A Map of Taitala

Now that the first book of the Makalang series is out, I thought I’d share one thing I have planned for Book 2, which is a map of the area where the series takes place. The problem with mapping is that making an attractive, professional-looking one can be challenging. I’m a words guy, not a picture guy, which is why I don’t do my own covers or cover art. But it turns out there is some pretty good fantasy mapping software out there.

After some research, I settled on an app called Wonderdraft, and if you’re at all conversant with Photoshop (I am), it’s very easy to pick up. What you see up there is what I came up with. It’s probably not done, but that’s the general vision I have for the world.

The Black Sky is Coming

As I type this, The Scarlet Cavern, the first book in my new series The Makalang is about to be released for sale on Amazon. I’ve been pleased with the pre-order sales, so I’m throwing you all a little bonus. The second book, The Black Sky, will be available for pre-order about the same time The Scarlet Cavern goes live (and if you read Book 1, you’ll see there’s a little Easter egg in the title to this post).

What you see there is the cover, and I’m just as thrilled with how it came out as the first one. The Black Sky will be released Dec. 15. It’s written but in draft form at the moment, and still needs some polish. But I’m excited to make it available for order now.

The Scarlet Cavern, Ch. 3

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?”

“California. Earth.”

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?”

“Not really.”

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?”

She sighed.

“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.

“Then what?”

“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.

Update on The Scarlet Cavern

I’ve gotten comments back from my beta readers as well as the final cover art, a snippet of which you can see above. Assuming all goes well, I should be releasing The Scarlet Cavern in mid-October.

I’ve completed drafts of books 2-5 at this point, and my plan is release them about two months apart through 2021. If that sounds slow, understand that original cover art for things like this takes a while, as does volunteer beta reading.

Once I have a firm release date for Book 1, I’ll do the cover reveal and post one more preview chapter – likely in a week or two.

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.]


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.

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.]


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.

I’m Back (?!)

Like everyone else, my life this year has been upended by the coronavirus, and I’ve been working from home since late March. One of the things about WFH is that it allows you  more flexibility in arranging your day, as well as saving time on commutes. That also means more flexibility in writing.

During the last period I was writing regularly, from about 2014–2016, I was working from home. But I changed jobs in 2017, and with it went realistic time for writing. That’s (partly) why haven’t followed up with the Twin Magic and Dark Web series (more on that below).

But in early July, I got bitten by the writing bug again, and I’ve been feverishly working on a new series. This series I’m not going to publish until it’s done, so I won’t be leaving people hanging like I’ve done in the past.

What is it? Very generally, it’s an alien/sci-fi harem adventure that I’m calling The Makalang. The first book is called The Scarlet Cavern, and it follows some familiar tropes in the harem genre, starting with “the main character is transported to a world full of horny women.” But I’ve been working hard to put a fresh spin on things. If you’re familiar with my past work, you probably have an idea of what’s in store. There’s some explicit sex, but it’s not erotica.

I’ve not been shy in the past about calling out failings in the various genres I’ve written in, and Harem-lit has its share of failings. In particular, I’ve spent quite a bit of time and effort on the world-building here, because too many works in this genre don’t really think through all the implications of their worlds. If you’ve got a setting that’s 99% female (as this one is), that is a society that is not going to operate like the one we live in. That’s a change that’s going to affect almost everything, including a lot of things that the tropes in the genre depend on. There’s a lot more. Whether I succeeded here, I’ll leave to my readers.

The good news is that I have completed drafts of Book 1, as well as Book 2, The Black Sky, and Book 3, The Golden Staff. The fourth and (I think) last book I’m still sketching out, and I don’t have a title for it yet. Each book so far is about 50,000 words. I’m going to be posting some excerpts from The Crystal Cave over the next few weeks.

I’ve commissioned cover art for the series from the awesome Kenshjn Park, and I’m really excited to see what he comes up with. I’ll post sketches and the covers as they come in.

When is it coming? I’m hoping to release The Crystal Cave some time in late September, and the other books about 2-3 months apart. That’s going to depend on what the beta readers think, as well as getting Book 4 done first, since again, I’m not releasing anything it until it’s all finished.

So, about Twin Magic. I realized with the third installment that I’d bitten off way too much with this series. I’ve written about 25,000 words, but I’ve had to conclude that there’s no realistic chance I’m going to finish it in the near future. The narrative got stuck in a place I can’t really get myself out of because of what Book 3 is about. And there’s so much left to write that I haven’t been able to get myself into it again.

The Dark Web series is probably dead as well. I was disappointed in the sales for Spider, and though I started the sequel, Scorpion, I have considerably less of it done and even less of an idea of where it might go.

So if you’ve been waiting patiently for either or both of these, I apologize for abandoning them. It’s just a thing that happens with writing.

What’s Up

Okay, I get that I seem to have disappeared lately. That’s a fair assessment. To set the record straight, I am not dead, I am not sick, and I am not suffering from anything keeping me away from writing beyond life. But I changed jobs around the first of this year, and as a result, I don’t have the same amount of writing time that I used to. But I am writing, and I do still intend to get what I owe my readers out eventually.

Here’s where we’re at with the ones people have been asking about.

The Knight’s Folly (Twin Magic 3): This is the big one, naturally. Remind me to never promise publication dates for sequels. I suggested I’d get this out mid-2015, which means it’s two years late. Hey, at least I’m not as late as George R.R. Martin is with the Winds of Winter. But I set out to address some of the criticisms of the first two books with this one, namely that they were too short and rushed over things people wanted more of. So I’m aiming at 100k words on this one. I’m not there yet. I won’t tell you where I’m at, but there’s a ways to go yet. Some hints: Hans and Julia are back. The third color will be revealed. There’s going to be a war. Martin Luther puts in an appearance. Beyond that, who knows?

Scorpion (A Dark Web 3 2): I actually started this one before Spider was even released, but didn’t get all that far. I’ve written a bit more here and there. All I can tell you is that most of it takes place in Africa, it’s even darker than the first one (there are two murders in the first chapter alone), and the title refers to Makayla. The rest you’ll have to wait for.


The Spider is Coming


I’ve just uploaded Spider for pre-order on Amazon, and it will be released March 4. I’m really happy with how it came out, and though it’s not for everyone, I think many of my regular readers should really enjoy it. If you liked the creepiness of Vector and some of the darker stories in The Wisdom of Dogs (especially “A Needle through the Heart”) you should like this. One of my beta readers insists it’s the best thing of mine she’s read. Hopefully you’ll agree.

I’ve got some notes and initial ideas down for a sequel (tentatively titled Scorpion), but it’s off to The Knight’s Folly (the long-delayed third installment in Twin Magic) after this.