In the end, he followed his gut this time. John grabbed Liese’s shoulder and pulled her into a side passage.
“What are you–”
“Shh,” John broke in, whispering. “Turn off your phone and just be quiet for a minute. Let’s see if we can get it to pass us.”
Liese nodded, and the two of them stood in the sweltering heat, sweating, able to see nothing as they listened to a resounding silence. The footsteps had disappeared. John didn’t doubt that he’d heard them, however, He knew the whatever-it-was was just waiting, confused. And sure enough, after a minute or two, they resumed, just as before: soft footfalls accompanied by scrapes that had to be claws. John was certain of it.
What could make a noise like that? A crocodile would have a swishing noise, wouldn’t it? It would have to, because of its tail. It couldn’t be an asp, and he doubted it was a mummy. Did they have bears in Egypt? He didn’t think so, but the thing sounded massive. He almost thought he could feel the floor vibrate with each step. That couldn’t be possible. The beast would have to weigh over a thousand pounds.
But the noise grew louder and louder, until John didn’t have to imagine he was feeling the vibrations in the floor. There was no doubt about it. At last he heard the thing pass right by the passage he and Liese were hiding in. It was still pitch black, of course. How was the thing moving around? Maybe it could see in the dark. Maybe even now, it was staring at Liese and John, waiting to lash out with its claws and–
“John.” The voice was loud and booming. It seemed to come from everywhere at once. It was all John could do to keep from fainting in shock right then. He was left speechless. Had the creature said his name? Did it know who he was?
“John,” it repeated. “And Liese, is it not? I can hear your thoughts, and I can smell your fear. Turn on your light again that I may see your faces.”
Liese reached out and fumbled for John’s hand, squeezing it tightly before she took out her phone. The light clicked on, revealing an enormous human face peering down at the two of them. Behind the face was a furred tawny body and tightly furled feathered wings. The beast was enormous, filling the entire passage, almost as if the passage had been designed with the beast in mind.
“So,” it said. The voice sounded female. More or less. “It is true. You have come. Do you have the Tome?”
John wasn’t sure if he trusted himself to answer, but he held up the Tome in front of him, his hands trembling as he made the connection. This beast was a sphinx, no doubt about it. And even though he’d already come face to face with a djinn earlier today, this was an entirely different experience. He glanced down at the thing’s paws, each of them the size of a dinner plate, with strong, thick claws peering out between the fur. If this creature wanted to, it could make short work of John without even trying.
“Excellent,” it (she?) said. “And wise of you to stop fleeing from me. Had you continued down this path, you would have come to the gate to the underworld. Once a human has set eyes on it, they can never go back to the land of the living again.”
“Oh,” John said, trying to resist the urge to glance at Liese. She’d seemed so sure it was the right way to go. Everyone made mistakes, he supposed. “Thanks?”
“You do not have my aid yet. To receive that, you must answer me a riddle. Give me the correct answer, and I will show you the way to the entrance of the library. I know of your quest, but I must continue my purpose. I was placed here to protect the entrance. Answer with the wrong choice, and it shall not go well for either of you, sorry though I may be. Are you ready for the riddle?”
And what choice did John have? He shrugged and nodded, hoping the riddle was the one the sphinx always used in the stories: the one about how people are born and crawl on four legs, then grow up and use two legs, and then grow old and use two legs and a cane.
The sphinx cleared her throat and said, “Once in a while, I can be found, and twice in a billion years, but never at all in summer or fall, nor yesterday, today, or tomorrow. You can search forever and not catch a glimpse, but then you’ll find me at once when you check every inch but lose me again when you search a foot or a yard, but find me again in a mile. What am I?”
John licked his lips, thought the riddle over again, and checked Liese for hints.
“The riddle must be solved on your own, John,” the sphinx said. “And I need an answer now. What am I?”
Answer the Riddle
Give it your best shot, folks. Let’s see what you’ve got. Most popular answer wins, and we’ll see what the sphinx does when you give it.