Monday morning brought a math examination Kallima easily passed. Sable made odd squeaks from the seat next to her, surprised by how simple the problems seemed to her. Kallima smirked. Ignatius’ teaching methods worked. Kallima’s worked better. Sable claimed that she couldn’t remember her dreams, but her redheaded roommate had been able to imprint the basic functions in her brain.
“Do you think I’ll pass?” she asked when the test ended.
“Of course you will! This test is half your score. And I think you aced it.”
After lunch, Kallima faced her dreaded literature test. The whole thing was a single essay question: What does ‘Soul of Ink’ tell us about life during the Century War? She pulled a deep breath and wrote as much as she could about how Madeline and Karin fought for Jared’s affection and how it symbolized internal struggle between loyalty to the crown and personal integrity. All she could do then was hope for the best.
Tuesday devoted itself to the running of freshmen through the Labyrinth again.
Since they went first on the introduction, Coach Drummer decided that Shay and his team would face the maze last for their final. Shay insisted, as a result, that they spend the morning training and the afternoon resting and making up a strategy.
“We have to beat forty minutes,” he explained as the five laid on the gazebo floor in the open air. “Sable, we’ll need you on point, same as last time.”
The cold wind stinging everyone’s cheeks but Kallima’s. She relished the numbness it provided her healing eye.
“Marcus, no jumping into things this time. I’ve been working on sedating people, and I will take you out if I have to.”
“Ye-yeah. Got it, Boss.”
“Case, how have your spores been coming?”
“I think I’ve mastered ivy and poppies.
“So we can make them tired and itchy.”
“I’ve been making sap, too.”
Shay sat up, a sudden idea in his eyes.
“Sap? How quickly does it solidify?”
“Not too fast, but it’s really heavy.”
“This is great! If they put that damn drake in there again-”
Kallima said, “I won’t hurt him.”
“You-” Shay stammered, “won’t- No fight?”
“Why n-no fight!?” Shay squealed, losing control of his speech.
“Because it’s not fair. They’re prisoners.”
“They’re animals,” Acacia said.
“No, they’re not. The sphinxes, at the very least, aren’t animals.”
“Yes they are!” Shay said.
“I’ll prove that they’re not!”
“Fine,” Shay challenged, “if you can convince me by the end of the day, I’ll... b-buy you new ea-earrings.”
“I want the dangly kind.”
The dark-haired boy smirked and held out a hand, which Kallima shook. The wager had been made, and Kallima had absolutely no clue how to win.
Kallima gripped Sable’s shoulders tightly and prompted her to breath deeply. The gargoyle’s skin popped and cracked as she pressed her beacon to her chest. Coach Drummer waited, bouncing his small recorder in his hand like a cricket ball. Shay watched the girls with concern, and Acacia tapped her foot and rolled her eyes next to him.
“Okay,” Sable breathed, pushing Kallima’s hands off of her. “I’m ready.”
“You need to beat a time of thirty-nine minutes, forty-seven seconds to get a B,” Drummer reminded them. “Got it? Under thirty-five will get you an A.”
“Got it,” Shay said.
Marcus lowered a set of tiny goggles over his eyes with a smile. With the tweet of a whistle, Drummer started his timer and dropped the gate. Kallima yelped as Sable took off past her and everyone else and into the darkness of the maze, eyes shut tightly. The redhead started after her, tailing the group tightly as the gate closed behind them, the only light coming from the beacon ahead and the recorder following her.
“It’s different!” the foreigner called as the team turned a corner.
“It changes every day,” Shay shouted back. “You’d be lucky to see the same maze twice.”
“Your brother tell you that?” Acacia asked.
“Door,” Sable called to the trailing students.
“Marcus, use your shroud,” Shay instructed.
The brownie nodded and crouched, his face pulling a look of concentration and pain, and Kallima questioned whether or not he needed privacy until his form began to fade from view. When he stood again, the group only knew because of the slight outlining of his gear floating in midair.
“Best I can get, Boss,” his voice whispered. “Sorry.”
“It’ll do. Scout and report. Do not engage,” Shay warned.
“You got it.”
Shay cracked the door open, and the faint shadow darted into the room. Then he pulled the door shut again and waited. Kallima adjusted the quiver on her hip, making sure to hide the orange feather she had snuck in. Just as she was checking the safety on the crossbow, a trio of soft taps called for Shay to open the door again. Marcus slipped through the cracked opening, quickly turning solid as he did. Flushed and winded, he raised his goggles to his forehead again.
“Chimera,” the boy said. “Two of them. They look like goat, antelope, and lamb, but they have rattler tails, so I’d avoid getting bit.”
“Ugh. Poisonous farm animals,” Acacia said with a shiver. “My worst nightmare.”
“Yeah,” Shay agreed, taking the girl’s hand, “Case is going to be their target if they see her. Sable, you’re going to have to take point again.”
The stony girl whimpered and crackled. Kallima nudged her.
“I have a new CD,” she said, “from America. Johnny Cash.”
“He did a lot of dark stuff. Dad recommended it,” Kallima said.
“You’ll let me borrow it?” Sable asked.
Her roommate smiled and said, “Yes.”
“What’s the plan, Shay?” the gargoyle asked.
“Go in, distract them with your beacon. Kali and I will guard Case and get her across. Marcus, back up Say. If she starts struggling, let me know,” the leader said, “then you can join her. Don’t attack unless they do. I don’t want anyone in the medical ward tonight.”
“Aye-aye, Captain,” the brownie said.
“Ready, Sable?” Kallima asked.
The stone girl breathed deeply and nodded. She planted a kiss on her beacon, brightening the rosy glow it emitted. Then she strode to the door and ducked inside, the white recorder and Marcus tailing her closely. Shay pressed his eye into the opening to watch them work.
After a moment, Shay said, “Looks like she has their attention. Keep low, Case, okay? I don’t want you getting hurt.”
Acacia grinned. Then she grabbed the lion-like boy’s face and pulled it down in a kiss.
“I’ll be fine,” she said, pulling away. “I have you to protect me.”
“Gag me,” Kallima breathed as Shay kissed the girl again.
Then he smiled to Kallima and told her, “Time to go.”
The fiery-haired girl flicked the safety off the crossbow and followed the couple into the room. They sprinted past the strange creatures, Acacia forcing herself close to the ground in hiding. Kallima grimaced at the sight of the monsters.
One had an antelope’s head with the sideways eyes of a goat, while the other possessed a goat’s head with the straight antlers of an antelope. Their bodies were woolly and grey like sheep, and, as Marcus had said, their tails shook tiny rattles similar to a diamondback’s. Both watched Sable closely as she passed the ball between her hands, then to Marcus, who rolled it back to her. The goat-like one swiped a cloven hoof at it and missed, making Sable gasp and scoop the orb up. The assertive chimera bleated and shook, its tail sounding dangerously as Acacia and Shay reached the other door.
Marcus glanced at Kallima and motioned for her to retreat, calling, “Shay, get them out!” as Sable pawed her orb back and forth again.
Kallima, realizing suddenly that she had stopped moving in the middle of the room, flicked the crossbow’s safety back on and grabbed the brownie by his collar. She saw Shay push Acacia into the hall, so she slid after them, still clutching the brownie. Shay yelled to Sable.
“Say, come on! They’re gonna attack!”
He was right. The rattling of the goat had fired up it’s sibling into the same behavior. Both bleated and stomped, and the antelope snapped at the gargoyle. From the hall, Kallima could see Sable shake and heave, hyperventilating as she backed away from the creatures in front of her, still rolling the ball with her hands and feet. She glanced at the recorder, then to Shay.
“First in, last out,” she said, shaking her head. “I’m right behind you.”
Shay backed out of the room, watching Sable closely, concerned. She was two meters away. One meter. She jumped as the goat lunged at her. She scooped up her orb.
And slammed into the door.
“No!” Kallima shrieked, pounding on the door, trying to push it back open.
To no avail. Even as Shay joined her assault, the door stayed strong. The silent recorder hovered centimeters from the barricade, as though wondering what had just happened. The bleating and rattling from the room chorused uninterrupted, unwavering, and unending. Shay slammed a fist against the wood.
“Damn it! She’s holding it shut!” he cursed.
“What do we do now?” Kallima asked.
Shay shrugged and shook his head. Acacia gasped behind him.
The pink form of Sable’s mother drifted through the wood, a sad expression on her face. Shay stared at her.
“Is she okay?” Kallima asked the specter.
The pink ghost made a pained face but nodded slowly. Kallima sighed, relieved.
“Make her open the door,” the girl said.
The ghost frowned deeper, and shook her head silently.
Shay asked, “She’s holding it shut? To protect us?”
Again, the pink form nodded gently. Then she began to float down the hallway.
“We can’t leave her!” Kallima screamed.
“It’s what she wants, Kali,” Acacia said.
Shay gripped the tall girl’s arm and said, “In war, you have have to sacrifice people sometimes. That’s the way of things. An- And Madelyn says she’s fine. We need to move on.”
So, despite Kallima’s protests, the group pressed forward, following the flickering image of the dead gargoyle. Down the stairs she led them, her form fading more with every step they took. She pressed her hand to a door when they reached a dead end, her image barely visible. Shay turned to Marcus, who gave a thumbs-up. Just like the first room, the brownie attempted to make himself invisible, though his entire outline was easy to see this time. He slipped inside and immediately pulled back out.
“Phoenix,” he hissed. “I hate that thing.”
“I’ll get him,” Kallima said.
Shay scrunched his nose up and asked, “What happened to ‘I won’t hurt them?’”
“Let me go in,” the redhead said, her hand diving into her quiver.
“Okay,” Shay conceded.
Kallima checked her breathing, making sure it stayed steady, and opened the door.
She quickly pulled her hand from the quiver as the carrion creature raised its head with a burst of flame. Kallima pressed the orange feather between her hands before her, nervous as the fire around the orange and brown bird swirled. The avian tipped its head in intrigue, staring at the bright orange plume. Then it squawked softly. Kallima chuckled fearfully and inched towards the bird, who craned its neck to reach out to the feather. The flames around it flickered and died.
“Shay, you’re clear,” Kallima called, reaching a hand towards the creature’s neck.
Fingers eased into feathers as the phoenix took its plume in its beak and tucked it under its body. Kallima stroked the bird’s neck and watched her team slip cautiously through the room. Shay’s jaw dropped when he saw the girl so close to the fiery critter.
“How are you-?”
The bird crooned again, drawing the redhead’s attention as Shay left. A tiny brown stone rested in its beak. The orange creature pressed the rock into Kallima’s arm as though trying to figure out why she did not understand. With a soft “oh,” the Briton offered her hand. The phoenix set the stone gently in her palm and used its beak to roll her fingers around it.
“Thank you,” Kallima breathed, astonished by the heat of the pebble.
The bird rubbed its head on her leg then curled up into its nest again. Kallima rose and left the room, staring at the rock between her fingers as she did. She tucked it into her pocket before shutting the door.
“What was that!?” Shay asked.
“Humility,” Kallima said shortly. Then she turned to Madelyn’s nearly invisible form and asked, “Where next?”
The ghost pointed down one of the three corridors, her arm vanishing at the elbow as she did. Shay thanked the specter and pulled the two girls down the hall Madeline indicated, Marcus following at their heels. At the next intersection, the spirit fae sent Marcus ahead to see if either was a dead-end. The brownie led them through several passages in this fashion before they reached the stairs up again. The corridor ran straight into another door.
“Must be the end,” Acacia suggested.
Kallima nodded, “The one everyone has to do.”
Shay peeked inside, laughed, and opened the door widely.
The queen sphinx glared down at the team, distrust etched into her face.
“Last ones?” she asked.
“Yes, ma’am,” Kallima said.
The queen sighed, her body blocking the door. Shay complained about not getting to use his swords this time.
“Three riddles you must answer,” she explained, “if you wish to leave this room. If you answer wrong, we duel. Are you prepared?”
“Yes,” Shay said.
“Run me through, twice a day, and I’ll strike at each end.”
The four huddled tightly together, debating the answer.
“Something that happens twice a day...”
“...and strikes at each end?”
“A hammer!” Marcus said.
Kallima flicked his ear, saying “An hour.”
“Yeah, there are twenty-four hours in a day, but only twelve on the clock, so it runs twice. And the tower clocks chime at every hour, signaling the end of one hour and the start of the next.”
Shay straightened up and shared the answer with the feline monstrosity. The queen nodded somberly and moved on.
“We hurt without moving, poison without touching. We bear both the truth and lies. Do not judge us by our size.”
Shay turned to his allies again.
“That’s words, isn’t it?” he asked. “Truth and lies and all?”
“Yeah,” Acacia said, “words. That’s it.”
“We think it’s words,” he told the sphinx.
The white feline growled and rose to sit on her hindquarters, glaring down on the freshmen below.
“Without legs, I dance. Without teeth, I consume. Without life, I die,” she riddled.
“No legs, no teeth...” Acacia breathed. “A tree?”
“No, trees still have life,” Marcus told her. “Time?”
Shay shook his head, “Time doesn’t die or dance, you dolt. Alchemy, maybe?”
Kallima fingered the burning stone in her pocket. She stepped away from the others and towards the sphinx.
“Perhaps love? It consumes and dies-” Acacia said.
“But doesn’t dance,” Shay said. “Wind can die. And dance.”
“But doesn’t consume. It bites, but...”
“Where are your kits?” Kallima asked the mountainous cat.
The queen tipped her head, “Pardon?”
“Your cubs. Where are the babies?”
“Kali-,” Acacia said.
“They took them,” the sphinx sighed. “They said I’ll get them back on Thursday.”
“Who’s they?” the tall girl questioned.
“The keepers. The coach. They do this at the end of every semester,” the creature said.
“And they don’t let you see them at all?”
“I get them back when the tests are over. It’s fine.”
Shay called, “Hey, Kali! Riddle? We have a test running here!”
“But why?” she pressed, ignoring Shay.
“The longer it takes you to answer the riddles, the less time I wait to get them back.”
“That’s not fair.”
“But if I stump a group, and have to fight them, we all get to share a whole cow,” the sphinx said.
“Well, what do they normally feed you?”
“I honestly don’t know,” the tall cat said sadly. “It’s not as good, though. Like little grains that taste like old shoes.”
“Have you stumped anyone yet?” The redhead asked.
“Oh, yes. Two groups. One yesterday, and one today: a snotty boy and girl. They were impatient. Answered too quickly.”
“So you get a cow?”
“We get two cows!”
“That’s brilliant! And you got Reginald and Marian. That’s great!”
“I was very proud of myself,” the queen said.
“You should be!”
“Wasn’t there another one?” the feline asked. “A little grey thing?”
Kallima turned around to glance at her team, all three of which stared at the huge cat. Seeing Shay’s jaw drop, Kallima smiled sadly.
“She fell behind. She’ll be okay, right?” Kallima asked.
The sphinx sighed, “I hope so. No one has died in here, but a few have come out sick, starved, dehydrated, mauled. With luck, your little friend will be just fine.”
Kallima thanked the cat-woman, and a hand on her shoulder made her turn. Shay stared at her.
“I owe you some earrings,” he whispered hoarsely.
“Why, thank you, Shay.” Then she returned her attention to the creature blocking their way and said, “Fire.”
“The answer? To the riddle? It’s fire.”
“Y-yes it is. Did you know this whole time?” the sphinx asked.
“The whole time we were talking, yes,” Kallima said. “I got this a room back.”
She pulled the stone from her pocket and showed it to the cat, who drew back in shock. Shay and Acacia stared at it in confusion.
“Is that a rock?” the dryad asked.
“That is an egg. A phoenix egg!” the sphinx gasped.
Kallima started, “It is? Is that why it’s so hot?”
“You are something else,” the mythic creature declared. “What is your name?”
“Kallima Aislin Satudotter.”
The sphinx dropped her head and bowed to the redhead.
“I had heard a daughter of Satu had come home to the Faerie Realm,” she purred and stepped aside, “but I had no idea you were of the same mind! You may all pass. And I wish you luck retrieving your friend.”
The four teammates darted from the room, excited by the door at the end of the hall, hopeful about their final time, and desperate to retrieve their abandoned comrade.