Here and there, fires had been lit among the ruins. The town was a jumble, with no streets, no squares, and no open spaces except where a building had fallen. A few churches or public buildings still stood above the rest, though their roofs were holed or their walls cracked, and in one case a whole portico had crumpled onto its columns. Between the shells of the stone buildings, a mazy clutter of shacks and shanties had been put together out of lengths of roofing timber, beaten-out petrol cans or biscuit tins, torn plastic sheeting, scraps of plywood or hardboard.
The ghosts who had come with them were hurrying toward the town, and from every direction came more of them, so many that they looked like the grains of sand that trickle toward the hole of an hourglass. The ghosts walked straight into the squalid confusion of the town, as if they knew exactly where they were going, and Lyra and Will were about to follow them; but then they were stopped.
A figure stepped out of a patched-up doorway and said, “Wait, wait.”
A dim light was glowing behind him, and it wasn’t easy to make out his features; but they knew he wasn’t a ghost. He was like them, alive. He was a thin man who could have been any age, dressed in a drab and tattered business suit, and he was holding a pencil and a sheaf of papers held together with a clip. The building he’d stepped out of had the look of a customs post on a rarely visited frontier.
“What is this place?” said Will, “And why can’t we go in?”
“You’re not dead,” said the man wearily. “You have to wait in the holding area. Go farther along the road to the left and give these papers to the official at the gate.”
“But excuse me, sir,” said Lyra, “I hope you don’t mind me asking, but how can we have come this far if we en’t dead? Because this is the world of the dead, isn’t it?”
“It’s a suburb of the world of the dead. Sometimes the living come here by mistake, but they have to wait in the holding area before they can go on.”
“Wait for how long?”
“Until they die.”
Will felt his head swim. He could see Lyra was about to argue, and before she could speak, he said, “Can you just explain what happens then? I mean, these ghosts who come here, do they stay in this town forever?”
“No, no,” said the official. “This is just a port of transit. They go on beyond here by boat.”
“Where to?” said Will.
“That’s not something I can tell you,” said the man, and a bitter smile pulled his mouth down at the corners. “You must move along, please. You must go to the holding area.”
Will took the papers the man was holding out, and then held Lyra’s arm and urged her away.
The dragonflies were flying sluggishly now, and Tialys explained that they needed to rest; so they perched on Will’s rucksack, and Lyra let the spies sit on her shoulders. Pantalaimon, leopard-shaped, looked up at them jealously, but he said nothing. They moved along the track, skirting the wretched shanties and the pools of sewage, and watching the never-ending stream of ghosts arriving and passing without hindrance into the town itself.
“We’ve got to get over the water, like the rest of them,” said Will. “And maybe the people in this holding place will tell us how. They don’t seem to be angry anyway, or dangerous. It’s strange. And these papers…”
They were simply scraps of paper torn from a notebook, with random words scribbled in pencil and crossed out. It was as if these people were playing a game, and waiting to see when the travelers would challenge them or give in and laugh. And yet it all looked so real.
It was getting darker and colder, and time was hard to keep track of. Lyra thought they walked for half an hour, or maybe it was twice as long; the look of the place didn’t change. Finally they reached a little wooden shack like the one they’d stopped at earlier, where a dim bulb glowed on a bare wire over the door.
As they approached, a man dressed much like the other one came out holding a piece of bread and butter in one hand, and without a word looked at their papers and nodded.
He handed them back and was about to go inside when Will said, “Excuse me, where do we go now?”
“Go and find somewhere to stay,” said the man, not unkindly. “Just ask. Everybody’s waiting, same as you.”
He turned away and shut his door against the cold, and the travelers turned down into the heart of the shanty town where the living people had to stay.
It was very much like the main town: shabby little huts, repaired a dozen times, patched with scraps of plastic or corrugated iron, leaning crazily against each other over muddy alleyways. At some places, an anbaric cable looped down from a bracket and provided enough feeble current to power a naked lightbulb or two, strung out over the nearby huts. Most of what light there was, however, came from the fires. Their smoky glow flickered redly over the scraps and tatters of building material, as if they were the last remaining flames of a great conflagration, staying alive out of pure malice.
But as Will and Lyra and the Gallivespians came closer and saw more detail, they picked out many more figures sitting in the darkness by themselves, or leaning against the walls, or gathered in small groups, talking quietly.
“Why aren’t those people inside?” said Lyra. “It’s cold.”
“They’re not people,” said the Lady Salmakia. “They’re not even ghosts. They’re something else, but I don’t know what.”
The travelers came to the first group of shacks, which were lit by one of those big weak anbaric bulbs on a cable swinging slightly in the cold wind, and Will put his hand on the knife at his belt. There was a group of those people-shaped things outside, crouching on their heels and rolling dice, and when the children came near, they stood up: five of them, all men, their faces in shadow and their clothes shabby, all silent.
“What is the name of this town?” said Will.
There was no reply. Some of them took a step backward, and all five moved a little closer together, as if they were afraid. Lyra felt her skin crawling, and all the tiny hairs on her arms standing on end, though she couldn’t have said why. Inside her shirt Pantalaimon was shivering and whispering, “No, no, Lyra, no, go away, let’s go back, please…”
The “people” made no move, and finally Will shrugged and said, “Well, good evening to you anyway,” and moved on. They met a similar response from all the other figures they spoke to, and all the time their apprehension grew.
“Will, are they Specters?” Lyra said quietly. “Are we grown up enough to see Specters now?”
“I don’t think so. If we were, they’d attack us, but they seem to be afraid themselves. I don’t know what they are.”
A door opened, and light spilled out on the muddy ground. A man – a real man, a human being – stood in the doorway, watching them approach. The little cluster of figures around the door moved back a step or two, as if out of respect, and they saw the man’s face: stolid, harmless, and mild.
“Who are you?” he said.
“Travelers,” said Will. “We don’t know where we are. What is this town?”
“This is the holding area,” said the man. “Have you traveled far?”
“A long way, yes, and we’re tired,” said Will. “Could we buy some food and pay for shelter?”
The man was looking past them, into the dark, and then he came out and looked around further, as if there were someone missing. Then he turned to the strange figures standing by and said:
“Did you see any death?”
They shook their heads, and the children heard a murmur of “No, no, none.”
The man turned back. Behind him, in the doorway, there were faces looking out: a woman, two young children, another man. They were all nervous and apprehensive.
“Death?” said Will. “We’re not bringing any death.”
But that fact seemed to be the very thing they were worried about, because when Will spoke, there was a soft gasp from the living people, and even the figures outside shrank away a little.
“Excuse me,” said Lyra, stepping forward in her best polite way, as if the housekeeper of Jordan College were glaring at her. “I couldn’t help noticing, but these gentlemen here, are they dead? I’m sorry for asking, if it’s rude, but where we come from it’s very unusual, and we never saw anyone like them before. If I’m being impolite I do beg your pardon. But you see, in my world, we have daemons, everyone has a daemon, and we’d be shocked if we saw someone without one, just like you’re shocked to see us. And now we’ve been traveling, Will and me – this is Will, and I’m Lyra – I’ve learned there are some people who don’t seem to have daemons, like Will doesn’t, and I was scared till I found out they were just ordinary like me really. So maybe that’s why someone from your world might be just a bit sort of nervous when they see us, if you think we’re different.”
The man said, “Lyra? And Will?”
“Yes, sir,” she said humbly.
“Are those your daemons?” he said, pointing to the spies on her shoulder.
“No,” said Lyra, and she was tempted to say, “They’re our servants,” but she felt Will would have thought that a bad idea; so she said, “They’re our friends, the Chevalier Tialys and the Lady Salmakia, very distinguished and wise people who are traveling with us. Oh, and this is my daemon,” she said, taking mouse-Pantalaimon out of her pocket. “You see, we’re harmless, we promise we won’t hurt you. And we do need food and shelter. We’ll move on tomorrow. Honest.”
Everyone waited. The man’s nervousness was soothed a little by her humble tone, and the spies had the good sense to look modest and harmless. After a pause the man said:
“Well, though it’s strange, I suppose these are strange times… Come in, then, be welcome…”
The figures outside nodded, one or two of them gave little bows, and they stood aside respectfully as Will and Lyra walked into the warmth and light. The man closed the door behind them and hooked a wire over a nail to keep it shut.
It was a single room, lit by a naphtha lamp on the table, and clean but shabby. The plywood walls were decorated with pictures cut from film-star magazines, and with a pattern made with fingerprints of soot. There was an iron stove against one wall, with a clothes-horse in front of it, where some dingy shirts were steaming, and on a dressing table there was a shrine of plastic flowers, seashells, colored scent bottles, and other gaudy bits and pieces, all surrounding the picture of a jaunty skeleton with a top hat and dark glasses.
The shanty was crowded: as well as the man and the woman and the two young children, there was a baby in a crib, an older man, and in one corner, in a heap of blankets, a very old woman, who was lying and watching everything with glittering eyes, her face as wrinkled as the blankets. As Lyra looked at her, she had a shock: the blankets stirred, and a very thin arm emerged, in a black sleeve, and then another face, a man’s, so ancient it was almost a skeleton. In fact, he looked more like the skeleton in the picture than like a living human being; and then Will, too, noticed, and all the travelers together realized that he was one of those shadowy, polite figures like the ones outside. And all of them felt as nonplussed as the man had been when he’d first seen them.
In fact, all the people in the crowded little shack – all except the baby, who was asleep – were at a loss for words. It was Lyra who found her voice first.
“That’s very kind of you,” she said, “thank you, good evening, we’re very pleased to be here. And like I said, we’re sorry to have arrived without any death, if that’s the normal way of things. But we won’t disturb you any more than we have to. You see, we’re looking for the land of the dead, and that’s how we happened to come here. But we don’t know where it is, or whether this is part of it, or how to get there, or what. So if you can tell us anything about it, we’ll be very grateful.”
The people in the shack were still staring, but Lyra’s words eased the atmosphere a little, and the woman invited them to sit at the table, drawing out a bench. Will and Lyra lifted the sleeping dragonflies up to a shelf in a dark corner, where Tialys said they would rest till daylight, and then the Gallivespians joined them on the table.
The woman had been preparing a dish of stew, and she peeled a couple of potatoes and cut them into it to make it go farther, urging her husband to offer the travelers some other refreshment while it cooked. He brought out a bottle of clear and pungent spirit that smelled to Lyra like the gyptians’ jenniver, and the two spies accepted a glass into which they dipped little vessels of their own.
Lyra would have expected the family to stare most at the Gallivespians, but their curiosity was directed just as much, she thought, at her and Will. She didn’t wait long to ask why.
“You’re the first people we ever saw without a death,” said the man, whose name, they’d learned, was Peter. “Since we come here, that is. We’re like you, we come here before we was dead, by some chance or accident. We got to wait till our death tells us it’s time.”
“Your death tells you?” said Lyra.
“Yes. What we found out when we come here, oh, long ago for most of us, we found we all brought our deaths with us. This is where we found out. We had ’em all the time, and we never knew. See, everyone has a death. It goes everywhere with ’em, all their life long, right close by. Our deaths, they’re outside, taking the air; they’ll come in by and by. Granny’s death, he’s there with her, he’s close to her, very close.”
“Doesn’t it scare you, having your death close by all the time?” said Lyra.
“Why ever would it? If he’s there, you can keep an eye on him. I’d be a lot more nervous not knowing where he was.”
“And everyone has their own death?” said Will, marveling.
“Why, yes, the moment you’re born, your death comes into the world with you, and it’s your death that takes you out.”
“Ah,” said Lyra, “that’s what we need to know, because we’re trying to find the land of the dead, and we don’t know how to get there. Where do we go then, when we die?”
“Your death taps you on the shoulder, or takes your hand, and says, ‘Come along o’ me, it’s time.’ It might happen when you’re sick with a fever, or when you choke on a piece of dry bread, or when you fall off a high building; in the middle of your pain and travail, your death comes to you kindly and says, ‘Easy now, easy, child, you come along o’ me,’ and you go with them in a boat out across the lake into the mist. What happens there, no one knows. No one’s ever come back.”
The woman told a child to call the deaths in, and he scampered to the door and spoke to them. Will and Lyra watched in wonder, and the Gallivespians drew closer together, as the deaths – one for each of the family – came in through the door: pale, unremarkable figures in shabby clothes, just drab and quiet and dull.
“These are your deaths?” said Tialys.
“Indeed, sir,” said Peter.
“Do you know when they’ll tell you it’s time to go?”
“No. But you know they’re close by, and that’s a comfort.”
Tialys said nothing, but it was clear that he felt it would be anything but a comfort. The deaths stood politely along the wall, and it was strange to see how little space they took up, and to find how little notice they attracted. Lyra and Will soon found themselves ignoring them altogether, though Will thought: Those men I killed – their deaths were close beside them all the time – they didn’t know, and I didn’t know…
The woman, Martha, dished the stew onto chipped enamel plates and put some in a bowl for the deaths to pass among themselves. They didn’t eat, but the good smell kept them content. Presently all the family and their guests were eating hungrily, and Peter asked the children where they’d come from, and what their world was like.
“I’ll tell you all about it,” said Lyra.
As she said that, as she took charge, part of her felt a little stream of pleasure rising upward in her breast like the bubbles in champagne. And she knew Will was watching, and she was happy that he could see her doing what she was best at, doing it for him and for all of them.
She started by telling about her parents. They were a duke and duchess, very important and wealthy, who had been cheated out of their estate by a political enemy and thrown into prison. But they managed to escape by climbing down a rope with the baby Lyra in her father’s arms, and they regained the family fortune, only to be attacked and murdered by outlaws. Lyra would have been killed as well, and roasted and eaten, had not Will rescued her just in time and taken her back to the wolves, in the forest where he was being brought up as one of them. He had fallen overboard as a baby from the side of his father’s ship and been washed up on a desolate shore, where a female wolf had suckled him and kept him alive.
The people ate up this nonsense with placid credulity, and even the deaths crowded close to listen, perching on the bench or lying on the floor close by, gazing at her with their mild and courteous faces as she spun out the tale of her life with Will in the forest.
He and Lyra stayed with the wolves for a while, and then moved to Oxford to work in the kitchens of Jordan College. There they met Roger, and when Jordan was attacked by the brickburners who lived in the clay beds, they had to escape in a hurry; so she and Will and Roger captured a gyptian narrow boat and sailed it all the way down the Thames, nearly getting caught at Abingdon Lock, and then they’d been sunk by the Wapping pirates and had to swim for safety to a three-masted clipper just setting off for Hang Chow in Cathay to trade for tea.
And on the clipper they’d met the Gallivespians, who were strangers from the moon, blown down to the earth by a fierce gale out of the Milky Way. They’d taken refuge in the crow’s nest, and she and Will and Roger used to take turns going up there to see them, only one day Roger lost his footing and plunged down into Davy Jones’s locker.
They tried to persuade the captain to turn the ship around and look for him, but he was a hard, fierce man only interested in the profit he’d make by getting to Cathay quickly, and he clapped them in irons. But the Gallivespians brought them a file, and…
And so on. From time to time she’d turn to Will or the spies for confirmation, and Salmakia would add a detail or two, or Will would nod, and the story wound itself up to the point where the children and their friends from the moon had to find their way to the land of the dead in order to learn, from her parents, the secret of where the family fortune had been buried.
“And if we knew our deaths, in our land,” she said, “like you do here, it would be easier, probably; but I think we’re really lucky to find our way here, so’s we could get your advice. And thank you very much for being so kind and listening, and for giving us this meal, it was really nice.
“But what we need now, you see, or in the morning maybe, is we need to find a way out across the water where the dead people go, and see if we can get there, too. Is there any boats we could sort of hire?”
They looked doubtful. The children, flushed with tiredness, looked with sleepy eyes from one grownup to the other, but no one could suggest where they could find a boat.
Then came a voice that hadn’t spoken before. From the depths of the bedclothes in the corner came a dry-cracked-nasal tone – not a woman’s voice – not a living voice: it was the voice of the grandmother’s death.
“The only way you’ll cross the lake and go to the land of the dead,” he said, and he was leaning up on his elbow, pointing with a skinny finger at Lyra, “is with your own deaths. You must call up your own deaths. I have heard of people like you, who keep their deaths at bay. You don’t like them, and out of courtesy they stay out of sight. But they’re not far off. Whenever you turn your head, your deaths dodge behind you. Wherever you look, they hide. They can hide in a teacup. Or in a dewdrop. Or in a breath of wind. Not like me and old Magda here,” he said, and he pinched her withered cheek, and she pushed his hand away. “We live together in kindness and friendship. That’s the answer, that’s it, that’s what you’ve got to do, say welcome, make friends, be kind, invite your deaths to come close to you, and see what you can get them to agree to.”
His words fell into Lyra’s mind like heavy stones, and Will, too, felt the deadly weight of them.
“How should we do that?” he said.
“You’ve only got to wish for it, and the thing is done.”
“Wait,” said Tialys.
Every eye turned to him, and those deaths lying on the floor sat up to turn their blank, mild faces to his tiny, passionate one. He was standing close by Salmakia, his hand on her shoulder. Lyra could see what he was thinking: he was going to say that this had gone too far, they must turn back, they were taking this foolishness to irresponsible lengths.
So she stepped in. “Excuse me,” she said to the man Peter, “but me and our friend the Chevalier, we’ve got to go outside for a minute, because he needs to talk to his friends in the moon through my special instrument. We won’t be long.”
And she picked him up carefully, avoiding his spurs, and took him outside into the dark, where a loose piece of corrugated iron roofing was banging in the cold wind with a melancholy sound.
“You must stop,” he said as she set him on an upturned oil drum, in the feeble light of one of those anbaric bulbs that swung on its cable overhead. “This is far enough. No more.”
“But we made an agreement,” Lyra said.
“No, no. Not to these lengths.”
“All right. Leave us. You fly on back. Will can cut a window into your world, or any world you like, and you can fly through and be safe, that’s all right, we don’t mind.”
“Do you realize what you’re doing?”
“You don’t. You’re a thoughtless, irresponsible, lying child. Fantasy comes so easily to you that your whole nature is riddled with dishonesty, and you don’t even admit the truth when it stares you in the face. Well, if you can’t see it, I’ll tell you plainly: you cannot, you must not risk your death. You must come back with us now. I’ll call Lord Asriel and we can be safe in the fortress in hours.”
Lyra felt a great sob of rage building up in her chest, and stamped her foot, unable to keep still.
“You don’t know,” she cried, “you just don’t know what I got in my head or my heart, do you? I don’t know if you people ever have children, maybe you lay eggs or something, I wouldn’t be surprised, because you’re not kind, you’re not generous, you’re not considerate – you’re not cruel, even – that would be better, if you were cruel, because it’d mean you took us serious, you didn’t just go along with us when it suited you… Oh, I can’t trust you at all now! You said you’d help and we’d do it together, and now you want to stop us – you’re the dishonest one, Tialys!”
“I wouldn’t let a child of my own speak to me in the insolent, high-handed way you’re speaking, Lyra – why I haven’t punished you before – “
“Then go ahead! Punish me, since you can! Take your bloody spurs and dig ’em in hard, go on! Here’s my hand – do it! You got no idea what’s in my heart, you proud, selfish creature – you got no notion how I feel sad and wicked and sorry about my friend Roger – you kill people just like that ” – she snapped her finger – “they don’t matter to you – but it’s a torment and a sorrow to me that I never said good-bye to him, and I want to say sorry and make it as good as I can – you’d never understand that, for all your pride, for all your grown-up cleverness – and if I have to die to do what’s proper, then I will, and be happy while I do. I seen worse than that. So if you want to kill me, you hard man, you strong man, you poison bearer, you Chevalier, you do it, go on, kill me. Then me and Roger can play in the land of the dead forever, and laugh at you, you pitiful thing.”
What Tialys might have done then wasn’t hard to see, for he was ablaze from head to foot with a passionate anger, shaking with it; but he didn’t have time to move before a voice spoke behind Lyra, and they both felt a chill fall over them. Lyra turned around, knowing what she’d see and dreading it despite her bravado.
The death stood very close, smiling kindly, his face exactly like those of all the others she’d seen; but this was hers, her very own death, and Pantalaimon at her breast howled and shivered, and his ermine shape flowed up around her neck and tried to push her away from the death. But by doing that, he only pushed himself closer, and realizing it, he shrank back toward her again, to her warm throat and the strong pulse of her heart.
Lyra clutched him to her and faced the death directly. She couldn’t remember what he’d said, and out of the corner of her eye, she could see Tialys quickly preparing the lodestone resonator, busy.
“You’re my death, en’t you?” she said.
“Yes, my dear,” he said.
“You en’t going to take me yet, are you?”
“You wanted me. I am always here.”
“Yes, but… I did, yes, but… I want to go to the land of the dead, that’s true. But not to die. I don’t want to die. I love being alive, and I love my daemon, and… Daemons don’t go down there, do they? I seen ’em vanish and just go out like candles when people die. Do they have daemons in the land of the dead?”
“No,” he said. “Your daemon vanishes into the air, and you vanish under the ground.”
“Then I want to take my daemon with me when I go to the land of the dead,” she said firmly. “And I want to come back again. Has it ever been known, for people to do that?”
“Not for many, many ages. Eventually, child, you will come to the land of the dead with no effort, no risk, a safe, calm journey, in the company of your own death, your special, devoted friend, who’s been beside you every moment of your life, who knows you better than yourself – “
“But Pantalaimon is my special and devoted friend! I don’t know you, Death, I know Pan and I love Pan and if he ever – if we ever – “
The death was nodding. He seemed interested and kindly, but she couldn’t for a moment forget what he was: her very own death, and so close.
“I know it’ll be an effort to go on now,” she said more steadily, “and dangerous, but I want to, Death, I do truly. And so does Will. We both had people taken away too soon, and we need to make amends, at least I do.”
“Everyone wishes they could speak again to those who’ve gone to the land of the dead. Why should there be an exception for you?”
“Because,” she began, lying, “because there’s something I’ve got to do there, not just seeing my friend Roger, something else. It was a task put on me by an angel, and no one else can do it, only me. It’s too important to wait till I die in the natural way, it’s got to be done now. See, the angel commanded me. That’s why we came here, me and Will. We got to.”
Behind her, Tialys put away his instrument and sat watching the child plead with her own death to be taken where no one should go.
The death scratched his head and held up his hands, but nothing could stop Lyra’s words, nothing could deflect her desire, not even fear: she’d seen worse than death, she claimed, and she had, too.
So eventually her death said:
“If nothing can put you off, then all I can say is, come with me, and I will take you there, into the land of the dead. I’ll be your guide. I can show you the way in, but as for getting out again, you’ll have to manage by yourself.”
“And my friends,” said Lyra. “My friend Will and the others.”
“Lyra,” said Tialys, “against every instinct, we’ll go with you. I was angry with you a minute ago. But you make it hard…”
Lyra knew that this was a time to conciliate, and she was happy to do that, having gotten her way.
“Yes,” she said, “I am sorry, Tialys, but if you hadn’t got angry, we’d never have found this gentleman to guide us. So I’m glad you were here, you and the Lady, I’m really grateful to you for being with us.”
So Lyra persuaded her own death to guide her and the others into the land where Roger had gone, and Will’s father, and Tony Makarios, and so many others; and her death told her to go down to the jetty when the first light came to the sky, and prepare to leave.
But Pantalaimon was trembling and shivering, and nothing Lyra could do could soothe him into stillness, or quiet the soft little moan he couldn’t help uttering. So her sleep was broken and shallow, on the floor of the shack with all the other sleepers, and her death sat watchfully beside her.