The Scarlet Cavern is now available for pre-order on Amazon with an October 23 release date. To celebrate, I’m posting one more preview chapter. If you missed the previous posts, chapter 1 is here and chapter 2 is here.
She was still squeezed into the hollow in the rock wall.
“Are you okay?”
She yelled something at me, but again I didn’t understand it. She was speaking some language I didn’t know, or maybe just babbling. I walked over to the bottom of the cliffside. She was about ten feet up, having clearly scrambled up to avoid the mountain lion–thing.
She yelled again.
“What are you?”
Several things struck me at once. First, what. Not who. What. The second was that, though her voice and speech sounded the same as it had before, I understood her now, in a way that made the bump on my head throb.
“Uh, my name’s Will. I’m kind of lost.”
She looked down at me, not responding right away. I got a better look at her now, and my forehead wrinkled in confusion. For a moment, I wondered if she was part of some other LARP group that had gotten lost like I did.
For one, her hair wasn’t exactly blonde. It appeared to be dyed or tinted in some way that made it appear like long strands of silver and gold, which shimmered in the sunlight over our heads. She was wearing purple costume contact lenses, and she’d put some kind of fake points on her ears.
She was pretty, beautiful even, with fine features and sculpted cheekbones, though I couldn’t quite tell how old she was. Anywhere from eighteen to thirty.
“Do you need help getting down? That . . . thing is dead.”
She shifted her feet, not moving to come down. She still held tightly onto her knife, which also looked like a costume piece. Not metal – more like a strip of plastic.
“Thank you. The busang found me by the river. I only just reached this cliff in time.”
Again, her words made no sense to my ears, but somehow my head still understood them. Even the meaning of busang, though it had no English analog in my brain, was clear – a fierce, flesh-eating cat, albeit one with six legs.
“What are you?” she asked again.
“I . . . I’m not sure how to answer that. What are you?”
“I am Ayarala, of the dwenda. My tsulygoi died several sampars ago. I have mated. What can you tell me of you?”
Again, some of her words were clear; others were just wrapped in connotations I somehow understood. Dwenda was her people, apparently. Sampar was a period of time that seemed like several days, maybe eight to twelve. Tsulygoi gave me an array of connotations – master, mate, father, and some others I didn’t quite catch.
How was all this getting into my head?
This girl was not a LARPer. Either I was still hallucinating, or something else was going on here.
“Uh, I’m Will Hawthorne. I’m a financial analyst. I’m not from around here, I think.” Then I added, “I have mated, but I guess I’m not mated anymore. I have two kids.”
Her purple eyes widened.
“You have fathered children?”
The amazed look on her face, as preposterous as it seemed, appeared totally genuine. I pushed the painful truth down in my head and answered her.
“Uh, yeah. Cassie is six. Hunter is three. My wife and I are divorced. We share custody.”
Ayarala slid out of the alcove and climbed down to the ground. Standing in front of her, I realized she was quite short, maybe five-two at best. Her body was athletic and toned, and she wore a simple form-fitting top and leggings that were dirty and torn. A bag I hadn’t seen was on a strap over her shoulder.
As I looked closely at her face, I realized she was not wearing contacts, at least no costume contacts I’d ever seen before. Her big eyes looked genuinely purple. There was none of the opacity you saw in colored contacts.
And her hair truly looked like spun gold. Not a dye – metal. The luster of it in the sunlight was nothing you could achieve with a tint.
But the real kicker was her skin, which I hadn’t noticed up in the alcove. It was pale to the point of being translucent, almost crystalline. And her ears – I saw nothing at all that looked fake. They were pointed slightly but noticeably. No sign of makeup or a prosthesis. In fact, I could almost see through them.
She was definitely beautiful, by human standards. But she was not human. Close, but not quite, which I found rather odd if I was somehow on an alien world.
Yeah, this had to be a concussion. Best to ride it out.
Ayarala was sizing me up too, looking me up and down repeatedly, and not quite believing what she saw either.
“You are not from here? Where did you come from?”
“I fell down into a cave. I hit my head. I followed the cave and came out here. But the cave is closed now.” I motioned around us. “This place is not like my home, wherever it is.”
“Our world. What is the name of yours?”
Ayarala nodded. Then she looked over at the busang I had killed.
“You are a strong fighter. Very few males are.”
She knelt down and began carving up the beast with her knife. It wasn’t plastic, or even fake at all. It sliced through the flesh almost effortlessly. It had to be glass, or crystal.
“What are you doing?”
“I have not eaten today. This is a young busang, so the meat should be tender. Are you able to make a fire?”
That I could. As Ayarala carved out a large muscle from the beast’s mid-leg, I gathered up some fallen branches and twigs. The wood was different from anything I was familiar with, but the basic approach seemed to be the same. I set up a neat pile of wood with enough kindling under it to get going. But when I drew my lighter out of my pack, she looked over at me.
“What is that?”
“It will light the fire.” I drew a flame and set it to the kindling. In a minute or two the fire was stable and growing.
“May I see?” she asked.
I handed it to her. She turned it over in her hands a few times. I showed her how to light the flame.
“Interesting. I have something similar.”
Ayarala drew a small crystalline cylinder from her bag. There was a slide on it. When she pushed it forward, a stream of sparks shot out of the front. She let me look at it, though its workings were a mystery.
“Can I see your knife?” I asked.
She handed it to me. It had a hilt and cross-guard made of some kind of resin, and the blade was definitely crystal, harder and heavier than glass. The luster was different, glossier. But contrary to what I had expected, it wasn’t just a shard, like some prehistoric obsidian blade, chipped to a useable shape. It was a symmetrical blade with a straight, even edge that was so fine my eyes could barely even focus on it. This was a finished, manufactured knife, not a primitive handmade tool. And as I looked closer, I realized there was some kind of core to it, something opaque inside the crystal. It looked as if the crystal had grown around it.
“The weaponsmiths in our village make them.”
“Do they polish these from raw crystals?”
She gave me a mildly confused look.
“No, they make the crystals. A natural crystal would be too brittle. They grow them around a core. Then it is strong.”
I passed it back to her, trying to remember if I’d heard of anything like that before. I’d seen ceramic knives, but nothing like hers.
We set up a spit to roast the meat once the fire got going.
“What happened to your wife?” she asked a few minutes later. “She left you once she was with child?”
“Uh, not quite. After our kids were born . . . I found out she was more interested in another man. Then she left.”
Ayarala nodded. “I see. This other tsulygoi took her away? He must have been a great warrior to take a wife from you.”
That was not exactly how I would have described Richard, who was a lawyer who worked for Jacqueline’s company, unless you defined “great warrior” as “having twice my annual income.” But that wasn’t a conversation I wanted to have with this girl.
“Something like that.”
“You have no other wives?”
I looked up.
“What? Is that how it works here?”
“A strong tsulygoi has many wives. But there are not many strong tsulygoi anymore. Mine was old and weak. His other wives left because he would not mate with them. I stayed, but he died before I could conceive a child.”
I nodded. The smell of the cooking busang was like a mix of deer and chicken. I realized I was still hungry, as I hadn’t eaten much of the food I’d packed out of fear I would need it.
“Are you planning to find another – ” I struggled with the pronunciation “ – tsulygoi?”
“No. It is very unlikely. There is only one other in this area, and he refused me when I came to his home. It was foolish of me to even ask.”
“Is this area that sparsely settled?”
“There are many females. But only that one tsulygoi.”
I thought for a moment.
“So, there are many females here, but only a few males?”
“Yes. Is it not so in your land?”
She looked at me.
“You have no wife now? For a male such as you, that seems very strange to me.”
I laughed weakly. “It seems strange to me too.” I definitely wasn’t looking to get married again any time soon, but I understood her point.
“You should claim a wife.”
I laughed again.
“It’s not that easy.”
“Is it not?”
I cocked an eyebrow at her.
“Did you not claim your wife on Earth? How did you find her?”
“We met in college. We got married a few years after that. Do the males here just go around claiming wives?”
She seemed as confused by what I’d just said as I was by what she’d told me.
“Wait. You’re saying, if I said, ‘I claim you,’ that would be it?”
Ayarala eye’s widened a bit, then got sad.
“Not for me, but for my people, yes. The talalong are much the same. For the cunelo, linyang and sorai, it is a bit more complicated.”
The names meant little beyond something akin to dwenda. More tribes, I supposed.
“Why not for you?”
“I have mated, and my tsulygoi died. No one will have me now.”
“Just because of that?”
“Once a female has mated, she belongs to that tsulygoi, unless another takes her away. But if he dies, or she leaves him, she is nalasin.”
Untethered, or untied, it felt like.
“So no male would want me.”
That . . . seemed more than a little surprising. Ayarala seemed young, and she was beautiful. I’d always had a thing for short girls – Jacqueline was five-four – and Ayarala, alien though she appeared, was hotter than any girl I’d spent any real time with in the last year.
“I find that a bit hard to believe.”
She shrugged, but said nothing more.
When the meat was done, we ate quietly. I wasn’t a hundred-percent sure I could eat something like this, but it tasted kind of like pork and didn’t give me a seizure or even an upset stomach. The sun was at the top of the sky when we finished.
“So what now?” I asked. “I don’t know this area at all. Are there settlements? Other people like you?”
“There are a few small villages of my people within a day or two of walking. Do you seek wives? You will not find them there.”
“Not really, but why not? You said this land was mostly females.”
“It is. But the dwenda females worthy of mating have all left to seek tsulygois, or were taken by them. You would not find a female you would wish take as a wife that way.”
Worthy of mating? I decided to leave that alone for now.
“There is the tsulygoi I mentioned. His home is not far from here. Perhaps half a day. You should go and take his wives. He had two when I came to him.”
Alien world or not, this ongoing obsession with who had what wives was starting to grate on me. I wasn’t looking for any wives right now, let alone two.
Besides which, after what I’d gone through with Richard, taking someone else’s wives did not appeal to me in the slightest. I wasn’t about to do to this guy what Richard had done to me. About the only thing that sustained me during the worst of it was feeling like I had the moral high ground.
Thinking of Richard made me think of Cassie and Hunter. I was getting too comfortable, whether or not I was actually in a coma. One way or another, I had to get out and back home.
“Will you help me with this?” I asked. “For a few days at least? I don’t know what I can do to repay you, but I’ll find something.”
“You saved me from the busang, Will of Hawthorne. That is enough. I will help you.”
The Scarlet Cavern will be released October 23. Pre-order your copy on Amazon.