Ladoga was the capital of the Kievan Rus’ empire, roughly 50 miles east of modern-day St. Petersburg, Russia. Its location made it an ideal port city for merchants traveling throughout Europe, central Asia, and into the Middle East.

In 990 CE, an abandoned newborn baby was found by Greek merchants outside the city. The newborn boy had hair and skin nearly as white as the snowdrift in which he was discovered and was weak and near death from the freezing cold. Although stunned by the boy’s shocking, other worldly appearance, the well-traveled merchants knew of Greek legends of albinism and took pity on him, warming and carrying him into the port city in search of aid.

Finding someone to take the strange baby was far more difficult than they’d imagined. All sorts of superstitions and belief systems passed through the city, leaving many of its inhabitants hesitant to accept the boy into their midst. By the time they finally found a local merchant willing to take him in, they had already begun calling him Paradox after the paradoxography, a collection of Greek writings about the strange and wondrous people from faraway lands. The name stuck.

Life was not easy for Paradox. He was never accepted as one of the family. Instead, he was a servant, sent to do the dirtier or more dangerous jobs for which the merchant and his wife did not wish to risk their own children. At some point, the merchant realized he could monetize the boy and his life became one of unfortunate curiosity to the traders passing through the city. Among the travelers and locals alike, he was just as likely to be reviled as the spawn of a demon as he was revered as an angelic being or looked upon as a freak of nature, depending upon their point of origin and set of beliefs. Glimpses of the boy were sold for coin or small scraps of trade goods.

By 996 his merchant parents had fallen on hard times. A summer drought followed by a severe winter had brought them to virtual financial ruin. The six-year-old Paradox was days away from being tossed out into the street in favor of feeding their own children when the unthinkable happened. Eric Håkonsson’s fleet of Varangians, Vikings from modern-day Sweden, attacked and burned the city of Ladoga to the ground. Unlike most of the city’s residents, Paradox was fortunate to survive the raid, but was injured and trapped when the wall of a burning building collapsed on him. One of the Varangians eventually dug him out of the rubble. Atli Styrmirsson then carried the injured boy back to his ship and fastened him into chains as a thrall, a slave prize captured in the raid. Despite the pain and fear coursing through him from the death and destruction he’d witnessed in his city and the strange men and women of the ship, with their unusual language and customs, there was something about Styrmirsson and the way the man looked at him that young Paradox found somehow familiar and comforting.

He had never been aboard a ship before, but he gradually overcame the seasickness over the course of the weeks of the crew’s subsequent raids before they finally made the turn to return home. Even as thrall, his captors fed him better than he had eaten in months. Styrmirsson noted with interest as, even during his sickness, the boy observed everything around him – watching, listening to the raucous crew as they celebrated one victory after another. By the time they returned to their homeland, his observations had taught him to speak and understand several sentences in their language. The Varangians were at once impressed and unnerved by the strange boy, but Styrmirsson looked on with amusement and a curious, nearly fatherly pride that Paradox had never known. He took the child into his household and, although he was enslaved, treated him as much a son as a servant.

In the violent and brutal Varangian culture, even a slave must learn to fight. Fortunately for Paradox, Styrmirsson was one of the best warriors in the village, who took it upon himself to teach the boy the ins and outs of glima, the Varangian combat art. His master never pulled any punches in his fight training, leaving Paradox all too often to perform his household duties with the painful reminders of injuries sustained in training. As he learned to perform the duties required of him, his master’s teachings were put to the test when he was forced to try to fend off the beatings that would accompany any failures. Over the next several years, the punishment beatings gradually decreased in regularity, whether through improvement in the understanding of his duties, his glima training, or some combination of both.

As he reached his teens and watched the other boys his age mark their entry into adulthood and set off on their first voyages, Paradox was forced to remain behind in the village. Farms and fishing still needed to be tended, work still had to done, and thralls were not entitled to the glory and spoils of raids. While Styrmirsson was away on the yearly raids, older or wounded Varangians continued training the youth and women of the village, and began to ply Paradox with the potent cocktail of henbane and alcohol that would have him slip into the blind rages of a berserker to push his physical abilities to their ultimate limits. He would be put to the test upon his master’s return and any failures would be intolerable. Eventually, even without the rage state, Paradox was able to match or defeat virtually anyone within a year or two of him in age. Despite his lowly position as a slave, his ferocity, ability to hold his own, and refusal to give up in a fight even among men and boys much bigger and stronger than him earned him a fair amount of grudging respect among the free-born Varangians.

In the summer of his 24th year, Styrmirsson took him on a hunting trip. It wasn’t an unusual occurrence, but there was something different in the way his mistress had looked at him as they left, and the way Styrmirsson kept looking at him on the long trek through the dense forest. He couldn’t identify it, but something about it unnerved him somehow. After two grueling days of hiking, they set up camp and had dinner together around the fire. That was when his master told him the true reason for the trip: he was now free from thrall. From today forward, he would be his father, and he would now take his name as Paradox Atlisson.

Styrmirsson asked if he trusted him. Despite the misgivings of that same strange look and the unusual question, Paradox didn’t hesitate to answer yes. Before he had time to react, his father had risen from his seat and driven a short sword downward through the space behind his left collar bone, plunging it through his lung and heart. Paradox stared up at him in disbelief and confusion, his mind unable to comprehend anything beyond the shock of searing pain in those last few seconds before blackness took him. He bled out and died on the forest floor, more than two days’ hard hike from home.

Paradox awoke with a start and a gasp of pain, jolting upward and grabbing reflexively at the grievous injury to his left shoulder. But there was no injury. At first relieved that he must have dreamt the entire thing, he then noticed the clean rip in the shoulder of his tunic and saw the encrusted blood that had soaked his clothes. Styrmirsson sat where he had before and watched him with curiosity. After giving the confused young man a few moments, he finally spoke and changed everything by revealing what Paradox truly was: an immortal. Stymirsson had known from the moment they met, when he had sensed the boy beneath the collapsed rubble and rescued him before his mortal death could occur. Then, he simply bided his time, training and waiting for Paradox to reach an age he felt was appropriate before changing him. It took several additional deaths before the unbelievably stubborn young man could comprehend that he wasn’t imagining all of this and agreed to listen as his father laid out the explanation and the rules to the Game.

Their relationship took a dramatic change after that. From that moment forward, while they still trained on technique with the others in the village so that Paradox would master precision and control, their real glima training was conducted to the death deep in the forest, so that Paradox would learn to master his natural fear of dying and further fuel the bloodlust he would need in true battle. Paradox began to accompany his father on his raids, where he fought with the same rage-filled ferocity he showed in training as one of the Úlfhéðnar, the “wolf coat” berserkers who were said to be unstoppable by fire or iron.

They fought side-by-side in raids for many years, changing villages every so often to allay suspicions as best they could, but it was impossible to keep the secret of an albino warrior. Eventually, the Varangian raids gave way to a different form of conquering, one by ideas and organization that brought change and order throughout Europe in a way unseen since the Roman Empire. Civilization and Christianity spread across the continent old city-states became nations, then empires, and the old ways gradually died out. For a while, Styrmirsson and Paradox fought together as soldiers in wars across the continent, but the tales of a white devil that wouldn’t die were still just as impossible for Paradox to escape, which kept them constantly on the move.

They made their way across Europe, through the Middle East as Crusaders. They spent years in the heart of Africa, where Paradox developed a fascination by the unique cultures and beliefs he encountered. To his father’s amusement, he learned strange new fighting techniques used by the natives that enhanced his warrior skillset and began to develop an unpredictable fighting style that switched techniques randomly to keep his opponent from anticipating his moves.

After Africa, they fought in multiple wars and skirmishes as they headed east to move into Asia, where they took up arms supporting the Delhi Sultanate in the Indian subcontinent. They helped fend off the Mongol army of Kublai Khan in 1285, then fought in the brutal war against the full might of the Mongol invasion of Temür Khan in 1297. They were separated in early 1298 at the final battle of the war, when the Delhi Sultanate defeated the Khanate. Although their side was victorious, Paradox was killed by a Mongol arrow to the heart. The retreating Mongol army snatched his body from the battlefield as a unique prize for their khan. They were understandably startled when the dead man awoke later. Paradox found himself enslaved in chains yet again, presented to Temür Khan as a prize of war in an unsuccessful attempt to earn favor for the failures in India. Still, after executing the leaders of the failed invasion, the khan kept him as a trophy. As he learned their tongue and earned the khan’s trust, Temür gradually gave him more freedom of movement, releasing him from a jail cell beneath the palace to a spartan room to a small set of living quarters, before allowing him to move about the palace and then the city. It was made clear that he lived only at Temür’s will, but if he served a purpose for the one true khan, he would live.

By 1307 Temür was dead, and Külüg Khan took the throne. Later that year, Paradox accidentally won favor by thwarting an assassination attempt. He saw the flash of a dagger in the corner of his eye and stepped instinctively between it and the khan. While the dagger plunged into his chest, Paradox used the last of his strength to break the neck of the stunned would-be assassin before dying on the palace floor, himself. When he recovered, the khan decided that he wasn’t some white devil as had long been believed, but a white angel sent to guard the khanate. He was granted his freedom and found a new path.

With the khan’s permission, he began to study the religions and martial arts of the Mongol empire and the annexed nation of China. He had spent more than 300 years as a warrior of sorts, so he was drawn to the martial beliefs and training. In particular, he became fascinated by the almost dance-like body control and mental focus techniques employed by the Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucian masters he had observed while a slave to the khan. As Külüg was both Great Khan and the Emperor of the Yuan Dynasty of China, he granted Paradox the extraordinary permission to study under any master at any temple he chose within the empire. Nearly 150 years (and 20 khans and emperors) later, Paradox had long since become known among the Chinese masters as Bai Long, named after the mythical White Dragon considered to be the purest and most virtuous spirit among the dragon kings.

In 1464, now thoroughly certain the khanate had long since forgotten he ever existed, he left his studies in China and traveled across the sea to the Japanese island of Honshu. Although initially met with suspicion as an outsider, both as a European and as someone traveling from the Mongol empire that had invaded Japan previously, the knowledge of Buddhism he demonstrated from his time in Mongolia and China managed to secure a welcome to study in the Shōkoku-ji, a beautiful temple in the flower city of Kyoto. His desire to lead a peaceful existence came crashing down with the onset of the Ōnin War three years later. Although the monks had hoped to stay out of the coming war, the temple in Kyoto was one of its first targets. After its destruction, the monks banded together as warriors to help protect the citizens of Kyoto who were caught in the middle of the power struggle. By the end of the war in 1477, the flower city lay in ruins and the monks began the long and difficult process of helping the populace rebuild. The surviving monks had learned their lesson though and implemented a martial training program at temples all around the islands. As he had in China, Paradox moved from temple to temple every few years over the next century to allay suspicions. However, as in China, his physical appearance made it impossible to go unnoticed for long. Eventually, tales of the pale white monk with round blue eyes were too well known, so Paradox set out on the long westward journey back to Europe. Since he stood out far more among the local populations than he had in northern Europe, he proceeded slowly across Asia, taking care to meet the local spiritual leaders who were welcoming and working to avoid those who were not. Although they didn’t share a common language, he took great pleasure in learning what he could of their cultures.

Upon his return to India, he was made welcome by the Sikhs at a gurdwara. He spent years living among the guru’s followers, learning their techniques for training the mind and body while sharing what he had learned of focus and harmony from the far east.

The changes he found upon his eventual return to Europe in the early 1660s was nothing short of astounding. In less than 400 years, the Europeans had taken to heart the trade and organization ideas that had only recently been reintroduced when he left. The cities he had visited previously were all but unrecognizable. Others had sprung up out of nowhere. As he continued to travel westward, news of a horrible sickness affecting the poor and sinful began to follow. He offered his assistance in cities along his route but was repeatedly forced to move along by those guarding the city walls. So, he reluctantly continued on his way, keeping largely ahead of the spread of the disease until he reached the channel between Europe and Britain, where he took passage to the island. The last time he had been to London, around 1250, it had been a moderately sized city with a population of around 30,000 now, as he sailed up the Thames again in early spring of 1665 following a 40-day quarantine aboard ship, he found a mind-blowing, bustling metropolis in its place that was home to nearly half a million, largely living in squalor and overcrowded districts outside the city walls.

Then the plague hit Britain and even the most devout of religious leaders he had met found it difficult not to question the timing of the return of the Black Death so soon after the arrival of a man who seemed to embody the very image of Pestilence in their minds. Despite the widespread panic as the well-to-do fled the city, Paradox sought to stay to tend to the ill. After all, he had hundreds of years of training in traditional medicine from the far east surely there was some measure of comfort he could provide. The remaining Christian leaders reluctantly allowed his help, with the provision that he must wear a hood and mask covering his entire head to conceal his appearance to keep from frightening the afflicted and further inflaming passions.

The death toll continued to mount well into the next year, until some quietly claimed that nearly 25% of the city’s residents now rested in mass burial pits. And then, as quickly as it had come, the plague was gone, leaving in its wake the broken shell of the great city he had witnessed only a year before. By August, blame for the disease’s arrival in London was pointed in every direction, from the sinful, poor, and immigrants, to the devil himself. Paradox was fortunate enough to have befriended a couple of monks during the epidemic, who woke him in the early hours of September 2nd to warn him that the more senior religious leaders had named him as the agent of the devil responsible. He was to be arrested, tried, and with certainty convicted by the church and crown. Having witnessed him working tirelessly during the epidemic to aid and comfort the afflicted despite the apparent risk to himself, neither believed the charges they quickly helped him escape through the city gates. For the next several days and nights, as Paradox walked away from the city, he noted a curious dark plume behind him by day, and an ominous orange glow at night it was only later that he learned he had narrowly escaped the event that would come to be known as the Great Fire of London.

He traveled to the highlands of Scotland, where he farmed and lived a solitary existence for a time, before joining a monastery in Ireland. Eventually, he booked passage to the wondrous New World, ostensibly to spread the word of God among the barbaric natives but, in truth, with the hopes of learning more about the fascinating cultures. Being enslaved and having his beating heart removed not once but four times in sacrifice to some sun god by the priests of one local empire finally dissuaded him from continuing with that particular course of action. Fortunately, one of the priests was an immortal – who apparently decided that the holy ground truce still applied even if the other party had been sacrificed by a mortal – and sewed his heart back into his body time and again until the stubborn pale man finally got the message that he wasn’t welcome and escaped.

Paradox had better luck with the tribes of natives farther north, who were far more curious (and less murderous) about him. He became fascinated by the unique cultures and beliefs of the various tribes of North America, who mostly welcomed him as a special spirit of sorts, and spent the better part of a century traveling from nation to nation. It was only years later that it occurred to him that he was the answer to the enduring mystery of how some tribes knew English, Spanish, and French when first contacted by westward moving settlers and explorers.

As tensions grew between Europe and the colonies, Paradox decided to ride out the war he saw inevitably approaching by becoming a merchant seaman in the Caribbean. While it worked early on, his ship was eventually captured by a British warship, and he was impressed into service in the war. That ship was herself later sunk and Paradox developed a new pair of fears: drowning and sharks. He was discovered clinging to flotsam several days later and was returned to the colonies, where he found himself conscripted into the continental army. The war he’d tried so hard to avoid had found him after all. Even so, having been impressed into service for the British and rescued by the colonials, he felt a certain obligation to help the Americans see their efforts through to the end he just never actually expected them to win.

He served with distinction during what would become known as the revolution and later learned he’d even been twice noted on the battlefield by no less than the soft-spoken Commander-in-Chief himself. One of his proudest moments was receiving a commendation from General Washington, although perhaps not for the reason one might suspect. He’d long ago lost track of how many battles he’d fought, but he was only ever once summoned to the command tent without seeing some semblance of fear of his appearance reflected in his general’s eyes. Instead, General Washington invited him to sit with him for tea and a conversation. The surge of pride came after he left the tent, when he overheard the general comment to his aide, “If only I had a thousand men who fought like him, this war could be won in a month.” The loyalty shown him earned loyalty to his fledgling nation in return.

At the conclusion of the war, he became an accountant in New York, then a physician in Philadelphia, and an attorney in Washington, D.C. He was conscripted twice more – in the American Civil War and then again in the Great War. After that, the army ironically found his albinism to be medically disqualifying to serve in a combat role for its new wars. He made several additional careers as a farmer, an international merchant between America and Europe, a news photographer, a combat photographer, a businessman to the Pacific region, and finally a novelist writing historical fiction.

Then came the beginning of Ragnarök…

Although he always wrote his novels under a pseudonym, and only his agent knew his identity, Paradox was in attendance at a convention in Atlanta in anticipation of the announcement of a film adaptation of one of his books when the virus broke out. With fans of various novels and comics in attendance from all over the country, it didn’t take long for the disease to make its presence known and within a couple of days of its appearance, Paradox found himself to be the only living soul remaining at the hotel. While it wasn’t the first plague he’d lived through, he’d never seen death on this scale, this quickly, from a disease.

Over the next few days, as he took in the lay of the land and searched for some indication of survivors out there somewhere, something new began to infiltrate his typical nightly flashbacks reliving the berserker rages. One night a dark man called him to come to the desert, saying that they needed strong men like him. The next night an old woman beckoned him to come find her, she was waiting. Then the cycle would start again. Each morning, he woke confused and discomfited. In hundreds of years, the nightly blood-soaked images had never changed from his actual memories and now these two strange faces took turns tormenting him even further with cryptic messages from somewhere deep in his subconscious. If the gods weren’t tormenting him, perhaps the bloodlust truly had finally started to break him.

Eventually, he realized it was time to move on from the city. Reasoning that moving out of the city and toward the farming country in the midwest would be his best option for long-term survival until he located others or this thing blew over, he loaded up with supplies and began picking his way through the roadways clogged with dead vehicles and people alike. As he reached the other side of the beltway, he found a dozen other survivors and joined their caravan headed west.