The plains abound with life, from the magical to the ordinary.
Some travelers speak of intelligent antelopes and even a sphinx!
Others claim that the very grass under their feet is capable of thought.
Humans are wise to tread cautiously when traversing this mysterious place.
A Matter of Perception
Jhara waded through the muddy, luxuriant grasses, eyes wide open for any sign of predators. Dragons were unlikely to travel this far south, even in the winter. More mundane beasts such as tigers and jackals were another story. Even manticores, odd lionlike beasts with poisonous stingers on their tails, frequented the plains of Calithwain. They had the cunning of a man and would not hesitate to trap their prey if it meant a taste of human flesh. She had fought monsters in her time, but never enjoyed the experience. Magical creatures were too unpredictable.
Of course, it wasn’t as if she could see more than a few feet in front of her. Thinking about Calithwain’s magical animals helped Jhara to ignore the drenching rain that soaked her from head to foot. To be fair, it wasn’t that cold, but it was still unpleasant to travel through. Early winter to Jhara meant snow, not this endless curtain of rain. Her practical wool and leather weighed her down with excess water, and the wet fabric rubbed irritatingly against her skin.
Time she found a sheltered spot and built a fire to dry out her clothes. Hopefully, it would also scare the beasts away. This was reasonably safe territory, but extra caution was a well ingrained habit.
The wind blew past her, shoving her soaked locks of loose, brown hair into her face. Jhara swatted her hair aside, wishing it were long enough to tie back; it was twice as miserable when wet. And now it had grown just long enough to fly in her face if she was in a fight. She would have to cut it before she reached her next job. Being short enough to duck under many of the enemy’s sword strokes was only an advantage if she could see.
There! Wasn’t that a little hollow at the base of that hill? Protected from both rain and animals, it was the perfect spot for a fire and a restful night’s sleep. In the morning she could continue her trip to the Eastern Sea and her new commission in Fisher’s Village.
As Jhara moved closer to the shallow basin, she raised her eyebrows. Far more than some tiny cleft, it appeared that there was a small cave or tunnel before her. Even safer and more defensible...if there was no previous occupant. Jhara stepped carefully to the sheltered cave entrance and drew a torch from her thankfully water-resistant pack.
Near the entrance was a great deal of windswept brush, most of it still dry. Jhara heaped a large bundle together and bound it to her pack with cords. Then Jhara lit the torch, carrying it right handed so that her dominant left hand would be free. She crept into the cave, hand on sword hilt as she watched for anything unexpected.
A long, slow hiss drifted through the cave, echoing louder and louder. Poisonous snakes were common here, fortunately scaled in jewel bright greens and golds that would catch in the torchlight before the snake had a chance to do anything regrettable. Jhara drew her sword now, waiting for the torchlight to pick up a scaled back.
Still nothing. Jhara turned the corner, and tiptoed down several twisting passageways. She longed to hide as far from the rain as possible. Her father had taught her to always inspect a shelter completely before letting down her guard. He had given her so many fragments of knowledge that were so useful on the road, learned from his own life as a mercenary. Her feet inched along slowly, squishing against the cave floor and leaving slippery footprints. Then she stopped in her tracks, leaning quickly against the cave wall to keep from slipping on the wet floor and falling.
Coiled on a rock in front of her sat a lion, but one unlike any beast she had ever seen. It was half as large again as an ordinary lion, with a tawny gold body that reflected her torchlight. The lion actually had white wings sprouting from its back, although they lay carefully folded at its sides. The hissing sounds that Jhara had heard came from a green snake that grew out of the lion’s body where its tail should be. The lion raised its head from its paws, and if Jhara hadn’t been leaning against the wall, she surely would have fallen. The lion had a woman’s head!
The lion-woman stared at Jhara out of exotic black eyes that were wider and yet more secretive than any Jhara had seen. The woman’s hair resembled a tussled golden lion’s mane that surrounded her olive face in a sort of halo. Her nose was thick and lionlike and her rounded ears just barely peeped out from her luxuriant hair.
“Question.” The woman said in a deep, husky voice that filled the room like soothing tea poured into a cup. “Why do you come here?”
“I— I seek shelter from the storm,” Jhara managed. “I didn’t know anyone was here.”
“A contradiction. Admitting what you do not know is hardly strategic. Yet you brandish your sword as if I am your enemy.”
“I am the enemy and yet the friend of every mortal. For I possess what you desire, what you seek all your lives to find. Yet even if you pass it on to those after you, they must find it for themselves.”
“I’m not here for riddles,” Jhara said. The mysterious being didn’t seem to mind that Jhara was holding a sword and torch; in fact she seemed almost amused by it.
“Then you are in the wrong place. I am riddles and they are my calling, my devotion, my existence.”
“Who are you?”
“See past horrors into nonexistent explanations. There will you find me.”
Obviously this creature had no plans to say anything clearly. “May I stay here? Do you mean to harm me?”
“You may do as you like, none threaten or command you here. And I offer the most dangerous poison but am otherwise benign.”
“I suppose I’ll risk it. Thank you,” Jhara said and sat down on the floor. She rummaged in her pack for blankets, travel bread, tinder to start a fire. Jhara glanced at the creature and then, still keeping one eye on her, touched her torch to the pile of brush that she arranged in the room’s center. She extinguished the torch and pulled off her soaked outer cloak, huddling close to the fire to warm herself. Jhara’s stomach growled softly, as if to remind her of too many long, wet days with few breaks for meals. “Would you like something to eat? I don’t know how you live here, all alone in a dark cave.”
“But I am the host,” lion-woman said. “Surely it is mine to offer. And the cave is only dark if you cannot see.”
Suddenly, the cavern was a palace, hung with crystal chandeliers and magnificent velvet tapestries in patterns of mazes and geometric shapes. A long table blazed into existence, covered in every imaginable delicacy that sent unbelievably marvelous smells drifting through the room. Roasted fowl on spits, bowls of fragrant sauces, steaming, crusty breads, piles of fresh fruits on baskets and platters. Jhara rose to her feet, mesmerized by the incredible banquet. A beautiful gown of embroidered silk lay there as well, flamboyant orange and green and far too garish for Jhara’s taste. Still, the food certainly looked appealing. “After you.”
“Amusing. You are a suspicious one.”
“I suppose I am. I hardly know you, after all.”
“As I hardly know you. There is a price.”
Jhara’s hand automatically found its way to her sword. “And what is that?”
“People rarely use their own, but always use another’s. Superficial, meaningless, but the first thing given, that is always asked for.”
Jhara’s mind raced through the tangle. Start at the easiest part. The first thing given. Life. Well, Jhara wasn’t about to give hers up. What was another thing she had been given? Air? Perhaps. But something she rarely used, that other people asked for. A greeting. A...
“Excellent. And yours?”
“And are you the answer or the question?”
Jhara rolled her eyes. “Do you mind if I have something to eat?”
“My mind and your eating have little connection.”
Jhara started for the food and then hesitated. “And what’s your name?”
“Eat and I shall tell you.”
Jhara reached down to pick up a dainty sugared pastry, and her hand passed straight through it. “What the--!”
“Speaking without thought. And grasping without knowledge. More incaution from a cautious soul.”
“How am I supposed to eat insubstantial food?” Jhara reached for an apple, peaches, roasts. None were real.
“However you wish.”
Jhara studied the food for a moment, then returned to the hardened bread in her pack.
“You reject my gift?”
Jhara swallowed a chunk of bread. “I cannot accept your gift, and know when I am outmatched. Besides, you told me to eat and you didn’t say what.”
“A riddler and an unraveler of riddles. Unravel this. Ageless and alone, a supposition, posing, hypocritical, insolent, needing explanations.”
Jhara ran the words over her tongue. They fitted the creature but that didn’t tell her anything. “I know all that.”
“Ah, you do and yet you do not. For your question was in my answer.”
Jhara thought about it for a few minutes. “You’re a sphinx!”
“Well done again, but I fear I can offer no reward. You do not care for my culinary arts.”
“But the food isn’t real!”
”So you only accept negative unrealities, and not those offered as gifts?”
“What negative unrealities do I accept?”
“What gives during the coolness and withdraws in the warmth? Light as a feather yet adding weight to all it touches. A soft, cradling bed that wears rock to powder. Filled with light and color yet possessing none of its own.”
“A jewel? They need light shining on them before they sparkle.”
“Erroneous. You seek to skip through the edges of the puzzle.”
“A negative unreality that I accept. What’s been bothering me lately? The rain outside? But that’s real.”
“Real, true, but hardly negative. Water gives life, rejuvenation, beauty. Without it you die. Why do you flee it?”
“Because it’s unpleasant.”
“You wish to embrace worse unpleasantness. What stalks us all our lives, following yet waiting patiently, still? It does not chase us, or race beside us, but it overtakes us all.”
“That’s an old riddle. Death. Wait, are you saying I’m going to die?” Her hand was back on her sword.
“Everyone dies. Yet you hasten this for others who mean nothing to you.”
“I’m a mercenary. It’s my job.”
“Names, jobs, so many labels. None say anything about the person. Your job and your goal are as nebulous as my food. Yet you pursue them single-mindedly, without thinking why.”
“Why does my job matter to you?”
“Sphinxes are fascinated by illusions. Creating them, destroying them, devoting oneself to them. You reject a meal and cling to a lifestyle forged by the image of glory and selflessness. Heroism. Another contradiction.” The sphinx tilted her head as Jhara turned her head away to conceal a yawn. “The subject tires you?”
“Well, no. Much as I’d love to debate my entire career, I’ve been walking all day, and I’m very tired.”
“We walk there for hours, but never go a step. Terrible monsters lurk there, with no power to harm us. The wise one remembers this.”
The sphinx’s riddles were becoming easier to interpret, especially since the answer was so close at hand. “I hope you have pleasant ones.” Jhara banked the fire and curled up in her bedroll. The sphinx was odd but seemed harmless enough.
“And to you as well. Does the knife under your pillow prove less comfortable than the knife in your heart?”
Jhara ignored the comment about her heart. “It’s not that I don’t trust you, I’m just used to it. No offense meant.” Her last words were broken up with another yawn. “Good night.”
“They generally are.”
Jhara drifted off to sleep without attempting to unravel any more of the sphinx’s cryptic expressions.
Hours later, Jhara opened her eyes to find herself surrounded by darkness, only broken up by the faint gleam of the firelight. She glanced at the sphinx. She lay curled on her rock, with her head nestled between her paws. Jhara shuddered a little. She had heard any number of legends about the sphinx, and those wicked, daggerlike claws did little to reassure her. Best to leave before the creature awoke. As her father always said, best to avoid any fight and stay healthy for the next one. Jhara clenched her hands on the pack. If her father had remembered that lesson, himself, he might not have left her alone.
Jhara stuffed all of her supplies into their pouch and hoisted the pack onto her back. With a last glance at the sphinx, she headed for the entrance.
“Inconsiderate. You fail to take leave of your hostess.”
Jhara whirled, hand on her sword before her manners caught up with her and she dropped her hand nonchalantly to her side. “You were asleep. I had no wish to disturb you.”
“Or chose to escape before I ate you for breakfast.” Jhara raised an eyebrow and the sphinx shrugged, rippling shoulder muscles under the gleaming coat of golden fur. “Humans are difficult to digest. You are safe. You go to your job, your quest to kill for profit? You will not turn aside?”
“And will you continue fighting your largest enemy, or will you likewise accept, conquer, and dismiss?”
“My largest enemy?”
“What gives during the coolness and takes in the warmth? Light as a feather yet adding weight to all it touches. A soft, cradling bed that wears rock to powder. Filled with light and color yet possessing none of its own.”
“I answered that.”
“And yet you deny it and combat it, thereby making it your enemy. Accept it, and the problem vanishes.”
“Somehow I doubt that. Thank you for letting me stay here.”
“And you may return, if you come across a riddle too difficult to solve. I am enamored of riddles. What is something accepted grudgingly from a friend and gladly from an enemy? When you take it, the other person must do likewise.”
That one was easy enough, especially considering the conversation. “One’s leave. And so I take mine of you.”
The sphinx nodded as Jhara turned and started through the tunnel that led to the outdoors.
The sky outside was clear and brilliant, a glaring blue dome that spread over the endless expanse of grass and scrub like a curved shield. As Jhara emerged from the cave, she found herself squinting, barely able to see after the dim glow of her torch. She turned east and resumed her journey.
Accepting the rain might’ve made her journey more pleasant, but Jhara was glad that she didn’t have to. The sun caressed her face like a trusted friend, at least now that it no longer blinded her. The tiny, red and yellow winged birds chirped softly from bushes and clumps of scrub. This, at least, was a good sign. If the birds had been silent, Jhara would’ve drawn her sword, expecting an attack any minute. The wind suddenly swirled around Jhara in a quick, rough burst, and blew her hair into her face. Jhara sighed and brushed it away again. The corners of her mouth turned upwards as her eyes swept over the brilliant green grass. The rain seemed to have done some good after all. The thin blades nearby her rippled in the wind, dancing almost like a living thing.
Wait! A long, narrow patch of grasses swayed back and forth in one smooth motion, moving like a snake along the ground. Jhara blinked. Her eyes were playing tricks on her; there was no other explanation. Now the grasses moved up and down, a sea serpent poised to spring out of the grassy waves. An earthquake? But the springy earth under her feet remained motionless. Jhara shook her head fiercely. She had heard of desert-hallucinations, but surely the prairie wouldn’t cause such a thing!
A gleaming eye of flame blossomed near the front of the grass snake. Jhara took an involuntary step forward. If this was a fire, she knew how devastating it could be to grasslands, which were pure tinder waiting to go up in smoke. If even the tiniest spark blazed, Jhara would need to put it out before a devastating fire swept over the land for miles.
Yet, astonishingly, the fire remained no larger than a candle flame and didn’t spread an inch beyond its tiny knot of light. The front of the snake-shaped ripple of grass turned unmistakably towards Jhara, curling along the ground like a rope being dragged.
Finally the head was only a few feet away from her. “Turn back,” it hissed, in a sound almost indistinguishable from the rush of wind against the ordinary grasses. “None may pass here.”
Jhara drew her sword. “I travel through the plains to reach the coast. I mean no harm to anything here.”
“I’m sorry, but I must pass. If I have to fight you, I will.”
Jhara slashed at the grasses. They bent as her blade whistled through them, and sprang back as soon as it passed. The grass creature didn’t move. She dashed in a wide circle around its head, but the creature was somehow in front of her before she could travel another step. She tried once more with no further success. Jhara’s eyes narrowed. Fire would certainly be overkill, and perhaps endanger her life as well. She knew of little else that could destroy grass. She had no shovel to dig it up, and the monster was unlikely to quietly allow such a thing. Jhara had no weapon that could harm this creature that she dared to use.
The grass creature turned so that its body stretched in a straight line behind it with the head still facing Jhara. “Is it my turn to attack?”
Jhara didn’t want to know what sort of attack this creature could respond with. “No, I’m leaving. But I’ll return.”
“As you like.”
Jhara’s path took her straight back to the sphinx.
“What looks like grass, sounds like grass, and threatens to kill travelers,” Jhara greeted the sphinx.
“Thoughtful. You bring me a riddle. Now it is for me to answer. A creature older than humans have dwelt here, that uses the most deadly weapon known, with the power of nature behind it.”
“The most deadly weapon known? How can I defeat such a creature?”
“The defeat lies inside the heart, not in weapons and strength. Why should you wish to?”
“So that I can reach my destination. And to prevent its harming others in the future.” An ugly thought sprang into Jhara’s mind. “Did you send it to stop me? You don’t seem to like my profession.”
"Killing without motive, without desire is purposeless. You accept causes that you feel are just, but how can you judge?”
Jhara shifted her feet a bit on the smooth floor. “I think we’re turning off the path a bit. I bring you a riddle as you asked. How can I travel past that grass creature?”
Was the sphinx being deliberately obscure? A silly question; the sphinx was always obscure. “You said the creature bears the deadliest weapon known. I can’t walk past that.”
“Then the weapon has succeeded.” The sphinx met Jhara’s eyes and tilted her head, probably reacting to the wave of frustration that Jhara knew must be pouring out of her eyes. “This is a nature spirit, not a force of evil. Like many of the people you contract to fight, it does no harm unless it must.”
“How can I pass it safely?”
The sphinx tilted her head for a moment as if thinking. “I offer you a job.”
“That’s no answer.”
“But the job will provide one.”
“What you do.”
“You want me to fight for you? Search for treasure? Answer more riddles?”
“All and none. What can people never have enough of, although it is useless, and only serves by being given away?”
“At the end of the tunnel. It is your goal, your reward, your fee.”
“And what must I do in return for it?” This sphinx was certainly odd. Still, Jhara had nothing better to do until her riddle was answered.
“Or does fear rule you as much as illusion?”
It was a childish taunt, but Jhara let it motivate her to stand and light her torch. “All right, I’m going.” After a moment’s hesitation, she turned and walked down the tunnel, her flickering torchlight the only defense against the gloomy blackness.
The tunnel stretched on and on before her, a straight path with no windings, curves, or branches. The darkness seemed thick enough that Jhara could reach out and grasp it in her hand as it pressed in around her flimsy circle of torchlight. What would she discover at the tunnel’s end? A pile of gold and gems? Or horrible monsters that were far more combative than the sphinx?
Was that a figure before her, black against the blackness? Jhara stared at it, willing the darkness to peel away, layer by layer before her eyes until it revealed whoever or whatever was standing there. “Hello?” There was no response. Now she heard something, almost like a person shifting their weight. Jhara drew her sword, brandishing the torch in front of her in the hopes that the shadow-person might appear. The cave flickered in the uncertain light, and the person faded back into the darkness.
“Show yourself,” Jhara demanded, taking a few steps forward. She didn’t truly expect a response; for all she knew she might’ve imagined the dimmed figure and the faint noise. To her surprise, a figure dressed all in black with a concealing hood stepped from the shadows, sword drawn and ready. “The sphinx sent me,” Jhara said, not taking her eyes from the stranger. The pair of them began to circle each other warily. “I’m not searching for a fight.”
Suddenly, the black-clad figure lunged at her. Jhara brought her sword up to block it and the battle began in earnest. Jhara fought cautiously, trying to understand her opposite’s strategy and attack style. To her surprise, they were identical to her own! Two people trained by the same teacher might have the same fighting patterns but Jhara had compiled her skills over years of collecting bits of training from wherever she could. There was no way that anyone else could mirror her attacks so thoroughly unless they could read her mind.
Jhara’s eyes narrowed. “Take off your mask.” There was no response, and they continued fighting. Expert blocks and counter blocks. Neither of them gained worse injuries than a few scratches, and now they were both panting from exhaustion. “Who are you?” Still silence.
A short tangle of brown hair protruded from the bottom of her opponent’s hood. The woman (at least Jhara could tell that much about her) brought her hand up impatiently, shifting a loose tendril to join the others.
“So that’s who you are,” Jhara flashed the woman a smile of triumph that she probably couldn’t see in this darkness. “How did the sphinx manage this?” Still no response.
Jhara sighed, and raised her blade to slash at the air between them with her sword. “How do I get past you?”
Her double raised her sword in an ironic salute. Jhara hesitated for a moment. She had an idea of how to face this woman, but if she guessed wrong, she’d be dead with no chance for a second try. Jhara sighed. They were at a stalemate, with no sign of resolution. Besides, her opponent was the one person that she had no need to fear.
Jhara forced a deep breath into her lungs and sheathed her sword.
A moment later, her double followed suit.
“Thank you,” Jhara said. “May I pass?”
The figure stayed put, passively blocking her from traveling any further. Jhara reached out a trembling hand and touched the hand that her double stretched out. To her relief, the woman faded into the blackness surrounding them.
After that, it was a simple matter to reach the end of the corridor. Jhara literally tripped over a small pile of ancient coins before she fell to her knees and carefully scooped them into her pack, not bothering to examine them in great detail.
On her way back through the tunnels, no shadowy opponents or even bats approached her. She finally reached the sphinx’s lair. “How did you do that?”
“A challenge. Do what?” The sphinx said.
“Make some sort of projection of myself to attack me!”
“You were meant to learn.”
Jhara shoved her hair out of her face, then flinched at the uncomfortable reminder of her counterpart doing exactly that. “Does this have to do with my career of spending my life sword in hand?”
“You set aside fear and embraced your opponent, refusing to let terror of the unknown blind your senses.”
“This isn’t about fear. It’s about evaluating a danger and deciding I’m unequipped to solve it. I still think you’re trying to divert me from my job ‘killing people’ rather than help me leave the prairie.”
“They are the same.”
“The snake will only let me leave if I swear to be a milkmaid?”
“Too literal. The plains entity has no need to read your thoughts or control your future. Only the present matters to it.”
“I said I didn’t want to fight. The creature refused to listen to reason!”
“The brave warrior, running in terror from grass. What I think does not matter. Your heart fills with anger at a loss from long ago. You fear another loss, the emptiness of being unprepared. This spurs you to hurt others, although only if they are unrighteous, by your narrow standards. The time still waits for you to sheath your sword and embrace challenges rather than confront them.”
Something in the sphinx’s words triggered a voice from long ago. Her father’s soft, deep voice that sang her to sleep every night. “Embrace life, my little desert cat. Live every day to do the most good possible, and improve the world bit by bit. Try to understand others and accept what you do not understand…”
“You’re right,” Jhara whispered. “After those bandits killed him, I swore that I’d avenge his death. And I did. But I’ve kept going since then, haven’t I? Until I no longer know why I do it.”
“You see what not fighting yourself achieves. You begin to understand.”
“All right, no need to drive the sword in further. You’ve…given me a lot to think about.”
A short time later, Jhara stood in front of the rippling snake of grass. “I want to pass.”
“No. Leave now.”
“And if I don’t?”
“I will demonstrate my power.”
“Ah, but you already have. And I refuse to give in to the power of fear again. Farewell.”
Jhara walked calmly through the undulating length of plains serpent. Nothing. She let out a tiny breath that she hadn’t known she’d been holding. Then she turned towards the coast and Fisher’s Village. She had a job waiting there and a decision to make.