Prelude

“Travel between the realms is, at best, a tricky endeavor. If one has to make such a journey, he or she should use the established Facilitation Points set up by the Arcane Council during the Time of Enlightenment. To ignore this basic requirement is akin to suicide, since traveling outside the recognized points involves traversing The Nowhere.”
Encyclopedia Arcadia

NOWHERE is a nebulous concept.

By the very definition of the word, Nowhere describes an absence of a place rather than the presence of an actual location. Nowhere is generally believed to be a place holder, a something with no actual value. A verbal zero, you might say.

The dictionary definition says it is not in or at any place. To be no place or not at all.

That definition was coined by people without real knowledge of the universe because, if they knew the truth, they wouldn’t sleep well at night. Anyone who knows the truth sleeps with at least one eye open.

There exists between the realms a sliver of space and time that is so thin and yet so infinite that any attempts to measure it are useless. In the halls of Arcane Academies all over the nine realms, there are stories whispered in the dead of night, tales told to Initiates about those lost in a Sending gone awry. They are the equivalent of mystical urban legends, stories of people no longer here and no longer there, people who are no longer anywhere. There is nothing more terrifying than the thought of being eternally stranded in a place that doesn’t and yet somehow does exist.

What most people don’t know is that Nowhere is a very real place, a place where the rules as we understand them do not apply. A piece of unreality where light is the absence of dark, life the absence of death, and concepts like good and decency do not exist. Everyone who travels from one world to another unFacilitated must in one way or another deal with The Nowhere.

Some have attempted to map The Nowhere, but none who have tried have returned from the journey intact. Some staggered back, minds shattered. Others returned as husks of the people they had been before they had left. Most never returned, lost forever in their wanderings. The dark tales rose from those and other such tragic stories. The ones who were still able to speak talked of things once glimpsed that are never forgotten, things that sit and wait.

Kane doesn’t know these stories.

He will have no idea about how close Ruber’s spell came to not working. He will never have a clue how much the energies they were chasing had dwindled as they bolted through the portal. And most especially he will not know that he came out of the spell only by the merest thread of providence.

What Kane will remember is that he has seen a realm that mortals are not meant to see, and because they aren’t meant to be where he traveled, there are simply no words to describe it. His mind will struggle with the concept that the darkness was alive and that the screams he had heard were actually appendages of a much larger creature. He will try to define the smell that permeated his clothes as something other than hungry blood but ultimately fail. And only after a long while will he forget the feeling in the infinite pause that something moved in the distance toward him, a predator slithering at its prey. In his dreams he will struggle with the certainty that, in that lapse, he locked eyes with a Something he couldn’t name….

And that the Something stared back at him.

To summarize: one moment Kane was on Earth and the next he wasn’t. Anywhere.

Kane felt himself falling with a velocity that was as terrifying as it was impossible. In one breath he was Kane going after Hawk. In the time between his inhalation and—but there was no “and.” There was only not—no sound of his heart beating, no warmth or cold on his skin, only the dim awareness that he was hurtling at hundreds of miles an hour through The Nowhere and had no control whatsoever. There was no wind rushing against him, no whistling of air past his ears, just his uncontrolled attempts at movement and a wild panic that he had made a terrible mistake. He barely had time for his mind to register anything consciously before he was roughly ejected back to normal space just as he exhaled.

The only prelude to his appearance in the snow-covered lands was a shimmer in the air like heat coming off a desert floor and warping the air above it, and the sound of sizzling as the cold air was superheated in an instant. Kane dropped like a rock into the clouds of steam and plummeted into a snowbank. His body was numb for some seconds, his brain unable to make his body react to any of its commands. Kane’s exposure to The Nowhere and then to being buried in snow created a powerful numbness that his ragged nerve endings could not comprehend. Within two breaths, his benumbed limbs began to tingle as invisible needles of icy cold cut into his skin. He suddenly jolted back to life, screaming as his body and mind recovered from the effects of the spell and forced his mind to realize he was freezing to death.

His eyes burned as he breathed in ice water and coughed some of it out. He thrashed in the snow, panicking as he struggled to come to terms with his situation. He knew nothing but pain and fear as he half inhaled another mouthful of snowmelt. He tried to scream again and was rewarded with another mouthful of ice. Kane was drowning and there was nothing he could do about it. His struggles began to slow as his brain, already tested nearly to the breaking point, screamed for oxygen. His mind locked up as the agony that was surrounding him began to fade.

Kane’s next-to-last thought was an apology to Hawk for failing him.

His last thought was that this was not how he wanted to die.

That was when the air around him exploded.

Chapter One

“The Frigus are easily the hardiest of the twelve tribes that make up the indigenous population of the Articus. Unlike their brethren, they do not leave the lands during the deepest cold. Instead they remain and watch for signs that their savior Logos has returned to them.”
People and Places of Northern Arcadia
3rd edition

FERRA EBONMANE was cold.

That sensation was nothing new; the people of North Frigus were used to the intense cold. They lived off a land that was locked in a permanent state of frost. They, like the other eleven barbarian tribes of the North, had become adapted to the colder climate, so much so that their skin had taken on a light blue hue as if already half frozen. They were considered by outsiders to be a hardy people who thrived on the frozen plains of Articus, a land that was as unforgiving as the people who lived there. Survival was not a certainty; every day was a battle against the elements and their deadly embrace. And that was the way the Frigus liked it.

Well, most of them liked it.

Ferra Ebonmane did not like it one iota.

She hated the cold in the same way she was sure that the cold hated her back. Ferra was sure the land did not like her people, that it resented their presence so far north, and that the Articus winds took every chance to remind them of that animosity. The frigid winds and frostbound land were a constant enemy in her mind, a silent and patient foe that waited endlessly in the high grass for a Frigus to falter.

They lived too close to the Facilitation Point that led to Niflgard, the realm of water and ice. That proximity made the cold this far north more intense than those in the lower plains experienced. But the cold was more than just a matter of temperature; it provided a major impetus for the Frigan state of mind. At best they were considered by traders, travelers, and the other northern peoples to be an unfriendly bunch. At worst they were downright hostile to outsiders. Even the most rugged traders dealt with the Frigus quickly and during the early daylight hours, knowing that no offer of shelter over the night would be forthcoming. That was the way it had always been and the way it most likely would always be.

If Ferra had had her way, the small settlement’s population would travel south at the first sign of late High-Sun season frost. The other eleven tribes made the trek to warmer lands for the very same reason, and they seemed to exist just fine. Why her people had never adopted the practice, she would never know. That’s not true—she knew why they stayed. She simply did not believe the same as they did.

They waited in this godforsaken cold for their savior to return to them here in what they considered the promised land. He was referred to as the Ever-Living Man, but his name was Logos. The tales told that he had sacrificed himself for their well-being eons ago and ascended to the higher planes. Those same tales spoke that one day he would return and gather the faithful to him as the world was ending. Logos would reach down and pluck his children free as The End drew near. He would take them with him to the higher planes where they would live for all eternity in blissful peace and perfection.

Of course, that was only if you followed the strict set of rules left behind by those who had walked with Logos to his death.

She paced the circular stone-paved floor of her karmak, struggling to keep herself warm. Mindless and ferocious, the wind howled against the thick mammoth hide that made up the roof of her house. Although drafts spiraled under the tightly bound and chinked edges, the sturdy Frigus-house stood undamaged. Small vents carefully constructed to allow circulation without damage to the structure were part of every karmak.

Thoughts worried at Ferra like eddying drafts of the storm wind. There had been no indications of the oncoming weather. In fact, the Elders had promised fair skies three days before. Everyone had been caught unprepared. Storms of this intensity were rare even for the Far Articusica, and this one had overtaken them out of nowhere. Living near the Niflgard Facilitation Point, the Frigus were accustomed to violent storms that blasted in on swift winds and swirled out again as quickly. They were a byproduct of living where they did, and it was a curse they had learned to bear with a quiet dignity. Normally, there was nothing to do but to hunker down and wait for the snow and wind to pass, but this storm was different. It seemed as if it would never end. Karmaks were built below ground, large swatches of earth dug out with roofs made of leather to cut the wind shear down to a minimum. Because of their construction, karmaks conserved as much heat as was physically possible, but the intensity of the wind and cold left precious little heat for Ferra’s comfort.

She hated facing an enemy she couldn’t put her hands on.

Dying in combat would at least be a fitting end. Defending her home and lands against an enemy was an honorable death, and she didn’t fear the idea. But to have her people swept from the face of Faerth by snow and ice while huddling in the ground was just too disgusting a fate. She watched her roof shift again against the charging wind and narrowed her eyes in anger. All she asked was a way for her to grasp the cold with her two hands so she could strangle it to death.

Seconds later she heard the shouts from above.

Four men stood guard at any given time during the night. The Frigus had learned the hard way that the wildest of storms was no defense against the predators that stalked the night this far north. Hunger drove normally skittish creatures to madness, a fact that the Frigus had learned centuries before. Since her people were seminomadic, they had no concept of a graveyard, a place to bury and visit the dead. Instead, fallen people were burned and their ashes were rubbed into the thick leather hides that made up the roofs.

Every roof was black as night.

The word of Logos referred to the using of magic as “The Wicked Arts.” It was said their power came from a dark place, a place where He Who Shall Not Burn resided. Because of this, only the Elders were allowed to practice The Arts, and even then only in the name of self-preservation. Each night they gave the four guards wards against the cold so they could stand guard and repel any creature that wandered into the camp as they slept. Though Ferra could not grasp the concept of any living thing venturing out in a storm such as this, the cries of the guards spurred her to instant action. Grabbing her spear, she climbed the two earthen stairs to the hatch of the karmak. During a lull in the howling wind, she rolled enough of the hide off its frame to allow her egress. She could make out the forms of several people already running past her karmak.

As soon as she rolled down the door skin, pounded it back into the frame, and stood up, the wind blasted her from behind, cold cutting through her furs as if she were naked. She ground her teeth in anger, certain that the cold was taunting her and her inability to defend herself. Ishia half ran, half blew to a stop beside her, his young face flushed with excitement. “What is it?” he shouted at her eagerly.

He was barely fourteen long suns, still at the age when everything was an adventure, no matter how dire the situation might be. Ferra had found over the years that the only way to tolerate any male with a desire to prove himself to others was to simply treat him as any other eager pup and slap him down firmly and swiftly.

“Are you under the impression that I possess some kind of advanced ability of perception that you are lacking?” she snapped at him. The younger man shrank away from her, maintaining his distance as they jogged toward the commotion at the edge of camp. He seemed to consider responding to her words, but the look on her face made him quickly—and wisely—reject the possibility.

Most of the tribe huddled on the very perimeter of their camp. Any comments they might have made were swallowed by the gale. Ferra pushed her way through the crowd and stared. It became pretty obvious what had attracted the guards’ attention.

Ten feet away from her, a circle of ground over twenty feet in circumference and completely devoid of snow and ice still steamed a little. In the center sprawled an unconscious youth who was in no way dressed properly for even the lightest of their cold. Next to him, a large ruby lay half buried in the ground. Its usual color barely showed through the black charring; the gem appeared to have been grabbed from a great fire. Whatever had deposited circle, youth, and gem could not have been natural. The edges of the circle were perfectly scribed, although the snow had begun making inroads immediately.

The air stank of magic and, from the way the Elders were whispering and gesturing, there was more going on than normal vision could see. Her people were distrustful of The Arts; even the minor powers the shamans possessed were enough to make them outcasts in their own tribe. The Frigus valued their stability, and anything unusual was looked upon as something negative.

No one moved as they all wondered what to do next. And the boy continued to freeze.

ATER watched as the nyxies held their hands over Hawk’s wound.

Their entire chamber seemed to be alive as the greenish glow that emanated from the walls cast their shadows against the far wall. He wasn’t easily spooked, but the sisters’ mere presence was dangerously close to spoiling his inner calm.

The two dark elves had taken the boy directly to The Under, avoiding any and all stray glances that may have recognized the heir to the throne. Pullus had carried the young prince, a concerned look on his face, as they rushed through the underground warrens that made up the home of the Dark. They both knew a clutch of nyxies had made their home deep in the earth near the entry to The Under. The nyxies’ ability to heal was Hawk’s only chance of survival.

Ater had never trusted the strange gray creatures and, up to that moment, had never been as close to them. He watched as the center creature paused the faint motions of her withered hand over Hawk’s wound before she turned her face toward the two elves. “He is dying.”

Ater tried not to shudder. Unasked for, the nyxie’s words sounded in his head as if they had been spoken aloud, even though the old woman’s mouth remained closed. Nyxies were empathic vampires, living on the emotional residue generated by other beings. Any strong emotion—sorrow, pain, fear—was food to them, so they often lived near large collections of sentient minds. Most of the time they remained hidden away, since their appearances were disturbing even by the bizarre standards of the Dark.

Their skin was the color apathy and indifference would be if they were expressed with color, a flat gray that was the very opposite of what living flesh should look like. It was impossible to tell if there was any difference among the three sisters since their hair, a long and tangled mess of white with the consistency of heavy yarn, curtained their features as they peered down at Hawk. But all of that could be overlooked in a place such as The Under. However, the creatures’ eyes, or, more correctly, their lack of eyes, could not be ignored. Not that their eyes had been removed; they had never existed. Where a pair of eyeballs should have been, two slits of skin folded into the empty sockets, magnifying the absence rather than concealing it. Yet the creatures gave no indication they were blind. They moved with no hesitation or hindrance wherever they went, which made most wonder under hushed breath about what they truly did or did not perceive.

“I know that,” the dark elf replied, trying to keep the exasperation out of his voice. “That is why we brought him to you three.” The other two nyxies had not stopped their constant hovering over the wound and peered up toward their eldest sister and the Outsiders. Their expressions were those of hungry scavengers who had stumbled across a freshly discarded kill. The image did not do anything to further Ater’s confidence in the trio.

There was a murmur of voices, like a gaggle of gossiping women in the back of both elves’ minds, as the three nyxies conversed among themselves. Ater could almost make out the different voices, though the words were veiled from him. From the look on Pullus’s face, he and his mate were hearing the same thing.

After about half a minute of debate, the center nyxie looked back at him. “Take his pain? Yes. Heal his wound? In time. To do it rapidly? Impossible.”

A sense that the creature was lying carried underneath its words, but since the words were sent mentally, Ater couldn’t pin the feeling down reliably. Rather than argue and waste more of what time Hawk had left, he asked, “How long?” his voice openly wary.

Another burst of whispered words and then one of the other two called out, “Five days!”

Pure instinct resulted in Ater’s instant comeback. “Two.”

“Four!” the nyxie countered.

So there is room to bargain, Pullus thought.

“Three and no more.” Ater got the sense that the job could be done in a much shorter time, but the women wished to draw the experience out. He shuddered as he considered the reasons why.

“Deal,” the main nyxie said, moving toward him. She extended her hand for a handshake to complete the contract, and he could see the hanging folds of skin that fell off her palm. Gingerly he grasped her hand and could feel the touch of her mind to his as they made a pact. They would feast on the boy’s pain, but their word was inviolate. He nodded as she withdrew her thoughts from his own.

“We shall return in three days. His safety—” he began.

“He is safe here; this is a place of healing,” the nyxie intoned.

Ater had to concede the point. As grim and eerie as the nyxies and their lair were, most creatures in the Dark relied on the sisters for their healing. The only nonfairies allowed to attend The Academy were indentured servants of noble families. Access by the poor and The Under dwellers to an actual Mender was limited to the point of impossibility. Though the nyxie trio were generally given a wide berth because of their peculiarities, no one would ever think about causing them harm or endangering their patients. The need for their healing abilities was too great.

“It takes them three days to heal a wound?” Pullus asked him in a whisper.

Ater shook his head almost imperceptibly. “From her thoughts, the healing takes less than six hours. They want three days for that,” he said, nodding toward the other two nyxies. They both clung to the prince’s neck. Briefly, Pullus was reminded of leeches feeding on a victim. The two dark elves could only see the backs of the nyxies’ heads, and that was more than enough to unnerve them. Waves of color passed through their hair, transforming it momentarily from stringy, wool-like mops into silky, luxurious strands of dark-green hair. They could see the nyxies’ skin begin to lighten until the gray was a pale skin tone.

The eldest nyxie glided toward them, shooing them out of the lair. “Our deal is done. Three days, no sooner.”

Ater and Pullus allowed her to maneuver them out of the area, since neither one of them wanted to continue watching the spectacle. She paused at the threshold of their cave, her withered hands gripping the curtain that served as their door. Ater turned and stopped her from closing it for a moment. “You do know who he is?” he asked, after making sure there was no one close enough to hear.

Her voice was sharp and clear as she stared eyelessly at him. “The proclivity of you mind-dead races to name everything you see is not something we’ve ever cared about. I know who he is because I have tasted his mind. Whatever labels you have for him are of no interest to us.”

Ater noticed that she had not directly answered his question, but he had a feeling it might be the closest he was going to get to one. “Three days,” he answered after a moment of thought.

She closed the curtain in his face without another word.

The two assassins walked away slowly. The masses of people who were crowded into the marketplace parted without glancing at them. Their night-black uniforms with the royal mark on their chests advertised them as royal emissaries. That fact alone cloaked them in an aura of power, which was only multiplied by the fact that dark elves were some of the most feared of the peoples of the Dark. “Do you think we can trust them?” Pullus asked as they paused at a food stand to look over the selection of roots and fungus.

Ater searched through the roots and shrugged. “We don’t have much choice at this point. If we take him to a Mender, word will get back to Puck, and we instantly lose our only bargaining chip. These two,” he told the farmer, handing him a brass coin in payment.

“And what are we bargaining for exactly?” Pullus asked as Ater handed him the bigger root. Their fingers touched for a moment and both of them smiled. Abruptly, Ater cleared his throat and answered, although he never lost contact with Pullus.

“We were tasked to kill the Heir and bring back the secret of ascension. Those two things we did not do. If Puck knew where the prince was hidden, how long would you estimate our life expectancy to be?”

Pullus took a bite as he considered the question. The hand that didn’t hold the root shifted until his and Ater’s fingers entwined between them. “The changeling is not someone who takes bad news well.” They turned and strolled (as much as any dark elf was capable of strolling) toward the edge of the square. The thought of Puck’s reaction quelled Ater’s appetite.

Ater sighed as he handed what was left of his root to an elderly beggar as they left the square. “Oh, he is the very model of understanding. The only chance of survival we have is to convince him that we may still be able to gain the information—if our heads stay on our shoulders, that is.”

“Have you considered just killing the prince?” Pullus asked as they paused outside the gate of the tunnel leading back to the surface. A passerby might have thought them only deep in conversation. Another dark elf would have known that Ater and Pullus had taken the time to sweep the area and ensure that their comings and goings had gone unremarked. Before he replied, Ater led them into the tunnel.

“More times than I care to admit,” he said as he leaned against the tunnel wall.

“You do realize that, given Puck’s mercurial mood changes, there is a greater than average chance he will still kill us.”

Ater did know this but hadn’t felt the need to vocalize it. Turning to his partner he had to ask. “Do you want to kill the boy?”

Pullus’s golden eyes would seem flat and unreadable to anyone else, but Ater could see the depth of the emotion in them. He knew Pullus as he had never known any other living being, and that knowledge came from literally hundreds of years of partnership. Ater felt the roughness of the other man’s palm as he placed it against his cheek in an uncharacteristic show of emotion. “As always, I follow you.”

Ater leaned his face into Pullus’s palm, pressing it between his face and shoulder, drawing strength from the touch. He was weary. There had been too many killings, too many deaths on his hands. When he was younger, the job had seemed so noble, defending the realm from enemies both in the realm and outside. Acerbus had angered him precisely because Ater could see himself as he’d been in his youth in Acerbus’s every action. He was no longer as naive as he once had been. With the sudden shift in power, with the Dark struggling to gain some poorly defined form of recognition, the shape of things had blurred, and killing to protect no longer seemed as enticing. When Pullus’s lips touched his, he started and then pulled the other elf close, stunned at the openness of his partner’s concern and love. When they parted, Ater saw a faint smile on Pullus’s lips and smiled in return.

“We could always run,” Ater said after a few quiet moments.

Pullus gave him a wry grin as he arched one eyebrow in question.

“You’re right,” he said, standing up again. He grabbed Pullus’s hand and squeezed it. “We’ve never run before, why start now?” Pullus said nothing as he leaned into him. The two of them embraced each other and stood unmoving for a very long time.

WHEN I started to wake up, I wondered why Dad had the damn air conditioner on so low. I bundled up in the covers and tried to go back to sleep, but the cold wouldn’t let me. I was about to scream downstairs for him to turn up the heat when it hit me.

Hawk.

I woke up in what looked like a pit dug in the ground with some kind of teepee thing that was trying to pass as a roof. I say trying because the way the wind was howling outside, that roof could have been made of brick and steel and I would have wondered about its structural integrity. I was covered in a mass of furs, actual furs. Not fur coats, not a furry blanket, but real, honest to God pieces of dead skin that I knew without a doubt were once the outsides of actual animals. I wasn’t sure how to handle that little bit of information, since they were the only thing between me being just cold and me being a Kanesicle, so I had very little room to complain.

If I were back home, I would have been brought up on war crimes for being cloaked in dead animal skins. If Hawk’s leather jacket would have gotten dirty looks, what lay over me now would have condemned me as being a serial killer. A warm one, but a serial killer nonetheless.

Of course the fact that I was covered by dead animal skins took a distant second to the fact I had no freaking idea where the hell I was. Or where Hawk was—Hawk—and my brain stopped right at the thought of him for I don’t know how long. Finally, though, I realized the only way to go to Hawk was to leave here. Wherever here was. With Ruber. Ruber? Ruber! I felt under the skins and looked around the pit thing, increasingly confused.

I had no idea how much time had passed since Ruber had cast his spell or where I had landed other than being buried under smelly animal pelts. Coupled with the fact that I had no idea where Ruber was made my first waking moments an exercise in confusion morphing into full-blown panic. I sat up quickly and the furs slid off me, which made me regret my little gesture something fierce.

The cold was a physical force crashing against my body almost instantly. I started shivering uncontrollably, and I felt daggers of ice cut into my chest when I inhaled. I leaned down, going after the furs, but my fingers were unable to grab them off the ground. Within a breath, I followed the furs.

I rolled off the bed and slammed onto the unforgiving surface with a muffled thud. The ground was frigid, which doubled the pain of impact. No breath. I was wracked with spasms as the last dregs of warmth were sapped from my body. I tried to keep my mouth clenched tight so I didn’t cut my tongue in half and choke on my blood during the final few seconds of my life.

The last image I thought I saw before I passed out was that of a huge Viking woman with blue skin charging at me, screaming some unintelligible language that I wished I understood because she sounded like she was on about something. Fuzzily, I hoped that Valkyrie Smurf wasn’t mad at me.

AFTER the paleskin almost killed himself, Ferra decided to sit with him as he slept.

A small drink of calor water brought warmth back to the boy, but its effects would fade quickly, leaving him vulnerable to the elements all over again.

The Elders were examining the gem that had been found with him. The faintest traces of writing of some sort were still visible at its core so it had to have been enchanted at one point, but nothing could tell them if there were any magic left in the rock now. They still had no idea where the traveler had come from. Some believed him an Offworlder due to his strange clothes and the melted circle where he’d been found. Ferra wasn’t sure yet because of the blade he had worn on his hip.

She recognized it as a Soul Blade, a weapon that was only crafted by the dwarves located in the bowels of the capital city of Arcadia. Soul Blades were reserved for the royal family and their vassals. The boy was not royalty, that much was clear, and if he was related in any way to the throne, she’d eat her boots. He looked like a vagrant, but the pack he had with him was enchanted and the ruby alone was valuable enough to buy him a small castle in some places. How he came to possess a blade whose ownership was limited to maybe a dozen beings on the planet was the puzzle, and she knew the answer wasn’t going to be simple.

Which wasn’t, she added mentally, good news for the boy. If her people were anything, they were simple. No, not that; they were direct and uncomplicated. Their lives were complicated enough by the fight for survival; the few times they encountered puzzles, their reactions had been almost universally violent in nature. As one does not fight in a burning building, it was equally true that, when freezing, the best decisions were reached quickly and without remorse. The boy was an Outsider and they had no means to feed or clothe him. That left the Elders precious few options to explore. The only thing that had deterred them from killing him immediately was the mystery surrounding his origins. Vagrant he might be, but he also had in his possession things that should have belonged to royalty. The Elders could only speculate. And not kill the boy. Yet.

Once who he was and where he’d come from were determined, Ferra knew the most obvious thing to do, at least in the minds of the Elders, would be to kill the boy outright or leave him to fend for himself. Either way, she realized, it would have been a mercy if he had died on the plains where he had first landed.