Since I'm quite busy with a couple of novels for clients at the moment, I thought I'd take the opportunity to finish off something I've been wanting to do for a while. Those of you with longer memories may recall some of my Brian Northington stories (Receipt for a Dragon, Basilisks and Brian, Briantrap Dungeon). They form the first three of a series that currently (and probably permanently, since I have changed the series totally to make a YA novel of it) stands at eight. Over the next little while, I intend to put up the other five. My apologies in advance for the length of some of them. They weren't really designed with this in mind.
First on our list is 'Sphinx Hijinx'
Brian sorted the paperclips into neat rows for the third time, according to how bent they were. The first, he’d gone by colour, and then he’d laid them out by size. Before that, he’d rearranged the magic swords, cleaned the now empty dragon cage, and even attempted some of the filing, though in the end he’d given up on that.
There wasn’t even anyone to talk to. Trouble the not-quite-chameleon was there of course, shifting colour happily to match each of the paperclips in turn, but he was hardly a conversationalist. The others at Edgeborough and Co were all out
Peter Edgeborough, the owner and proprietor of quite possibly the universe’s strangest wholesaler, was away surveying a tomb for fitting with a full array of traps and skeletal minions. Cynthia (and even in his thoughts Brian could hear her reminding him that it was Spider, never Cynthia) was off testing a system they’d put in for the Mad Warlord of somewhere with too many consonants to actually pronounce. They were, in short, having fun.
Brian was not having fun, having been left to staff the warehouse that served as an office. Apparently, Peter didn’t think he was ready yet to deal with jobs on his own. Spider had been more blunt.
‘Don’t touch anything,’ she’d told him, ‘don’t move. Try not to even breathe too hard. Maybe you’ll get to the end of the day without causing trouble.’
Maybe if he’d remembered that when the crystal ball on the desk rang, the day might have been more straightforward.
It took him a moment to remember how to answer the thing (just cloud it with your breath, in case you want to know) and when he did, he found himself staring at a woman with dark, kohl-lined eyes, dark hair cut shoulder length, and skin the colour of smooth chocolate. Her jewellery did a nice line in golden scarab beetles.
‘Mr Edgeborough?’ she demanded.
‘Um… no. I’m Brian. Mr Edgeborough’s not in at the moment.’
‘So you are in charge?’
Brian thought about it for a moment. Peter hadn’t said he was in charge, but who else was there? Besides, he quite liked the idea of being in charge. It was a considerable improvement on his normal position in the grand scheme of things.
‘Yes,’ he replied earnestly, if not entirely honestly, ‘I’m in charge.’
Even through the crystal ball, Brian could see the woman looking him up and down.
‘Very well,’ she said at last, ‘we are Queen Emnotephi, and we require your help. It seems we’re having a problem with a sphinx. How soon can you get here?’
‘Well, um… you see… I’m not really supposed…’ Brian began.
‘You do perform monster disposal, don’t you?’
‘Well, yes.’ Brian had heard the others tell stories about all the monsters his predecessor in the job Philip Straggle, had dealt with. Curiously, they’d been slightly less forthcoming about how exactly he’d left the job, but Brian hadn’t seen it as important.
‘Then,’ Queen Emnotephi finished, ‘we will expect you in twenty minutes. The thing’s playing havoc with our attempts to get our new pyramid built. I’m sure you understand how it is.’
She rang off. On the whole, Brian thought, it would have been more helpful if she’d actually mentioned where she was Queen of. How was he supposed to find the place…
Hang on, a corner of his mind interrupted, you’re not actually thinking of doing this, are you? You’re supposed to stay here, remember?
Brian listened to that thought for about a second before ignoring it. He was bored. He was supposed to be the monster specialist there, wasn’t he? He could probably find Queen Emnotephi’s location somewhere in the files. This would be a good chance to show the others that he could handle these things on his own. Also, he was bored.
Besides, how hard could it be?
‘What’s the capital of Australia?’
Brian threw himself flat as a huge paw sliced through the space where he’d been standing, getting a mouthful of sand in the process.
‘What’s the melting point of tin?’
He rolled to avoid a lunge that ended with the creature staring down at him from only a couple of feet away. Hurriedly, Brian scrambled back to his feet.
Finding the right place had been, as he’d thought, just a matter of going through the files, only made complicated by Peter’s usual ‘dump everything in the drawer and forget’ method of filing. Even getting there hadn’t been a problem, since there were always spare Portals lying around. Catching the sphinx, on the other hand, was proving to be a problem.
Brian had, he thought, come prepared. He’d fished a dart gun and a net out of the clutter that filled most of the warehouse, brought a cargo crate to transport it in, and even hunted through the notes left behind by Philip Straggle in search of information.
The sphinx, he’d written, is a curious beast in that it feels the need to ask questions before it strikes, only attacking those unfortunates who get them wrong. Perhaps this is a natural mechanism for avoiding devouring intelligent life. Classically, they ask the question ‘what goes on four legs in the morning, two in the afternoon, and three in the evening?’ to which the answer is man. Correctly answering enough times seems to confuse the things, giving plenty of time for darting, and/or beheading.
Obviously, Brian decided, he hadn’t realised that some of them had been working on new material.
‘What’s the principal export of Guatemala?’
This time the blow caught him. It was only a glance, but it was still enough to send Brian sprawling, stars spinning in his head. The creature looked down on him hungrily.
‘And now,’ it growled, ‘for our final question…’
A blur sped across Brian’s, admittedly far from crystal clear, field of vision, dodging past the Sphinx as it turned and tried to ask something about Earth’s distance from Jupiter. It took Brian a moment to recognise the elegant, flame haired, and frankly gorgeous form of Cynthia Williams-Frothes. By that time, of course, she’d grabbed hold of him, reached up to her ear, and activated the portable portal tucked discretely away there. The baking desert faded, transforming as if by magic (well, actually, exactly by magic) into the offices of Edgeborough and Co.
Spider shoved him roughly back into a chair.
‘What do you think you’re playing at, Brian?’ She demanded. ‘Didn’t I tell you not to do anything? Do you think taking on a sphinx counts as not doing anything? Do you?’
‘There wasn’t anyone else.’ Brian pointed out. ‘Besides, I’m supposed to be the monster hunter here aren’t I?’
‘You’ve been here, what? A couple of weeks?’
‘And in that time what have you let me do, Spider?’ Brian sighed. ‘I know I’m not this Straggle bloke…’
‘Don’t talk about Philip.’ There was an edge to her voice now.
‘…but I do work here. So far, it’s like you don’t dare let me do anything dangerous. You’re trying to mother me, Spider, and it’s probably very kind, but I should be pulling my weight here. Besides, why do you get to have all the fun?’
Spider rolled her eyes. ‘You think taking on a Sphinx without even learning the answer to their riddle is fun?’
Brian paused. ‘You mean they should only know the one question?’
‘They’re too stupid for anything else. Why?’
Brian took a deep breath, and explained. Shortly afterwards, he saw Spider bite her lip.
‘This is bad.’ She said. ‘But I have an idea.’
Quiz Night, the sandwich board proclaimed in suitably chalky letters. Brian looked at it with a certain amount of disbelief.
‘You’ve brought us to a pub quiz? What are we going to do, memorize the answers?’
‘Better,’ Spider replied, ‘we’re going to kidnap the winners.’
Brian waited for her to laugh at the joke, and gave up after a few stunned seconds.
‘You’re serious, aren’t you?’
‘Have you got a better idea?’
‘Actually,’ Brian said after a short pause, ‘I think I might have.’
‘That’s right, this way…’ Brian stepped out into the blasting heat of the desert, ‘If you’ll follow me, the special champion of champions quiz is just this way.’
Behind him, half a dozen individuals stepped out onto the sand. They were a motley collection of beer bellied men, bespectacled middle aged women and a gangly youth who looked like he’d heard about getting a life before deciding he didn’t want one. Almost as one looked around them at the fierce conditions, took another look just to be sure, and hurriedly started back towards the portal through which they’d just unwittingly stepped. It was a course of action that met with very little success, since Spider had jumped through after them and closed the thing.
‘Now, nobody panic,’ she said in the sort of brisk, professional voice that demanded attention. ‘Our special quiz is just this… oh never mind.’
The last words came at the sight of a sphinx landing in a spray of sand.
‘Mmm,’ it purred, ‘new food.’
Someone screamed. To Brian’s ears, it sounded like it was probably the gangly young man. He opened his mouth to reassure the group, but the Sphinx was quicker.
‘Tell me… what was Nick Drake’s last album?’
It fired the question out like a tennis player expecting an ace, but, as much to Brian’s shock as anyone’s, it got an answer.
That was from one of the balding, rotund men. Brian wasn’t sure which. To be honest, he was having trouble telling them apart. The answer seemed to come out automatically, despite the fear in his voice. The Sphinx snarled.
‘All right then… in what year did the Thirty Years War begin?’
That was from one of the women. Brian was watching the Sphinx now; saw it wince with the correct answer, heard the pause before it fired off another question. Needless to say, the answer was the correct one. The quizzers might not have a clue what was going on, but some part of their brains couldn’t resist the urge to show off how much they knew.
‘aargh! How many strings does a mandolin have?’
Brian could see the effects as answer after answer came from the terrified quiz team. With each question, the sphinx would snarl and pace in anticipation of the hunt, and with each answer, it would seem to get weaker. The effort of questioning was wearing the thing out! It was working! Spider was already creeping forward, a large net held carefully for the capture. Seeing her approach, the sphinx seemed to draw itself up, pulling together its last reserves of energy.
‘What Madagascan lizard has three horns that it uses to push rivals from branches?’
‘Er…’ There was a notable silence from behind Brian.
‘I know this one…’
‘No… it’s got to be…’
‘Gotcha!’ The sphinx bounded forward, it’s claws slicing towards Spider.
‘The Jackson’s Chameleon!’ Brian hardly recognised his own voice until the words were out. The sphinx slumped to the floor, which is quite a difficult thing to do mid-leap, whimpering. In an instant, Spider had the net over it.
‘Good work, Brian.’ She looked suddenly grateful, and Brian found himself feeling inexplicably hopeful.
‘Does someone want to tell us what’s going on?’
Spider’s expression changed to one of mild annoyance.
‘It seems our quizzers are getting over their shock. I suppose I’d better tell them what they’ve won.’
Brian nodded. Not that she was watching him any more. Over his shoulder, he heard her reciting the first words of the forgetfulness spell they’d brought from the warehouse. He heard the soft thumps of unconscious bodies hitting sand.
‘Are they going to be all right?’ he asked when Spider reappeared at his side.
‘They should be fine. Well done with that question.’
Brian shrugged. He had a hard time believing that nobody else had known such a basic lizard fact. Even so, he felt better. It was good to have done something useful.
‘What are we going to do with that?’ he asked.
‘Oh, there’s lots of dimensions that will have a use for something like this.’
‘What? As a guardian monster, something like that?’
Spider smiled. ‘Good, Brian, it’s nice to know you’ve actually been paying attention. Maybe we’ll have to start letting you out on more jobs. Actually though, I had another thought. After all, our dimension isn’t the only one with quiz shows, and I think we’ve just found the perfect host.’