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The Tiger by John Vaillant

This is an incredible story. Read the prologue on NYTimes and bought the book immediately. Loved it.
Read the book and watch the ‘Conflict Tiger’ documentary on Amazon Prime.
https://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/10/books/review/excerpt-the-tiger.html
Prologue
Hanging in the trees, as if caught there, is a sickle of a moon. Its wan light scatters shadows on the snow below, only obscuring further the forest that this man negotiates now as much by feel as by sight. He is on foot and on his own save for a single dog, which runs ahead, eager to be heading home at last. All around, the black trunks of oak, pine, and poplar soar into the dark above the scrub and deadfall, and their branches form a tattered canopy overhead. Slender birches, whiter than the snow, seem to emit a light of their own, but it is like the coat of an animal in winter: cold to the touch and for itself alone. All is quiet in this dormant, frozen world. It is so cold that spit will freeze before it lands; so cold that a tree, brittle as straw and unable to contain its expanding sap, may spontaneously explode. As they progress, man and dog alike leave behind a wake of heat, and the contrails of their breath hang in pale clouds above their tracks. Their scent stays close in the windless dark, but their footfalls carry and so, with every step, they announce themselves to the night.
Despite the bitter cold, the man wears rubber boots better suited to the rain; his clothes, too, are surprisingly light, considering that he has been out all day, searching. His gun has grown heavy on his shoulder, as have his rucksack and cartridge belt. But he knows this route like the back of his hand, and he is almost within sight of his cabin. Now, at last, he can allow himself the possibility of relief. Perhaps he imagines the lantern he will light and the fire he will build; perhaps he imagines the burdens he will soon lay down. The water in the kettle is certainly frozen, but the stove is thinly walled and soon it will glow fiercely against the cold and dark, just as his own body is doing now. Soon enough, there will be hot tea and a cigarette, followed by rice, meat, and more cigarettes. Maybe a shot or two of vodka, if there is any left. He savors this ritual and knows it by rote. Then, as the familiar angles take shape across the clearing, the dog collides with a scent as with a wall and stops short, growling. They are hunting partners and the man understands: someone is there by the cabin. The hackles on the dog’s back and on his own neck rise together.
Together, they hear a rumble in the dark that seems to come from everywhere at once.
PART ONE: MARKOV
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There are many people who don't believe this actually happened. They think it's some phantasm of my imagination. But it was real. There are the facts. Yuri Anatolievich Trush Shortly after dark on the afternoon of December 5, 1997, an urgent message was relayed to a man named Yuri Trush at his home in Luchegorsk, a mid-sized mining town in Primorye Territory in Russia's Far East, not far from the Chinese border. Primorye (Pri-mor-ya) is, among other things, the last stronghold of the Siberian tiger, and the official on the line had some disturbing news: a man had been attacked near Sobolonye, a small logging community located in the deep forest, sixty miles northeast of Luchegorsk. Yuri Trush was the squad leader of an Inspection Tiger unit, one of six in the territory whose purpose was to investigate forest crimes, specifically those involving tigers. Because poachers were often involved, these included tiger attacks. As a result, this situation — whatever it might entail — was now Trush's problem and, right away, he began preparing for the trip to Sobolonye.
Early the following morning — Saturday — Yuri Trush, along with his squadmates Alexander Gorborukov and Sasha Lazurenko, piled into a surplus army truck and rumbled north. Dressed in insulated fatigues and camouflage, and armed with knives, pistols, and semiautomatic rifles, the Tigers, as these inspectors are sometimes called, looked less like game wardens than like some kind of wilderness SWAT team. Their twenty-year-old truck was nicknamed a Kung, and it was the Russian army's four-ton equivalent to the Unimog and the Humvee. Gasoline-powered, with a winch, four-wheel-drive, and wide waist-high tires, it is a popular vehicle in Primorye's hinterlands. Along with a gun rack and brackets for extra fuel cans, this one had been modified to accommodate makeshift bunks, and was stocked with enough food to last four men a week. It was also equipped with a woodstove so that, even in the face of total mechanical failure, the crew could survive no matter where in the wilderness they happened to be.
Unlock more free articles. Create an account or log in After passing through the police checkpoint on the edge of town, the Tigers continued on up to a dirt road turnoff that led eastward along the Bikin River (be-keen), a large and meandering waterway that flows through some of the most isolated country in northern Primorye. The temperature was well below freezing and the snow was deep, and this slowed the heavy truck's progress. It also allowed these men, all of whom were experienced hunters and former soldiers, many hours to ponder and discuss what might be awaiting them. It is safe to say that nothing in their experience could have prepared them for what they found there.
Primorye, which is also known as the Maritime Territory, is about the size of Washington state. Tucked into the southeast corner of Russia by the Sea of Japan, it is a thickly forested and mountainous region that combines the backwoods claustrophobia of Appalachia with the frontier roughness of the Yukon. Industry here is of the crudest kind: logging, mining, fishing, and hunting, all of which are complicated by poor wages, corrupt officials, thriving black markets — and some of the world's largest cats.
One of the many negative effects of perestroika and the reopening of the border between Russia and China has been a surge in tiger poaching. As the economy disintegrated and unemployment spread throughout the 1990s, professional poachers, businessmen, and ordinary citizens alike began taking advantage of the forest's wealth in all its forms. The tigers, because they are so rare and so valuable, have been particularly hard hit: their organs, blood, and bone are much sought after for use in traditional Chinese medicine. Some believe the tiger's whiskers will make them bulletproof and that its powdered bones will soothe their aches and pains. Others believe its penis will make them virile, and there are many — from Tokyo to Moscow — who will pay thousands of dollars for a tiger's skin. Between 1992 and 1994, approximately one hundred tigers — roughly one quarter of the country's wild population — were killed. Most of them ended up in China. With financial assistance (and pressure) from international conservation agencies, the territorial government created Inspection Tiger in the hope of restoring some semblance of law and order to the forests of Primorye. Armed with guns, cameras, and broad police powers, these teams were charged with intercepting poachers and resolving a steadily increasing number of conflicts between tigers and human beings.
In many ways, Inspection Tiger's mandate resembles that of detectives on a narcotics detail, and so does the risk: the money is big, and the players are often desperate and dangerous individuals. Tigers are similar to drugs in that they are sold by the gram and the kilo, and their value increases according to the refinement of both product and seller. But there are some key differences: tigers can weigh six hundred pounds; they have been hunting large prey, including humans, for two million years; and they have a memory. For these reasons, tigers can be as dangerous to the people trying to protect them as they are to those who would profit from them.
The territory covered by Yuri Trush's Inspection Tiger unit in the mid-1990s was centered around the Bikin (be-keen) River. You can drive a truck on the Bikin in winter, but in summer it has a languid bayou feel. For many of the valley's jobless inhabitants, the laws imposed by the river and the forest are more relevant than those of the local government. While most residents here poach game simply to survive, there are those among them who are in it for the money.
In 1997, Inspection Tiger had been in existence for only three years; given the state of the Russian economy in the 1990s, its members were lucky to have jobs, particularly because they were paid in dollars by foreign conservation groups. Four hundred dollars a month was an enviable wage at that time, but a lot was expected in return. Whether they were doing routine checks of hunters' documents in the forest, searching suspect cars en route to the Chinese border, or setting up sting operations, most of the people Inspection Tiger dealt with were armed. As often as not, these encounters took place in remote areas where backup was simply not available, and they never knew what they were going to find.
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Trush stands about six-foot-two with long arms and legs and a broad chest. His eyes are colored, coincidentally, like the semiprecious stone tiger's eye, with black rings around the irises. They peer out from a frank and homely face framed by great, drooping brows. Though frail and sickly as a boy, Trush had grown into a talented athlete with a commanding presence, a deep resonant voice, and an ability to remain composed under highly stressful circumstances. He is also immensely strong. As a young soldier in Kazakhstan, in the 1970s, Trush won a dozen regional kayaking championships for which he earned the Soviet rank Master of Sports, a distinction that meant he was eligible to compete at the national level. It was a serious undertaking: he wasn't just racing against Bulgarians and East Germans. "I was," he said, "defending the honor of the Military Forces of the USSR." In his mid-forties, when he joined Inspection Tiger, Trush won a territory-wide weightlifting competition three years running. This was not the kind of weightlifting one is likely to see in the Olympics; what Trush was doing looks more like a contest devised by bored artillerymen during the Napoleonic Wars. It consists of hefting a kettlebell — essentially a large cannonball with a handle — from the ground over your head as many times as you can, first with one hand, and then the other. Kettlebells are a Russian invention; they have been around for centuries and their use clearly favors the short and the stocky. So it is surprising to see someone as attenuated as Trush, who has the Law of the Lever weighted so heavily against him, heave these seventy-pound spheres around with such apparent ease.
Trush learned to shoot, first, from his father and, later, in the army. He also studied karate, aikido, and knife handling; in these, his rangy build works to his advantage because his long reach makes it nearly impossible to get at him. He is so talented at hand-to-hand fighting that he was hired to teach these skills to the military police. Trush's physicality is intense and often barely suppressed. He is a grabber, a hugger, and a roughhouser, but the hands initiating — and controlling — these games are thinly disguised weapons. His fists are knuckled mallets, and he can break bricks with them. As he runs through the motions of an immobilizing hold, or lines up an imaginary strike, one has the sense that his body hungers for opportunities to do these things in earnest. Referring to a former colleague who went bad and whom he tried for years to catch red-handed, Trush said, "He knows very well that I am capable of beheading him with my bare hands." This tension — between the kind and playful neighbor, friend and husband, and the Alpha male wilderness cop ready to throw down at a moment's notice — energizes almost every interaction. It is under the latter circumstances that Trush seems most alive.
The deeper Trush and his men drove into the forest, the rougher the road became. Once past Verkhny Pereval, their route took them through the snowbound village of Yasenovie, a sister logging community of the same size and vintage as Sobolonye. Here, they picked up a young deputy sheriff named Bush, but his presence on this mission was more formal than practical. Bush was a cop, and tiger attacks were beyond his purview; however, if there was a body, he was required to witness it. With Bush onboard, they trundled on upriver.
It was already afternoon by the time they reached Sobolonye, an impoverished village of unpainted log houses, that at first glance seemed barely inhabited. Gorborukov was behind the wheel, and here he steered the truck off the main road, such as it was, and plunged into the forest on a track wide enough for only a single vehicle. Several inches of new snow had fallen earlier in the week and, as they drove, Trush scanned the roadside for fresh tracks. They were about fifty miles from the nearest paved road and a couple of hard-won miles east of Sobolonye when they crossed a wide and improbably located gravel highway. This road had been conceived during Soviet times as an alternative to Primorye's only existing north-south throughway, which follows the Ussuri River north to Khabarovsk (the same route used by the Trans-Siberian Railway). Despite handling every kind of traffic, including transcontinental freight trucks, the Ussuri road is poorly maintained and only as wide as a residential street; it was also considered vulnerable to Chinese attack. This new highway, though safer, wider, and ruler-straight, was never finished and so it is essentially a highway to nowhere — in the middle of nowhere. The only people who benefit from it now are loggers, poachers, and smugglers — pretty much the only people around who can afford a vehicle. But sometimes tigers use this highway, too.
There is an unintended courtesy in the winter forest that occurs around pathways of any kind. It takes a lot of energy to break a trail through the snow, especially when it's crusty or deep, so whoever goes first, whether animal, human, or machine, is performing a valuable service for those following behind. Because energy — i.e., food — is at a premium in the winter, labor-saving gifts of this kind are rarely refused. As long as the footpath, logging road, frozen river — or highway — is going more or less in the desired direction, other forest creatures will use it, too, regardless of who made it. In this way, paths have a funneling, riverlike effect on the tributary creatures around them, and they can make for some strange encounters.
The last three miles of the journey were on a logging track so tortuous and convoluted that even a veteran Russian backcountry driver is moved to shout, in a torrent of fricatives and rolling Rs, "Paris — Dakar! Camel Trophy!" It contoured east through the rolling woods, crossing creeks on bridges made of log piles stacked at right angles to the road. Two miles short of a privately owned logging camp, Gorborukov took an unmarked turn and headed north. After a few minutes, he pulled up at a clearing, on the far side of which stood a cabin.
The cabin belonged to Vladimir Markov, a resident of Sobolonye, and a man best known for keeping bees. The crude structure stood by itself on the high side of a gentle south-facing slope, surrounded by a thick forest of birch, pine, and alder. It was a lonely spot but a lovely one and, under different circumstances, Trush might have seen its appeal. Now there was no time; it was three o'clock in the afternoon and the sun was already in the southwest, level with the treetops. Any warmth generated during this brief, bright day was quickly dissipating.
The first sign of trouble was the crows. Carrion crows will follow a tiger the same way seagulls follow a fishing boat: by sticking with a proven winner, they conserve energy and shift the odds of getting fed from If to When. When Trush and his men climbed down from the Kung, they heard the crows' raucous kvetching concentrated just west of the entrance road. Trush noted the way their dark bodies swirled and flickered above the trees and, even if he hadn't been warned ahead of time, this would have told him all he needed to know: something big was dead, or dying, and it was being guarded.
Parked in front of Markov's cabin was a heavy truck belonging to Markov's good friend and beekeeping partner, Danila Zaitsev, a reserved and industrious man in his early forties. Zaitsev was a skilled mechanic and his truck, another cast-off from the military, was one of the few vehicles still functioning in Sobolonye. With Zaitsev were Sasha Dvornik and Andrei Onofrecuk, both family men in their early thirties who often hunted and fished with Markov. It was evident from their haggard appearance that they had barely slept the night before. Judging from the density of tracks, there had clearly been a lot of activity around the cabin. Several different species were represented and their trails overlaid each other so that, at first, it was hard to sort them out. Trush approached this tangled skein of information like a detective: somewhere in here was a beginning and an end, and somewhere, too, was a motive—perhaps several. Downhill from the cabin, closer to the entrance road, two tracks in particular caught his attention. One set traveled northward up the entrance road at a walking pace; the other traveled south from the cabin. They approached each other directly, as if the meeting had been intentional—like an appointment of some kind. The southbound tracks were noteworthy, not just because they were made by a tiger, but because there were large gaps—ten feet or more—between each set of impressions. At the point where they met, the northbound tracks disappeared, as if the person who made them had simply ceased to exist. Here the large paw prints veered off to the west, crossing the entrance road at right angles. Their regular spacing indicated a walking pace; they led into the forest, directly toward the crows.
Trush had a video camera with him and its unblinking eye recorded the scene in excruciating detail. Only in retrospect does it strike one how steady Trush’s hand and voice are as he films the site, narrating as he goes: the rough cabin and the scrubby clearing in which it stands; the path of the attack and the point of impact, and then the long trail of horrific evidence. The camera doesn’t waver as it pans across the pink and trampled snow, taking in the hind foot of a dog, a single glove, and then a bloodstained jacket cuff before halting at a patch of bare ground about a hundred yards into the forest. At this point the audio picks up a sudden, retching gasp. It is as if he has entered Grendel’s den.
The temperature is thirty below zero and yet, here, the snow has been completely melted away. In the middle of this dark circle, presented like some kind of sacrificial offering, is a hand without an arm and a head without a face. Nearby is a long bone, a femur probably, that has been gnawed to a bloodless white. Beyond this, the trail continues deeper into the woods. Trush follows it, squinting through his camera while his squad and Markov’s friends trail closely behind. The only sounds are the icy creak of
Trush’s boots and the distant barking of his dog. Seven men have been stunned to silence. Not a sob; not a curse. Trush’s hunting dog, a little Laika, is further down the trail, growing increasingly shrill and agitated. Her nose is tingling with blood scent and tiger musk, and she alone feels free to express her deepest fear: the tiger is there, somewhere up ahead. Trush’s men have their rifles off their shoulders, and they cover him as he films. They arrive at another melted spot; this time, a large oval. Here, amid the twigs and leaf litter, is all that remains of Vladimir Ilyich Markov. It looks at first like a heap of laundry until one sees the boots, luminous stubs of broken bone protruding from the tops, the tattered shirt with an arm still fitted to one of the sleeves.
Trush had never seen a fellow human so thoroughly and gruesomely annihilated and, even as he filmed, his mind fled to the edges of the scene, taking refuge in peripheral details. He was struck by the poverty of this man—that he would be wearing thin rubber boots in such bitter weather. He reflected on the cartridge belt—loaded but for three shells—and wondered where the gun had gone. Meanwhile, Trush’s dog, Gitta, is racing back and forth, hackles raised and barking in alarm. The tiger is somewhere close by—invisible to the men, but to the dog it is palpably, almost unbearably, present. The men, too, can sense a potency around them—something larger than their own fear, and they glance about, unsure where to look. They are so overwhelmed by the wreckage before them that it is hard to distinguish imminent danger from the present horror.
Save for the movements of the dog and the men, the forest has gone absolutely still; even the crows have withdrawn, waiting for this latest disturbance to pass. And so, it seems, has the tiger. Then, there is a sound: a brief, rushing exhale—the kind one would use to extinguish a candle. But there is something different about the volume of air being moved, and the force behind it—something bigger and deeper: this is not a human sound. At the same moment, perhaps ten yards ahead, the tip of a low fir branch spontaneously sheds its load of snow. The flakes powder down to the forest floor; the men freeze in mid-breath and, once again, all is still.
Since well before the Kung’s engine noise first penetrated the forest, a conversation of sorts has been unfolding in this lonesome hollow. It is not in a language like Russian or Chinese, but it is a language nonetheless, and it is older than the forest. The crows speak it; the dog speaks it; the tiger speaks it, and so do the men—some more fluently than others. That single blast of breath contained a message lethal in its eloquence. But what does one do with such information so far from one’s home ground? Gitta tightens the psychic leash connecting her to her master. Markov’s friends, already shaken to the core, pull in closer, too. The tiger’s latest communication serves not only to undo these men still further, but to deepen the invisible chasm between them—poachers to a man—and the armed officials on whom their liberty and safety now depend. Markov’s friends are known to Trush because he has busted them before—for possessing illegal firearms and hunting without a license. Of the three of them, only Zaitsev’s gun is legal, but it is too light to stop a tiger. As for the others, their weapons are now hidden in the forest, leaving them more helpless than Trush’s dog. Trush is unarmed, too. There had been some back-and-forth at the entrance road about who was going to follow that grisly trail, and comments were made implying that Trush and his men didn’t have what it took. Fear is not a sin in the taiga, but cowardice is, and Trush returned the challenge with a crisp invitation: “Poshli”—“Let’s go.” One of Markov’s friends—Sasha Dvornik, as Trush recalled—then suggested that Trush’s team could handle it themselves. Besides, he said, they had no weapons. Trush called his bluff by urging him to fetch his unregistered gun from hiding. “This is no time to be confiscating guns,” he said. “What’s important now is to protect ourselves.” Still, Dvornik hesitated, and this is when Trush offered him his rifle. It was a bold gesture on several levels: not only did it imply an expectation of trust and cooperation, but Trush’s semiautomatic was a far better weapon than Dvornik’s battered smoothbore. It also short- circuited the argument: now, there was no excuse, and no way that Dvornik—with six men watching—could honorably refuse. It was this same mix of shame, fear, and loyalty that compelled Zaitsev and Onofrecuk to go along, too. Besides, there was safety in numbers.
But it had been a long time since Dvornik was in the army, and Trush’s weapon felt strangely heavy in his hands; Trush, meanwhile, was feeling the absence of its reassuring weight, and that was strange, too. He still had his pistol, but it was holstered and, in any case, it would have been virtually useless against a tiger. His faith rested with his squad mates because he had put himself in an extremely vulnerable position: even though he was leading the way, he did so at an electronic remove—in this drama but not of it, exploring this dreadful surreality through the camera’s narrow, cyclopean lens. Because Zaitsev and Dvornik couldn’t be counted on, and Deputy Bush had only a pistol, the Tigers were Trush’s only reliable proxies. Those with guns had them at the ready, but the forest was dense and visibility was poor. Were the tiger to attack, they could end up shooting one another. So they held their fire, eyes darting back and forth to that single, bare branch, wondering where the next sign would come from.
Behind the camera, Trush remained strangely calm. “We clearly see the tiger’s tracks going away from the remains,” he continued in his understated official drone, while Gitta barked incessantly, stiff-legged and staring. “. . . the dog clearly indicates that the tiger went this way.”
Up ahead, the tiger’s tracks showed plainly in the snow, brought into sharp relief by the shadows now pooling within them. The animal was maneuvering northward to higher ground, the place every cat prefers to be. “It looks like the tiger’s not too far,” Trush intoned to future viewers, “around forty yards.” The snow wasn’t deep and, under those conditions, a tiger could cover forty yards in about four seconds. This may have been why Trush chose that moment to shut off his camera, reclaim his gun, and step back into real time. But once there, he was going to have to make a difficult decision.
In his professional capacity as senior inspector for Inspection Tiger, Trush acted as a medium between the Law of the Jungle and the Law of the State; one is instinctive and often spontaneous while the other is contrived and always cumbersome. The two are, by their very natures, incompatible. When he was in the field, Trush usually had no means of contacting his superiors, or anyone else for that matter; his walkie-talkies had limited range (when they worked at all) so he and his squad mates were profoundly on their own. Because of this, Trush’s job required a lot of judgment calls, and he was going to have to make one now: the tiger is a “Red Book” species—protected in Russia—so permission to kill had to come from Moscow. Trush did not yet have this permission, but it was Saturday, Moscow might as well have been the moon, and they had an opportunity to end this now.
Trush decided to track it. This had not been part of the plan; he had been sent to investigate an attack, not to hunt a tiger. Furthermore, his team was short a man, dusk was coming on, and Markov’s friends were a liability; they were still in shock and so, for that matter, was Trush. But at that moment, he was poised—equidistant between the tiger and the harrowing evidence of what it had done. The two would never be so close again. Signaling Lazurenko to follow, Trush set off up the trail, knowing that every step would take him deeper into the tiger’s comfort zone.
Continues...
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Tides of Magic; Chapter 32

Chapter Select
Well over a hundred legionaries formed a wall of spears and shields surrounding a large tent in what had been the center of the legion encampment. Hal, Diana, Croft and Isabella approached them alone, save for Adam who followed the beast master like a massive dog. Hal wasn’t happy, while the main legion army had broken such a large force wasn’t defeated in a single battle. Dozens of smaller skirmishes had followed in the day after what was becoming known as the Battle of the Vales. Hal wielded the blade of his fallen officer, Sir Owen, lighter and thinner than his last one it was fine but lacked the enchantments and socketed gems of his shattered claymore.
“Surrender peacefully and you shall not be harmed,” Croft called out to the legion forces, but only got a thrown pilum in reply. Hal knocked the spear out of the air with a lazy swing of the sword, then nodded to Diana who had been excited to try out her new spells.
“Pyroclastic Storm,” she intoned, activating her level twenty Divine Flame basic spell. The results were immediate, a torrent of ash seemed to materialize behind her, lashing out at the legion forces. A solid wall of superheated ash slammed into the unprepared shields, wood flashed to fire, metals glowed and flesh melted under the extreme heat. But her storm wasn’t a one-time thing, on cast it created the pulse, but could be channeled as a location specific Area of Effect. The swirling vortex of ash moved across the formation, like a short tornado of fire and cinders. It took seconds for them to break and flee, more than half of them dead from extreme burns, their equipment melted into slag, all clothing and hair reduced to all pervasive ash.
A dozen copies of Adam pounced on one foolish man who ran too close before condensing into one chimerical monster tossing its head back and forth while holding a clearly dead figure in its jaws. This was the third such skirmish today, Eric was leading some crossbowmen blocks against some of the legion forces still in the open while Hal had marched down the banks of the tributary towards the Long River.
As this was the only tent truly defended in the burnt out camp Hal hoped to find something of importance, information regarding legion plans, the general of this army or a cache of magical equipment, anything to justify him being here and not aboard Prometheus. He threw aside the scorched entrance flap to the tent, and instantly saw more than felt a spear shatter against his breastplate. The knight lifted his eyebrow at the man who had thrown it, and now stood with a pair of short swords between Hal and a prone figure being tended to by several nurse maids.
“If you want Lady Sara, you’ll have to go through me,” the man said, trying to sound intimidating.
“Alright,” Hal sighed, lifting his blade, “Avatar of Arcane Might.”
Blue lighting danced up and down his body, what little arcane potential the shattered spear had generated for him surged into his body as the knight activated his newest skill. It was hard to control the strength and speed it gave him, but he was getting better. A single step and he crossed the large campaign tent in a blur of motion, his sword was little more than a flash of silver light as it whispered through the legionary’s body, leaving his torso to fall to the ground several feet from his legs. The buff ended as Hal returned to a more natural stance.
The healers and alchemists who had been watching the fight scrambled backwards away from the prone form of Sara. The seer’s eyes were closed, a damp cloth on her forehead and a half dozen empty potion bottles lay scattered around the dirt.
“Please sir,” one of the younger healers spoke up, “she’s been unresponsive since the battle, you wouldn’t kill a helpless woman, would you?”
“I won’t lie that I want to,” Hal grumbled, looking at the unconscious woman, “after what she did to my friend, I’ve half a mind to drive my blade through her, kill the rest of you and say I found nothing in this tent of value.
“But,” the knight sighed, “that’s not what my friend would want, no, we’re taking her, and the rest of you, into custody. Our clerics and healers will investigate what’s wrong with her, after which she will be kept as a prisoner aboard Castle Prometheus. Indefinitely.”
The healers looked at him wide eyed as Croft entered the tent, digging a pair of manacles out of a pouch on his belt. Diana was right behind him but stopped next to Hal as the unconscious Sara was restrained.
“Isabella’s outriders confirm this was the only major group left,” the mage said, “and considering what we’ve found, want a teleport back?”
“You,” Hal said pointing at the one healer who had spoken up, “can she be moved?”
“Uhh, yes, lord,” the healer started, “she’s uninjured just-.”
“Good,” interrupted Hal, bending down to pick up the prone seer, throwing her over a shoulder, “come with us, you’ll oversee her care till I decide what else to do.”
She stood shakily and nodded as Diana began her teleport spell chant, designating each person to come with them one by one. A moment surrounded by swirling light and they were back on the flying castle. Hal immediately turned and walked towards Ash’s tower, which was still serving those still injured from the fight. Diana and the one healer quickly followed.
“Not even twenty miles and took a third of my mana,” the mage complained, looking at her status bracer, “I’ll have to stack quite a bit more max mana before I can teleport the entire party a good distance.”
Hal didn’t respond, placing Sara on a bed on the bottom story of the tower along with a half dozen others.
“Injured captive?” One of Ash’s paladin followers asked, glancing at the seer.
“Not injured, she can tell you more,” the knight responded, nodding to the healer.
“She fell unconscious during the battle yesterday,” the older woman said, “and has been unresponsive since.”
“That sounds just like-,” the paladin started.
“Ya,” Hal interrupted, “see to her condition, if she wakes up take her to the holding rooms. I’m going to see Ash.”
The paladin nodded as Hal turned on heel and began climbing the stairs to the second story of the tower, a concerned looking Diana following him. The second story was primarily taken over by an alchemist’s workshop, various bottles, vials and liquids of odd colors covered the stone tables. A single room off the workshop was being guarded by another of Ash’s paladins, who simply nodded as Hal pushed open the heavy wooden door and entered.
A wooden bed frame held an anachronistic mattress, a young woman sat next to it, her eyes red from tears that had long since run dry. A young man lay in the bed, fully healed, no status conditions, there shouldn’t be anything wrong with him, but he was unresponsive.
“No change, lord,” the woman said softly, looking momentarily to see who entered.
“It’s ok Nichol,” Hal said softly, “I’ll watch him for a bit, go get something to eat.”
“But-.”
“You’ve been here since the battle,” Diana interrupted, motioning to the door. After a moment’s thought she sighed, nodded and left, leaving the two of them along with the unresponsive paladin.
“I hate not knowing,” Hal grumbled, sitting down next to the bed, Diana joining him by pressing up against his side.
“You had a theory earlier, any more thought into it?”
“I thought that maybe he went into shock from the pain, but I’d have though he’d get better by now if that was the case.”
“You don’t think he…”
“If he died the game would have logged him out,” Hal responded immediately, “even if he didn’t hit 0 health, he wouldn’t remain logged in without a mind to connect to.”
“It’s odd that Sara is out too,” the mage added, “she was nowhere near the battle.”
“I also have no idea what I did to kill that judgement.”
“You thought earlier you’d somehow activated arcane avatar, decide against that?”
“Avatar causes me to move fast, but I was teleporting, not just moving fast,” Hal replied, leaning back in the chair to remove his breastplate, “I also had nowhere enough arcane potential stored up to do as much damage as I did.”
“And you were busy screaming when you should have been casting, so no idea how you activated any spell,” Diana added, cuddling in closer to him as he removed his armor, she leaned against his shoulder and placed a hand on his chest as he settled back, putting an arm around her in return, “whatever you did, it won the battle.”
“Just another hundred battles to go,” the knight said dryly, she didn’t respond. For a long moment the two of them just sat there, holding each other for support while looking at the unmoving form of their friend.
“Does Ash look… different to you?” Hal asked after a few minutes, “He seems… larger than he was when we first got here. I mean, he wasn’t exactly small back then but compared to now…”
“He’s not the only one who changed,” Diana responded, running her hand over Hal’s pectorals, “I know you weren’t this well built that first night, but over a year of fighting.”
“But we shouldn’t be changing,” Hal countered, “remember that… physical dysphoria thing? Shouldn’t we still look like our old selves?”
“People are always changing slowly, I guess slow change gives the mind time to adapt.”
“That’s not the point, why would we gain muscles, or grow taller, or whatever, in here? Surely once we get out we’ll be back in our old bodies anyways, if we change too much we’ll just suffer the dysphoria whatever on that side.”
“Ash is at the age where he’ll grow a lot,” Diana replied slowly, “maybe Elwin accounted for that.”
“Unless they have me hooked up to one of those electric workout machines it doesn’t explain why I’m getting buff.”
“Who knows,” Diana shrugged, closing her eyes. Hal envied her ability to fall asleep instantly but let her catch a short nap. It had been busy the last week, no one involved in the battle had gotten much sleep. The losses had also been high, heavily lopsided with the Legion suffering many times the deaths, but neither side had it easy. Just shy of a thousand dwarves had been significantly injured, with several hundred deaths, but the dwarven units took it with the stoicism their kind was known for. Most of the deaths to the kingdom forces were suffered by the outriders and hill tribe barbarians, but a couple hundred crossbowmen and human spearmen were also taken down by the heavy longbows of the Legion. Eric estimated that when all was said and done just over one thousand men will have died on their side.
So far over five thousand legionaries had been confirmed dead, with twice that number injured. In absolute terms it was a massively one-sided battle, but that didn’t mean it was easy. What was almost harder to deal with was the now almost fifty thousand men the kingdom of the vales had taken prisoner. Current talk was using them to colonize the outskirts of the kingdom, uninhabited mountain valleys, lowlands near the desert, northern reaches, anywhere there was room for them. A small force of troops to look over each group, give them tools, seeds and enough food to last a couple months and have them fend for themselves. In theory they’d eventually be allowed to join the kingdom, their prison camps becoming new towns and cities, when the war was over. It was hardly a good option, but the fledgling kingdom was still struggling to integrate and feed the thousands of refugees and they likely couldn’t afford to feed massive POW camps.
There was the option to send some to Ulyssar, kicking the problem over the mountains to let the richer and more populated nation deal with it. But even if they were ok with pissing off a potential ally, Ulyssar was still under threat from invasion.
Hal realized he’d been dozing off with the mage still using him as a sitting pillow when a scroll appeared in front of her with a pop and flash of light. Diana woke instantly, scrambling to find out what the sound was. Hal’s arm had fallen asleep and the feeling of needles covering it as circulation returned prevented him from grabbing the messenger scroll. All in all the two council members, powerful adventurers, leadership in a fast growing kingdom and heroes in some regards failed to catch a falling scroll while both managing to fall out of their chairs.
Diana pushed her now messy hair out of her face with one hand while holding up the scroll with the other, glancing at Hal. Their eyes met and for a moment they smiled, enjoying the moment of shared confusion before turning their attention to the scroll.
“Adventurers have returned,” Diana read aloud, “are planning to head south soon to confront the legion invasion, wait, nevermind, they just left.”
“They left as he was writing the message?” Hal asked.
“Looks like, guess there’s little chance of catching them in town. At best I can teleport one person at a time and will have to wait quite a while to regen mana between casts.”
“Best option would be to send you an Isabella,” the knight said after a moment’s thought, “you two are the fastest and can probably catch up even if they are riding.”
“Considering our track record with other players, I’d prefer all of us be there,” she countered.
“I’d be they’re going to Alvesten, southern bastion of Ulyssar. Last we heard Legion forces were still south of there.”
“I haven’t been there, can’t teleport.”
“Well,” Hal sighed, “we’ll need to bring the castle anyways, to transport Eric’s minute men.”
Hal groaned as he rolled out of bed, Diana grumbling in her sleep as she lost her body pillow. After making use of the chamber pot room, the closest they’d managed to get to a normal bathroom without running water, he walked down a couple levels in his tower, then out onto Prometheus’s keep. It had become something of a morning habit for him to look over the castle every morning. Even with the sun just coming up the castle was already busy, Eric was busy drilling troops in a slightly modified version of Napoleonic era line infantry tactics, his loud commands echoing around the courtyard.
A makeshift barracks had gone up to allow the castle to hold a full thousand of the crossbowmen. It still wasn’t feasible to march an army through the worthless pass, though Hal had sent some dwarven stone singers to look into changing that. With tens of thousands of legion troops still unaccounted for after the battle of the vales most of their troops, including the dwarven allies, were remaining behind to safeguard the kingdom. A thousand crossbowmen, even with Hal’s enchanted crossbows, was a drop in the bucket compared to the size of the legion army still slowly working through southern Ulyssar. With Diana, Croft, Hal and Pearce all now at level twenty they were a small army unto themselves, but they were mostly hoping that the Ulyssar players had gathered most of the forces needed to defend the larger kingdom.
Continuing around the keep Ash’s tower bore grey banners from the top story windows, indicating the paladin hadn’t woken yet. It had been several days now, Nichol, his alchemist lady friend, continuously tended to him, feeding him porridge regularly. Similarly Sara was still out, they’d decided to leave her in the same room as Albert the soul blade, he was sufficiently cowed to not try and do anything stupid and willing enough to feed her by hand as well. It was safer than leaving her with Pearce who wanted to smother her with a rock.
A cluster of mages sat on the top of Diana’s tower, cross-legged on the stone floor doing their morning meditation. Apparently, it helped them focus their minds and increased mana regeneration for a short period, it was a habit the mages of the hidden star had that they’d accidently transferred to Diana’s students. According to the mages it was harder for ‘non-heroes’ to cast spells, they needed clarity of mind and purpose in addition to the right casting stance and activation phrase.
Adam slept by the base of Isabella’s tower, the next in line after Diana’s. Hal had long since given up trying to figure out how her animal companions made it to or from the castle, none of the lifts were strong enough to carry the massive Sirrush, and despite its magic the chimerical beast couldn’t fly. Isabella was looking into starting to gather a collection of unnatural animals to give the rest of the party as mounts when she hit level twenty. They still had to do her guild quest, which apparently consisted of tracking and defeating a ‘great beast infused with strength of the fae realm,’ which sounded bad but allowed a fully party. The only guild quest completed thus far was Hal’s, something they did accidently during the battle of the vales since he had to ‘confront and defeat a great threat to the guild.’ Apparently the judgement and legion of hostile infantry counted.
Croft’s guild bonus was also nice, it gave everyone in the guild slightly increased mana regen while they were in ‘natural terrain.’ Not a huge deal, and not worth taking a day out of their rush to defend Ulyssar to locate and ‘force a forest spirt to bestow it’s blessing upon the guild.’ But would come in handy eventually. The druid’s section of the castle was a veritable thicket of trees, most fruit bearing, and herbs to supplement the garden at the base of Ash’s tower.
Finally, Pearce’s tower was the most plain of the lot, the massive pipe organ almost completely hidden within the stonework by skilled dwarven craftsmen. The few pipes that could be seen were on the external walls of the castle, hidden from view from within.
Beyond the castle walls mountains stretched into the distance in all directions. The rugged mountains they were in the middle of crossing, again. Hal hoped this crossing would have fewer dragons.
After taking breakfast in the hall the party got about continuing the crossing through this new pass. Diana and Pearce watching the sides of the castle and sending messages to Eric who relayed the info to Hal at the controls. It was slow going, maneuvering a massive flying castle between mountain peaks, but Hal was taking the opportunity to teach Croft and Eric the controls.
“This is probably one of the most convoluted control schemes I’ve ever seen,” Croft said a few hours into the day, “separate sliders for movement in different directions, two different gauges for altitude…”
“I wanted to make a big wooden wheel but couldn’t make it work,” Hal replied dryly, twisting one dial to turn the keep slightly to the right.
“From what I understand the first cars had terrible controls too,” Eric added, “levers, peddles, multiple wheels. Took them a while to standardize the design.”
“If you two have any complaints you are welcome to hire another engineer to design your flying castle.”
“Do you have any plans for these other lecterns by the way?” Eric asked, motioning to the other unused stations.
“At one point I was thinking one could be a sensor station or something, more scrying points both inside and around the castle,” Hal admitted, “other than that mostly just future proofing myself incase I figured out to make the castle shoot lasers or something.”
“If you ever get a two-way radio analog a communications station would be nice too.”
“Right after the cappuccino machine,” the knight said simply.
“New message,” Eric stated as another scroll appeared out of the air before him, “it says… stop the castle?”
“Stopping the castle,” Hal replied, pulling back on a slider causing the keep to slowly come to a stop.
“Apparently Isabella suddenly jumped onto her owl and flew off,” the sniper explained, “yelling something Diana couldn’t hear.”
“Well, hope she has a good explanation.”
By the time they got to the top of the castle Isabella was landing in front of the main keep, but not on her Noctua. Massive wings fluttered as hooves and claws clattered on the hard-stone pathway Isabella’s newest van sized pet landed on. Once again, she was riding a massive flying beast without a saddle something Hal simply couldn’t understand. But at least this creature was part horse, even if the front half was all bird.
“I saw a hippogriff nest!” she explained, jumping off the animal which immediately shook and puffed out its chest, looking smugly satisfied.
“I’m going back for another!” the excited beast master continued, calling Huginn down which caused her newest hippogriff to take off, retreating to the aviary atop her tower. Before Hal or anyone could say anything, she was gone, born off by the massive owl.
“You did say you preferred Hippogriffs,” Croft accused Hal.
“She can’t give them as mounts till we finish the guild quest anyways,” the knight sighed, “and she has to get to level twenty.”
“I couldn’t stop her,” Diana called from above, flying down to land next to the other three, “looks like she found-.”
“A hippogriff nest,” Hal finished, “she told us, then left before we could say anything more.”
“Seems like she’s gotten good at capturing new beasts,” the mage agreed, “captured a snake… bird... deer… illusion casting thing by herself, and just grabbed a hippogriff in under ten minutes.”
“She can only tame another one of the creatures, right?” Hal asked, trying to recall the minutia of beast master abilities, “at least until she starts handing them out as mounts. Well… since we’re stopped might as well go to her tower.”
No one had any better ideas, so the small group made their way along the twisting granite paths to the beast master’s tower. By the time they climbed to the top Isabella was returning on the back of a second hippogriff, this one slightly smaller with darker feathers and a grey horse half, compared to the bright white feathers and hair of the first.
“Ok, I call bull,” Croft said as the older woman jumped from the back of the second hippogriff, “no way you could capture, pin, tame and heal both beasts that fast.”
“Oh, you don’t need to pin them,” Isabella explained, running a hand through the feathery main of her newest pet, “I found that out when I tamed Rah, there’s an easier way. If you can willingly get them to eat from your hand, and let them touch their head, that counts for taming them. I just offered each of these two a couple rabbits Huginn and hunted. Of the dozen hippogriffs nesting there these were the first two to accept my offering and let me touch them.”
“I take it you caught Adam the same way?” Diana asked, cautiously approaching one of the enormous beasts.
“Ya, I’d stopped to catch some fish from the river, letting Huginn return to the castle and rest. Next thing I know this long thin snake with horns is reaching out from behind a pile of dirt, so I tossed him a fish. Soon enough he comes out and lets me see his full form and willing lets me tame him. I thought I mentioned this already.”
“Not to me,” Hal shook his head, “I assumed you had some massive weighted net or something.”
“I didn’t think about it too much,” Diana admitted.
“Fascinating as this is,” Eric interrupted, “we’re kind of in a hurry.”
“Right,” Hal sighed, “you should be full up on how many beasts you can keep for now, right?”
“Yup,” the Beastmaster nodded, then pointed to the white hippogriff she’d caught first, “I’m thinking of calling him Escanor, and this one Dumbo.”
“Isn’t Escanor a lion?” Diana asked.
“And Dumbo is an elephant,” Hal finished.
“Hippogriffs are like Griffons, and that one is rather prideful,” Isabella explained, “and elephants are like hippos, and this guy was a little clumsy. I’m thinking you’ll get Escanor Hal, Dumbo will go to Ash.”
“Assuming he wakes,” Eric said, earn dirty looks from everyone.
“That would leave you two,” Isabella continued, ignoring the comment while nodding to Croft and Eric, “and Pearce without a way to fly. When we finish my guild quest, we should come back here so I can tame more. Hippogriffs are smart and so cute!”
“You didn’t have to say that,” Hal commented to Eric as they descended Isabella’s tower once more, leaving the beast master to play with her newest pets. Diana left to explain everything to a likely very confused bard before returning to her station.
“And you all should be preparing for the possibility,” the sniper replied, “I know he is basically the guild’s mascot, and I admit I didn’t think he had it in him to step in front of that laser from the angel, but just like you should be prepared to kill other players you need to be prepared for other players to die.”
“That doesn’t mean we should just give up hope!” Croft said in a mildly exasperated voice.
“There’s a difference between preparing for the worst and giving up entirely.”
Hal didn’t want to agree but couldn’t think of anything to say. As the castle began moving once more the tone was noticeably soured in the control room.
“Looks like several siege towers have contacted the wall,” Eric said, squinting into his spy glass at the still distant Ulyssian fortress, “there’s still battle though.”
“If the towers have docked it won’t be long,” Hal added, looking into his own spy glass but finding himself unable to make out anything meaningful, “and we’re still a couple hours out.”
“I doubt they have hours sir. Might be prudent for us to give up on this fort, prepare at the next defense point.”
“The other party is there,” Croft added, looking into a scrying mirror, now that he was close enough to see the castle, he could scry it getting a better, if inconsistent image of the fort’s interior, “looks like they’re fighting on the walls.”
“Then we can’t just give up,” Hal decided, his mind racing.
“I don’t think that’s wise, sir,” Eric replied.
“And I don’t care,” Hal said, glaring at the spook, “Isabella, you and I are going to fly there on Huginn, Diana you can fly alongside. Eric, you bring Prometheus to a stop over top their keep then join us on the ground with Croft and your minutemen.”
“And I’m on the pipes again?” Pearce asked.
“Need a sound track,” Hal agreed as Huginn landed next to them on the wall. Somewhat reluctantly climbing into the passenger seat of the noctua’s saddle the three outriders took off. Compared to the sedate pace of the castle, the massive owl raced over the rough forest covered hills common to southern Ulyssar.
“Where do you want to land?” Isabella called back as they approached the burning fortress.
“I’ll handle my own entrance,” Hal replied, unbuckling from the saddle, “just fly over the wall.”
Hal landed hard on the wall, having dismissed his safe fall ten feet up. Both defenders and attackers looked at him in shock as the Knight lashed out with the sword of his fallen knight, the sharpened tip punching clean through the nearest legionary’s armor. A torrent of ash washed through the first siege engine which promptly burst into flames from the extreme heat of Diana’s magic. Hal pulled his sword back, and lashed out against another Legion attacker, striking his shield with enough force to send the man tumbling backwards.
“Deus Ex Falling Knight?” A man wielding a long rapier asked, lifting an eyebrow at Hal.
“Deus Ex Flying Castle,” Hal replied, nodding towards the still distant castle Prometheus, “you the players who started in Ulyssar?”
“Those of us who remain, ya,” the man nodded, wiping off this blood-soaked weapon on his forearm, “I’d guess you guys are either from the West Vales or Coastlands.”
“Vales,” nodded Hal, reaching out a gauntleted hand to shake, “I’m Hal Emden of the guild-.”
“WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING?” another voice called out, interrupting Hal. A man in heavy armor pushed through the ranks of castle defenders who were simply watching as Diana finished burning the siege towers to the ground. He brandished a metal spear in one hand, pointing it at Hal.
“Saving your asses?” the knight asked.
“We didn’t need saving! I had everything under control!”
“Damnit Chris, not right now,” the rapier wielding man half shouted in reply, “we can do this after the battle.”
“Fine,” the man apparently named Chris grunted, lowering his spear but continued to glare at Hal, “don’t think about taking credit for helping, we would have been fine without you.”
The first player sighed and looked apologetically at Hal as the other man stomped off.
((It turns out that while the taming skill for beast master states they need to 'immobilize' the creature there are other ways to tame animals. Thankfully for Isabella Hippogriffs are relatively intelligent creatures and able to recognize a peaceful approach, otherwise they may have descended on her all at once for approaching their nesting area.
Kinda hard to follow up a major battle but hope I managed it. Apparently Ash is 'mostly dead' for whatever that's worth, a state that shouldn't be allowed by the game. In any case, hope everyone enjoys, chapter 33 is up on Patreon, we also now have a discord for those of you who want to bother me more directly. As always comments are appreciated :) ))
submitted by Arceroth to HFY