The wind shifted. The hunter paused, alert. Wary.
Above, the sky rolled, as if on the verge of a storm. Below, the jungle stank of fire. But there was no fire to be seen. Only the marks of something large passing through the hunter’s territory, in a great hurry. The hunter crept through the trees, following the scent. Whatever it was, it was bound to be more interesting than his usual run of prey.
But Martichoras was not particularly hungry: thus, he intended to satiate his curiosity first. Afterwards, he might well choose to eat whatever – whoever – it was. But not until he’d had his fun. Yet even as he pursued the intruder, he realized that something was wrong.
No, he corrected himself, not wrong exactly. Say rather, different. As if the world had tilted on its axis, if only for a brief moment. Something had changed, but what that something was, he couldn’t say. Nor, in truth, did he care. Martichoras was not, at heart, a philosopher, or even particularly observant – save when it came to filling his belly.
The world had changed many times since he’d come to the jungle. And he was sure it would change many more times hence. He’d learned as a cub that the only constant was change. One could either accept it, or be driven mad. Besides, however the sky quaked, the jungle remained as it always had. His kingdom was inviolate, and his subjects – his prey – remained tasty and not too challenging. There were worse things.
Even so, he wanted to know the nature of whatever had entered his territory, and what trouble it might have brought with it. Overhead, thunder rumbled. Martichoras paused, one eye on the clouds. Though not divine, he’d had dealings with divinity, albeit in the distant past. Bad dealings, mostly. Regardless, he knew the sound of gods on the hunt they were looking for something – or someone. He snorted. Let them look. It made no difference to him. So long as they stayed out of the jungle.
The wind turned again, and the smell of fire grew stronger. He growled softly and pressed on with the hunt, creeping through the jungle on silent paws. Somewhere up ahead, something heavy sent a tree crashing to the ground. The path widened, became a trail – of devastation. Fallen trees, scorched rocks. Someone or something was cutting themselves a path through his jungle. And without his permission!
Incensed by the insult, Martichoras increased his speed. Whoever it was, they’d regret it. He’d make sure of it. This place was his, and had been for centuries. For three turns of the great wheel, if not more. It was hard to recall exactly: he’d never been very good with time or it’s reckoning. He leapt over fallen trees, has anger growing with ever passing moment. It became so fierce, in fact, that is nearly cost him his life.
His quarry must have heard him coming, however impossible that seemed. A fiery blade swept out, nearly taking off Martichoras’ head. He twisted aside, leathery wings flapping to carry him up and away. He growled laughter, pleased despite the close call. It was always more fun when the prey fought back.
“Close, but not close enough,” he taunted. He circled overhead as his opponent moved into the open. A giant, one with hair of flame. Why did that seem familiar? No matter. One meal was good as another. He folded his wings and dove towards the intruder.
Martichoras crashed into the giant as the latter turned, and they fell to the ground in a tangle. It was like wrestling with a wildfire. Martichoras was thankful his hide was so tough, otherwise he might have been reduced to cinders. As it was, it was uncomfortable being so close. He was starting to have doubts as to whether he could even digest such a creature.
They grappled for a moment before the giant managed to fling Martichoras away. The great manticore landed lightly on his paws, and whirled, sending a flurry of spines arcing towards his opponent. The giant met the volley with a slice of his blade, burning the spines to ash before they reached him.
They faced one another for a moment, neither making a move. Martichoras found something about the giant familiar. He’d never fought the creature before, though he’d eaten his share of giants over the centuries. The giant, for his part, returned Martichoras’ appraisal. “You are not one of the gods,” the giant said, finally.
Martichoras almost choked on his laughter. “Of course not. I am Martichoras the first! King of all manticores!” He reared up so as to better display his impressive figure. The giant did not look impressed, but then, it was hard to tell with giants.
“I was not aware manticores had a king,” the giant said, after a moment.
Martichoras snorted. “They didn’t. That’s why I declared myself one and killed any who argued the point. And this is my kingdom you’ve invaded, giant. Care to explain yourself, before I devour you?”
“I think you would find me a poor meal,” the giant said, lifting his sword in warning. “Unless you like your meat tough and burnt.”
Martichoras circled the giant, studying him. He radiated power, which was reason enough to be wary. But Martichoras had killed – and eaten – powerful things before. “Tell me your name, then,” he said. “It is only polite, since I have told you mine.”
“Surtr. Of Muspelheim.”
Martichoras stopped his circling. “Surtr,” he growled, the name tasting funny to him. Yet the sting of familiarity was there. Suddenly, he recalled where he’d heard it before and he sank to his haunches a guttural laugh. “Ah. You’re the one they got to replace me.”
The giant looked at him. “What?”
“Or maybe not. Maybe we just shared the same fate, for a time. It’s hard to remember.” Martichoras knocked on his head with a heavy paw. “Being killed over and over again has that effect, I found.”
“Killed -?” Surtr hesitated, but Martichoras could see that the giant understood what he meant. The gods had their little games, and those games were cruel. “You mean, you were their prisoner as well?” Surtr continued.
Martichoras chortled and lashed his tail. “Oh yes. In an earlier turn of the wheel.” He stretched. “They took a dim view of me eating their worshippers. The ones called Olympians caught me and bound me with their magics. Made me the prey for their hunts.” He could but dimly recall that time, but what he remembered he didn’t like. He wasn’t prey, and it hadn’t been fair of them to pretend he was. What had he done that was so wrong, after all? He shook his head, “I escaped though, when everything was cracking apart. It all got put back together, but by then I was safe in my jungle, and the gods… forgot about me.” He bared his teeth in a wide smile. “I don’t think they’re going to forget about you, though.”
“I will see that they do not,” Surtr said.
Martichoras clawed idly at the earth. “How did you manage it, then?”
Surtr was silent for a moment. “Something has changed. Can you feel it? It is as if the old chains have lost their strength.”
Martichoras blinked. “Oh. One of those, was it?”
Surtr looked at him. “One of what?”
Martichoras inspected his claws. “A new cycle has begun. The gods must have ended the world again.” He sighed. “They never learn.”
“Ended the -?” Surtr began. “When did this happen?”
Martichoras shrugged. “It always happens.” He drew a circle in the dirt. “It’s a cycle. The gods grow arrogant, something happens, war breaks out and things fall apart. Sometimes it takes centuries, sometimes not. You get used to it.”
Surtr stared at him. “That is not how it is supposed to happen.”
Martichoras shrugged again. “I don’t care. Whatever the cycle, the jungle remains the same and I remain its king. That’s all that matters to me.”
“But they made you a prisoner,” Surtr protested.
Martichoras snorted. “I am not a prisoner now. Now I am a king. What does it matter what I once was, when I am now something better?”
“If you were their prisoner, you know what I suffered.”
“Your suffering is not my concern.” Martichoras hesitated, still curious. “What do you intend to do next?” Part of him hoped he wouldn’t have to kill Surtr. He felt some small kinship with the giant. Perhaps Surtr would prove wiser that the rest of his kind, and simply depart in peace.
Flames flared along the length of Surtr’s sword. “I will punish them for their temerity.”
“Good luck with that,” Martichoras yawned. He turned away. The conversation was starting to bore him. And since a giant made of flame didn’t sound particularly appetizing, and it was almost time for his midday nap, he might as well take his leave. “I give you safe passage, Surtr. Leave my jingle and we’ll have no trouble.”
“Wait,” Surtr called.
Martichoras paused. He glanced back at the giant. “What now?”
Martichoras frowned. “What?”
“Help me. Don’t you want to make them pay for what they did?”
Martichoras laughed and dat. “Revenge doesn’t fill my belly. Revenge doesn’t keep my territory safe.”
“But it can. It might.” Surtr looked up. “They will follow me here. They might even find me.” He looked at Martichoras. “They might find you too. And what then? What do you think will happen, oh king of the manticores?”
Martichoras growled softly. He knew. They would break him and cage him, the way they had in the past. Just because he’d eaten a few mortals. As if that were a crime. Who hadn’t eaten a mortal or two? “All the more reason for you to leave, giant. Get out of my jungle, and quickly, if you please.”
Surtr shook hid head. “No.”
Martichoras snarled. “I’ll make you leave.”
“And that will only hasten our doom.” Surtr paused. “I can beat them, but not alone. Once, I had an army. I must have one again. Will you join me?”
Martichoras stared at him for a moment, and then laughed uproariously. “What a ridiculous notion! Did you not hear me call myself a king? Kings do not serve.”
“And I am a king as well,” Surtr said, heavily. He hesitated. “But I understand. Once, in a time I can barely recall, I had allies. Warriors who fought beside me against the gods. I do not know where those allies are now, or even if they still exist.” He extended his hand. “I need new allies. Strong ones.”
Martichoras hesitated. The idea was tempting. Despite what he’d said, the thought of sharpening his claws on the gods was a pleasant one. Sometimes, in the dark of night, he found himself dreaming of revenge against those who’d humbles him so long ago. Gods like Zeus and Apollo, who’d made sport out
Perhaps Surtr was right. Perhaps it was time that the gods learned the error of their ways. “I am very strong,” he said, finally. “But even if I were to get all the manticores in the jungles to aid you, it would still not be enough. The gods are many, and we are few.”
Surtr frowned. “There must be others like us, who bear the gods some enmity.”
Martichoras, who only rarely considered other beings as anything save prey, grunted. There were others, of course. Beings who were perhaps as mighty and resplendent as himself, though he’d never admit such out loud. “I might know of some, yes. Here in the jungle and elsewhere. Through I have never spoken to them.” Eaten plenty of them, yes, but never spoken to them. “And there are the other monsters, of course.”
Surtr paused. “Monsters?”
Martichoras snorted. “Weaklings, but numerous. Harpies, chimaeras, satyrs… if you want an army, you could do worse that start there.” He flexed his wings. “I’m sure I could round them up for you, if you like. I am a king, after all”
“Yes. Bring me this army. Bring any who will come. It is time the gods learn the error of their ways, and it is the monsters who will teach them.”