Sphinx by Rachel Blier

Ellie Evans shouldered the heavy glass door open, slicking her hair out of her face as she did so, much good that it did her.  Although ThebesWare was known for scouting eccentric young talents to its development teams, showing up to a portfolio presentation with her glasses beaded with moisture and her skirt askew from running in a vain attempt to beat the rain was not so much eccentric as irresponsible. The sleek, dark bob that she had spent two hours ironing into place that morning was gone, doomed to frizz as it air dried in the warm building. Next time she would wear a hat. Definitely. Recognizing the defeatism inherent in “next time,” Ellie tucked her portfolio further under her arm and picked up the pace. Sure, she might not have much of a chance, but there’d be no chance at all if she showed late, too.

That was when she noticed the sphinx.

On another day, Ellie might have admired the way golden fur transitioned seamlessly to tawny feathers and olive skin, would have taken pleasure in the classical Greek angles of its face as it lifted its head to look at her. The precise way the wings joined to shoulders would have been worth quite a few sketches—six-limbed animals were a conceptual favorite of hers–but what mattered to her right now was the way it had contrived, like the cat it was, to spread its bulk across the maximum amount of space possible. And it was blocking the elevators. Between the minotaur at CreteCo. last week and the hydra at Marathon Publishing, the constant delays were really getting on Ellie’s nerves.

“Hey.”

It lifted its head from its paws, making a sound somewhere between a mew and a growl. “Myes?”

“You’re in the way.”

“Really.” The sphinx blinked slowly, cocking its pointed chin against one paw.

Ellie bristled, fingers tightening on her portfolio. At least the minotaur had been quick to the point. “Yes. I have a job interview. In ten minutes. So if you could just…” Ellie flapped her portfolio at the sphinx in an obvious shooing motion.

The sphinx stretched, wings spreading wide as its claws scraped the dark tile floor. “I think not. The heat vent is here, you know. And it’s a wet day.” It settled back to the tiles and rolled on its side, baring its belly.

Ellie considered giving it a swift kick with one of her carefully chosen—and currently very muddy—artistic combat boots, but restrained herself to a quick feint, which the sphinx ignored.

“Fine. Then I’ll take the stairs.”

“You mean those stairs?” One barred wing rose from the floor, pointing at the stairwell door located beside the elevator. Behind the sphinx.

Ellie set her portfolio down. “Fine. Whatever it is you want, make it quick. My time is valuable.”

“Now we’re talking.” The sphinx rolled itself up onto its haunches and leaned forward on its forepaws. “How’s your memory of the story of Oedipus?”

“Pretty good.”

“The rules are the same. We play a riddle game. You answer my questions, I let you pass. You don’t answer, I eat you. Fair enough?”

“As long as you’re quick.” Ellie straightened her skirt and took one last swipe at her hair. Might as well make herself look presentable, if she’s going to wait anyway.

The sphinx graced Ellie with another of its slow cat blinks, batting its long human eyelashes. “Very well. What.” It paused, brought a paw to its plum colored mouth, slicked it with saliva, and ran it through its hair, almost imitating Ellie.

What’s what? Ellie wanted to ask. She also wanted to slap the creature across the face, but knew from her experience with housecats and catty women that the more she urged the sphinx to get on with it, the more it would delay. She paced back and forth, listening to her boots squeak on the tile, until the creature finally looked up from its miniature grooming session.

“Well?” Ellie said.

The sphinx blinked at her slowly, without opening its eyes all the way. Ellie folded her arms, waiting for the deadly riddle. Whatever it was, she could handle it. She’d read her Tolkien. And nothing could be worse than bargaining her way past CreteCo’s guardian.

“What walks. On four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three legs at night?”

Water dripped from the hem of Ellie’s skirt. “That’s it?”

The sphinx’s eyes narrowed, her shoulders and wings pulling forward against her cheeks. “What about it?”

“Well, nothing, it’s just,” Ellie said, trying not to snort, “I was expecting something a bit more esoteric.”

“How so?” A definite growl had crept into the sphinx’s voice, and Ellie was glad she had managed not to laugh. The sphinx was ridiculous, yes, but still dangerous, wings folded tight to its back, hind legs tensed to spring.

“Well. Nothing, except everyone knows it. It might have worked for you back in the day, but word has gotten out.” Ellie ducked the gust of air that came from the sphinx’s suddenly ruffled wings. “Don’t you know any other ones?”

The sphinx muttered something so low that Ellie had to ask her to repeat it. On the third try, she was able to discern something that sounded like “family heirloom.”

“We all have to ask it,” the sphinx said, tail whipping frantically back and forth, all pretense of calm lost. “It’s tradition.”

Ellie paused a moment, imagining herself in the creature’s condition, forced to do what her family dictates no matter how silly it might feel. Like her own family, except with feathers and talons and sharpened canine teeth. An image of Uncle Matthew’s face on a sphinx body flickered across her mind’s eye, and she had to suppress a shudder. That will be her, unless she lands a job as a concept artist. And these stupid monsters are always in the way. With that thought, what little connection she felt with the unfortunate sphinx disappeared. She glanced at her watch. Five ‘til.

“That’s too bad.” She scooped up her portfolio and made as if to edge past the sphinx, heading for the elevator doors. “I’d really hate to be in your paws.”

Just as she cleared the threshold, Ellie heard the sound of rustling feathers, and then she felt herself strike the floor, air rushing from her lungs, with the sphinx’s front paws and the weight of a full grown lioness pressing down on her shoulders.

“You haven’t answered the riddle,” said the sphinx, its face kissing-close, so that Ellie can see the unnatural way its mouth moves, human lips over carnivore teeth.

Ellie gasped for breath, trying to force more air into her lungs, thoughts of I’m going to die competing with thoughts of I’m going to be late, they won’t even look at my portfolio if I’m late. With one hand she scrabbled on the tiles beside her, feeling around for the plastic clad bundle of papers.

“Were you bluffing about the answer to my riddle, little girl?” The sphinx’s claws dug into her shoulders.

Late. Death. Late is death. “Man! Man, okay, it’s man! Everyone knows that!”

The claws stayed in Ellie’s shoulder. “You didn’t answer right away, though. For all your cleverness.”

“I answered. Let me up.”

The sphinx’s curly dark hair fluffed to twice its original size, and her lips pulled back from her teeth. “Do you know how easy it would be for me to simply eat you right now?”

Ellie thought of the review board upstairs. Ten rejections in a row, and she was running out of developers. This was her last chance, short of learning Swedish and trying a foreign company. But probably she’d accept that maybe she couldn’t draw worth a damn, that maybe she should go into the family hardware business. After that, she’d let the sphinx eat her, if it came down to it. But not before that portfolio review. So she ignored the teeth that were nearly in her throat and said, “I’d bet there’s a rule against that, too. Tradition.”

She felt the sphinx’s breath against her skin as it said, “You would be right.” Then it backed away, leaving her to sit up and rub at the marks it had left on her shoulders. Ellie’s watch showed noon, on the dot. If she ran, they might let her explain herself. She spent a moment gathering up her portfolio—her appearance, by this point, was an utter loss—under the watchful gaze of the sphinx.

“So. Can I pass?” Ellie said.

The sphinx backed away from the threshold and wedged itself between the wall and a potted plant. It flicked its tail at Ellie.

Taking this as permission, Ellie crept past and thumbed the elevator button.

“Answer me a question, little human,” said the sphinx, causing Ellie to jump.

Ellie kept her eyes locked on the little lights overhead, watching the it shift from the sixth floor…to the fifth…to the fourth… “If you’re quick.”

“Why bother?”

“What?” Ellie hunched her shoulders. She could feel the question coming.

“Why bother with these interviews if you know you will always be late, and your drawings will never be good enough?”

The elevator light was on the second floor, and it seemed to be stuck there.

“I don’t have to answer that. It isn’t a riddle.”

Again Ellie heard the soft rustle of feathers shifting position, the scratching of claws on marble. “Why try to make it as an artist at all,” said the sphinx. “Even the most talented freelancers have trouble getting by.”

Ellie felt her throat constrict, felt the corners of her portfolio digging into her palm. The light was still on the second floor.

“You are going to be late, little human girl. Why not stay and play another riddle game with me? It doesn’t matter at all.” The sphinx’s feathers brushed against Ellie’s cheek, and again she felt the touch of lips on her neck.

“Get out of my head!” Ellie kicked blindly behind her and felt her heavy combat boot connect with something soft, provoking a yowl of pain and indignation. She slammed into the door that led to the emergency stairs and sprinted the six flights up, hearing and not hearing talons on concrete echoing behind her all the way. When she reached the office on the top floor she rushed past the receptionist and emerged panting and disheveled, into a drab conference room with game posters hanging on the walls.

The reviewers at the table—three men and a woman in wire rimmed glasses—turned their heads as she entered.

Ellie swallowed—they were still here­—and set her portfolio case on the table. Trying to pretend that she wasn’t sweaty, out of breath, and wearing torn clothing, she undid the clasps and pulled out the stack of pages.

“Miss Evans,” said the woman. “We have some questions for you.”