“Awesome. What does that mean?”
August frowned down at the game board. “I don’t know. What do the rules say?”
Nova was minding the rule book—or the guidebook as the cover proclaimed. She flipped through to the detailed descriptions of the seven rings.
“Does it mean that I can solve mysteries? Or that I am mysterious?”
Nova held up one finger as another finger moved across a page in the guidebook.
They were supposed to have gone over to their cousins’ house. They should have all been playing the game over there on the first night of their vacation. But a snowstorm had settled in, and the siblings had already messaged their cousins and rescheduled.
August and Nova had meant only to open the box and examine the pieces and the game board, and maybe skim the instructions. August was just getting over a cold. Nova was drained from finishing the biggest paper she’d ever written in her life. They had meant to go downstairs and watch a movie marathon until they conked out on the couches. But somehow, they found themselves playing the game.
The Seven Rings of Necessity. Their mother had ordered it from some obscure shop she found on her last trip. The game had caught her attention because of the name of its designer—Augusta Stardust, Enchanter Extraordinaire!—and because her son was going through his “mage phase” as she called it.
Nova chewed at her lip and shook her head. She flipped a page and sighed. “I can’t find anything besides a vague description of how the Mystery ring is ‘triggered by curiosity and allows the wearer to see into the unknown.’ I need to contact customer service at some point, so we can get them to send us a new guidebook.” She closed the book and frowned down at it.
While flipping through the guidebook, they had discovered that a third of the pages were blank. But all the blank pages weren’t together. They were scattered throughout the book. And strangely, none of the other pages ended in incomplete sentences or with hyphenated words, as they would have expected if the blank pages were due to a printing error.
The siblings shrugged at each other, and Nova took her turn.
She flipped over a card that contained a recipe for a healing potion. “Broth and a packet of herbs.” She set it aside with the two other potion cards she’d gotten so far.
“Is that a potion, or the start of a tasty soup?” August teased.
Nova raised a brow as she handed him the three dice.
August rolled, and his roll landed him on a seven-sided space on the board with a painting of a glowing coppery ring. The space was labeled “Light.”
“Of course,” Nova said, throwing up her hands. Her brother had just won another ring, just like that.
August reached over to the wooden ring stand and picked up the copper ring. He slipped it over the index finger of his right hand, surprised at how well it fit.
They had expected all the rings to be oversized.
The game must have been expensive. The board was made of some rich dark cherry wood. The rings were ornate bands of metal—probably stainless steel that was dyed different colors and pressed with different patterns. The Mystery ring was embossed with arcane characters. The Light ring was pressed with a sunray pattern.
August flickered his two be-ringed fingers at Nova. “Won’t be long now,” he said.
The object of the game was to obtain seven enchanted rings, based on the seven necessities of mortal existence: water, wonder, blood, breath, mystery, light, and change. The rings allowed the wearer to wield various different powers. The player bearing any particular ring could thwart other players from taking it by using skills, magic, or even the ring’s own powers. But using a ring’s powers meant that the player had to learn those powers. That’s where the stack of cards came into play. Each card presented an opportunity to develop and gain skills independent of or connected to the rings: a challenge, a piece of knowledge, wisdom or aid from an ally, or a spell.
So far, Nova seemed to be gaining skills and August was getting all the rings.
The Light ring glinted and gleamed. Nova’s brows furrowed. “Hold still for a second,” she said.
August held his hand still, hovering above the game board.
“It’s glowing,” Nova said.
The Light ring wasn’t just reflecting light from the two lamps and the overhead bulb. Nova turned off the lamp that was closest to her.
August pulled his hand to his face to take a closer look. But as he did, the glow faded and vanished.
“I swear it was glowing,” Nova said.
August nodded. “I saw it too.”
“I wonder what triggered it.”
“I did summon the power of Light.” August smirked.
“Oh, yeah? Then do it again.”
August raised his hand and said, “I summon the power of the Light!”
Sure enough, the ring glowed a dim coppery-orange glow.
Nova pulled a throw over her shoulders and crossed her arms. “Impressive.” She returned her brother’s smirk. “Maybe when we get a chance, we’ll swap out those batteries for stronger ones.”
August frowned. “It’s not batteries. It’s magic.” He gazed at the Light ring as it dimly glowed and flickered. “Intensify!” he suddenly cried.
The Light ring’s glow brightened from coppery to golden to white.
Nova uncrossed her arms. She squinted her eyes. “Okay, that actually is impressive. How much did Mom pay for this game?”
“Whatever it was, it was worth it.” August used his free hand to shield his eyes from the Light ring’s brilliance. “What’s the opposite of…the word I just said?”
The intense glow diminished.
Nova asked to see the ring. The light vanished altogether when August removed it. Nova put it on and commanded it to intensify. But nothing happened. No glow, dim or bright.
Seeing that his rings could not just be taken, August slipped off his rings, so he could blow a considerable build-up of mucus from his nose and go wash his hands.
When he returned, he found Nova still examining the Light ring. At last, she frowned when she didn’t find any obvious slots that opened up to a battery compartment. She handed the ring back to him. If the ring did operate on batteries, they would have to be the smallest batteries either of them had ever seen.
“Oh well, at least I get to observe the effects after you win the rings,” Nova said as she swept up the dice to take her turn.
Naturally, as soon as she gave up on the chance of winning a ring, she won a ring.
“The Blood ring,” she said, ominously, as she narrowed her eyes, twirled an imaginary mustache, then slipped the dark maroon ring over her right ring finger.
“Hmmm, fits like a glove,” she said.
August shook his head, and picked up the guidebook to read up on the Blood ring’s powers.
“It ‘sustains the spark of life throughout a lifeless form.’”
“Whoa, does that mean I have the power of resurrection?”
“I don’t know. That’s probably what the Breath Ring can do…right?” August flipped to the description of the Breath ring. He paused at some of the blank pages. He could have sworn that when he turned the page, it didn’t look blank, but when he turned back to the page, it was blank again.
He was taking a while. When Nova didn’t toss the dice to him to encourage him to take his turn, he looked up.
Nova had thrown off the throw. She was leaning over the game board with her hands held out, palms up. She had pushed up the sleeves of both her shirt and the thick hoodie she wore over it.
“What are you doing?” August asked.
“Tickles,” she said. “I can feel it.”
August glanced at the red ring on her finger. “What? What is it doing?”
She flipped her hands over and now gazed at the backs of her hands.
“Did you know that blood is a tissue?” she said. “It’s complex.”
August raised a brow. “Uh-huh.”
“I feel stronger, I think. Not like I could lift heavy stuff, but like I have the stamina to stay awake and focused. Alert. I wonder if I’m getting more oxygen to the brain. Is that dangerous? I should look that up.”
August reached for the dice.
Nova finally looked at him. “I don’t feel cold. You know how I’ve been cold all night, even with the heater on?”
“Okay, so we’ll figure it out later, like with the Mystery ring.”
Nova pulled her hands back toward herself. “And it stopped,” she said. She nodded. “I think I’m starting to see a pattern. Let’s keep playing. I want to see what happens when we get another ring.”
Two turns later, August won the Breath ring. Nova told him to hold his hand over the game board as he put the ring on. He was happy to oblige whatever observation she wanted to make. He was, after all, winning. He put the ring on and Nova told him to keep his hand where it was.
A few minutes passed, and August huffed a sigh out of his nose.
Suddenly, he realized what he’d just done. He breathed in…through his nose. Then out.
His sinuses had come unclogged.
“I can breathe,” he said. “And I sound—do I sound sick?”
Nova shook her head. “Do you feel anything unusual? Like in your lungs?”
“No, nothing. I just—I didn’t even notice until just now.”
Nova told him to sit back, back and away from the game board.
This he did, and he immediately noticed his nose clogging up again.
“There’s actually something going on with these rings,” Nova said.
“Yeah, no kidding.”
“But we have to be close to the game board, like almost right on top of it.” Nova peered at the board. “The rings combined with the board lead to effects, or seem to lead to some effects. So the board must be specially constructed. Maybe it has magnets inside, and little engines and gears.”
“And a little engine cleared up my sinuses?”
Nova peered at the game board. “Let’s do another round. I want to see what happens with the next ring.”
In the next round, Nova won the Water Ring. She asked August to put a glass half-full of water on the game board. She peered at the water so long that August decided to go downstairs and microwave some popcorn. When he came back upstairs, planning to clear his sinuses by waving his ringed hand over the game board, so he could enjoy the popcorn properly, Nova was making notes in her journal, and glancing up at the water.
August sat down and set the bowl of popcorn between them. “Take a break?” he asked, glancing at the water and realizing he had forgotten to bring up drinks.
Nova reached for the glass of water with her ringed hand. “Hey, check this out,” she said. She wrapped her hand around the glass. Nothing seemed to happen at first. But then, August noticed beads of liquid forming on the outside of the glass. They formed and dripped down. And then he noticed the glass turning frosty. The water level started to rise…
…because the water was expanding and solidifying into ice.
“Okay, and now this,” Nova said, her gaze fixed on the glass-shaped ice.
August didn’t see anything except for vapor coming off the ice. “I don’t get it,” he said.
“It’s going straight from solid to vapor form, see?”
She didn’t wait for him to respond before she shifted her hand, and the ice began to melt, collapsing back into liquid form, and then forming little bubbles at the bottom that rose to the top, faster and faster, until the glass was fulling of boiling water. The steam reached August’s sinuses and he breathed them in to loosen some of his mucus.
“Obviously, I accept the possibility of magic being real,” Nova said, “but first, I want to eliminate more logical explanations. I’m not going to damage it, but I want to check the board for magnets. And let’s see if the box or the guidebook have any details about the materials that the board and the rings are made of. Natural phenomena that we already know about might explain some of the effects we’re seeing here. Like electricity, magnetism, gravity, sublimation, capillary action…you get it.”
August nodded. “Sure.”
“Some engineer must have built this box.” She glanced up at him. “Someone like you. Someone who tinkers and experiments with stuff.”
August waved off her notion. “Or…a magician made it.”
“Why not both?”
“How do you explain that the only person who can wield of the power of a ring is the person who won it in the game?”
Nova pressed her lips together. “Good question. I don’t know yet. But I can’t do anything with any water that isn’t directly on or above the game board. I tried. So it’s got something to do with the board. But that doesn’t make any sense. What is the point of rings that only work on the game board?”
“Games aren’t just for fun. They’re meant to help us exercise our minds, right?” August said. “I mean, people make ‘educational games’ for kids, but I’ve learned something from every game I’ve ever played, on some level.” He held his ringed hand over the game board and commanded the Light ring to glow at a middle intensity. “I feel more like I know what I’m doing with this ring now. What if the game board and the rings are for training purposes? What if the game is a teaching tool?”
“For teaching what?” Nova asked. But right away, she held up her hand when August took a breath to answer. “Magic.”
August flourished his hand over the game board. It was his turn. He rolled the dice and pulled out a challenge card that directed him to find the nearest blacksmith and request a piece of something called “black silver.” He would incur a penalty for not meeting the challenge, but he set the card aside. He was allowed to skip it for one turn. Nova made a note in her journal to look up “black silver.” Then she took her turn and pulled out a knowledge card that informed her that the Blood ring, when wielded at the highest level of skill, could be used to heal many different kinds of wounds. She set the card aside with a satisfied nod.
August rolled again and won another ring, the Change Ring.
As the named suggested, one of the ring’s powers was to change objects from one form to another when set on the board. August put a pencil on the board. He stared at it. With Nova’s guidance, as she read from the guidebook, he focused on the pencil’s shapes, colors, textures, smells, weight, temperature, and any other physical property that he could think of. She told him to change one of those properties. August thought about changing the color, from yellow to blue. He felt the change trigger in his mind, like a tiny spark running across the back of his skull. And just like that, the pencil changed. But it didn’t change color. It changed identity altogether, from a pencil to a pebble.
When Nova delicately picked up the pebble, using only her thumb and index finger, and set it down on the carpet, it popped back into a pencil.
August tried again with a popcorn kernel, and transformed it into a dime. And then with the glass, now emptied of water. And he turned the glass into a pair of socks. He couldn’t make a purposeful change. He just felt the ring trigger, and the object changed. He could envision what he wanted to change, but when he tried, he couldn’t quite get it. It was like a puzzle cube where he needed to get all the colors aligned, but whenever he aligned some of the colors, others got misaligned.
He set the ring aside so they could continue playing.
Nova won the remaining ring, the Wonder ring.
“I wonder what will happen?” she joked as she put on the ring. The bright silver ring was pressed with cosmic patterns. Crescent moons, stars, suns, comets, and planets.
She looked at the game board, and her cheesy expression slackened. Her eyes grew big. Her mouth started to open as if she were about to gape, but then stopped. She stared at the board, hardly blinking.
August gave her a few moments, but he didn’t want to go get a snack this time. “What do you see?” he asked.
She lifted her gaze from the game board and glanced around his room. She had a slight smile on her face.
She handed him the dice.
“Roll until you win the ring,” she said. “I want you to see for yourself.”
Before he even rolled, she lay out her weakest ally cards. August played his strongest ally cards against Nova’s weakest. He won the Wonder ring.
Nova grinned as she took it off and handed it to him. He’d seen that look before. He didn’t expect to see it now. It was a look that said, “I’m happy for you.”
August put on the ring.
The game board expanded and came alive.
The seven-sided spaces rose and turned into towers crowned with spiraling rings signifying the seven enchanted rings. Around the base of each tower stood winged hounds who periodically took to the air and zoomed around the towers. Mountains rose from the middle of the board, with a narrow valley cutting through them. The sides of the mountains that faced the valley glittered with shards of colored crystal, like geodes. Townships popped up with tiny people and tiny beasts moving through them. August smelled a sweet cinnamon apple scent coming from a market in one of the towns. And a musky grassy smell coming from a stable. He heard the rushing of a waterfall and the howling of a lone wolf. A night sky appeared, sparkling with stars and distant planets that he could nevertheless see clearly enough to make out rings and moons.
Mist the color of cotton candy poured over the borders of the board. Vines dropped from the mist and spread through August’s room. The vines bloomed flowers with large tapered petals in vibrant shades of bright blue and magenta and dark yellow.
He noticed then that a figure stood at the base of the Wonder Tower. The figure, an older woman—older than their mother, but younger than their grandmother—grew as tall as the tower.
“Is that who I think it is?” August asked.
Nova answered. “Augusta Stardust.”
The enchanter extraordinaire looked directly at August and began to speak.
“You have only begun your lessons, young mage,” she said, “or old mage, for it is never too late to learn.” She winked. “Congratulations on your journey thus far.”
Her expression became serious then. She stood straighter, and held her hands behind her back.
“Henceforth the lessons will be hard,” she said, “and if you do not take the proper precautions, you might get hurt. Read and heed the guidebook. When you are ready, find the nearest doorway and set the starboard before it. Don’t forget to remove you shoes. Then step onto the board. If you have completed your lessons properly thus far, you will drop into my apothecary shop. If you have not…well, the starboard is quite sturdy. But it is not indestructible. Be careful when you step. Until we meet, farewell and good luck.”
She gave a nod, another wink, and then she shrunk down and vanished in the mist that now covered the entire board.
“You were right, Gus. This is no game.”
August frowned and looked up at Nova.
“What’s wrong?” she asked. “Isn’t this everything you’ve ever dreamed of?”
He looked at the Wonder ring on his finger. “Yeah, but…I never wanted to go alone.”
His sister grinned. “You might not have to. Some of these blank pages aren’t blank anymore,” she said, holding up the guidebook. “There’s got to be something in here about communicating with the person who’s in the, the starboard—I wonder if the ship reference means anything.” She twisted her mouth to one side, then shook her head. “Anyway, maybe the Blood ring can help us keep in touch, since we share blood.”
“Wouldn’t we both need one?”
Nova grinned as she flipped through the newly revealed pages of the guidebook. She took off the Blood ring and set it on the game board—the starboard. She reached for her backpack.
“What are you doing?”
“Page three-fifty-one,” she said. Amidst a cacophony of zipper-and-Velcro sounds, she mumbled something about finding her eyeglass repair kit.
August reached for the guidebook.
On page three-fifty-one was a diagram of the Blood ring. It illustrated three tiny panels on the inside of the ring that could be flipped open to reveal screws beneath. If the screws were removed, the ring could be separated into two pieces. Taken apart, it would no longer have the full power of the whole ring. But one of its properties as separate pieces was that it allowed the wearers to communicate…through telepathy.
August glanced up at his sister. “So…you’re just going with all this?”
“Yeah, I mean we’re going to read and reread the guidebook first. We’ll split up the Blood ring. We’ll make sure there’s a way for you to…eject, I guess, out of the board, if something really intense happens, like if a dragon appears.” She triumphantly pulled out her eyeglass repair kit, and she raised her journal. “And I’ll keep a log of our observations.”
August nodded. “Of course you will.”
They behaved as if August believed in magic, and Nova believed in science. But in truth, both believed in both.
“While you’re traipsing around in the town or wherever you’re going,” Nova said, “I’m going to do some research on where the game came from. I’ll start with the store.”
August felt a bit guilty. Research on the game sounded boring compared to visiting the world of the game, and getting magic lessons directly from Augusta Stardust, or her hologram, or whatever the magical equivalent of a hologram was. Then again, Nova liked research. “I just hope we don’t wake up tomorrow morning and discover that none of this was real,” he said. “That we just had a shared delusion from drinking that weird eggnog that Aunty Sheila brought over.”
Nova gazed at the starboard. “Even if it’s not real, we have just experienced something worth experiencing.” She looked up at him and beamed.
August looked down at his ring.
“Wonder,” he said.
He glanced up and saw the cosmic colors of the ring reflected in his sister’s eyes.
Copyright © 2020 Nila L. Patel