Authors: Garth Nix
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To Anna, Thomas,
Edward, and all my
family and friends.
With special thanks to
David Levithan, most
The westernmost extent of the Great Maze ended in a line of mountains. Sixteen thousand feet high, the mountain range merged into the ceiling of the House, and there was no valley or gap or crevasse that might lead through to the other side. For what lay beyond the great barrier of stone and ice was Nothing. The mountains were a wall of the House, a bulwark and buttress against both the corrosive effects of the Void and attacks by Nithlings, creatures that emerged from Nothing.
There was only one place where Nithlings could enter the House. Long ago, when the mountains had been shaped, a tunnel had also been made. An arched tunnel, seven miles long, two miles wide, and half a mile high, blocked by four enormous gates. The outermost gate, on the House side, was gilded in inch-thick gold, sealing in the metal by Immaterial forces that could not be breached easily by raw Nothing or sorcery. The next gate, a half mile farther down the tunnel, was of silver gilt. The third, another half mile in, was of bronze. The fourth and final gate, the one that led out into Nothing, was called the Cleargate. It was
purely Immaterial and entirely translucent, except for a shimmering that was painful even to immortal eyes.
Despite this pain, the Denizens who guarded the Cleargate looked out through it at the strange, constantly changing region that lay beyond, the transient lands where some of the House’s virtue still shaped the Nothing into some semblance of solidity. It was the periphery of Nothing, but the Void itself was never far away. Sometimes Nothing almost touched the Cleargate, and sometimes it lay far distant, out of sight.
The purpose of the tunnel was to admit a controlled number of Nithlings into the Great Maze at particular times. These Nithlings would provide training and sport for the Glorious Army of the Architect, which was based in the Great Maze.
The routine for such admissions never varied. If a small number of Nithlings—only a thousand or two—was required, then the Cleargate was opened just long enough to let that number in. Then it was closed, and the Nithlings were admitted through the Bronzegate, which was closed behind them. The process was repeated for the Silvergate and the Goldgate, through which the Nithlings emerged into the House proper. It was a rule that all four gates must never be open at the same time, and only twice in the entire history of the House had three gates been opened
simultaneously, to admit more than one hundred thousand Nithlings.
The gates were opened and shut by means of giant clockwork gears that were wound by subterranean rivers that coursed within the mountain walls. Each gate was operated by a single lever, and all four levers were contained within the switch room of the Boundary Fort, a complex of rooms and chambers built into the mountain above the tunnel. The fort was entered via a series of ramps that switchbacked up the mountainside, all heavily fortified with bastions and ravelins.
The Boundary Fort was defended by a detachment from either the Legion, the Horde, the Regiment, or the Moderately Honorable Artillery Company. The guard changed every century of House Time.
Currently, a little more than ten thousand years after the disappearance of the Architect, the Boundary Fort was garrisoned by a cohort of the Legion, under the command of Colonel Trabizond Nage, 13,338th in precedence within the House.
Colonel Nage was in his office, donning the ceremonial silvered cuirass and plumed helmet of his rank, when an orderly knocked on the door.
“What is it?” asked Nage. He was a little distracted, since within the hour he would be commanding the
Cleargate to open and admit up to ten thousand Nithlings, the chosen amount of enemy for the Army’s 108,217th Campaign.
“Visitor from GHQ, sir,” called out the orderly. “And Lieutenant Corbie wants to make an urgent report.”
Nage frowned. Like all superior Denizens, he was very handsome and very tall, and his frown hardly altered his features. He frowned because he hadn’t received any message about a visitor from the Army’s General Headquarters, and he had received no warning from any of his friends and old comrades there.
The colonel fastened his chinstrap and picked up his copy of the 108,217th Campaign Ephemeris. It was magically tuned to his hands and would explode if anyone else so much as touched it, which was why its red leather cover was stamped with his name in three-inch-high capitals. The Ephemeris not only listed when the gates were to be opened and in what sequence, it was also a guide to the movement of the individual tiles of the Great Maze.
Apart from a few fixed locations, the Great Maze was divided into one million mile-square tiles, on a grid one thousand miles a side. Each tile moved at sunset to a new location according to a plan laid down by Sir Thursday a year or more in advance. To get anywhere in the Great Maze you had to know where the mile-wide tile you were
on was going to go—or not go. The Ephemeris would also tell you the terrain and other features of each tile, and where to find water and stockpiled food, ammunition, or any other special information.
After tucking his Ephemeris into a pouchlike pocket at the front of his long leather tunic, Colonel Nage picked up his savage-sword and slid it into the bronzed scabbard at his side. It was a service-issue blade, one of the standard weapons of the Legion. It looked just like a gladius, copied from the Roman legions of the world Earth in the Secondary Realms, but it had been made in the workshops of Grim Tuesday. Its blade was curdled starshine, the hilt gravity-hardened amber. A grain of ensorcelled Nothing encased in the pommel provided the sword with several useful powers, including its rotating blade.
Nage opened the door and called out to the orderly, “Send the visitor in. I’ll see Corbie in a minute or two.”
The visitor was a staff major, wearing the dress uniform of the Citadel, which housed Sir Thursday’s General Headquarters (or GHQ), and was one of the regions of the Great Maze that didn’t move. His red tunic with its gilt buttons and the black varnished hat on his head were copied from the nineteenth-century era of Earth, that favorite place that provided so many ideas and things for the Denizens of the House to imitate. He carried a short,
whippy swagger-stick under his left armpit, which was probably an ensorcelled weapon of some kind.
“Hello, Colonel,” the Denizen said. He stood at attention and gave a very smart salute, which Nage returned with a clash of his right wrist-bracer on his cuirass, the armor plate that protected his chest. “I’m Major Pravuil. Carrying dispatches from GHQ. Modification to your Ephemeris.”
“Modification? That’s never happened before!”
“Change of plan for the campaign,” said Pravuil smoothly. “Sir Thursday wants to really test the lads this time. Here we are. Just sign on the bottom right, please, sir, and then lay the page on your Ephemeris.”
Nage quickly signed the paper, then took out his Ephemeris and put the sheet on top of the book. It lay there for a second, then shivered as if a breeze had swept through the room. As the two Denizens watched, the page sank into the book, disappearing through the binding like water into a sponge.
Nage waited a few seconds, then picked up the Ephemeris and opened it to the current day. He read what was there twice, his frown returning.
“But what’s this? All four gates open? That’s against standing orders!”
“Which are overridden by direct instruction from Sir Thursday.”
“I don’t have a full garrison here, you know,” said Nage. “We’re understrength. I have only one cohort of the Legion and a troop of Borderers. What if the fort comes under attack while the gates are still open?”
“You will defend it,” said Pravuil. “It’ll just be the usual Nithling rabble. Only more of them than usual.”
“That’s just it,” Nage argued. “The Borderers have been reporting that something peculiar is going on in the transient region. There has been a solid landscape there for the last few months, and you can’t even see the Void from the Cleargate. The last report said there are columns of Nithlings marching into that region from somewhere. Organized Nithlings.”
“Organized Nithlings?” scoffed Pravuil. “The Nithlings are incapable of organization. They appear from Nothing, they fight stupidly—with one another, if they can’t get into the House proper—and they go back to Nothing when we slay them. That is how it has always been and always will be.”
“Begging your pardon, Major, that’s not how it is right now,” said a new voice from the door. A Denizen in the sand-colored tunic of a Borderer, his longbow slung across
his back, stood at attention there. He bore the scars of several old Nothing-inflicted wounds on his face and hands, typical of the Denizens who patrolled the regions where the House bordered Nothing, not just in the Great Maze but also in other demesnes. “May I make my report, Colonel?”
“Yes, do, Corbie,” said Nage. He reached under his cuirass and pulled out a pocket watch, flipping open the case one-handed. “We still have forty minutes.”
Corbie stood at attention and spoke to a point somewhere slightly above Nage’s head, as if there were an audience there.
“On the seventeenth instant, I left the sally port of the Cleargate with four sergeant and six ordinary Borderers. The sifters indicated a very low level of free Nothing in the region, and the Void itself lay at least fourteen miles distant, as measured by Noneset. We could not see it, nor much else, for everything immediately in front of the Cleargate was obscured by a highly unusual haze.
“We marched straight into this haze and discovered that not only was it twenty or thirty yards wide but generated by means unknown, presumed to be sorcerous. It was emanating from bronze chimneylike columns that were set at intervals in a line a mile long, opposite the Cleargate.
“Moving through the haze, we discovered that an enormous grassy plain had formed from Nothing, with a broad river close to us. On the far side of the river were thousands of tents, all of a uniform color, arranged in rows of a hundred, with a banner at the head of each row. It was completely different from the usual rough Nithling camp, and we immediately noted that there was a very large parade ground of beaten earth beyond the tents, where a force I estimated at between two hundred thousand and three hundred thousand Nithlings was parading in battle formations.
“Parading, sir! We moved closer, and through my perspective glass I was able to make out that the Nithlings were not only wearing uniforms but had remarkably regular physical attributes, with only minor variations of shape, such as a tentacle here or there, or more elongated jaws.
“At that point, a Nithling sentry hidden in the grass sounded an alarm. I must confess we were surprised by the presence of a sentry and by the swift response, as a hidden force immediately emerged from the banks of the river. We were pursued back to the Cleargate, and only just managed to get back in through the sally port without suffering casualties.
“End of report, sir!”
Nage stared at him for a moment as if he couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Finally he blinked several times and spoke.
“This is very disturbing! And it obviously changes things. We cannot open all four gates with such a host of Nithlings waiting to attack!”
“Are you intending to disobey direct orders from Sir Thursday?” asked Pravuil lazily. He tapped the palm of his left hand with his swagger-stick, small purple sparks crawling out of the stick and spilling over his fingers. “You should know that I will have to relieve you of your command if that is the case.”