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A Desperate and Despicable Dwarf: Section Seventeen

       Last updated: Monday, June 14, 2004 23:51 EDT




CHAPTER [whatever]. In which...

    "—and a left, here! at the very carrel—the seventh, was it not so, wretched fossil? Yes! I see it ahead—the staircase to the tier above at the end of the thirteenth—ha! Soon you will be confounded, unspeakable—"

    Twitter, twitter.

    "It says be careful of the—"

    A great roar filled the cavernous reaches of the Stacks! A huge and horrid form sprang forth!




    The three savants stood still, gazing up at the enormous figure of the Sphinx. The great mane atop the monster's head brushed the tier of stacks above; the great muscles of its haunches billowed against the rows to either side of the aisle. Plain to see, there was no further progress to be made.

    "It sure is a big, mean, ugly bastard," whispered Uncle Manya. "Kind of funny-looking, though, what with the pince-nez spectacles on that huge snout—"

    Another monstrous roar.

    "—doesn't go with the giant fangs, somehow."

    "Bah!" oathed the mage. "Only one utterly ignorant of the most basic principles of sphinx-lore could fail to recognize in the grim features of the beast which even now glares down upon us the lineaments of that most feared and ferocious of the entire tribe of sphinxes!"

    Another roar, sounding, somehow, smug.

    "Know, then, Uncle Manya, that we confront here not the common sphinx of everyday legend and farmer folklore—properly known, to the savant, as the androsphinx—the which creature differs from the common lion by little more than its unnatural size and yet more unnatural power of speech. Nay, would 'twere so! For the androsphinx, despite all mythic powers imputed to it by the common run of humanity, is, in truth, a dullard and a dunce. How else could that supposedly supernatural creature have been bested by such a notorious lackwit as Oedipus Sfrondrati-Piccolomini?—whose cretinism was evidenced not only by his failure to recognize his own mother in the most intimate of circumstances, but, even more, by his subsequent self-blinding upon discovering the truth when any village idiot could have explained to him that the organ of offense lay elsewhere upon his person?

    "Nay, I say again—nay! 'Tis not the androsphinx that faces us here. Nor even yet do we confront the more feared distaff member of the sphinxly clan, I speak, of course, of the dreaded gynosphinx—the which monster in its odious combination of pantherish limbs, raptor wings and comely breasts does simultaneously arouse the most horrid and perverse emotions in the human heart, among which, however, let me say that terror has no place whatever. For, in truth, the gynosphinx is a wretched beast—a large shrew, no more, despite its absurd pretensions.

    "Nor yet do we face the rarer and more rightly feared criosphinx, I speak, of course, of that beast of legend in which the head of the ram is adjoined to the torso of a tiger, but which, when all is said, has neither the savagery of the feline nor the sense of a goat. No! No! Would 'twere so! Would even that we faced the rarest of all sphinxes but one—the horrid hieracosphinx of the desert nomad's feverish tales! Aye, even that one! Even that hideous hawk-headed devourer of all flesh whose piercing gaze strikes terror in all but the staunchest souls and intellects—even that monster 'twere better to face than that which confronts us now! For know, Uncle Manya, that here we confront the most uncommon and unnatural of all that unnatural tribe, I speak, of course, of—the bibliosphinx!"

    The roar which followed was definitely smug.

    "Known, to the savant, however, as the bookworm giganticus."

    The ensuing roar seemed much less smug. Quite irate, actually.

    The wizard advanced and examined the monster closely.

    "I have never actually encountered one, as it happens. But the description is unmistakeable. There—you notice the inkstains on the great foreclaw? Indeed! There can be no question—the spectacles alone, of course, are a distinguishing characteristic of the creature, but the scrupulous systematicist seeks always to—"


    "It speaks!" exclaimed Uncle Manya.

    "Bah!" oathed the mage. "Of course it speaks! It's a sphinx. All sphinxes speak. Why, even the wretched spotted sphinx of the Kankrian desert, which is no bigger than a toad, can speak, though I admit—"


    "—only in pidgin."

    "—THAT OF PEDANT MOST!" The monster lurched to its feet, overlooming the mage, its great fangs gliatening.

    "Bah!" oathed the mage, thrusting his bearded face into the very beard below the monster's maw, "cease this importune blustery! Thou art a sphinx, beast, and thus subject to the Laws of Sphinxery."

    Amazing to behold! The monster settled back on its haunches, snapping shut its maw. A great purple tongue licked its horrid lips. It reached up with a paw and adjusted the spectacles.

    "WELL, YES, THAT'S TRUE," it admitted.

    "So then!" spoke the mage. Zulkeh rubbed his hands together vigorously. "Let's to it!" He skipped a step or two, filled, or so it seemed, with the naked joy of combat.

    His companions gazed upon Zulkeh with mouths agape. And indeed, 'twas a truth often noted over the years by the Alfredae who had observed the wizard closely, that the zealousness with which the sorcerer pursued the quest of knowledge oft resembled, dissimilar though be its inner source, that utter disregard of all danger and peril which would, had he been a man of brawn not brain, have ranked him with the heroes of legend.

    "THOU MUST—"

    Zulkeh thrust up his hand. "The rules! The rules! Think you deal here with a dolt? Say the rules!"

    The sphinx snarled. "PEDANT! FORMALIST!"

    "The rules!" bellowed Zulkeh.

    Again, the monster licked its lips. "IF YOU INSIST. I SHALL ASK QUESTIONS, AND YOU—"

    "Questions?" demanded the mage. "Questions?" He rolled his eyes in despair, spread his hands in dismay, gaped in disbelief. "An unspecified number of questions? Surely I misheard! Surely my ears deceived me! Surely in my eagerness to join the fray I conflated the noun with its generic plural and failed to—"


    "Questions?" demanded the mage. "Questions?" He clapped his hand to his forehead as if in pain, grimaced with woe, shook his bony shoulders as if shaking off a sudden and unexpected deluge of sewage from a window above. "An imprecise form of questions? Surely I misheard! Surely my ears deceived me! Surely in—"

    A truly gigantic bellow shook the very foundations of the Universe.


    "Indeed so," spoke the mage. "That's it, then!" Here he wagged his forefinger in the very nostrils of the monster. "And I warn you, beast! Let's have some proper riddles pertinent to the occasion! None of this tomfoolery about what walks with how many legs at what time of day and what purpose possesses pitiable fowl to promenade promiscuously upon roads which they have no business crossing in the first place!"

    Zulkeh swelled his chest. "I know the Laws, beast! Thou art a bibliosphinx! Words, beast! Words are your domain!"

    For a long moment, leviathan and literatus matched steely gazes. In the end, it no longer seemed strange that it was the monster which looked away.

    But of whatever subtle doubt might have crept into the creature's mind, there was not a trace in the voice of cold command:


    The wizard took a breath, but before he could speak Uncle Manya piped up excitedly.


    The Sphinx showed its fangs. Zulkeh glowered.

    "Silence, maniac! That is a nonsense word, with neither linguistic legitimacy nor thaumaturgic potency. You do offend the noble Sphinx with such tomfoolery!"

    The mage turned back to the monster and spread his arms apologetically. "You must forgive my companion, o great and puissant creature. I do fear me he suffers from a horrid addiction to unnatural substances, the which do oft afflict his brain with a chemic"—here the mage smiled slyly—"effervescence."

    A hiss escaped from the monster's great gullet.


    Zulkeh shook his head ruefully. "Certainly I would not trifle with your noble self! Forfend! Only an uncouth ignoramus would think to treat a sphinx"—here the mage smiled slyly—"facetiously."

    The sphinx bellowed with rage and surged up. But the mage stood fast.

    "Bah!" oathed Zulkeh. "Enough of games! By all the Laws of Sphinxery you may not harm me save I fail the test! Test then, foul beast! Ask the third question!"


    Zulkeh threw up his hands in disgust.

    "What?" he cried. "Do I hear correctly? This—child's play is the feared third question of legend? For this the name of sphinx has been feared for eons? Bah! I say again—bah!"

    The sphinx began a roar but the wizard cut the monster short.

    "Be silent, creature! For even as you bellow, time wanes!"

    He began to pace back and forth.

    "I give you the word A, sphinx, a humble pronoun but one of not unworthy status."


    "Indeed? Well, then, this fool will add to his folly and give you the word AT. And having done so, will compound his folly by adding an 'e' to form the word ATE."

    Zulkeh peered sharply at the sphinx. "Do I detect a slight slump in your haunches, o beast of beasts? But why so, for surely you would be pleased to heard that word which names the fate which is to be mine!"

    "AND SOON!" roared the monster.

    "To the contrary!" replied the mage vigorously. "I think the word you seek is LATE."

    A soft moan escaped from the Sphinx.

    "Fie on it!" cried the wizard. "Why this sudden and unseemly distress on the part of one so fierce as you? I should have thought my fumbling wits would—ah, yes! the very word!—ELATE you!"

    The moan grew louder.

    "Oh yes, indeed! I should have thought my hapless position would elate you so that you would—even at this moment—be savoring the time when you could—oh, what's the word I'm looking for—yes, of course!—RELATE the gory tale of my destruction to the envious ears of all lesser sphinxes!"

    The beast began to whine. Zulkeh glowered.

    "Enough! To the word 'relate' it is but a simple step to construct the word RELATES."

    "THAT'S ONLY SEVEN LETTERS!" howled the monster.

    "Bah!" oathed Zulkeh. "Do you think me such a lackwit as those addle-pated elders of the Church, those pompous and brainless"—here the mage's voice cut like a knife—PRELATES?"

    With a great shriek the sphinx rose upon its haunches, its maw agape in a gape of ghastly doom, its eyes rolling wildly, its entire body aquiver, its great chest heaving and gasping.

    "Oh, please!" exclaimed Zulkeh. "We can dispense with the formalities."

    The sphinx exhaled suddenly, blowing its cheeks. It settled back on its haunches.

    "Well, thank you," it said, quite pleasantly. The monster reached up and massaged its massive throat with an equally massive paw.

    "Good heavens," it grumbled, "how I hate that sepulchral voice of doom I've got to put on. Very tough on the throat!"

    A great smile disfigured the monster's face.

    "But enough of that!" The sphinx extended a claw. "Let me be the very first to congratulate you, sirra! Match, set and game—and fairly won! Excellent! Excellent! Truly—a marvelous game! I was outclassed at every point! Your quibbling on the rules was masterful! Masterful! And the insouciance of your replies! Oh! Oh!" The behemoth clutched its chest. "I was just dazzled—dazzled, I tell you!"

    It gazed eagerly at Uncle Manya and Alf. "Tell the truth! Did you ever see such a brilliant display of sphinxmanship? Ever?"




    Uncle Manya coughed, glanced at Alf. Alf shrugged.

    "Actually," said Alf, "neither one of us has ever seen a—what would you call it?—a sphinx-riddle? A sphinx-questioning?"

    "Really?" explained the monster. "You've never been to one? The technical term is an Oedipal Contest, by the way, but I've always just hated that name." The beast eyed Zulkeh imploringly: "Can you imagine naming such a grand sport after that—that—"

    "Insufferable cretin!" spoke Zulkeh.

    "Yes, exactly!" boomed the sphinx. "That absolute idiot Oedipus!" Of a sudden, its great flanks were heaving with laughter.

    "Not only does the dummy diddle his own mother, but then—and what's the big deal, anyway? every other critter on earth does it!—but then—oh! oh! oh! I can't stop laughing!—the jerk puts his eyes out!"

    The creature was now convulsed on the floor.

    "That's what you call—ha! ha!—adding injury to incest!"

    Weakly, the beast lurched back upright, wiping away tears. "Well, anyway! Among aficionados, we call it Twenty Questions—even though"—it held up a great paw, forestalling protest—"there's always only three questions, but it got the name from Joe himself, back when he invented the game in the first place."

    "Joe invented the game?" queried Zulkeh.

    "You didn't know?" demanded the sphinx. "Really? But I would have thought—you're obviously a Grand Master!"

    The mage stroked his beard vigorously. "No, I fear I had no idea! I knew, of course, that the proper name for the Sphinx Test is 'Twenty Questions', but I've always thought 'twas due to the well known incapacity of sphinxes to count beyond 'one, two, many'—by the rules of which numerology, of course, three might as well be twenty." Truly vigorous stroking of the beard.

    "Oh, no!" exclaimed the monster. A self-deprecating shrug. "It's true that we can't count past two with any precision—and in our line of work, who needs to?—ha! ha!—but that's not the reason! No, not at all! The truth is told in the ancient Lay of the Sphinxes."

    "Which Lay is that?" demanded Zulkeh.

    "You've never heard it? Dear me! Are you sure? It's the one that goes:

    One day Joe was loping along


    "Marvelous!" exclaimed the mage. He peered at Uncle Manya. "Have you heard it? You are the acknowledged master of Joetrics, after all!"

    Uncle Manya was scribbling in a notebook. "Never! Never! Oh, this is wonderful!" He sallied forth and extended a hand to the monster. "I must thank you, sirra sphinx! A new Lay of Joe!"

    The beast politely put claw to hand.

    "Not at all, not at all."

    The sphinx clapped paw to snout. "Oh, dear me! I'm forgetting my manners! One moment!" The monster disappeared down a row of books. Various clattering noises were heard. Moments later, the creature reappeared. In one great paw it clutched three chairs; in the other, a tray holding a teakettle and four cups.

    "Please! Have a seat—and some tea. I'd just brewed it moments before you appeared. It'll be a bit strong now, I'm afraid—but!" With a bizarre daintiness, the brute sipped at its cup. "Oh, yes—it's still quite good!"

    After taking his seat and imbibing of his tea, Uncle Manya suddenly chuckled.

    "I must say, this is not at all what the legends would have led me to believe! And here all this time I thought if one fell afoul of a sphinx—well! You know the stories, of course! Absurd!" His voice became theatrically deep: "Fail to answer the questions, pitiable mortal, and thou shalt be devoured!"

    He threw back his head and laughed. When his gaze returned, the laugh died in his throat.

    'Twould be difficult to say whose glower was the more ferocious—that of monster, or that of mage.

    "Bah!" oathed Zulkeh. "What jape is this? Of course we should have been devoured, had I not confounded the beast!"

    "I should say so!" boomed the monster. "All of you! Him first, of course"—a claw pointed to Zulkeh—"as he's the questionee, but the rest of you should have immediately followed—oh yes! The Rules are quite clear on this point. 'The questionee and all his companions shall be promptly devoured upon failure of the questionee to answer any of the three riddles.' Oh yes! There's no room for argument!"

    The monster cast an apologetic glance at the Tullimonstrum. "Even you, Tully, I'm afraid. Wouldn't have wanted to, of course—Teddy would have had quite the proper fit when he found out! But—matter of professional ethics!"

    Alf the heretic frowned. "Do you know the Tullimonstrum?"

    "Of course I know it!" boomed the sphinx. "An old friend from way back! Speaking of which, Tully, Teddy's been quite upset that you've never answered his letters."

    Twitter, twitter.

    "Yes, yes, I know!" exclaimed the sphinx. "That's just what I told him! But you know how he is!"

    "What did he say?" demanded Uncle Manya.

    "It's not a he, it's an it," replied the sphinx, "and what it said was that it can't write because it doesn't have any fingers."

    The sphinx now bestowed upon the Tullimonstrum a look of great reproach.

    "But speaking of the failings of old friends, I must say I was quite upset by your remark about me. Oh, don't you try to deny it! I heard you say it! You know my hearing's as good as your eyesight."

    Twitter, twitter.

    "I'm not talking about the compliment!" snapped the sphinx. "Of course I'm big, mean and ugly-looking. Goes without saying." A snuffle. "But I really don't see why you had to call me a bastard."

    Twitter, twitter.

    "Yes, I know it's true! But you didn't have to say it out loud—and in front of strangers! You know how sensitive I am about it!"

    Great tears began wending their way down the sphinx's furry cheeks. An absurd scene, actually, made even more absurd by the monster's subsequent moan of anguish.

    "Oh, messieurs savantes, you have no idea how horrible a childhood I had! Laughed at by all the other young sphinxes! A social outcast!" A great wail of woe.

    "Oh! Oh! And my poor mother!"

    Another great preposterous wail of woe. "My poor mother—seduced and abandoned! Shunned by polite society! Forced to raise her child in the most difficult circumstances! Why, at one point she was driven to plying her trade under bridges." The monster shuddered. "Awful, that time was. We practically starved to death. Her only customers were homeless derelicts, and they're all so frightfully good at Twenty Questions, you know."

    "They are?" asked Uncle Manya, surprised.

    "Bah!" oathed Zulkeh. "Even the most casual devotee of the Great Game knows that! If memory serves me correctly, I believe a full 78% of all extant Grand Masters are street bums. The figure rises well over 90% if we include institutionalized dipsomaniacs and schizophrenics."

    The wizard shook his head sternly. "Truly, a piteous and perilous situation for a sphinx. Indeed, a sad tale, but—"

    "And it wasn't her fault, either!" whined the sphinx. "Not at all! The cad! The bounder! The promises he made! Oh! Oh!"

    "A psychiatrist, of course," remarked Zulkeh.

    The sphinx stared at him. "Why, yes, as a matter of fact. How did you know?"

    "Bah!" oathed Zulkeh. "Even the most casual student of the psychopathology of everyday sphinxery is aware that fully 82% of all humans known to have copulated with sphinxes are practicing psychiatrists. That figure rises to a full 99% if we include psychologists, marriage counselors, witch doctors, palm readers, astrologers, lobotomists and primal scream therapists. The remaining 1% is entirely accounted for by sufferers from extreme myopia."

    "My!" exclaimed the sphinx. "I didn't know that."

    Zulkeh nodded his head vigorously. "It's quite true, my dear monster. A scandalous state of affairs, in my opinion. The ethical dimension, it goes without saying, is odious in the extreme. But far worse is the impact which this rampant perversion has had upon the advancement of the psychologic sciences. Even the great Sigmund Laebmauntsforscynneweëld himself, I am afraid, was led astray. 'Tis obvious at first glance, for instance, that his theory of 'penis envy' is a crude transference onto the hapless female sex of the all-pervasive and omnipresent sense of the inadequacy of their sexual instrument whenever psychiatrist mates with monster."

    The sphinx giggled. "So that's why she always used to call him 'the little prick.'" The monster heaved a sigh. "Well, I'm glad you told me that, I must say. It makes me feel better, knowing that my mother wasn't seduced by some ordinary, common, smooth-talking scoundrel."

    "Oh, no, not at all!" concurred Zulkeh. "No, she had the vast misfortune of falling into the hands of a professional, licensed, charlatan Ph.D."

    The sphinx beamed upon the wizard with great good fellowship. "You are certainly a fount of wisdom and perspicacity, my good man! But, I say—we haven't been properly introduced! What is your name, if I might ask?"

    "Zulkeh," came the reply.

    The monster goggled. "Zulkeh? Not—Zulkeh of Goimr, physician?"


    "The Zulkeh? Author of The True Law of Gravity, Properly So Named Only By Myself?"


    The monster leapt to its paws. "Sir!" A deep bow. "I am profoundly honored! Such a brilliant treatise!" (Uncle Manya and Alf began to sneer; examined the monster's fangs; became quite blank-faced.) "No wonder you confounded me! It's only happened once before, you know." Here the monster's visage grew fierce. "And as far as I'm concerned, the fellow cheated. But the Rules Committee decided in his favor, so that was that."

    "What were the particulars?" queried Zulkeh.

    "Well, it was like this. The chap answered the first two questions well enough, I'll grant him that. No panache, of course—not at all like your own brilliant flair! Oh, no, not at all! The buffoon was positively sweating and a-trembling! But, he answered them, so he did. But then! The third question! Would you believe that he gave me"—here the beast snarled—"grangers?"

    "Preposterous!" cried Zulkeh.

    "That's just what I said!" complained the sphinx. "Oh, to be sure! The first seven words were well within bounds—A, AN, RAN, RANG, RANGE, RANGER, RANGERS—but I ask you, just what is a granger supposed to be?"

    "Bah!" oathed the mage. "Presumably, a member of a grange—but 'tis absurd! Exists no literate on earth would use such a word! Not even --"

    A sudden scowl enveloped the wizard's face.

    "A moment! This individual—his name?"


    "That fraud!" cried the mage. "That impostor! That insufferable jackanape! That anthropophage of Reason!"

    "You know him, I take it?" inquired Alf mildly.

    "Bah!" oathed Zulkeh. "There is this much to be said for my loyal but stupid apprentice, that whatever follies he has ever committed I shall forgive him them all that the dwarf did fling that moron's scrolls from the sack upon that occasion—"

    "—when you were denouncing him for a dog and a jackal," finished Alf. (Somewhat unkindly, in your narrator's opinion.)

    Zulkeh snorted, then suddenly rose.

    "But come!" He bowed to the sphinx. "Sirra sphinx, I do thank you for your hospitality and the grandness of our game. But now, I fear, we must be off. For we are on a quest of tremendous import, and, even as we socialize with a monster, time wanes!"

    "Of course, of course," replied the sphinx. "Well, you'll be wanting to enter the Card Files, I assume. It's just that way—right up the stairs to the next tier. You can't miss them!"

    "Actually," said Uncle Manya, "we're looking for the Catalogue of Fallen Angels."

    "Oh, how marvelous! You've come to just the right place! Imagine that! Finding just the tomes you're looking for in all these miles and miles and miles of stacks. When you get up the stairs, you'll find the Catalogue across the room, past the card files, in the third bookcase on the right. Near the corner."

    Twitter, twitter.

    "What'd it say?" asked Uncle Manya.

    "Bah!" oathed Zulkeh, his back ramrod straight as he stalked up the stairs.

    "Just where I said it would be," translated Alf and the sphinx in one voice.

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