I steel myself mentally and review what I know about my summoning and the world that I have been thrown into. I need every edge available for the upcoming negotiations with The Voice. That was why I had not started nagging at it the moment the codex fell into our hands. Knowing The Voice, if I negotiated in ignorance, I would wind up losing my pants again, and additionally it would charge me for the privilege of spawning a fresh pair.
So what can I be sure of? First of all, I am confident that I am unique. There are no other dimension hoppers other than me running around at the present time. Fate would have no interest in bringing in external contractors not bound to its red thread. And it has been well-established that I am the only actual agent The Voice has in this world. If I had any actual comrades, I would have met them by now.
This means that I am The Voice's only real counter to the Incarnates. The Voice needs me, for the near term at least. That would probably be the reason why it has been willing to offer rewards in exchange for my cooperation.
"As I have said before," The Voice rasps, "I am willing to offer as your prize a kingdom upon Fate's defeat or alternatively, a pension if you decide to return home once the quest is completed. That offer still stands."
I raise an eyebrow as I idly fiddle with the inert codex. Knowing the value of what I hold in my hands, The Voice's opening offer is surprisingly stingy. Come on, we both know what the codex can do. Though after experiencing how miserly The Voice is at providing equipment, I really should be expecting this response from it.
"Really, that's it?" I ask while tapping the codex, "I'm putting a lot more value on the table right now."
"I fail to see the added value you refer to, Transmigrator." The Voice rebuts innocently, "Is there any legitimate cause for me to amend my offer?"
"The codex? You remember that right?" I say as calmly as possible, trying not to get riled up by The Voice's transparent baiting.
"Most indeed." The Voice confirms, "What is your appraisal of the codex's value then?"
Playing dumb huh? Alright, I will spell it out for you. No point being shy in these kinds of negotiations. I know The Voice will shut down any attempt on my part at following Fate's footsteps, but that does not mean I can't cash in my proverbial chips.
"I'm holding the key to godhood right now in my hands." I quip, "That's worth way more than just money or land."
"How?" The Voice rumbles with barely concealed amusement.
"Pardon?" I shoot back, taken by surprise by this question, "What do you mean 'how'?"
"Exactly what I asked." The Voice responds smugly, "How is the codex the key to godhood in your hands? Do you know how to perform the ascension ritual itself? Do you possess the infrastructure to actually activate the codex? Are you capable of sourcing for appropriate sacrifices without my help? Or is all you have the rantings of a clearly insane man and possession of an unusual metal sphere?"
Damn, The Voice is playing hardball straight off the bat. Its really not willing to revise its offer upwards.
"Before you ask," The Voice continues, "I do not know how to perform the ascension ritual either. Neither would I help you with it even if I possessed that knowledge. So do not bother asking me for that as your reward."
"More pertinently," the lecture continues, "I believe that you are mistaken in the codex's value, Transmigrator. It is an active danger to me. I have only allowed you to retain it out of goodwill, nothing more. The sooner we rid ourselves of it the better."
I wipe the sweat gathering at my forehead as my brain kicks into overdrive. The Voice is clearly trying to force me into obliging it by taking the moral high ground. But I have known it long enough and can pretty much guarantee that goodwill does not figure into its calculus. I recall the time just after I was first summoned, when The Voice threatened to lock me in a room if I did not obey its instructions. Anyone who uses the threat of starvation to coerce obedience does not hold goodwill as a concept in high regard. Then there's the high handed way The Voice treated Alley and Hernandez. Threats to bully them into submitting.
Something else is at play here, I just need to work out what it is. Why is The Voice willing to negotiate with me now? What has changed?
Or did anything really change in the first place?
I think back to Alley and Hernandez. The Voice had protected Alley from the Academy discovering her embezzlement and demanded service in exchange. Even after Alley had been arrested, The Voice never actually revealed her crimes. That was the reason why she was eventually released. There was no evidence to justify ORPO holding Alley in remand.
With Hernandez, The Voice urged me to keep cooperating with him even after Hernandez dragged his feet on mounting the attack against Ascension Tower. The Voice remained confident that Hernandez would deliver eventually, even after Hernandez's real problem, the URI, had already been dealt with. Alley on her part went beyond her obligations to The Voice when Nicky attacked the school, actively protecting the students and not fleeing as I expected she would.
Hernandez is an asshole who tried blackmailing me, but instead became a reliable collaborator. Alley stood her ground during a terrorist attack despite having no reason to do so. Both had received favors from The Voice. Both served The Voice's interest, despite ostensibly being under Fate's dominion. It was as if Hernandez and Alley had been swept up by a rival force, weakening Fate's influence over them.
This is a world driven by destiny. Where people live out their lives on routes and true paths. The Voice might not be able to control souls, but that doesn't mean it can't alter destiny. The true path involving the Hero would not exist otherwise. Divergence points would not occur either.
I cast my mind back to my own history with The Voice. It had summoned me and forced me into acting as its servant. It then dangled my freedom as a reward for my service. The moment I had my psychotic break, The Voice immediately started offering actual rewards to mollify me. A pattern is emerging. I had suspicions from before, and now its time to put my hypothesis to the test.
"I don't expect much, boss man." I probe, "But the scales have to be balanced at the very least."
The Voice is quiet at my response. As it thinks in silence, my heart begins to palpitate rapidly. Did I make the right guess?
"I will free you from Mr Gallant once Fate is completely defeated." The Voice finally pronounces, "That is what you need the codex for, correct?"
"Not good enough." I counter, smelling blood in the water, "I broke the death route you had been forced on. That's a debt you owe me right there. And I captured the means to create artificial synchronicity events. That's added value for you."
I clench my hands tightly as The Voice sinks back into quiet contemplation. If my hypothesis is correct, The Voice has all this while been luring Hernandez, Alley and myself on to a route controlled by it. And the means The Voice used to accomplish this and keep us on the world's true path is something that is surprisingly simple.
Equivalent exchange. Hernandez and Alley accepted The Voice's favors and were compelled by destiny to work for it in return, even if it means opposing Fate. When The Voice summoned me, it already owed me a debt, and it used a combination of intimidation and misdirection to try paying off the debt as cheaply as possible. The moment I began to make a fuss, The Voice upped its compensation package to more than just a ticket home.
"What do you propose?" The Voice rasps warily.
"Ascension." I shoot back.
"Impossible." The Voice dismisses, "I do not possess the means, nor have you accomplished enough to merit such a reward."
I breathe out a sigh of relief at The Voice's answer. This proves it, The Voice is compelled to compensate me appropriately under an iron clad law of the universe. Probably to prevent instability from wrecking the true path it had painstakingly set up.
"I want to go home once the Hero completes his mission." I say.
"Deal." comes the response. No shit, that's the easy part.
"I want you to start working on separating my soul from Gallant now." I press on.
"Not practical." The Voice refuses, "You saw for yourself how much infrastructure operating the codex requires. Setting it all up while Fate is still active would merely invite failure and jeopardize our larger mission. The earliest I can begin addressing your problem would be after the Hero is eliminated."
"Fair enough." I grunt, accepting the proposal. Its better than The Voice's initial offer at any rate. I continue, "I'll take the pension and a guarantee that I'll actually receive the money when I get back home."
The Voice falls silent again but it eventually answers slowly, "As I have told you before, a guarantee is not something I can actually manage. However, I can provide certain inducements to your dimension's administrator for it to overlook you returning home with a foreign blessing. So yes, agreed."
You bullshitter, I curse in my heart. You were never intending to allow me to leave with the money weren't you? You were probably going to send a halfhearted request to my own administrator and throw your figurative hands up in the air when a denial is fired back. Leaving me with nothing.
"However," The Voice interrupts my thoughts with relish, "such inducements will cost me dearly. The scales have tipped back in my favor Transmigrator."
"Now, let's talk about what you are going to do for me."