It was intriguing, her first riddle, especially considering where we were, and where she had spent the majority of her existence. She tried to hide a deceitful smirk as she spoke thusly, “You will not see me in all of your life, but you can find me in both gun and knife.” Almost before she was done speaking, the answer leapt from his lips. “N,” he said with furrowed brow. What was confusing to him was that the manticore actually knew English, and wasn’t just speaking in a Babel tongue similar to my own which we all innately understood. The obvious query that followed the answer out of his lips is one I still wonder about: “Who the hell taught you English?” The question of “did they survive?” would have been next, had she answered that, but instead, she continued on.
“Your answer is correct, faerie of two colors. Leave now and escape a most painful death.” Salvador stood his ground, perhaps by arrogant confidence in his own abilities, perhaps because he thought the simplicity of the first riddle would be indicative of those that followed. Perhaps it was his blind love for the pooka, or a bit of each of those. Until I get him drunk enough and he tells me, I’m left to speculation here. It matters very little, as the little bitch got lucky anyway. “Very well, fool. A measure of something that isn’t real, but as it moves, your life it steals.”
He thought this one over a bit more, 14 seconds, actually. “A clock,” he replied confidently. I’ll admit, I hadn’t even thought of that by that point, but I believe even I would have gotten that one eventually. “You’ve freed your friend, the bird. Now pick him up, go, and leave me to my meal. Rest assured it will at least put up a fight before its inevitable death.” For only the second time since I had known him, Salvador let emotion betray him, outwardly and inwardly. Incensed at the insult to his love, he spat on the front paws of the beast, eliciting only a widening of the grin on her face and a deepening of the azure fire in her eyes. Well, those, and a third riddle.
“Spoken now’s the doom of three, and a few days’ meals for me. You were foolish to continue this far… I am so fragile that any can break me, yet I am stronger than things which cannot be broken.” The teeth disappeared from her grin, as it turned from sadistic to smug. Salvador’s eyes darted around in their sockets, as his mind processed and reprocessed the riddle with celerity that from any other man would likely have caused the air to smell of ozone or sulphur. At the end of a minute of concentration they merely ticked back and forth, up and down, as if trying to make up his mind which direction held the right answer. The pattern stopped, his eyes closed, his head bowed, and I thought he had capitulated and began to struggle helplessly until I heard it. Sal opened his eyes, and stared silver daggers into her twin pools of blue as he said “Faith.”
The teeth reappeared, and the trumpet sounded in laughter. “Fool. A feather! Like one from your friend! For, after all, the water and wind are quite unbreakable, bu—,” but she stopped short, and went deep into thought, and a look of incredulity crossed her face for a moment before returning once more to contemplation. Then, the stare that had been one of triumph and self-satisfaction turned to one of shock and disbelief. Salvador smiled slightly, and with her head sunken between her front paws the manticore turned to leave. She gave me leave to move once more, but by the time I was fully in control of my faculties and setting my sights on fleeing victoriously, Odysseus Katayama had to push his luck.
“Were you so focused on your answer that you could not consider another?” She stopped, but did not turn, so he continued. “A good riddle always has more than one answer; even this gallant, hubristic knave knows that.”
I didn’t notice it at the time, but just then Sal’s fluid stance became utterly rigid, as the chimera began to speak one last time: “Perhaps, then, young sluagh, you will prefer the alternative answer to the first riddle. For although I was lenient in your punishment when you did not know the rule, the shine of the Golden one does not even escape the eye of the blind.” And in a single elegant motion, she swept her spiked tail across his immobile, helpless face and disappeared into the foliage without a trace. (ah, fuck; that prick has me rhyming now, too)
Kateli’s eyes widened; mine rolled. The former bounded in the direction the manticore left, though I compliment her intelligence; she came back ten seconds later in human form. I wracked the inner Library for a Trod to somewhere safer, and found one near enough for our purposes. I shouted, “Sígame! Bring the moron!” as I took to the air and shot through the trees to the equidistant trio of uniform height, and dove down through the jungle floor into a quiet oasis of white plants in a Dream-desert of red sand and dark orange flame. I swear, some Trod transitions just make no fucking sense… But Kateli followed, with stupid slung over her shoulder, neither sweating nor panting under the strain. She set him down, and we went to work. She searched the flora for medicinal herbs (a manifestly harder task in the Dreaming, even for a student of biology); I checked the area for efreeti and other ignoble djinn. Thankfully, we were alone for further than I could see, and there were some herbs that neutralized the poison that hadn’t already penetrated into his bloodstream. What was already there, however… I don’t know much about medicine, but I know a hell of a lot about chimera. That poison should have killed him flat out, probably within seconds. Manticores are mostly fair and humane creatures, even if they are vicious carnivores and merciless hunters. They do not, like their feline and human parts may suggest, delight in torture. Perhaps she consciously altered her poison for that purpose (if so, that’s quite a trick); perhaps Kateli’s speedy treatment really did save him; perhaps that boy has more willpower in him than we give him credit for. All I know for sure is that his chest still rose and fell, and his heart still beat, and no other part of him moved for four days. Then he awoke, and quickly drew in a deep breath, only to let it out in a scream that could have shattered and then boiled a lake, deep in Siberian winter. A lake of lead.
It was louder than any sluagh I have ever heard; I think it pushed the limits of the Curse of Silence. How, then, was it as terrible and shaking as I implied? That’s… hard to describe, really. Imagine a sound that simultaneously resonates on every pitch in a three-octave range without destructive interference. Imagine that you could not just hear that sound, but feel and taste it as well, in the forms of a coarse grating mixed with sharp flagellations and bitterness mixed with decay respectively. That resounded through the oasis on the fourth day. My vision blurred and I went numb for a couple seconds after he stopped; when I came to, I heard Kateli vomiting and Salvador weeping softly. He was curled into a foetal position, scraping his fingernails along his scalp, as if trying to claw something out of his head.
You no doubt guessed, ese, that since it entered his chimerical body so close to his brain, the poison went straight into his mind. His mind is a fortress if ever I’ve seen one, and one occluded by roiling mists at that. But if you’re already inside the fortress when you light your keg of black powder, you are going to do some damage, and start a fire that will burn for days. I will never know what horrific visions he saw in those four days, perhaps some toned-down versions of that which killed my brother, but his reaction speaks for itself. The better part of a week would pass before Kateli could calm his emotions enough for him to fully regain the composure we know him by.
Of course, the whole experience brought Sal and Kateli much closer together. They dated until the end of Salvador’s semester there, and since then have kept a close tie through that fucking odd construct known as the Internet (goddamn that kid and his computers), though they’re no longer “an item.” Fucking romance… I don’t und—I know I’ve told you that before! But I haven’t told you the story about—okay! Okay! O-fucking-kay! …Later, then….
But for now, I’ve got to be heading back to the Library. It’s organization time. I’ve got some new… books… coming in, and I need to… translate… them. Christian’s stories would be so much better if Sal would just let me fucking read them. Anyway, I’m gone, but in case you were wondering, kids, the moral of today’s story is: Never mock a manticore!