The dæmons had seized hold of him, too. Stelmaria had her teeth firmly in his leg, and the golden monkey was tearing at one of the edges of the nearest wing, snapping feathers, ripping at the vanes, and this only roused the angel to greater fury. With a sudden massive effort he flung himself sideways, freeing one wing and crushing Mrs. Coulter against a rock.
Mrs. Coulter was stunned for a second, and her hands came loose. At once the angel reared up again, beating his one free wing to fling off the golden monkey; but Lord Asriel’s arms were firm around him still, and in fact the man had a better grip now there wasn’t so much to enclose. Lord Asriel set himself to crushing the breath out of Metatron, grinding his ribs together, and trying to ignore the savage blows that were landing on his skull and his neck.
But those blows were beginning to tell. And as Lord Asriel tried to keep his footing on the broken rocks, something shattering happened to the back of his head. When he flung himself sideways, Metatron had seized a fist-sized rock, and now he brought it down with brutal force on the point of Lord Asriel’s skull. The man felt the bones of his head move against each other, and he knew that another blow like that would kill him outright. Dizzy with pain—pain that was worse for the pressure of his head against the angel’s side—he still clung fast, the fingers of his right hand crushing the bones of his left, and stumbled for a footing among the fractured rocks.
And as Metatron raised the bloody stone high, a golden-furred shape sprang up like a flame leaping to a treetop, and the monkey sank his teeth into the angel’s hand. The rock came loose and clattered down toward the edge, and Metatron swept his arm to left and right, trying to dislodge the dæmon; but the golden monkey clung with teeth, claws, and tail, and then Mrs. Coulter gathered the great white beating wing to herself and smothered its movement.
Metatron was hampered, but he still wasn’t hurt. Nor was he near the edge of the abyss.
And by now Lord Asriel was weakening. He was holding fast to his blood-soaked consciousness, but with every movement a little more was lost. He could feel the edges of the bones grinding together in his skull; he could hear them. His senses were disordered; all he knew was hold tight and drag down.
Then Mrs. Coulter found the angel’s face under her hand, and she dug her fingers deep into his eyes.
Metatron cried out. From far off across the great cavern, echoes answered, and his voice bounded from cliff to cliff, doubling and diminishing and causing those distant ghosts to pause in their endless procession and look up.
And Stelmaria the snow-leopard dæmon, her own consciousness dimming with Lord Asriel’s, made one last effort and leapt for the angel’s throat.
Metatron fell to his knees. Mrs. Coulter, falling with him, saw the blood-filled eyes of Lord Asriel gaze at her. And she scrambled up, hand over hand, forcing the beating wing aside, and seized the angel’s hair to wrench back his head and bare his throat for the snow leopard’s teeth.
And now Lord Asriel was dragging him, dragging him backward, feet stumbling and rocks falling, and the golden monkey was leaping down with them, snapping and scratching and tearing, and they were almost there, almost at the edge; but Metatron forced himself up, and with a last effort spread both wings wide—a great white canopy that beat down and down and down, again and again and again, and then Mrs. Coulter had fallen away, and Metatron was upright, and the wings beat harder and harder, and he was aloft—he was leaving the ground, with Lord Asriel still clinging tight, but weakening fast. The golden monkey’s fingers were entwined in the angel’s hair, and he would never let go—
But they were over the edge of the abyss. They were rising. And if they flew higher, Lord Asriel would fall, and Metatron would escape.
The cry was torn from Lord Asriel, and with the snow leopard beside her, with a roaring in her ears, Lyra’s mother stood and found her footing and leapt with all her heart, to hurl herself against the angel and her dæmon and her dying lover, and seize those beating wings, and bear them all down together into the abyss.
The cliff-ghasts heard Lyra’s exclamation of dismay, and their flat heads all snapped around at once.
Will sprang forward and slashed the knife at the nearest of them. He felt a little kick on his shoulder as Tialys leapt off and landed on the cheek of the biggest, seizing her hair and kicking hard below the jaw before she could throw him off. The creature howled and thrashed as she fell into the mud, and the nearest one looked stupidly at the stump of his arm, and then in horror at his own ankle, which his sliced-off hand had seized as it fell. A second later the knife was in his breast. Will felt the handle jump three or four times with the dying heartbeats, and pulled it out before the cliff-ghast could twist it away in falling.
He heard the others cry and shriek in hatred as they fled, and he knew that Lyra was unhurt beside him; but he threw himself down in the mud with only one thing in his mind.
“Tialys! Tialys!” he cried, and avoiding the snapping teeth, he hauled the biggest cliff-ghast’s head aside. Tialys was dead, his spurs deep in her neck. The creature was kicking and biting still, so he cut off her head and rolled it away before lifting the dead Gallivespian clear of the leathery neck.
“Will,” said Lyra behind him, “Will, look at this . . .”
She was gazing into the crystal litter. It was unbroken, although the crystal was stained and smeared with mud and the blood from what the cliff-ghasts had been eating before they found it. It lay tilted crazily among the rocks, and inside it—
“Oh, Will, he’s still alive! But—the poor thing . . .”
Will saw her hands pressing against the crystal, trying to reach in to the angel and comfort him; because he was so old, and he was terrified, crying like a baby and cowering away into the lowest corner.
“He must be so old—I’ve never seen anyone suffering like that—oh, Will, can’t we let him out?”
Will cut through the crystal in one movement and reached in to help the angel out. Demented and powerless, the aged being could only weep and mumble in fear and pain and misery, and he shrank away from what seemed like yet another threat.
“It’s all right,” Will said, “we can help you hide, at least. Come on, we won’t hurt you.”
The shaking hand seized his and feebly held on. The old one was uttering a wordless groaning whimper that went on and on, and grinding his teeth, and compulsively plucking at himself with his free hand; but as Lyra reached in, too, to help him out, he tried to smile, and to bow, and his ancient eyes deep in their wrinkles blinked at her with innocent wonder.
Between them they helped the ancient of days out of his crystal cell; it wasn’t hard, for he was as light as paper, and he would have followed them anywhere, having no will of his own, and responding to simple kindness like a flower to the sun. But in the open air there was nothing to stop the wind from damaging him, and to their dismay his form began to loosen and dissolve. Only a few moments later he had vanished completely, and their last impression was of those eyes, blinking in wonder, and a sigh of the most profound and exhausted relief.
Then he was gone: a mystery dissolving in mystery. It had all taken less than a minute, and Will turned back at once to the fallen Chevalier. He picked up the little body, cradling it in his palms, and found his tears flowing fast.
But Lyra was saying something urgently.
“Will—we’ve got to move—we’ve got to—the Lady can hear those horses coming—”
Out of the indigo sky an indigo hawk swooped low, and Lyra cried out and ducked; but Salmakia cried with all her strength, “No, Lyra! No! Stand high, and hold out your fist!”
So Lyra held still, supporting one arm with the other, and the blue hawk wheeled and turned and swooped again, to seize her knuckles in sharp claws.
On the hawk’s back sat a gray-haired lady, whose clear-eyed face looked first at Lyra, then at Salmakia clinging to her collar.
“Madame . . .” said Salmakia faintly, “we have done . . .”
“You have done all you need. Now we are here,” said Madame Oxentiel, and twitched the reins.
At once the hawk screamed three times, so loud that Lyra’s head rang. In response there darted from the sky first one, then two and three and more, then hundreds of brilliant warrior-bearing dragonflies, all skimming so fast it seemed they were bound to crash into one another; but the reflexes of the insects and the skills of their riders were so acute that instead, they seemed to weave a tapestry of swift and silent needle-bright color over and around the children.