I rushed through the streets. The koo-ko had no trouble keeping up with me despite being about half my height. If needed, all of them, including the First Scholar and two of his helpers, one carrying his hat and the other dragging a long stick of polished blue wood with a bright red tassel attached to its tip, could outrun me and then some.
“Tell me the riddle,” the First Scholar asked.
“Say my name, and I will disappear. What am I?” I was pretty sure I knew the answer but “pretty sure” didn’t count when a life hung in the balance.
“You’re right. The sphinx is very young. No matter. Youth isn’t an excuse for willful flaunting of the rules, although it is certainly the right time for it.”
We turned into the dark alleys. The shaggy sloth creature saw us and waved a little piece of bright red cloth like a flag as we passed. The other vendors stared at us. They had now watched Sean run into the Old Arena, then run out, come back with me, then I ran out, and now I was back leading a flock of koo-ko. It was more excitement than they probably had seen for the entire month.
We spilled into the Old Arena. Everything was as I had left it: the sphinx, Sean, and the female werewolf, still locked in the glowing golden helix of the sphinx’s power.
“Why don’t you answer?” the sphinx purred. “Go on. Take a chance. You cannot wait forever. Soon you will soil yourself. Then will come thirst, then hunger. You are a brave warrior. Is that how you want to die? Alone, wasting away in your filth because you are too scared to answer a simple riddle?”
“Keep quiet,” Sean told her.
“She has answered you,” the First Scholar declared.
The sphinx turned its massive head and looked at us.
The First Scholar’s assistant on his left deposited the headdress onto the elder’s head. The assistant on his right thrust the stick into his clawed hand. The three dozen koo-ko arranged themselves into a crescent behind the First Scholar.
A violet sheen rolled over sphinx’s eyes. “And who are you, small bird?”
The First Scholar raised his stick, sending the tassel flying. “Do not change the subject. By the very act of remaining quiet, she has answered your riddle, for the answer to your question is silence.”
The sphinx frowned.
“The right answer has been given. Release this creature as per your bargain,” the First Scholar demanded.
The sphinx pondered it, clearly stumped.
“That is not a proper answer,” he finally said.
“Then ask me another question, and I will answer for her,” The First Scholar declared. “She is but a humble warrior, while my mind holds decades of academic knowledge. She is a snack but I am a delicious feast.”
The sphinx smiled, and the nightmarish forest of fangs in his mouth glinted in the sun. The golden glow around the female werewolf died, and she tumbled to the ground.
The sphinx opened its metallic wings, the golden feathers reflecting the sunlight in a blinding glow. Golden light spiraled around the First Scholar. He was barely three and a half feet tall, counting the headdress, and the sphinx was forty feet at the shoulder.
The koo-ko scholars cooed in unison, the sound of collective anxiety.
The First Scholar raised his head. “Ask your question.”
“The more there is, the less you see. What am I?
The Sphinx opened his mouth. Nothing came out.
“That is an embarrassingly easy question. Ask another,” the First Scholar said. “Go ahead.”
“Once offered one, you shall have two or none at all—”
“A choice. Let us try again. Reach deeper.”
“I have one color but many sizes. I touch you yet you never feel me. Light gives me existence, darkness–”
“A shadow.” The First Scholar sighed. “Let me save you the trouble. Wind, time, self, light, youth, fire. Shall I continue?”
The sphinx stared at him, mute.
A few seconds passed.
“How?” the sphinx managed finally.
“You’re obviously going through Bartran’s Guide to the Questions of an Inquisitive Mind and the Nature of Existence.” The First Scholar turned to his students and waved the stick. “Note this moment.”
The koo-ko pulled scrolls from the toilet paper holders on their belts and produced styluses.
“Those of you who idly wonder why you should read the classics and when you would ever have the opportunity to use the fundamental knowledge contained within, take heed, for you never know when you may encounter a sphinx on the crossroads of life. This sphinx,” the Scholar pointed at the towering creature with his stick, “is but an allegory. He and his kind are forbidden here, so you would be forgiven for thinking your mind is safe, yet here he is, ready to devour the unprepared. Such is the existence of a scholar, forever seeking knowledge and defending one’s right to obtain and share it while perils await at every turn. It is a noble pursuit.”
The First Scholar’s voice quivered with emotion. The koo-ko students dutifully recorded every word.
“Always remember, knowledge is a product of labor. It is to be shared but never taken. For if you set out to rip knowledge away from others and hoard it like a jealous merchant hoards their wealth, you too will be shunned like this sphinx and banished from the circle of your peers.”
No doubt, this would become one of the koo-ko philosopher legends.
The First Scholar turned to the sphinx and waved his stick at him. “And you, you are not supposed to be here. More, you have come here unprepared. Bartran provides the first building block to one’s understanding of existence, but he, by design, shows you the mere tip of the iceberg, just enough to demonstrate that the enormous underwater mountain is there and to prompt you to dive into the frigid depths to seek your own understanding. You have decades of study ahead of you before venturing forth again. Answer the question of my dear human friend and then return humbly to your teacher, who is without a doubt deeply disappointed in your conduct.”
Sometimes when Olasard persisted in his feline entitlement, I gently booped him on the nose with my finger. The grey Maine Coon always looked stunned, as if I had committed an outrage so great, he simply couldn’t come to terms with it. The sphinx looked just like that.
The First Scholar banged the butt of his stick on the ground. The tassel danced. “Answer!”
“Where does the portal lead?” Sean asked.
“To Karron,” the sphinx said.
Wilmos was doomed.