XCOM 2 Countdown Calendar: Zenzele “Shaka” Viviers (week 1/19)

Since nobody can be expected to just sit and wait for XCOM 2 to come out, we’ll be having ourselves a little countdown for the 19 sundays left between us and salvation. Each week I’ll be showcasing another soldier living aboard the Avenger, who they are, and why exactly it is they fight for XCOM. When the game comes out, I’ll be creating all of these and release them as a content mod for your character pool. But for now, this’ll have to do.

Keep in my that this is all completely fanfiction-based and I am in no way affiliated with Firaxis. I just do this as a fun writing exercise, because I can.

An encounter with:

Zenzele “Shaka” Viviers, from South Africa:

Viviers is sitting on a chest-high metal box, cleaning his fingernails with the tip of a knife with a golden hilt. He smiles, and interrupts his cleaning business to tell his story.

“I never experienced man-made apartheid, so, as far as I’m concerned, it never happened. Sure, it’s in the history books, and old people talk about it a lot, even my own parents always told me how, without Nelson Mandela, they could never have been together. But, personally, I doubt anything existed before I was born at all.”

He begins playing around with the knife quickly and with extreme sleight of hand. It spins, stops, turns around, spins faster and stops again.

“This is not narcissistic solipsism, this is just plain scepticism, a thing of which one can never have enough. Don’t believe me? When my mother died, I gathered my generals at her funeral to see if they were truly sad about her death. I didn’t believe five of them, but I am not unreasonable. I did not kill them, but I offered them their lives if they proved their worth in what they themselves described as a suicide mission: an attack on a landed UFO, a small one, in a nearby village.”

With a maniacal grin, he throws the knife in the air and catches it at the hilt without even looking.

“I gave them the best equipment I could muster, and the result was the first time anyone who wasn’t part of a military cleared an entire ship of aliens. Only two of my men returned, but I had statues raised for all of them. This showed the people that the invaders could be defeated, and so it began, what the world now calls the Impi Uprising. They called me Shaka, the young warlord, but in a good way, not like before. We had regular guns and regular bullets, and we fought against plasma and lasers, but we prevailed for longer than any other open resistance against the aliens, because we were always sceptical of ourselves, sceptical about knowing everything there is to know about the enemy. And this swept over the world like a howling wind, resistances cropped up everywhere.”

He stops all spinning and twirling and points the knife at his own chest.

“All of it happened because I was sceptical, because I doubted my generals. Without it, there would have been no Impi Uprising, and likely no resistance anywhere. But you know what I don’t doubt? Alien-made apartheid. I’ve seen it, I’ve lived it, and I don’t like it. They say they want our best, but you can see in their eyes that they believe themselves to be better than us. I saw it up close once, looking in the eyes of a muton while I destroyed its brain with this very pistol.”

Drawing his sidearm, which is covered in a pattern of cattle brown and white beige similar to that found on the shields of historical Zulu warriors, he drives his thumb over a small gold engraving near the barrel.

“I call it Iklwa, and it is the only thing that is left of the Impi Uprising. It, and my fight. I fight for XCOM, because I want to end Apartheid.”

Do It For Your People

So, standing in the shower 15 mins ago I noticed that I’m about to miss the deadline for getting my story into the Pod and Planet EVE Fiction Contest, which I am once again participating in this year. Seeing as my horrendous and really quite cringeworthy entry or last year is only two posts away from this one really makes me think that I should maybe work on this blog some more…

In any event: Here is a link to a PDF that contains the story and stuff.

Maybe more fancy stuff tomorrow, maybe not.

Orion Spur: Molten Mercury

Hello, hello, hello, I have returned. After a very long period of inactivity, I have once again decided to take the reins of this blog and announce to my nonexistent reader base that I have, in fact, finished a novellette. Yes! It’s true! You can thank Reddit for that one…

The Novelette was written in a month for the 50,000+ Subscriber Contest held by /r/writingprompts and let me tell you that it was wuite a bit of work, but I’m really bloody proud of it. Instead of uploading the full thing here, I’ll give you a dropbox-link to the .pdf that you can read on your computer or E-Book reader (if those things can read .pdfs). I tried converting it into an EPUB, but it somehow managed to fuck up my entire formatting, so I stopped. If anyone wants ti help me with that, I wont say no 😀

Anyway, here’s the link.

Please do read. Thanks very much for pretending to care!

Peace is the Reward

This one is for Telegram Sam’s Pod and Planet Fiction contest, which takes place in the EVE universe. Being very new to EVE, I find it’s lore and background incredibly rich, deep and fascinating. I hope that, one day, I’ll be able to wrap my head around it’s mechanics, too. If you’re coming right to this blog post from his site, I hope you’ll be taking a look at my other stuff, too. I realize it’s not much, I just started writing in English very recently.

Music of the Moment:  CCP Games – Theme from Jita

The dark, round room was illuminated only by the four screens in front of him, every one of them bearing a gigantic face displaying some negative emotion. He was standing in the middle of it, like a culprit who was trying to take his sentence with a rest of dignity, while the tribunal grimaced in disgust.

Ghanoz Ruttil was very well aware that this environment was designed to make him feel small and insignificant before the power of the CONCORD Regional Administration Board, which might even have worked for junior captains. But he was a Senior Admiral and very much past the anxiety of these weekly video meetings. The faces ceased to be something untouchable long ago. Ruttil knew every one of them, and he knew them well.

“We are not very pleased with your work, Admiral. In a position such as yours, security needs to be handled tightly and efficiently.” Falsih Kador scolded. intimidating yet hollow words by an intimidating yet hollow man. A True Amarr, third degree cousin to one of the Holders, more interested in pursuing imperial interests than interspecies stability and even more arrogant than his face could make him seem, especially toward Minmatar. It bothered him that an orphaned Thukker boy had managed to become the ranking CONCORD officer in Jita.

“As much as it troubles me to do so, I must agree with mister Sarum on this.” Vaencant Vellivère, a fat Gallente with Jin-Mei ancestry, seldom agreed with the Amarr. “These illegal booster sales must be stopped. We cannot afford for them to corrupt a system so relevant to the clusters economy.” Of all the board members, he was the most likeable. His flamboyant mannerisms worthy of any courtier in the Empire and his mostly smiling face had that effect on people.

“With all due respect, CONCORD does not have the authority to prosecute offenders operating in Jita’s black market. That falls under the jurisdiction of the Corporate Police Force.” He said. The Caldari had made that clear on several of his requests.

“We have our own police force, Admiral. Besides, most of these offences are committed by capsuleers, making them a CONCORD matter.” Senaora Mayamati, the Achura scientist fascinated by and scared of capsuleers in all shapes and sizes. Maybe it was her being the youngest member of the Administration Board that prevented her from seeing CONCORD’s numerous duties outside of overseeing capsuleer activity. “If you make this clear, they should give you all the rights needed.” She was a bit detached from reality, that one.

“We will inform the Chief Executive Panel about this issue, so that they may grant you said special rights.” Finally, the voice of reason. Iarrhos Wernakken, a Deteis with accurately combed over blond hair and an emotionless voice was the head of the Administration Board. “That’ll be all, Admiral. We will be expecting your latest report next week.” With that, the four faces vanished and Ruttil stepped outside.

Shit, Shit, Shit, Shit!” Marhaok was trying to get their Rifter into warp, punching harder and harder on the buttons that normally would have sent them off without a complaint.

We’re fucking bubbled! We can’t warp!” Ghanoz shouted, but Marhaok wouldn’t listen. He kept punching and punching, so hard that his knuckles began to bleed. Another tremor went through the ship, sending Ghanoz tumbling to the floor. He got up, grabbed Marhaok by the shoulder and shouted right into his face.

Mar, our drives are scrambled, we can’t warp. So come the fuck with me of you want to live.” It was as if he’d shaken him out of a trance. Marhaok suddenly looked scared, more scared than he’d ever seen the daredevil pilot before. Tears filled his eyes and rolled down his sweaty face.

We need to get there, Ghanoz, we need to…” he drifted off into a state of manic babbling, simply shutting out the world around him.

You boys gonna come or do I have to pod out alone?” Ozos Vars, the sturdy old commander, was standing by the open escape pod. Dragging Marhaok with him, Ghanoz crawled towards it, barely holding himself up when another volley of missiles hit their hull.

It was only a few seconds, but it seemed like hours to him. Vars grabbed the pilot, threw him into the escape pod and pushed Ghanoz in.

You boys go live a meaningful life. I still have to die a hero.” with that, he sealed the hatch and the pod was ejected. It took Ghanoz few seconds to realize what just happened, but even after he did he lacked the power to shout out in anger and pain.

When he stepped out of the meeting room, Shaloh Fasisi was already waiting for him. He was a pious Khanid with slouching shoulders, a highly respectful attitude, and Ruttil’s personal secretary.

“What else is on my list today?” he asked while walking toward his office aboard the Protector III, his very own CONCORD Battleship and command centre for all their operations in the system.

“There is another meeting scheduled with delegates from the Sukuuvestaa, Hyasyoda and Lai Dai corporations as well as the regular tactical conference with Police Overcommander Lolys and Commodore Barnier, Sir. Colonel Sekurovah wishes for your attendance at the welcoming ceremony for the new cadets, but says that he understands you are a very busy man.”

“Tell him I’ll come, no matter how much he wants me not to.” Sekurovah was his XO and one of the few friends he had in his indeed very busy life. “Anything else?”

“Yes. The Head of the SCC would, like a word with you in private, she will be on his way as soon as you agree, and Captain Palaselling reports a minor incident involving a capsuleer attacking another capsuleer near the Perimeter gate.”

“Have the report ready for me later. Timetable?”

“Next up would be the welcoming ceremony, Sir.”

“Then let’s go there.”

Three down, five more to go. Good job, Lieutenant Ruttil.” Said Captain Horovag. Ghanoz adjusted the Stabber’s turrets to focus on the nearest Crucifier-frigate and used the launchers to keep the others at bay.

Marhaok hooted in his piloting seat as he evaded incoming fire from the Amarr with utmost grace and precision. He was one of the greatest pilots in the Republic Fleet, and he knew it.

Captain, we have three Paladin marauders warping in.”

How long ’til reinforcements arrive?” the Captain asked.

Thirty minutes, Sir.”

Flight Commander, warp us out of here.”

We’ve been bubbled, Sir.”

Ghanoz looked over to Marhaok. He saw fear written all over his face, old memories flushing back into his head, memories he never talked about to anyone.

Then evade as long as possible. Ruttil, focus fire on the frigates, do not engage the Paladins.” Captain Horovag ordered.

Ghanoz did as he was asked, but it became harder and harder by the minute.

Dammit Mar, keep her steady.” He yelled.

I, I ca-, I can’t. I need to, to, evade.” No more than pathetic stammering came out of Marhaoks mouth. Ghanoz could see that his friend was trying to keep it together the best he could, but it simply wasn’t enough.

A tremor went through the ship, just like all those years back.

Shields down.”

Marhaok was breathing heavily, his fingers trembling like leaves in the wind.

Keep it together, Flight Commander!” The Captain said in his most commanding voice. The next tremor, which was more like a giant earthquake, lifted him out of his chair and flung him across the room, breaking his neck as he hit the floor.

We’re all gonna die…” Ghanoz heard someone mutter. He was inclined to agree.

“… to serve, protect and honour the stability in New Eden, regardless of where you are from. All of you are now CONCORD, and all of you now serve a higher cause.” Ruttil finished. The Hangar bay was so silent you could hear a needle fall. Down there, five hundred new cadets stood in rank and file, proudly presenting their freshly gained CONCORD uniforms. They would serve on all fronts the organization had to offer. A considerable portion would die, others would fall victim to the bureaucratic apparatus that was CONCORD politics, which he sometimes considered to be even more dangerous than actual combat. Only very few of them would rise as high as he and the others on the balcony did.

“Nice speech, Admiral. You should to this professionally.” Colonel Okho Sekurovah was a broad-shouldered man with a sense of humour few of his fellow Civire shared.

“I do do this professionally.” Ruttil responded.

“Really? I never see you in the CIC. Looks like it’s my job to do your job.”

“That’s what you get paid for.”

“True enough.” Sekurovah answered. “I hear the Head of Jita SCC wants to see you?”

“Yes, actually.” He said, surprised. “How do you know these things?”

“Because it’s my job to do your job, Admiral. So, she try getting in your pants yet?”

“Excuse me?”Ghanoz was confused.

“Well, as far as I know, she’s kind of a cougar, only she prefers old, stalwart men, especially those in uniform.” He winked.

“One day, Colonel, one day you’ll encounter someone who doesn’t get your humour.”

“Oh, you mean like, the Board? I hear Vellivère is actually quite fond of me.”

“Vellivère is fond of everyone.”

We have confirmation. Bureau Headquarters in Yulai have been destroyed, Minmatar forces are swarming imperial space.” Lieutenant Hog said with an undertone of concern. “We have suffered heavy losses. All ships in the system have orders to regroup at Ashokon XII, Moon 2. Admiral Haelms is waiting for us.”

Then warp us there.” Marhaok said without hesitation. “We’ll make a stand and take as many if these offenders down as we can.”

Aye, Captain.”

And get me Colonel Ruttil in here!” He yelled.

I’m right behind you, Captain.” Ghanoz said in a quiet, calm voice.

Good.” He turned around, sweat rolling down his pork-like cheeks. “Get everyone ready and on their battle stations. I don’t want the Board on my ass for not having my crew under control.”

Do you really want to fight your own people, Mar?”

Don’t call me that in here!” he exploded, flinging saliva from his mouth and into Ghanoz’ face. His breath smelled of alcohol. “I’m not a Minmatar any more, and neither are you! They threw us out, turned their backs on us, and now we can repay them by spilling their blood.”

A dome of dead silence encompassed the CIC. Nobody dared to speak or move. All eyes where on Ghanoz and Marhaok.

They only threw you out, Mar. I merely followed you because you are my brother, and I love you, but this is too much. We have one thousand civilians on board.”

It was your call to bring them here, so it’s your fucking fault if they die.” His face was red with anger. “They’re Amarr! They can burn!” he turned back to the CIC “Everybody move, we don’t have much time!”

I don’t think so.” Ghanoz said. “With the authority given to me by Internal Directive 176/16F I am hereby removing you from command of this vessel and taking you into custody. Commander Sekurovah, remove this man from the CIC.”

Yes, Colonel.”

Marhaok seemed incapable of understanding what was happening. His jaw dropped and stayed like that until Sekurovah and two marines had escorted him out of the CIC. Whatever he might have yelled and shouted afterwards never got past the titanium doors.

Send a message to Admiral Haelms. Tell him We’re not coming to the rendezvous point on my authority, and tell him we’re getting one thousand men, women and children out of here.”

Aye, Sir.”

As he was sitting there, Police Overcommander Thanatea Lolys to his left and Commodore Jaetán Barnier to his right, a thought entered his mind.

Was it really worth it?

“All in all, it is left to say that the number of capsuleer pod kills has gone down by twenty-three percent in the last month. An astonishing number, if you ask me.” Lolys had just finished her report on capsuleer activity. No word about the booster trafficking. When Barnier asked her about it, she defensively said:

“We simply lack the capacity of searching every single vessel entering the system for illegal goods. Every day we have thousands of capsuleers coming and leaving, not to mention corporate freighters and InterBus ships.”

When he became an Admiral in High Security Space, they promised him to stay away from war as much as possible. Only he never understood that the absence of war did not necessarily mean peace. He was under more stress than in any battle he’d ever seen, not because death was lurking behind every corner, but because it never stopped. Working Jita was like and infinite battle against an enemy that wasn’t quite there.

The Second-Hand Salesman

This piece is the prologue to a little project I’m working on, a book of adventures set in my Orion Spur universe, of which you never heard anything because it’s only in my head (at least that’s what the doctor always tells me). It’s called Catharsis and it is about a young fighter pilot from a remote space station called Liam Mari who joins a freelance crew run by Larsius Hawking. This prologue is set about ten years before the actual storyline, so everything you just learned is absolutely irrelevant. You’re welcome. As always, feedback is much appreciated.

 

Music of the Moment: Jesper Kyd – Interlude Ambient

 

Thallis III, Thallis System, French Southern Border Sector

 

It was an awkward ride. As they glided over Theirn MacKays Second-Hand Shipyard aboard the handrailed antigrav platform, neither of his two customers said a word to him. They were twins, Larsius and Venerius Hawking, and looked nearly exactly alike. Both were tall and muscular, with an athletic wiryness to them. Their faces were triangular, with pointy chins and prominent jawlines, long, thin noses and high cheekbones. Both wore their pitch-black hair short, both were clean shaven and both were clad in the same olive-grey military casual apparel. The only thing setting them apart were their eyes: Venerius were acorn brown while Larsius were the colour of sapphires.

Compared to these sporty youths he looked almost like an old man, with his balding hazel hair, the hinted wrinkles and big nose. He was overweight, slow and had to dab the sweat of his forehead constantly so it wouldn’t run into his leaf green eyes.

But did it matter? In the end, he was the one wearing the banana coloured suit about to sell them some old spaceship he could afford to give away, while to them it would be the most valuable of possessions. He didn’t need to be fit, he only needed to be charismatic, and that’s what he considered himself to be.

The shipyard was extensive. Fifteen square kilometres, with some ships towering high into the pastel-yellow sky of Thallis. Nearly five thousand vessels lay around here, some as long as the business was old, and some he would never sell. Nevertheless he had them all catalogued and mapped out by his five employees, who worked long but well paid shifts to keep things up and running.

That is, if you only count the official employees. At the heart of the shipyard there was a large Dandelion-class freighter, which harboured the secret of Theirn MacKays success: a hidden workshop. In there you could get almost any modification for your fighter, shuttle or even corvette. Now, this happened at every street corner, but there you could only install a small, or let’s say boring spectrum of parts. The French Sector was known for both rigid banning of spacecraft-tech and illegal space racing. His workshop offered anything a racer could possibly desire, even pieces of technology that were illegal everywhere in the Orion Spur.

But his regular customers didn’t need to know that. To them he was just Theirn MacKay, the nice and likeable spaceship salesman.

They had just passed over a rack of decomissioned Heracles-fighters he’d bought from the French Navy a few years back when he spotted her. The Titanium Bucket, a ship most likely named by someone who was either mentally handicapped or incredibly funny. It was an armed freighter that used to roll off Makarov Aerospace assembly lines back in the day, but that was even before Theirn was born. A good ship for start-up entrepreneurs and, for a spacecraft it’s age, in very good shape. He wanted to give them a good offer, so they might even have a few extra credits left for a new paint job.

As they landed, the twins looked less and less enthusiastic. A few old shuttles were standing around them and, as the platform hit the ground, grey dust swirled up from the rocky floor. Down here, on the plains, there seldom was much wind during the summer. But the volcanic mountain chain was just a hundred kilometres away and regularly spit out ash clouds that settled around these regions.

He dabbed off the sweat on his forehead with a handkerchief.

“This?” Said Venerius.

“Well, I admit, the colour is flaking off a bit, but all systems go like clockwork.” he assured them.

“’Clockwork’” Larsius asked. It was true, it ways a very old-fashioned proverb, but those had always been his favourites.

“Shall we go inside? You’ll see, it’s really a great ship.”

“No. I don’t think I want to fly this rusty piece of space debris.” Venerius was not impressed. It seemed to him that, of the twins, he was the less grounded one.

“I’m sorry, but it’s the best thing in your price range. After a few jobs you will be able to upgrade it to suit your needs.”

“What about that one?” His brother asked.

He pointed at a frigate about a kilometre away. It was a short, broad ship with white varnish and a layer of ash laying on top like grey icing on a cream cake. It was the Catharsis, a Salamander-class spacecraft. The origin of the name was not entirely clear to him. Yes, the organic-streamlined design might somewhat resemble a salamanders head, but Theirn could think of a hundred things it resembled more than that. Besides, salamanders didn’t have eyes at the front of their heads nor did they have a little finn-like knoll on the top of their heads.

He had gotten that ship from a man called Warwick Coiro, or rather from his lifeless corpse. Coiro had been a freelance pilot with his own crew, just like the Hawking Twins were aspiring to become, only he was a lot older and lacked the necessary skill set for the job. What he was, was someone who quit his well paid desk job in the Core Systems after having saved enough for a brand new (and arguably very good) ship. But his dreams of adventure died in the cold hard hands of reality. He always needed money to pay for food, fuel and crew, so he borrowed it from Theirn. The latter may have been his wisest decision, as MacKay was not the type of guy who just turned on the people who owed him money and increased their debts under the threat of violence. “Make a deal, keep it.” had always been his motto.

Over the course of the five years that Coiro was in business, his crew deserted him one after the other, until, eventually, he was alone on the ship, flying badly paid supply runs to insignificant stations in outer space. He killed himself with a shotgun to the head while conveniently jumping into the Thallis System, making Theirn retrieve his ship and keep it as compensation for the debts he never paid back.

Again, he pulled out the handkerchief and dabbed the sweat of his forehead.

Nevertheless, the Catharsis was not affordable for the twins.

“I’m sorry, but you wont be able to pay for that one.” He felt sorry for them, but not in the same way he’d felt sorry for Coiro. They lacked the funds, but seemed very capable.

“How much is it?”

“At least twenty million credits, and that’s only because I’m so generous. You have twelve million, so do the Math yourselves.”

“No problem, mate. I have money.” The voice came from behind a tall Restoration-shuttle. Around the corner turned a man around the same age as the twins, if not a bit younger. He had a flat, triangular face, big icy eyes with a hint of green and a sheepish smile on his thin lips. His barely tamed dark blond hair was combed over to the left, covering half of the defiant frown on his forehead and his finely trimmed yet somehow wild-looking goatee was a few shades of blond lighter than the hair on his head.

He wore a navy-blue shirt with a coal vest over it and matching cargo pants. Both the vest and the pants had lots of pockets, all of them filled to the edge. But the intruders most remarkable accessories were the three gun holsters he wore. One around his waist, one over his shoulder and one at his ankle, all of them carrying guns.

“How did you get in here?” They were in the middle of the shipyard and he didn’t let anyone roam free without an escort, for obvious reasons.

“No fence is high enough for Bobby van Asch.” he boasted.

“But I have an energy fence!” Theirn complained.

“When I say no fence, I mean no fence, mate.” He spoke with a thick Australian accent, making him seem all the more bizarre.

“Well, uh…” he was speechless. How could this nutjob just jump his six-hundred million energy fence without anyone noticing? “Why are you here?”

“Oh, yeah, I’ve been here for about three days now, looking for a proper spaceship to buy.” He looked over to the twins. Larsius grinned in amusement, while Venerius chuckled lightly. Did they know him?

“You could have just come through the front door and I would have shown you a ship!”

“Meh, didn’t feel like it. So, cobbers,” he was turned to the twins “I got six million credits in my pocket, let’s go and buy this lady.”

Larsius seemed sceptical at first, but Venerius said something to him that made him change his mind. Just like that. What the hell was wrong with young people today?

“Wait, even with your share it’s not enough. I said twenty million, and this is not subject to debate.”

“Aaah, common, mate!” said Bobby, smiling broadly. “There’s gotta be some deal we can work out here. I mean, we’re freelancers, you own an illegal workshop, surely we can help each other.”

How the hell did he find out about the workshop? Was someone pulling a prank on him?

The twins seemed genuinely surprised. Apparently they’d fallen for the whole ‘clean slate businessman’ ploy. Before he could panic, Theirn calmed himself down by dabbing the sweat from his forehead with his handkerchief.

He was right, wasn’t he? It wasn’t a bad deal, considering he essentially got the ship for free. Coiros debts had amounted to a total of five million credits, which was still five times the yearly wage of an average employee, but still not nearly as much as the Catharsis was actually worth. Then again, there was the golden rule of selling ships to freelancers: always get the full money up front. It simply wasn’t a profession that went well with financing plans. But two million? He thought about the Archon wreckage in the nebula. That was worth more than two million, wasn’t it? Could he trust these people? They had no reputation, but which start-up freelancer had a reputation?

“Well, there is actually a little job you could do for me…”

 

My Brother, the Master of All

Today we go to The Voxel Box, a Minecraft server I’ve been playing on occasionally since the games early beta. I sometimes feel like the amazing builds there lack something: life, and a story. As nice and aesthetically pleasing the might look, many of them are meaningless, which I find sad. This is why I’ve started writing short accounts of things that could very well happen in the VoxelVerse as finger exercise, only a bit more serious than the usual tale. But without much further ado I’ll leave you with this story, taking place on the island of Daigon.

 

Music of the Moment: Glorian´ Music Marks – New Ashos

 

It was quiet, Daigon, quiet and peaceful. He had just stepped off the Eorlund, a big, bulky trading ship with powerful engines and rough sailors and entered a world of weird smells, queer voices and strange people. The air was damp and warm, completely unlike the clear, cutting iciness he was accustomed to. The mountains were also different. High, rounded peaks full of vegetation, not quite as tall as the ones at home, but not even the greatest of them seemed to have any snow atop it. It was hard to see, though, as the distance was clouded by a nebulous mist.

To his left, men were carrying containers and taking inventory of the Eorlunds wares, bringing them into a number of warehouses. In front was a great hill, with alien plants and a granite wall with wooden watchtowers on it. Small waterfalls were coming out of holes in the stone and flowing into the sea, and farther off right he could see a windmill with it’s own plantation at the waterfront. Only his brother was familiar, and even he was wrapped in Daigon’s peculiar garbs.

“Hjolf!” He shouted from the end of the pier. “Brother, it is so very nice to see you again.”

Hjolf was a true man of Skol. He was tall, broad of build, with a square jaw, blue eyes and braided brown hair that went over into his shaggy, untamed beard. As every good warrior from the city of Skogr, he was clad in an armour of boiled leather with dark steel plating, offering good protection while still allowing the wearer to remain flexible. On his back was a two-handed battleaxe made of the same dark steel. Hjörning, it was called, and only the smiths of Skogr knew its secrets.

His brother, however, was a different matter. Wulfjorn had no hair to speak of, only faint stubbles on his nearly clean shaven head. His face had always been a bit softer than Hjolfs, but without a proper beard to cover it he looked about as intimating as a snow rabbit. Only the eyes, the eyes they both had. Bright and blue, like a frozen lake in the spring sun. Instead of armour, Wulfjorn wore something that reminded him of a short cloak. It was made of thick grey cloth with black borders, wrapped around his body and held together by a black belt decorated with a plate of jade, a plate of lapis, a plate of copper and a plate of white marble, all with the same symbol carved into them. Underneath the belt he wore some sort of black skirt with grey pants underneath.

“I thought you were a fighter. Do you only wear your armour on special occasions?” It was supposed to be a jest, but Wulfjorn didn’t quite get that.

“We call this a Gi. It is the only armour I need.” He smiled.

“Glad to hear you still have no sense of humour.” It was a good thing. At least some part of his little brother remained.

“Follow me.” Wulfjorn said.

They went into a cave that turned out to be a tunnel through the hill. The tunnel looked more like a natural cave than anything, the only man-made thing being the Daigonese symbols written on the stone with glowpowder. Why would anyone build a wall if you could just go right beneath it?

The question was answered when they entered a small valley, with a great waycastle stretching across it.

“How fares our father?” Wulfjorn asked.

“Oh, he’s fine, I’ll tell you that. He’s retired, so now he drinks and eats and whores like never before. ‘I don’t need to stay in shape no more’, he says. Alfric is captain of the guard now.” To say their father had disliked Hjolfs wish to visit his brother would be an understatement. Ever since Wulfjorn decided to travel the world instead of joining the Skogr city watch he had been dead to the old man. Although he and Wulfjorn stayed in contact with sporadic letters, Hjolf and their father never talked about him.

“I’m glad he is happy.” There was nothing left of the boy who once spit on his father boots and went cursing out the door in his brother. An intangible calm surrounded him, coming from deep within his soul. His master-at-arms had once told him that a calm warrior was just as dangerous as a raging berserker.

Up the hill he could see the village, an olio of exotic looking houses in dozens of colours with much to broad roofs. Gaily coloured garlands with paper lamps spanned from house to house , all surrounding the big pine tree in the middle. There seemed to be more, walled off areas ahead, but Wulfjorn turned left. Several of the townspeople greeted his brother with small bows, some even Hjolf, but most of them gave him strange looks, or at least that was what they seemed. It was always hard to tell with those slitted eyes.

“Don’t they like me?” He asked.

“Well, they’re not used to seeing many Skolmen around here.”

Hjolf frowned.

“You are a Skolman and they see you every day.”

“They do, but after a while of living here you become Daigonese. Besides, you do look quite fierce with that beard.”

“Heh, that’s why my enemies fear me!” he laughed a booming laugh.

They continued up a narrow path of stone steps that lead over a bridge crossing a small stream, to become a full stairway. While they were climbing, Hjolf asked:

“So, tell me about this fighting of yours. Is it any good?”

This time, Wulfjorn chuckled.

“You are about to enter a Monastery of the Four Schools, brother. It is not just fighting, it is a way of life.”

“Fighting is a way of life. It’s a warriors way.”

“True, but the Four Schools offer more than that.”

They arrived at a shallow pond with water lilies floating on it. A number of stone platforms were placed across, leading to a stream running down the steep mountainside into the pond. Two Daigonese boys in white gis were fighting on them, jumping, dodging and maintaining impossible balance. They were supervised by an older man in the same coloured gi, although Hjolf noted that he wore a skirt, just like his brother.

“This is Shinjao-Aoeha, the School of Air. It requires flexibility and strong leg muscles, focusing mostly on unpredictable moves and the use of ones surroundings. I am sure you have heard of the ninja?”

Hjolf nodded. The Shadow Warriors were fabled even among his own people, although he believed them to be cowards for not facing their enemies in the open.

“Well, to make it simple, it’s what the ninja do.”

“What about the skirt?”

“The ‘skirt’ is called Hakama, and it is reserved only for masters of at least one school.” He pointed at a long pavilion behind a tree. Hjolf could make out a group of people in red gis practising a series of quick strikes against the air. “That is Shinjao-Takea, the School of Fire. It is used to quickly incapacitate enemies by attacking certain points on their body with precise strikes and dealing blows of massive force to vulnerable areas.”

A series of stairs lead along walls of massive granite bricks and up to a three-story building made of dark wood and stone. The monastery.

“So what is your school?” He asked. Wulfjorn chuckled again.

“I have no single school, I am a Mitao-Shinjei, a Master of All, but I am best in Shinjao-Ubahe, the School of Water, which I also teach. Think of it as a way of controlling your enemies force to benefit yourself with minimal effort.”

“So what is the fourth school about?” Hjolf asked as they stepped through the door and into the cool, fresh interior if the monastery. The walls were covered with wooden panels, and the floor was bright bamboo with a gigantic mattress of reeds in the middle.

“Please, remove your boots.” Wulfjorn stripped his woven sandals from his feet and carefully put them besides the other sandals that looked exactly the same.

“Is that really necessary?”

“Absolutely necessary.”

He sat down, unclasped the ties of his boots and pulled them off with brute force, proceeding to place them neatly by the others.

“Oh, I hope I find them again in this chaos.” he said, sarcastically. His brother didn’t laugh. “So, the fourth school. Let me guess: Earth.”

“Correct. Shinjao-Nihura is all about immobilizing your enemy and pinning him to the ground with strong grabs and holds. You would like it.”

He lead them up a corkscrew stair to a room where several people were kneeling in circles and drinking hot tea from wooden cups. Most of them were wearing red, blue, white or brown gis, but the three sitting in the middle all wore the same grey colour as his brother.

One of them was very tall and had a long face and a clean shaven head. His belt displayed only three small plates: lapis, jade and white marble, the copper one was missing. Sitting in front of him was a short, green-eyed one, who had all of the plates. Next to him sat an old man with a round face and a big, happy smile. He had not only four but six little plates, the two additional being one of wood and one of iron.

“Hjolf, these are Ahaimi Aihatsu, a Master of Three, Mishima Jinjio, a Master of All, like myself, and Kojima Heihachi, a Senseitao-Shinjei, a Teacher of All. He is our spiritual leader and the uncle of Kojima Neheoki, the current head of the noble house Kojima.”

“So Kojima is his last name?” he asked.

“Well, it’s obviously not his last name but his family name.”

“It is strange to strangers.” Kojima said in heavily accented Skolje. “Please, have a sit, and a tea.”

While the Teacher of All poured, Hjolf and Wulfjorn sat down. Hjolf needed a while to get the seat right and immediately noticed that it was painfully uncomfortable.

“Where did you learn Skolje, Neheoki. Or should I address you by some title?”

“No no, Neheoki will do. I visited Kaldakr once and I liked the speech, so I decided to train it. It is not very easy, but your brother learns me sometimes.”

“Neither is Daigonese, by the way.” His brother noted. “It is like a more complicated version of Hanai’i.”

Hjolf took a sip of the tea. A stream of cold fire went down his throat, making him cough.

“It is strongmint and stinging nettle. Very good for breathing deep.” Neheoki chuckled.

“And for burning up from the inside, it would seem. Do you have any mead?”

 

The Man Made of Ink

Today we will explore fantasy, but not your average orcs-elves-dwarves type of fantasy, but rather a much weirder approach. Imagine an infinite number of worlds, all floating in the same substance we call reality and accessible through means of magic. Imagine truly alien worlds, not just science fiction alien, but really alien, like changed laws of physics, discworlds and worlds with no ground or no sky. Most known worlds are inhabited by humans, but other sentient beings have also been found. This type of universe is the sort of thing that I wanted to do since I was a little boy (then again, exploring other worlds was always my dream job. It still is, by the way.).

 

Music of the Moment: Koji Kondo – Clock Tower

 

Zantoom was a truly beautiful world. It featured a wide selection of colours, each shimmering brighter and livelier than the last, but it was mainly white. The deep blue pools and crystalline fountains were enclosed by white marble, the magnificent green gardens were surrounded by white columns and statues, the beautiful gold-and-brass ornamentation was adorning majestic buildings of clean, white stone and even the armour of the guardians was white, becoming the metal canvas of elaborate golden scrollwork.

Even though the sun was high up in the clear, blue sky, it was neither warm nor cold in the City of the Ageless, and, aside from the splashing water from the fountains and the occasional footsteps over the white-flagged floor, it was completely silent. People were rarely seen in the labyrinth of streets and plazas, most of them being soldiers and pages, hurrying around in white uniforms or scholars in white robes, thoughtfully discussing important topics with low voices. Most of them were Ildari, humans with pale skin, white hair and white eyes, claiming to be direct descendants of the Old People, who had first built the city.

One man stood out, though, like a drop of ink in an ocean of milk. He was leaning on a white half wall, motionlessly observing the transparent water falling out of a nameless white statues mouth into a wide, shallow basin. His eyes were pitch black, as was his long, flowing hair framing his oblong face, falling over his shoulders like a waterfall of darkness. The long coat he was wearing was also black, covered with complicated geometric patterns of thin, black rubber. His other clothes were black as well: a black chemise with black buttons, black pants with a belt of black leather, and black shoes with black laces. Even his arms and hands seemed to be made of black metal.

They called him the Shadow Master, more of a title than a name, but since nobody knew his real name (or anything else about him, for that matter) it had become just that. Some rumours claimed that he came from a far-off world, yet undiscovered by the explorers, others said he was one of the Elders, immortalized through ancient magic, and even others were certain that he was a wandering god.

No matter what was true, the Shadow Master was spoken highly of in Council circles and in charge of the Shadows, their very own army of spies. The Council of Zantoom had an enormous army at their disposal, as was necessary when governing thousands and thousands of worlds, but they preferred to remain unseen in their operations. Giving the worlds a feeling of independence was of paramount concern, and having soldiers stroll around them didn’t really help that cause.

The Shadows did employ humans and other beings, but most of their agents were Shades, sentient creatures of pure darkness that could morph into almost every living thing imaginable. Their wills were bound by powerful magic, making them loyal and obedient servants.

A young, uniformed woman approached the Shadow Master. She had blond hair and green eyes and carried a glass cartridge with brass caps inlaid with a circle of ivory. It had to come from the Council.

He grabbed through the glass as if it was not there, taking out the scroll inside of it. It was sealed with a clasp that bore Grand Councillor Alcvir’s sigil: two interlocked crescent moons on a hexagon with rounded corners.

 

Shadow Master,

 

it has come to my ears that you managed to capture one of the Strangers. If that is true I am most pleased and would advise you to make his interrogation a top priority. I will make certain the Council gives you access to any resources you might require, but we will expect a full report within the next twelve cycles.

 

Adeitasun osoz,

Grand Councillor Alcvir

 

It was true. They had indeed captured a Stranger. A man with skin pale as milk, violet eyes and no hair anywhere on his body, immobilized by magical forcefields and held atop a blue granite tower on a nameless world tormented by eternal tempest.

Even the Shadow Master knew virtually nothing about the Strangers. They came out of nowhere, stronger and faster than any human he’d ever heard of and operated in seemingly irrational patterns. But truly, they were not irrational. Quite the contrary was true. When seen on a larger scale, the Strangers actions worked like parts of bigger plans, creating outcomes no man could possibly predict. Something that interested him personally, though, were their coins. They displayed nothing and were made out of a grey metal unknown to him, but he knew they were the key to the Strangers ability to step into other worlds in a moments notice, as opposed to travelling by worldships or riftdoors like everyone else.

He turned to the envoy.

“You are not a Shade.” He assessed.

“No, Sir.” She seemed nervous.

“You don’t need to call me Sir, I am not a member of your military.”

“Yes, Sir, I mean, yes.”

He gave an amused smile.

“What is your name?” He asked.

“Andriah Vorrell, S- uhm.” She swallowed the ‘Sir’ in the last moment.

“What world are you from, Andriah Vorrell?” The Shadow Master was well aware that he made most people nervous, especially junior officers who wanted to make a good impression.

“Detton. I am from Detton.”

“I have heard of that world. You have a violet sky and two blue moons that always remain at the same place. Your sun pulsates very slowly and most of your stone is as blue as your moons. Is it true that your trees have black leaves?”

“Yes, Master. The leaves are black.”

“A strange world.”

“It is, yes.”

He smiled.

“It is not for you, you grew up there. You don’t need to agree with me because of my position.”

“Yes, sorry, Master.”

The Shadow Master made the scroll disappear in the palm of his hand.

“I will take my leave now. I wish you a nice day.”

“Thank you, Sir, Master.”

But he had already crossed half the plaza. When the Shadow Master walked around the next corner, he simply disappeared.