It was early morning. A chill hung stubbornly air, and the sun had yet to dawn on the world where Lyra Jeffries made her home. Biting gusts of wind whisked through the craggy hills and valleys of the Lapland region, and a storm that had raged the previous night left the area damp and exhausted but, for the most part, none the worse for wear. Climates had changed dramatically in the last twenty-five years, and once-infrequent rainstorms now passed through Lapland with increasing regularity.
On a jutting cliff high in the Lapland Mountains sat a sagging wooden shack. Inside, the angel Chemeron began to stir. He had not rested well during the night.
As he woke, he struggled to make sense of what had happened. He looked down and noticed his hands and feet had been bound. A shiver of dread made its way along his body. Through bleary eyes he fought to discern the alien features of his new surroundings. He remembered everything before he lost consciousness, but couldn't guess at where he'd been taken following the attack.
He ached all over, but it was his shoulder that was the most sore. His body was caked in what appeared to be dirt, though much of it had come off in his sleep. He couldn't shift to relieve the pressure his body placed on his smothered wings. The only part of his body he could move with any measure of freedom was his head, and even that caused him considerable discomfort. He did not know where the cliffghasts had gone, nor did he know who had shot him in the shoulder — and, most disturbing of all, did not know what either party had to do with one another.
In one corner of the room, a small oil lamp flickered peacefully, defying the grim décor of the shack's interior. He observed several varieties of mountain-dwelling animals, skinned and unskinned, dangling from filthy hooks that descended from the structure's ceiling beams. A sort of hunting lodge? he questioned silently.
His mind began to fill with more questions, many of them unwanted and hard to dismiss, like a leaky sea vessel flooding faster than the rushing water could be pumped out. Each new thought was graver than the one before it: How long had he been unconscious? Would his attackers return soon? Would he ever hear his beloved Symandera's softly scolding voice again? A glassy-eyed fox resting on the nearest hook stared vacantly at the captive angel, offering no help.
My mouth isn't covered, he thought. He nearly cried for help that very moment, but caught himself, thinking that any noises could bring the assailants back…though, he figured, they may already be on their way regardless.
Chemeron's eyes fell upon the darkest corner of the room. It was eerily void of light, almost unnaturally so, as if the lamp feared to cast its glow on whatever resided in that part of the shack. Just my eyes playing a trick on me, Chemeron hoped. He continued to gaze into the blackness, straining to make out any form or object, any at all. If he was able see something, even something threatening, he would feel a little better. It was the burden of not knowing that was getting to him.
After a few moments of intense squinting he began to perceive a pair of faintly shining ovals. He recognized them as eyes. They did not belong to a human.
Just as suddenly has he had noticed the eyes, another light flared into existence.
A pipe had been lit.
Chemeron jolted fearfully. The orange glow of the pipe revealed the hood of a cloak. The face of the cloak's wearer, however, remained concealed. The distance between the pipe and eyes in the dark suggested not one but two figures — a human and their daemon, Chemeron guessed.
The figure and its daemon emerged from the darkness. The figure stood tall, its rough wooly cloak running all the way to the floor. The daemon had the form a frill-necked lizard. It stood balanced on its hind legs, hissing gently at the angel, its frill fully extended.
Chemeron found the presence of mind to speak.
"Stop! You there! Release me at once." He paused for a moment, and reconsidered the demeanor of his request.
"Please," he added.
The figure crossed slowly the prone angel's right side. The hood of the figure's cloak improbably fell even farther forward, hopelessly obscuring their face from the angel's sight. The lizard prepared to pounce.
"Zalvadora!" the figure beckoned. "Stand down." The daemon obliged, still hissing.
"Who are you?" pleaded Chemeron.
The figure puffed a cloud of grimy smoke in Chemeron's face, causing him to gag and wheeze violently on the musty wooden floor. The figure then stepped over the angel, whose injured body shimmered translucently in the glow of the oil lamp, planting a great mud-encrusted boot firmly on either side of Chemeron's torso. He assumed he would not get an answer from the man, and decided not to ask again.
The angel could see something metallic in the figure's gloved right hand…it was a weapon of some sort. Indeed, it was a rifle, and very likely the rifle that felled him earlier that day. He trembled.
"I cannot promise you will see the midday sun, angel," the figure rasped menacingly. "But if you want the chance, you must give me something you have."
It all started at the first window two days before.
Chemeron was one of countless angels whose task it was to close the windows between many of the innumerable parallel universes that overlap one another, the windows had been opened by both the subtle knife and assorted unknown beings and processes. They knew the danger that the open windows posed — to Dust, and to life itself — and had to close every last one, with the exception of the window that acted as an exit from the Land of the Dead.
It had only been two and a half decades since the fall of the Authority and the Kingdom of Heaven, two and a half decades since the angel Xaphania made a promise to Lyra Silvertongue and Will Parry to close all of the windows but one — and despite this relatively short period of time, the angels had made considerable progress in carrying out their mission.
"Many hands indeed make light work," Xaphania once told Chemeron.
Chemeron and his beloved mate Symandera had been given the task of closing three small openings reportedly located in an isolated and virtually impenetrable region of the Lapland mountains in Lyra's world — a region so dense, in fact, that not even the long-lived witches of that world, gifted as they were with the power of flight, had ever come across them in all their travels.
Chemeron assumed that whomever opened these windows was looking for a place with a great deal more vegetation and wildlife than the worlds they opened into had offered. Each was reasonably barren and boasted few appealing forms of life: dull, dry varieties of gray shrub lichen, a biotoxin-rich algae capable of killing any being who smelled it — perhaps, Cheremon joked, it had sealed the fate of the windows' opener — and a species of ten-legged bark ant with a lifespan of a single day. (The existence of the openings, of course, were unheard of even by Lord Asriel, the man who had gone to such extreme lengths to create an opening between his world and the world he had seen in the Aurora — though, given the desolation of the three worlds Chemeron and Symandera had been entrusted to close off, Lord Asriel would more than likely have continued his own work, as fate had far greater plans for him than, say, discovering a doomed species of bark-ant.)
The angels may not have known for sure how or why these three windows had been opened, but they did know approximately where each should be found. Chemeron had always found it fascinating how the other angels were able to accurately predict where certain windows would be located. That information, he'd been told, was divined from all manner of abstract sources: visions, dreams, spectral whispers, and, very often, blind luck and simple intuition. But, it was a system that worked and there was no reason to question it now.
On the first day of the mission Chemeron arrived at the first window, but without Symandera aiding him. If Chemeron had one failing, it was a slightly inflated sense of self-confidence, mingled with a foolish desire to impress through his actions. He wanted to do this alone, which Symandera, a passionate angel in her own right, forcibly objected to. But, as often happened between them, his persuasive charm and earnestness won her over.
"And take care to work in the daytime," Symandera reminded, though Chemeron needed not to be told. Angels were virtually invisible in daylight, and thus aided in the discretion of their missions. With permission from the angels that had granted them the task, Symandera sent him on his way.
He chose to approach the first window by way of the sickly world it opened into. Angels had the ability to move between worlds without the windows, which greatly helped in their task, and he also had a rough idea where the window was situated in that world. Once he was in the first world, he made his way to the window.
It was raining heavily in the Lapland Mountains on the other side of the opening,and he knew that the view of the storm through the window would stand out better against the bleak surroundings of that world than the other way round.
He passed through the window and into the blustering elements. He was now standing in the narrow space of a large fissure at the top of a formidable outcropping of rock. It made sense that no one would have ever found it; it was nearly parallel to the two sides of the fissure, and impossible for anyone to notice unless they had expert climbing skills and equipment, as well as explicit directions detailing the window's location.
Using the knowledge imparted to him by Xaphania (who had herself been instructed by Will Parry), he reached gently into the air, feeling for the edges of the window, attempting to perceive the edges with more than his fingers, until…there, there it was; he had it. Gently, he closed it. He felt a bit of pride as he completed this act and, despite his desire to go it alone, wished Symandera could see him now.
And he was being seen, little did he know, though not by Symandera.
The storm continued to grow to in intensity, and even though the second window was located thirty miles away (a short flight for any angel), the ferocity of the wind and rain forced Chemeron to find shelter for the evening. He took refuge beneath a massive rock overhang situated at the based of the mountain.
At daybreak he rose. The rain continued to fall, but at a far calmer rate, and the wind had died down considerably. The sky remained overcast, increasing Chemeron's visibility in the open during the daytime. He frowned to himself.
Extreme care, now, he thought to himself. He made for the second location.
This opening was even trickier to find than the first. It didn't rest in space vertically, as most windows did, but horizontally, and was situated withina large, hollowed-out boulder with a removable stone top.
He hovered over the boulder, which was nearly twice his height, and inspected the lid; it had been cut from the boulder's top and replaced after being hollowed out. It invoked the notion, in Chemeron's mind, of a massive stone jack-o'-lantern. (There were no such things as jack-o'-lanterns in the world of his origin, but he had seen them in others' worlds, including the world in which Will Parry lived, and the image of one seemed to serve as an appropriate analogy.) The one thing missing, though, was a stem, or rather a handle. He reasoned that he would have to shove the lid off, which would not be an easy feat for an angel of his stature.
He positioned himself at the edge of the lid where it met the boulder, and heaved forward with all the power he could summon. The lid didn't budge at first, but after several tries it rumbled free from its position. Chemeron slid it off and sent it crashing to the ground with a hearty thud.
He floated above the opening and peered inside. At first, he thought there was no window at all, but a dark pool of water. After closer inspection, he concluded that whomever opened this window was an extremely clever being; it was almost the exact width of the boulder, and it opened just a few inches above the surface of a lake in the other world. These factors, combined with the depth of the window relative to the position of the boulder, made it appear as if it were a stagnant pool of water within the boulder — and therefore, part of the world the boulder was in — and nothing more. Chemeron was impressed.
It was in that moment of consideration that Chemeron saw the cliffghast's face in the reflection of the lake.
The angel began beating his wings instinctively, attempting to fend off the hideous creature, if not to injure it in the bargain.
Blast these dark clouds, he thought, as the cliffghast let out a piercing cry and started pecking and swatting at Chemeron without mercy. He yearned even a little daylight to disappear into once again.
The angel was struck in the head by one of the creature's knobby limbs, and tumbled off of the boulder, stunned and frightened. He beat his wings again, attempting to gain some distance between he and the surprise attacker.
Before he managed this, a half-dozen more cliffghasts emerged from the surrounding foliage. Chemeron had been making fair progress in his attempt to flee, but the unexpected appearance of the ghasts gave him pause.
It was all the man with the rifle needed.
A sharp crack of gunfire rang out, and before Chemeron had time to react, he was grasping his shoulder and woozy with pain. The sensation overwhelmed him, forcing the conscious effort to stay airborne out of his mind. Chemeron fainted and fell twenty feet straight down. He crashed into a thicket of dry weeds a short way down the hill from the boulder and started to tumble, gaining momentum as he rolled with listless abandon.
"After him!" the man with the rifle shouted in the primitive language of the cliffghasts. "He must live! Go now!" Thorns and wicked branches scratched ruthlessly at the angel's unconscious body.
The ghasts caught up with him and pulled him to a stop, just as he was about to shoot off the edge of a small cliff at the base of the hill. The creatures dragged his body back up to the boulder.
"Not here," the man chastised. "Not in the open. Take him to the shelter."
The ghasts surrounded the battered angel, dousing him with a clingy powder the color of earth and reeking of sulfur. His form revealed itself readily. Each of the ghasts took hold of him in their abrasive little claws, and using their collective flying power moved him to the lodge with the hooks and the dead animals and the incongruously pleasant oil lamp.
At the moment, Chemeron was still trying to piece together in his mind the intention of the man with the pipe.
"The way," the man repeated. "Show me the way."
Chemeron twitched with realization. He understood.
When the job of closing the windows was entrusted to the angels, it was agreed that the method of closing them not be divulged to any other beings. The angels debated the issue thoroughly and passionately; many argued that, with more beings in other worlds assisting them, the task would be completed in even less time. "The age of the Republic of Heaven has begun," one angel noted. "Surely we would not be so callous as to hide this valuable knowledge from those who are most in need of it?"
Many more, though, countered that, were the method of window-closing to fall into the hands of the wrong beings, terrible acts could be carried out under the pretense of preventing the leakage of the Dust. Symandera, a strong advocate of this position, argued, for example, that someone from one world could intentionally force their enemy into another, and then close the window forever; furthermore, an individual could send a disease or volatile entity into a vulnerable and unsuspecting world, causing untold damage to a given civilization. Allying with Symandera's heartfelt argument, a majority opinion was reached, and the knowledge of window closure was to remain with the angels for all time. It was the hooded figure's intent to break that seal of knowledge.
Chemeron, choking on the wafting smoke, forced himself to take a deep, filling breath. He collected his strength, preparing for whatever fate would befall him.
"Never," he promised.
The figure took another puff, and paused. Chemeron held perfectly still, difficult as it was to do so.
"Disappointing," the figure intoned. Chemeron eyed the rifle again. "You make this difficult for me, angel." Chemeron assumed the phrase difficult for me did not mean the act of killing him, but rather that his lack of cooperation was hindering the figure's nefarious agenda, whatever it was. And that suited Chemeron just fine.
"My deepest apologies," Chemeron mocked. He had no fear now. A reassuring calm overtook him; if he died this day he would not die in vain, but rather nobly attempting to keep the secret the angels had sworn to protect. Unfortunately, the third window would still need closing.
Chemeron expected the figure to say something in return. Instead, the tip of the rifle was lifted and laid squarely on the angel's chin. The figure snorted with disgust — or was it amusement? — and cocked the rifle's hammer.
As the man braced himself for the imminent recoil of the blast, Chemeron noticed movement out of the corner of his eye. The movement was outside the window. It was Symandera.
Their eyes met. Symandera did not have time to be afraid for him. She had deduced the nature of Chemeron's situation, and he could see that in her expression. She gave him another look, almost a slight nod, indicating that he tell the man what he wanted to hear. He knew she was up to something. Much was conveyed between the two, but the moment lasted only a split second and went completely unnoticed by the looming man with the rifle.
"Wait!" Cheremon blurted out. "Don't shoot, please. I… I can show you what you want to know."
The man paused. The angel had finally come to its senses. He laid the gun against the wall. The frill-necked daemon ducked underneath the figure's cloak, as if trained to do so. Chemeron sighed with a depth he had never experienced, as either a man or an angel.
The man snapped his fingers, and three well-trained ghasts entered through an unseen opening hidden in the shack's dark corner.
"Fix him up," the man instructed the creatures. "We leave at first light."
The sun crested the horizon as the group made its way toward the final window. Chemeron was flying under his own power, though deeply sore and under guard by two ghasts with daggers. A fresh coating of the powder had been applied to make spotting him possible. The hooded man was being carried by eight cliffghasts. He sat in a transport on his own design, which looked to be a cross between a litter and a hammock, with handles protruding from all sides. A bulge beneath his cloak shifted nervously. Chemeron guess it was Zalvadora, the man's daemon. Perhaps he had a fear of heights he was not otherwise showing.
The group squinted in the light of the new day as Chemeron led the way to the final location. The ghasts, obedient as they were to the man, were decidedly under some form of spell, though the angel could not guess at its true nature. From the actions of the man, it appeared that they had no idea that there even was a final window to close, only that the angel would need to show them how. Chemeron acknowledged the good fortune that he'd been attacked at the second window and not the last one, else there would have been nothing to show and no reason for him to be spared.
He also wondered at what Symandera was planning. She had found their way out of tight spots before, but they ordinarily worked as a team. He cursed his own ridiculous need to show off, promising to himself he would never attempt such a thing again. All he could do now was wait for Symandera to execute whatever plan she'd concocted.
Every now and again Chemeron attempted to sneak a look at the man's face, but he had now covered it in a thin black gauzelike material through which only he could see out but through which no one could see in.
That mask is coming off, Chemeron also promised to himself.
The motley crew arrived at their destination. They had landed on a sturdy narrow ridge of granite that abutted the mountain at its midpoint, like an enormous bookshelf bolted to a parlor wall. Two hundred feet or so above the party, directly in front of the mighty gleaming side of the mountain and unseen by all of them, the third window hung in midair.
It was situated only a handsbreadth in front of the sheer rock face that towered over the small figures. The face was covered with a thick layer ice and snow, reflecting the morning sun with a pitiless brilliance. The world it opened into was one of eternal sunshine caused by the two suns it revolved around in a figure-8 orbit. The brightness coming from the window, relative to the high reflectivity of the rock face, would make its exact location difficult to pinpoint.
"This will be no easy task," Chemeron said, hoping in vain that the man would agree and let him go. "I would only start the process. You would have to try it for yourself to fully understand how it is done, and you would need to hold still while—"
"That is what they are for," the man shot back, waving an arrogant finger at the huddled ghasts. "We will rise now." And they did.
The dual suns of the world had a reddish tint, and though the window wasn't very large — Must have been an early test window, Chemeron surmised — it allowed for just enough variation in color to stand out against the slope. Chemeron instructed the others to halt. They had reached the window.
The angel and the others looked through the small aperture in space. At first they could not make out what was on the other side, but Chemeron informed them (or at least offered his best guess) that the window opened in front of a white slab of choral-like rock. The cliffghasts stared transfixed as they flapped their wings exhaustively. The man clapped his hands to regain their focus.
"You start," the man said. "I shall watch."
"Of course," Chemeron replied. At this point he began to wonder if Symandera would ever arrive, let alone be able to prevent the secret from being revealed. He assumed she would appear just in the nick of time and distract his captors long enough to escape.
He reached out for the edges of the window and began the process of closing it… but before he made any real progress, he turned back to the man.
He decided to stall.
"Before I continue," the angel said, "there are a few things you should probably know about windows into other worlds." Though he knew well enough how to close them and about the Dust leakage, he knew little else about their properties, or even if there were more properties to know about. Dare he start to making things up? Though he could not see the man's expression, he sensed it was a blend of intrigue and frustration.
"Do not speak, angel. Proceed or else."
Chemeron glanced around nervously. No sign of his dear Symandera. His dear, dear, tardy Symandera. He would have to improvise further.
"Certainly, certainly," he stammered. "But if I don't tell you, you won't know how to do it properly. You see, I can't simply show you, contrary to what you may have heard." Chemeron hoped whatever information the man attained didn't contradict the bluff he was currently perpetrating. "Indeed, there is one critical piece of knowledge you must have before attempting this procedure, for without it…"
Chemeron paused. He could think of nothing with which to complete his thought.
"Without it what?" the man demanded, now visibly concerned.
Chemeron glanced around again. Where was she?
"For without it," the angel stumbled on, "…you will…die."
You will die? That's all? For without it you will die? He thought the blunt lack of specificity of this conjured fact would no doubt raise the man's suspicions.
"Die how, exactly?" the man inquired.
Chemeron didn't see that coming. His mind scrambled for any answer, any thought or bit of information he could think of that might offer the man a plausibly vague (and hopefully satisfactory) response. He thought for a moment to mention the leakage of the Dust and the threat it posed, but as he didn't know anything of the man's intentions, he felt revealing more than what he was brought here to show could only hurt the situation.
"The Specters," Chemeron uttered. The threat of Specters only applied to anyone who opened a new window, and an adult at that, but it was the only thing he could think to say. He hoped the man would not know of their existence, ask another question, and buy the angel a little more time.
The man gave a short gravelly chuckle. "Specters, you say? I know all about Specters."
Chemeron nearly forgot to continue flapping his wings for a moment, or breathe, or perhaps both. He wasn't sure. And he wasn't sure of what to say to the man next, either.
"Do you, now?" the angel queried, trying not to tip his hand. "What have you heard?"
"I need not tell you, angel. I'm sure you know already. Never mind what I have heard." He nodded at one of the cliffghasts, who deferentially withdrew a dagger from a crude sheath tied to its scaly midsection. "Continue. Now."
Chemeron was out of ideas. He turned back to the window and reluctantly started to feel for its edges. The detection was slow going; the threat of the cliffghast with the dagger trained on him did not make his concentration on the window any sharper.
At last he closed off the top portion of the window, pinching as he went, until only the lower half was left suspended in air. He would now show the man how to close the window from the bottom up. Of course, he would not have to if Symandera would only spring into action.
"Your turn," Chemeron sighed. The man made a forward motion with his hand, and the cliffghasts inched the transport toward the opening. Chemeron hovered close by.
"First," Chemeron said, "you need to feel for it with the tips of your fingers. Don't force it; let the edges find you."
The man did not question the instruction, and did as he was told. "I… I do believe I feel something there," said the man, not quite able to stifle a betraying sense of giddiness. He regained his composure. "Yes. There it is. I can feel it." The man began to seal the lower half with surprising ease, as if somehow he had performed the action before and that his entire encounter with the angel had all been part an elaborate ruse. Or so Chemeron hoped.
The man stopped. There was only a small gap left. He relished the moment.
"Take a good look, angel," said the man, no longer containing his deplorable pleasure. "You are about to witness the completion of the first step." He turned back toward the gap, hands outstretched, fingers delicately caressing the violated air.
Before Chemeron could ask what that first step would eventually lead to, a shimmering fist shot out of the hole in space, striking the grinning man squarely in the jaw.
And about time, too, groused Chemeron to himself, perturbed but happy to see Symandera finally arrive.
"I'm so sorry, my dear," she said from the other-world side of the hole. "Apparently his cliffghasts have friends."
A moment later she was hovering by his side. The two wished to embrace, but the man, who had just been sent sprawling onto his back, suddenly lunged for the two with a dagger of his own, hoping to mortally wound at least one of them. The cliffghasts, who ordinarily would have joined in to help their de facto leader, were too tired from maintaining a level position in the air, and could only watch the action unfold. The angels darted away quickly and out of the sweeping arc of the dagger as it sailed through space, missing the two by mere inches. The man had apparently overestimated the momentum he would need to strike a fatal blow, for the force he exerted carried him over the edge of the craft, sending him falling down the side of the mountain, past the ridge of rock, and into the dark of the heavily shadowed forest below with a soft sigh of a crash.
The angels could no longer see him. They hung in the air for a moment, staring at the cliffghasts, who all appeared to be near death with fatigue. Deciding that any skirmish with these two angels would be a mismatch, they dropped the craft and droopily glided to places of solid footing.
The two angels peered down at the forest far beneath them. "Shall we go after the man and see who he really is?" Symandera nodded, and they descended toward the spot in the canopy where the man had fallen.
What the angels found gave them a profound shock.
"Where…where is he?" stuttered Chemeron. The man was nowhere in sight. Symandera scanned the high branches of the pines and could find no trace of him. Chemeron squinted in the dimness of the tree cover and found no hint of the man either.
"Not a shred of clothing, nor a clump of hair or flesh," Symandera reported.
Chemeron shook his head and stared at the soft cool earth of the forest floor. "There is no impression in the ground where he may have fallen, either. No blood."
Chemeron turned from Symandera. "He is not dead. Of this I'm certain." He spoke sullenly, ruefully. Symandera touched his shoulder. "You did your best, my dear."
He sighed. "Just before you arrived, he mentioned something…I didn't like the sound of it."
"What's that, dear?"
"He mentioned this was 'the first step.' Is there anything about that other world that might be of some value? Or danger?"
"I was told nothing by the others."
He shook his head. "This wouldn't have happened if I had not been so… If it were the two of us and not…" He turned back to her, a stern expression of regret and resolve on this shimmering face. "Never again," he promised to her. "We'll always work together, no matter what I think or feel."
"Don't worry, my love," she warned sweetly, "for I promise never to let you forget it." She gave him a forgiving embrace. It was good to be in her arms again.
"Hopefully the others will know," she said." We must tell them what has happened."
The two angels rose from the forest, closed the third window, and left to seek out the other angels.