“Because we are willing to,” came the reply.
“Then wherever he is, you can guide me to him as well,” she ordered them.
Ruta Skadi was four hundred and sixteen years old, with all the pride and knowledge of an adult witch queen. She was wiser by far than any short-lived human, but she had not the slightest idea of how like a child she seemed beside these ancient beings. Nor did she know how far their awareness spread out beyond her like filamentary tentacles to the remotest corners of universes she had never dreamed of; nor that she saw them as human-formed only because her eyes expected to. If she were to perceive their true form, they would seem more like architecture than organism, like huge structures composed of intelligence and feeling.
But they expected nothing else: she was very young.
At once they beat their wings and surged forward, and she darted with them, surfing on the turbulence their pinions caused in the air and relishing the speed and power it added to her flight.
They flew throughout the night. The stars wheeled around them, and faded and vanished as the dawn seeped up from the east. The world burst into brilliance as the sun’s rim appeared, and then they were flying through blue sky and clear air, fresh and sweet and moist.
In the daylight the angels were less visible, though to any eye their strangeness was clear. The light Ruta Skadi saw them by was still not that of the sun now climbing the sky, but some other light from somewhere else.
Tirelessly they flew on and on, and tirelessly she kept pace. She felt a fierce joy possessing her, that she could command these immortal presences. And she rejoiced in her blood and flesh, in the rough pine bark she felt next to her skin, in the beat of her heart and the life of all her senses, and in the hunger she was feeling now, and in the presence of her sweet-voiced bluethroat dæmon, and in the earth below her and the lives of every creature, plant and animal both; and she delighted in being of the same substance as them, and in knowing that when she died her flesh would nourish other lives as they had nourished her. And she rejoiced, too, that she was going to see Lord Asriel again.
Another night came, and still the angels flew on. And at some point the quality of the air changed, not for the worse or the better, but changed nonetheless, and Ruta Skadi knew that they’d passed out of that world and into another. How it had happened she couldn’t guess.
“Angels!” she called as she sensed the change. “How have we left the world I found you in? Where was the boundary?”
“There are invisible places in the air,” came the answer. “Gateways into other worlds. We can see them, but you cannot.”
Ruta Skadi couldn’t see the invisible gateway, but she didn’t need to: witches could navigate better than birds. As soon as the angel spoke, she fixed her attention on three jagged peaks below her and memorized their configuration exactly. Now she could find it again, if she needed to, despite what the angels might think.
They flew on farther, and presently she heard an angel voice: “Lord Asriel is in this world, and there is the fortress he’s building . . . . ”
They had slowed, and were circling like eagles in the middle airs. Ruta Skadi looked where one angel was pointing. The first faint glimmer of light was tinting the east, though all the stars above shone as brilliantly as ever against the profound velvet black of the high heavens. And on the very rim of the world, where the light was increasing moment by moment, a great mountain range reared its peaks—jagged spears of black rock, mighty broken slabs, and sawtooth ridges piled in confusion like the wreckage of a universal catastrophe. But on the highest point, which as she looked was touched by the first rays of the morning sun and outlined in brilliance, stood a regular structure: a huge fortress whose battlements were formed of single slabs of basalt half a hill in height, and whose extent was to be measured in flying time.
Beneath this colossal fortress, fires glared and furnaces smoked in the darkness of early dawn, and from many miles away Ruta Skadi heard the clang of hammers and the pounding of great mills. And from every direction, she could see more flights of angels winging toward it, and not only angels, but machines too: steel-winged craft gliding like albatrosses, glass cabins under flickering dragonfly wings, droning zeppelins like huge bumblebees—all making for the fortress that Lord Asriel was building on the mountains at the edge of the world.
“And is Lord Asriel there?” she said.
“Yes, he is there,” the angels replied.
“Then let’s fly there to meet him. And you must be my guard of honor.”
Obediently they spread their wings and set their course toward the gold-rimmed fortress, with the eager witch flying before them.
Lyra woke early to find the morning quiet and warm, as if the city never had any other weather than this calm summer. She slipped out of bed and downstairs, and hearing some children’s voices out on the water, went to see what they were doing.
Three boys and a girl were splashing across the sunlit harbor in a couple of pedal boats, racing toward the steps. As they saw Lyra, they slowed for a moment, but then the race took hold of them again. The winners crashed into the steps so hard that one of them fell into the water, and then he tried to climb into the other craft and tipped that over, too, and then they all splashed about together as if the fear of the night before had never happened. They were younger than most of the children by the tower, Lyra thought, and she joined them in the water, with Pantalaimon as a little silver fish glittering beside her. She never found it hard to talk to other children, and soon they were gathered around her, sitting in pools of water on the warm stone, their shirts drying quickly in the sun. Poor Pantalaimon had to creep into her pocket again, frog-shaped in the cool damp cotton.
“What you going to do with that cat?”
“Can you really take the bad luck away?”
“Where you come from?”
“Your friend, he ain’ afraid of Specters?”
“Will en’t afraid of anything,” Lyra said. “Nor’m I. What you scared of cats for?”
“You don’t know about cats?” the oldest boy said incredulously. “Cats, they got the devil in them, all right. You got to kill every cat you see. They bite you and put the devil in you too. And what was you doing with that big pard?”
She realized he meant Pantalaimon in his leopard shape, and shook her head innocently.
“You must have been dreaming,” she said. “There’s all kinds of things look different in the moonlight. But me and Will, we don’t have Specters where we come from, so we don’t know much about ’em.”
“If you can’t see ’em, you’re safe,” said a boy. “You see ’em, you know they can get you. That’s what my pa said, then they got him.”
“And they’re here, all around us now?”
“Yeah,” said the girl. She reached out a hand and grabbed a fistful of air, crowing, “I got one now!”
“They can’t hurt you,” one of the boys said. “So we can’t hurt them, all right.”
“And there’s always been Specters in this world?” said Lyra.
“Yeah,” said one boy, but another said, “No, they came a long time ago. Hundreds of years.”
“They came because of the Guild,” said the third.
“The what?” said Lyra.
“They never!” said the girl. “My granny said they came because people were bad, and God sent them to punish us.”
“Your granny don’ know nothing,” said a boy. “She got a beard, your granny. She’s a goat, all right.”
“What’s the Guild?” Lyra persisted.
“You know the Torre degli Angeli,” said a boy. “The stone tower, right. Well it belongs to the Guild, and there’s a secret place in there. The Guild, they’re men who know all kind of things. Philosophy, alchemy, all kind of things they know. And they were the ones who let the Specters in.”
“That ain’ true,” said another boy. “They came from the stars.”
“It is! This is what happened, all right: this Guild man hundreds of years ago was taking some metal apart. Lead. He was going to make it into gold. And he cut it and cut it smaller and smaller till he came to the smallest piece he could get. There ain’ nothing smaller than that. So small you couldn’ see it, even. But he cut that, too, and inside the smallest little bit there was all the Specters packed in, twisted over and folded up so tight they took up no space at all. But once he cut it, bam! They whooshed out, and they been here ever since. That’s what my papa said.”