The Iron Knight
"The keys must be inserted at the same time! Do it, now!"
I glanced at Puck, nodded, and we slammed the orbs into the indentions, feeling them click as they slid into place.
I looked back, ready to dart aside, but the second the keys clicked in the lock, the guardians froze. As the doors swung open, tiny cracks appeared along the dog's stony hides, growing larger and spreading across their bodies until, as one, they split apart and crumbled, strew-ing debris and rubble along the steps.
I sighed in relief, then pushed myself off the frame. There was no time to savor this victory. "Hurry," I said, urging everyone through the doorway. "If that's just the first chal enge, we don't have any time to spare." The Guardian had not said exactly how long we had to complete the gauntlet, but I had the distinct impression that every second would prove precious.
"Man, your hooded friend really doesn't believe in easing you into this," Puck commented as we ducked through the doors and jogged down a hal way. Stone dragon heads lined the wall every few feet, jaws frozen in permanent snarls. "If that first chal enge was supposed to be the easiest, we could be in a lot of trouble."
"What did you think this would be, Goodfel ow?" Grimalkin said, bounding along ahead of us. "A pleasant walk in the park? They do not cal it the Gauntlet for nothing."
"Hey, I've run a few gauntlets in my time," Puck shot back. "They're basical y all the same-you have your physical chal enges, a pointless riddle or two, and there's always a few nasty-"
A gout of f lame erupted from one of the stone dragon's jaws, searing the air over Grimalkin as he passed in front of it. Fortunately, the cat was too short to be harmed, but it made the rest of us skid to a halt.
"-traps," Puck finished, and winced. "Wel , I should've seen that coming."
"Do not stop!" Grimalkin cal ed back, stil sprinting ahead. "Keep going, and do not look back!"
"Easy for you to say!" Puck yel ed, but then the dul roar behind us made me glance over my shoulder and curse. All the dragon heads we had just passed were beginning to spout f lame, and those f lames were coming down the hal toward us.
The hal way seemed to go on forever, and there were a few close cal s that involved jumping or diving beneath jets of f lame, and of course there was the inevitable pit at the very end that we barely managed to clear, but we made it through with minimal burns. Ariel a's sleeve caught fire once, and the end of the Wolf 's tail was singed, but no one was seriously hurt.
Panting, we stumbled through the arch into the next room, where Grimalkin stood on a broken pil ar, waiting for us.
"Ugh," Puck groaned, brushing cinders from his shirt. "Wel , that was fun, though a bit on the clichéd side. Way too Temple of Doom for me.
So, where are we now?"
I scanned the room, which was vast, circular and carpeted in fine white sand, lying in dunes and hil s like a miniature desert. Columns and pil ars were scattered throughout the chamber, most broken or lying on their sides, half-buried in the dust. Vines dangled from a vast domed ceiling, impossibly far away, and roots snaked through the crumbling wall s. In the faint beams of light, dust motes f loated in the air. I had the impression that if I dropped a pebble in this room, it would hang in the air forever, suspended in time.
In the middle of the room, an enormous stone dais rose from the sand, the remains of four thick marble pil ars spaced evenly along the edge.
On either side of the dais, two elegant winged statues crouched, primly facing one another, the tips of their spread wings nearly touching the ceiling.
They had the bodies of huge, sleek cats, paws and f lanks resting in the sand, but their faces were of cold yet beautiful women. Eyes closed, the sphinxes sat motionless, guarding a pair of stone doors beyond them.
Climbing onto the dais, we stopped at the edge, gazing up at the enormous creatures. Though the doors were only a few yards beyond the sphinxes' massive paws, no one moved to step between them.
"Huh." Puck leaned back, peering up at the statues' impassive faces. "A sphinx riddle, is it? How positively charming. Do you think they'l try to eat us if we get it wrong?"
"You," Grimalkin said, lacing back his ears, "wil remain silent in this, Goodfel ow. Sphinxes do not take kindly to f lippancy, and your ill - contrived remarks will not be well received."
"Hey," Puck shot back, crossing his arms, "I'll have you know, I've tangled with sphinxes before, cat. You're not the only one who knows his way around a riddle."
"Shut up," the Wolf growled at both of them, and pointed his muzzle skyward. "Something is happening."
We held our breath and waited. For a moment, everything was stil .
Then, as one, the sphinxes' eyes opened, all bril iant blue-white with no irises or pupils, staring straight ahead. Stil , I could feel their ancient, calculating gaze on me as a warm breeze hissed through the room and the statues spoke, their voices quivering with ancient wisdom and power.
Time is the cog that turns the wheel. Winter leaves scars that do not heal. Summer is a fire that burns inside. Spring a terrible burden to hide. Autumn and death go hand in hand. One answer lies within the sand. But seek the answer all alone, Lest the sand claim you as its own.
"Er, sorry," Puck said as the voices ceased and silence fel over the dunes again. "But could you repeat that? A little slower this time?"
The sphinxes stood silent. Their blue eyes shut, as quickly as a door slamming, and did not stir again.
But, something was stirring around us. The sand was shifting, moving, as if mil ions of snakes writhed below the surface. And then, the sand erupted, and countless scorpions, smal , black and shiny, spil ed from beneath the dunes and poured toward us.
Puck yelped and the Wolf snarled, the hair on his back and neck standing up. We crowded together on the platform, drawing our weapons, as the ground became a mass of wiggling bodies, crawling over one another, until we couldn't see the sand through the carpet of living, writhing black.
"You know, I think I'd rather be eaten by the sphinxes," Puck exclaimed. He had to shout to be heard over the chittering that fil ed the air, the clicking of mil ions of tiny legs skittering over each other. "If anyone has a plan, or an idea, or a can of scorpion repel ant, I'd love to hear about it."
"But, look." Ariel a pointed over the edge of the platform. "They're not attacking. They're not coming any closer."
I peered over the edge and saw it was true. The scorpions surged against the stone wall , f lowing around it like a rock in a stream, but they weren't climbing the three feet it would take to get to us.
"They will not attack us," Grimalkin said calmly, sitting well away from the edge, I noted. "Not yet. Not unless we answer the riddle incorrectly. So, do not worry. We have a little time."
"Right." Puck didn't look reassured. "And this is the part where you tel us you know the answer, right?"
Grimalkin thumped his tail. "I am thinking," he said loftily, and closed his eyes. His tail twitched, but other than that, the cat didn't move, leaving the rest of us to gaze around nervously and wait.
Impatient and restless, I scuffed a boot over the stone f loor, then stopped. In front of one of the broken pil ars, half-buried in sand, I saw letters carved into the stone. M-E-M-O-R. Kneeling down, I brushed away the dirt to reveal the entire word.
Something stirred in my mind, an idea stil too hazy to make out, like a forgotten name keeping just out of reach. I had something here, I just couldn't bring it together.
"Look for other words," I told Puck, who'd come up behind me, peering over my shoulder to see what I was doing. "There have to be others."
Memory, knowledge, strength and regret. Those were the words we uncovered, carved into the stone f loor in front of each broken pil ar.
With each one we unearthed, the hazy puzzle pieces started to join, though stil not enough to form the whole picture.
"Okay." Puck dragged his hands down his face, scrubbing his eyes.
"Think, Goodfel ow. What do memory, knowledge, strength, and regret have to do with the four seasons?"
"It's not the seasons," I said quietly, as the pieces slid into place. "It's us."
Puck frowned at me. "Care to explain that logic, prince?"
"Winter leaves scars that do not heal," I recited, recal ing the second line of the riddle. "Doesn't make much sense, does it?" I pointed to a pil ar.
"But, replace it with that word, and see what you get."
"Memory leaves scars that do not heal," Puck said automatical y. He frowned again, then his eyes widened, looking at me. "Oh."
The Wolf growled, curling a lip at the pil ar as if it was a waiting demon disguised as a rock. "So, we are to believe that the answer to this riddle, this ancient puzzle that has stood here for countless centuries, is us?"
"Yes." In the center of the platform, Grimalkin opened his eyes. "The prince is correct. I have reached the same conclusion." He gazed calmly around the platform, pausing at each of the four broken pil ars.
"Memory, knowledge, strength, regret. The seasons represent the four of us, so we must match the right word to the correct stanza."
"But, there are five of us," Ariel a pointed out. "Five of us, but only four pil ars. Which means one of us is missing. Or, left out."
"We shal see," Grimalkin mused, unconcerned. "First, though, we must figure out the rest of the puzzle. I believe the prince has already found his place. What about you, Goodfel ow?" He looked at Puck, twitching his tail. "Summer is a fire that burns inside. What word best describes you?
Knowledge has never been your strong suit. Strength…perhaps."
"Regret." Puck sighed, with a quick glance at me. "Regret is a fire that burns inside. It's regret, so shut up and get on with the others." He moved toward the pil ar opposite me, crossing his arms and leaning against it.