"Wait..." the butler asked. "The warrior too?"
The king chuckled knowingly. "It is more common than you'd think."
He turned his head around to his master. "Isn't it a one in a million situation?"
"No... More of a one in a hundred." He smiled. "As I said, it's more common than you'd think."
The background chatter of the orb captured his attention again as a voice announced "Who amongst your group is the most erudite?"
"Oooh, I know the next one up," the young man said giddily. "We've met before, actually."
The butler didn't reply, still stunned by his own internal thoughts after hearing the odds.
"Well..." Lowell looked at the woman in front of him. Half woman? The bottom half of her body was that of a lion, all four paws. She was basically wearing only jewelry, plus a little brown bag on the side of her belt. Why was everything today a woman!? Nonetheless, in the presence of a stranger, he regained his composure. "That would be me!" he announced triumphantly with a charming smile, while his companions arrived behind him to see what the commotion was about.
The sphinx giggled. "Very cute, but no. That's not the answer I was told was right. Your time will come, musician, but you have some simmering to do first."
Lowell's face went through a whole gradient, turning pale as a ghost, flushed pink, then red with anger. "I do not! Shut up!"
She smiled. "Adorable. Anyway..." She fixed her gaze upon the robe-wearing man. "Wouldn't you agree you are the one I am looking for?"
The mage looked at her dead in the eyes, his expression showing total apprehension. "I do not want this. Whatever you have planned for me, whatever he told you to do to me... Please, don't."
The sphinx threw him a knowing smile. "You sure speak as if you know what is going to happen."
His only reply was to point towards his two-slash-four transformed companions with a blank expression on his face. Doan waved.
"Are you implying this is to be your fate too?" she said with mischief in her voice.
"Yes. Yes, I am. And I'm gonna tell you the exact same thing I told him decades ago - it is really not worth bothering with."
"I dunno," interjected Doan, "I sure feel more comfortable like this." Boy nodded in agreement.
They didn't get it, the mage told himself. They didn't understand there were some things in life that were best not thought about.
He really didn't need his friend's "boon".
The sphinx stretched her hind paws and switched to a sitting position. "Anyway, let us begin."
"Begin what?" asked Boy, cautious.
"Surely you know what sphinx do, dragoness. We ask riddles." She grinned. "Well, the ones I'll ask today have been prepared in advance by a certain king, which is a bit boring to me, but it's what will come of it I'm excited about! If you five could sit down," she said, pointing at the lovebirds and Lowell, "the one I'm interested in is this grumpy little person over there."
Doan and Boy obliged, and Lowell went to tune his mandolin, staying otherwise silent.
"Now," the lion-woman started, "I might not have as many questions as I usually do, unfortunately. The man in charge made it clear he'd carefully considered the few he gave me."
The mage sighed. "Okay. Sure. Let's get this over with."
"What is the Mad King's true name?"
The sigh turned into a groan. "He doesn't have any. He used to have a name, but it never was his." He could already see where this was going. This question was made to bring back memories. He knew why.
Oxward, the greatest magical school this side of the continent. He had worked hard to get in, but so had plenty others that hadn't made the cut. He felt like he'd cheated his place in, like everybody always kind of did, but he had a tried-and-true strategy against the guilt - best not to think about it.
The school had within its method the idea to organize the classes based on some perceived compatibility between the students. It was apparently to make the teaching more efficient without entering into private lessons; time was finite and the apprentices were many. He was grouped with most of the women of first year, ending as one of the two men of the class. He was surprised that's where the school told him he belonged - but it was best not to think about it.
He was studious, one of the top performers of the first year. Success came at a cost: he dedicated so much time to his studies that he had little for anything else. That suited him just fine. The only person in this class that bested him, he never saw at the library; she was a natural as it was said. To avoid feeling any jealousy, he did as always - best not to think about it.
The silent rivalry was broken when she accosted him one day. She was worried about him, apparently, and his lack of friends, and so decided to become his first one. He replied with a simple "okay" - it was best not to think about the weird things impulsive people did.
It was in second year that the transmutation classes started. She'd taken them on effortlessly and with glee. But he had encountered the first subject he struggled with. Seeing her thrive so much in something so interesting while he couldn't do the basics hurt him, somehow. To avoid frustration, he remembered next year he could select a specialization that wouldn't contain it. And in the meantime, it was best not to think about the feelings this class brought.
She had become surprisingly moody lately. He caught her idly polymorphing her own arm, when she thought herself alone in a darkened corner of the school. Best not to think about what he'd just seen.
One day, she pulled him aside, and privately asked him never to use her name again. This sounded so nice an idea he asked the same favor of her. Why was it an attractive thought though? Best not to think about it.
She started living a double identity. Every night she'd change her appearance and go off into the night, doing who knew what. Maybe it was just simple teenage defiance. Maybe it was best not to think about it.
At the start of the third year, they came to class in their polymorphed state, wearing the men's uniform. And they refused to answer any question that used their name. He felt pain at the idea of someone willingly abandoning the gift of femininity. It was definitely for the absolute best not to think about it at all, though.
"What do you plan to do once your studies are over?" his friend asked.
"I was thinking of roaming the land, helping wherever needed. I don't want much for myself, just to make this world a little better," he replied.
"Same for me, lad. I don't think I could do the whole constantly on the move thing though. Which is all fine." They grinned. "My parents probably expect me to take over the throne anyway. I'm sure I could do a lot of good as a king."
"Hold on... King?"
"I thought you would be more surprised I was royalty, but it is the king part that grabs your attention?" he teased. "Well, I had no desire to ever be a queen, no thank you."
His heart raced as he started thinking of the things best not thought about.
"I mean, could you imagine yourself as a princess, maybe? It'd feel off, wouldn't it?"
No, it wouldn't. And this was bad. Very bad. He got out of his chair and his hyperventilation brought his head to the floor in a violent thud.
He never finished his studies; he had to flee this place that made him think of things he didn't want to think about. His heart sank as he knew the king must've gathered what those were by now, though.
Through his decades long travels, he never could flee the influence of the king, however. His fame and his eccentric, yet still empathic boons were known all over the land.
At the bottom of his heart he knew it was only a matter of time for him to get his own.
It was best not to think about it.
"What are your companions' true names?" The second question brought him out of his recollection.
"Drix, Orwenna, Anna, Boy, and if this has been carefully set up by him, I suppose we do not know for Lowell yet." He knew exactly which question this led into.
"Hey!" Lowell objected, but he was promptly ignored anyway.
"Right, right, fair enough." The lion-woman licked her lips in anticipation. "Now then... What is your true name?"
"Don't have one," he replied immediately. "Not worth the trouble."
"Haha, yes, I was told you would fail this one!" she giddily cooed, her front paws scratching at the ground. "Oh, it's perfectly fine for others, but it could never apply to me, right?" she said, pretending to imitate his voice.
He glanced away, feeling not just mocked, but understood, so very uncomfortably understood. "So... What? Is this the moment, then? The moment you throw whatever spell he has meticulously planned for me and make me reconnect with whatever I am deep inside?"
"Well, do you want this to be that moment?" she teased.
"Is this another of your riddles?" he asked as he felt his breaths grow stronger.
"Yes, it is. And this one I won't accept the wrong answer."
He closed his eyes and frowned, his heart beating just like that day. But he didn't want to pass out. He sat down on the dusty ground and held his chest tight, his breathing becoming erratic. He couldn't let it. He couldn't, but it would happen anyway, he could feel it.
He was quickly tackled by a warm, gooey individual, then wrapped in a blanket of metallic wings. Even Lowell grumpily contributed, playing one of his lullabies on his mandolin.
He wasn't alone this time.
As he remembered countless folk tales, he chuckled at the idea of friendship saving the day, but he had to admit it really was a powerful force. Who would've known…
A few minutes passed like this, very needed minutes, minutes he had to take to calm his heart, and to finally do the thinking that should've come sooner.
Eventually, he was ready.
"Yes," he replied. "I want it to be. I've been waiting for this a long time."
The sphinx was giddy with excitement; she started tapping on the ground with all four of her paws. She opened her bag and lifted out a pearl. "Now, the Mad King told me to excuse him in advance if this is a bit... outdated. He made it based on who you were back when you knew each other, which was..."
"Oh, great. I'm getting teenage me's ideal body." What was it, even? He genuinely had no idea. He had spent so much time repressing he had literally forgotten. Maybe it was best to ask. "What will it do to me?"
"Well, that's the exciting part! I don't know, that's why I agreed to do this! I love surprises." She stopped tapping on the ground for a moment, in thought. "I guess I do have a hint if you want it... Ah, he must've given it to me specifically so I could tell you, I suppose."
"In that case, I suppose I have a last riddle. What is your favorite animal?"
She threw the pearl at him, which exploded in a puff of smoke against his chest.
Well, it didn't take long to turn him - her - into a woman at least, that part had been near instantaneous the moment it had connected with her skin. Which meant the spell had way more in store, that much she'd gathered. And she wasn't wrong. Her bald skull started growing hair again... Ah, not just her skull. Her whole body was getting covered in a layer of orange fuzzy fur.
She felt a lot of pressure above her butt, and at first she thought it was a matter of a tail - and once again she had guessed right, one snaked out of her robe not long after, but the pressure didn't release in the slightest and two little nubs of... something grew out of her hips.
Hips that expanded and turned longer, as long as her torso, longer than that even. The nubs grew along, stretching into two new limbs with paws at their end, while her old legs turned into hind versions of those. Was she turning into a sphinx too? Well, she took a look at the tail that was growing further away as she slowly dropped down into a quadruped stance; this was not a lion's tail. And the lion wasn't her favorite animal... Thinking about which one actually was, she understood, but... that didn't... exist? What did that mean?
She sneezed and her nose turned into a moist upside down triangle, her ears climbed up to the top of her skull and turned fluffy and triangular in an instant. Whiskers snaked out from under her nose and she mewled in embarrassment as all her school notebook doodles suddenly reappeared in her head.
As the smoke slowly dissipated, all she could think of was how unwieldy her robes were now. She could hardly abandon them, though, they were pumped full of magical enhancements. Damn it.
"By the pantheon!" the sphinx woman exclaimed, before resuming her feet tapping and shrieking in excitement. "That is so adorable!!"
"What even is this...?" Lowell asked in confusion.
"Yeah, it doesn't, uh... really exist," the cat-centaur replied. "Until now, I suppose. He's really worked on his transmutation skills..."
Boy looked down at herself and nodded in agreement.
"Doesn't exist?" the sphinx's eyes grew wide. "Then the other item makes so much more sense!" She pulled out a crown from her bag, and placed it on top of the mage's head.
The cat woman was too stunned to respond, and let the crown slide off to the side a little. She put it back on correctly and asked "What?"
"Congratulations on being the queen of a new species!" the sphinx cooed. "Not everybody gets that kind of special treatment, you two must've been really close!"
No no no. The cat-centaur grabbed her crown and looked at it for a moment. That wasn't a queen's crown. "He..." Her entire face grew flushed. "He made me a princess of my own people!!"
"...Uh," replied Doan, sneaking up on the mage to take a look at the crown. "That's kind of a less prestigious title though, no?"
The princess vigorously shook her head. That was exactly what she'd wanted, and she kinda hated that, but also very much adored it.
Once the excitement settled slightly, the sphinx sat back down. "Anyways, I can't let you pass until you've answered all questions correctly. So, let me ask again, what is your true name?"
She didn't think about it for long. Once she'd let herself think of her repressed thoughts, it came like a flood and all the answers had seemed clear as day. "I am Leolia, mage, and princess of the Felcats."
The lion-woman seemed uncharacteristically stunned. "Okay, I don't know how he's done it, but that one he'd predicted word for word."
Leolia scratched the back of her head. "The Mad King has a tendency to do that, plus a flair for the spectacle I kinda have to admit I share."
"Well, in that case, I'm sure you'll appreciate..." The sphinx stretched and stood back up before trotting to the door. "Could you please line up?"
The group bunched over, safe for Lowell, who stayed at a distance from his changed companions.
"You'll appreciate... This exit!" She pressed on the door, which instead of opening, revealed itself to be a pressure plate. Immediately the floor split open, and the party fell into the abyss with a scream from each of its members. Doan even split mid-air in panic.
They hit water after a few seconds of falling, causing a gigantic splash. Doan were the firsts to emerge, their light bodies quickly floating back to the surface. Leolia was next and she paddled to reach the shore, hating this new feeling of water on her fur. Boy quickly met up with her and gave her her crown back, both having sunk to the bottom and the dragoness having simply walked to the shore. When finally the Doans fused back and put on their drenched clothes to meet back up with their party members, they were the one to notice something was wrong.