Monday Mini Mystery #4 (Exploration Part 3-Conclusion!)

Welcome to Monday Mini Mystery week four! Monday Mini Mystery is a series I am writing for the month of October. Every Monday I am supposed to post a new short story mystery-but the story I wrote for week two turned into a three-part saga, so the story below is the conclusion of that. You can read Part One here, and Part Two here, then come back here for the ending!


It isn’t too long before everyone gathers to figure out what we are going to do next. Captain Banks stands on one of the taller black rocks with his hands raised to quiet the shouts and taunts being thrown at him by the crew. I sit with the rest of the trainees on a group of rocks at the edge of the gathering, taking everything in but not contributing. Somehow we all made it out, despite the lack of oversight on the boat.

“I understand your concern,” the Captain answers the crowd, “and I assure you we will get to the bottom of everything. However, there are certain aspects of our particular expedition which I am not at liberty to share with you-” several crew members roar at this statement, and I don’t blame them. I thought our mission was straightforward: get to the island, look at the island, come home and talk about it. What could be secretive about that? Captain Banks continues as the crew quiets down again.

“We were able to send a distress signal before abandoning the Stormchaser, so we shouldn’t be here more than a week or two, at the most. At least one of the other exploration vessels has already changed course to assist us. Until they arrive, I intend to continue exploring this island, with every crew member available. That includes our young trainees. Since we’re all on this island, we might as well all see what is on it.” I sit up straighter at this. It might not be astronomy, but being involved in exploring the island just made this situation more interesting.

~

The next morning we break up into teams and set out to explore the island. I assume the Captain has a plan, but no one explains it to me. First Mate Lee is in charge of my group, and while not unkind he certainly does not have much to say. He walks with purpose, as if he knows where he is leading us. Personally, I doubt he knows much (if anything) more than the rest of us. Still, we follow his quick steps across the sand as he makes a path toward the west side of the island.

The air is thick with humidity, but thankfully I don’t notice any mosquitoes or flies buzzing around. We hike all day, pausing only for a brief lunch. When we finally stop to set up camp for the night the cliffs finally seem within reach. This island is so strange; reaching the vegetated upper level still seems nearly impossible, and even if we manage that I don’t see how we will ever get back down again. Perhaps, I muse, there is a slope on the other side, rather than these harsh cliffs? Even getting this close took hours longer than I thought it would.

Despite having walked all day, after dinner I decide to take a short walk by myself outside of camp. The sun has set, so there are many stars out. I pay more attention to them than where I’m walking, and soon enough I trip over a rough rock I didn’t see in the growing dark and tumble to the ground. I’m not injured, but I notice something from the ground which makes me stay there for a moment: the smooth black rocks, which reflect the shimmering moonlight more than the surrounding sand, appear to be in some sort of pattern, almost a rough column. I’m surprised I didn’t notice it before. I sit up and follow their sporadic path to the nearby cliff, suddenly wondering if we have been paralleling this formation all day. That would explain First Mate Lee’s unwavering confidence in guiding us, although a thousand other things could explain that as well.

A sound like thunder hums ominously through the clear night, and then the ground begins to shake. I instinctively roll into a ball on the ground, as there is nothing around to use as shelter. The shaking intensifies, and something crashes a ways down the shore. I don’t look up as fine dust rains down around me. Finally, the shaking calms and the sound recedes. I raise up, brush the sand from my hair, and glance around before turning back towards camp. Then I have to do a double take, and turn back away from camp, because right in front of me where the black rocks meet the cliff is a perfectly formed staircase snaking all the way to the top of the cliff. I gasp, then take a step back. The earthquake must have shaken everything off the staircase, because there is no way that formed naturally. Is there? This island only formed a few weeks ago, and we are the first people here.

I hurry back to camp and help rearrange things that fell over, including some of the temporary shelters. I consider finding First Mate Lee or one of the officers and telling them about the staircase, but decide against it as it is hectic and late and I wasn’t supposed to wander outside of camp after dark. Anyways, it’s close enough that everyone will probably see it in the morning.

~

Nobody notices the new staircase in the morning. The air is thick with fog, and it’s difficult to see anything more than an arm’s length from my face for several hours. When we finally do set out, it is still parallel to the black stones, although not closely. First Mate Lee is agitated, snapping short responses to anyone who dares ask him anything and barking quick orders in silence. Other than that, we hike in near silence for the first leg of the day.

At one point we are broken up into trios and instructed to “scour the land.” Although nothing specific is said about what we are looking for, I have a feeling a staircase up the cliff is pretty significant, so I lead my trio over to it. A bolt of concern works through me as we head to where I know I saw the staircase last night; in the still-thick fog, I am not entirely sure of where we are, and I hope I can find it again. Finally, the fog swirls away from the face of the cliff in front of us and reveals a series of steps. The stairs are not all the same height, and obviously there is no rail along the edge, but they appear sturdy and functional. The officer in my group, who said his last name so quickly when he was assigned to us that I have no idea what it is, uses his whistle to signal the First Mate we have something requiring his attention. When he catches sight of the staircase he stares, jaw loose and eyes wide.

“This,” he says finally, his voice mild for the first time that day, “is incredible!” He takes out a piece of paper which looks like a rough, hand drawn map, and immediately sits down to add the staircase to it.

Soon the whole group is trekking up the stairs in the cliff. The fog has mostly lifted, although low gray clouds and heavy humidity linger. When we finally reach the top, another incredible sight fills my eyes: first, trees which look like they have been growing for centuries fill the landscape. These trees have trunks so large I’m not sure if two people standing on opposite sides could reach around to one another. What’s even more incredible is the fruit hanging on their branches: large red orbs that look like small apples hang from the branches. We snake a path through the trees, moving much more slowly now. Heads turn every direction, taking in the landscape that is vastly different from what we left below.

After walking a ways I notice a quiet roaring sound, and I wonder if another earthquake is coming. The sound remains consistent, then slowly grows as we continue to walk. The ground doesn’t shake, but the sound becomes so loud I can’t imagine walking towards it is a good idea. I hear gasps as the first crew members break through another line of trees, but they don’t turn back, so the rest of us follow them out to yet another incredible sight. The ground falls away to our left, and across a chasm a waterfall cascades down inside the island. If anyone speaks, the sound is drowned out and lost to the waterfall. First Mate Lee takes out his map and sits down to update it, and the rest of us edge closer to the waterfall and watch in awe.

After a short break First Mate Lee urges us on, his voice now full of energy and his step quick again. We leave the waterfall and continue through the trees, still wondering at the apples and everything else surrounding us. Slowly, the dense trees thin out, and the grade of the land becomes steep again. Maven falls in step beside me.

“Some of the crew are talking about the legend of Avalon,” she says.

“Avalon,” I reply, “that has something to do with the Arthurian legends, right?” Maven nods, “supposedly, it is the island where King Arthur himself is buried, and possibly the location of the Holy Grail.”

“Earlier it was Atlantis, now Avalon?” I muse, “Seems like there are a lot of mythological theories being thrown around. Any scientific ones?”

“Not really,” she admits.  We talk as we continue to hike out of the oddly beautiful forest, and just when I think I can’t be shocked by anything else, I make out what looks like a tower in the distance.

“What,” I ask, pointing, “is that?” For once Maven has no answer. Talking amongst the crew tapers off as everyone sees what the First Mate is hurrying towards. When we get closer, I make out a few columns surrounding a concrete slab and a weathered tower at the end. First Mate Lee is nearly beside himself now with excitement, literally running circles around the structure. I hang back with a few of the more hesitant crew members, not trusting the cracked and crumbling stones in light of the recent earthquakes. Still, I can’t help marveling at the structure. At one point, it must have really been imposing. Now, while its continued existence is impressive, the structure itself appears delicate.

A shout pulls me out of my admiration. First Mate Lee calls from the end by the tower, and everyone hurries over. I round the corner just in time to see him, along with two other men, heave a large stone out of place near the base of the tower. I gasp and step back, anticipating the tower’s collapse, but nothing happens. Instead, a small chamber is now visible in the wall and continuing below the floor of the tower. I take a deep breath, not sure I can take any more adventure and discovery, as First Mate Lee lights a lantern. He sits on the ground beside the opening holding his lantern.

“There is a legend passed down in my family,” he says, suddenly calm, “about an island hidden from modern technology by an ancient shield, and invisible to the human eye except for once every ten years.” Despite this outlandish introduction, everyone has their eyes glued to the First Mate. “Around that island,” he continues, “is a natural barrier, concealing the island itself from sight even in the visible years. Furthermore, there are traps and guards protecting the island. The ‘shield’ which prevents instruments from noticing the island is said to create strange weather, and the guards have a way of testing the hearts of all who lead expeditions close by. This island is said to contain many secrets about our history, including how to restore peace when it has been lost, as well as many priceless artifacts. It is said that there is a tower from the ancient palace which can never be destroyed, and under that tower is hidden a massive treasure and a map of the island. I believe we have found this tower.” No one says anything. If I hadn’t already seen so many incredible things today, I would have called the First Mate crazy. I’m still not sure I shouldn’t, but as he lowers himself into the room below the tower, a joyous shout confirms what he found: gold, an ornate box containing an ancient map which corresponds very nearly with his own, and other objects I can’t immediately identify but believe must be significant.

EPILOGUE:

When we joined back up with the other groups on the beach the next day, First Mate Lee and Captain Banks spoke in private conference for twelve hours straight. When they emerged, both appeared content, if overly tired. The other groups told of strange encounters with heavy fog, an earthquake, and apple trees, but nothing as interesting as an abandoned palace.

A cruise ship-turned-exploration vessel showed up exactly one week after we arrived. Their crew stifled laughter when Captain Banks explained what we had found, but then  they sobered into awe when they saw the gold and the staircase. Apparently their island was much more mundane, with an active volcano preventing landing or a thorough exploration of anything.

For my role in the journey, I have been promised letters of high recommendation to the state academy back home, supporting my desire to study the stars. It’s not a guarantee that I will get in, but it is certainly helpful.

I actually get an entire cabin on this enormous boat to myself, and it does have a thick mattress. I spend as much time as I can on the deck though, watching the water in the day and the stars at night. The stars are more comforting, but the ocean now holds the promise of adventure and peace. I have no idea how some gold and a map are supposed to restore peace to the world, but I look forward to seeing what comes of all this. Captain Banks thinks that the massive earthquake was a timely release of the cloaking device, revealing the island to the world exactly when it is needed most. I pray it is the blessing it promises to be.


I hope you have enjoyed the conclusion to Exploration! Let me know what you think of the ending in the comments; I am very open to advise or constructive criticism which can help me become a better writer in the future. I know this story is not perfect, and if I were trying to publish on anything other than my blog I would probably spend a lot of time figuring out some of the kinks in the world building, but for what it is supposed to be (a fun, short story, mystery written without a ton of editing time), I really like it!

Until the next chapter,

Jana

Image Credit Artem Sapegin via Unsplash.

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