Maui stepped into the heart of the volcano and the heat beat against his flesh. Despite the searing red glow cast up by the roiling magma, he could see his hosts clearly. Pele waited front and center, sitting atop a throne made from molten rock. Beside her stood Vulcan, looking as pugnacious as Maui recalled from their last meeting.
But they were not alone. Above them, looking atop a blackened ledge of stone, stood Odin the Allfather. Near him stood Zeus; the King of Olympus glowered down at Maui as if the latter had done something to personally offend him. A jade glow to his left signaled the presence of Yu Huang, his hands held behind his back and a contemplative look upon his face. And to his right, the celestial radiance of Olorun.
Maui felt a flicker of trepidation at the sight of so many divine rulers, but he swiftly quashed it and put on a wide smile. “So. You called and I came.”
The summons had been a surprise. It wasn’t often that Pele called his name. Mostly she wanted nothing to do with him, if she could help it. And if she’d allowed these others into her sanctum, he judged it must be important. That didn’t bode well, but he was curious as to what it was all about. He cleared his throat. “I trust I have done nothing to offend anyone here? No? Good.” He settled his hook onto his shoulder. “Then why am I here? Discordia up to her old tricks?”
Pele and Vulcan glanced at one another, but it was Olorun who spoke. “No. Not Discordia. Thought it is because of how you dealt with her that Lady Pele suggested we call upon you as the solution to the problem before us.”
“And that problem is?”
“Something new – or perhaps something old,” Olorun said.
Maui frowned. “Which one is it?”
“Both and neither,” Odin said. His good eye flashed with cold fire as he studied Maui.
“Are we certain this is the one?” Zeus asked. “He’s not even a proper god!”
“Neither was I, once,” Yu Huang said, pointedly.
“A good point, though,” Vulcan rumbled. “He’s not a warrior, either.” He tugged on his beard. “What does he know of honest battle?”
“Perhaps it is not a warrior that is needed here,” Yu Huang persisted. He looked up at Odin. The others did as well. The Allfather of the Norse pantheon, for his part, was still peering at Maui – as if trying to determine what, exactly, he was looking at. Maui, suddenly uncomfortable, looked at Pele, hoping for some explanation.
“I still don’t know why I’m here, great lady – not that I mind, you understand. But I was in the middle of something when your summons reached me..”
“Some mischief, no doubt,” Pele murmured, with a slight smile. Maui shrugged. In reality, he’d been up to nothing at all. He’d been bored, in fact. That was why he’d responded so swiftly. If nothing else, Pele’s summons had promised to be interesting.
“One person’s mischief is another person’s honest fun,” he said.
“Spoken like a true trickster,” Olorun said. “I think he’ll do.”
“You would say that,” Zeus growled. He looked at the others. “This is madness. Worse – idiocy. Let Athena or Ares take up the task. They are more than capable-“
“They would fail,” Odin interrupted. “As would Thor, or Horus, or Mulan. As Bellona did. Warriors will not win this day.”
“Indeed,” Yu Huang said. “It is war we are trying to prevent.”
Maui studied them as they spoke. Zeus was angry; Odin, pensive; Olorun, considering; Yu Huang, serene. He looked at Pele, and in her eyes, he read concern. “What war is this?” he asked, aloud. “Only it seems to me I just got done preventing one.”
“And it was well done,” Yu Huang said. “But this is different. The fire that is coming has been denied for so long that if it is allowed to spread, it will engulf us all. Even those normally above such terrestrial matters.” He glanced at Olorun as he spoke. The latter crossed his arms and looked up at Zeus and Odin.
“You were warned what might happen when you came up with this plan,” he said. “Tiamat said this might happen, and I agreed with her. Binding Surtr is not the answer.”
Zeus blustered in protest, but Odin, a grim look on his face, nodded. “Aye. You did warn us, you and the dragon queen, but still, I would do it again come to it.” Odin looked at Maui, and his sole eye narrowed. “Even so, Yu Huang is right.. things have changed. Surtr is not as he was – or rather,, he is all that and more. Attacking him head on will only feed his conflagration. We must wage a different sort of war, if we are to repair what has been broken. Or so the runes insist.”
Zeus threw up his hands in apparent disgust. “Runes, always runes! What do runes know about anything?”
“More than you, I suspect,” Olorun said. Zeus growled and clenched his fists. Sparks of lightning danced across his knuckles. Olorun turned to face him, his jaw set. Maui sensed no love lost between the two. The rumor was that Zeus bore Olorun some grudge, but no one could fathom why and neither of them was telling.
He raised his hand, catching their attentions. “Who’s Surtr?” he asked. “And why are we attacking him? Or should I say you, for, as you have pointed out, I’m not the warrior type. In fact, I can’t think of anything I’d like less than to go to war – especially with someone who’s done me no particular wrong.”
“Surtr will do us all wrong if he is given the chance,” Zeus said, bluntly. He crossed his arms and glared at the others. “He will bring an end to all that we have built in this turn of the wheel, if he is left to his own devices. I will not allow that. If I must confront him myself, with the full might of Olympus at my back, I will.”
“We cannot and you know it,” Yu Huang said, sharply. “To confront him in our full fury is to set the wheels of Ragnarok in motion once more. That is why we choose champions to face him. Five gods, to represent the pantheons.”
“Except this time, they failed,” Zeus said. He looked at Maui. “And this.. trickster, is your answer. Surtr is not Discordia, to be undone by a child’s prank. Or Tiamat, to be bargained with.”
Maui sighed. He still wasn’t sure who Surtr was, but he was liking what he was hearing less and less. “Then find someone else,” he said bluntly. “I don’t know what you expect of me, but I do know I have better things to do than listen to you all argue about matters that clearly don’t concern me.” He made as if to leave, but suddenly – he was somewhere else.
Snow spun about him, and he found himself standing on a rugged slop. Fir trees rose like green towers above him, and far below he could see the winking lights of a mortal village. He turned to see Odin studying him. “What is this? Where are we?”
“The lands of my worshippers,” Odin said, joining him. “I thought it would be more productive to speak to you alone – god to god, as it were.
Maui grinned. “Somehow I do not think your companions will approve of you whisking us away for a private chat.”
Odin smiled and tapped the side of his nose. “They almost never do. But you want answers and you won’t get them while Zeus blusters and the others hedge about.” He sighed. “It is because they are afraid. They see the end coming and scramble to avoid it. But we Nose know better than most that endings cannot be avoided – only delayed.”
“And this Surtr is an ending?”
Odin held out his hand and Maui saw that a small group of runes danced above his palm. “One of them. He is, or was, part of the cycle of death and rebirth.” As he spoke, each rune flashed in turn, and Maui thought it meant something, though he couldn’t say what. “Existence is the snake that eats its own tail. One moment passes into the next, often repeating the same sequence of events. But regardless, it always ends the same way: Ragnarok. The final fire.”
As he spoke, the runes burst into flame and were reduced to cinders. “When?” Maui asked, his mouth dry.
Odin smiled thinly. “It already happened.”
Maui blinked. “What? When?”
“In an earlier cycle. But we stopped it. For just one moment, the pantheons were united – and oblivion was held off. But it was a mistake. Because the fire must always come. And if not the fire, something worse.” Odin spread his fingers and the cinders rose and spun, taking on a vaguely serpentine shape, before becoming something more like an octopus. “Always something worse. The harder we fought, the worse it became. And the worse it became, the more our alliances – ever tenuous – frayed, leading to more destruction. No matter what we did, the cycle would not be denied.” He paused. “Until..”
“Until what?” Maui asked.
“Until we stopped fighting.” Odin closed his hand and let it drop. “No more wars between the pantheons, no more striving to rule over each other. We made peace and old enmities and transgressions were forgiven, if not forgotten. Oh, we still have our differences and some – like Discordia – cause trouble where and when they can, but we do not clash as we did in previous turns of the wheel.”
“Then what’s the problem?”
Odin frowned. “Surtr will stoke the old flames anew. He seeks to undo all that we have done, because that is his purpose. We cannot allow it. Not when we have come so far and accomplished so much since the last cycle ended. But to go to war against him.. it will only end one way. So, we had to do something different.”
“The five champions Yu Huang mentioned..”
“Yes. Until now, it has been enough. Surtr was chained – broken. He was no longer a threat to the cycle. But the magics that bound him have been undone; perhaps they were never meant to be maintained for so long. Not against something like him. He defeated the five sent against him this time and has escaped. For the moment, he is weak. But that will change. The longer he is free, the stronger he will become, until..”
“The final fire,” Maui said. Odin nodded.
“A fire to sweet the world clean. Men and gods, all consumed.”
Maui shook his head and looked away, out over the mountainside. He could smell meat cooking in the village far below, and hear singing. They would not survive the conflagration Odin was describing. But what were the gods for, if not to protect mortals from that which might harm them? He looked at Odin. “What must be done?”
“War – confrontation – will only feed Surtr. I fear that is how he escaped. With every battle, his fire grew and raged against the spells we wove to contain him, until finally – they broke. But to leave him free is just as dangerous. We cannot risk it.” Odin looked at him. “So, you must gather another band of five..”
Startled, Maui stared at him. “Why me?”
Odin shrugged. “I cast the runes and they showed me you.”
Maui frowned and rubbed the back of his neck. The idea of confronting a monstrous fire giant held little appeal to him, but obviously someone had to do it. “And what will you and the others be doing while I’m out gathering four fools to help me?”
“We will work to repair the magics that tamed him in the first place, so that all can be as it was before he broke free.”
“Won’t that simply start this whole mess over again?” Maui asked.
Odin nodded. “But what else can we do? We are creatures of the cycle, playing out our stories over and over again within the tapestry of a story yet greater still. Surtr must be broken and bound and fought over and over again. That is the way of it.” He looked at Maui. “Unless, of course, you have a better idea..” His eye glittered as he spoke and Maui suddenly recalled that Loki wasn’t the only trickster in the Norse pantheon. And even as the thought occurred to him, the first glimmerings of plan crystallized in his mind.
Maui smiled. “I just might, at that.”
Odin sighed in something that might have been relief. “Then there might just be hope for us all.”