Chapter IV Side Story – Quartermaster’s Worries
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Chapter IV Side Story - Quartermaster’s Worries.

 

  The entire day had passed by. And ever since the last night Xander was standing on the Upper Deck of the Morning Star, staring in the direction of the island.

  He was standing at the gunwale, with his spyglass ready, trying to discern anything in the endless wall of withered ashen trees.

 

  The wind was laughing at him. Teasing him, mocking his efforts by moving black leaves and dry branches around, tricking his mind into thinking that something alive was hiding in the woods.

  He was restless ever since the night fell. The task he gave to the group that he sent down on the ground was simple enough - gather some samples, figure out, was the island inhabited by anyone or not, get some food, water and return to the ship. It should have taken them half a day at best, one full day at the worst.

 

  Alchfrid walked up to him during the night. His words were seeping into Xander’s ears like a sleeping potion - “They will be just fine, you’ll see. It’s been only half of the day! They have our best scouts with them, Irfan is an experienced hunter, Pat is a good doctor…

  And yet, he couldn’t shake off the suffocating feeling that something went horribly wrong. Xander nodded, without any energy, just to make the Captain get away from him and continue watching the slide of the island, even after the Sun itself finally awakened, in all of its bloody crimson glory.

  The black leaves were the best hazard sign Nature could show to him. He felt the abyssal claws of Aeriessythys enveloping his mind, sending shivers down his spine. Not because of the fear - but because he was well aware, what kinds of dangers could be hiding within the unexplored corners of the Threshold.

 

  “Argh!!”

 

  His roar scattered across the void. He felt a sting on his knuckles, but physical pain was completely irrelevant to him now.

  There was a sizeable dent in the gunwale, where his fist was just a second ago.

 

  “Breaking our vessel already? Jackal is not going to be happy, that one certain muscle-bag is tearing this piece of junk apart.”

 

  “He’ll get over it.” Xander didn’t even turn his head around to acknowledge Ralf’s presence.

 

  The cook wasn’t wearing his usual grin this late afternoon.

  The quartermaster grimly chuckled within his mind. Seems like he wasn’t the only one, who was concerned about the state of their lost crewmates.

  Ralf put his leg on the gunwale. He pulled out his spyglass too.

 

  “Nothing but a graveyard around… Seen anything last night?”

 

  The rhevalian shook his head. No smoke in the sky, no fires in the woods, only a wall of deadly darkness.

  No signs of any living being.

  He didn’t know what to think. Alchfrid insisted on waiting for them to return, but Xander was ready to pull these words out of his mind and shove them away into the void. He didn’t care one bit what Captain’s reasons were.

  However, if he goes to the island now, he might do a good job at being a stumbling wrecking ball, but not help the situation in any way. Xander was well aware of his own issues - namely, his tendency to act on incomplete information, which is why his mind was hesitant to follow his own immediate desires. Alchfrid was the one, who literally beat this crippling habit out of him, and he was always thankful for that.

 

  But now, the safety of his crew was at stake.

  Ralf was looking at him with a piercing gaze.

 

  “I see your hands are itching to jump down there, huh?”

 

  Xander nodded. There was no point in denying the obvious.

  He heard heavy creaking steps behind them.

 

  “Worrying about our comrades is a valuable virtue, Zan. Standing outside throughout the entire night, hoping to spot a worm in a crop field is a madness, hazardous to one’s state of mind and body.”

 

  “I don’t see you doing anything about that, Alch. I see how you have planted your roots on the ship, all nicely relaxed and complacent.”

 

  The tree-man shrugged, approaching the duo.

 

  “And I don’t see the reason within your stubborn refusal to give them a chance, Zan. Most of them are not first-timers. There is only one member, who might become the load, but I respect Pat’s choice.”

 

  “He will not become the load.”

 

  Ralf’s rebuttal sliced through the air, stunning Alchfrid into a long silence.

 

  The quartermaster ignored their small squabble. He didn’t care one bit about Joe.

  No, that wasn’t right…

 

  He did care, but he expected at least six of them to come back alive and in one piece. The new guy could handle a gun just fine, but he had no real experience on the field. If they ever had to run away from danger, Joseph would be the first one to perish.

 

  The wind flew away, leaving dried husks of once dazzling beautiful trees in the forest drooping and frozen.

  The image brought back unpleasant memories. The memories, he was running away from ever since he took a step on the deck of this ship.

 

  The land was dry and withered, with the ashen trees above only adding to the surreal picture of the forest, who was still standing tall, despite being completely dead in all senses of the word. Just as Ralf pointed out, this island was one enormous graveyard of Nature, devoid of anything resembling Life.

  Did they really stumble upon the piece of Aeriessythys’ Plane just by chance?

 

  Xander shook his head.

  No way it would be that simple.

  But he couldn’t think of anything else.

 

  The gust of air dashed through him, as Ralf pulled out his spyglass at rapid speed.

 

  “There-! Argh… Curses, I thought I saw something…”

 

  Xander opened his own device and pointed it in the same direction. He couldn’t make anything out in the endless wooden sea of black at first. But then the corner of his left eye caught something.

  He turned his head to the left.

  He noticed the faint smoke, floating up to the skies from behind the trees. He could barely discern a thin grayish thread from the blue sky on the background - it was that far away.

 

  “They are alive!”

 

  He had no idea, what he was feeling at the moment. The rush of emotions swallowed him, pushing him to just ignore the Captain’s orders, jump into the boat and fly all the way to the island.

 

  “Told you, they can handle themselves just fine,” Xander heard Alchfrid talking behind him. “The island is enormous - no surprise, that they needed some time to explore it thoroughly.”

 

  “You don’t know that,” Ralf growled. “It might be anything and anyone. Maybe they are already a meal for local cannibals that prey to Vrigherqhuaihon, and that fire is them being grilled for a grand feast. We have to check.”

 

  “Wasn’t you the one, who insisted that Joe had to be tested first before you will accept him as part of the crew?”

 

  Ralf grimaced and turned his eyes away. Xander decided to step into the conversation.

 

  “Test is supposed to be safe. You will let them wander in the hostile territory all alone when Threshold knows what could be lurking within this wasteland?!”

 

  The Captain cranked his branches. His six eyes were piercing through Xander. The quartermaster felt his instincts stirring up.

 

  “You, of all people, have no place to talk. You were the one who let Pat go on his own. Not only that - you gave him a team, supplies, a pat of the back and sent him into the void outside, happy and content with yourself. I didn’t approve of this, but I respect his choice and yours. You, however, are unwilling to respect mine and his. I believe in their abilities. Why wouldn’t you?”

 

  The quartermaster gritted his teeth. The Captain had a point, but was it really that relevant right now?! Their abilities wouldn’t save them from something that can’t be killed by guns, be it a Daemon, Abyssal Spawn, or any other immortal Magical abomination. The island could be stuffed with Anomalies on every corner, bringing them agonizing death the moment they step on the wrong bump on the ground! Alchfrid wouldn’t know that!

 

  He felt his hand reaching for the sword. He tightened it into a fist, to keep away the temptation. Captain was his friend. It didn’t matter, whether or not he was a stubborn fool, who didn’t know when to relent and compromise with others. Attacking him because of their differences and his own temper would be the sin he will never forgive himself for.

  He wasn’t even confident if he would win at the end.

  Ralf was looking between both of them. His gaze was dark. Xander knew, that the armsmaster caught his unconscious attempt.

 

  “Gentlemen, both of you need a moment to cool off your arses. Alchfrid, Zan is right - we can’t let them die, simply because you are willing to let them test their own limits. However, Zan, Alchie has a point too - you cannot babysit them forever. Sooner or later, they will be unable to rely on us anymore. Even birds push their children out of the nest to fly, you know?”

 

  Xander growled and turned his head away. He was well aware. Yet, waiting on the ship, doing nothing felt like torture, stretched in time by a Daemonic power, just to screw with him. To make him watch his comrades die, while he chose to be negligent, chose to lean back on a chair in the warm Wardroom, playing cards with Ralf and Grigory, not worrying about the group on the island.

  About his people, who could be wallowing on the ground, screaming in burning agony, tormented by the malevolent will of this land. Xander wasn’t fooled - he knew that this place was bad news the moment that withered ground entered his vision.

  He was kicking himself for letting Pat go. At the very least, he should’ve been with them right there in the vanguard, instead of being stuck arguing with Alchfrid, using the same arguments over and over and over again.

 

  “What do you suggest, then?”

 

  The cook turned his head to the island. He was standing silent for a full minute, staring into the woods, before returning his attention to them.

  Xander couldn’t read his expression at all at this moment.

 

  “I suggest we wait for one more day.”

 

  “Are you insane?!!”

 

  Alchfrid put his hand up, stopping Xander.

 

  “If by the afternoon of the second day we get no news, then you can travel to the land yourself, Zan. Not like I would be able to stop you, should you decide to do it right away, but if you want me to agree with you, then let’s make it official.”

 

  “You’re proposing a deal now?! These are lives, Alchfrid, the lives of our crew!”

 

  He locked gazes with the Captain. Xander could never read his mask, no matter how much he tried. But if guessing Alchfrid’s intentions wasn’t a viable option, then he would demonstrate to this stubborn old fool, that no matter what, as the quartermaster of the Morning Star, he will not back down from this one.

 

  They stared at each other for a bit. Captain sighed and turned away.

 

  “One day, Xander. I ask of you to wait only one day, until tomorrow afternoon.”

 

  The low growl left Xander’s throat.

 

  “One day is too long! Anything can happen within this time! If it didn’t already!”

 

  Alchfrid and Ralf glanced at each other. Xander didn’t like the look on the cook’s face. They were coming to an agreement of sorts, that was clear to him.

 

  “Zan… I promise you this,” Ralf began, looking straight into his eyes. “If by tomorrow afternoon they are not back on the ship, I am coming with you.”

 

  The enraged grimace twisted Xander’s face. He took a deep breath.

 

  “Fine…” His voice was low. His words were slow. He was forcibly pushing them out, keeping himself from roaring outright at both conspirators. “Tomorrow. Afternoon. Not a minute later.”

 

  He couldn’t believe himself when he said these words.

  Alchfrid sighed.

 

  “Of course. Now, quartermaster Xander, I’d like you to take a rest. I will send a lookout over, and Ralf will be over here as well.”

 

  “You want to force me, Alchfrid?”

 

  The Captain met his flaming stare with a serenity of the dead.

 

  “No. I am asking you to. We need our strongest vanguard to be healthy and proper. And when the time comes for us to reach the island ourselves, you have to be up and ready.”

 

  Xander gritted his teeth. That sleazy tree-brain knew his buttons all too well. Well enough to abuse them at his own leisure. He wasn’t even wrong at this moment, which was pissing Xander off the most.

 

  “Screw you both! Fine! One day!”

 

  He stormed off into the ship, slamming the door on the way.

 

*****

 

  The afternoon couldn’t arrive fast enough. Xander was on the Upper Deck, once again. Once again he was scanning through the forest, seeing nothing but the wall of black and gray.

 

  His ears twitched. He thought he just heard a weird sound, that shouldn’t be there.

  The sound was faint, but his sharpened hearing could discern it with moderate difficulty.

 

  There was no mistake. He heard an engine approaching.

  He opened the spyglass.

 

  The motor carriage emerged from the sea of trees, approaching boats on the slide.

  Xander noticed a familiar figure in the back of the truck. The trunk itself was stuffed to the brim with various items. The quartermaster didn’t even try to figure out what even was there - it didn’t carry any importance to him at all.

 

  The long sigh escaped his lungs. They were alive. And they got some trophies with them.

  But then the worry clawed his heart again. There were only three people in the truck.

  Pat, Irfan, and Joseph.

  Where was the rest of their group?

 

  The trio on the island didn’t pay him any attention, carrying over the loot from the motor carriage into the boats. Among those things, Xander saw a huge body of a familiar animal.

  The Archrhyder. He never met a living one, but he saw the pictures from the books.

  He heard someone approaching. He wouldn’t mistake this large sunny presence for anyone else.

 

  “Oh my, what a trophy! And who is that? Doctor, kid, and hunter?! Wa-ha-ha, that’s most unexpected! The least capable trio slayed the mighty beast and came back to us with a truck of goodies?! That’s the story I want to hear from them! How did they even manage?!”

 

  “Scouts are missing, Ralf.”

 

  The cook with a bottle in his hand immediately shut himself up.

 

  “You are right… I don’t see Rodger anywhere. Or Henry, or Vas, or Duncan. This is very concerning.”

 

  “See, I told you they can handle that! It just took them some time, that’s all it was. But I didn’t expect that it would be those three. Where are the strike team members?”

 

  Xander ignored bragging Alchfrid. Irfan noticed them from the ground and pointed, shouting to Pat and Joe to attract their attention.

  He felt a branch slip into his back pocket, where his ledger was. He jumped up and shook his fist at Alchfrid.

  The Captain pulled out a pencil from his own pocket and quickly scribbled something in the book, before lifting it up above his head, opened.

 

  “What did you write?”

 

  “I asked them, ‘what happened’… Huh. They split and looking for Rodger’s team?…”

 

  Xander felt his blood heating up.

 

  “Told you, we should have landed yesterday! I’m going down!”

 

  “Wait, Zan!” Ralf stopped him in his tracks. “Let them tell us what happened first!”

 

  The quartermaster growled, tightening his hands into fists, but remained in place.

 

  “I wonder where did they get the loot… I’ll write this… ‘We will tell later, they might be dead.’ Oi.”

 

  Alchfrid and Ralf turned to Xander.

 

  “Out of the way, Alchfrid.”

 

  Captain placed himself in front of the rhevalian.

 

  “Don’t do anything rash, Zan!”

 

  “Rash?!!” His patience had finally reached the boiling point. “Rash?!!!! Get! Out! Of my way!”

 

  Xander swatted Alchfrid away, like one would an annoying wooden fly, and ran past Ralf into the ship.

 

*****

 

  By whatever miracle, Ralf did convince Xander to wait for them, and not fly away in the last boat. Alchfrid called upon some of the strike team members as additional muscle.

  And now, six of them were going to the island full speed ahead. Ralf on the controls, Alchfrid at the back, Xander at the front, and three crew members between them.

  The quartermaster and Captain were silent throughout. The air between them was electrified to such a degree, they could power the boat entirely by themselves.

 

  Xander didn’t even wait for the boat to land, jumping on the ground at the first opportunity.

  The truck was nowhere to be seen.

 

  “They left! Where?!”

 

  Alchfrid sighed.

 

  “Calm down, Shining Knight. They can handle themselves well, they demonstrated it clearly. Three of them know what they are doing, I am sure.”

 

  The rhevalian growled, not even bothering with a response.

  Ralf was looking into the boats with loot.

 

  “In the name of the void, this is truly magnificent! The beast, the… carpets? They look pretty expensive, though. Might be original arid craft, this will sell for a lot. Some food, looks fine… Spices! Oh, Vrigherqhuaihon take me, these are real spices! Straight from the Capital, too!!! I love three of them already, more than I would ever love anyone else. The new kid is now under my personal protection, you hear me, Xander?!”

 

  The quartermaster turned his head back with a fire in his eyes, but Ralf ignored the danger to his livelihood altogether.

 

  “What else?… Oh. That looks… new. Very, very new.”

 

  “What’s that?” Alchfrid turned his attention to the weapon, that Ralf was holding in his hands.

 

  “A rifle of some sort. Has a drum magazine.”

 

  The armsmaster pointed the weapon at the forest and pressed the trigger several times. The rapid sounds of gunfire scattered around the forest, leaving an echo behind.

 

  “No way…”

 

  Alchfrid froze in place. His body tensed up. Ralf chuckled.

 

  “What about now, Captain? Wanna say again, that Imperial engineers can’t pull their heads out of their arses and make their motherland proud?”

 

  The armsmaster wasn’t even a little bit surprised, unlike the tree-man, who couldn’t find any words to speak.

  Xander shook his head and turned around to them. He was curious about new developments as well.

  He noticed how quickly this gun could shoot. Semi-automatic weapons were seemingly an unproven concept back in the day. Nobody took the words of ‘Technoprowlers’ seriously - guns, that would be capable of spitting out at least three bullets per second? While being carried and used by the infantry, without any stands, electricity, or additional equipment? Who in their right mind would think that such a weapon even had a possibility to exist?

  Yet… here they were. Ralf was holding one in his hands. And it had been only four years, too.

 

  “Empire works fast. Faster than we thought.”

 

  The cook spat on the dry ground.

 

  “Yeah, no kidding. Alchfrid, get your mind in the game, for Kon’jar’s sake. This isn’t a joke anymore.”

 

  Captain shuddered, startled.

 

  “I wasn’t… I know. This is worrying.”

 

  “Worrying?”

 

  Ralf and Alchfrid turned their attention to Xander.

 

  “Worrying?…” he repeated, stretching the word. “That’s all you can say now? Worrying? That’s it? That’s all we get from the mighty Alchfrid, Captain of the Morning Star, vicious in battle and life, glorious leader, who managed to route an entire fleet with one ship and kill an admiral on the way? Two, actually? That Alchfrid?”

 

  “What does that have to do with anything, Zan?”

 

  Xander shrugged underneath the grim stare of his Captain, completely unimpressed.

 

  “You lost your touch, Alchfrid. That’s all I am going to say.”

 

  He turned his head away from the Captain. He paid no attention to the sharp gaze, that was drilling him from behind. He had his last word, it was all that mattered to him.

  His mind went back to the more pressing issue. The island trio had left without them, and he had no idea where they were right now. Xander wanted to believe, that their skills were better than he expected, that they could handle themselves and knew their next course of action - but his heart wouldn’t let him to.

 

  They needed help.

  He was willing to help.

  They could use a backup.

  He was ready to provide one.

  He…

 

  He knew nothing. He couldn’t do anything.

 

  He slid his hand down on his face. No way he could outrun the truck. These… these… idiots, for the lack of a more encompassing word, left them behind, for reasons unknown. Couldn’t they have waited for a bit, at least?

 

  He took a deep breath, trying to calm himself down.

  Think, Xander.

 

  They were looking for Rodger’s team. Which meant, that they had no idea where they actually were. Given the size of the land, that could take them an entire day, even with the working transport.

  He only had to figure out which way they went and go from there. Pat, Irfan, and Joe would take one part of the island, while he, Ralf, and Alchfrid could search through another.

 

  His legs were carrying him forward, towards the woods. He stopped only when he realized, that nobody was following him.

  Xander turned around, meeting five confused glances at once.

  He spread his arms, silently mocking the group.

 

  “Chickening out already? Are we going to stay here the entire day, waiting for the return of our knights in shining armor? We are supposed to be the most experienced officers on the ship, what kind of example do we demonstrate to our juniors now? Do you want to be like Alchfrid - plant your roots into the ground, pretend to be brainless logs?”

 

  He received the answer very quickly.

  The message in Captain’s straightened shoulders, in his six glowing yellow eyes, pointed directly at Xander’s head, was clear enough.

 

  He overstepped his boundaries.

 

  The rhevalian smirked, inviting Alchfrid to follow his threat through. Captain’s single-minded persistence in supporting his own inflexible opinions had been an aggravating thorn in Xander’s backside for several years now. While it wasn’t the best time to settle their differences, his mind had been exhausted from a constant battle with Alchfrid’s stubbornness.

  And this was a perfect opportunity to show his willingness to stay his ground. He will not let the Captain’s rotten decisions endanger his crew. Not today. Not after four years of dealing with his attitude.

 

  The wind returned back with vengeance. The Xander’s red-black coat was fluttering in the current, mirrored by the Alchfrid’s coat on the other side.

  The gust of air lifted a cloud of leaves. The leaves scattered between them.

 

  The black line was drawn.

 

  Not a single soul was mad enough to interrupt their fierce staredown. The deafening silence enveloped the area.

 

  “Quartermaster Xander…”

 

  He was going official now, huh. The rhevalian grinned.

 

  “I am listening, captain Alchfrid.”

 

  He felt immense satisfaction when his opponent flinched at his pronunciation of the word ‘captain’.

  Alchfrid was standing still. His hands were at his sides. He wasn’t going for any of his weapons.

 

  “...What do you suggest we do?”

 

  Xander’s mind went blank.

 

  “...Excuse me?”

 

  Alchfrid shrugged.

 

  “I only asked for your opinion. You went for this forest like you had a plan in mind, and then you accused us of being cowards. If you can say it so freely, then I expect you to have a certain idea on how to proceed. Would you like to share it with your crew, quartermaster?”

 

  Xander shook his head, getting his thoughts back on track. The Captain wasn’t taking him seriously, he guessed. Or was it something else?…

  He could never read that damn tree during the entire time they had spent together. Even now, he had no clue what his thought process was.

  But he did have a plan.

 

  “They left to look for Rodger’s team. We should follow the tracks, figure out where they went, and search through the other part of the island. We can cover more ground this way.”

 

  Alchfrid crossed his branches on his chest, not saying anything. Ralf chuckled.

 

  “Of course, but… Zan, don’t you think that they might have figured out where to look for them already? They clearly had an idea of the area, if they left us behind, confident that they can do it by themselves. Did you see the items in these boats? This island is inhabited, and not just by anyone - it’s someone very rich and heavily armed. I bet hundred Zinks, that they have a map for the place with them.”

 

  “Doesn’t mean, that they know where to find the scouts they left behind.”

 

  Ralf rolled his eyes.

 

  “Left behind? Seriously, Xander? What, the next thing you say, that the new kid somehow managed to convince them to ditch Rodger and grab the loot?”

 

  The cook heard a subdued growl in response.

 

  “I did not say that. I was never going to say that. You are twisting my words. All I’m saying - we should move out. Whether to help them on their side, or search the other side matters not at this point. Why are we even standing here, arguing? What are we waiting for? For the entire island to be swallowed by a Daemon, for our ship to be eaten by Menaces, what?! For this place to explode into oblivion?!!!”

 

  His roar merged with the sharp crackling sound, that erupted throughout the island at the very same moment. His back felt the scalding wave of heat, coming from somewhere behind him.

 

  Five faces were staring at him in terror. Xander stared at his mortified companions back, before the gears in his mind finally clicked.

  He jumped up and sharply turned his body around.

 

  The entire forest was swallowed by flames. The viscous gray smoke invaded his lungs, the dry smell of burning wood touched the insides of his nose.

  Xander coughed and covered his face with the sleeve. The crew followed his example.

  They had no choice, but to retreat back to the boats. Smoke couldn’t reach the edge of the slide, which gave them some room to breathe.

  Ralf was looking at the forest in the process of natural cremation with an expression of a deep shock.

 

  “Curses and Voidlers… What is that?…”

 

  “Forest fire, Ralf.” Xander growled in response.

 

  The sheer scale of catastrophe weighted his mind down. He saw nothing beyond the thick veil of orange and gray. It was like another dimension popped up from the land in front of them - alien, uncharted, and lethal.

 

  Now they definitely had no choice, but to sit down and wait.

  The moment was lost.

  Xander shook his head, collapsing down on the ground. He was sitting with his hands on his knees, staring at the fire.

  Ralf plopped down right beside him.

 

  “Well, I hope they’re alive still…”

 

  He had no answer for the cook. Not like Ralf needed one.

  His ear twitched. His mind caught something at the edge of his perception.

  He stood up. Ralf followed his example. Alchfrid was silent still, looking in the same direction.

 

  The truck charged right through the barricade of fire, screeching to a halt on the slide. Ralf grinned.

 

  “There they are!”

 

  The car turned around and stopped. Irfan jumped down from the back and pulled a lever on the side.

  Every single thought had vanished from Xander’s mind. He could only stare at two bodies in the trunk. He couldn’t hear his own ragged breath.

  His face grimaced into a burning rage.

  His hands tightened into fists.

 

  He felt a hand on his shoulder. Ralf nodded. The rhevalian saw only one thing in his serene gaze.

 

  Worry.

 

  Pat and Irfan carried injuries into the boat. Xander inspected the mummified body. He couldn’t even figure out, who they brought back with them.

  He did recognize Duncan, however. The scout was missing an arm.

  Pat jumped into the boat right in front of his face.

 

  “I will tell everything to Roth, but Captain’s on you!”

 

  The doctor’s assistant pulled the lever on the engine and left for the ship.

  Now there were only two people who could share the story with the crew. Xander turned his head to Irfan and Joe, just when Alchfrid got the same idea.

 

  “Well?”

 

  The rhevalian noticed the lack of enthusiasm on Joseph’s face.

 

  “Me and Irfan will tell all of you about our adventure, but first… I want to ask for a postponement of our departure for a day, or two.”

 

  What could had possibly happened over there for such a declaration? What could they possibly had left behind on this dying island?!

  Xander could only sigh and raise his eyebrow in confusion. He was too tired to even bother with trying to figure out their reasons.

 

  “Really? Why?”

 

  It was the best sentence he could manage.

 

  “We have a few things to finish in this place. It will all become clear, once we get to a safer place.”

 

  Why not now, Joe? His answer hadn’t clarified anything. What happened with Rodger, Henry, and Vas? Who was the bandaged man in the boat with Pat? Why did Duncan lose his arm and was looking deader than any other actual corpse?

  Ralf wasn’t bothered by any questions. The cook was looking at the fading fire, savouring the scene of destruction.

 

  “Quite a journey it had to be to end on a bang of such inspiring apocalyptic event!” He laughed. His face went dark for a moment, but he kept the smile. “Well, no matter for now. Cap, let’s give our heroes a heartwarming welcome!”

 

  Xander shook his head.

 

  Why it had to be them? Why did Pat, Irfan, and the new guy get the chance to return back to the ship without any injuries, bringing a load of loot with them and get their (well-deserved) celebration of victory, while the wrath of the island fell on the strike team members instead?

  He was aware, that this kind of thinking wasn’t leading to anything good. Resentment grows from attachment. He felt his close camaraderie with Henry and Rodger still, despite distancing himself from them because of his duties.

  He needed to learn more about Joseph. He wasn’t taking him seriously, and because of that, he could be missing a potential rough gem in the pile of trash. He should’ve paid closer attention to Pat and Irfan as well. Xander always thought about them as additions to the crew - just a doctor and a hunter, what could they possibly demonstrate to him?

 

  Well, they did. All three of them did. He had to learn the entire story first, before coming to hasty conclusions. And he wanted to talk with one member in particular.

  He turned his head to Joe.

 

  “When all of this is over,” He tried to calm down his wavering voice. It didn’t work. “Find me on the ship. I want to talk. Face-to-face.”

 

  Joe flinched, but nodded, acknowledging his words. Xander inwardly sighed. He didn’t mean to threaten him into it.

 

*****

 

  Xander was sitting on the crate. The crew was unloading the trophies that the trio brought with them. There was no need for him to interfere - they knew their job.

  Someone came into his vision. Xander looked up.

  Irfan was reaching his palm out. The rhevalian saw a circular item with thin edges and four jagged arrows, pointed outside, lying in it.

 

  His mind stopped working for a moment.

  He reached his hand for Henry’s Medal, hesitant to even look at it, let alone touch.

  He felt the calm and cold feeling of metal underneath his fingers.

  That was not an illusion, nor a trick.

 

  He clenched the Medal inside of his hand. He felt sharp edges piercing his palm.

  He tightened his fingers around it.

 

  “Thank you…”

 

  His legs were carrying him away from the Hold before he even realized what he was doing.

  He stormed into the Wardroom and fell down onto a chair.

 

  Xander opened his palm.

  Henry’s Medal was still there, covered in his blood. His eyes caught the words written on the bottom.

 

  “We come in peace…”

 

  A maniacal laugh escaped from his throat.

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