Ryan did not stir when Ashtaroth and his demons arrived, nor did he awake as they carried him on a stretcher back to the castle. Athena would later tell him that she, too, had been passed out the entire time, while Crystal was in just enough pain to be unable to pass out and spent the time chatting at the demons and berating them every time she thought they were treating Ryan or Athena too roughly.
When they did get back to the castle, Ryan remembered being roused from unconsciousness by one of the demons. It was hard to focus, every sound reaching his ears muddled like they were coming from beneath a particularly thick soup. That thought made his stomach growl, a reminder that once again he had Hungers to take care of. “Ryan!”
He realized he’d been hearing his name off and on for a few moments and turned to face the source of it. Crystal was propped up near him, a concerned look on her face. “Oh good, you’re alert. Had to wake you up, love – we’re still exposed out here. Get to your staging area and sleep properly, yeah?”
It took a few repetitions along the same theme before he finally understood what Crystal was saying, and with the help of the demons he got to his feet and stumbled to his doorway. Once inside, he formed a bed for himself and crawled in, falling into a proper sleep as opposed to his earlier unconsciousness.
For the first time he could remember since obtaining godhood, Ryan dreamed. He was back in the cave that had been carved out of bedrock by the destructive power of a nuclear blast. This time, though, there was no hole above him, no way out. He could feel the radiation seeping into his body, feel it causing his cells to break down. He tried to twist equations to open the rocks, to escape this prison, but his hands were swollen from the decay and his mind was sluggish.
He got close, almost managed to force a gap open, but then Enki’s bones rose up and stabbed into his calves. Ryan let out a howl of pain and dropped to his knees and suddenly he knew, he was certain that he would die here. He would die here, and his body would become as diseased and cancerous as that horrible twin nanoverse. It’s poison he thought as the bones stabbed him again, and he thought he could hear Enki’s mocking laugh.
Alertness came to him like a tsunami wave crashing onto a lightless city, forcing him out of sleep and dousing him with a cold sweat as it did. For a moment he thought it was just another symptom of the radiation poisoning, that he was still in that nuclear tomb. He reached up in a blind panic, expecting to see the swollen, bleeding limbs he had in the dream. Instead, he saw his normal arms and hands silhouetted against the galaxies of his nanoverse.
The realization it had all been a nightmare was a relief, but came too late to prevent adrenaline from waking him up fully. He considered just heading into his nanoverse fully right then and there, so he could destroy Enki’s twin nanoverses. Instead, he got out of bed and walked towards his doorway, hoping to find Athena or Crystal awake.
He found both, the two of them in deep conversation at a table. Both of them looked much better than when he had last seen them, their color returned to their faces and their movements much more animated. He noticed that Ashtaroth stood nearby, and instead of interrupting the goddesses’ conversation, Ryan walked over to the demon. “Hey Ashtaroth. How long was I out?”
The demon didn’t answer right away, instead glancing out a nearby window. “Based on the sun, I’d say a day and a half. Crystal said you burned yourself pretty hard on top of a healthy dose of radiation and we shouldn’t worry.”
Knowing that the dream had some basis in reality, that the radiation could have killed him and had really poisoned him, caused Ryan to shudder involuntarily. “Any sign of the enemy?” he asked, wanting to focus on anything else.
“No. We sent out scouts earlier today – they report the castle abandoned, with no sign of varcolac, lindworm, or Moloch.” Ashtaroth smiled, a grim expression on the demon’s face. “We also couldn’t find Bast’s body. But Enki is defeated, yes?”
Ryan could only nod.
“Then our half of the contract is filled.” He handed Ryan a stone device that looked like a primitive culture had done their best to create a cellphone out of rocks. “My King will contact you with that when it’s time to fulfill your half.”
Ryan took the stone device and put it in his pocket, next to his nanoverse. “I’ll be ready. And – thanks. I know it was just a deal, but we couldn’t have done it without you.”
Ashtaroth’s grin softened slightly at that. “You’re welcome. I’ll look forward to being able to say the same. Good luck.” With that, he turned to collect what remained of his legion.
Ryan watched the demon go. The demon’s tone on those last two words had been almost mournful. He doesn’t think this ends well for us. As much as Ryan was still shaken by the battle with Enki and his near-death from radiation, he couldn’t fully agree with Ashtaroth’s assessment. Sure, they’d barely won against Enki and would have to deal with Moloch and Bast later, but they had won. In Ryan’s mind, that counted for a lot.
By their tone, Athena and Crystal’s conversation was winding down. Ryan made his way over to them, pulling out the diseased dual nanoverse and putting it on the table in front of them as he did.
The look they gave to the tainted mass he set down told Ryan they found it as repellent as he did. “So, this is why Enki was so strong.”
Athena reached out to touch it, but pulled her hand back before actually reaching it, like she had been reaching for a hot pan and suddenly felt the heat coming off it. “It’s…abominable.”
Crystal nodded in agreement, not even wanting to try as much as Athena did. “We should break it soon. Make sure Enki doesn’t reform before we do, yeah?”
Athena and Ryan both voiced their agreement. “I’ll do it,” said Ryan, even though he didn’t want to touch it again, “but I’ll need one of you to tell me what to do.”
After the other two thought for a few seconds, Crystal spoke up. “I’ll just take care of it, love.” She smiled at Ryan. “This thing is bloody horrible, but it’s also unique. Best someone with more experience does it, yeah?”
Ryan couldn’t find fault with that logic. A part of him felt guilty with how quickly he agreed, but the whole thing repulsed him so much that he was more than happy to pawn that duty off to anyone who would take it. By the look in her eyes, Athena felt much the same way.
Crystal reached into her nanoverse, pulling out of a pair of tongs. “No time like the present then, yeah? We can talk next steps once I’m done.” When neither of her companions objected, she took the nanoverse up in the tongs and headed towards her doorway.
Once she was back in her staging area, Crystal called up a pillar to put the nanoverse on so she didn’t have to carry it around while she headed into her own nanoverse to destroy it. I’ll be glad to be done with the damn thing. Even though she hadn’t touched it, she felt a desire to wash her hands after carrying it even that short distance.
Instead, she headed over to her console and dropped the staging area into her nanoverse’s real space, finding herself in orbit around one of the dwarf stars that made up the majority of her nanoverse’s remaining stellar mass. This particular star was on its way to burning out completely, and it barely provided any illumination – just a dull red glow. Too much longer and it wouldn’t have enough mass to keep fusion running. The planets around it, which had once sustained life, were all now cold wastelands.
Crystal considered snapping her fingers to give this star some more life, but at this point stars like this were so common it would be a complete waste of time. Instead she decided that once the diseased nanoverse was dealt with she would initiate a Big Crunch. With Moloch and Bast on the run, there really wouldn’t be a better time to risk the vulnerability.
You’re stalling, love, she chided herself. But to destroy that blasphemy, she’d have to touch it, and Crystal found herself wanting to do literally anything else. She knew she had to, knew that if she didn’t Enki would come back from the dead and all that effort would be for nothing…but there was such an air of wrongness around the thing that she didn’t really think she could be blamed for wanting to avoid it.
Before she could dwell on it any longer, she strode over to the pillar and grabbed it. The surface felt slick and oily, and she wanted to heave from the sensation. It’s even worse than Ryan described – or maybe it’s just because he’s still Nascent, and his senses aren’t as developed.
Now that she had it, she wasn’t going to waste time pondering the details. She teleported herself out of her staging area, to the other side of the dying star, and then begun to squeeze Enki’s nanoverses between her hands. It was the same gesture she would use to draw power out of her own nanoverse, but instead of compressing under her grip it was rock solid. She kept applying pressure, feeling it slowly begin to crack under her hands.
Her physical strength was completely irrelevant for her task. What mattered was her power, her near omnipotence. The same strength she would use to send her entire nanoverse spiraling into a Big Crunch also allowed her to shatter a foreign reality once it was within her domain. But that omnipotence wasn’t complete, it was still ‘only’ near omnipotence, so shattering two realities at once required actual effort and time on her part.
It was a relief to see the cracks begin to spread across the surface of the twin nanoverses. Now that she was sure she could destroy it, she found herself wondering what this looked like from the inside. Did giant rifts appear in the sky, forming slowly over thousands of years? Or did it happen quickly – the universe going from normal to fracturing like stained glass before shattering into infinite shards?
It was a useless question. If she ever got the chance to see for herself, it likely meant she was about to die. With a final push of effort, she felt the twin nanoverses crumble to dust.
That nearby star, the dying red dwarf, flared to life at the exact moment the corrupt nanoverse died. It started to glow as brightly as it had in its prime, but the light wasn’t normal red or even yellow – instead it shone a deep, unnatural green color, like a sickly emerald.
Oh yeah, I’m definitely doing a bloody Crunch now. That green hue was already fading, and Crystal was relieved to see it die away, but after that weird side effect she thought the best option would be to wipe the whole nanoverse clean and start fresh. Not trusting it, she didn’t take her eyes off the fading verdant star as she started to set a Big Crunch into motion.
Maybe if she had, she would have noticed the same color had spread to every other star in her nanoverse.