The village was on fire when the traveler stepped out of the forest. Winged shapes swooped through the dark sky, cutting lazy circles through the smoke. The screeches of the bird-women grated on the newcomer’s ears and she quickened her pace. Mortals fled into the forest and the hills, paying little heed to her in their fear. She didn’t blame them. If she were not who she was, she too would be afraid.
But she was Ix Chel, and the only fear within her was the fear she brought to her foes. She strode through the smoke, ignoring the heat of the flames, ignoring the cries of the wounded and the beasts that preyed upon them. That would end soon enough, once she had put right all that was wrong here.
The first step was letting them know she was here. She raised her staff, and the prism of light within flickered – flared – and finally erupted into a kaleidoscopic blaze of rainbow light. It grew brighter and brighter, until it pierced the smoke in all directions, drawing the eye of every living thing in the village, human and otherwise. Among her worshippers, a rainbow was considered a grievous omen – a portent of doom to come. Before she was done, these monsters would believe the same.
The bird-women came first, plunging down like arrows. Ix Chel raised her staff and thin beams of concentrated light coalesced and shot out, weaving back and forth to intercept the darting forms of her attackers. The creatures fell writhing at her feet. Those that had escaped the shimmering barrage rose up and away, fleeing or regrouping.
Something bounded towards her through the smoke, bleating with rage. The creature resembled a man, albeit one with legs of a goat. It clutched a crude spear in its hands and thrust the weapon at her. She batted it aside with a swipe of her staff and then jabbed the ferrule into the goatman’s stomach. It fell to the ground wheezing. Before she could finish the creature off, more of them loped towards her from all sides. Too many.
This wasn’t the first burning village she had come across in her journey. Everywhere, the monsters were on the warpath. And it was war, not just a simple rampage. They were attacking temples and holy places, challenging the gods. Even in the lands of the Maya.
She slammed her staff down again and her opponents retreated in momentary disarray, blinded by the searing explosion of colors. She could hear more monsters approaching, drawn by the sounds of battle. She frowned, debating the merits of a tactical withdrawal. But no – she had never fled from battle before and she wasn’t about to start now. “Come then,” she murmured. “For you, I shall weave a tapestry of pain.”
She draw on the ambient light of her surroundings – the gleam of the setting sun, the glare of the fire – weaving it together in a shimmering orb of power as her enemies closed in once more. They were stubborn; driven to battle by a will greater than their own.
The will of Surtr.
Many in the Maya pantheon held Surtr to be a problem for the Greek gods and possibly the Norse. But she knew better. The longer the fire giant was free, the stronger he became. It was in everyone’s best interests to stop him as soon as possible. Especially if his armies continued to grow.
Surtr was bent on revenge. He was a fire that, if left unchecked, would destroy them all. Once, he might have represented something else – the destruction that preceded creation – but that day was long gone. Now there was only the fire, and the simmering ashes it left in its wake.
The goatman raced towards her, followed by several of his brethren and she launched the orb towards them. A crackling rainbow erupted, casting the monsters to the ground. They lay groaning, smoke rising from their blackened forms. She had little time to celebrate, however, as the bird women – harpies, that was what the Greeks called them – swooped towards her, taking advantage of her momentary distraction.
Talons plucked at her flesh as she swung her staff, driving them back for a moment. As they rose and banked, she drew more light to her, weaving it into thin arrows of color with her staff. She sent the volley up to meet the harpies, knocking several from the sky. But not all of them. Where one fell, two more hurtled down to replace it. More of the goatmen had arrived as well. They crept towards her, wary now after her earlier displays of power.
Ix Chel turned in place, trying to keep them all in sight. She called up more strands of light, letting them coalesce in her hand. “One at a time, or all at once, it makes little difference to me,” she called out. “I will fight you all and make something beautiful of what is left.” She flung out her hand, casting bolts of light into the closest goatmen. As she did so, she heard the snap of the wings and ducked. A harpy swooped past, screeching in frustration. A goatman dove at her as she straightened and even as she drove him back, a second harpy landed on her back, clawing and tearing.
The other monsters closed in, howling and shrieking in triumph. Ix Chel caught the harpy by the wing and dragged it from her back, flinging it bodily into one of the goatmen. But the others were not dissuaded. They thought that their numbers gave them the advantage. Ix Chel clasped her staff more tightly, determined to teach them the error of their ways.
Then, as the first of the creatures reached her, a great cry sounded from above – a rolling, bellicose war chant. Goatmen and harpies paused, looking upwards in surprise. There was a flash of light and the newcomer dropped to the ground with an earthshattering boom. The heavy fishing hook he carried bit into the ground, further rupturing it and sending the goatmen flying. Those that managed to stay on their hooves were clearly shaken by the suddenness of this new arrival. Ix Chel seized the opportunity to lay about her with her staff, knocking the nearest of the creatures sprawling.
Together, she and the newcomer drove their enemies before them, striking with bolts of light and whirling hook. Her ally laughed as he fought and she found herself amused by the sheer joy he took in combat. Too many gods saw battle as a matter of life and death; few understood the enjoyment of a good brawl. She gestured and vibrant ribbons of color speared through the ranks of the monsters, exploding intervals and sending them tumbling through the air like falling leaves.
Suddenly, a shriek of a harpy rattled down from above and the goatmen began a disorderly retreat. They’d clearly had enough. The newcomer watched them, frowning. “That’s new. I’ve never seen harpies and satyrs work together like that before. What about you?” He directed this last question to her.
She recognized him now. Maui, one of the Polynesian gods. He was far from home. Then, so was she. “No. Why did you interfere? I had things under control.” A bit of an exaggeration, but she would not want him to get the wrong impression. As she spoke, she raised her staff and stirred the air, releasing the rain that hid within the clouds above. It fell, snuffing the flames that consumed the village. Hopefully, there was enough of it left that the mortal could rebuild in time.
“You looked as if you needed help,” he said, resting his hook on one shoulder. He held out a hand, catching the rain.
“Looks can be deceiving,” Ix Chel said, facing him. Maui smiled.
“Maybe so. But I helped anyway. You are far from home, Ix Chel. The gods of the Maya rarely come so far from their lands.”
“The same could be said of you, Maui.”
Maui shrugged. “I am looking for someone.”
“Surtr,” Ix Chel said, making a guess. There was only one being whose location preoccupied the diverse pantheons at the moment. It appeared she and Maui shared the same mission. At least in part. “So am I.”
“Not to confront him, I hope,” Maui said. “From what I’m told, he’s more than a match for any single god – or goddess.”
Ix Chel chuckled. She’d heard much the same on her journey. According to Chaac, Surtr had already defeated Bellona and Anubis, among others. No small feat, even for a giant. “No. I am here to locate him, nothing more. After I find where he’s hiding, my pantheon will confront him as one – something the other pantheons are too fearful to do, it seems.” Even if she had to drag the lot of them into battle, kicking and screaming.
“From what I’ve seen, they have their own plans for dealing with him,” Maui said and something in his tone told her he spoke the truth.
“Well, they are not acting quickly enough.” She looked around at the ruined village as she said it and felt a flicker of anger. Where were the Greek gods? Did they not hear the cries of their worshippers? “They hide in their high kingdoms while their worshippers suffer the predations of his army. With every passing day, his forces grow in size. Every monster in Greece has joined his horde, all of them eager to spill the blood of the gods.”
“I didn’t even know he’d built an army,” Maui said. He took in the village, as if seeing it for the first time. “That’s going to make my task a lot harder.”
Ix Chel peered at him. “And what is your task?”
“I’m going to stop Surtr of course.” He preened slightly. “A mighty task, for a mighty hero, don’t you agree?”
“Yes,” Ix Chel said. “We should probably find one.”
Maui hesitated – and then laugh. “Yes, I agree. We really should. But until then, it’s just me.” He paused. “Unless.. you’d care to join me?”
Ix Chel stared at him. “What?”
Maui smiled sheepishly and rubbed the back of his neck. “Well, as you just pointed out, I am possibly not up to the task myself.” His smile turned sharp. “But two of us – or better yet, three or four – well..”
“Or five,” she said, softly. Five, she knew, was the traditional number of gods sent to humble Surtr in his imprisonment. She had never participated in the ritual, finding it distasteful. Surtr’s purpose was awful, but necessary. In preventing him from fulfilling it, the gods had altered the natural cycle in ways that even she could not predict.
He nodded. “Or five. Five might stand a chance.”
Ix Chel studied him. “Five gods faced him before and failed.”
Maui nodded, unperturbed. “They did. But I don’t intend to make the same mistakes they did. Facing a monster like Surtr head on is never the answer.”
“And what is, then?” Ix Chel asked, curious. Maui was renowned as a trickster of no small inventiveness. If he had a plan, it might be worth learning what it was. Especially if it could lead to Surtr’s defeat. While she had no doubt that her pantheon could stop Surtr if it came to it, such a conflict would cause needless destruction on a horrific scale. And to Ix Chel, nothing was worse than destruction without purpose.
Maui scratched his chin. After a moment, he said, “Tell you what. I’ll let you know when I figure it out.”
Ix Chel stared at him for long moments and then laughed, loudly. She slapped him on the shoulder, nearly knocking him from his feet. “See that you do, trickster. But until then, I think it best I accompany you. You like like you need all the help you can get!”