Viridian awoke with a gasp, his heart straining against distant memories of blistering heat coursing through his veins. He struggled to catch his breath, opening his mouth wide as he rolled from his back onto all fours, and felt the heat building up in his chest, once more. It was a nexus of fire, an endless well of molten rock, bubbling up from the depths of his heart until it finally boiled over and flooded his entire body—

—and he would not lose the battle, a third time. The first time had been the implantation; he could be forgiven for failing, that time. He had underestimated the pain. Anyone would have. It was just too...expansive to be imagined without first experiencing it. At first, he'd thought that it would rip him apart, and later, he'd wished that it had. It was a metamorphosis, transcending the material limitations of his body, and then finding that the only reason he'd needed to make that ascension was because his old body couldn't fit all the pain. It wasn't the kind of suffering that made men kill themselves, but only because you couldn't honestly believe that death would stop it.

But it had stopped. Eventually, his ascended vessel — this new body he'd created, trapped in that whirlwind of torture — had fallen unconscious. And the pain couldn't take him, in his dreams. He could see it, lurking on the horizon, searching for openings and opportunities that never came. It waited, and he had time to prepare himself. In that dreamscape, he meditated; he trained. He compressed decades of preparation into the space of one afternoon without really knowing how, and when he was absolutely sure that he was ready, he confronted the pain again.

It had trained, too, and it was ready for him. For as long as he held out, for as long as he fought back, and although he managed to rally his emotions and hold aloft the victories of countless battles in the face of this colossus against which he had struggled for so long, he lost the war, and fell unconscious again.

He understood the stakes. After everything that had happened since he first awoke, perhaps the stakes were all he understood anymore. It was something to fight for, a reason not to give up. A purpose that he understood instinctively, now. He could see the tapestry of the universe laid out before him: he could examine the individual threads, and he could distance himself to see the overarching designs sewn across its breadth.

People were dying. His creator had gambled a lot, sacrificing everything to create something which was both free-willed and powerful enough to fix everything that had been broken. Luckily for him, Viridian happened to share his revulsion of death. People were dying, and that was not okay. People were dying while he writhed around on the floor, too weak to overcome his own impotence.

As the first traces of that torment began to bleed over from his heart, arcing through his limbs like acid and electricity forged into a single sensation, he gritted his teeth and asked himself if he would remember this pain after it was gone. He was goddamned strong. He could feel it in this new body, the strength to sweep oceans aside and shatter mountain ranges. This pain was something new, something unreal, but he had learned a lot during those first two times, and he knew that the more time he spent in the world, the less power the pain would wield over him. It could defeat him now, confused and starved and terrified—

But if it took him ten times or thirty, he would win. It wasn't going to stop him forever. And when he finally rose from this spot and set forth into the world to wield his new powers, would he even care about all of this? Three hundred years from now, would he look back and wonder at how he had ever triumphed against that unassailable specter of agony that had once stopped him in his tracks?

The answer was clear to him, and he held it close as the pain got started in earnest, liquefying bones and tearing his muscles to ribbons. As bad as it was, as truly, utterly bad as it was, this pain was transient. When he beat it, he would never have to deal with it again. It was a symptom of imperfections he didn't understand in his new body; imperfections that he would fix, once he could focus. In three hundred years, he wouldn't look back and shudder at the thought of reliving these moments.

In three hundred years, he would look back and wonder how this childish shit had ever stopped him, in the first place. If it took him ten times or thirty, the only thing he would fear to look back upon is the number of people who had died because of the time it took him to get his act together. The thousands or millions who would perish because he couldn't be bothered to defeat it here and now.

The first failure, that was forgivable. The second failure; maybe, one day, after he'd saved everyone there was to save, he might find the strength to forgive that. But there were people who were going to die because he couldn't get it right. And to allow himself to be beaten again was not only a disservice to their memories, but would condemn uncountably many more to an eternity of nonexistence. He was supposed to protect the people. It was why he had been made. It was why his heart pulsed with emerald light; why his veins flowed with a magical incandescence the color of life, itself.

His eyes narrowed sharply, resolutely, with the kind of determination that even gods fear to face. He swallowed the lump in his throat as the pain grew to a crescendo, peeling back layers of skin from the inside, out. At last, he caught his breath; and with a strength born of necessity, he rose to his feet.

People were dying. He was supposed to protect them. And in the path of the man who could cast aside oceans and turn mountains to dust, there was just this one tiny obstacle. Pain. It was insignificant. It was ephemeral. It was a meaningless triviality in the face of an entire planet, almost a billion people, all facing a fate far worse. It had taught him a lot. It had given him perspective.

But Viridian decided that it had outstayed its welcome.