Surtr stirred from his fugue, straightening at his eternal post. His charred fingers unconsciously tightened about the hilt of his bright blade. A pulse of what might have been anticipated flooded him. Something had changed.
He turned slowly, surveying the ruins that served as his camp. Broken towers and shattered pillars were all the remained of this place, on the frontier of Olympus, where the gentle lands of the south became thick jungle and rough ground. Beneath his feet, the ground was soft and bubbling; his presence made even the hardest stones as mud. A heat-haze drifted across his vision. He felt the bite of a goddess’ sword, the sting of arrows. A hundred deaths passed before his eyes.
He lived, but he was dead. For what sort of life was this? It had been different, once. Had he been a king? A hero, at least he thought. A savior to his people – but where were they? Why was he here, rather than with them?
Surtr shook his head, banishing the thoughts before they overwhelmed him. Everything before he had come here was a dream. For as long as he could recall, he had been trapped in this ruin; like all monsters, he was bound by chains of magic and fate. Yet now, he felt them barely at all. Indeed, he felt as if he could simply…step into the jungle. He could return home, if he wished.
Something had changed.
He could not say what this change might be, only that it teased his senses. Like a scent he remembered, but only dimly. The echo of a taste, or a glimpse of something familiar, but only at a great distance. He looked up, past the smoky clouds of ash that wreathed him, to where the heavens revolved in their eternal dance.
Something was different. It was not as he recalled – not quite. The stars above seemed brighter that when he’d last looked. How long ago now? A century? Two? It was hard to recall how long he’d stood watch in this place. He looked up again, to make certain there was no mistake. He had always loved the stars. Pinpricks of flame straining against the chill of the void, much like himself. Unconsciously he reached up, as if to kindle them to greater brightness. But they were too far away, and it was not yet time.
But wasn’t it? He paused, gripped by a sudden bewilderment. Had it not happened already? Had Jormungandr not rises from the depths? Had the world not burned? it had, he was sure, but if so, why did he still stand sentry here? He groaned and gripped his head with his free hand. It ached, as if he’d been struck by Mjolnir. He felt full of strength; as if he’d woken from a deep sleep. But that was impossible, for he didn’t sleep. He was the eternal watchman, there to guard against –
The words caused him to look up, just in time to see a sword slashing down towards his head. He twitched aside, barely avoiding it. His attacker – a man – a god? – in golden armor, cursed and sprang back as Surtr lashed out at him.
“You missed, Gilgamesh,” someone called out.
“He isn’t usually that quick,” Gilgamesh protested. Gilgamesh. The name as familiar. He was not alone, Surtr saw. Other gods accompanied him. He knew them all, though he could not recall ever having faced them before: Bellona, Anubis, Ishtar and Tsukuyomi. With Gilgamesh, they made five.
“Is this the great fire-giant then?” Ishtar asked, notching an arrow. “From your stories, I expected him to be bigger. I only agreed to join you because you promised me a challenge, Bellona!”
“He’s big enough to be dangerous,” Bellona said, sternly. She was the leader, then. Surtr wanted to laugh. To spit a challenge in their faces. But he didn’t. Couldn’t. What was the point? It was no longer defiance than drove him, but resignation. The fire burned because it must. He would fight, because he had no choice. It was his duty.
His life was death. Eon after eon, he stood – fought – died. A plaything of his enemies, of those who had once feared him.
“Take no chances,” Anubis growled. “He could destroy our world, if he is allowed.”
“The world doesn’t concern me – but glory does,” Tsukuyomi spat, circling around with predatory intent. The others followed suit, fanning out to encircle Surtr. Surtr glared at them, snarling in challenge. He knew what this was, and the familiarity brought with it a rush of anger. The cycle was always the same. Five gods sent to test him. To beat him, to hold back the cleansing fire, even as it threatened to rise up and race across the world. He’d been on the cusp of awakening, and they’d come to send him back into his eternal reverie. Back into the oblivion that marked the cursed cycle of his existence.
He knew that he’d never been victorious against them. That his fire remained unkindled, despite millennia of striving. Again and again, they defeated him. Sometimes they represented one pantheon, sometimes many. The Norse knew him, and had once feared him, but so too had the other gods; his was a fire from the glory of his kingdom. They had separated from his people. How much more was he doomed to suffer?
It all came roaring back to him as he blocked a slash of Gilgamesh’s sword, forcing him to leap back. Memories of past battles, past defeats, rose up, threatening to overwhelm him. How many cycles had passed since he’d come here?
He’d marched north, his people following in his wake. They were the world’s reckoning, come to burn it clean so that something new might rise from the ashes. But he’d been prevented from doing so – something, someone, had driver his people back; and trapped him here. Odin, perhaps. Maybe all of them. One god would not have been enough.
But now? Now he could barely match five.
He reeled as blow after blow connected. Arrows, blades, magics – carving pieces from him as if he were nothing more than a sacrificial bull. A monument to the power of the pantheons. Was this what mighty Surtr had been reduced to?
He sank down to one knee. He was nothing. They were going to defeat him. They always defeated him. The fire was always snuffed out before it became too dangerous. That was the cycle the gods had yoked him to. But as he shook his head to clear it, the world seemed to slow about him. He saw them closing in for the kill, hoping to humble him as others had before them. The heat of his anger redoubled, turned white-hot.
“Keep him hemmed in,” Bellona called out. “Make it hard for him to use that sword. Ishtar, keep him covered. Gilgamesh, wait for an opening. Anubis…”
“Don’t think to command me, Roman,” Anubis said, as green light crackled about his hands. “I’ve fought this battle before. We all have. Surtr awakes, and we put him back to sleep for another turn of the wheel. That is the way of it.”
Anubis growled and lightning sparked from his eyes. “I will -” he began, but Surtr interrupted him.
“No more,” he hissed.
The gods looked at Surtr in some surprise. He forced himself to his feet. “No more,” he repeated. As if that were a signal, they sprang into action. Bellona was the first to come for him; it was to be expected. She leapt, aiming for his head. Her strike was precise. Under different circumstances, it would have connected and the cycle would have begun again.
But here and now, Surtr caught Bellona’s weapon in the palm of his hand. A clench of his fist, and it was shattered. Bellona landed at his feet in a crouch, her expression one of bewilderment. The others joined in the attack. But his anger was burning brightly now, as he shrugged off their attacks. He felt more alive than he had in centuries.
Magics clawed at Surtr, dragged him to the ground. Anubis growled something about judgement. As if they were fit to judge him – was he not a harbinger of the end? His had been the blade that was meant to kindle the last conflagration. The bright sword… the great fire. He could feel its heat, just at the edge of his perceptions. He stretched out his hand, reaching for it, even as Anubis launched a salvo of deathly magics.
And something changed.
He felt something of his old strength flood into him, and shrugged aside the magics that bound him. He was not as he had been, but he was more than what the gods had condemned him to be. Enough, perhaps, to remind them of why they had once feared him. As the haze of his transformation faded, he charged towards his tormentors.
Bellona leapt aside as Surtr bore down on Anubis. He caught the jackal-headed god by the throat and dragged him into the air with ease. He hurled Anubis aside as if he were nothing, and spun to block Bellona’s blow. The others converged on him, hoping to catch him unaware. Earlier, they would have succeeded. But now, he simply laughed – and let loose the fire building inside him.
It roared out and sent his attackers flying, like leaves in a hot wind. In the silence that followed, he looked down at the gods fallen at his feet, and felt an inexplicable rush of joy. “I won,” he rumbled, in disbelief. Laughing, he threw back his head. “I won!”
His cry of triumph was interrupted by a rumble from the stars overhead. He looked up in confusion. What had seemed so beautiful only moments ago now seemed hostile – cold. As if they were glaring down at him. “I won,” he snarled, his eyes on the stars. “I will burn the world; that is how it must be. You cannot stop me now. The cycle is ended. At last, after all your trick, it is done!”
The stars were not listening. He heard a thunder of hooves, and the clash of cymbals. The ground shook, and the fires of Muspell dimmed. More gods were coming. Not simply champions now, but the leaders of the great pantheons – all racing towards him as one; towards the lands of his people. Odin and Zeus in the vanguard; Yu Huang and Kukulkan, from the east and west; great Rama, wise Ra and blazing Amaterasu; and from above, from amid the treacherous stars – Olorun, ruler of the heavens.
They were coming to stamp him out before he could fulfil his sacred duty. He hesitated; uncertain for the first time in centuries. The old rules were broken. He had won; he had every right to call the Sons of Muspell to war again, to meet the invaders in battle and pick up where he’d left off. A part of him wanted nothing more than to see such an inferno blossom.
But he – they – would lose. He knew it as surely as he knew that his victory was unexpected. That the gods were racing to stop him before he’d even begun told him that much. Where were his ancient allies – where was Jormungandr? Fenrir? Without their strength, he was outmatched. The gods would simply overwhelm him as they had before and his people would suffer for his triumph. He could not bear that.
Surtr raised his sword, “My life is death,” he rumbled. “But this is not where I fall.”
It was not a challenger. Simply a promise.
But for now, there was only option available to him.