When they finally got back to the castle, night had begun to fall, and all Hungers were screaming for attention, although sleep kept threatening to take over for the other ones, at least for Ryan and Crystal. Athena, in spite of her broken rib, was in the best shape of the three, so she diverted from the group to talk to Astaroth while the other two went to go find food.
“How did the fight go here?”
Astaroth, his armor dented in places but his skin unbroken, sighed a heavy, weary sigh. “To paraphrase a scholar from your homeland, too many such victories and we’ll be undone. We can’t put the varcolacs down permanently, ma’am. The fuckers die, but their souls stay in their bodies and heal up. We’ve tried the classics – silver, salt, garlic – but we haven’t found their allergen yet.”
Athena pursed her lips into a thin white line. “And your demons?”
Astaroth’s neck tightened with frustration as he said, “the varcolacs are not angels or god, so they can’t permanently kill us, but it’ll take a full month for any of my legion that falls up here to reform back in the pit. If the battle comes down to us and them, they’ll win through attrition.”
Athena chewed on her lip, and then nodded. “It won’t come down to that. As long as you can keep the varcolacs busy so we can focus on their Gods, we will.”
“And we’ll do that for as long as we can, but you need to understand,” Ashtaroth made sure he had Athena’s gaze before continuing, “you’re operating under a ticking clock, ma’am. We will eventually be worn down to the point where we cannot keep the fight going.”
“Understood.” She handed Ashtaroth the depleted uranium sword. “Try this, perhaps they’ll be weak to it.”
He accepted the sword with gratitude, and Athena went to find her companions.
As Athena broke off to talk to Ashtaroth, Crystal and Ryan found their way to Crystal’s staging area. In there, they dove into the sandwich storage, and were eating in silence when Athena found them. Crystal motioned to an untouched sandwich when Athena walked in. “For you, love. You still like tuna, yes?”
Athena answered by grabbing the sandwich and taking a large bite. Ryan looked at her and gave a weak smile. “I’m guessing no good news from the demons?”
“They can’t permanently kill the varcolacs, and they heal faster than the demons. They will be overwhelmed in time.” Athena took another large bite.
“So that’s a no. At least we’re ahead some, right? With Bast out of the picture, I mean.”
Crystal smiled, and the other two waited for her to finish her bite to say what was on her mind. “Oh,” she said, as soon as she finished swallowing, “there’s no doubt we’re in a bloody better spot than we were before. But Ryan, you haven’t told Athena the best sodding part yet, yeah?”
Ryan polished off his sandwich as Athena looked at him expectantly. “Enki’s found a way to use multiple nanoverses. He’s drawing power from both his and Tyr’s.”
They watched as Athena clenched both teeth and fingers. Chunks of tuna began to emerge from between her fingers, which Ryan thought had to feel gross as hell. “That’s impossible,” Athena said. Her tone wasn’t disbelieving, though. “How?”
Ryan shrugged. “He let it slip when we were fighting. Or figured he was going to kill me so it didn’t matter.”
“But the two of you were able to fight against him, so the three of us should be able to best him…” Athena trailed off when she saw that Crystal was shaking her head. Athena sighed, and finally became aware of the fact that she had tuna covering her hands. She started picking it off, too hungry to care about decorum.
“The problem there, love, is we didn’t really hold our own. We got in some sucker punches, sure, and Ryan did take his arm and eye, but both times we got bloody lucky or caught him off guard.” Crystal finished off her sandwich and took a drink. Ryan noticed for the first time the burn marks the lightning had left on her arms. They looked like trees with thick trunks that started near her shoulders and a spider web of branches that arced towards her hands.
Athena threw up her now tuna-free hands in frustration, startling Ryan “Then what do you suggest we do? Lay down and accept our fate?”
“You know I didn’t mean that, Athena. Bloody hell, I’m just saying we should stay realistic about things? We need a solid plan or we might as well do that!”
“I actually have an idea there,” Ryan said, cutting off the argument before it could develop too much further. They both turned to look at him, and he continued. “So far think of everything Enki’s done since his…I dunno, double apotheosis? Dubpotheosis, let’s call it that.”
“No, let’s not.” Athena said. Crystal nodded in agreement, but they both smiled to lessen the sting of that stupid name.
“Okay, fine, since he got a second nanoverse. He’s used his power in four major ways, right? Aside from flight, of course. He did Tyr’s sunbeam, he did Athena’s lens thing, and he did the instant castle thing Crystal does, and then the lightning strike I did against him in our first showdown.”
“Ryan, love, if you’re trying to explain how we’re not in a lot of trouble here, you’re not doing a good job of it.”
“I know, but hear me out.” Ryan leaned in, explaining his plan to them. It took a good fifteen minutes, and at the end the two goddesses were exchanging dubious looks.
“It could work,” said Athena, biting her lip as she did.
Crystal nodded slowly. “If you’re right, that is. If you’re wrong, we’re dead.”
“Either of you have any better ideas?”
They exchanged glances, and shook their heads. “What about Moloch?” Crystal asked.
Athena took this one, “I know him. With Bast temporarily dead, if we take Enki out of the picture, he’ll retreat. If we go with Ryan’s plan – no, when we go with Ryan’s plan, it is a good one – we’ll be too weak to pursue. I think it’s best we allow Moloch to be a problem for another time.”
“Makes sense to me. Alright you lot, I’ve got some major hunger problems I need to take care of, starting with sleep. We don’t know how long Enki is going to be down, so I suggest we go to our nanoverses to check on things and have a bit of s and s, yeah?”
Athena nodded, although Ryan looked perplexed. “S and s?”
“It’s like R and R, but instead of Rest and Relaxation, it’s Sleep and Social.”
“Ah. Sounds like a plan then.” He frowned as he said it. “Plus, I really want to find out why the hell I got a stick for a weapon.”