Note: After an adventure has run its course, I collect the posts together so readers don’t have to jump around the blog to re-read the story. Originally this spanned a month’s time, posting each Thursday and continuing according to how readers voted in the comments. The comments you see at the end now are therefore what readers voted on the first post in this story.
Welcome to a new adventure!
Sometimes these stories flow and sometimes they challenge my brain. This one, for whatever reason, started out fantastic and then my brain went into overload because there are sooo many possibilities I could weave in. Hopefully, I pared this down to something comprehensible for the short story format I use here on the blog. This adventure start could easily have been twice as long.
So without further ado, lets get started =)
Golden Shells Mystery
You wish you were in the Alder forest, surrounded by its familiar towering pines and juniper scent. Instead, you stare out toward the ocean while rain pours off the roof of the hut you stand in. You can’t actually see the surf through the torrents of water but you can still hear the dull roar of the waves as they beat the island.
“I need your skills,” The King’s Hand had said just that morning when he showed up at your cabin. You’ve always worked for the King, keeping his forest clear of beasts that would otherwise prey on merchants and farmers, so you agreed, expecting to be told to hunt down some new threat. Instead, you’d been ushered to the coast, put on a boat, and rowed to Isbell Island, where you’d been met by five other people who were pulled from their normal lives that morning.
“Somewhere on this island,” the Hand informed you all, “are three golden shells. The King needs them by sundown of Saturday. Whoever finds them will be given the island.” Then the Hand had left, rowing away while the small group watched from the beach.
Not an hour later, the storm rolled in, driving you all into the small hut just off the beach.
You strain your eyes, trying to see the edge of the water, anything to tell you the storm’s passing but you can’t make it out.
“This’ll make things more challenging,” says Allen Co behind you where he sits at the only table in the hut with the four others.
Allen’s the scruffiest of the bunch with his wispy white hair sticking out over his ears and his round glasses looking like they’re cowering below his wayward brows.
Patricia Willard isn’t far behind him on the scruff factor. Her braided crown has so many strands pulled that you wonder if a bird has nested in the top. Dirt smudges her hands, leaving prints on the glass of whiskey she’s sipping from.
Beside her sits Marius Jack, carefully sipping from his own glass. He leans away from Patricia like she might shed grime on his pristine green doublet.
The last two occupants, Mia and Nessen, are twins with white blonde hair and green eyes. They’re younger than the others but in your estimation they’re also creepier. They watch the group like they’re dissecting them.
Although, honestly, you don’t trust any of them. You’d never met them before this morning and none of them were willing to share their occupations during introductions. You glance outside again, looking for the waves.
“What? Things weren’t challenging enough without the rain to burry the shells?” Patricia snickers at Allen, waving her glass at the window where you’re leaning against the frame. The move sloshes her whiskey onto Mia.
Mia growls and snatches the glass, pitching it out the window and somehow managing not to spill any in the process.
You duck and feel the slight gust of wind as the glass sails past your head and then hear the faint crack as it hits something outside. You peek out but through the falling rain, you can’t see what it collided with. You do notice the tall grass of the dunes. The rain’s starting to lighten up.
“You smell better now, dear,” Patricia says to Mia and calmly claims Marius’ glass as her own.
He gaps, and then gets up to retrieve a clean drink from the bar.
“My question,” Patricia continues, “is does the Hand know the bar’s stocked?”
“He knows,” you mutter before you stop to think about the wisdom of it. You’ve long suspected the Hand was the King’s Spymaster. In your experience, he always knows more than he should.
Patricia chortles. Behind her, Marius pauses in pouring himself a glass from the bottle Allen left on the bar after investigating it when he first arrived.
“I’m losing time,” Allen grips. “Sundown of Saturday is in three days.”
“Why do you think there’s a deadline?” Marius asks as he reclaims his seat, whiskey in hand.
Nessen tilts his head, mulling over the question. He shrugs after a moment but you don’t miss the look he shares with his sister.
Why indeed? The stories about Isbell Island are dark. It’s owned by the King, but even he doesn’t set foot on it. In fact, now that you think about it, the Hand never left the boat when he dropped you off. You don’t mention this, however. Instead you simply say, “The storm’s almost done. I can see the ocean again.”
Allen gives a yip, is out of his seat, and through the door before anyone else moves. Marius raises his glass to Patricia and drains it. She does likewise, giving a fiery breath after swallowing, and they both leave as well. You wonder if anyone realized that Marius barely had a sip in his glass and Patricia just downed at least three fingers of whiskey.
The twins eye you with identical pale green stares, sending a shiver down your spine. Nessen knocks on the table with his knuckle, right next to Marius’ empty glass. So, he did notice. You give him a wink and he lifts his chin in acknowledgement before he and his sister rise and leave.
The hut feels suddenly, wonderfully, quiet. There’s the slight patter of rain on the roof but it’s subtle and growing fainter.
You take the moment to think.
The Hand claimed he needed your skills for this assignment. He probably told everyone that, but you feel oddly matched in this group. From what you’ve observed, you’re fairly certain Marius is a nobleman’s son and the twins might not be too far from his station. Allen and Patricia are anyone’s guess, but both have a gypsy feel to you.
The Hand didn’t explicitly say you couldn’t work together, but the mention of winning the island instantly turned the search for the shells into a free for all…except the twins. You’d be shocked if they’re not working together. You’d be willing to bet the Hand’s wording was intentional.
Marius’ question sticks with you. Why the deadline? Why now?
Maybe something on the island will tell you more. The hut is the obvious place to start. If no one sets foot on the island, who built it? There’s not much in the hut. There’s the stocked bar and some paintings on the walls.
Search the bar first?
Search the walls first?
You wander along the wall, leaving the window you’d been standing beside while it rained. The hut is an island structure, with the walls made of thick bamboo stalks. You run your hand along the bumpy surface as you approach the first painting.
Just like the walls, the frame is also made of bamboo but each side is pencil thin. You’re lifting it off the wall when you hear a scuffing from outside. A moment later, Allen Co stomps through the door.
He pauses, seeing you, and his boisterous eyebrows climb into his white hair.
“Snickering snakes!” he exclaims, shaking a gnarled finger at you. “You startled me.”
Then he notices the painting in your hands. “Now what’re you doing there?”
You could point out that you’re searching the only man-made structure that you’ve seen so far on the island, but that seems rather obvious. Plus, there’s a gleam in Allen’s eyes that hasn’t disappeared since you met him. It reminds you of the “gotcha” look some street vendors get when they actually get you to look at their wares. It doesn’t sit well with you. So instead, you arch one brow and pointedly flip the waterfall painting over to look at the back.
“Hmm,” Allen mutters and his boots thud against the floor as he heads toward another painting. A moment later, he smacks it down on the bar with enough force to make the bottle of whiskey Marius left jump from the impact. You look over just in time to see Allen snatch it up without looking and pitch it out the window. There’s a crash from outside that almost covers his grumbled, “Nasty stuff.”
You watch him flip the painting over several times, back and forth, and then he produces a pocket knife.
Why did he come back to the hut? you wonder.
“Nothing here,” he grumbles, tossing the cut canvas over his shoulder and proceeding to tear apart the bamboo frame.
With a glance up, he realizes you’re staring at him. “Want that one cut out too?” he asks. “Or would you rather I pour you a drink?”
You shake your head to both questions although you barely keep yourself from glancing at the window where he pitched the whiskey bottle a few moments ago. What? He objects to the whiskey but offers me a drink?
Allen Co harrumphs. “Suit yourself.”
You turn away to rehang the picture and to keep yourself from staring at him while you try to figure out his oddities.
There’s a hollow thunk against the floor and one of the bamboo rods from Allen’s picture frame rolls until it hits your foot. It’s surprisingly scratched up. It startles you enough that you miss catching the thin wire on the small nail jutting from the wall.
You check on Allen, just to make sure he didn’t actually throw the chunk of frame at you, but he’s tearing the third and final painting off the wall, so you tilt your head close to the bamboo to eye the nail as you try to rehang your own painting again. The angle’s terrible and you crouch a bit to see below the tilt of the picture frame. Your shoulder presses against the wall and you feel a slight vertigo as it gives a little under your weight. You stumble, touching a hand to the floor to catch yourself.
The painting’s wire catches and you step away, glancing at Allen to see if he noticed your clumsiness. All the while, you refrain from looking down by your feet again, where there’s now a gap between the floor and the wall like a section of floor might rise in a trap door and you just released the latch on it.
Allen smacks the last painting onto the bar and turns it over and over like the last one. The front is darker than the other two, depicting a pool of water in a cave with dark browns and blacks reflecting on the water’s surface.
“Nothin’ here,” he mutters, despite the fact that there’s clearly a drawing on the back. He produces his knife again.
“Hold up,” you say.
Allen pauses with the knife in the air, surprised perhaps to hear you speak, while you approach and flip the canvas over again. The sketch on the back might be simple, but it’s not hard to read.
“Looks like the island,” Allen says. “Here’s the hut. And this is the cove the Hand dropped us off in.”
“Looks like there might be two other huts,” you say.
According to the drawing, one’s in a cave on the far side of the island where none of you have yet explored. The other structure looks to be in a cove with a waterfall. It’s close enough, one of the others might have reached it by now.
Allen taps his finger against the bar and then runs his hands through his wispy hair several times, explaining why it puffs out like a cloud around his head.
“Three huts,” Allen sighs, thinking aloud, “three shells.” His breath smells like he’s been chewing mint.
You don’t add that there are also three paintings.
“This one’s pretty close.” He points at the waterfall hut. “If we hurry, maybe we can search it too before any of the snitches discovers it.” He spins away, heading for the door before you answer him.
Why’s he including me, you wonder.
While his back is turned, you pull the chunk of bamboo frame from your pocket that you retrieved from the floor. On it are two small etchings—one of a snake, the other of a hand drawn like a child doing stick drawings.
You know those symbols. At times, the King’s Hand cannot tell you the specifics about a beast he needs hunted, sometimes due to politics, sometimes because the beast is intelligent and might be near, and sometimes simply because the Hand doesn’t know the details, but no matter the reason, you’ve worked out a short hand. There’s something poisonous to be hunted on the island.
With that knowledge, everything shifts for you. The shells may still be important as the Hand rarely does anything for only one reason, but finding the snake is now your priority.
In that case, is it more important to stay near Allen Co? or should you investigate the hidden passage you saw when the wall moved?
Stay with Allen?
Investigate the Passageway?
Golden Shell Mystery – Investigate the Passageway
There’s a brief moment where you wonder just how you’re going to get Allen Co to leave without you, but he doesn’t look back when he stomps out of the door, talking over his shoulder and never looking back.
How long it’ll take him to realize you didn’t follow, you’ve no idea. You also have no idea if he’ll come stomping back, angry that you ignored him.
You sweep a look over the hut. Since your time might be limited, you do a quick perusal of the bar, pressing against the shelves to see if anything usual gives, but nothing shows up.
Then you head for the trap door. A gentle push moves the wall a full two inches, where it stops against the pinch of the other walls. A small notch is revealed in the trapdoor which you pull upward to open.
A briny gust of wind presses against your face as you take in the wooden steps leading down into a dark tunnel below. The Hand didn’t allow you to bring weapons, but neither did he search you, so you pull the boot knife you always carry before heading down those narrow stairs. They creak abominably under your weight, echoing through the tunnel like a trumpet announcement of your presence.
Once at the bottom, you pull the trapdoor closed by a rope hanging from the bamboo door. There’s a click and darkness envelopes you. Now any beast already in the tunnel will have the advantage, knowing where you were before the darkness descended, so on silent feet, you shift away from the stairs and press tight to the wall, waiting long moments to see if anything moves.
The breeze picks up again with the smell of brine and island flowers but nothing else stirs. Finally convinced you’re alone, you head down the tunnel with your hand against the left hand wall.
A flash blinds you and you duck to the side, knife raised.
“Don’t need that here,” a voice rasps, and then coughs in a chest wracking bought.
Blinking furiously, your vision clears enough for you to realize you’re no longer in the tunnel. The world solidifies into a cavern with a dark pool taking up most of the space and a tiny lean-to against the far wall.
“Disorienting, isn’t it, Hunter?” says the same raspy voice.
This time, you spot the speaker.
Patricia Willard’s dark hair tumbles around her face with barely a resemblance to a braided crown anymore. She sits against the cavern wall with her fingers trailing in the pool beside her hip.
“Yes,” she says, seeing your surprise, “I know what you do.” A bought of coughing hits her and doubles her over toward her knees. When she straightens back up, there’s bloody spittle on her lips.
“What happened?” you ask, putting your knife away.
“Thought the King’s Hunters were smarter than that,” she snickers. “You found a portal. According to myth, the island’s riddled with them.”
Although the information is interesting, that wasn’t what you meant. “What happened to you?” you clarify.
She smiles bitterly. “Got into something I shouldn’t have. It’s a quick killer apparently.”
“What was it?” you ask.
“Don’t rightly know,” she says. “Started to feel the effects not long after the rain subsided, so I headed here.”
The look of confusion on your face makes her laugh, then cough and clutch her stomach once more. Finally, she calms enough to lean back again. “You know what I am, Hunter?”
You shake your head.
“I’m the Story Keeper.”
You stare at Patricia’s grimy face, trying to reconcile it with her claim. The Story Keeper is responsible for keeping the oral histories of the kingdom, big and small. It’s no easy task. You never imagined she’d look like a gypsy woman, but perhaps it makes sense. She travels a lot to investigate and collect stories. People probably share more readily their treasured family histories with a wandering story teller than the King’s official Story Keeper.
Putting details together, you say, “You know the story of this island.”
A wry smile touches Patricia’s lips. “I do.”
“What convinced you to come here when you started to get sick?”
The wry smile grows to true praise. “Maybe you are a Hunter after all,” she says. “I came here because the shells supposedly heal people and this is the least explored location of the three. Figured if I had a chance of finding one, it’d be here, but—” She shrugs, gesturing at her legs where they lay on the floor in front of her. They’re unmoving, dead weights leaving divots in the sandy floor from the heels of her boots.
“Probably a fool’s hope,” you mutter. “No one’s ever found the shells.”
Patricia slaps the water with her hand. It smacks the surface, rippling the glassy water into ringlets.
“Look there,” she points out into the pool.
You look, but it’s just dark water, smooth as rumpled silk.
“No, no, come here,” she beckons you to her side with an impatient hand.
You join her side and she smacks the water again, pointing.
From this vantage, there’s a slight glow from the cavern entrance on the far side. Between the glow and the moving ripples, the mottled colors on the bottom of the pool begin to take shape and you can make out white, black, orange, and even red shells littering the bottom. It’s strange. There’s no sand, just the black stone of the pool’s bottom and hundreds of shells, chipped, whole, halved, all shapes and sizes.
Then your eyes snag on one tiny golden speck.
“See it?” Patricia rasps.
Suddenly she grabs your arm, reaching across her body with the hand she had in the water a moment before. Her fingers are so cold you jerk away with a yelp.
“Easy to see,” she says, hanging on, “hard to get. Each shell has a protection spell. This one’s the cold. Most don’t survive it, and now I can’t even try.” The bitter edge in her voice digs at you as her hand falls away to rest in the water again.
“Is there a trick,” you ask, “to surviving?”
Patricia stares at you hard, her dark eyes searching. “The Hand promised you were good,” she finally says, then she recites, “One lies with the drunkards and their glasses, one sits among its own kind and freezes, and one falls, never landing but hiding in the rainbow. For the drunkards, cross your eyes, for the cold, drink deep and join the party, for the fall, stand below and feel the touch of the island’s song.” Patricia shrugs. “So drink deep and join the party, whatever that may mean.”
Drink deep. Well, there’s only one thing to drink.
You leave Patricia’s side and kneel beside the pool. At the first touch of the water on your hands, cold locks your fingers into a cupped position. You gasp, convincing yourself to draw the water out and to your lips while Patricia watches, her face a mix of hope and surprise. The water makes your lips feel brittle and shoots pain through your teeth, and then it washes down into your stomach and your body flushes warm and then cold again.
There’s a familiar flash and you blink hard again… and find yourself surrounded by hundreds of shells while you stand on a golden carapace. It doesn’t even feel like you’re beneath the water, but you know you are.
The shell under your feet is as big as you are but you know from looking at it above that it’s no bigger than your thumbnail.
Somehow knowing your time is short, you lay down and span the shell’s surface with your arms, grasping the edges with your fingertips.
Moments later, there’s another flash and you stand dripping on the edge of the pool with the tiny shell clasped in your hand. A shiver hits you, so violent it makes you stumble. When your body finally unlocks, you realize Patricia’s coughing, crouched around her stomach in a fetal position.
Rushing over, you kneel. “Patricia,” you try to get her attention, “Patricia, it’s the shell. Take it.” You force her fingers around it.
Long moments pass where she doesn’t even seem to realize what you handed her, but then her eyes widen and she plops the tiny shell into her mouth.
Hunched over still, her body relaxes like she fell asleep. When a long sigh escapes her, you lean closer to make sure she’s still breathing and find her dark eyes open, tears trailing down her dirty face.
“I never would’ve helped you, Hunter,” she admits softly.
You give her a bewildered look. “I couldn’t leave you to die.”
She closes her eyes tight. “You know what this means?”
You sit back on your heels, startled by her shift in conversation.
“The Hand brought you, a Hunter, me the Story Keeper, and four others to this island. You to hunt something, me to know the island’s history, and four others for what?”
Details start to click together. Someone poisoned Patricia. So unless Patricia almost killed herself in a twisted game—“They’re suspects.”
Patricia nods, still weak. “Someone probably poisoned one of the royal family. The Hand aims to figure out who did it and find a shell to heal whoever was poisoned. Seeing how fast the poison can work, I suspect the Hand will want a shell more than the poisoner at this point.”
“The other two huts,” you surmise.
“There’s the portal you know about leading back to the original hut. I suspect that’s the Drunkard’s shell. And there’s a portal over there,” she points to a dark section of the cavern wall. “That I suspect leads to the Falling shell.”
“The others are probably at the second location,” you comment, thinking of Allen.
“Where do you go, Hunter?” Patricia asks.
You almost suggest she help you but as she pushes herself into a sitting position, she wobbles, almost slumping back to the floor before you steady her with a hand.
So do you search for the:
Golden Shells Mystery – The Drunkard’s Shell
You leave Patricia beside the pool, still weak but steadily showing more color in her dirty face.
Now that you know what to expect, going through the portal doesn’t disorient you quite as bad as it did the first time, but you still emerge into darkness and have to remind yourself, the portal comes out into the underground tunnel below the hut.
After a moment of adjusting, you notice a thin sliver of light peeking past the trap door. Something slides off the door when you lift it, clattering across the bamboo floor.
You pause on the wooden stairs with your head sticking through the hole, startled by the scene in the hut.
All of the paintings are now destroyed with their frames and canvases strewn about in pieces. The smell of alcohol burns in your nose and glass sparkles on the floor along with sticky pools of liquid.
Besides the mess, the hut’s empty. You breathe a sigh and emerge from the trap door.
Perhaps Allen came back angry and, when he found you gone, he ransacked the place. Or perhaps one of the others decided to search the hut in a more—thorough way.
Did they find anything?
It’s a possibility, but whoever it was probably doesn’t know as much about the island and its shells as Patricia.
One lies with the drunkards and their glasses. For the drunkards, cross your eyes.
You tiptoe through the maze of shattered glass and spilled alcohol until you’re standing behind the bar. The ransacker aimed for the bottles of liquor. There’s not a one left on the shelf. But there are a number of glasses, still turned upside down in neat rows, ready for use. The only odd thing is they’re on the very bottom shelf. You kneel until you can look all the way to the back wall of the bar and see the entire collection of glasses, and then you cross your eyes. They blur into a collage of white-clear glass and green bamboo shelf, but you don’t see any gold in the mix.
With the drunkards and their glasses.
A memory floats through your mind of the town drunkard, the one man who can always be found at the bar no matter the time of day. He happens to be a great informant about creatures bothering the kingdom, but if you want a conversation with him, you have to catch him before he passes out and slides beneath whatever table he’s sitting at.
With the drunkards.
Since the ransacker cleared most of the shelving, you don’t have to move anything to stick your head into the shelf beside the upside down glasses. The position’s awkward and instantly puts a crick in your neck, but you turn your head sideways and cross your eyes again.
Your stomach rolls as the world blurs again, but it’s not the glass and bamboo collage you saw the first time. There’s a circular, wavering distortion just above the neatly placed glasses. When you blink and look without your eyes crossed, there’s no such warping. Crossing your eyes again, you reach a hand out and your fingers sink into the hazy circle, disappearing.
You sincerely hope nothing bites you on the other side as you feel the cool ridges of something touch your fingertips. There seems to be numerous rough textured objects. It’s like you’re reaching into a bag of shells.
Grasping a handful, you pull your hand out and blink to see straight again. Black, white, yellow, and red shells fill your palm. No gold. You dump the collection onto the shelf and try again. On the fourth try, a tiny golden shell peeks out of the group in your hand.
The scuff of a boot almost makes you hit your head on the shelf. You clutch the handful of shells and back out of the bar, staying crouched behind it.
“You gave us three days!” Allen complains.
“Things have changed,” answers a voice you recognize as the Hand’s.
“PA!” Allen scoffs. “I should’ve known we never really had a chance.” There’s the thumping of footsteps and you guess Allen stomped away.
You give it to the count of ten before standing up and rolling your shoulders and neck to relieve the crick there.
The Hand, an older man with more white than black in his beard, jumps at your sudden appearance.
He smiles ruefully at his own expense but you see the anxiety adding lines around his eyes. “Did you find anything?” he asks, hope easing some of that tension.
“Haven’t pinpointed the poisonous beast yet,” you admit, “but—” and you hold out your hand, opening it to show the collection of shells there, including one tiny speck of gold.
A true smile touches his lips. “We’ll worry about the beast later.” He beckons you, wrinkling his nose as you bring the smell of alcohol with you since it soaked into your knees.
The Hand finds you sitting against the wall just outside the queen’s chambers, waiting to hear if the shell worked. The poison had more time to weaken the queen than it had Patricia and the physician expressed doubt that even a magical cure would help now.
From the relief on the Hand’s face, the physician was wrong. He groans as he lowers himself to sit beside you. You both stare at your feet stretched out on the floor. It’s a strange sight, your well-worn boots beside his polished black ones. His show the dull shine of recent oiling, reminding you you need to clean and oil your own before the alcohol that soaked into them destroys the leather.
“I never value your work enough,” he says softly. “Those shells have eluded us for years.”
“You gave me all the tools needed.” You shrug.
He chuckles wryly. “Patricia wants to hire you to protect her in her travels.”
You shudder, thinking of the woman’s sharp tongue.
“I told her you’re not for hire. The soldiers who retrieved Patricia searched for the other four as well. Marius Jack was found shivering against a tree in full sunlight. He’s recovering now. The other three are nowhere to be found.”
Finally you look over at the Hand. “You want me to find them?”
“I do,” he says.
You simply nod and push off the floor to stand, not asking about who will cover your stretch of the mountains while you’re gone. The Hand takes care of those things. For now, you need to go clean and oil your boots. You’ve got some traveling to do.
Thank you for joining in this adventure and putting up with slightly longer posts. This one could easily be twice as long as any of my usual adventures here on the blog.
I’m taking a short break for the next couple weeks because my editor and I are in the middle of finishing up the edit on my current Work-In-Progress and I need to focus whole heartedly on it. I’ll be sharing more about that book soon. It’s an adventure like The Adventure, but I’ve learned a lot in the last four years and am really excited by how this book it turning out. =)
Until then, blessings,