• Published 16th Jun 2016
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The Riddle of the Sphinx - Cold in Gardez

Daring Do encounters a legendary monster, and a terrible test, deep beneath the earth.

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The Sphinx

Daring Do leapt through the stone archway as the passage collapsed behind her. A terrific wind – air displaced by the falling rocks – pushed her, and she shot from the corridor like a dart ejected from a blowgun. For a long moment gravity went away as she soared forward, and there was only the sensation of the air ripping at her feathers in the dark, and then she met the stone floor again.

She came to rest on her side. Blood – her own blood – tinged the air, riding atop the dank scent of dust and stone and ages that clogged her nostrils. She coughed a little cough and marvelled that her ribs were still intact.

Ow. Ow. Seriously, ow. She groaned and managed to roll onto her side, then her hooves. Nothing seemed broken, so she slowly stood.

Half her hide felt raw, but the darkness was a bigger problem. She had a torch somewhere in her saddlebags, one of those new magical ones that you just twisted the end and it stayed lit for hours. She fished around with an aching hoof until she found the rod and pulled it out.

“Alright, tomb, let’s see what we’ve got,” she mumbled.

She clamped down on the end of the stick with her teeth. Light – brilliant, blinding red light – exploded from the flare, and she dropped it with a yelp. Her eyes watered at the searing glow, and she clenched them shut until the dancing dark afterimage blobs faded away.

It was a wide room, dozens of paces across. Massive stone blocks that must have weighed thousands of pounds made up the walls, and she could barely see the ceiling, so high was it. Tall columns vanished above her. Dust, undisturbed for years, swirled with each breath, and the floor all around was littered with countless white sticks that crunched beneath her hooves—

She froze. Not sticks. Bones.

Hundreds of bones. Thousands. A graveyard worth of bones, all scattered on the stone floor. A scream tried to crawl its way out of her throat, and she choked it back down. Her heart hammered against her ribs so hard her wings shook in sympathy.

Stop. Stop. Don’t panic. She sucked in a gasp of air, ignoring the taste of dust and stone and bone oh Celestia that’s bone dust I’m eating them I’m drinking them

She pitched forward and retched. Spittle dribbled from her lips onto the ancient stone. The torch’s red glare dimmed and grew quiet as the blood drained from her head, and she wobbled on unsteady legs.

Stop. You’ve seen worse. Lots worse. She sealed her lips and inhaled deep and slow through her nose. The scent of death was still there, but she pushed it away. It’s just bones. Calcium. Their spirits are long gone.

Okay. She opened her eyes and scanned the room again. It seemed smaller now; the ceiling wasn’t so high after all. A stone archway led into another corridor, much like the last, and she thought she felt a faint breeze stir from beyond.

She glanced behind her. A mass of rubble blocked the hall. She could spend a thousand years trying to dig her way out. Or she could go forward.

Daring Do picked up the torch, careful to keep the flame away from her wings, and walked into the darkness.

* * *

The corridor was wide and long. It wound through the stone like a titanic snake’s burrow, up and down, over and around itself until Daring Do found she could no longer remember which direction was forward. Perhaps she had missed a turn somewhere, a small corridor, and now she walked in a loop with no beginning or no end. She walked for what felt like hours, until she grew innured to the scent of stone, and the torch sputtered and died, and only faint embers like orange stars remained to light her way.

Still she walked. She walked until her aching hooves grew numb. Her knees creaked with each step. Her wingtips brushed against the stone when she stretched them out, feeling for a hall or passage or even just the faint kiss of wind, for the hope that the air still stirred, and somewhere ahead lay a path out of this endless hall.

As she walked she began to dream. She saw herself walking for ages, walking as civilizations crumbled and vanished like the ruins around her, and new societies grew in their place. And these new societies whispered about the mare who walked endlessly through the halls beneath their hooves, cursed by her foolish pride to haunt the catacombs she so loved. She became their new god, their Celestia. The god who walked forever.

And then the tunnel ended.

Daring Do stumbled to a halt. The touch of the stone against her wings vanished, and she felt the air flow around her. Her hoofsteps echoed against distant walls. She stood there, breathing, recalling slowly who she was.

There was light as well. A faint glow bled in from the walls, filling the cracks between the stones. She blinked, her eyes watering, and slowly took in the sight before her.

It was an altar room. Or a temple. Or perhaps a throne. A vast wide space spread out before her. Flagstones littered with bones stretched for dozens of yards, and in the center of the room rose a granite monolith. A place for sacrifices.

She stood there in silence. Her heart, which she had not felt in ages, began to beat again. The sludge in her veins moved. Feeling returned to her hooves.

“Wha…” Her dry lips cracked and bled as she opened them to speak. She stopped and sucked on her tongue until the faint, long-absent taste of her own saliva returned, and then she tried again. “Hello? Is anypony there?”

Nothing answered. Her voice returned, a sad echo, and that too faded. She waited in the quiet, her hoof poised to take a step forward.

And then something broke the silence. A voice like a god’s answered her, so loud it shook her chest and rattled the bones strewn all about.

“Ah, I thought I heard hooves,” the thunderous voice said. “Hello there, little pony. Welcome.”

The air moved again, and a tremendous form fell from the ceiling. It landed with a crash atop the granite altar and settled into a crouch. Wings the size of sails stretched out, cupping the darkness, and a leering face craned over her. Shark’s teeth in a pony’s maw, borne on a lion’s body. A golden mask concealed everything else.

“It’s been years since I had a visitor,” the sphinx said. She smiled, and sparks dripped from her jaws to splash on the stone between them. “I’m glad you came. I’ve been lonely.”

Daring stared up at the sphinx. For a moment her wits fled and her muscles froze. Only when the sparks dripping from the beast's maw stung her hooves did she recover enough to jerk away and respond. “Oh! Uh, hello! It’s a pleasure to meet you. I was actually just looking for the exit when I—”

“The exit!” The sphinx’s grin split her face nearly in half. “You’re in luck. It’s just behind me, up those stairs. Can’t miss it.”

“That’s great.” Daring Do sidled slowly to the side, nudging away the bones in her path. “Well, then I’ll just—urk!”

The sphinx moved, far too fast for something so large. A paw the size of a wagon wheel crushed Daring to the floor. Sharp bone fragments dug into her skin, and she struggled for breath beneath the monster’s terrible weight.

The pressure eased after a moment, though the paw remained. “Oh, why the rush? Surely you can stay for a bit. It’s been far too long since I had some decent company.”

“Right, right!” Daring gasped for air. “Glad to stay!”

“Excellent. Let’s start with introductions.” The sphinx’s breath washed over Daring as she spoke. It burned, searing her like the air rising from a furnace. A wicked orange glow spilled out from her maw. “I am Jocasta, and this is my home.”

“Daring Do,” Daring said. She cringed away from the heat. “Explorer extraordinaire. You may have heard of me?”

“Hm.” Jocasta’s paw lifted away and scratched at her chin. “I’m afraid I have not. But I don’t get out much.”

Daring pushed herself up onto her hooves. Little bits of bone fell from her coat, rattling on the stone floor like windchimes. She glanced at the far passage again, but had no illusions about running for it – Jocasta was far too fast. One stride of her huge legs would close the distance, and one snap of her jaws put an end to Daring’s attempted escape.

So, talk her way out or end up as another set of bones scattered on the floor. “I’ve, uh, never met a sphinx before,” she said.

“Mm, most ponies don’t. Or if they do, it’s only once.” Jocasta stepped down from the altar and walked in a lazy circle around Daring. Bones crunched into powder beneath her paws. “But, to be fair, I don’t meet many pegasi. That’s what you winged ones are called, right?”

“Yeah. You, uh, mostly meet unicorns? Earth ponies?” Daring glanced around the room’s upper reaches. It was high enough to fly, but Jocasta had wings too, and the sphinx was tall enough to snatch Daring out of the air with little trouble. Still, she’d get farther in the air than she would on hoof.

So, that was the back-up plan. Not great, but better than nothing.

“Unicorns, they’re the ones who glow? Yes, something about treasure seems to attract them to these halls.” Jocasta tilted her head back and drew in a deep breath, her nostrils flaring wide. She paused, still as a statue, then resumed her languid roam around the court.

“And earth ponies, yes, them too,” Jocasta continued. “Did you know, an army of earth ponies once came here to slay me? Ah, but they were poorly led, and in the end they all ran. And those who did not flee are still here today.” She swept a paw across the floor, scattering the bones. One skull bounced several times before crashing into the far wall and shattering like porcelain.

Daring tried to speak and found her mouth was dry as parchment. She swallowed, worked her tongue, and tried again. “That’s, uh, not very nice of them.”

“No, it was not.” Jocasta’s lips peeled back in a snarl, revealing far more teeth than Daring could count. “Monster, they called me. Well, I showed them.”

“You certainly did.” Daring wracked her brain for everything she knew about sphinxes. A few tattered fragments of legend, passed down in tales, were all that she found. Before meeting Jocasta she wasn’t even sure they existed. “But, uh, what about ponies who come in peace? Who just want to talk?”

“Oh, I love those ponies. I love to talk! In fact, would you like to hear a riddle?”

“I, uh…” Another fragment of legend surfaced in Daring’s mind. Sphinxes did love riddles, and more, they ate the ponies who got them wrong. “Well, actually, I’m not so good at puzzles, and—”

“Oh, relax!” Jocasta nudged Daring with her paw, sending the pegasus stumbling. “This one’s just for fun.” She sat back on her haunches, raised her head, and fixed Daring with a piercing, steady gaze before speaking:

“There is a house in a place I know,
On it ivy and orchids grow.
As children enter they who are blind,
Later leave they, and open their eyes.”

Jocasta leaned forward, and her whisper shook Daring’s bones. “What is this house?”

“Uh.” Daring took a step back. “Wait, so blind foals go in, and… Can you say it again?”

“I’m afraid not.” Jocasta slouched, stretching out on her side like a cat. A tufted tail two meters long flicked at Daring’s legs. “You have to listen closely. Now, what is this house?”

Think! Think! You’re going to get eaten oh Celestia house what house? Daring glanced at the exit again and tensed her wings. “It’s a, um, a hospital?”

Jocasta snorted. “A hospital? You are too literal, little pony. It is a school. Knowledge opens foals’ eyes. They still have schools on the surface, don’t they?”

“Oh! Yeah, we do. That was my second guess.” Daring glanced back at the exit, but Jocasta didn’t seem to be making a move to eat her yet. “Well, that was fun! I’m glad you shared with me, but I don’t want to intrude on your time any more, so I’ll just—”

“It’s no imposition, Daring Do,” Jocasta said. She pronounced Daring’s name with an odd twist, as though the syllables sat oddly on her tongue. “Perhaps another riddle? An easier one, this time. More… literal.”

“Well, if you insist.”

“I do.” She grinned a shark’s grin and spoke:

“I feed nations.
I vomit sand.
I devour the fearless.
Drink me and you will die of thirst.
What am I?”

The tense knot of muscles between Daring’s wings relaxed. She knew the answer after the second line, and the rest only confirmed it. “The ocean. You are the ocean.”

“Very good!” Jocasta’s voice rang like a bell, vibrating the stone beneath Daring’s hooves. “See? That wasn’t so hard.

“Well, like you said, it was an easy one.”

Jocasta rolled onto her back, looking for a moment like the world’s largest kitten. She sounded infinitely pleased with herself. “I know thousands! We could spend eternity down here, Daring Do, sharing our riddles. Would you like that?”

Honest question? One way to find out. “Actually, I’ve been down here for so long as is. I think if I don’t get above ground soon I’ll start to go insane. So, uh, I’m afraid I have to take my leave.” She took a hesitant step toward the far door.

Jocasta let out a long sigh. It was like the wind through a mountain pass, and she rolled onto her paws with a fluid grace that belied her huge size. “I’m afraid it’s not so simple as that, Daring Do. There is a curse on this place.”

A curse. There’s always a curse. “Oh?”

“Yes. The curse of the sphinx. Like the name? I came up with it myself. Not very imaginative, I know, but it has a certain authority.” Jocasta paused and lapped at her muzzle with a tongue the size of Daring’s wing. Dribbles of fire ran like spittle down her chin. “Before you can leave, I must ask you a riddle, and if you fail to answer it…”

Daring swallowed, and when she spoke she was proud of how little her voice stuttered. “You eat me?”

Jocasta leaned down, so close that her muzzle brushed against Daring’s chest. Her breath burned like fire and stank of ashes. “That’s right. A riddle, and then I’ll eat you. That’s how it always goes.”

“Or… maybe I’ll get it right and you’ll let me leave?”

Jocasta snorted. “All the long centuries leave me in doubt. But maybe you’ll be the first. After all, you got to practice. Most ponies just scream and run and that’s the end of them.”

“Ha! Not this pony. Daring Do never runs!” Though, she did fly sometimes. Her wings flexed at her sides again.

“So brave. Tell me then, little pony.” Jocasta reared up to her full height again. Her wings stretched up, their tips brushing the ceiling, and she spoke:

“What do sphinxes want?”

To eat ponies. The words were on Daring’s lips, about to fly, when something bade her pause. She glanced around at the mouldering bones, and the darkness, and the monster towering above her.

Thousands of riddles. Where did she get those riddles from? Not ponies, probably – certainly not from their bones. All ponies ever did around her was fight or run or fail to answer riddles. They didn’t ask any of their own.

Something cracked beneath Daring’s hoof. She glanced down, and for the first time truly looked at one of the bones. It was ancient, so old that it broke at the slightest touch. Not even cobwebs stirred within its hollows.

“Well, pony? You don’t have forever, I’m afraid.”

Centuries. Dozens of centuries at least. Daring brushed the powdered bone off her hoof. She thought of them all herself.

“Tick tock, Daring Do. Time is wasting—”

“The curse,” Daring mumbled.

Jocasta froze, her mouth still open. “What?”

Daring looked up, meeting Jocasta’s gaze. “The curse of the sphinx. It’s not on me or this place, is it? It’s on you.”

Jocasta stared down at Daring. Her visage was frozen. Stone.

“You’re cursed to stay here,” Daring continued. “Alone. And anypony who visits, you have to devour.”

Silence. The sphinx held so perfectly still she might have been carved from marble. Daring had seen statues with more life.

Jocasta asked again, “What do sphinxes want, Daring Do?”

For a moment, Daring saw herself in the tunnels again. There was no light, only the stone beneath her hooves and the faint touch of the walls on either side, just close enough to brush with the tips of her outstretched wings. She walked, one step at a time, into that unknown darkness, with only half-remembered legends of the sun and wind and sky to drive her forward.

“As I was walking here, through those endless tunnels, I had a vision,” she said. “I thought I was lost forever. That’s what happened to you, wasn’t it? This is what you dreamed.”

She blinked, and she was back in the cavern with Jocasta. They stared at each other.

“Your answer, please. What do sphinxes want?” Jocasta asked. Her voice was as dead as the rock all around.

Daring let out a long breath. “They want somepony to answer their riddle. So they don’t have to eat them anymore.”

Silence again. It stretched out this time.

Was this what all those other ponies heard? Silence, and then death? Daring’s wings begged to stretch out, to catch the air and fly. She stilled them and stared up at Jocasta.

The sphinx spun and strode back to the altar. She surmounted it with a little hop and lay down.

“Go on, then.” She flicked her head toward the corridor. “Up the stairs. You’re free.”

Daring nodded mutely and edged toward the passage, her eyes never leaving the sphinx. She crept forward until her hoof bumped against the first stone step. From above, she could hear the air moving through the stairs. She could smell the desert. It was just moments away. She could already taste the sunlight.

She stopped.

Jocasta hadn’t moved. She sat there, still, perched upon the stone altar, as she had for countless years. Smaller, now, or so she seemed – no longer dominating the room. The gloom seemed to consume her.

Daring’s wings beat the air, and she landed on the edge of the altar. Jocasta turned toward her.

Yes, no doubt about it now, the sphinx was smaller. Still large, compared to a pony, but no more than some adult stallions Daring had met. The stench of ashes and fire was gone, and the air no longer shimmered around Jocasta’s body. Daring stepped forward, until just inches separated them. The terrible heat was no more.

Jocasta shifted. Her paws rubbed together, and her tail twitched. “You, uh, you can go now. If you want.”

“What about you?”

“I, uh…” Jocasta swallowed. She reached up, hooked her paws around the golden mask perched upon her muzzle, and carefully peeled it away. Her eyes, a bright jade, blinked owlishly at Daring.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I never thought this would happen.”

“Oh. Well, I’m gonna head out, I guess.” Daring cleared her throat. “You know, it’s kind of a long walk. You, uh, wanna come with me? Maybe share some riddles?”

Silence once more.

And then the sphinx smiled.