Science Fiction Mystery Speculative

The golden bird alighted upon the recluseโ€™s walking stick, its beautiful plumage - mostly gold but with colorful glass intermixed - flowing all the way to the dirt and rocks below. The scent from the trees reminded the recluse of her. Even the ever-starry sky above.

He wondered where she was, now.

โ€œYou cannot still be melancholy?โ€ It asked in his mistressโ€™s voice. The recluse stopped his daydreaming under the full blanket of space and adjusted his attention to the delicate automaton. It cocked its mechanical head as he stopped his climb.

The recluse looked at the toy-companion wearily. โ€œI am not melancholy, Phoenicia. I... I feel alive.โ€

Phoenicia tilted her head and gave the recluse a mischievous look.

โ€œSome tourists - wealthy ones - are on their way up the path. Do be pleasant, wonโ€™t you?โ€

The recluse smirked and nodded, but instead of flying away, Phoenicia smirked herself - although it was hard for him to tell, given the small size of her plumed head.

โ€œAre you upset that you cannot find the third clue?โ€

โ€œNo,โ€ the recluse said, calm and collected.

โ€œBecause the riddle of the Catโ€™s Paw is meant to take a long time. You are supposed to be enjoying it.โ€

โ€œI am enjoying it, not as much as some other things, but I am enjoying the challenge.โ€ย 

Are you my bird? Or am I herโ€™s, in this gilded cage?

From up the dirt path, the recluse could hear the crunch of pebbles under designer footwear, accompanied by the giggles of young people talking amongst themselves.ย 

โ€œDo you wish to be left alone?โ€ The beautiful bird asked. โ€œOr do you want visitors?โ€

The recluse sighed. โ€œIt is alright, Phoenicia. I can entertain guests.โ€

The bird nodded and flew up to a branch, then glided down across the valley. The recluse stopped alongside a large rock on the path, taking a sip from his canteen as they approached.

Three females: all different species, all sporting khaki shorts and large backpacks.

โ€œWhoa!โ€ The camel-headed Hasoon youth said, pointing at the human in the monk garb. โ€œItโ€™s him! Itโ€™s that guy!โ€

The recluse - a middle-aged man with long blonde beard and hair - was clothed in a seemingly simple set of silk shirt and pants in muted shades of saffron and maroon, his eyes closed in deep meditation as he sat cross-legged by the side of the path. His serene expression suggested a lifetime of experience and knowledge, and the aura of calm that surrounds him is palpable. Despite his simple attire, there is an undeniable air of dignity and wisdom about him.

โ€œNeat!โ€ Said the Gishtavin that was with them, snapping a pic with her vidtablet. Her bat-like wings spread nearly as wide as her smile.

The recluse opened one eye, and then the other. Little flecks of purple within his eyes glinted in the dim starlight. It had been a long time since he had seen anyone.

The human woman in the group stepped forward. โ€œAre... are you the Sphinx?โ€

The recluse thought about it for a second. โ€œIf you would like to refer to me as that, sure.โ€

โ€œThatโ€™s not his real name, dummy!โ€ The bat-like Gishtavin said with a giggle and a gentle elbow to the humanโ€™s arm.

โ€œI know it isnโ€™t, Berina! This is more fun!โ€

โ€œMr. Sphinx,โ€ the Hasoon asked, trying to think of a question to ask him. โ€œWhat is this place?โ€

โ€œMy dear,โ€ the recluse began, โ€œthis is a travelling nature reserve, on loan from Gastropoda.โ€

โ€œHaseera, we only get three questions!โ€ The human squealed, stamping her foot and crossing her arms, annoyed.

โ€œLena, I know! Mr. Sphinx, I meant, what is this place... really?โ€

The recluse looked at his walking stick, rubbing his thumb over the jewel set upon its head. โ€œIt is a cage.โ€

The three females looked at each other and released an excited, โ€œOoooohh!โ€

Berinaโ€™s long bat-like ears stood at attention as she wrote the answer down in a black-and-blue journal.

โ€œThatโ€™s two,โ€ the recluse said.

โ€œThe first one didnโ€™t count!โ€ The three declared in unison.ย 

โ€œโ€”And neither did the one about your name!โ€ Berina added, pouting.

The recluse, charmed, relented.

โ€œHeh, all right my friends. One.โ€

The three hikers - who had bought their tickets almost an entire cycle ago due to the wait times - gleefully put their heads together.

โ€œPerhaps we could ask him his true name?โ€

Berina looked it up. โ€œThe message boards said he responded with โ€˜Theodore,โ€™ so letโ€™s not waste that one.โ€

โ€œI do not have all day, ladies,โ€ the recluse said, sighing.

Berina gasped, her wings fluttering slightly. โ€œWait... how about we ask him who is keeping him here?โ€

Haseera brought the other two into a hushed discussion. โ€œThe boards said that if there isnโ€™t a single answer to the question - or if there is none - that he can terminate the visit!โ€

The Sphinx cleared his throat. โ€œLadies, Iโ€”โ€

โ€œIf this is a cage, who is keeping you here?โ€ Berina blurted out.

The recluse scratched his beard. The three young females gathered around him. He looked away. The answer was complicated. Was she keeping him here, or was he himself? Could he escape, or would he be chased through the galaxy forever if he did?? What would โ€˜escapeโ€™ even mean now?

His wet eyes told the tale for them. They began to deflate before he gave his response.

โ€œOne... one question left.โ€

Berina blinked: Two breakthroughs in one visit. She had never heard of him responding that way before. She broke out her journal and began writing hurriedly.

Second question, โ€˜If this is a cage, who is keeping you here?โ€™ No response at all... and yet we are able to continue questioning him.

This time, Leena brought them in. โ€œMaybe he likes the poetic kind of questions?โ€

Leena posed her question to her longtime friends. Haseera sighed.ย 

โ€œIf only Tina couldโ€™ve come! But they donโ€™t allow Altheatans...โ€ Haseera guessed why that empathic species was not allowed, but still - frustrating.

Leenaโ€™s friends quickly agreed that her question was good enough, and so the human walked toward the recluse, formulating the phrasing of the question in her head.

โ€œMr. Sphinx, i-if no one is keeping you here... why do you stay?โ€

A good question, he thought. Was it because he wanted to solve the riddle? To stay safe? Because she doesnโ€™t want him to see something? Because he was tired? Because it was his duty? Because he hadnโ€™t tried hard enough to escape? Because he wanted to prove that he trusted her?

...Because he loves her?

He sighed and shook his head. โ€œI am sorry, my friends, but you have asked your three questions. I can follow if you wish, but I cannot answer any more questions about myself or the secret history of this place.โ€

โ€œAaawww!โ€ The three said in unison, sighing.

Haseera approached, blushing under her thin cheekfur. โ€œWe would be honored if you would join us on our little trek, sir,โ€ she said politely.

โ€œAnd do your friends agree?โ€

Their disappointment receded.

โ€œOh, yes, Mr. Sphinx,โ€ Leena said.

โ€œVery well,โ€ the recluse replied. โ€œFor an hour or so. I would be delighted to show you some of the more interesting flora and fauna of The Catโ€™s Paw.โ€

The girls all โ€˜oohedโ€™ again.ย 

March 29, 2023 18:29

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Jody S
21:45 Apr 07, 2023

I am very new to the site and received an email asking me to offer a critique of your lovely story and I am happy it asked! I am still learning the rules of the site and learning how to find stories. This was a fun read and different than the fantasy I am used to (vampires, werewolves, and spirits) My favorite line is Her bat-like wings spread nearly as wide as her smile. Loved the visual!! Also loved the purple flecks in the eyes. The use of interior monologue worked so well here. That is not usually something I liked so when I see a goo...


Thank you so much for your critique Jody! Yes, I'm somewhat new too: This site is great and I know you'll fit right in I'll take a look at one of your stories hopefully later today! Thank you again!


Jody S
14:23 Apr 11, 2023

You are most welcome! I will look forward to more of your work! Any feedback you can offer on mine is appreciated! I have had writer's block for years so I am just trying to get out of a very deep rut!


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18:50 Mar 29, 2023

I really like how this one turned out. UH OH! You left our OOC in!


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To read the second "part" of this story, please see MB's submission: https://blog.reedsy.com/short-story/j2j0uj/


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