"Oxford," Mary said. "Why am I not shocked? Of course you're applying. Lord knows your A-levels were good enough. I don't suppose Kirjava has had anything to say on the matter?"
"She thinks it's a brilliant idea," Will replied smoothly, fussing with his starched white collar. "Dr. Malone, tell me I won't have to dress like this every day."
"It's Dr. Malone, now, is it? I can't write you a pass allowing you to dress like a ruffian, you know. If you want to attend England's finest institution of higher learning, you've got to look the part."
"I'd rather just sit the exam. I don't suppose you've any connections with any dons? Get me in easy?"
"I'm afraid not. You'll just have to rely upon your natural charm. Just sit in the interview and think murderous thoughts; I'm sure you can frighten them into accepting you. It's a pity Kirjava's shape has been fixed so long, but surely she can growl menacingly as well. Tea?"
He still dreamed of Lyra, nearly every night. Sometimes she was just as he last saw her -- her eyes shining with love and heartache, her tawny hair windswept around her sharp little face, her lips parted as though she had one more thing left to tell him that she'd never had a chance to before but they're out of time, out of time.
But sometimes, as the years trickled along, dream-Lyra seemed to age alongside him, her face losing the last soft traces of childhood and moving through the sharper angles of adolescence, gradually shaping her features into a more mature, ever lovelier image of young womanhood. She'd become vain about her appearance, like most teenage girls, but not so obviously; she still affected a careless attitude, but her golden-brown hair curled down to her shoulders, impossibly soft, and the bodice of her dress fitted snugly about her maturing curves. Will wondered if these glimpses of dream-Lyra were like a secret window between their worlds, flashes of truth unhindered by the fathomless space between them.
In his sleep, he drew dream-Lyra into his arms, and her skin was soft and sweet-smelling, and her mouth tasted of little red berries.
And every morning when he awoke, she was gone, as though she'd never existed; but Kirjava lay curled up at his side, pawing at his shoulder and mewling her love and shared sorrow. So he couldn't even pretend it had never been real at all.
"So why do you want to study at Exeter College?" the dour old don asked him.
Because there's no Jordan at this Oxford, but it seemed a close second. Kirjava batted at his leg warningly, and Will swallowed back the glib reply. Why did he want to study here, of all the pointless inane questions. Because it was bloody Oxford, wasn't it. What sort of response did these people expect, anyway?
He managed something appropriately bland and flattering, dropping his hand down by his side to tickle his unseen daemon's whiskers. "Good enough," she murmured. "It's what they want to hear; mind you don't lay it on too thick, though."
Will nodded, almost imperceptibly, and tweaked her ear.
The interview continued in much the same fashion for a good half hour, the two rickety old male professors -- Drs. Johansson and Galland, if he was remembering the introductions properly -- taking turns asking dull, innocuous questions. Will supposed they must have already made up their minds about him from his application and exams, because surely they weren't learning anything worthwhile from this.
The third don, Dr. Baker, a frumpy-looking woman in her seventies with a startlingly long braid of grey-brown hair trailing down her back, didn't bother interjecting for a while. She just watched him with a keen, discomforting intensity. He met her eyes only once, then looked quickly away; there was something a little too penetrating about her gaze.
"She's a sharp one," Kirjava agreed. "Careful, Will." He didn't need the warning; long habit made him uncomfortable with someone that shrewd taking any particular interest in him.
"Well," Dr. Galland finally said, "I believe we--"
"One moment," the woman said. Her voice had been weathered and coarsened by age, but must have once been musical. Even now, it was strangely soothing, at odds with her sharp gaze. "Mr. Parry, I believe you mentioned that you're a protege of one Dr. Mary Malone."
"I don't know that I could be called her protege, exactly," Will replied cautiously, noting with some trepidation that Kirjava had gone very still, her golden eyes intent on Dr. Baker. "But she's been tutoring me privately for a few years, outside of my normal schooling."
"Why would a theoretical physicist of her standing take such an interest in a schoolboy?" From one of the other two dons, it might have sounded cruel; Dr. Baker just seemed genuinely curious.
The truth would never do, of course; fortunately, Will and Mary had long since developed a plausible story. "She was a friend of my physics instructor at school; she visited our class once to talk about her work," Will said. "I found her lecture fascinating, so I stayed after to ask her a few questions. It sort of went on from there."
"You've a particular interest in dark matter, then?" Dr. Baker asked. Her eyes were very bright. "Has Dr. Malone spoken with you much about her most recent work? The application of her dark matter theories to the many-worlds interpretation?"
Will surreptitiously glanced down at his daemon, who nodded. "That's actually a good part of why I'm so keen on reading physics here," Will said. "With further investigation, I think it might be proven that other worlds--"
"Thank you, Mr. Parry," Dr. Johansson interrupted, giving his colleague a withering glance. "I'm afraid we must wrap up this interview now; we've several other likely lads to speak with this afternoon."
Dr. Baker sat back in her chair, sighing impatiently.
Will stood to go, stiffly unfolding himself from the uncomfortable chair. He shook the dons' hands again, smiling as politely as he could manage, and turned to leave.
"Mr. Parry," the woman called after him, and he stopped at the door to glance back at her. She gave him an odd little smile, her eyes sparkling almost impudently. "When you see Mary next, do ask her to give me a ring. It's been too long, and I've a thing or two to ask her myself."
"Baker?" Mary said, startled. "Sue Baker? Goodness, that's right, she is at Oxford these days, isn't she?"
"She wants you to ring her," Will added. He helped himself to a slice of toast, liberally slathering it with marmalade. "Who is she? I don't remember you mentioning her."
"I haven't thought of her in years," Mary said. "By the by, if you finish the marmalade, you're buying more. I can't afford to replace my entire pantry every other day, you know. I'm quite certain I never ate my parents out of house and home when I was your age."
"Weren't you in the nunnery by then anyway?"
She swatted his arm with her newspaper, but didn't seem to be paying his words much mind. "So Baker's an Oxford fellow now. I wonder how she argued herself into tenure. Those dreary old goats never much liked her or her notions."
"Notions?" Will asked, curious. "She seemed very interested in your work."
"That's exactly what I mean. She wasn't a theoretical physicist herself, mind; she started by way of theology, of all things."
"An experimental theologian, then," Will said. "Sounds like she'd have fared better in Lyra's world."
"I don't doubt it, although I daresay she'd have been tried for heresy years ago in that Oxford. She's not very religious herself. I first met her at a conference when I was still a nun; her theories frightened me as much as they fascinated me, then."
"Was that the one where you gave up on the Authority yourself?"
"Yes, actually, though Dr. Baker had nothing to do with that particular decision." Mary stirred her tea thoughtfully; from the looks of it, Will suspected it had gone cold ages ago.
Abruptly, Kirjava leapt up onto the table, scattering papers and startling Mary's little bird daemon Nathaniel, who flapped around Kirjava's head and scolded her with the sort of abusive language Will hadn't realized Mary even knew. Kirjava, unruffled, started washing her ears.
Mary soothed her daemon, with one eyebrow raised in Will's direction. Will just shrugged. "Cats," he said. He was glad to have gotten her attention properly again, though. "So what sort of notions did Dr. Baker have?"
"Among other things, she was a very vocal, very early supporter of the many-worlds interpretation -- back in the sixties, mind, when it still sounded like the stuff of fairy stories. Oh, the physics itself seemed sound enough, but Baker was one of the first to suggest the theory might be expanded out of the purely theoretical scientific realm -- that there might be other worlds existing in parallel to our own."
Kirjava's tail twitched violently, and Will agreed, although he kept his face calm. "Interesting notions," he said blandly. "I might look her up, if Exeter actually accepts me."
Mary glanced at him sharply, but didn't say anything further.
Midsummer's Day dawned cloudy and warm, with a thick, dampish haze settled low over the streets of Oxford. By noon, the air had cleared somewhat, though the sky was still heavy with the promise of rain. The Botanic Garden was quiet and still, and Will didn't see another soul on his way to their bench.
His world felt shadowy and thin, like the ghosts in the land of the dead. He felt as though he might reach out and brush through the weak overlay of this world, his hand passing into Lyra's as smoothly as the cut of a subtle knife. He didn't try.
"I've been accepted at Exeter," Will said softly. He shifted over to one side of the bench, leaving room for Lyra to slip in next to him. "Oxford University, like yours. It's not Jordan, of course, but it'll have to do."
His hand rested gently on the warm wood seat beside him. If he didn't look, if he relaxed his mind the way he'd learned as knife bearer, he could almost feel Lyra's hand softly covering his own.
"I'm going to read physics. I want to focus particularly on theoretical physics, like Mary. Dark matter. Experimental theology. She's been working on applying it to the quantum mechanics of the many-worlds interpretation, Lyra. And there's another woman, at Oxford, I think she might help. I think maybe, if I could just find the right angle, the right way of looking at it, maybe there could be a way--"
He swallowed hard. He hadn't voiced this hope to anyone, not Mary, not even his own Kirjava, who was curled up at his feet now with her eyes closed, purring as loudly as she could. But he didn't need to tell his daemon, of course, because she knew his heart better than he did.
"There are other ways of traveling between worlds," Will whispered hoarsely. "Like the angels. And if there are other ways, ways that don't hurt the balance of Dust or create Specters or anything else like that, if there are other ways, we could..."
"They know," Kirjava said calmly. "If we can find a way, Lyra and Pan know we'll come back to them."
"We will," Will said. "Lyra, I swear, we will."
That summer dragged on far longer than it had any right to. Will had long since tempered his old paranoia, once his mother was decidedly out of danger, but he'd still never been a particularly outgoing or popular boy, so he didn't have many school friends to keep up with. And his mother had quietly passed away the previous autumn, so the hours he'd once have spent looking after her stretched out emptily before him. Mary gave him lessons, of course, and he tried to help her with her own research, but his education still had its limits, and he couldn't grasp more than half of the stuff she was currently working with. He had a part-time job as a shop clerk, but though that engaged some of his time, it still left his thoughts roaming freely.
Mostly he thought about Lyra, and the utter unfairness of the universe. It wasn't particularly cheering.
"If we could go back," he murmured to Kirjava once, neglecting the latest sheet of equations Mary had set him, "and make the decision all over again, knowing how hard it really would be to be apart from her and Pan..."
"We knew that then," Kirjava reminded him. "We had no choice."
"I thought it would get easier. I thought we'd get over it eventually. But it hurts more every year."
"Yes, well, that's adolescence for you," Mary called tartly from the kitchen.
Will made a face in her general direction.
"She's right," Kirjava said, kneading the rug with her claws. "But that doesn't mean we're wrong."
"Well, now we know," Will said. He eyed his problem set grimly, and set back to his calculations with renewed determination.
Life at Exeter was completely different and utterly the same as life before college had been. The halls and classrooms were far grander than anything in any school he'd ever attended before, but nothing felt particularly strange to him. Will supposed that all the stories Lyra had once told him about life in her Oxford had really sunk in, giving him an odd sense of familiarity as he walked through the vast corridors and across the sudden green brilliance of the yards. He wondered, irreverently, what the best route up to the roofs might be.
The schoolwork, though, was all the same. Oh, it was certainly several steps up from secondary school, but the lectures were no more grueling than Mary's, and some of the problem sheets were far easier.
He found his mind drifting in an advanced algebra tutorial in mid-October, idly doodling along the edges of his notes. This was the dullest part of physics, in his opinion -- not that the maths weren't necessary, but he regarded them merely as means to an end, rather than appreciating mathematics as an art form in its own right.
"What's that?" Kirjava asked. Will started, his pencil jerking across the page. Kirjava had pressed her nose to the corner of his notebook, whiskers brushing his latest set of doodles.
Will blinked, looking them over. He hadn't even realized he was drawing anything in particular, but an elaborately sketched castle now stretched up along the margins of his notes, archways and staircases and pavilions stumbling across each other in miniature, tiny pennants rippling in an unseen breeze, sheer marble walls leading down to the edge of the sea. The artwork wasn't particularly stunning; Will had a neat hand for drawing, but lacked the training and imagination to match.
"Where'd that come from?" he murmured, as quietly as possible to avoid drawing the attention of the tutor or other students.
"Nothing I've ever seen before, in any world," Kirjava said.
"Me neither. It's kind of cool, though."
Kirjava's eyes gleamed. Her tail twitched once, twice.
It took him until nearly November to work up the nerve to seek out that Dr. Baker. She was a fellow, after all, too important to waste her time lecturing first-years, and he couldn't think up a logical excuse to run into her.
Fortunately, Mary gave him a reason.
"There's some new treatise Baker wants me to have a look at," she told Will, her voice sounding thin and tinny over the ancient college phone. "I haven't time to swing by the university today, but you and I are still on for dinner this weekend, aren't we? I told her you'd stop by her office and fetch it for me."
"Because I've nothing better to do with my time, of course," Will said, with an exaggerated sigh. "Yeah, all right, I will."
"Good love. Do give her a chance to talk your ear off about her latest theories, I think they'd particularly appeal to you. And if you listen well enough, she may even take a liking to you, and sponsor your research later on."
"We all must suffer through. At least Baker's an interesting sort. I'm quite glad you ran into her last spring; some of her ideas are a bit batty, but she's done wonders for my research. I'll see you Saturday."
He rang off.
"Mr. Parry, isn't it?" Dr. Baker said from behind him, giving Will a start. He had been standing just outside her office door, wondering how long he ought to wait after knocking before giving up entirely.
"You weren't in," he said lamely. Way to state the obvious, Will, he could imagine Kirjava saying snidely. She had refused to come along, for no particular reason Will could fathom.
"Well observed," Dr. Baker remarked dryly. "I do try to avoid this office whenever possible. There are always students lurking about wanting to impress me, or faculty trying to annoy me. Well, perhaps that's not their intention, but they succeed admirably all the same. Do come in; Mary mentioned you were playing her messenger boy today."
"I live to serve," Will said, following her in. He could immediately see another reason why Dr. Baker might avoid her office: it was a mess.
Dr. Baker gave him an amused look, as though she knew exactly what he was thinking. "I'm far more concerned with keeping my mind free of clutter; something's got to give. Besides, I know where everything is -- well, more or less -- and if my nosy colleagues don't, all the better."
Will looked around. It was at least a clean sort of mess, he thought; all papers and books and photographs, but nothing seemed particularly dusty or dirty. Just...cluttered. His bedroom in Mary's flat had seen far worse days than this office.
"Have a seat, do," Dr. Baker urged him. "Just clear those papers off the chair before you sit, there's a good lad. Add them to the heap on the desk. I'll sort through them eventually. Now, I'm certain that text is somewhere in this pile..."
Will watched her sort out an old bookcase that looked as though it might collapse under the weight of its unwieldy and rather haphazard collection of books. He found the indicated chair under another mountain of assorted rubble, and did his best to scoop it all up into a manageable stack, which he then maneuvered onto the desk.
As he did, he accidentally knocked over a picture frame, wincing as it clattered to the floor. "Sorry!" he said. "Sorry, sorry, I'll just--"
"It's been through worse, whatever it is," Dr. Baker called over her shoulder. "I make it a rule to keep nothing that can't survive a war. I've survived one or two myself. Surprisingly durable, everything in this room..."
She chattered on as he leaned over and fetched the fallen frame. Despite her assurances, he wanted to be sure he hadn't cracked the glass or anything equally embarrassing. But it seemed to be intact. Curious, he examined the photograph.
It was an old picture, brown-tinted and yellowing at the edges, showing four children -- teenagers, really -- in drab school uniforms in a field or something, arms slung about each other, smiling politely at the camera. The only one who seemed to actually be enjoying herself was the youngest girl, who grinned mischievously up at something out of the frame, her wild hair brushing just past her chin. There was a fierce sort of love in her eyes, transported across the decades and through this faded lens, making his heart skip a beat. She wasn't Lyra, definitely not -- her face was too round, her hair too dark, her figure all wrong. But something in her bright eyes, in the curve of her smile...
"My brothers and sister," Dr. Baker remarked, just behind him. "And me. While we were still in school, back in the Dark Ages or thereabouts."
Will started, nearly dropping the picture again. "I didn't mean to -- I just--" He quickly replaced it on the desk, but the Lyra-girl's smile remained imprinted in his mind's eye. Has that girl been this professor, long ago?
"It's all right," Dr. Baker told him cheerfully. "I know it must come as a bit of a shock, to discover that the rickety old professors here might have been children once. I certainly find it difficult to remember myself on occasion. Now, the treatise I've meant to show Mary, I do believe I've uncovered it."
"Right," Will said, accepting it. It was a thin little book, and looked recently published. "Thanks. I'll give it to her at the weekend. I'm sorry to've bothered you--"
"It's no bother," Dr. Baker said. "Oh! My goodness, I'm sorry, I only just noticed."
He blinked, then realized: he'd taken the book with his left hand. She'd noticed the missing fingers.
"Whatever happened?" she persisted.
Right. As though he needed to uncover his deepest, darkest secrets to a professor. As though she'd believe the half of it. He didn't need any more strangers prying into his life, thank you very much. "Just an accident," he muttered, pocketing the slim treatise. "It was ages ago."
She tilted her head to one side and gave him a long, shrewd look. He was suddenly very glad that Kirjava hadn't come along; he had the strangest feeling that this old professor would have been able to see her. "Your tutors say you're often bored in class," she said, unexpectedly.
Will blinked. "I've never made any complaint--"
"No, of course not, you're a polite lad. What is it that bores you, may I ask? It seems silly to read physics here if you're not actually interested in the field."
"It's not that," he said hastily. "It's just some of the maths -- well, I've done them already, you see. With Dr. Malone."
"Ah, yes," Dr. Baker said. "She's been tutoring you for years, that's right. Yes, I imagine a few of the first-year courses here must seem a bit redundant to you. After all, most of our students haven't the benefit of studying privately all through secondary school with a prominent physicist."
"I'm sure it'll get more interesting soon," Will said. "I don't mean to be a bother to my tutors, if that's the issue. I'll pay closer attention, I promise." He frowned. "They've complained to you? Why?"
She smiled. "I've been keeping an eye out for you, Mr. Parry. We did have a most interesting little chat during your interview. And for Mary's sake as well, of course."
Will's face felt hot. "I don't need looking after."
"Of course you don't. I was merely curious." Dr. Baker leaned back against her desk, still eyeing him far too cannily. "So you've made it your mission in life to explore the many-worlds interpretation -- to prove that parallel universes do, in fact, exist."
"Sort of," Will said warily. "Do you believe that's possible?"
An odd little half-smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. "Do I believe in other worlds?" Dr. Baker said. "My boy, you don't know the half of it."
He stared at her for a few moments, wondering if he should inquire further, but she turned away abruptly, sorting through her papers.
"I believe you could best attain your full potential here at Exeter through further private study," Dr. Baker said, pulling what looked like a timetable out from a loose folder. "Let's say, every Tuesday and Thursday, from four to six? We'll meet here to start."
"Yeah," Will said, somewhat dazed. "All right."
Will's life at Oxford was a fairly solitary one. He had little in common with the other undergraduates he met -- they were all certainly clever enough, but outside of the classroom, all they seemed to care about were pubs and films and dating. Will didn't have much patience for that sort of thing. So while he was unfailingly polite, he never bothered actually engaging any other students in conversation, and they soon learned not to bother seeking him out, either. One Friday evening a girl in his residence hall (Mary had insisted he live in the student residences, citing it all as a crucial part of the college experience, even though he just thought it an unnecessary expense) knocked on his door and, shyly, invited him out to the Undercroft Bar for a pint; he politely declined, and that was the end of that.
Instead, he studied, particularly the advanced texts Dr. Baker set him. Halfway through Michaelmas term, he was already wondering if he might manage his undergraduate degree in two years instead of three. It would make his life a bit more stressful than he was entirely comfortable with, but the sooner he could move on to graduate work and get his doctorate, the sooner he could figure his way out of this damn world.
Kirjava remarked once that this might not be the healthiest mindset, and she was probably right, but he didn't much care.
So he had no friends his own age; but he had Mary for companionship, and Dr. Baker for the research, and dream-Lyra for love. And of course Kirjava. He was never really alone.
He was thinking of Lyra when he should have been paying attention to Dr. Baker's explanation of wavefunction collapse, and really, it didn't come as much of a surprise that she caught him out.
"Will, I thought the whole point of you being here was that I wouldn't bore you like your tutors do," she reproached him.
Will shook himself out of it. "I'm sorry. You're not boring me, not at all. I just got...distracted. I really am sorry, it won't happen again."
Dr. Baker leaned back in her chair. "Looking at that old photo again? I realize it's quite the novelty, but really, the quality isn't worth much notice."
He had been staring at her old photograph. That young girl, with her fierce eyes... "I didn't mean to stare at it so. It's just, the youngest girl, she reminds me of someone I once knew. Was that you?"
"Introductory family history, is it?" Dr. Baker said with a smile. "I suppose it's more engaging than quantum mechanics. No, that's my baby sister you're ogling. That girl's me." She tapped the older girl in the picture, who looked rather squashed between her two brothers. That girl, the one who would become Dr. Baker someday -- she was a pretty young lady, certainly handsomer than her siblings, but her eyes held none of that fierce joy.
"You look...sad," Will said without thinking, then flushed. "I mean -- well, it's a very old picture, isn't it. Not to say that you're old or anything--"
Dr. Baker laughed. "Best quit while you're ahead, Will. And you're right, I don't look very happy there, do I? I suppose I had a rather...difficult adolescence. I grew out of it, thankfully."
"I know what you mean," Will agreed fervently. Of course, Dr. Baker hadn't been killing men and fighting monsters and losing the love of her life at the age of twelve, but still.
"My sister was a very special girl," Dr. Baker said, touching the photograph gently. Some of that sadness came over her face, for a moment, and Will could see the shadow of her younger self there. "Such a sweet child, and stubborn as the day was long. I fought with her constantly -- well, sisters, you realize. I was the pretty one, and I was all too proud of it then. Very silly of me. It's amazing what a fuss everyone makes over attractive children -- and look at me now! Just as old and frumpy as any housekeeper." She laughed shortly. "Let that be a lesson to you, Will -- you're a handsome young man, but that's hardly what matters. It's what's inside of you that counts. And what's inside of you can only be improved by a healthy dose of quantum theory, which is why you're here today, isn't it? Let's figure out how much you managed to absorb before you started tuning out."
And like that, they were back into the lesson. Will wondered what had happened to that younger sister of Dr. Baker's, to have brought that look into his professor's face.
He wondered what had happened to Lyra, these past six years.
One unseasonably warm afternoon in late November, he took his books out to the college yard for a change of scenery. Several other undergraduates had had the same idea, apparently; there was even an impromptu football game going along the eastern half of the lawn. Will set himself up on a bench, watching Kirjava dart playfully in and out of the football players' legs for a few minutes before getting back to work.
He'd been up late working on a problem sheet the night before, and he found himself half-dozing over his book, a particularly dense philosophical text that Dr. Baker suggested might have bearing on his research. The warm air, the comforting background noise of the game, and the tiny printed words marching across the pages all lulled him into a trancelike state. Kind of like Lyra working her alethiometer, he thought sleepily. Her bright eyes intent on the symbols, her fingers deftly manipulating the mechanisms, her tawny hair falling across her face, golden in the late afternoon sunlight...
Out of the corner of his eye, he glimpsed a flash of tawny gold, and jerked awake with a gasp. Lyra? No, not Lyra. Something large and powerful, not human at all, with shaggy golden hair--
But it was already gone.
"Will?" Kirjava mewed, rubbing against his leg. "What's wrong? You went all still -- I could feel our hearts stop for an instant--"
"Nothing," Will said. "I was half-asleep. I must've drifted off, and dreamt something. Or maybe I just caught a glimpse of someone's daemon."
"Yeah," Kirjava agreed. "I think that's right. Shall I take a good look around? What shape did the daemon have? I could tell you whose you saw."
"I could, too, if I wanted to," Will reminded her, more sharply than he'd meant to. She just wanted to reassure him, that was all. And anyway, it was probably nothing.
The fabric between worlds felt thin, transparent. A cold breeze ruffled his hair, and he shivered. Had winter come early to Lyra's Oxford this year? Or, no, it was November, probably the weather here was just starting to change. Nothing weird about that.
"Come on, Kirjava," he said. "I want to go back inside."
"Schrodinger's cat," Dr. Baker said. "The classic paradox."
Will groaned. "Always comes back to that one, doesn't it. Is the cat alive? Dead? Really bloody annoyed at being stuck in the damned box over and over again?" He wished Kirjava were here; she'd have been glad to demonstrate. But Kirjava was still avoiding Dr. Baker. Sooner or later, he resolved, he'd have to get a straight answer out of her as to why.
"All at once, plus a thousand other possibilities we mere mortals could never even begin to conceive, you cheeky little bugger," Dr. Baker retorted. "That's what really boggles the mind: there's not just one simple split, two possible universes suddenly springing into existence, but hundreds. Thousands. Billions. God only knows."
"Oh, add God into the equation, do." Will stretched, his back cracking noisily. It was astonishing, really, how quickly he'd fallen into such easy familiarity with the shrewd, frumpy professor. Possibly because it was much like talking with an older, more crotchety version of Mary Malone.
"God's a difficult one to ignore," Dr. Baker said dryly. "Trust me on this."
Will supposed this wouldn't be the best moment to mention that the Authority had in fact been overthrown six years ago. "Mary mentioned you'd started by studying theology," he said instead, not quite hesitantly. Prying into the professor's personal life wasn't exactly a habit yet; it felt rather odd to acknowledge that she had one, outside of the college and his tutorials. "I was just wondering -- how did you end up in physics?"
"Everett formulated what would later become known as the many-worlds interpretation in '57," Dr. Baker said. She kept flipping idly through the textbook they were discussing, but she no longer seemed to be looking at the pages. "It seemed to pose a possible solution to a problem I'd been struggling with for years. I once thought God had all the answers. Suddenly I realized I'd been looking in the wrong place."
"Like Mary," Will said. "That sounds a lot like what Dr. Malone went through, I mean."
Dr. Baker smiled. "Similar, but not exactly," she said. "I never had a vocation, like Mary -- I was no nun, that's for certain. I came to the Church by a different route. I was about your age, a little older. I had just suffered a great personal loss, and my life was falling apart about me, so I turned to God. I had been reading maths, of all things, at the time, then switched to theology. So my leap back to physics ten years later was really just returning to my original plan, if a somewhat different branch."
"Alive, dead, or reading physics," Will deadpanned. "All the possibilities accounted for."
She didn't looks as though she were paying him the slightest bit of attention; his glib remark slipped by without comment. "Well, I met my husband in a metaphysics course, so it wasn't a complete waste," Dr. Baker added; somewhat tangentially, Will thought. "And it certainly seemed to make more sense at the time than a girl reading maths in the late '40s! Even I can't really explain where that came from; my parents thought I must have been mad. I wasn't the nerdy sort at all; I think I had some notion of mathematics being all hard, dry facts, and those were all I wanted to deal with."
"Not a particularly imaginative child, then?" Will asked. He thought of Lyra, her wild lies and fantastic stories, able to create more new worlds in a breath than any combination of Schrodinger's cats. Or Dr. Baker's little sister in the photograph, the clever ideas and fantasies practically shining out of her bright gaze.
Then he glanced up, and realized Dr. Baker had gone very still. "Quite imaginative," she said shortly. "That was the problem." She cleared her throat, and pushed the textbook in front of him. "Now, back to the physics. The paradox of Schrodinger's cat..."
No more prying, Will vowed to himself. He didn't much like it when others pried into his past, after all. It was only fair.
He was drifting off over his work again, sketching random shapes and figures into the margins of his notes as he tried to revise for a quiz, when Kirjava interrupted him.
"You're doodling again," she said, batting at his hand. "When'd you decide to become an artist? Like that castle. And this one." She nudged at one sketch in particular.
"I don't know," Will said, and realized that he didn't. He examined it more closely. "It looks like -- like one of those really old hunting horns, you know? Medieval, I mean, that old. Something out of a Tolkien story, or Camelot."
"It's pretty," Kirjava told him appreciatively. "Can you always draw like that, or only when you're in some sort of trance?"
"Not a trance," he said, affronted. "Don't be absurd."
Kirjava eyed him speculatively. "I remember us reading once, in some classics class at school or something -- dreams that emerged from the gate of ivory were just dreams, but the ones that came through the gate of horn were true dreams. Visions."
Will laughed. "So, when I zone out and doodle a picture of a horn -- and wouldn't those types of things have been made out of ivory, or somesuch? -- that's a true daydream?"
"Don't you believe in visions, Will?" Kirjava asked. Her voice was strange.
Will looked down at his notes, frowning. "Not in this world."
"Yeah," Kirjava said, so softly he could barely make out the words. "That's what I'm afraid of, too."
"The boy's coming along well," Dr. Baker told Mary over tea. "He's a sharp one. Quite driven, to what end I couldn't say, but it certainly serves his studies well."
"Yes, he's always been a bright lad," Mary said. She put down her teacup gently, wincing as it clinked against the saucer. This set was on the verge of falling apart, but it was a pretty one. "I feel a bit silly asking you this, but...does he have many friends at Oxford, do you know?"
Dr. Baker nodded to herself, as though she'd expected the question. "None that he's mentioned, and I've never so much as seen him in conversation with another student. His tutors say he keeps himself to himself."
"Bother," Mary muttered. "I had hoped..."
"Bit antisocial, is he?"
"He oughtn't be," Mary said. "It's absurd. He's clever, he's polite, he's personable--"
"He's intimidating," Dr. Baker interrupted. "Because he's so clever. And large, powerful-looking, plus that heavy brow -- not the sort of man I'd like to encounter in a dark alley late at night."
Mary brushed that aside. "He's got a presence, yes, and he's as moody as any teenager, I'm sure, but he wouldn't hurt a fly." Unless he had a very good reason to, she didn't add. But that was all years ago. "But that's no reason he should frighten off the other students."
"He doesn't. They'd be quite happy to be friendly with him, I think. He just doesn't seem to care about them, so they leave him be."
Mary tapped her spoon against the edge of her cup, unconsciously. "I worry that -- has he ever mentioned the name Lyra?"
"An odd name; no, I should have remembered that, I think. Who is she?"
"She was a girl he once knew, a few years ago. They were...very close. He lost her. It was -- still is, I believe -- quite hard on him."
Dr. Baker's eyes gleamed. "And you thought I might empathize with him a bit? Draw it out of him?"
"I worry," Mary said quietly. "He rarely mentions her to me anymore, but I've overheard him talking to -- to himself. He misses her terribly. And he's so angry all the time -- oh, he hides it, but I can tell. And yes, he's a teenager, and it's perfectly natural, but with all the things he's been through -- his mother passed on last year, and she'd been unwell most of his life. And losing Lyra, and all that. I just...worry."
"The theoretical physics," Dr. Baker murmured. "Dark matter. Many worlds. Of course, that explains it. I'd wondered."
Mary gave her a sharp look. "What do you mean?"
"He wants to find a way back to her," Dr. Baker said simply. "This lost girl of his. By any means necessary. And he's looking along the same paths I am, so that suits me fine. And to think, at my age, I'd nearly given up hope."
"My dear," Dr. Baker said, with a strange little smile, "you didn't really think you and your clever protege were the only people to visit other worlds, did you?"
Something wasn't right. The very air tasted strange, unfamiliar. Kirjava stalked restlessly around their bedroom in the residence hall, swatting at unseen irritants, clawing up the carpet. Will watched her, unnerved, unable to concentrate on his studies. "Do you know what it is?" he asked.
"Wrongness," she hissed. "Like something's coming, something unnatural. Or breaking through between worlds."
"It feels like...like trying to cut through to the wrong world," Will tried. "That resonance I felt, every time I probed with the knife -- sometimes it felt right, and I knew that world matched up with the one we were in; or it felt wrong, and that meant the other world was, I dunno, there was a mountain in the way there or we'd be underwater or something. It sort of feels like that. But it also -- well, Lyra's world had a particular feel, and this one always felt like home, and...Cittagazze. It feels like Cittagazze. Lovely on the outside, but rotten to the core."
"Specters," Kirjava said. "Yeah, sort of like Specters. But not."
"No, not exactly," Will agreed. "Something new."
"Whatever it is, it's not here yet. But soon."
That's when Mary rang with some strange news.
"Baker knows more about parallel universes than she's let on," Mary said, talking almost too quickly for Will to make out over the faulty connection. "She was one of Sir Charles Latrom's consultants, back when he took over my lab, when I first met Lyra. Oh, she's very dismissive of it all now, says she was horribly mistaken when she placed her trust in him, apologizes for the whole messy incident. In fairness, once Sir Charles was out of the picture, I do believe she might have been one of the people pulling strings to keep me out of trouble with the police. But she was up to her neck in it."
"She's not from Lyra's world, though, not like Sir Charles was," Will said, more of a statement than a question. "I'd have seen her daemon -- normally, without having to look specially for it, I mean."
"She can't be from another world of any sort," Mary said. "Her CV all checks out, far as I can tell, going back to her scholarship in the late 1940s. She couldn't possibly have lived this long in a world not her own."
"Sir Charles made frequent trips back to his own world, to stay healthy--"
"Yes...perhaps that's her sudden urgency -- all the windows have been closed for six years -- if she forged some of her earliest records--"
"No, no, she couldn't," Will interrupted, hitting his desk hard enough to bruise his hand. "There's a photograph in her office, of her and her siblings when they were kids just after the war. I've been staring at it for weeks now, it's got to be genuine."
"It doesn't rule it out, but it was a long shot, anyway," Mary said. "But the Sir Charles connection -- it makes me nervous, Will. And some of the things she implied to me..."
"She's been to other worlds," Kirjava said quietly, curled up on the bed. "Like us."
Will stared at his daemon. "How do you know? Sorry," he said back into the phone. "Kirjava's just told me something interesting, hold on."
Kirjava folded her paws underneath her chest, closing her eyes. "I've passed through a lot of worlds, Will. More than you. Me and Pan, we went everywhere we could find a window. And that witch's daemon, he told us even more. Your Dr. Baker's from this world, yeah, but she's visited others. I think she even lived in another one, for a while. I can smell it on her. It's like..." She paused for a moment, sniffing the air. "It's like Specters," she said softly. "Except not."
"Oh, Christ," Will said.
"Will?" Mary's voice sounded shriller than usual, but that might just have been the telephone connection. "What's Kirjava saying?"
Will explained, as well as he could.
"That tears it, then," Mary said. "She want to get back to that other world of hers, no matter what the cost. She's devoted her entire life to it, and now she's dragging you in as well. Will, be careful."
But it suddenly occurred to Will that he had, by pure dumb luck, managed to meet the one other person in this entire world who was as determined to find passage out as he was.
And he couldn't see a damn thing wrong with that.
Kirjava hissed and scratched, but Will set off for his usual lesson with Dr. Baker that afternoon with renewed determination. They had a common purpose now, after all. They always had, really; he just hadn't realized it until today.
Of course, he couldn't just come right out and ask her what other worlds she'd traveled to, and what she'd lost there that she so badly needed to find again. It would've been a betrayal of Mary's trust, somehow, not to mention rude as all get out. But maybe he could find things out in a more roundabout way.
He waited throughout the duration of the lesson -- they were back on calculus now, far more advanced than his current classes were teaching him, but still, maths were maths. He couldn't come up with a clever segue way from fractals to the people we loved and left behind in other worlds. He kept sort of hoping Dr. Baker would be the one to bring the subject up, since she'd apparently so recently discussed it with Mary, but no such luck.
Finally, it was six o'clock, and she closed the textbook. "Finish up that problem sheet by next Tuesday, and don't fudge the proofs like this last set, I can always tell."
"We don't all secretly want to read maths," Will groused. Then he figured he might as well make his own opportunity. "Your brothers and sister -- did they all become mathematicians as well?" he asked, as casually as possible.
She snorted inelegantly. "My elder brother would have liked that -- he fancied himself quite the professor! But no," she said, and her smile faded. "They all passed on, years ago. A railway accident. Our parents as well."
"Oh," Will said, somewhat chastened. He hadn't expected to hit onto her tragedy quite so soon -- if that's what this was. Tragic as they were, railway accidents were hardly otherworldly. "I'm sorry."
"It's all right," Dr. Baker said. "As I said, it was many years ago. But you see, Will," and she stepped quite close to him, looking him evenly in the eye, "I do want you to realize that you're not the only one who has had to deal with a great loss at too young of an age. Now I know I haven't heard the particulars of your story, but Mary did tell me that you've been through a lot. If you ever need to talk about it, I want you to know that I'm here."
Instinctively, Will backed away. A great loss. Right. And how many of his particulars, exactly, had Mary divulged to her? A week ago, he would have been furious. But a week ago, he hadn't known what he knew about Dr. Baker now.
"Right," he said. He smiled as politely as he could manage. "Thanks."
Will wondered who exactly was trying to use the other the most. It was a disconcerting feeling. He shook it off as best he could. But back outside, heading back to his room, he remembered the cloying wrongness he'd felt that morning, the sense of something unnatural fast approaching. Maybe he should have mentioned it to Dr. Baker. Or maybe going to see her again at all was the worst thing he could have done. He wanted to ask Kirjava about it, but she was nowhere to be found.
That night, the angels came.
"Will Parry," the angel Xaphania said, hovering over his bed. She wasn't alone, but hers was the strongest spirit by far. "It seems as though we last spoke only yesterday."
"It's been a bit longer for me," Will replied bluntly. "I never expected to see any of you again."
Kirjava, he saw, was back; curled up at the foot of his bed, as she was wont to do. That was a comfort, at least. He reached out, and she picked her way across the blankets up into his arms. So his earlier obstinacy was forgiven for now. Good. He liked angels well enough, but their sudden reemergence into his life after six years was probably a very bad omen.
Sure enough, Xaphania went on: "You should not have, if all had been well. We angels no longer wish to meddle in human affairs; that interference ended with the Metatron. But we have discovered that yet another threat still remains to Dust, and the balance between the many worlds."
"Another knife?" Will asked. "Or another Authority?"
"Not a subtle knife; though not entirely unlike it in nature. This is no god-destroyer; its power is more limited, and so it slipped past our notice during the Rebellion. But though weaker, it still has the capacity to wreak havoc upon the worlds." The other angels shifted their wings, a faint flurry of movement in the starlight coming through Will's window.
"What is it?" Will asked. "And why do you need me? If you want to destroy it, sure, the knife probably could have ripped it apart, but you know the knife itself was broken. Permanently."
"You could not have damaged it, even with your knife," Xaphania said. "Like the knife, any fool might pick it up and do some harm, but only its true bearer could wield it, or destroy it."
"Then why come to me?" Will asked again. "And...what is this thing, anyway?"
"An ivory horn," Xaphania said.
Kirjava stiffened in his arms. "I know," he murmured to his daemon.
Don't you believe in visions, Will?
Not in this world.
"The world it comes from is a twisted one," Xaphania went on. "Time moves strangely there. A century may pass by in only an hour of our time, or a minute may stretch out for fifty years. And the horn is not bound by time, space, or world." She paused, as though collecting her thoughts -- or trying to organize them into a form a mere human could comprehend. "Whereas the subtle knife made cuts, precise and clean, the ivory horn -- tears. There is no precision or elegance. It rips holes out of the fabric of the universe, explodes passage from one world into another. It calls to a person's soul, and physically drags them to the horn's wielder. If the bearer is skilled, it summons only the being they intended to call, and leaves body and soul intact. If not..." The angel shrugged, an odd contortion on her noble frame. "The potential for destruction is nearly unending."
Will took that in, rubbing his daemon's neck as he thought. What could Mrs. Coulter have done with such a thing? The Magisterium?
"Yes," Xaphania said, seeing his thoughts clearly etched across his face. "It is too dangerous to bear thinking of."
Anyone I wanted, I could call to me.
Will realized he was trembling with the idea, startling his daemon. He shook it off. "So what do you want me to do?"
"The world of the horn's origin was...more or less decimated half a century ago," the angel said, with a fathomless sorrow in her eyes. "How or why we do not know, only that a great cataclysm occurred there. Fire, floods, meteors--"
"Sounds positively biblical," Will muttered.
Xaphania inclined her head in what might have been a nod of agreement. "The agents of the Authority sought to control all aspects of life, in all the worlds. In this one, they may well have succeeded, to their ruin. Whether or not the horn was involved, we do not know. But it did survive the catastrophe. And only its last living bearer may destroy it."
"But if everyone in that world is gone--"
"The ivory horn's sole surviving bearer lives in your world, Will," Xaphania said. "You must help us find her, and guide her in her task. It is likely she will not wish the horn destroyed at all; you must convince her, and teach her how to accomplish its destruction. You were knife bearer, and destroyed the destroyer of gods. She will need your help."
Will looked down at his daemon. Then he looked back up at the assembled angels, his chin jutting out stubbornly. "I'll help you. On one condition."
A fluttering of wings, the starlight shimmering in the not-quite-empty air.
"Lyra," Will said. "You tell me about Lyra. You can travel between worlds, wherever you like. What's become of Lyra?"
"If you help us, and only then," Xaphania said, "we shall tell you all we know."
The night was long. It was nearing end of term, and midwinter, so the darkness stretched out for many hours. Will didn't know how one ought to prepare for a search-and-destroy mission in another world. But then, he hadn't needed much preparation the last time, and with luck, this one should be brief and straightforward.
"It's for Lyra," he muttered to himself. "For Lyra." Kirjava twined worriedly about his legs, but said nothing.
"Come," Xaphania said at last. "Dawn is near. You must go."
"And how am I supposed to find her, this bearer of yours?" Will asked. "Are you going to lead me to her, or what?"
"You will know her by her name," Xaphania said, with bone-deep certainty. "She became a legend in that world, once, many years ago, many centuries by their reckoning of time. Her name -- and others', long dead, now fading -- is etched upon the fabric of the world." And then all the angels together whispered it, the name softly echoing and multiplying in the stillness of the room. "Susan."
For a moment, Will despaired of his task; did these angels realize how many bloody Susans there were in England alone? How did they expect him to find this one particular girl?
And then he realized: "Sue Baker," he said. "Of course."
Angels were weaker than humans; though they could travel unaided between worlds, they could not touch the ivory horn. But with all the windows closed, and the subtle knife destroyed, Will couldn't just travel to the horn's world, and the angels could not carry him.
"So I can't get to the ivory horn, and you can't get it to me, and Dr. Baker is supposed to solve this problem...how, exactly?" Will asked. The morning had dawned clear and cold; there was frost on the grass in the college yard as he walked slowly toward the building where Dr. Baker kept her office.
"Like your knife, the horn has its own intentions. It has been left untouched for too long. It yearns for its bearer. It calls to her, has been calling to her with ever-increasing intensity over these fifty long years. And eventually -- very soon -- the pressure will reach a breaking point, and it will tear her a window into its world. When she follows, you must go with her."
"And if she chooses not to go?"
"A part of her soul lingers there," Xaphania said simply. "If she can return, she must. She will not even consider it a choice."
Kirjava nudged Will's leg for reassurance, and Will leaned down to twine his fingers in her sleek fur. "Part of her soul? You mean--"
"What you might consider her daemon," Xaphania confirmed.
"But she would be empty," Will protested hoarsely. "I've seen what happens to people attacked by Specters, they're dead inside, they're--"
"Specters destroy daemons, the soul. They feed upon them. This world is different. The soul -- the daemon -- lingers on. Susan is not without a soul, merely separated from it. In her case, for a very long time."
"Is that even possible?"
Xaphania might have shrugged again. "So it would seem. I do not pretend to understand it fully. That world is abhorrent to us."
Will looked down at his own daemon, his soul, his heart. "That's why you refused to go near her, Kirjava, isn't it?"
She rubbed her head against him, mewing plaintively. Will bent down to run his fingers through her glossy fur, then looked back up at the angel, his eyes hard. "Remember our bargain," he said coldly.
"Lyra," Xaphania agreed. "Once you've accomplished your task."
Something shifted in the air, the world suddenly twisting out of focus. Will stumbled.
"It is happening," Xaphania said abruptly. "Now, Will!"
He turned and ran, feeling the wrongness in the air coalesce, the fabric of the barrier between the horn's world and his own stretching thin and warping, and though something were trying to tear through. His feet pounded against the stone corridors of the college as he shoved past startled students and fellows; but at the same time, he had a sense of running through a great palace by the sea, but the castle was decaying around him, its marble walls crumbling into dust and ash.
He reached the dying sea, waters churning and boiling; he reached Dr. Baker's office and flung open the door.
She was crumpled on the floor, her hand pressed to her chest, her face contorted with pain. And across her desk, scattering books and papers, shattering the photograph of four young siblings, a window had torn open between the worlds.
Mary was awakened at eight o'clock on that Friday morning by the harsh jangling ring of the phone on her nightstand. She reached out hazily to answer, mentally cursing the intrusion; she'd been up far past midnight, to caught up in research to notice the late hour. Her daemon chirped sleepily. "Hello?"
"It's Will," the voice said, and something in his tone made her sit straight up in bed and reach for her spectacles. "I'm at the college, you've got to come straightaway. Dr. Baker's collapsed."
"My God," Mary said. "Why are you even there at this hour -- oh, never mind that. You've phoned 999?"
"Yes, of course, I'm not a bloody idiot," Will said shortly. "But you've got to follow her to the hospital, keep an eye out, she's got to be all right..."
"Will, calm down," Mary said, blindly grabbing for clothing. Jeans? Whatever, yes, they'd do. Cardigan? "Go with her and ring me once you're at hospital, tell me where they're taking her--"
"I can't. I've got to -- there's somewhere I need to go. Something that needs to be done. Right now, at once, I have to, I swear it's important. But so's Susan -- Dr. Baker. Please, Mary, I'll never ask you for anything ever again."
"Yes, of course, if you must. But Will--"
He'd already hung up. Mary slowly replaced the phone's headset. "Well, Nathaniel," she said quietly to her daemon, "it seems something's afoot."
"Let's hurry," he urged. They did.
The window left a jagged, gaping tear through the cool air behind them. Will looked back, once, to be sure of its precise location, but it would be very difficult to miss; unlike the windows made by the knife, there was nothing subtly or tricky about this one.
Before him, Will saw only desolation, the ruins of a long-dead civilization. The hills were deeply scarred, bare of vegetation; mountains in the distance jutted starkly into the rust-red sky. The plain before him was as bleak as a war zone, utterly depleted of life. He stepped forward, and the ground gave a little beneath his feet; sand and gravel and arid soil, eroded beyond recognition. It made walking uncomfortable and tedious, but he forged ahead, leaving mournful, sloping tracks as he trudged on. Kirjava put a paw down delicately once, then instantly pulled back; he had to carry her. He didn't mind. Her soft body against his chest was the only warmth in this entire dead world.
Ahead, perhaps a kilometer away, at the foot of the hills, there was a rickety old structure; the only evidence of past sentient life. It looked like a shack of some sort; as he approached, he realized it had probably been some sort of stable.
The driftwood door hung crazily at a sharp angle, clinging to its hinges only through sheer obstinacy. Will pushed it aside. The inside of the stable was dark, and oddly sterile; no mold, no mildew, no cobwebs, nothing even remotely alive, however unpleasant. Will would have welcomed a bit of unpleasantness; anything to lessen the sense that he was the only living thing in this entire world.
And in the middle of the stable, cushioned in a dry, dusty bed of dead straw, the ivory horn gleamed, unnaturally white and ghostlike in the dim red light that drifted through the open door.
"Dr. Mary Malone," Mary repeated, for the fiftieth time. "I'm a colleague of Dr. Susan Baker. Will someone in this damned place tell me her bloody condition?"
"Please, calm down," a new voice said, and Mary whirled around to see an kind-looking doctor with graying hair smiling at her, placating. She seriously considered belting him in the jaw. "Dr. Baker has had a stroke. Nothing serious, we hope, but given her age, we're being as careful as possible."
"She was admitted nearly seven hours ago," Mary fumed. "Seven hours, and no one could tell me the slightest thing about her?"
"Are you a family member?"
"No, just a concerned friend and colleague." Mary sighed, running her hands through her short, tousled hair. "Dr. Baker has no surviving relations. Her husband passed on a few years ago, no children, no other family that I or her college know about. Her solicitor is out of the country on holiday, of all the infuriating things, and she bloody well oughtn't be left alone right now."
The doctor -- Elliott, according to his nametag -- simply nodded. "I'm inclined to agree, but rules are rules. I hope that her condition will no longer be considered critical by tomorrow, in which case of course you are welcome to stop by during our usual visiting hours."
Mary rubbed her temples. It was the same thing she'd been told about forty-nine times already today. And where in God's name was Will? He was far better at getting his way, regardless of rules, obstacles, or other untoward circumstances. And he'd been very insistent that someone ought to remain with Sue. Why? Especially after what they'd so recently discovered... What did he know now that she didn't? Where was he?
"I thought it would be more difficult, somehow," Will murmured, staring at the ivory horn. "Guarded, at least. Something."
"There's no one left here to guard it," Kirjava replied, voice equally soft. "Let's go, Will, please."
He bent down and picked up the horn. It was smooth as silk in his hand, the ivory somehow warm to the touch, and inlaid with silver. He turned it over and over slowly, examining it. "It's beautiful."
"It's corrupted," Kirjava spat. "It rends soul from body--"
"This whole world," Will said quietly to himself. "Destroyed. Empty. But her soul is still here, somewhere."
"Not like us," Kirjava said. "It's never known the daemon world. It's never known it could take on a form, a shape, a consciousness."
"But she misses it all the same."
"I was torn out of you once," Kirjava said softly. "We know how she feels."
Will was still looking the horn over. "What did Xaphania tell us? The horn can summon whomever its bearer wants. Wherever they are. No matter what world."
A gust of wind buffeted the flimsy walls of the stable, making them creak and groan.
"No, Will," Kirjava said, her eyes wide and intent on his face. "No."
"We could, though," Will insisted. He had eyes for nothing but the horn, and the empty space before them. "Anyone can wield it. And I bore the subtle knife, I know how it works. I'd be careful. I could."
"You can't," Kirjava hissed. "You would destroy -- you don't even know if -- it's evil, Will!"
"I thought I'd get over it eventually, but it just hurts worse and worse--"
"What if you made a mistake? What if you tore her apart?"
"I can't spend my entire life missing her, I love her--"
"You'd destroy everything, everything we ever worked for, any hope of the Republic of Heaven, everything she holds most dear, out of selfishness--"
"She feels the same way, I know it--"
"It's been six years, Will, we don't know what she feels about anything anymore, she has her own life now, you can't--"
"The angels wouldn't tell us anything, I bet they don't even know--"
The jagged edges of the window to the devastated world fluttered in the fierce wind off the boiling sea.
She started in the uncomfortable chair, her book nearly jerking out of her hand. "Sue Baker, you gave me a fright," Mary scolded with a smile. "So you've finally decided to wake up?"
Susan blinked a few times, taking in her surrounding. "I'm in hospital?" she croaked.
"How did you ever guess?" Mary went to her, finding a cup of water and pressing the straw to Susan's lips.
Susan drank it gratefully. Her left arm didn't seem to be working properly; odd thing, that. "What happened?"
"You've had a minor stroke," Mary said soothingly. "You've lost some motor function in your left side, but the doctors are optimistic that you'll make a full recovery, in time."
Susan closed her eyes, sighing. "It was bound to happen sooner or later, I suppose. Something, anyway. God knows I'm old enough. How long have I been out?"
"You were admitted yesterday morning. It's Saturday now, nearly three in the afternoon." Mary studied Susan's face intently. "What's the last thing you remember?"
"I'd gone into my office early, to take care of some business before the damned kids started showing up," Susan said, half-smiling to herself. "I hadn't drawn the blinds when I left on Thursday night, so the sun was slanting in abominably. Eastern facing windows, you know, such a bother in the early morning. I got up to remedy it--"
She cut herself off abruptly, her mouth pressed into a thin line. Her eyes seemed to be gazing at something very far away. "The call," she murmured. "After all these years, I still remember that feeling. I tried on my own, you know, but I never figured the physics out well enough. And I couldn't answer it."
"What call, Susan?" Mary asked gently. There was no reply. "Susan, Will was the one who found you. He called the ambulance. Do you remember seeing him there? He's been missing for more than a day--"
"Time moves differently there," Susan replied. Her voice sounded distant, almost dispassionate. "I couldn't go, so he took my place."
Of course he did. He's been trying to get out of this world since the moment he returned here. Mary's hands were shaking. She pressed them together tightly. "What other world have you visited, Susan?"
A short exhalation of breath, somewhere between a sigh and a laugh. "Visited?" Susan repeated. "Mary, I was once a queen there. Once a queen, always... It was my sister's fault. She was the one who found the window..."
She closed her eyes and began to tell the full story, for the first and last time in her too-long life.
And the last window, save the one out of the world of the dead, was slowly, carefully, painstakingly, completely closed behind them.
The doctors said she was recovering more slowly than they might have hoped, but there was no cause for alarm. Mary just didn't like the lack of color in Susan's face, or the listlessness of her movements. Scheherazade's final tale told at last, Mary thought obliquely, and what shall become of her now?
"It's been three days," Nathaniel said worriedly, perched on Mary's shoulder. "Have we lost him, too?"
"He'll come back," Mary reassured her daemon quietly. "And he'll know what to do for Susan."
He tilted his head to one side, giving her a hard look. Of course, he knew exactly how unsure she really was.
"Mary," Susan said sleepily, stirring softly on her hospital bed. "Not to startle you, but there's a talking bird on your shoulder."
"You can see him?" Mary asked, surprised. Then she decided not to worry about the mechanics of it. "Yes, he's a part of me," she started explaining. "Part of...well, my soul, I suppose you could say."
"That's what comes of traveling in strange worlds," Susan scolded, but her heart clearly wasn't in it. "You pick up all sorts of bizarre local customs."
"He's my Nathaniel -- he's called a daemon," Mary pressed on. It was the first thing Susan had shown the slightest interest in since she'd finished telling Mary her story; that had to be a good sign. "Everyone has one, only in most worlds, we don't realize it."
"Oh, I know that, I just didn't know what they were called," Susan said indifferently. "I left mine behind years ago."
Mary frowned, concerned. "What do you--?"
But Susan's mind seemed to be wandering. "Is that what Will lost, too? Lyra was his daemon, and he left her behind, a piece of his soul..."
"No," Will said from the doorway. "A piece of my heart, that's all. I've brought you something else you left behind once, Dr. Baker."
Mary nearly leapt out of her seat. "William Parry, don't you ever give me a fright like that again! Where on earth--"
"Not on earth," Will corrected her soberly. He looked different somehow. Older, perhaps. Certainly wearier. But...somehow peaceful, too. Mary saw that he'd tucked something into his jacket.
It was an ivory horn.
"Oh, my goodness," Susan breathed, her eyes wide open for the first time in days. "I thought I'd never see that again."
Will brought it to her, laying it gently on her lap and pulling a chair up beside her. Kirjava padded quietly up next to him and jumped up into his arms. He held her, his eyes never leaving Susan's face.
"What is it, Will?" Mary finally had to ask.
"Her last link to a dying world," Will replied. "I'm sorry, Dr. Baker, but there's nothing else left there."
Susan's right hand clenched at the horn convulsively. "No. That's not possible."
"I'm sorry," Will said again, quietly but firmly.
"My sister and brothers all went back, they went back without me--"
"They died in a railway accident," Will said. "Fifty years ago. At precisely the moment the angels believe your other world was destroyed."
"They returned to Paradise and left me behind!"
"There is no Paradise," Will said softly. "I've been to the world of the dead, Dr. Baker. Everyone goes there, sooner or later, from every world. There's no other way."
"Leave God out of the equations." Will almost smiled, albeit wryly. "That's why they never figure right."
Susan clutched the horn to her chest. "I can't," she whispered.
"It's not so bad anymore," Will told her. He placed his hand gently over hers, over the horn. "It's better than empty promises of Paradise. The world of the dead...it's like a dark cavern, impossibly vast. Filled with the dead, ghost-like, forgotten..."
Susan's left hand was trembling on the sheet; Mary reached out and held it between her own.
"But there is a way out," Will continued. His rough voice was low, oddly soothing. Kirjava purred deep in her chest, a comforting rumble. "There are...guardians. Guides, to lead us to freedom, in exchange for a story. A true story of your life."
"I think I can manage a tale or two," Susan murmured. She wasn't holding the horn quite so tightly now. "Where do they lead us?"
"The passage is long. It leads gradually upward -- toward the open air of a fresh new world, and an endless summer night."
Susan smiled. "Further up and further in," she whispered. "Yes, I believe I know the way, somehow..."
"Susan," Will said gently. "Let it go."
She sighed, hugging the horn close once more, looking down at it with love and fear and hope. Then she released it.
Quietly, like a dying world's final rattling breath, the ivory horn crumbled away into sand, pooling on the white sheets of the hospital bed.
Susan closed her eyes. "Mary?" she mumbled. "What does my daemon look like?"
"A lion," Mary told her quietly. "Large and sleek and beautiful, with the most glorious tawny mane."
"He never really left me," Susan sighed. "I knew he would never really leave me alone."
She didn't speak again, but she was smiling.
Will was nearly finished packing when Mary walked in. "It seems I'm the last to find out anything around here," she remarked dryly. "When were you planning on telling me you were dropping out of Oxford?"
"Tonight, actually," Will said, with a cocky smirk. He stuffed the last shirt into his knapsack and zipped it shut. "I thought I'd spend the night at the flat. I've got a train to London earlier than I'd like to think on, but it's the only way to be sure I make my flight out of Heathrow tomorrow afternoon."
"Is it now," Mary said, raising an eyebrow. "And you're going where exactly?"
"The Continent, to start," Will replied cheerfully. "I was thinking Italy. Do you know, I've never been out of England? Not in this world, at least. And Kirjava wants to see some sunlight for a change; she hates winter here."
His daemon swatted his leg playfully.
"Italy. Brilliant. Wish I were coming along." Mary tilted her head to one side, eyeing him thoughtfully. "What are you up to, Will?" she asked, more seriously.
Will leaned against the windowsill, looking down at the floor. "I do plan on finishing college, you know," he said. "I just need some time to figure out what I want to study first."
"No more physics?"
He smiled wryly. "I never much enjoyed it, really. No offense, of course, and you were a marvelous teacher. Just...I really hate maths."
"After all these years..."
"I wasn't doing it because it made me happy," he said quietly. "I wanted...well, you know what I wanted to get out of it."
"What happened in that other world, Will?"
Will's face flushed. "I very nearly made a very, very bad decision. I thought I could use the horn to call Lyra back to me. I almost tried, but Kirjava stopped me."
"You could have torn Lyra's soul apart!"
"I know." He at least had the grace to look ashamed of himself. "But even if I hadn't, if it had worked perfectly...Lyra's stronger than I am, Mary, in so many ways. I love her so much, still. Probably I always will. And she's not wasting her time sulking around and trying to get back to me. I know her. She's...she's building a Republic of Heaven, right where she is."
There was a shimmer in the air, nearly imperceptible against the afternoon sunlight streaming through the window. "And so she is," the angel Xaphania murmured. "I've returned to honor our end of the bargain, Will, since you succeeded so admirably in yours."
"Yeah," Will said. "Thanks. But, well...I already sort of know."
"Yes," Xaphania said. Her eyes glinted. "I believe you do." And she was gone.
Mary looked at him curiously. "What was that about?"
"Nothing important," Will said, looking somewhat embarrassed. "Just...something I thought I needed. But Lyra...she's living her life. And I should probably start living mine."
Mary raised an eyebrow. "In Italy?"
He grinned. "Just for starters. Then maybe China, or Australia, or America. Or somewhere else entirely. I'll figure it out as I go along."
"And for money?"
"My father left me enough, and I've been saving up. And I can always find work of some sort, if it gets to be a problem."
"And no more physics."
"No," Will said definitely. "I'll work something out. I just...this is the world I'm going to spend the rest of my life in. I want to actually see it. But I'll be back by Midsummer's Day," he added. "Always."
"Some memorials are important," Mary agreed. "Let's get your things back to the flat for tonight, anyway."
Will nodded, slinging his knapsack over one shoulder and picking up his other suitcase. It was amazing how few things he even had, once he'd sold off all his physics textbooks. And he'd reduce his luggage even more tonight. He planned on traveling light.
"You will be missing Susan Baker's funeral, you realize," Mary said quietly, as they headed out of the residence hall.
"Yeah," Will said. "I'm sorry about that. But I -- I think I need to move on." He shot her a sidelong glance. "I've meant to ask you. Why'd you lie to her about her daemon? I saw it too, when she finally let the horn go. It wasn't a lion."
"Her whole world was destroyed," Mary said simply. "She had nothing left to live for. So I comforted her as best I could. It made her happy, in the end. What else matters?"
They walked on in silence for several minutes.
"That could have been me," Will finally said.
"I know," Mary said. She squeezed his shoulder lightly. "But it wasn't."