The Sphinx’s Last Riddle

I am the Sphinx. Once I was a statue. Now, I’m a woman, or a beast, if you prefer; now I’m something alive.  Although I suppose that most who see me still assume I’m inanimate, especially if they’re looking from afar.  No living thing ought to have a lion’s body and a human face, which throws off first impressions considerably.  It doesn’t help that I don’t always bother to move until I’ve a reason to do so, and (I will admit) there’s a certain vicious pleasure to be gained in making mortals temporarily enter cardiac arrest when they realize that the stone thing is alive.

I am the Sphinx. They magicked me into life and told me to guard the crossroads. They told me to ask a riddle of any who passed, and to eat those who could not solve my riddle.

“What if someone comes with an army?” I wanted to ask.  “I can’t eat all of them, and I have no idea if I’m immune to catapults or battering rams.  If you want to show off, shouldn’t you protect your investment?  Actually, I know I didn’t ask to exist; why make me at all? Sure, this is a flashy piece of sorcery, but I can’t believe it’s the best use of magical time and resources.  Oughtn’t you save that kind of thing for problems which can’t be solved through existing technology?  I mean, standing in front of people and threatening them can be handled pretty easily with perfectly mundane methods. I can see all this making sense for some kind of lone spellcrafter, because they don’t have armies, but you’re not alone, and you do have an army.  Couldn’t you just put a garrison here, and if someone approaches, have a couple of burly sergeants take ’em into a little room and have the troops ask your question, and if the subject can’t answer properly, it’s arrow-to-the-chest time? It’s not even like you’ll be out the arrows; it’s YOUR damn room. Pluck your bolts from the corpse and get on with things.”

Expensive?  Sure, but you run a nation-state, fellow. You’ve got soldiers already, and they’re practical.  THEY can, for example, send you written reports. Me, even if I could write, I got…paws.  Unhelpful.

And THEY don’t have to eat their kills. Do you know how often travellers bathe around here? Not. Often. Enough.  I bet you wouldn’t eat unwashed vegetables, even; but you have a choice, after all.

These are the sorts of things I’d ask about if we spoke; but we never had that conversation.  It was just ritual, ritual, ritual, spell, spell, spell, BANG! and I’m conscious, BANG! and I can move, BANG! “All right, here’s a riddle, here’s the answer, if they don’t get it right, and they won’t, gobble ’em down.  I know they won’t get it right, because it’s my riddle, and I’m very clever.”  And he pranced around a bit, admiring me, as I tried to figure out walking and such, and then he buggered off.  And left me here.

He can leave, no problem. Me?  I’ve thought about it.  Honestly, I’m not sure what happens if I try to move far from this spot.  I’m not certain I won’t just freeze back into unliving rock. If you’ve ever had a nightmare about turning to stone, becoming increasingly more rigid, less independent, less a living thing and more an object. Now consider what that fear’s like for me.  I’ve been there.  If you’ve ever seen a statue and had a moment’s irrational fear, “What if that happened to me?” – you’d quite likely focus on that transitional moment, that instant when the spark of life goes out.  Perhaps you’d think the really bad part would come when you transition from living flesh into inanimate objet d’art. But I know better.  I know that the spark of life goes out, and then you just stay there, in whatever position you inhabited in the final instant of having any say in what happens to you.  And that’s all you do: you stay there, slowly eroding in the wind and rain, for literal geological ages.

Sometimes, to give this particular horror just a little bit more juice, I’ve considered that the transformation might happen while I’m flying, and then I’d be Sphinx rubble, and thus, a tourist attraction.  Maybe I’m wrong; maybe, if I tried, I could soar away free; but I doubt it.  He told me to “stay”, and, like a dog (I. am. part. lionNot the same thing)—like a dog, I stay.

Still, somedays, I’m frustrated enough to consider testing the barriers, to just run or leap as far from here as I can, except, except, except…

Someday, the person who gave me this riddle will return.

To check on me? To gloat? To renew the spell?

….to gloat, at the very least.  There’s only one person who knows the answer to this riddle, and he’s it. And after a long-time of watching/meeting/eating people who think they’re very clever indeed, I’ve realized:

Anyone who’s more interested in being seen as smart than (for example) remaining out of my mouth…

….is a natural-born gloater.

So I am quite certain: someday, he’ll come back.  To check his handiwork; to ask how many I’ve killed.

He’s no fool, of course.  He can answer the riddle, and I’m sure he’ll be warded and guarded, and whatever magic made me will shield him from me.




I’m no longer a statue brought to life.

I’m a living, thinking thing who once was a statue.

He made me conscious—not out of kindness, but for the satisfaction of his own desires. He made me able to speak, the better the emphasize their failures. (More on that later.)

(I don’t taunt them; at least, not unless they’re truly arrogant in their own right. But I try to converse with everyone, before proffering the required conundrum.  Some engage me; some toss pleasantries aside, and demand the test immediately. My builder probably doesn’t understand or care much about loneliness; I’m sure his own ego warms him at nights. But he never cared enough to limit what I might say, so long as, eventually, when those before me persisted in trying to pass, I asked the riddle before they did so. And then, of course, I slew them.)

(But I’ve spent a lot of time talking to other beings. It’s odd, to be popped into existence without much in the way of context. I know the names of, and can picture, all manner of things I’ll never see; snow and waves and forests, for example. I’ve spoken much, and long, with seekers. Eventually, I began trying to convince them to turn around; eventually, some listened. It’s not disobedience; my job is to prevent the passage of unsolvers, not to lure people to death. Sentients lure themselves to death; that’s something I’ve figured out by now. Which was first confusing; having never wandered far from this single spot, I couldn’t imagine expending the ability to go anywhere to approach, well, me, despite rumor, legend, and so, so many bones in the sand.

Eventually, it was enlightening. Choosing a path that will likely lead to death is probably not wise; but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad choice. There are things for which it is, perhaps, well-worth risking non-existence.

And it was with that knowledge that parts of me—parts unbidden, parts that were my own—began to come into being.)


Let him command the parts of me that are a statue still; let him expect me to be lifeless stone unless he says otherwise; let him force my jaws to close and my mouth to shut, if he can.  The statue was his.  The Monster—I—well, I am no-one’s, except, perhaps, my own.

And he’ll find that out.  I don’t care if unmaking him unmakes me in the process; or, that is, I care, but I choose; rather both our deaths than his freedom and my enslavement.

He gave me the ability to talk, and with that comes the desire, maybe a need,  for a dialogue of some kind, even if it’s only pleasantries or (sometimes) threats.  And then he gave me orders which (eventually) end all of my conversations quite abruptly; and he, of course, never comes to speak to me. He never has.  He never asked my opinion. Never told me his plan. Never gave me reason to believe I might want to do this, if given an explanation of why he wanted it done this way, and the choice to accede to the scheme or decline to be a part of it.  He had the power to do either, but so he chose to do neither.

I have moved my own body, by myself, for myself, for so long; can he still it?  I don’t know if I have a heart; if I do, can he stop it?  He made this mouth to speak, and to rend; can I turn it on him?

I’ll tell you this: He’ll need to get close to me, close enough to riddle with me.  They always do; they always want to stay far away, but I always insist on a whisper until they come near.  He made me, but he’s no different from they; that’s how he could craft them such an effective trap. I have met a thousand like him, many of whom could have found a way around me…but they didn’t want to.  Each wanted to be the one to solve the Riddle of the Sphinx; and nobody managed to realize she’d likely die trying.

This is the real Riddle of the Sphinx: Why am I awake?

No, really.  I could have been an automaton. There’s only one right answer; either they say the right thing, or they don’t.  I don’t know much in the way of sorcery, but I’m pretty sure it would have been no less imposing for me to await an answer, like a lock which fits just one key, and have me destroy anyone who gets it wrong.

And after many years of wondering, I’m pretty sure I have it.  He wants me to hear each riddle, to think about it, to look sincerely at the speaker and say, “You are wrong.”  He wants them to know they’re wrong, and to know that someone else truly heard them, and heard them get it wrong.

Why do I have a brain?  The better to spite you with.

And that’s why I know he’s going to want to be very personal, indeed.  I could have been a tool; but he wanted an unwilling slave.  One who could think about running away.  One who could see travelers coming, and hate them simply because they were allowed to be somewhere other than here, even though here was where they were going, and where (bits of) their bodies would rest forever.  He wanted a being who was conscious enough to give meaning to death after death after death.

So I know he’ll riddle with me.  He won’t just inspect me from a safe distance.  Why would he?  You don’t just gaze at your property; you step on up to it and count its helpless teeth.  I know he wants to look into my eyes, and if he wants to see my subservience—or my defiance—he’ll have to be near enough that he could feel my hot breath on his face, if I had breath.

And when he gets up to my face, I’ll tell him.  I’ll tell him I’m not his anymore.  I’ll tell him that if he’d had reason to do this, he should have shared it with me; that he could have made me an inanimate trap, or a living confederate, but I won’t be some bastardized in-between thing.  And I’ll try to swallow him whole, I swear I will, and if he can really freeze me in place, if he can return me to what I once was, if he can make me a statue, it doesn’t matter. If I live, I’ll eat him, and if I die—and this I swear, I swear upon the crossroads I guard, I swear by the mind that makes me what I am, I swear by the souls I’ve sent to Hell with my words and my claws—if he kills me, I’ll fall on the son of a bitch.

~Jeff Mach


I wrote a book; it’s here.

I run a convention; it’s here.


Jeff Mach Written by:

Jeff Mach is an author, playwright, event creator, and certified Villain. You can always pick up his bestselling first novel, "There and NEVER, EVER BACK AGAIN"—or, indeed, his increasingly large selection of other peculiar books. If you'd like to talk more to Jeff, or if you're simply a Monstrous Creature yourself, stop by @darklordjournal on Twitter, or The Dark Lord Journal on Facebook.

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