Kaisa heard the raucous sounds of children recede as he led his pathetic "flock" of severed dæmons away from Bolvangar. They were the only ones in the sky, as all the real birds had fled from the fields of evil long ago. And how sad and forlorn and alone were his charges! They were pale and washed-out, outshone by the starlight, but not quite translucent in the way that night-ghasts are. At first, even the great Kaisa was slightly afraid of them, but his fear quickly changed to tenderness, for the only kinship they had with ghosts was their tenuous half-grip on life.
The poor things were trying to help each other. Three dæmons in starling form were clustered together, peeping soft encouragement to each other. A black-capped chickadee lent her support to the lone dæmon who had not chosen an avian form, a minute bumblebee bat. A ferruginous hawk and a spotted owl appeared to ignore each other, but each caught the other when she began to falter in her flight. With so much solidarity amongst the dæmons, Kaisa almost felt unneeded. But whenever a wisp of icy mist obscured him from his charges, even if only for a second, they let out a collective moan of fear until he reappeared to them, whispering reassurances. It was a harrowing journey.
Kaisa was instantly aware at the precise moment they crossed out of Bolvangar that the air had lost a cruel metallic edge, and the smell of growing things left a barely tangible perfume in his nostrils. The much younger dæmons, not nearly so sensitive to the thousands of messages in a single puff of air, were aware of their passing a moment later, when they heard the yips of arctic foxes. Then it began to snow, lightly and pleasantly, and Kaisa's white feathers became even hoarier with the fine powder. His sad little flock mewled pathetically - their wise, proud, strong leader was becoming harder to see! - and the grand snow goose started to give periodic calls, so they could follow the sound of him, the poor, dear, blind things.
Then he gently led them up, at not to steep an angle, to the craggy lip of the cliffs, honking menacingly at the cliff-ghasts as he went. Most cliff-ghasts knew better than to challenge the power of the witches, but a pair of young, impetuous ones flew out to meet Kaisa, cackling harshly. He did not fear for himself, but for his helpless flock, which was already recoiling and huddling in fear. Kaisa spread his wings to their fullest and gave a mighty honk of warning. The cliff-ghasts only cackled back at him. "Stay back," he warned, and the more clear-headed of the flock quietly steered the rest away. Their leader was about to do battle.
Kaisa's utter fearlessness in the face of his adversaries soothed the little half-dæmons a little, except for one extremely nervous one in goldfinch form. Her name was Coraline, and when she had been connected and one with her other half, she had been steadfast and even-keeled as a boat on calm seas. Therefore, her current jumpiness was disconcerting to her fellows, even though they all felt the same way, to some degree or another. Her dull golden-brown breast heaved with some desperate passion, and her wingbeats were irregular. The ferruginous hawk, her expression grave and drawn with silent terror, prodded Coraline with a talon. "Don't distract him!" she hissed urgently. "He's fighting for us!"
But Coraline was inconsolable. The hawk's warning only opened the floodgates of her sorrow. "I don't care if he's fighting for us, Kerugi! I don't care! All that matters is Stuart! I can't feel him, I can't feel the heart-tug, I don't know where he is!"
Her cries of distress disrupted Kaisa's poise in a way that no fierce battle cry or huge flamethrower ever could. He couldn't recall feeling this upset since Serafina's son died so many years ago. He knew how fearful it could be to be separated from one's human - his first separation from Serafina when they were young was the worst anguish he had ever known - but at least he could always feel his beloved witch wherever they went, no matter how far they wandered! To be severed - in the way of these half-dæmons - that was worse than the worst -
The cliff-ghasts attacked! Kaisa's flock shrieked and scattered, but were so scared to be alone that they regrouped just as quickly. One of the cliff-ghasts, a stocky female, made for the witch dæmon's left wing and pulled, as if she meant to tear it off altogether. Kaisa immediately began to beat his wings mightily, and the howling monster had to hold on like death in order to keep herself from being flung fatally against the cliff wall. Coraline's pitiful cries grew louder, driving Kaisa to distraction. He couldn't concentrate for the heartache her bereavement caused him. Where was the other cliff-ghast?
"Look out!" screeched the three starling dæmons, but it was too late. Wild, shrill laughter resounded in the freezing air as the nimble male cliff-ghast clutched Kaisa's slender neck in a throttling grip. The snow goose thrashed his wings until they were a white blur around him, and the female could keep her hold no longer. She was thrown so hard against the cliff that she burst open like a rotten fruit, spilling her bloody entrails across the rocks. But this did not have the effect that Kaisa desired. His flock was not cheered but horrified by the cliff-ghast's grisly death, and the cruel, clever male at his neck was not deterred in the least. If anything, his grip grew only tighter. The snow on Kaisa's feathers was melting with the heat of the cliff-ghast's rank breath. And still Coraline cried, sobbing endlessly for her Stuart.
Suddenly, an angry scream - the cry of a hawk dæmon attacking! Brave Kerugi, her ice-blue eyes wide with disbelief at her own audacity, came up behind Kaisa's assailant, talons extended. She raked them across the cliff-ghast's back, then instantly recoiled from the putrid smell of his blood. His savage laughter cut off with a choking sound, and now the monster had a new target: the admirably brave but very young and inexperienced Kerugi. Instead of crying or cheering, Kerugi's fellows were completely silent, even Coraline, and watched her anxiously. Their solidarity was more apparent now than ever: they were clustered in a quiet mass of beating wings, awaiting their heroine with a mixture of the highest hope and the deepest despair.
But instead of returning to the flock, and letting wise old Kaisa finish the battle, Kerugi wheeled around to face the enemy again, her face grim and set, as if she had looked her fate in the eye, and known it, and accepted it.
"No, Kerugi, don't!" came a cry. It was Arabella, her spotted owl friend. Arabella saw the predatory hunch of the cliff-ghast's shoulders, and knew what that deadly posture meant. Kaisa's eyes were closed as he chanted a witch spell telling Yambe-Akka that his time had not yet come, to let him go from the brink of death where he had just perilously walked. Kerugi was alone against a power greater than herself. Arabella couldn't bear it. She felt almost dead after the loss of her Ryan. This loss might just finish her. "Kerugi, Evan needs you! He's just as alone without you as you are without him!"
Kerugi paused for just a moment, her heart swamped with Evan - her memories of him, her love for him, and the soul-crushing weight of her loss. It was this momentary pause that brought about Kerugi's downfall. Sensing that the young dæmon's guard was down, like any good fighter would, the cliff-ghast pounced, going straight for her ice-blue eyes with grasping fingers. Kaisa's spell-casting trance was lifted just then, and with Yambe-Akka's polite departure came fresh horrors. He watched the bright fire drain out the ferruginous hawk's eyes, watched the cliff-ghast's fingers dig deeper out of sheer sadism, heard the heartsick wails of Kerugi's friends, Coraline and Arabella loudest of all. Such a death was not meant to be senseless. This was why Yambe-Akka had passed him by. She had a different soul to collect. Kaisa would be no reaper of souls. Cliff-ghasts didn't have any.
A white-fletched arrow, he lanced down toward the monster whose hands frothed with the fire of Kerugi's life-force. Kaisa's aim was true, and the cliff-ghast was wrenched away from his victim by the force of the blow. Noble Kerugi fell, leaving a glittering trail in the Arctic air, until she faded away into the yawning chasm. While his foe was still off-balance, Kaisa struck again, the sound of Arabella's sobs filling his head. The cliff-ghast's end was as swift and merciful as Kerugi's was extended and torturous. A powerful clout to the head from Kaisa's wing bruised his brain. Disoriented and unable to control his flight any longer, the cliff-ghast spiralled down after Kerugi, leaving behind only a rancid smell to mark his passing. Once more, the cliffs were silent. The snow stopped and gave way to freezing rain, that left the dæmons wet and shivering, and froze to a slick layer of ice the moment it hit the rocks. All of Kaisa's torn and tattered flock seemed almost frozen themselves, but they were too miserable to care. There was nothing that Kaisa could do but continue his ascent to the austere heights of the cliff wall.
Now Coraline was the quiet one, and Arabella who babbled out the sick, churning quagmire that was her thoughts. The dæmons had lost he ability to mourn, having already mourned the ultimate tragedy of their loss, so they listened to Arabella solemnly and without comment. "It's all my fault, Cor, my fau – " She choked with emotion. "It's my fault, Cor, don't you see? If I hadn't told her – if I had just shut it – she would have seen – "
"It doesn't make a difference," said Coraline expressionlessly. "We died the moment they took our humans from us." A single tear slid from her eye and mingled with the cold, cold rain. "We're already dead. We're already… dead…"
Arabella could think of nothing to say to that, for she too felt a flat deadness within. Was she a ghost? She felt like one, rising, rising, rising to the clifftop. Two figures drifted across her field of vision that looked as sad and bedraggled as she felt. It was the chickadee and the bumblebee bat, still clinging feebly to each other. In the absence of their humans, they had turned to each other. Arabella didn't know what made her feel more wretched: Coraline's admission of defeat, or watching her misery reflected in these two straggling survivors. Thinking of Ryan made her feel the most wretched of all, so she thought about him.
Melkior's tiny bat from wasn't cut out for a journey of this difficulty and duration, but he felt weary beyond imaging, and it was far outside his current capabilities to change into something stronger. Every time he felt a great wave of exhaustion and apathy come over him, it was so tempting to simply let himself fall like Kerugi, because it would be so easy, and nothing mattered anyway because he no longer had his Bridget, his Bridget McGinn. But persistent Kismet, a black-capped chickadee at his side, denied him that eternal peace by pecking his tail, or scooping him up with her wing, or reminding how alone and desperate Bridget must feel without him. At last Kismet brought him to rest at the height of the cliff, and he laid against the icy rock like a scrap of crumpled brown paper. "Don't sleep, Mel, or you'll never wake up," urged Kismet. "Listen to him." And Melkior knew she spoke of the snow goose dæmon, the only dim flicker of light in a world of smothering darkness.
Kaisa waited for the flock to collapse in a pile of feathers around him. He nudged each one kindly to be sure they were alive. Though the freezing rain didn't bother him, he was glad on the others' behalf when it tapered off and finally stopped. The steel-gray curtain of clouds across the sky slowly drew back as he spoke. "There is nothing I can say or do to reunite you with your other halves, to undo what your torturers did, or to make you whole again. No power in this world or any other world can do that. But I wish to help you find your humans again. Before I can do that, I need you to tell me what happened between the time you were separated and information you can give me about where your children might be."
Quiet, heart-wrenching whimpers were the only response. They were remembering. For Kaisa's flock, memory was torture. The witch dæmon murmured softly in his throat a musical mourning chant of his clan, just as much to shut out the unbearable whimpers as to somehow stir one of them to speech. And one of them responded. Kismet whispered, "They tested us. They took my Stephen away, and all they wanted to do was test us!" Then she broke down into weeping paroxysms of grief.
Coraline continued in her dead monotone, unflinchingly. "Then they loaded Stuart into a sled with other kids. It was driven by Tartars. Some of them jumped out of the sled into snowdrifts or holes in the ice. They wanted to die there. Tony Makarios was the first to jump, but he survived a while, because Ratter didn't disappear 'til later." Then she shut her little black eyes, and looked like nothing more than a stuffed model of a goldfinch.
"And I don't know where Ryan went from there," said Arabella, her voice hollow, "because then one of their dæmons grabbed me and shut me up in a cage." She rocked back and forth rhythmically, as if trying to lull herself into a trance where she could forget everything. "And that made it all worse because then I was all alone and not even Kerugi could help me - oh, Kerugi - " Arabella hid her face under a wing and shook with passion.
Kaisa renewed the mourning chant of his people, and considered. Tartars on sleds were not hard for witches to find. He would tell them to look for sleds piled with broken children. The flock would rest, and he would speak to his clan in secret ways. Their sleep would be full of nightmares, but Kaisa could intervene on their behalf. "Lie flat on your backs, wings out," instructed Kaisa. "Close your eyes." The dæmons trusted him because they had to. They did not see him rise and blot out the sun, newly revealed as the curtain of clouds as the curtain of clouds drew back and back.
Kaisa wove a hypnotic pattern over them, eyes closed, humming deep in his throat. He moved too swiftly and abruptly for an observer to discern exactly what pattern it was. By the time his aerial dance was complete, the half-dæmons had all fallen into dreamless sleep. Kaisa did not sleep among them. He could feel Serafina's fatigue from afar, as his broken flock would never be able to feel from their humans again, but there was no time for indulgences. Every minute these dæmons were apart from their children could mean their lives. Already he could see them crumbling under the weight of their despair. He didn't dare leave them alone for even a moment, so he would speak to his clan a different way. He raised his neck until he felt a chill wind blow about his head. It was blowing southeast. That was fine. Kaisa murmured into the wind, telling the witches what to search for, and why. Then he settled down among his flock and kept watch. The cliff-ghasts retreated into their stone crannies and hooted their fear of him.
The cold only worsened over the hours, but Kaisa might have been a snow sculpture for all he reacted to it. Occasionally he got up and breathed on the sleeping dæmons, keeping them alive with his warm breath. He was pleased to observe that they were still and silent in their sleep, without the twistings and groanings of nightmares. Finally there was news on the wind: a train of Tartar sleds was heading south, with the broken children Kaisa had spoken of. Serafina said that it was the worst atrocity she had ever seen. "Ah, Serafina, darling," her dæmon sighed back, "Just wait until you see their dæmons...or what's left of them." A new gust told him that the witches would shoot down the Tartars, and he could lead his flock to the sleds, which they would guard. They didn't have their full force because some of them had to go rescue Lyra and the other children who were still whole. He had only to fly south to reunite the children with their dæmons, though they would never be truly joined again. Kaisa let the wind pass on and stood over the sleepers. How would he awaken them? He didn't want to. They seemed so peaceful, and being awake was only an extended nightmare for them anyway. But in a quick, terrifying moment, he no longer had to decide. The decision had been made for him.
Coraline let out a piercing scream and woke up in a crazed terror. Kaisa's sleep spell was shattered, and the flock was awake and on high alert in a great flurry of wings. Kismet drew Melkior under her wing protectively, and watched Coraline with bright, fearful eyes. Arabella attempted to shield Coraline from whatever unseen peril she sensed, but goldfinch changed to bristling oncilla and hissed. Then oncilla yielded to thundering bullfrog and on to sleek sable, as if she were fighting an invisible enemy that had no shape. Was she struggling against a ghost, or an idea, or an impending doom? In its way, this battle was scarier to watch than Kerugi's last stand, because a force mightier than that of a cliff-ghast was at work here. She became a dizzying kaleidoscope of angry creatures: braying donkey, leaping kangaroo rat, rattling king cobra, howling spider monkey, flaming dragon, squealing piglet, stampeding impala, trumpeting elephant...it was nauseating to watch, but none of the dæmons could look away.
Coraline's adversary was a mystery to her fellows, but Kaisa knew her well, and he smiled a bird's smile with his bill, for he knew that Coraline's nightmare would soon be over. "Don't fight her," said Kaisa tenderly. "She wants to help you. If you accept her peacefully, your journey will be easier." But Coraline was drunk on fear, and Yambe-Akka seemed as cold and harsh to her stricken heart as the icy cliff. So she fought on, hopelessly (cawing jackdaw, rumbling black bear, lunging snapping turtle) as her fellows yearned for her victory, and Kaisa shook his head and hoped her defeat would be swift and painless.
At last, exhausted by her ceaseless changing, Coraline sank to the frozen ground as a chinchilla. Her eyes shut tight and her paws were clenched about her face as if she were blinded by the brightest light in the world. Kaisa smiled as Yambe-Akka embraced Coraline and gave her the sweet kiss of death. "Stuart...don't...die..." she pleaded, but then all the pain and hurt drained out of her and there was peace. Her form drifted apart like smoke, no longer held together by the prolonged suffering of Coraline's shattered soul.
There was no quiet weeping or moans of sorrow after Coraline's death, as there had been after Kerugi's. A single grating keen arose from the flock, the agglomeration of so many grief-stricken voices, as if they were dying along with her. Kaisa could listen no more. This was worse than the pathetic whimpers of remembered torture. This was the expression of a fresh and real torture within. "I know where your children are!" Kaisa declared, and his words had the effect of water on a flame. The snow goose took off once more, veering south, and his flock wordlessly followed.
Progress was slow, for they were flying straight into the wind, but it brought the benefit of news to Kaisa. He received this message from his clan: "Shot down all the Tartars, but one used a boy as a human shield, and he was hit in the belly. His death was long and painful. The Tartar was swiftly dealt with. We are sorry." Ah, if only...if only...well, it was too late. Kaisa moved on, knowing better than to share this news.
Thankfully, although the wind was against them, the clouds had dispersed entirely and the weather was clear. Finally, one force of nature was in their favor, when all the world seemed against them. The mood was still and intense, as the half-dæmons were winging toward the one hope they had left in the world, and there is nothing so driven as a desperate flight.
Another gust of news: "The children keep asking where their dæmons are. We fear they might die soon without them. It is heart-breaking. Please hurry." Kaisa shrugged it off. He suspected that his flock would be in a similar state if they weren't so focused on flying south as quickly as possible. There was no breath for crying - only for flying. And fly they did, until Kaisa heard the far-off murmur and swoosh of cloud-pine boughs aloft. As before, he sensed their arrival before his flock did. They were only aware of the witches when they saw them, swooping about like ragged black wings in the air.
Kaisa gave a great honk of greeting, but it was a bit hollow, because he could feel that Serafina was not here, but out searching for Lyra and the other whole children. He understood. Lyra was at the center of it all, the innocent eye of a cosmic storm. This was just a tragedy caught up in the gale-force winds. As they approached, he could make out the sad, hunched figures of the half-children, and the half-dæmons saw too, and anticipation radiated off them like anbaric energy. It was not excitement. They were just awaiting a moment intensely, and didn't know if it would be good or bad, only that it was eminently necessary. Kaisa could feel the wholes of the witches and their dæmons, and the halves of the broken children and his flock, but the halves could never make wholes. It was a twisted arithmetic, and he hated it. Would the two halves just multiply endlessly? Would they be one fourth of a person now, then an eighth, then a sixteenth, approaching nothing? He had thought this reunion would be joyous, but now it only made him nervous.
The pale, woebegone faces of the children turned up and gaped at the ragtag formation of ghostly bird-shaped dæmons descending, with great Kaisa as their leader. The snow goose banked right and perched on a rock jutting out of the snow, watching the long-awaited reunion. A young witch's ptarmigan dæmon landed beside him and babbled at him breathlessly about the poor dear babes and the foul Tartars who would dare cooperate with those Bolvangar monsters and what were those scientists trying to accomplish anyway? Young Helstrom's chatter was politely ignored. All were quiet and expectant, except Helstrom's restless witch.
Slowly, like strands of stretchy taffy, the half-dæmons transformed into their comfort forms, individual to each. Each of the three starlings became a different rodent in the snow: an amur lemming, a gray marmot, and a fox squirrel. Quivering their tiny noses, they hopped toward three different girls, who were staring fixedly at them, as if nothing else existed in the world. Melkior became a little lamb, and Kismet reluctantly let him go, though they would not be parted long, for it was apparent that the humans they were approaching were siblings. Stephen had the same tow-blond hair as his sister Bridget, and Kismet pranced delicately to him as a red fawn.
Arabella, for her part, had become a honey badger, and padded slowly through the light cover of snow to her Ryan, whose face was tinted blue with cold. She had been waiting for this moment ever since they had been separated, but she didn't know what to say to him. "Hello?" she said querulously. The question was not to Ryan, but to herself. She paused, despite Ryan's clear anxiety, the anxiety that she could not feel. How could she not feel it? She could only see it on his face. That answered her question, whatever it had been. Arabella leapt into his arms, quaking violently, hearing the hushed murmurs of other reunions all around her. But she couldn't feel Ryan's relief, only felt his tears leak into her fur. Why couldn't she feel?
Kaisa could hear Helstrom's sobs, moved as the ptarmigan dæmon was by this long-awaited event, but could not bring himself to join him. He felt no sadness or joy or relief because he could see none, could sense none. Wasn't this what his flock wanted? Wasn't this the mission of Kaisa's flock? The snow goose had imagined that it would be like the meeting of parted lovers, or even a witch's council, but not this. Arabella's experience was not unique. There were tears, but utterly silent ones, without any sadness behind them. What were they for? What were they crying for?
He wasn't the only one to be surprised. Arabella herself could scarcely believe what was happening. This wasn't supposed to happen. Ryan was supposed to kiss her and she was supposed to nuzzle him back and they would go back home to Bristol and leave all the misery behind. But she had left the misery behind. Arabella was confused, but not at all sad. She would never be sad anymore, she realized, with Ryan here. She would never be afraid again. There would be no more suffering or grieving or dreaming of Kerugi and weeping for her late at night.
But that wasn't all. There would no longer be excitement, because she couldn't share it with Ryan. He could never bring her joy or pleasure. She wouldn't remember Kerugi and Coraline and be inspired by their courage. There was no more inspiration, not even to write poetry about daffodils in springtime with Ryan. She could hear the witches singing a song, but she couldn't understand what it was about anymore. She kept hearing the word "death" in it, but she couldn't hear the death, and most of all, she couldn't feel it. No more mourning chants – no more crying at funerals – no more laughing at sheer beauty of the sunrise –
But at last, there was no more fear.