can make a fire. And now I know what her world feels like, I can find it with the knife. . . Oh, Balthamos? Can you take any other shape?"

  "Why would I wish to do that?"

  "In this world human beings have daemons, and if I go about without one, they'll be suspicious. Lyra was frightened of me at first because of that. So if we're going to travel in her world, you'll have to pretend to be my daemon, and take the shape of some animal. A bird, maybe. Then you could fly, at least. "

  "Oh, how tedious. "

  "Can you, though?"

  "I could. . . "

  "Do it now, then. Let me see. "

  The form of the angel seemed to condense and swirl into a little vortex in midair, and then a blackbird swooped down onto the grass at Will's feet.

  "Fly to my shoulder," said Will.

  The bird did so, and then spoke in the angel's familiar acid tone:

  "I shall only do this when it's absolutely necessary. It's unspeakably humiliating. "

  "Too bad," said Will. "Whenever we see people in this world, you become a bird. There's no point in fussing or arguing. Just do it. "

  The blackbird flew off his shoulder and vanished in midair, and there was the angel again, sulking in the half-light. Before they went back through, Will looked all around, sniffing the air, taking the measure of the world where Lyra was captive.

  "Where is your companion now?" he said.

  "Following the woman south. "

  "Then we shall go that way, too, in the morning. "

  Next day Will walked for hours and saw no one. The country consisted for the most part of low hills covered in short dry grass, and whenever he found himself on any sort of high point, he looked all around for signs of human habitation, but found none. The only variation in the dusty brown-green emptiness was a distant smudge of darker green, which he made for because Balthamos said it was a forest and there was a river there, which led south. When the sun was at its height, he tried and failed to sleep among some low bushes; and as the evening approached, he was footsore and weary.

  "Slow progress," said Balthamos sourly.

  "I can't help that," said Will. "If you can't say anything useful, don't speak at all. "

  By the time he reached the edge of the forest, the sun was low and the air heavy with pollen, so much so that he sneezed several times, startling a bird that flew up shrieking from somewhere nearby.

  "That was the first living thing I've seen today," Will said.

  "Where are you going to camp?" said Balthamos.

  The angel was occasionally visible now in the long shadows of the t
rees. What Will could see of his expression was petulant.

  Will said, "I'll have to stop here somewhere. You could help look for a good spot. I can hear a stream - see if you can find it. "

  The angel disappeared. Will trudged on, through the low clumps of heather and bog myrtle, wishing there was such a thing as a path for his feet to follow, and eyeing the light with apprehension: he must choose where to stop soon, or the dark would force him to stop without a choice.

  "Left," said Balthamos, an arm's length away. "A stream and a dead tree for firewood. This way. . . "

  Will followed the angel's voice and soon found the spot he described. A stream splashed swiftly between mossy rocks, and disappeared over a lip into a narrow little chasm dark under the overarching trees. Beside the stream, a grassy bank extended a little way back to bushes and undergrowth.

  Before he let himself rest, he set about collecting wood, and soon came across a circle of charred stones in the grass, where someone else had made a fire long before. He gathered a pile of twigs and heavier branches and with the knife cut them to a useful length before trying to get them lit. He didn't know the best way to go about it, and wasted several matches before he managed to coax the flames into life.

  The angel watched with a kind of weary patience.

  Once the fire was going, Will ate two oatmeal biscuits, some dried meat, and some Kendal Mint Cake, washing it down with gulps of cold water. Balthamos sat nearby, silent, and finally Will said:

  "Are you going to watch me all the time? I'm not going anywhere. "

  "I'm waiting for Baruch. He will come back soon, and then I shall ignore you, if you like. "

  "Would you like some food?"

  Balthamos moved slightly: he was tempted.

  "I mean, I don't know if you eat at all," Will said, "but if you'd like something, you're welcome. "

  "What is that. . . " said the angel fastidiously, indicating the Kendal Mint Cake.

  "Mostly sugar, I think, and peppermint. Here. "

  Will broke off a square and held it out. Balthamos inclined his head and sniffed. Then he picked it up, his fingers light and cool against Will's palm.

  "I think this will nourish me," he said. "One piece is quite enough, thank you. "

  He sat and nibbled quietly. Will found that if he looked at the fire, with the angel just at the edge of his vision, he had a much stronger impression of him.

  "Where is Baruch?" he said. "Can he communicate with you?"

  "I feel that he is close. He'll be here very soon. When he returns, we shall talk. Talking is best. "

  And barely ten minutes later the soft sound of wingbeats came to their ears, and Balthamos stood up eagerly. The next moment, the two angels were embracing, and Will, gazing into the flames, saw their mutual affection. More than affection: they loved each other with a passion.

  Baruch sat down beside his companion, and Will stirred the fire, so that a cloud of smoke drifted past the two of them. It had the effect of outlining their bodies so that he could see them both clearly for the first time. Balthamos was slender; his narrow wings were folded elegantly behind his shoulders, and his face bore an expression that mingled haughty disdain with a tender, ardent sympathy, as if he would love all things if only his nature could let him forget their defects. But he saw no defects in Baruch, that was clear. Baruch seemed younger, as Balthamos had said he was, and was more powerfully built, his wings snow-white and massive. He had a simpler nature; he looked up to Balthamos as to the fount of all knowledge and joy. Will found himself intrigued and moved by their love for each other.

  "Did you find out where Lyra is?" he said, impatient for news.

  "Yes," said Baruch. "There is a Himalayan valley, very high up, near a glacier where the light is turned into rainbows by the ice. I shall draw you a map in the soil so you don't mistake it. The girl is captive in a cave among the trees, kept asleep by the woman. "

  "Asleep? And the woman's alone? No soldiers with her?"

  "Alone, yes. In hiding. "

  "And Lyra's not harmed?"

  "No. Just asleep, and dreaming. Let me show you where they are. "

  With his pale finger, Baruch traced a map in the bare soil beside the fire. Will took his notebook and copied it exactly. It showed a glacier with a curious serpentine shape, flowing down between three almost identical mountain peaks.

  "Now," said the angel, "we go closer. The valley with the cave runs down from the left side of the glacier, and a river of meltwater runs through it. The head of the valley is here. . . "

  He drew another map, and Will copied that; and then a third, getting closer in each time, so that Will felt he could find his way there without difficulty - provided that he'd crossed the four or five thousand miles between the tundra and the mountains. The knife was good for cutting between worlds, but it couldn't abolish distance within them.

  "There is a shrine near the glacier," Baruch ended by saying, "with red silk banners half-torn by the winds. And a young girl brings food to the cave. They think the woman is a saint who will bless them if they look after her needs. "

  "Do they," said Will. "And she's hiding. . . That's what I don't understand. Hiding from the Church?"

  "It seems so. "

  Will folded the maps carefully away. He had set the tin cup on the stones at the edge of the fire to heat some water, and now he trickled some powdered coffee into it, stirring it with a stick, and wrapped his hand in a handkerchief before picking it up to drink.

  A burning stick settled in the fire; a night bird called.

  Suddenly, for no reason Will could see, both angels looked up and in the same direction. He followed their gaze, but saw nothing. He had seen his cat do this once: look up alert from her half-sleep and watch something or someone invisible come into the room and walk across. That had made his hair stand up, and so did this.

  "Put out the fire," Balthamos whispered.

  Will scooped up some earth with his good hand and doused the flames. At once the cold struck into his bones, and he began to shiver. He pulled the cloak around himself and looked up again.

  And now there was something to see: above the clouds a shape was glowing, and it was not the moon.

  He heard Baruch murmur, "The Chariot? Could it be?"

  "What is it?" Will whispered.

  Baruch leaned close and whispered back, "They know we're here. They've found us. Will, take your knife and - "

  Before he could finish, something hurtled out of the sky and crashed into Balthamos. In a fraction of a second Baruch had leapt on it, and Balthamos was twisting to free his wings. The three beings fought this way and that in the dimness, like great wasps caught in a mighty spider's web, making no sound: all Will could hear was the breaking twigs and the brushing leaves as they struggled together.

  He couldn't use the knife: they were all moving too quickly. Instead, he took the electric torch from the rucksack and switched it on.

  None of them expected that. The attacker threw up his wings, Balthamos flung his arm across his eyes, and only Baruch had the presence of mind to hold on. But Will could see what it was, this enemy: another angel, much bigger and stronger than they were, and Baruch's hand was clamped over his mouth.

  "Will!" cried Balthamos. "The knife - cut a way out - "

  And at the same moment the attacker tore himself free of Baruch's hands, and cried:

  "Lord Regent! I have them! Lord Regent!"

  His voice made Will's head ring; he had never heard such a cry. And a moment later the angel would have sprung into the air, but Will dropped his torch and leapt forward. He had killed a cliff-ghast, but using the knife on a being shaped like himself was much harder. Nevertheless, he gathered the great beating wings into his arms and slashed again and again at the feathers until the air was filled with whirling flakes of white, remembering even in the sweep of violent sensations the words of Balthamos: You have true flesh, we have not. Human bei
ngs were stronger than angels, stronger even than great powers like this one, and it was true: he was bearing the angel down to the ground.

  The attacker was still shouting in that ear-splitting voice: "Lord Regent! To me, to me!"

  Will managed to glance upward and saw the clouds stirring and swirling, and that gleam - something immense - growing more powerful, as if the clouds themselves were becoming luminous with energy, like plasma.

  Balthamos cried, "Will - come away and cut through, before he comes - "

  But the angel was struggling hard, and now he had one wing free and he was forcing himself up from the ground, and Will had to hang on or lose him entirely. Baruch sprang to help him, and forced the attacker's head back and back.

  "No!" cried Balthamos again. "No! No!"

  He hurled himself at Will, shaking his arm, his shoulder, his hands, and the attacker was trying to shout again, but Baruch's hand was over his mouth. From above came a deep tremor, like a mighty dynamo, almost too low to hear, though it shook the very atoms of the air and jolted the marrow in Will's bones.

  "He's coming - " Balthamos said, almost sobbing, and now Will did catch some of his fear. "Please, please, Will - "

  Will looked up.

  The clouds were parting, and through the dark gap a figure was speeding down: small at first, but as it came closer second by second, the form became bigger and more imposing. He was making straight for them, with unmistakable malevolence.

  "Will, you must," said Baruch urgently.

  Will stood up, meaning to say "Hold him tight," but even as the words came to his mind, the angel sagged against the ground, dissolving and spreading out like mist, and then he was gone. Will looked around, feeling foolish and sick.

  "Did I kill him?" he said shakily.

  "You had to," said Baruch. "But now - "

  "I hate this," said Will passionately, "truly, truly, I hate this killing! When will it stop?"

  "We must go," said Balthamos faintly. "Quickly Will - quickly - please - "

  They were both mortally afraid.

  Will felt in the air with the tip of the knife: any world, out of this one. He cut swiftly, and looked up: that other angel from the sky was only seconds away, and his expression was terrifying. Even from that distance, and even in that urgent second or so, Will felt himself searched and scoured from one end of his being to the other by some vast, brutal, and merciless intellect.

  And what was more, he had a spear - he was raising it to hurl -

  And in the moment it took the angel to check his flight and turn upright and pull back his arm to fling the weapon, Will followed Baruch and Balthamos through and closed the window behind him. As his fingers pressed the last inch together, he felt a shock of air - but it was gone, he was safe: it was the spear that would have passed through him in that other world.

  They were on a sandy beach under a brilliant moon. Giant fernlike trees grew some way inland; low dunes extended for miles along the shore. It was hot and humid.

  "Who was that?" said Will, trembling, facing the two angels.

  "That was Metatron," said Balthamos. "You should have - "

  "Metatron? Who's he? Why did he attack? And don't lie to me. "

  "We must tell him," said Baruch to his companion. "You should have done so already. "

  "Yes, I should have," Balthamos agreed, "but I was cross with him, and anxious for you. "

  "Tell me now, then," said Will. "And remember, it's no good telling me what I should do - none of it matters to me, none. Only Lyra matters, and my mother. And that," he added to Balthamos, "is the point of all this metaphysical speculation, as you called it. "

  Baruch said, "I think we should tell you our information. Will, this is why we two have been seeking you, and why we must take you to Lord Asriel. We discovered a secret of the Kingdom - of the Authority's world - and we must share it with him. Are we safe here?" he added, looking around. "There is no way through?"

  "This is a different world. A different universe. "

  The sand they stood on was soft, and the slope of the dune nearby was inviting. They could see for miles in the moonlight; they were utterly alone.

  "Tell me, then," said Will. "Tell me about Metatron, and what this secret is. Why did that angel call him Regent? And what is the Authority? Is he God?"

  He sat down, and the two angels, their forms clearer in the moonlight than he had ever seen them before, sat with him.

  Balthamos said quietly, "The Authority, God, the Creator, the Lord, Yahweh, El, Adonai, the King, the Father, the Almighty - those were all names he gave himself. He was never the creator. He was an angel like ourselves - the first angel, true, the most powerful, but he was formed of Dust as we are, and Dust is only a name for what happens when matter begins to understand itself. Matter loves matter. It seeks to know more about itself, and Dust is formed. The first angels condensed out of Dust, and the Authority was the first of all. He told those who came after him that he had created them, but it was a lie. One of those who came later was wiser than he was, and she found out the truth, so he banished her. We serve her still. And the Authority still reigns in the Kingdom, and Metatron is his Regent.

  "But as for what we discovered in the Clouded Mountain, we can't tell you the heart of it. We swore to each other that the first to hear should be Lord Asriel himself. "

  "Then tell me what you can. Don't keep me in the dark. "

  "We found our way into the Clouded Mountain," said Baruch, and at once went on: "I'm sorry; we use these terms too easily. It's sometimes called the Chariot. It's not fixed, you see; it moves from place to place. Wherever it goes, there is the heart of the Kingdom, his citadel, his palace. When the Authority was young, it wasn't surrounded by clouds, but as time passed, he gathered them around him more and more thickly. No one has seen the summit for thousands of years. So his citadel is known now as the Clouded Mountain. "

  "What did you find there?"

  "The Authority himself dwells in a chamber at the heart of the Mountain. We couldn't get close, although we saw him. His power - "

  "He has delegated much of his power," Balthamos interrupted, "to Metatron. You've seen what he's like. We escaped from him before, and now he's seen us again, and what is more, he's seen you, and he's seen the knife. I did say - "

  "Balthamos," said Baruch gently, "don't chide Will. We need his help, and he can't be blamed for not knowing what it took us so long to find out. "

  Balthamos looked away.

  Will said, "So you're not going to tell me this secret of yours? All right. Tell me this, instead: what happens when we die?"

  Balthamos looked back, in surprise.

  Baruch said, "Well, there is a world of the dead. Where it is, and what happens there, no one knows. My ghost, thanks to Balthamos, never went there; I am what was once the ghost of Baruch. The world of the dead is just dark to us. "

  "It is a prison camp," said Balthamos. "The Authority established it in the early ages. Why do you want to know? You will see it in time. "

  "My father has just died, that's why. He would have told me all he knew, if he hadn't been killed. You say it's a world - do you mean a world like this one, another universe?"

  Balthamos looked at Baruch, who shrugged.

  "And what happens in the world of the dead?" Will went on.

  "It's impossible to say," said Baruch. "Everything about it is secret. Even the churches don't know; they tell their believers that they'll live in Heaven, but that's a lie. If people really knew. . . "

  "And my father's ghost has gone there. "

  "Without a doubt, and so have the countless millions who died before him. "

  Will found his imagination trembling.

  "And why didn't you go directly to Lord Asriel with your great secret, whatever it is," he said, "instead of looking for me?"

  "We were not sure," said Balthamos, "that he would believe us unless we brought him proof of ou
r good intentions. Two angels of low rank, among all the powers he is dealing with - why should he take us seriously? But if we could bring him the knife and its bearer, he might listen. The knife is a potent weapon, and Lord Asriel would be glad to have you on his side. "

  "Well, I'm sorry," said Will, "but that sounds feeble to me. If you had any confidence in your secret, you wouldn't need an excuse to see Lord Asriel. "

  "There's another reason," said Baruch, "We knew that Metatron would be pursuing us, and we wanted to make sure the knife didn't fall into his hands. If we could persuade you to come to Lord Asriel first, then at least - "

  "Oh, no, that's not going to happen," said Will. "You're making it harder for me to reach Lyra, not easier. She's the most important thing, and you're forgetting her completely. Well, I'm not. Why don't you just go to Lord Asriel and leave me alone? Make him listen. You could fly to him much more quickly than I can walk, and I'm going to find Lyra first, come what may. Just do that, just go, just leave me. "

  "But you need me," said Balthamos stiffly, "because I can pretend to be your daemon, and in Lyra's world you'd stand out otherwise. "

  Will was too angry to speak. He got up and walked twenty steps away through the soft, deep sand, and then stopped, for the heat and humidity were stunning.

  He turned around to see the two angels talking closely together, and then they came up to him, humble and awkward, but proud, too.

  Baruch said, "We are sorry. I shall go on my own to Lord Asriel and give him our information, and ask him to send you help to find his daughter. It will be two days' flying time, if I navigate truly. "

  "And I shall stay with you, Will," said Balthamos.

  "Well," said Will, "thank you. "

  The two angels embraced. Then Baruch folded his arms around Will and kissed him on both cheeks. The kiss was light and cool, like the hands of Balthamos.

  "If we keep moving toward Lyra," Will said, "will you find us?"

  "I shall never lose Balthamos," said Baruch, and stepped back.

  Then he leapt into the air, soared swiftly into the sky, and vanished among the scattered stars. Balthamos was looking after him with desperate longing.

  "Shall we sleep here, or should we move on?" he said finally, turning to Will.

  "Sleep here," said Will.

  "Then sleep, and I'll watch out for danger. Will, I have been short with you, and it was wrong of me. You have the greatest burden, and I should help you, not chide you. I shall try to be kinder from now on. "

  So Will lay down on the warm sand, and somewhere nearby, he thought, the angel was keeping watch; but that was little comfort.