The Scarlet Cavern, Ch. 2 [updated]

I’m continuing my preview of my forthcoming series, The Makalang. Chapter 1 can be found here.

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


2. 

By the time I concluded that climbing out of the cave was impossible, it was starting to get dark. I’d been yelling for help every few minutes, but no one appeared to rescue me. 

A cardinal rule of wilderness survival is that if you get lost, you need to stay put so people can find you. The further you wander from where you were supposed to be, the more area they have to search.

I knew that. But I was now wondering if there might be another way out of this cave. If I couldn’t get out the top, maybe there was an exit below. I promised myself I would just go and see. 

That was when I found another problem. 

One of my personal inside jokes – and when you’re a divorced single dad, most of your life is inside jokes no one else gets – was that there was always something I forgot to bring on a campout, no matter how much I planned and thought things out.

And this time, in worrying about all my LARP gear and getting the kids to Jacqueline’s on time that afternoon, I’d somehow forgotten one of the most basic elements of camping – my fucking flashlight.

What to do? As it happened, I did have another source of light. My GM had agreed to let me bring a green laser pointer as a stand-in for a magic wand my character owned. And unlike my flashlight, that was safely packed away with a spare li-ion battery. 

It wasn’t as good as a real flashlight, but the laser pointer succeeded in lighting up the cave just enough to see where I was going. There was a passage behind me that narrowed down a bit, then curved around to the left into the hillside. That wasn’t a great sign, but after packing all my stuff up again, I went to check things out.

The cave floor further down was the same loose sand I had landed on. Clearly a lot of things were blowing and washing down here over time. But the passage continued and leveled off, though I had to climb over and around several large boulders. 

The green illumination of the laser gave everything an eerie cast at first, but gradually my eyes got used to it. I hadn’t come very far, but there was still no sign of an exit. This appeared to be some kind of cavity that had opened up in the granite of the mountain. A friend of mine was a geologist, and I knew that, geologically speaking, this range was very old. Maybe the endless shifting and faulting in the area had cracked things open at some point. 

Then I came around a bend and found myself in a larger cavity that sparkled with crystals. Veins of some kind of crystalline material were shot all through the walls of the cave, sending irritating laser reflections all around me. And despite the monochromatic green light from the laser, there was some strange effect that caused the crystals to glow with bright red fluorescence.

Yet before I could assess what I’d discovered here, my heart sank. I looked ahead and saw a solid wall of rock blocking any further progress.

Or did I? A wave of disorientation swam through my head. I blinked, and there was a passage continuing on in front of me.

What had I just seen? I rubbed my eyes, and it was still there. Maybe the apparent wall of rock I thought I’d seen was just a reflection from the dust I’d kicked up clambering through the cave, confused by the concussion I’d likely given myself falling down here.

And when I stepped forward to see what was beyond, I let out a laugh of triumph. Up ahead was light. Wherever I was, I’d found a way out.

I left the crystals behind and climbed quickly forward. The cave began to open up, and the light ahead was brighter than I expected. The clouds must have cleared already, and maybe this cave was catching the sunset.

The air on this side was colder, no doubt because of the brief storm. Then I caught an odd scent on the breeze – something floral.

The exit was low, a hole in the wall about five feet high and three across. Still wondering how bad that concussion might have been, I dropped down to my knees to avoid the top of the hole and crawled out into the sunlight.

I blinked again. What I saw were not the ponderosa and lodgepole pine trees I’d left behind at the cave entrance an hour ago. They were . . . something else.

They were trees, I suppose. But the bark was deep green instead of brown, and it glittered in the sunlight like the crystals in the cave behind me. Above me, the branches spread out in a not-unfamiliar pattern, but the leaves were oval and blueish-green. Large red flowers studded the branches, and little white insect-things flitted around them. They looked like butterflies, except for having six wings instead of two.

That was about the moment I realized that the sun was not setting – it was up in the sky above me, higher than when the storm had swept in. I looked at my watch. It was 6:15. It should have been dark by now. 

Was I hallucinating? Was I actually back in the cave in a coma? Feeling a bit silly, I pinched myself, but of course nothing happened. 

The ground below me was moist and spongy, not the dusty, sandy soil of the Laguna Mountains. I looked back at the sky. Not only was the sun in the wrong place, something about it looked wrong. It looked smaller somehow. It was hard to tell for sure, not being able to look directly at it, but the afterimages it left on my retinas were at best two-thirds the normal diameter of the sun. It was about the same brightness, but smaller.

Just to satisfy my curiosity, I pulled out my phone. There was no signal, not that I’d expected one.

I rubbed my eyes and then my head. A concussion seemed like the most likely explanation here. I was obviously hallucinating. That being the case, the last thing I ought to be doing was continuing my hike, since I could easily walk over a cliff if I wasn’t seeing things clearly.

I decided to go back into the cave and sit down, away from the bewildering landscape in front of me.

I hadn’t noticed it coming out, but there were more crystals on this end of the cave, some large enough that they protruded from the walls. I took a look at one of the crystal clusters. It was almost a foot across, part of a vein running back into the tunnel.

That was when I got another shock. The passage I’d emerged from, the passage that, presumably, led back to where I’d fallen in, was gone. The cave now ended no more than fifteen feet inside. Where the passage had been was now a fractured wall studded with crystals. I went over and felt around. There had been no rock fall closing the passage. There was no sign the passage had ever even been there.

I sat heavily down on a rock, bewilderment flowing through me. Hunger suddenly gnawed at my gut. I realized that no matter what I was looking at, it was well past dinner time. Maybe eating and a little rest would clear my head.

We divided up the food for the weekend amongst the LARP group, and I had my share of it in my backpack. I took my pack off and I found something I could justify eating right now. I spent a few minutes forcing it down with some water.

My hunger was satisfied, but my head did not clear.

When I walked back out, I realized with a shock that the sun had actually risen in the sky. And if my bearings were not completely screwed up and this was the opposite side of the ridge I’d fallen down, I was facing roughly northwest, toward the ocean. That meant the sun was moving back over my head, in the exact opposite direction it should have been going.

I pulled my phone out and opened the compass app. I wasn’t sure what would happen, but it got a reading on something. The compass needle spun around, indicating that north was actually off to my left. 

That made no sense. But I couldn’t get a GPS fix to figure out what was going on.

I clearly could not go back, since the cave was closed off. Maybe I could, carefully, explore a bit and see what this area was.

There was no path I could see, but the trees were not especially dense, so the going was easy. I was on a slope of some sort. Behind me was a hillside above the cave entrance. I decided to climb up – maybe I could get a better view of the area.

I hadn’t gone very far before I heard something. Somewhere off to my left, behind a group of the strange glittering trees, I heard something crashing around. There were cracking and scraping noises, followed by an unmistakable growl.

I froze. Mountain lions were the one real threat in this area when it came to wildlife, and they would definitely stalk humans if given the chance. But normally they were quite stealthy – they were ambush hunters – so whatever was going on, it was not about me.

Then I heard a cry. I almost wasn’t sure what it was, possibly a hawk or something else. Or a rabbit the mountain lion had caught. But something about it sounded vaguely human.

I didn’t like the feeling of being weighed down by all my gear if there really was a mountain lion nearby. I popped loose the buckles on my backpack and set it down. But unable to resist my curiosity, I stepped slowly and quietly forward into the clump of trees. After a few moments, I saw what was going on.

The source of the growl was reasonably feline in form, but it was not a mountain lion. For one thing, it was black. 

For another, it had six legs. 

But it was angry, and it was after something up on the wall of rock above it. Huddled in a small alcove, I saw a pale blond-haired girl holding some kind of knife. She was trying to stop the creature from jumping up to get her. 

“Hold on!” I yelled. “I’ll try to draw it off!”

A moment later, I realized the mistake I’d made. The mountain-lion thing spun around to face me. I was going to draw it off, for sure, because it was now coming in my direction with a very hungry look in its eyes.

The girl yelled something, but I couldn’t catch it. It hadn’t even sounded like English. 

As the not-a-mountain lion began closing with me, I suddenly remembered that I had a weapon to defend myself – my katana.

I reached back over my shoulder and drew it from its scabbard.

The creature sprang at me much faster than I’d expected, and I only had time to bring up my katana in front of me. I slashed down as I tried to dodge its pounce. There was an ear-splitting screech as the blade bit into its flesh, but at the same time, I felt its claws scratching at my LARP armor.

The breastplate held, but I felt a burning in my thigh as a claw dragged between two of the plates. We fell apart and faced each other.

The wound I’d given it was not as serious as I’d hoped. I’d opened a gash across its shoulder, but it did not seem seriously injured.

I took a moment to calm my nerves. I’d seen combat before. I had enlisted in the Marines after high school and served two tours in Iraq. So this was far from the first time I’d been face-to-face with something that wanted to kill me. 

But in Iraq I’d been part of a unit with a lot of support. I’d never had to fight a wild animal, alone, with little more than my bare hands. Granted, there was a time in my youth when I was fairly handy with a shinai – the bamboo swords used in kendo – but that was a long time ago.

The look in the creature’s eyes told me only one of us was getting out of this alive. I thought of my kids and decided it was going to be me.

With a shout, I lunged forward and struck at the creature. It hadn’t been expecting me to attack, but it reacted immediately, rearing back and swiping at me with its two front paws. This time I struck hard, opening a large gash down one of its forelegs. But its claws caught the edge of the greave on my left shin, nearly tearing it off.

I fell back. It sprang at me again. I wasn’t ready to strike, and I could only block it with the end of my katana. I fell over and managed to avoid being pinned, but it was on me immediately, snarling and snapping its jaws at my face. 

I kicked out at it, trying to get away. I then realized that as fearsome as it looked, it was not that big. The average mountain lion weighs about 150 lb, and this thing seemed lighter. I was six-two and almost 200 pounds, which meant I had a size advantage I needed to use.

I wedged a foot under it and shoved, pushing it off of me and over to the side. It landed on its wounded leg and let out a yelp. That was enough time to get me back on my feet.

It sprang again, but this time instead of striking with my katana, I kicked out at its face, connecting my hiking boot squarely with its jaw. It let out another yelp and fell to the ground, staggering backward and regarding me murderously.

The beast’s jaw was now crooked and uneven, and it opened and closed its mouth as if I’d broken it.

Not waiting for it to make a decision, I lunged forward again, striking down at its head. Still stunned from my kick and with a wounded leg, it couldn’t dodge me fast enough, and my blade bit deeply into its neck. The beast let out a scream and fell to the side, kicking and lurching with its good legs to try to get away. 

I struck again, kneeling as I did, and nearly severed its head. It jerked and was still.

I tried to catch my breath as the adrenaline began to subside. My heart was hammering in my chest. I wiped the blood off my katana using the creature’s fur and sheathed it. Then I sat down to assess my injuries, trying to get my mind around the absurdity of having come up here to role-play only to end up actually fighting for my life.

As it turned out, my fake dragon-scale LARP armor had actually held up well. There were four not-terribly-deep scratches across the breastplate, and my greave just needed to be strapped back down. The scratch on my thigh was nowhere near as bad as I feared. The creature’s claw had torn my hiking pants underneath but the bleeding was already starting to stop. 

That was when I remembered the girl.

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