Chapter 1, obviously.
Nicholas Holland never tired of this. When his father wasn't around- or even when he was- he'd stare at the battered armor and sword his father once wore and dream of the world he grew up hearing about.
At first, Niko Holland had been welcomed back home as the lost son he was, but his appearance and the tale he told of where he had been for four years very quickly made him a laughing stock. After all, who would believe he'd spent all that time in a world of magic, waging war against an army of monsters and machines?
Everyone would, after Niko showed them the magic he'd acquired in that other world, Keiylam. Skeptics hadn't been able to debunk him- though what he'd displayed was a rather poor imitation of what he'd been able to do before- and Chicago had gained a new hero.
For a time.
Niko hadn't wanted to be Chicago's hero. He hadn't even wanted to come back. And once the initial uproar had died down, he'd spent every possible moment of the next two year trying to find a way to get back to Keiylam; life on Earth just didn't hold the same appeal to him, anymore.
One person stood beside him through all that, as she had for about as long as he could remember.
Markia Sharp had known Niko since they were children, and they'd been dating since the summer before their first year middle school. People in their neighborhood on the south side of the city had looked at the couple as a rare breed: true love. It was expected that they would get married after graduation... provided they dodged the violence that awaited them in the streets.
Niko's disappearance had put an end to those expectations by most, but Markia had never wavered. She'd always believed the love of her life would return, and had patiently waited while he reintegrated himself into the world. She hadn't been upset when he'd told her about the woman he'd come to love in that other place, and had let it be his choice whether or not they became a couple again.
Bowing out, however, had been her decision.
Even after their marriage and Nick's birth- and despite Niko's best efforts- Markia had been well aware that her husband's heart and mind were elsewhere; she'd appreciated the amount of effort he put forth, giving it his all to provide for his wife and young son, but she hadn't wanted them to torture each other in the attempt to make each other happy.
So, when Nicholas was four, she'd made the choice to leave. The thought had never occurred to her to take the boy with her; she'd noticed that Niko needed him, needed that person who believed him unwaveringly, needed that one person in the world who could support him without skepticism. So, despite her love for the child and his father, she'd taken herself out of the picture.
In the eleven years since, Nick's infatuation with his dad's stories had only grown. It made him a rather frequent object of ultimately ineffectual bullying, as the boy never seemed to notice. He took the constant attacks- both physical and mental- as just part of being his father's son. And when he did fight back... well, he was his father's son in that capacity, too.
Nick had adopted his dad's desire to see that other world wholeheartedly. Despite never having been there, the world of Keiylam was very alive in his mind. That was why today, as with most days, he gazed upon the "shrine" that contained his dad's otherworldly tools, oblivious to all else as he daydreamed of a land he'd probably never see.
It made sneaking up on him easy, sometimes.
"Boy, you done your homework yet?"
Nick responded without looking away. "Dad, I don't have homework on Saturdays." He'd heard the slight creak of wood the floor had made as his father had come down the hallway: no tip-toeing in this time.
Niko looked at his spitting image, and wondered why he could see so little of his ex-wife in the boy. Not much physically, anyway. But in the upstairs department, things were a little different.
It would never be said that Niko Holland was a genius. School had not been one of his strong points, despite the high amount of effort he had put into his studies. "Average" was the most he could hope for from an academic standpoint. On standardized tests, his scores were always right in the middle.
Markia was far better in that regard. Consistently in the ninetieth percentile, salutatorian of her tiny graduating class of 87 people, a trio of Ivy League schools inviting her to enroll. Life had other plans in that regard, but Markia hadn't quite given up on being more than just mediocre.
Each parent had decided Nicholas would surpass them and find greener pastures.
Nick's fields of bounty lay in another world, entirely.
"You all packed up? Your mom should be here soon."
Most Fridays, Markia would pick him up and spend the weekend with the boy, but she had out of town on business until early Saturday morning. It wasn't a condition of their divorce, but rather a compromise meant to ease Niko's heart. Though she loved her son, Markia would have been fine with just stopping by to see him now and then. She and Niko were still friends, after all.
Nick's gaze didn't waver from the sword and armor glinting in the morning sunlight. "I got done before school yesterday, just like always," he said. "I forgot Mom wasn't back in town, yet."
Sighing, Niko shook his head as he regarded his son. "Sometime, I wonder..."
He'd thought along the same lines before, but this time his thinking was cut short by an odd sensation. It was familiar, but vaguely so, like something he had experienced long ago. It had only been once, more than twenty years ago, but there was no way Niko could ever have forgotten.
"Dad? I feel weird."
That was how he'd described it when he was just a little older than Nick was now. And by the time it was over, everything was different.
Niko took heavy, decisive steps toward the display case, unlocking it before he touched it with one of the little magics he'd maintained used of since his return. Without waiting, he tossed the greaves and gauntlets to Nicholas and quickly scooped up the rest himself.
Before he'd finished, his sense of balance had already been affected, but even combined with the sudden bleeding of objects into each other in his vision, he hardly slowed. By the time the order that governed reality had faded completely, he'd had his brigandine pulled over his head and his twin blades fastened around his waist, with a firm grasp fastened onto his son's arm. "Don't panic!"
Nicholas was too confused to panic. He couldn't figure out how the world had just stopped making sense: how had the ceiling, floor, and walls just gone out of focus so much that they had all become the same thing? Why couldn't he tell whether his eyes were open or closed now? Why did it feel like he was falling in every possible direction, including inside himself?
For a long, brief moment, the youth thought he was losing his mind. He couldn't hear, but sound stabbed itself into him like needle of blue... something. It seemed like he was close to sliding right off his mind, but his father's grip on his arm slowly brought things back into focus.
In a moment that seemed to have happened the very instant that everything went awry, Nick was aware that he wasn't in his home's spare room anymore.
Somewhat used to being transported by way of magic, though it had been a long time, Niko got his bearings rather quickly. He forced his eyes and balance to reset; these were usually the two more important senses to acquire when adjusting to new surroundings. Touch and hearing were next, and recovered soon enough.
What his senses told him was that he and Nicholas were in a clearing surrounded by greenery. While there was hard-packed earth underfoot, grass filled in the few dozen yards between themselves and a light forest nearby. Away from their position, a cobblestone path led away through the trees and down a gentle sloping hill. Behind them, a granite monument that hadn't been there before, depicting an indistinct figure kneeling, or perhaps rising from one knee, that felt like it was alive.
That hadn't been there twenty-two years ago.
"... Dad? Dad! Is this..?"
"Yeah. Yeah, it is." He took a deep breath, eyes watering a bit as he looked around. "This is Keiylam."
For different reasons, Nick was in awe. On one hand, it looked like it could have been a park in any city on Earth in late spring: the weather was warm, breezy and bright. But on the other, it all felt different. It all felt more... alive, and it took him a moment to figure out why.
He couldn't see the colors, but his father had taught him to feel that energy. On Earth, only the two Holland boys had had that energy within him, but here, Nicholas could feel it coming from almost everything.
It was like opening his eyes for the very first time, and he reveled in it.
Even so, he was first to notice the sound of someone approaching down the forested path. "I think somebody's coming," he said, and wondered what the two of them looked like, half-clad in one set of armor and probably bizarre-looking clothing.
His father was less curious, and more concerned. It wasn't visible through the trees around them, but the two were about an hour's walk from Teagarden, Gaitra's capital; if things were not peaceful, they could be in for a fight. A few short moments of concentration, however, told him that they weren't.
There was one person approaching, so Niko knew it wasn't a patrol, which would have numbered at least five knights in times of trouble; during less tumultuous times, that number could be less than half. It would never be just one soldier, though.
Whoever was approaching also lacked armor. That distinctive clink! was a perpetual giveaway, yet the newcomer lacked even the hard shoes that adventurers wore even when they eschewed all other forms of metal protection. Likewise, no sword or other similar weapon could be heard in its sheath, sliding across the side of its owner's leg, or slapping against the hardened leather that would protect a person's back. Sure, there were ways of keeping weapons quiet, but why do that and not also mask the sound of footsteps?
Before he could make out the shape of the person through the foliage, Niko knew they weren't a threat. And once they had come into view, he knew more than that.
The face, weathered from years of toiling in farms under the sun, hadn't aged much, so Niko recognized it almost immediately. The bent figure's slow walk was also familiar to him. He found that a bit impressive, given that he hadn't seen the person but a few times during his stay in Keiylam; he resolved to change that this time around.
"Hey, is that you, old man Ghid?"
The elderly man, whose eyes weren't as good as they once were, took a long moment to squint at the two figures he was coming up on. At first, he was certain that they were complete strangers, but the longer he looked, the less sure he was about that. "'S'it a ghost? Lord Holland?"
Niko approached the older man, his son at his heels, an unexpected feeing of lightness coming over him. "You look the same as ever."
Remembering his manners, Ghid Barrow smiled kindly. "Maybe, but you've grown older since last I saw you."
With a sheepish shake of his head, Niko said, "Nick, this is Ghid Barrow. He was the first person I met when I arrived here. Helped smooth things over with Eugenia when she and I first met."
"This your boy, then, Lord Holland?"
"Yeah, this is Nicholas. Just turned fifteen."
"The young lord is more man than boy, then." Ghid bowed as best he could. "Pleased to meet you."
Not knowing exactly what he should do, Nick returned the greeting. "The pleasure is all mine."
Niko laughed at his son's awkwardness. "Well, seems like Gaitra's peaceful enough." He took in the morning's earthy scent. "You're either early or late, today. Heading into town?"
"New hoe comin' at the general store," the old man said, settling into the more relaxed tone he was more accustomed to. "Broke th' old one a few weeks ago. You two care ta come with?"
That had been Niko's plan from the start, so the trio headed down the path the way Ghid had come. As they walked toward the stone-walled city, the old man explained why he'd run into them: the monument they'd appear near- an abstract piece of art that made swirling ribbons of rock look somewhat alive- was actually meant to commemorate Niko's arrival in Keiylam. Since he'd disappeared, Ghid had been stopping by periodically whenever he was headed into Teagarden. It was his way, he said, of saying thanks to the missing hero who'd helped save the world.
They passed the time with the old man telling them stories of how things had changed: there hadn't been any significant conflicts since the Lost Malefect's defeat, though bandits were becoming an increasing annoyance; relations with neighboring nations were very strong; Denire, which had only been a city twenty years ago, was the newest power on the constantly embroiled Bor continent to the southwest; the Demons and Elves had opened a joint trading post in Srieon. He shied away from mentioning much about Gaitra, and the two outworlders- the term given to those people who had come from another world- guessed Ghid had left that for them to discover.
The guards at the city's recently rebuilt eastern gates were relaxed, but they perked up at the sight of early morning visitors. They perked a bit more when they noticed one of their three oncoming guests was armed and armored: Niko had donned his old gear right around the time that Ghid had started talking about bandits. And while he'd quickly admit that he was no longer in peak battlefield form, he still cut an imposing figure in his well-crafted armor.
"Mister Barrow," said one of the guards amicably, "not like you to be coming through at this time of day. Everything alright?"
"Pickin' up a new hoe since th' old one broke."
"These friends of yours have papers?"
Ghid scoffed. "I know you're young, but you boys tellin' mean ya don't recognize this man?"
Neither seemed inclined to humor the older man, and Niko wasn't sure things wouldn't escalate, so he stepped in. "It's alright. I've been gone a long time, after all. My son has never been to this country, so he doesn't have papers, but I hope this helps clear things up."
From within a pouch on the belt secured at his hip, he withdrew a card about the size of his driver's license and gave it to the guard closest to him.
They were called "papers," but the object was always singular, and not made of paper just as often as it was. Mana was used to infuse a medium- poorer people settled for a type of enchanted parchment, while those of higher standing or means often chose fine woods, crystal, or precious metals- with an imprint of a person's Flame. Vital information, such as a person's name, title, guild affiliation, and occupation were inscribed as well, and the magic within allowed variables to be fluidly altered when required, such as in the case of a marriage or disownment.
When held by the owner, one corner of the rectangular card shown green to indicate proper possession. If held by anyone else, that same corner was clear, except in the case of the owner being dead; that corner would then be black. The system proved hard enough to cheat that most countries in the world had adopted it and its simple verification process; with the way land changed hands every few years, it wasn't unheard of for people on Bor to have three or four papers.
The guard- of Gaitran stock, through and through: brown hair and eyes with skin tanned by the kingdom's bright and sunny springs and summers, and a build that revealed a familiarity with physical labor- noted the green that turned clear as he took possession of Niko's papers, then he pulled out what appeared to be a block of unworked metal. "Let me just confirm that this is ours," he said. "Sagiete's new papers look... like this..."
He'd passed the block over the card's surface and was only beginning to read it as a clear, gentle chime sounded: the person he'd thought of giving a hard time was none other than Lord Niko Holland, the Twin-Blade Hero.
Mel Portis told himself it couldn't be helped. He'd been six, maybe seven at the time the Lost Malefect had been defeated, and not only had he never seen the man in person, but such features had become a more common sight since the island people of Feitul had begun migrating to other lands after a string of natural disasters had ravaged their homeland.
Even as he tried to accept this rationalization in his mind, he snapped a brisk salute that startled all but the man he was addressing. "Apologies, Lord Holland!"
Niko waved off the formalities, even as the second guard followed suit. "Hey, all that's not necessary. After all this time, I'm just a normal guy."
No one was buying it, not even Nicholas. "Absolutely not, my lord. We'll call for an escort to the castle immediately."
"I'd appreciate it if you didn't," Niko insisted. "I'd like to spend a bit more time catching up with my old friend Ghid." He sighed. "Plus I don't want to make this a big thing that disrupts the city." Even as he said it, though, he knew his presence would probably cause a commotion even if he wasn't surrounded by knights.
Ghid chimed in his support, and a bit of a debate began between the older man and who was, apparently, the senior of the two knights guarding the east gate. Nick and the second guard were getting drawn in, but something else tugged at Niko's attention, and then he recognized that something like he'd always known it.
A faint, high-pitched whine that registered more in his mind than his ears, yet was also deep enough to resonate in his bones. Nick wasn't familiar with it, but he noticed it, too:
A transportation circle.
They were less flexible than teleportation spells, but transportation circles were very useful. Once one was set, it was hard to move or even destroy, but it was also easy to link one to another. That could make immediate emergency troop movement extremely simple.
Such as the contingent of fully armed knights that appeared off to one side. Sword drawn, a young woman about Nicholas' age stood at the front, her fierce gaze burning into the five men already on the scene. Her eyes met Niko's just as he noticed the gold shining at her temples, and the sense of familiarity he felt was paralyzing.
"Arrest those men!" she commanded, weapon pointing to emphasize the order.
At her word, the troops that accompanied the young woman fanned out and surrounded the smaller group, blades brandished.
Every member of that smaller group jumped in a few different ways.
The two guards' reactions were a testament to their training: despite the confusion evident on their faces, they immediately drew and aimed their weapons at their new acquaintances. Ghid let out a startled yelp and staggered back a step, though he reversed course at the sudden realization that there were men behind him, too.
Nicholas was a little surprised, but recovered almost instantly, putting up his guard the way his father had taught him: it would be tough, but he could hold his own, even unarmed, against an opponent with a short enough weapon. Practice he had aplenty, but this wasn't any such controlled situation.
His father placed a loose hand on the hilt of his sword, but otherwise made no moves. Years of experience fought through the rust, forcing his body into a state of wariness he hadn't needed in a long time.
"What's the meaning of this?" he asked, his voice coming out calmer than he felt. Inside, he was a mess of confusion. Who's this girl that looks like Nia?
In response, the circle tightened. "Lord Niko Holland, you will comply," the young woman said. "Or we will cut you down here and now."
Still dressed in slate gray the business suit she'd adopted for the second day of her brief trip to Harvard Law School- where she hoped to soon be attending- Markia arrived at her former home with luggage still in the trunk of her car. It was her dream car- a red '65 Mustang convertible- which was why Niko hadn't let her give it back: he'd made a slightly-better-than-modest fortune with his ability-generating celebrity in those first years, and the car was part of his way of thanking her for sticking by him.
That she'd had the funds to go through college and could afford to entertain the hundred thousand dollars it'd take her to attend Harvard yearly was another gift of his.
Something felt strange as soon as she stepped out of the car, but Markia couldn't put her finger on it. The South Commons townhome just felt... off.
Part of it was that, usually, one of the two Holland boys would have already opened the door for her before she could get up the stairs, and that hadn't happened yet.
The door to the well-kept cream-colored home was unsurprisingly locked, so Markia used her key and let herself in, somehow sure that knocking wouldn't do any good. The sound of an insurance commercial coming from the flatscreen TV in the living room greeted her, a counternote to the otherwise eerie silence she stepped into.
Even though she knew no one was there, she still searched the first floor. "Niko? Darling Nicky? You here?" Briefly, Markia considered that they might have taken a quick trip to the store for something, or otherwise had to leave on short notice, but she just as quickly nixed that idea: Niko had become very mindful of checking in with her whenever any plans changed.
Despite the cool temperature inside, a cold sweat had Markia's white cotton blouse sticking to her skin. What had happened to her boys?
The trek upstairs got slower with each step; she felt as if an hour had passed by the time she finally set foot on the landing. She also felt something else: unlike the first floor, the air here was full of something. It was charged with something that made her skin tingle, that made her forget all about sweating.
Markia bypassed the two bedrooms, whose doors were open, anyway, and made halting progress toward the spare room at the end of the hall. By now, she'd figured out a few things.
First, the tingly feeling was something she now recognized as the aftereffects of magic use. It had been many years since she last experienced it, which is why she didn't initially remember the feeling, and it had never been so strong that she could feel it fill her lungs as she breathed, even when Niko had turned a barren field into a fully-grown forest in moments.
Second, Markia would only find clues as to what happened to her ex-husband and their son in that spare room, whose door lay directly ahead, closed before her. It could be good or bad, but it would be there or nowhere at all.
Third, she wasn't entirely sure she wanted to know what had happened. Markia was starting to believe that she could handle not knowing, like she had before. She definitely preferred that to discovering that her son and the love of her life had met some grisly end.
This last paused her hand on the doorknob.
Did she want to know what had transpired? Did she want to open the door and find the cold bodies of her loved ones? Would she rather choose to believe in some fantasy her mind would concoct in absence of the truth? Before she could make that decision, Markia found herself already standing in the extra room.
No one greeted her.
Markia took stock of what she saw and, more importantly, what she didn't see: no blood, no bodies. That was good, at least. As usual, the room- part shrine, part storage room- was well-kept. The utilitarian gray desk had a few sets of neatly-stacked papers on top, as well as a plain desk lamp and the typical stationery accoutrement; the thirdhand, five-wheeled office chair was pushed up underneath it, gray cushions worn but still intact. Nick was more responsible for that than anyone, since he was always coming in to admire his father's swords and armor.
Those things, she realized, were all that were missing, and that was all the confirmation she needed that the best-case scenario was what had transpired.
It hurt her a lot more than it once would have: as Markia carefully sat herself down in that office chair that didn't roll very well despite the tight weave of the ugly brown carpet Niko had refused to get rid of in this one room- everywhere else in the house, he'd insisted on a bad-idea-for-young-children cream color- making for a fairly smooth surface, she understood that it would have been easier to take if it had happened not long after Niko's return. Now, though, after having gotten used to him being around again, her heart had been carved out like even their divorce hadn't done.
Though the corners of her mouth were sore from the effort, Markia smiled, the tears she shed accompanied by only a handful of sobs. This was, after all, what he'd wanted for a long time; she should be happy for Niko, even if it was a sad thing for her.
He'd gone home- to what felt like home to him, now- and Nick had gone with him.
"You're a hero, right?"
Deep underneath Rosen Castle, Niko and Nick sat in adjacent cells in the dungeon. It had been renovated since he'd last seen it- not that he had been a guest before- and was even more comfortable than before. Fairly well-lit and furnished with a cot, stool, and writing table, the cells were comparable to the living quarters in soldiers' barracks.
"That's what people called us, yeah."
Nick tried his best not to pace, but it had been hours since they were locked up, and he was starting to lose his cool. "Then why'd they toss us in here? Is that how heroes are supposed to be treated? Where they do that at? And who was that girl? Why did you say 'Nia' when you saw her?"
"Calm down, Nicky."
He used the nickname the boy's mother called him by, inspired by the song Prince sang. "My darling Nicky," she'd lovingly said to the newborn, and a car passing by on the street had coincidentally been blaring it from rolled-down windows.
"I'm not sure why we've been arrested," the elder Holland admitted, as relaxed as he could be, given their current circumstances. He lay on his cot, gaze fixed on the ceiling. "It's probably some kind of mistake, but we'll find out soon enough.
"The girl was probably Eugenia's child. Fairly sure I know who her father is. Anyway, that makes her royalty, so watch what you say around her, okay?"
Taking a seat on the three-legged wooden stool, Nick took his father's iPod out of his pocket and unraveled the headphones. "I'm not stupid, Dad. She's got a country full of knights, plus a sword and armor of her own. I'm not gonna pick a fight with her, even if she deserves it." He popped one bud into his ear, turned the music player on, and began scrolling.
"Good," Niko said, and left it at that. Nick's comment strengthened his suspicions: the set of armor the girl had on when she apprehended them had definitely been Nia's ceremonial armor. With its gold trim and mirror finish, it wasn't well-suited to a battlefield, but it did a good job making the wearer- and her status- known, even from a distance. If he had to guess, the girl probably wore it often; a visible display that made it impossible to forget that one was in the presence of royalty.
"There's no way to charge this thing." Nick's complaint broke Niko out of his musings. "If we use it too much, it's gonna die."
Niko closed his eyes. "Nah. It'll be fine. I fixed it some years ago so it runs on magic."
"Before, I told Nia about all the different music in our world. So when I got back, I decided I'd bring some for her to hear. I've had one since before you were born."
Turning it over in his hands, Nick examined the music player. "Doesn't look that old."
"That one's not. When I needed to, I'd get a new one. The first one I had was an old Diamond Rio with like fifteen songs on it. That was a couple of years before you."
"A diamond what? Fifteen songs? How old are you?"
Niko coughed, aborting a chuckle. "Hush, boy. Anyway, if you were paying attention-"
"Eight thousand songs?"
"Mm-hmm, from all over the world, and all through history."
Nick peered at his father's firelight-hued silhouette. "And you know all these songs?"
"Not by heart, no. But I've listened to every single one of 'em. Either I like it, or I think it's something Nia would like."
He didn't say it out loud, but Nick thought his dad was being a little unfair. From the sound of things, his father really loved this woman Nia. Why would he marry Nick's mother then?
Well, not like he knew anything about love, anyway. It hadn't really bothered him, but not too many girls had taken a real romantic interest in him, due to the reputation his father had of being... different. So what could he say about anything his dad did?
"Hey, lemme see that thing for a second." Niko righted himself and got to his cell's bars just in time to catch the iPod. Clad in a protective blue hard plastic case, it probably wouldn't have broken if it hit the stone floor, but why risk it? He shot his son a warning glance, then turned his attention to the music player. "Not how I wanted to make my return, honestly. But since I'm here, I gotta play the song I wanted to play."
"One you probably never heard."
"You sound like a hipster."
"Hipsters don't listen to AC/DC."
Nick shifted on the stool. "Is that the song?"
"It's the band, you goofball. The song is called Back in Black. Give it a listen, sometime.
Back in Black- AC/DC