Part 80: Game

4 to Wakening Sun, Inalis, 39 days remaining

The others caught up to us and experienced the same thing that Briar and I had. When they got over the swooning feeling, Clio explained that she sent Loreus and Pholon to take our centaurs back to the Gjallarhorn. This place, the lair of the Lotus Witch, was going to be dangerous. They figured Briar and I had been bewitched in some way, so they sent the others away to keep them safe.

The way was open to us in the obelisk, the dark stone tower of the Lotus Witch. This witch was a sphinx – a creature unknown to me – and was legendary for being incredibly powerful. The myths about people disappearing here and the sound of crying children ahead of us was uncomfortable. Briar asked us if we would stay with her. She had questions for the Lotus Witch about her curse and was afraid to be alone. We offered her our strength and protection, and we went inside.

The obelisk is vastly larger inside than it appears on the outside. The room on the ground floor is spacious beyond what we would imagine, and is filled with soft lights and the sound of crying. There are babies in here, at least a dozen but maybe more. There are elves, humans, minotaurs, dwarves, and more. Most of them are infants, but there are a few of them walking about as toddlers, and each of them is clutching the yellow lotus flowers. They are taking them around a corner we can’t see.

We had heard the tales of the Lotus Witch turning people into children, and this seemed like what we were seeing. So Clio reached out with her mind to talk to one of them. The child turned to us, frightened, and bade us to leave as quickly as we could. Behind us, though, the door had disappeared, and the child just sighed. Mentally, he is his proper age but physically he is a child. He told us that he and his companions attempted to get information from the Lotus Witch, but she deemed them too stupid and turned them into babies. This poor boy/man had been turned into an infant again after he grew up and the Lotus Witch would soon turn him back into an infant again. What a wretched life!

Since the door had opened for us, Briar assumed that the Lotus Witch would be expecting us now. We began to climb the long winding staircase that went up impossibly high. It’s interesting that we could see lights above us. Not light from the lanterns below with the children, but from sun or moons in the windows – remember, there were no windows on the obelisk before. Where did these windows come from?

Our ascent took what seemed like ages, and even Actaeon and Rendu were tired by the time we came to the top of the tower. But along the way, we peered out those windows while we rested. The scenes outside were not what we thought we’d see. Scorpion Island should be outside, but instead each window gave us a view of something else entirely. The first window showed a vast and starry expanse and I felt a feeling of radiance from it. I think it was the realm of the elder gods.

The second window showed an army of insect-like creatures marching across a wasteland. Torag, Shadow, Briar, and Rendu all recognized it, having been transported there temporarily during our battle with the wicked Fates. The third window showed a walled city besieged by a vast army, shouting and crying as they watched two gladiators fight to the death at the city gates. The man from the city was being overwhelmed. The man from the sieging army seemed angry, furious. Somehow, I know how he feels. The fourth window was another siege, but this one was against monstrous creatures dressed in black armor with white hand insignias on them, facing against what seemed like a small band of untrained soldiers on broken walls. The fifth window showed a group of people fighting against a young green dragon on the wreckage of a ship. The adventurer group seemed like good people, though, and they were winning their fight. The sixth window showed the shattered fragments of a tower up high in the sky, surrounded by shadowy creatures. There are more adventurers here, fighting against a creature with the head of a burning skull. The last window, the seventh, showed us the Emerald Isles themselves, but from the sky. A glass pane closed this window, and we all felt compelled to leave it alone for some reason.

The room at the top of the tower was larger than the tower itself, seemingly, with bright windows all around it. The room was beautiful, carved with runes, letters, and images. I didn’t get a good look at any of this because I and my companions could only gaze towards the lion-like figure ahead of us. The Lotus Witch said, her voice low and angry, “Why have you disturbed my contemplation?”

Briar was brave and stepped forward, kneeling down low. She said, “I was told to meet with you by the lich Damon, to ask of you for a way to break my curse.” The Lotus Witch just scoffed. She called Briar brave but her optimism would not be rewarded. Then she said to the rest of us that the knowledge of the world would be the only thing that would save us now. Do we know history? Or are we doomed to repeat it?

We said we were willing to learn. But the Lotus Witch scoffed again, disagreeing. The time for learning was past. Now, she would entreat us if we could prove we were thoughtful enough. Otherwise, she thought of us as nothing more than stupid infants. It seems that the children downstairs must have failed her test of knowledge. We would not do that, though.

The questions came quickly. Who was the first of the Dragonlords? I knew that one, and I blurted it out without thinking: Xander Huorath.

Of all the Dragonlords, which was the most cruel? Rendu answered, his voice shaky yet resolute: Estor Arkelander.

Eos bore fruit. Who were they that sprang forth from a single pit? Briar answered: the Twin Titans, Amalj’aa and Khar’shan.

Who was he that created the Myrmekes? Clio knew it: Voeld.

Where is the God of Haste? We all answered, glad that we knew this one as well: Rz’hal is trapped in the earth underneath Fire Island, imprisoned by Amalj’aa and Khar’shan.

The human-like face of the Lotus Witch shifted suddenly, no longer harsh. In fact, she looked most pleased with us, saying that our knowledge of the Emerald Islands was impressive as no one had ever answered her questions before. As such, since she offered us five questions, we could ask her five.

The first question was from Briar, who asked “How do I break this curse on my family?” The Lotus Witch answered that Briar must venture to the Island of Havarl, an island called the Maw. Leaping into the Mouth of Flame and traversing below the island, Briar would find the source of the curse and she alone could break it. To survive entering the Mouth of Flame, Briar would need a special item to protect her and the Lotus Witch would give it to her on one condition: beat her in a Game of Twenty Squares.

The second question was from me, and I asked about the Book of Life. We were told that a sphinx had it, and I wondered if it was her. The Lotus Witch said that she did not have possession of such a book, but we could find it on the Island of Time. Funny, she looked uneasy as she told us this. The Lotus Witch said we could go to that island to find it, and that if I wanted some information from the book early, I could trade her for it (she had read some of the pages already). To get this information, I would need the Fates (Clio, Rhea, and Versi) to create a magical veil on their loom. Clio said she’d be happy to help me do it, and I told the Lotus Witch that I would do my best to provide her with the veil.

The third question was asked by Shadow, “How do we enter the Nether Sea?” That answer scared us. The Nether Sea is Khar’shan’s realm and it exists in another plane entirely. Entering it requires us to be swallowed by Barathrum, the whirlpool maw in the Forbidden Sea, west of Talys. Our ship will survive if we enter that way.

The fourth question was asked by Rendu, “Where do we find the treasures of the dragonlords in the Nether Sea?” We got a terrible answer for this one. The treasures were taken by Dragonlord Luis Dante and his dragon Brakadios to the Mirror Prison in the Nether Sea. They meant to hid these treasures in the chamber of the Primal Tide, an ancient monstrosity that even Khar’shan would have preferred locked away. But they failed. While the treasures are in the Mirror Prison, they accidentally released the Primal Tide.

The last question was asked by Clio, “Where are the children of Selesnya?” But to our surprise, the Lotus Witch refused to answer. She said she was forbidden to reveal that information, and urged us to ask something else of her.

Instead, we asked, “Where are the remaining instruments of Palladia?” The first is in the hands of a Satyr named Zephyrus and he is currently on the Island of the Exiles. The second is with Notus, an aurae nymph currently playing for the god Helios. The Lotus Witch offered a quick note on Notus, though: Notus does not play of his own free will.

And now, the Game of Twenty Squares. Briar once called it the Royal Game, and explained that this game was something bound by fate. Wagers were impressive and heavy, and losing a game would cost one dearly. The squares were laid out on a board and each player took turns rolling a die and moving their pieces around. The difficulty of the game came through strategy. Though the goal was to move all your pieces from the start to the finish, your pieces overlapped with your opponents and you had to carefully weigh your options on how to use the die rolls.

Briar won the first game, performing beautifully.

Briar also won the second game, sensing on the Lotus Witch’s inscrutable face that she knew she had made a grave mistake on the third turn of the game.

Briar also won the third game as she remembered something that Herkus had once told her when he taught her how to play. Whatever that was, it helped Briar win. One more win and Briar would be victorius!

The Lotus Witch won the next game, apparently pretending that she was losing at one point. Briar got distracted and missed what she called an obvious move.

The Lotus Witch won the fifth game, too, now seemingly intimidating Briar and scolding her for foolish choices.

The Lotus Witch won the sixth game as well. Briar attempted to set up a move that would trick the Lotus Witch into a bad position, but the Lotus Witch didn’t notice or didn’t care. Either way, it did not work out for Briar.

The last game was crucial now. Whoever wins this one wins the entire game. The game was fast paced this time, both of them knowing the other’s intents behind each move. Unfortunately, Briar sneezed, and her sneeze startled them both. The table flipped over and the pieces scattered. We quickly gathered them up again, and an embarrassed Briar and an undeterred Lotus Witch continued the game. This time, Briar held her sneeze! Everything was so tense. I don’t think Briar was attempting to do anything to throw off the Lotus Witch at all, but the Lotus Witch, I suspect, was waiting for Briar to trick her somehow. She was so focused on Briar that she missed a move entirely! Briar was the winner!

The Lotus Witch looked seriously pleased, though. Had Briar lost, she would have had to make an Oath of Service to her. Instead, Briar’s victory gained her an opal staff of fire, one that would grant her protection when she went to break her curse.

The Lotus Witch turned to the rest of us. “Your time here is spent. Until you bring the veil, we shan’t meet again.” And with that, we were suddenly outside the obelisk!

I quickly flew up into the air to see how much time had passed. Had the Gjallarhorn assumed we died and took off back to Ellandyr? We were in there for what felt like weeks, but I think only a few moments had passed. It took us only an hour to catch back up to Pholon, Loreus, and our centaurs.

We have new plans now! Briar’s curse can be broken at the Island of Havarl, so we’ll need to head over there sometime soon. We also have to catch up with Kano on The Golden Heart. I contacted him to see how he was doing and he said he was fine, except that he was being hunted at the moment. That gave us a start, so we set sail for the Golden Heart immediately.

To prepare ourselves, we contacted Keledone to take a few orders for us to Azorius again. A few things for Actaeon and Shadow were ordered, but the big one was Torag’s new dagger. It was the weapon that Azorius was supposed to forge for his son Vaevictus ages ago. We don’t know what it will be like, but it was costly. Azorius said magic requires a magic mineral like gold, and this one cost us nearly our entire purse.

Oh, something else amazing happened! Dromoka hatched! It’s Torag’s dragon! He’s… chunky. He’s a big boy, covered in spikes, and he’s a little dim-witted. I mean, he’s an infant so I guess that makes sense.

Well, no, not really. Ysgramor, Malkarion, and Zirconis are all pretty smart. Zirconis especially. I mean, it’s not that Dromoka isn’t smart! No, it’s not that. He’s just… very motivated by candy and doesn’t like to talk much. Or talk with big words. But he’s enamored with Torag, and Torag spent the entire day teaching him about the ship and showing him his workouts. I watched them in the training room for a bit earlier today. Dragons can’t really do pushups, but Dromoka sure is trying his best.

I spent some time with Nessa, helping her figure out where things were on the ship. She’s clumsy on stairs like Briar used to be, so I brought up blankets for her to camp on the top deck with the others, just like Sel-Makor, Ilharg, and Pholon. Though I do note, she went as far away from Pholon as possible. She doesn’t like him much.

We’re off to the Golden Heart! I don’t know what to expect there, but I hope it isn’t entirely unpleasant. Fighting a Sun’s Avatar is never easy, but this one is going to be rough. I’ve got to make sure my spells and magics are all top-notch for a fight.