Chapter V.4 – The Story so Far
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     Joe took a sip from his flask, coughed, and started from the very beginning, with Irfan adding his own comments from time to time.

 

  How they arrived, split up, and got trapped.

  How they met the Ghost in the rich mansion and found the special set of armor.

  How they discovered the existence of the Archrhyder.

  How they met the first night, and about his fateful bomb throw.

  How they made the promise to Lady Edna Fox.

  How they created the weapon from the washing device, the lighter and sheer stubbornness.

  How the beast ambushed them near the warehouses, and how Joseph’s own subsequent recklessness both saved and endangered their lives.

  How they were trapped in the three-way stalemate on the square, and how the Archrhyder died by his hand and Ralf’s knife.

  How they discovered the safe corner of the island.

  How they stole some carpets from distasteful rooms, full of gold decorations and black marble.

  How they returned back to the boats and decided to move ahead with the rescue.

  How they found both Rodger and Duncan in dire straits.

  How they descended into the mine, discovered the heart of the island’s curse and Henry’s last stand.

  And how Joseph decided that torching the entire place was a genius idea, simply because he was annoyed and furious.

  And when they were done, the entire room was drowning in total silence for a full minute.

 

  “Such an enlightening story for the kids! Told with such burning passion! I can’t believe you dusted the entire place like a flame does to a wood! I-”

 

  “Ralf, what is wrong with you today?…”

 

  Xander wasn’t impressed at all. The armsmaster turned to the dragoncat, shrugged, and pointed his finger at him.

 

  “You and the tree-brain over there were sitting dead silent as a Voidler during torture. But I wanted to tell them myself - that was bloody brilliant! Everything they have done there, everything they discovered - the new weapons, the gas, the fact that merchants actually buy that daemonic spawn for their nefarious plots, and that even the Empire itself might be involved - deserves a reward way above and beyond of what you will give them, Xander. I am not letting that slide. I know what you and Captain are thinking - ‘Just ignore all that, give them their cut, and keep plundering small ships at Lower Reaches, where even desperate merchants don’t show up anymore.’ Well, I am telling you right away - we can’t send them away only with a pat of the back and we can’t let the Empire get away with this.”

 

  That was one good voice imitation, Joe had to admit. The Ralf’s words were also launching his ego into the orbit, so he had to force himself to bury it deeper inside his headspace, and listen.

  Ralf then pointed his sharp stare at Alchfrid, who was indeed silently sitting at the end of the table.

 

  “We’ve been floating in this hole for long enough. I was telling you before - the Threshold is going to burn one day. Imperials are moving and gathering resources. Something is up. Winds have shifted.”

 

  Alchfrid nodded. Then he started speaking slowly, with a serene voice.

 

  “I understand you, but there are a lot of details to it, Ralf. First - we are wanted criminals within the Sumeilien territory. Our ship is recognizable from several kilometers away - the moment we sail deep enough, we are not getting out. This is a one-way road. Second - we don’t have the resources to fight the entire military. We are a gang now- just a gang, I mean, picking crumbs from the table, but never landing on it. Third - we are actually losing. We lost Henry and Vas just now, Rodger is barely alive, Duncan is incapacitated. Sure, we have the rest of our crew, but half of them are fresh recruits, who we saved literally last month. Then we have a hole in our budget. The ship requires maintenance more and more now, and our Zinks keep being thrown into the endless void of repairs.”

 

  Captain stopped for a second, and Ralf intercepted the initiative.

 

  “Then they will come to us, Alchfrid. They will come right there - to Ghastly Wail, to our hideouts, they will be everywhere! We saw their ships there before. We saw them close to the base a couple of times. You said it was not a big deal. I say - they were just scouting. The Empire flexes its muscles, and its punches will reach everybody, before the flames of war will turn on them too. That has been going for months. Months! And yet you turn away now?! We will not have time to scream before the rope tightens on our necks, or the firing squad turns our bodies into the flesh paste!”

 

  “What do you suggest, then? I am telling you, we cannot fly into Sumeilien freely. We need a way around. If we want to gather information, resources are a necessity. Of course, I will raise this question up at Ghastly Wail, maybe someone will listen. But you know what is most likely to happen - we will work together for a while, and then stab each other again.”

 

  Ralf turned his head away. His fingers were tapping on the table. Captain waited for his answer, then, not getting one, continued.

 

  “This is serious news, Ralf. As it happens, I am not against your idea. It bothers me too. But we are underprepared for such a perilous venture. And as such, my suggestion is to reach Ghastly Wail first and spread all information we’ve learned, around. We will regroup there, figure out our chances and opportunities, then we spring into action.”

 

  Ralf was still tapping on the table. He didn’t turn his head, but nodded, acknowledging Captain’s words.

  Xander was quiet throughout. But when Captain finished speaking, he stood up.

 

  “I can’t believe myself, but Ralf has a very good point. We wait around, we get a tub full of Nature’s Bane spilled on our heads. I am also agreeing with Alch - we are undermanned and outgunned. Not to mention, Morning Star itself is a major target across the Empire, Neutral Frontier, and Hora-Hrothgar, all at once. Especially in the Sumeilien. Which is why we either have to split, which is an even worse idea, leave the ship behind - and we don’t have another at the moment - or we gather allies and send people of our crew, ones that almost nobody will recognize, to towns, hideouts and such to gather information. You said the Lady Edna is on the island still, correct, Joseph?”

 

  Joe nodded.

 

  “Yes, she is still… active. We left a lot of loot there as well.”

 

  “And you have made a promise to her. Which was a hasty decision, but I think we can use it. Then, Alch, I am going to Medbay to talk to Roth. I suggest we give ourselves an extension on departure, as Joe asked - we have to search the island through and through, this time, as the entire crew.”

 

  “You better not skimp out on the reward for the lads, Zan.”

 

  Quartermaster glanced behind him just as he was leaving.

 

  “I will never, Ralf. And you know it better than anyone else. Joe, Irfan, you both take a break. I will meet with you later.”

 

  He closed the door behind him.

  Ralf waved his hand.

 

  “Ah, don’t mind this arse. He will come around. He has to, now that you have something big behind your shoulders, kid. And underneath the belt too, he-he. Well, just take kitty’s advice, and take a nap. When we are done sorting out the mess, we will call you with us.”

 

  The companions looked at each other.

 

  “You sure you have nothing to ask anymore? The journal, anything?”

 

  Captain reluctantly nodded.

 

  “I will study the journal in full, of course. But I think we got everything important down. You are absolutely free. If you forgot anything, just find me in the Control, or Wardroom later. I am not leaving the ship today.”

 

  It was settled then. Joseph and Irfan stood up, nodded their farewells, and left. As Joe was closing the door, Alchfrid turned to Ralf and asked him something. He didn’t stay to listen.

  He could’ve sworn, that before he closed the door fully, the wooden statue winked at him. Truly, the ways of Threshold are strange and vague.

 

  “So, what are you going to do now, the pinnacle of strength?”

 

  Irfan turned to him, completely baffled, then grinned in satisfaction.

 

  “A nap. A long, long nap.”

 

  “Good idea, mate. I shall follow it as well.”

 

  Irfan reached out his fist. Joe bumped it, and they both went their separate ways.

  He found himself a free bed in the far corner of an empty crew room, removed his boots, shoved them under the bed, and fell on it, completely ignoring the clothes, the armor, and his own comfort. The flash of thought raced through his mind, that maybe he should’ve taken a shower beforehand, but Joe was already halfway into a dream.

 

*****

 

  He wasn’t getting a normal sleep today, he figured.

  His mind was floating in the black void, again. But this time, no simulation of him was present there.

  Instead, he got a list.

 

  Congratulations! You have completed your Personal Quest!

 

  Wait, I had one?!

 

  Body Update Report:

 

  Strength - 45/100:

  (+2) - Physical Activity;

  (20%/100%) - Training;

 

  Endurance - 46/100:

  (+2) - Physical Activity;

  (26%/100%) - Training;

 

  Perception - 47/100:

  (+1) - Physical Activity;

  (+1) - Noticing and reacting to danger multiple times;

 

  Mind Update Report:

 

  Understanding - 49/100:

  (37%/100%) - Studying, Creativity, Figuring out Logical connections;

 

  Memory 44/100:

  (+1) - Recalling Memories during crucial moments;

  (+1) - Studying;

 

  Logic 46/100:

  (+1) - Lost several debates. Learned from experience;

 

  Oh, screw you too!

 

  Spirit Update Report:

 

  Resolve - 48/100:

  (+1) - Facing the danger head-on;

  (+2) - Affirming the goals and getting them done;

 

  Intuition - 41/100:

  (+2) - Learned from experience;

 

  Empathy - 32/100:

  (+2) - Teamwork;

  (+3) - Sympathized with the Beast, hell-bent on killing the User;

 

  I mean… Yeah, it sounds kind of insane. I have no excuses. Hey, three points only for that, though… Still, my Stats are developing way too fast. Or is it normal? No idea, but the balance of this game of kind of busted, if you get so many Stats just for one quest…

  One quest full of dangers to life and limb…

 

  Maybe it wasn’t so busted after all. The difference between being behind the screen, and being right there, looking at the eyes of The Beast yourself…

  He was back to the normal screen. He saw this own body lying on its right side.

 

  Status: Sleeping.

  Body: Resting.

  Mind: Resting/System Status Screen Activated.

  Spirit/Will: Normal.

 

  Makes sense. So, where should I go now?…

 

  He finally got the opportunity the freely explore his Inner State. Joe saw the percentages earlier - they showed his progress towards the next Stat Up, he figured.

 

  I need the Manual!…

 

  Ask, and you shall receive. The familiar wall of text just appeared right in front of him, in all of its lo-o-o-ng scrolling glory.

  As much as Joseph was used to infinite strings of code, the similarly endless list of descriptions and instructions shut his mind down in abhorrent terror much quicker, than the island could ever manage to. Now he could clearly see, why no one would ever bother to read the Manual - it was way, way, way, way too damn long!

 

  Just how much space do you need to explain nine Stats?! That’s nuts! That’s worse than anything we were working on, and our projects were capable of crashing a nuclear reactor! Or a PC, comparable to it, but still…

 

  His mind recognized a familiar word on the way down. He moved the text backward for a few lines before the word appeared on the screen again.

 

  Debug Mode.

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