A preview of The Scarlet Cavern [updated]

As I mentioned last week, I’m getting ready to release a new book series, The Makalang, later this fall (likely late October). Drafts of the first four books are done (there may be more, if it’s popular enough), and I’m working on getting the first one, The Scarlet Cavern ready for release.  What you see up there is a portion of the pencil sketch for the cover. The other covers are also in the works from the awesome Kenshjn Park, and I’m really happy with how they’re shaping up.

So, as promised, I’m going to post some preview chapters from The Scarlet Cavern starting today. Hope you enjoy it.

[Update: This reflects the current WIP, which is pretty close to the release version.]


1. 

I came out of a gray fog of unconsciousness to find myself lying on my face.

Under me was a layer of loose, sandy dirt. My head throbbed. Groaning in pain, I reached around to the back of my skull, feeling where I’d hit something during the fall. I felt a sizable lump, but my hands came back clean. There was no blood. That was something.

I looked up, realizing that I was on the floor of a cave. The area around me was dimly lit from the opening above where I’d fallen through. 

I sat up slowly and spent a few moments assessing my injuries. My back ached, and I seemed to have struck my shoulder and left arm on the rocks. A lot of me hurt, but nothing appeared to be broken. 

I stared upward out of the darkness. I’d fallen at least ten feet, bouncing off the sides of the cave on the way down. There was an old, gnarled tree root near the opening that was likely what I’d hit my head on.

A light rain fell through the hole, and the smooth walls of the cave were getting wet as they caught the drops. Climbing out would be difficult in the best of circumstances, which these definitely were not.

I checked my phone. Nothing. There was no signal down here.

As my head began to clear, I looked around for a way out. There was a boulder I could get my feet up onto, but from there, I could not reach any handholds. Every time I tried to climb out, I found myself sliding back down on the slick rock. I tried jumping toward the tree root, but even after I took my backpack off, it stayed at least a foot out of reach. 

I had a decent amount of climbing experience, but I had no gear and my skills were pretty rusty. My ex-wife Jacqueline hated that hobby of mine, and I hadn’t done anything serious in at least ten years. But rusty or not, no amount of skill can compensate for a complete lack of purchase. 

I had no rope, but maybe there was some other way to haul myself out. I dug through my pack for possibilities. I decided that the rainfly on my tent might be long enough to reach the opening. I tied a rock to one end and tossed it up. All it did was bounce back down.

After several tries, the problem was clearly getting it to hook securely on the edge. What could I use? After a moment or two, I had an idea. 

I spent a few minutes tying my tent stakes together into a makeshift grapple. That worked – the first throw easily caught on the tree root. But when I put some weight on it, the aluminum stakes just bent and came free. 

Two hours earlier, I’d dropped my kids off with Jacqueline. 

Now I was at the bottom of a hole with no way out, and no ideas about what to do. 

Which seemed about right. It fit pretty well with the rest of my life at the moment. 

“Bye, Daddy!” 

I hugged my daughter Cassie and stood up as she turned and ran to the doorway, where her mother had already scooped up her brother Hunter. Jacqueline and I exchanged the same look we did every time I dropped my kids off, me pretending to be civil and her pretending I had any reason to be.

“I’ll see you next week, guys.”

Jacqueline gave me a polite smile and a quick wave.

“Bye, Will.”

Behind her, her husband Richard looked my direction, but I ignored him as I always did. We rarely if ever spoke, not that there was much to say after he broke up our marriage. It still gnawed at me that their affair had gone on as long as it had. 

Part of that was on me. I had been willfully blind, trusting her excuses and explanations long after I should have gotten suspicious.

I walked back to my car as they went inside. Jacqueline and I shared custody, and I’d had the kids for the past four days. She had them this weekend, so I was going out of town on a campout. Because when the rest of your life sucks, one way of dealing with it is thinking up a new one. 

I was heading off for three days up in the mountains with my live-action roleplaying (LARP) group, hiking around the Cleveland National Forest. Since we would be on public land, we’d planned it as a low-key affair so as not to alarm people. Just the seven of us, dressing up and rolling dice as we hiked up and down the mountain. 

It was part role-playing, part camping and drinking in the woods. The rest of the group was already on their way to our campsite, but I told them I’d be late because I had to drop my kids off with Jacqueline after work. 

The trip from Jacqueline’s house up into the Laguna Mountains above San Diego took about an hour and a half of driving through mesquite and scrub oak before the pine forest began around 4,000 feet. I finally turned off the state highway into the parking lot just after 5:00. 

I bought a Forest Service pass at the gate and found a parking place near the trailhead. There were a few people there, but I tried to ignore their looks as I got into costume. 

Our current campaign was a fantasy-steampunk pastiche, and I’d envisioned my character as a sort of samurai-artificer. Part of my outfit was a replica katana I bought as a divorce present for myself. It was a well-made Chinese knock-off rather than anything authentically Japanese, so it wasn’t period-correct by any means. The blade was simple carbon steel instead of traditional tamahagane, but it looked nice and honed to a very sharp edge. Since our LARPing was about role-playing rather than mock combat, it didn’t matter that I was carrying an arguably deadly weapon on my back.

The rest of my costume consisted of a suit of armor I’d made in my garage. In-game, it was supposed to be “green dragon scale plate armor,” but it had ended up looking more like a green stormtrooper suit, minus the helmet and gauntlets – only less neat and symmetrical because I’d made it by hand, piece by piece over six months, out of colored carbon fiber and epoxy resin. Even though the end result was fairly rough – my attempts to create a scale-like surface hadn’t really worked – I was proud of the effort I’d put into it. It worked well enough as armor without being too heavy for hiking, and the green carbon fiber looked reptilian enough for my purposes.

Once I was suited up, I slung my backpack over my shoulders and started out. Our campsite was about three miles up the trail, where the rest of the group was presumably waiting for me, patiently or not. I hadn’t been to this particular spot before, but I had a trail map and our gamester (GM) assured me it was well-marked and not hard to find. 

The trail was level for the first half-mile before I reached the spur leading up to our campsite. From there, it was a fairly steep series of switchbacks going further up the mountain. I leaned forward and just focused on the climb. 

Once it dawned on me that my marriage was over and I could start dating women who weren’t determined to make me the most miserable person on Earth, I’d made a concerted effort to get myself back into dating form. Like lots of people dealing with a major emotional upheaval, I’d gone completely overboard.

I revamped my diet, started working out and running, and when I felt up to it, joined a local crossfit gym. I went on the long-distance hikes Jacqueline had never liked me doing. I even got back into the martial arts I enjoyed as a teen, when I earned a black belt in Shaolin karate and weapons my last year of high school.

I definitely got myself back into physical shape. After a year, though, I realized I was still putting off the emotional work. Getting my six-pack back was no help when I was still an emotional mess.

I had dreams of dating and screwing all sorts of hot girls in their twenties, but I’d gotten nowhere trying to make it happen. This was largely because I could never figure out the right approach to online dating, and I was using the few women who connected with me as unpaid therapists. In a year, I managed four dates, none of them repeats, and no sex.

So when a friend of mine mentioned his LARP group – I’d been into role-playing games as a kid too – the prospect of a fantasy world off in the wilderness seemed attractive. I’d been playing with them ever since. Maybe I’d figure out something up in the mountains, maybe not, but it was something to do besides stare at the walls of my apartment.

I got myself into a steady pace where my head was emptying all my work and love-life crap behind me, and I was feeling a bit overly proud of how fit I was now, when I heard a distant rumble across the valley. 

Shit. Our GM warned us that the weather forecast predicted a chance of rain tonight, but being the bold adventurers we were, we’d decided to tough it out. And as I looked out toward the ocean, there was definitely a squall rolling in. I stopped to dig a poncho out of my backpack and threw it over myself.

I got another quarter mile up the trail before heavy drops of rain began to fall. It wasn’t a downpour, but the trail and forest around me was rapidly growing wet. I slowed my pace to avoid slipping but I had a good pair of hiking boots, so I kept going.

A few minutes later, I encountered a split in the trail. I stopped to look at the map, but I was pretty sure where I was, and no branch was apparent. Which way was I supposed to go? Both trails were thin and led off beyond my sight. One angled uphill, the other slightly downhill. I looked for tracks from my friends, but the rain had obscured whatever might have been there. 

After thinking it over and not wanting to get any wetter, I chose the uphill trail, deciding that these were likely two branches of the same trail that came together further ahead.

The trail took a sharp turn up the hill, and I was soon clambering up a half-buried pile of rocks. I was about to turn around when I got to the top and saw a clear trail leading down the ridge. I paused to enjoy the view inland and noticed some kind of cave about ten feet down the other side. There was an opening in the hillside about four feet across leading down into darkness.

Caves were fairly rare up here, but not unheard of. This one didn’t look terribly interesting even if I’d had the time to check it out. 

I turned to continue down the trail, but the cave had distracted me enough that I misjudged my next step. What I assumed was solid ground was in fact a loose stone that gave way under my foot. A split-second later, I lost my balance with all the gear on my back, and I fell backwards onto the hillside. I reached out to my sides, trying to gain some purchase, but the muddy ground slipped away under my fingers. 

As I slid faster down the slope, I realized I was heading straight for the cave opening. I shot my arm out toward a dead branch and caught hold of it, only to have it snap off in my hand. 

I slipped rapidly down into the cave. Something hit my head and everything went black.


I’ll post chapter 2 next week.

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