The wind screams past my ears, joining the cacophony of the aerial drone's jets as it whizzes over the skyline of The City at a blistering pace. The momentum of the flight forces me flat on to my stomach as I hang on for the dear life from one of the drone's wings. Behind me is the roar of a sonic boom, left behind in the drone's wake. We've made supersonic speed, and the artificial core constantly circulates energy to prevent Gallant's body from tearing apart, but I don't feel any stress building up. Its as if Gallant's body has made its peace with the core the moment he died.
No point thinking about this stuff now. The drone passes over the docks of The City and begins its journey across the placid sea. A few ships here and there dot the landscape, but everything else is as peaceful as can be. Just another day in this messed up dimension. I always felt that the battle deciding the fate of the world would have at least some pizzazz to it, but there are no cheering crowds or expectant spectators. The destiny of this world is going to be decided and the locals don't even have the slightest idea about it.
I suppose there's something to be said about stupid sheeple making up most of the population.
I shut my eyes and begin concentrating on digesting as many of Gallant's spells I can in the time that is left. The going's not easy though. The Voice was not kidding when it said that I had unrestricted access to all of Gallant's mind. His memories, emotions and various foibles are all jumbled together with the actually useful information that I need. I am almost tempted to just say 'fuck it' and consume Gallant's mind wholesale, but the risks involved in doing that would be too great. The personality is governed by the mind, not the soul. If I absorbed all of Gallant's mind, would his personality become permanently grafted to my soul?
No way I was going to chance that. So that left sifting through years worth of memories to snag a few nuggets of brass from the muck. And when I do find spells that I want to absorb, Gallant does not make the process easy. Each spell he learned has an ocean of resentment and generally confused emotion attached to it. Its like a little piece of his history that has zero context behind it. I can force the knowledge into my brain, but excising Gallant's personal feelings attached to them is a tedious struggle. My initial estimates were correct. I will only be able to unlock a bare handful of Gallant's skills at this rate.
"We will reach the spatial rift soon." The Voice rasps, breaking my concentration, "Are you ready?"
"Not really, but that doesn't matter now, does it?" I reply wearily, "Gallant's not letting go of his knowledge easily. I need more time to assimilate everything."
"Do your best with the time you have left." The Voice answers, "I am going to be making my final approach. Hang on tight."
The drone banks steeply downwards, and draws level with a thick wall of fog looming ahead of us. There is a grayish tint in the fog coupled with the distant sound of thunder. The drone steers itself towards an invisible way point that only The Voice can see and plunges into the depths. A blast of rain sprays my entire body as the drone pierces the barrier protecting the Southern Continent. Lightning flashes across the sky and the ocean below us heaves as massive tidal waves crash across its surface. The waves had already taken their first casualty, a capsized overturned P5 destroyer that drifts listlessly with its keel up, resembling a dead fish.
"The weather is your doing?" I ask The Voice.
"Yes. Something to slow the Narancha down." The Voice confirms, "This storm will not stop Fate, but at least it will buy us some time to catch up with the fleet."
I squint at the overturned destroyer and see several figures floating about in the water around it. Corpses, hundreds of them buoyed up by the waves, grisly and bloated.
"What in the world happened here?" I query despite not really wanting to know.
"A group suicide most likely." The Voice remarks, "Fate would have compelled the sailors to end themselves, releasing a massive amount of spiritual energy for its use. My guess is that this spiritual energy allowed the Narancha and its remaining escorts to breach the first layer of the spatial rift."
"Damn. So all we need to do is to follow the corpses?" I mutter, my eyes transfixed on the bodies bobbing up and down in rhythm with the sea.
"Expect to see more death, Transmigrator." The Voice rumbles, "I sense the Narancha still making steady progress. That means more grist is being fed into the mill, so to speak."
Both of us fall into silence as the drone doggedly continues its pursuit through the mist, lashed by the rain all the way. I lose all sense of direction, as visibility drops the deeper we head into the fog. Cold bites into my skin as it my armor is soaked through thanks to the rain.
"How am I not feeling any stress build up anyway?" I shout over the din of the jet engines, "None of what is going on right now can be healthy for Gallant's body."
"Gallant's body is dead, Transmigrator." The Voice booms back as it sends the drone into a sharp swerve, barely avoiding an incoming lightning bolt, "The world regards it as pure matter under my dominion. This has increased its affinity with the power from the artificial core."
As I am chewing over this little tit bit, I see another ship dead in the water just ahead of us. This one looks like a civilian cruise liner, most probably one of the vessels that had been seized by ORPO when they embarked on their journey with Fate. No bodies drift about in the water around the ship, causing my spirits to lift for a moment. But then I observe the decks of the cruise liner itself. Lines of ORPO officers had lined up in neat rows and opened fire at each other, staining the entire ship with their blood. The survivors then dashed their heads apart against the hull.
"We need to hurry." I mutter, "Not that I care or anything, but this shit is getting way too extreme for my taste."
"I am fortifying the rift with all the power that can be spared." The Voice grunts with exertion, "The Narancha's passage has been temporarily halted. If what we are seeing is any indication though, I suggest you steel your stomach for what is to come."
Damn. That means Fate will keep butting at the rift while ordering her minions to kill themselves, until the Narancha bulldozes past the barricade set up by The Voice. The carrier group is going to be a complete charnel house by the time we catch up. As I steady my nerves for the horror that awaits up ahead, I see the blinking of lights within the depths of the fog.
"We're almost there!" I yell in excitement, "We made in time!"
"Transmigrator, I cannot see the Narancha and its escorts." The Voice mutters, now sounding drained and tired, "While I can sense their approximate position in the rift, you will need to guide me for our attack run."
"Can you keep the fleet in place?" I ask while folding my body into a tense crouch.
The Voice makes a low moan before it replies, "Not for much longer. The rift is being battered by powerful surges of spiritual energy. I am barely keeping up."
As the drone draws closer, I see the Narancha and its escorts held in place by a massive vortex that has erupted in the centre of their formation. By every natural law, the entire fleet should have been dragged into the depths, but the ships remain unperturbed, floating steadily without a care in the world. No signs of pandemonium or distress either. The entire fleet has been shielded by a dome made out of red thread, which ripples outwards, lashing at the wall of mist with frightening intensity.
Instead, I see the sailors of each of the escorts calmly filing on to the deck, their officers urgently gesturing at them. The sailors organize themselves into parade ranks as their officers hustle down the line, firing a bullet into the back of each sailor's head. The dead are quickly replaced by another rank of sailors who patiently wait for their officers to turn back and begin to process once more. There are no cries of despair or shows of devotion. This isn't murder.
This is just death in its purest, most mechanical form.
"Keep flying straight." I tell The Voice, "And keep dropping altitude until I tell you to stop."
At the head of the death fleet is the Narancha itself. Relentlessly battered by waves yet standing defiant. The flat top's deck, once used to launch aircraft now plays host to a swarming mass of people. P5 sailors, gangsters in suits, Legion soldiers and Gustav's staff, they are all packed on to the ramp, as if waiting an order. The tension is palpable, I could cut it with a knife.
"Stop dropping altitude." I instruct The Voice, "Turn to the right, twenty degrees." The drone smoothly complies and begins its attack run.
Then in complete silence, the assembled mass of figures begin marching straight off the Narancha's deck like lemmings charging off a cliff. Its like a tap was turned on at full blast, a fountain of people casting themselves into the sea without hesitation. As the men disappear into the dark abyss, the fury of the red thread increases, slashing at the mist with renewed strength. And standing at the edge of the carrier's ramp, is someone I am familiar with.
"They're drowning themselves." I gasp in morbid amazement, "No struggle, nothing. They die because Fate needs them to die."
"I cannot hold the Narancha for much longer." The Voice groans, "You must make your move now!"
I nod, getting up to my feet. As the drone passes overhead the Narancha my muscles tense.
And I take a flying leap.
I had never thought of myself to be a hero. I don't even want to be a hero in the first place. But seeing this craziness happening in front of me right now? Maybe this world really is better off under The Voice. I put my feet together and arms to my sides, speeding up my descent. Like a speeding bullet, I pass through the dome of red thread, causing Fate to look up in alarm. No element of surprise then. Too bad, I'll have to deal.
The people on the deck keep throwing themselves overboard and by now the Narancha's ramp is mostly empty. Thousands of lives, snuffed out like that. More than anything, this illustrates the stakes being played for. Fate is not some two bit demon king who will go down easily or surrender after a spot of 'redemption'. The gods in this dimension play to win. And don't accept second place.
I perform a flip and land on top of the Narancha's flight deck, bending my knees and slamming my remaining fist down authoritatively with a clang of metal. Fate stands impassively in the distance, watching me in silence. An idle thought hits me. How would Tensei handle this situation?
"I'm back." I declare, straightening up and pointing my index finger squarely at Fate. She spreads her arms wide, beckoning, no daring me to approach. Fate's red thread retracts back towards herself, forming the shield that had foiled me before. There's a saying. In times of crisis, the past is prologue. Well, this is a crisis alright.
I never wanted to be a Hero. But now, for my own future -
I will be the Hero this world needs.