The creature was very large, large enough almost to fill the small cave. Though its body was that of a lion, the proportions were all wrong. Nearly the size of a horse, the creature loomed over Tarsakh as it stood, its great black leathery wings arching up nearly twelve feet into the air while still folded. Its enormous head was level with Tarsakh's face, a strange blending of leonine and human features, with great black mane that cascaded down the back of its neck. It stared at him for a long moment, and finally spoke in a deep, exhausted tone, "Why have you come here?"
Tarsakh blinked at that. That the creature might be intelligent, had not occurred to him. "I sought shelter," he said.
"Did you?" the thing said, apparently unimpressed. "In my house."
"All I saw was a cave," Tarsakh said. "Had I known it was occupied--"
"You would still have sought shelter," the thing said.
"Yes," Tarsakh said. "I imagine I would."
"You've found my sword," the thing said, eyes at Tarsakh's belt. The engraved blade shone dimly blue in the light of Tarsakh's torch. "I suppose you're claiming it, now?" The creature spoke in flat tones, as if emotion were beyond its strength.
"Your sword?" Tarsakh said. "What use is it to you? You have no hands."
"That's what slaves are for."
Tarsakh regarded the creature. "Who are you?" he finally asked it.
"I am a sphinx," it said, as if pointing out the very obvious. "Surely you don't expect me to tell you my name. Who are you?"
"Tarsakh of Valthnar."
"That's just a cluster of noises. That doesn't answer my question. _Who_ are you?"
Tarsakh blinked. "Well, I'm a warrior," he said.
"I am the rightful king of Iskedium."
The sphinx narrowed its manlike eyes at this answer. Apparently annoyance, at least, was still within its ability.
"I am also a mage, of sorts."
"Hmph. That's the first thing that you've said since you've been here, that was worth the effort of hearing. But magic isn't what it once was, since." The sphinx began to walk around Tarsakh, circling him with a gait that had the heavy, ponderous grace of a stalking tiger. "What magery do you know, then?"
"Just some petty sorcery, really," said Tarsakh, turning in place to keep the sphinx in front of him as it circled. "My uncle wanted me to become a wizard, and paid for tutors, but I always found myself feeling more at home at the barracks, learning soldiery. The time will come when I must fight to regain my throne, and I want to be ready."
"Your throne. Your throne. The affrontery of it all!"
"I beg your pardon, Master Sphinx?"
"And well you should. So are you going to return my sword?"
"I found this sword, abandoned, in an adjacent cavern. I see no convincing reason to believe it should be yours."