Worlds Asunder

Chapter 3: Arrival

The carriage shuddered to a stop. Lyra felt the vibrations in her seat as the coachmen leapt from their perches and horses stamped their hooves. Dame Hannah opened the door and stepped out, offering a hand to Lyra who, after a moment’s hesitation, took it. The sunlight confronted her, happy and golden; the sweet, fresh air pressing in all around. Pantalaimon stiffened, his little claws digging into her blouse. Lyra breathed deeply. They were alone atop one of the many rolling hills in this part of Britain. She could see for miles in every direction, and it filled her with a sense of reassuring infinity.

Dame Hannah pressed a hand lightly to Lyra’s back. “Come along now. Let’s go meet the other girls.” Her smile was kind, but Lyra could not take comfort from it. They passed between grand marble columns and through heavy wooden doors into a brightly lit hall. Sunlight poured into the entrance hall through a circular hole in the middle of the domed roof: a great eye looking down on her from the kingdom of heaven.

There was a rustling and whispering, and Lyra eyes left the ceiling to see a pack of girls gathered towards one side of the room, wide-eyed. Lyra could feel Pantalaimon examining their daemons with the same wary apprehension with which she observed the students.

“Girls, I would like to introduce our newest student. I trust you will make her feel welcome.” Dame Hannah eyed them severely and all whispering ceased. “This is Lyra Belaqua.”

Excited murmurings flooded the hall.
“No, it can’t –
“I heard –

One voice broke through, “Oh I know you! My father’s told me all about your adventures.” A young girl stepped from the crowd, grinning broadly. “You might’ve met him. He was one of Lord Asriel’s consultants.” More mutterings ensued. The girl went on excitedly. “Is it really true that you went all the way to Svalbard with the Gyptians? And saw the ice bears?”

“Settle down, girls.” Dame Hannah was forced to raise her voice over the din. “I’m sure Miss Belaqua will share her story with you in due course.” This seemed to animate them even further and they pressed forward eagerly.

“Oh yes, tell us!”
“Tell us. We want to know -
“What was it like?”
“Tell us!”
“Please, tell us!”
“Tell us!”

With a lurch, Lyra’s mind was abruptly thrown back to a bleak and hopeless world where cold, ghostly fingers gripped her heart and the only warm, tangible thing in the entire universe was the other human hand she held. She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t see. In a sudden panic, Lyra wheeled around and fled down one of the empty hallways, Pantalaimon’s needle claws drawing blood as he gripped her arms where she clutched him.

Will walked up the last few steps, Kirjava at his heels. Mary had offered to let him stay at her flat with his mother until they could find other accommodations. She was helping with the legal side of it all, so, finally, Will was able to focus on taking care of his mother, whose condition, whatever it was, was growing worse by the day. She might have to go into hospital soon, he supposed, despite everything I’ve done to avoid it.

It was late and the hallway was dark save for a single flickering wall-lamp. Kirjava’s quiet padding echoed softly against the walls, raising the hairs on Will’s forearms. No sooner had he reached the door, key in hand, than he heard a faint, out-of-place noise from inside. Instinctively, his hand flew to the place on his hip where the subtle knife once rested. Panicked, he felt around desperately, before remembering. The subtle knife was gone. He was alone.

His hand fell limp, but the rest of his body was coiled tight, waiting for whatever was inside. Beside him, Kirjava hissed softly in apprehension. Slowly, he turned the key and let the door swing open.

There was a deafening stillness, the utter darkness of the room penetrated only by the weak light that trickled in from the hallway. He kept still, not even blinking. He thought he could hear soft, controlled breathing close by. “Dr. Malone?” His eyes swept the room as they adjusted. “Mary, are you there?” He reached for the light switch.

Someone grabbed his wrist, pulling him bodily into the room and twisting his arm behind his back. Tensing, he threw his head back fiercely and felt it collide with something hard. The grip on his arm slackened. He wriggled free and switched the lights on. He turned to face his attacker, but kept his eyes moving, calculating possible escape routes. The room around him was barely recognizable. Bits of wood and plaster littered the floor and most of the furniture had been upended. He immediately noticed Mary Malone, sitting precariously on the overturned sofa, a cloth tied across her mouth. His mother lay sprawled on the floor at her feet.

“Here, boy.”

Will spun to find himself staring at a familiar face. The cold, pale eyes gazed back at him with cruel satisfaction. “H-how did you find us?” Will felt ashamed when his voice shook. This man had broken into his home. He was the reason he’d had to leave his mother; why he’d been forced to find somewhere to hide the day he traveled to Oxford and saw the cat by the hornbeam trees.

“Did you honestly think I wouldn’t come looking?” The pale man sneered, wiping his bloody face with a sleeve. “After the stunt you pulled with my partner, you disappeared; vanished off the face of the earth. Well, this earth, anyway.” He pulled a pistol from his jacket, holding it loosely in his right hand. “I knew you’d come back eventually. You had to. You belong here. So when I learned that Dr. Malone had returned and that you were staying with her, I rushed over to do some catching up.” Will realized this man was still after what he’d been looking for when he first appeared: information about his father. At the same time, Will realized that the pale-haired man was no longer as powerful and menacing as he’d once been. He was thinner, his skin pallid, and his hand shook as he held the gun.

Looking around, trying to buy some time to think, Will asked, “Who told you I was here?”

The pale man smirked. “Now why would I tell you that?” There was a soft click. “I assume you know why I’m here. And you don’t quite understand what I’m capable of. So, it is in your best interests to give me what I want.” He eyed Will meaningfully. “Now, tell me what you know about your father’s research.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Come on, think of something! His mind scrambled frantically for something, anything.
“Don’t be thick, boy.” The man sneered. “Then again, you could just tell me where you went and how you got back.”

Will’s eyes flitted around the room, finally coming to rest on the body of his mother, which was stirring. Dread seeped through him. “Will?” Her voice was frail, like the rest of her. Before Will could move, the pale man had snapped his arm around to aim the gun straight at her head. He smiled grimly.

“Ah, Mrs. Parry. Pleased you could rejoin us. You’ll prove more useful conscious, I think.” His finger moved toward the trigger. Will stared, unmoving, afraid to spur the man into action. “Now, Will. Tell me where you disappeared to.”
“I don’t know –
The man stepped closer to Will’s mother. She was sitting up and didn’t seem to understand what was happening, though Will knew she was frightened. Mary said something from behind the gag, but didn’t move.
“I know your father figured it out. And now you have too. I need to know how.” He stared at Will, eyes bloodshot, as if he hadn’t slept in days. “I need to know, so I can get back. I need to get back.” His voice shook, and Will saw his opportunity.

Cautiously, Will put his hands out in front of him, a gesture of peace. Somehow, this man knew both he and his father had travelled to different worlds. John Parry had vanished, so he’d wanted the letters his father had left. But Will had returned. He could tell him what he needed to know. “You know I traveled to a another world, but you don’t know how.” The man’s eyes narrowed, but he let Will continue. “I used a key; a knife. A subtle knife.” He briefly explained the window into Cittagazze and how he got the knife, leaving out much of the story – including everything about Lyra. As Will spoke, the hand holding the gun lowered, moving away from Will’s mother to point at the floor.

Minutes past and Will finally stopped speaking, waiting for the man to react. There were several moments of tense silence as he watched the pale-haired man think. He looked up. “You’ll take me to this window.”

Will felt a sudden surge of panic. Of course he would ask that. Of course he would want proof. But there wasn’t any. Not anymore. “I can’t.”

The man’s eyes bulged. He surged toward Will, pointing the gun straight at him. “You’ll tell me how to get back or I will shoot you where you stand!”

Will, who had traveled to the world of the dead and returned, did not fear it. He closed his eyes. “I don’t know how. Believe me, I would if I could. But it’s impossible now.”

The man breathed heavily. “That’s unfortunate.”

Will heard the shot but felt nothing. Something hit the floor with a soft thud. Confused, he opened his eyes. The man was facing away from him. Mary had cried out and fallen from the sofa. But this wasn’t what drew Will’s attention. Another figure lay slumped, eyes open, a deep red stain spreading from the wound in her chest.

A wordless moan escaped Will and he crumpled to the floor. He watched the life draining from his mother’s body, and could do nothing to stop it.

“I’ll be in touch.”

Heavy footfalls, the creak of the door. The pale-haired man was gone. And so was Will’s mother.

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