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Finding Nowhere

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Hizashi Yamada, known to many as the bard Present Mic, loves to travel, almost as much as he loves fun and to sing. His past is a secret that few know, left behind by distance and years. He doesn’t care to revisit it, focusing on the now, since it’s how he got his name. As much as he loves cities in all their splendor, the road always calls him back. He sells all his valuables, hides his gold in his enchanted bag, and sets out for the great unknown, with only his voice as company.

 

Hizashi whistles quietly as he walks along the path. The city of Musutafu is his next destination, a growing town with an equally growing need for entertainment. The road is empty despite being well traveled, making Hizashi uneasy. However, he keeps going, heading towards a small village he wasn’t expecting. It seems quiet, but maybe Hizashi can still rake in some cash. The closer he gets, the stranger he feels, his nose twitching as he senses an aura of magic. As he rounds a bend in the path, Hizashi is greeted with a run down fence, mops of hair peeking up from behind it. Large eyes watch him, voices quickly shushing each other. Hizashi steps closer, feeling another set of eyes on him from somewhere . “Hello, little listeners!” He keeps his voice hushed like theirs, face gentle as he crouches. “Is there anyone here I could get directions from?”

 

“Maybe!” A happy voice pipes up. The other children shush them.

 

“We can’t talk to strangers.” Says another.

 

“Well, that's fine. If I keep walking, will I find someone to help me?

 

“It’s our home!”

 

“Shh!”

 

“Uh, hello?”

 

Hizashi steps forward again, only for the children to laugh and scream as they run towards the undergrowth at the side of the road. He watches with a bemused expression as they hide themselves, clearly having done the same thing many times before. He looks down the road again to the small collection of buildings that looks less like a proper village now that he’s closer. Maybe more of a collection of houses, with a lone tavern. He can’t see any other travellers, though there is the faintest hint of wagon tracks on the dusty road.

 

Hizashi decides to continue down the road, hoping someone will be in their home and willing to help. He goes from door to door, knocking, waiting, and moving on when no one answers. His worry for the children grows as he moves farther down the street. When he knocks on one of the last house’s doors he realizes it’s no use. There was no one else in this town besides the children. Dread forms as he wonders if the kids were just abandoned for the day or had to fend for themselves. He turns around and heads back to where they were playing.

 

Older children stand by the entrance, arms crossed as they look the bard over. The kids he met were further back now, playing as if nothing is wrong. Hizashi straightens his back, again, flashing his most charming smile.

“Not to be rude, but I think I’d like to talk to someone's… anyone's parents. “

 

“Then you can wait an eternity to talk to something that doesn’t exist.” A scrawny boy steps forward, hands shoved in his pockets, tired purple eyes on Hizashi’s.

 

Was it a trap? He heard many tales of these parts, but never a village of children with no guardians… Then again, bards tales never focus on the hopeless. Only tragic ends and heroic beginnings.

 

“Well then, how do I talk to something that doesn’t exist?” Hizashi grins. The boy pauses, scrutinizing Hizashi carefully.

 

“What?”

 

“Do I create it first? Do I pretend? Shall I speak and then it exists?” Hizashi waves his hand in a sweeping gesture, trying to amuse them to dispel the tension in the air. He pauses as a shadow falls over him, a heavy sigh meeting his ears.

 

“Another joker…” the mystery voice groans, and Hizashi turns with a smile at finally hearing an adult’s voice.

 

Of course, instead of it being a normal, everyday person, Hizashi finds himself face to face with a Sphinx. The Sphinx is bigger than Hizashi would have expected having only seen pictures in storybooks, it’s lion’s body larger than his own. A pair of large, black wings are folded on it’s back, the feathers matching his dark mane. His face is one of a tired, scruffy human, the only inhuman feature being his piercing red eyes, at least until he opens his mouth to reveal fangs. A deep, crescent scar is underneath his right eye, almost blending in with his eyebags. The Sphinx lets out a yawn, clearly not in the mood for dealing with Hizashi.

Sphinxzawa

 

“If you can answer this riddle, I won’t kill you immediately.” The Sphinx says, boredom evident in his voice. “What has four legs in the morning, two at noon, and three in the evening?”

 

Hizashi stands at his full height, hips cocked to the side as he smirks, hiding behind a mask of confidence to deal with the strange and serious situation he has found himself in. He knows those fangs aren’t just for show. “Easy, but I wanna change the deal. If I answer correctly, I want some answers of my own.” He takes a step forward as he tries to remember anything he can about sphinxes, almost nose to nose with the exhausted-looking creature, looking him over and peering around. He can’t help but wonder why a sphinx is here of all places, in this day and age. His storybooks said they fled across the sky to the moon, to escape the plagues of humanity. What is this one doing in an abandoned town full of children?

“Is this your true form?” He paces around him, his voice cheery as he whispers near the creatures ear. “The answer is man.”

 

The Sphinx frowns but doesn’t move, even as Hizashi walks in a complete circle around him. More children have gathered at a safe distance, and Hizashi can’t be sure, but none of them look older than fourteen or fifteen.

 

“That is correct. Though I do not usually agree to change my terms. Unless you’re suggesting I kill you regardless of the answer?”

 

“No!”

 

“Ah, so not only do you want death off the table, you want more than mercy?”

 

“What, do I really look so dangerous that death has to be on the table at this point?” Hizashi grins, trying not to falter in the face of fear. He can do this. The Sphinx flicks his tail.

 

“Hm. What is on a table, but cannot be removed?”

 

Hizashi thinks for a moment. This one is a step above the previous riddle, but it isn’t too difficult.

 

“A tabletop.” Hizashi answers. The Sphinx narrows his eyes.

 

“Correct.” The Sphinx sighs, annoyance in his voice, “I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to let you ask a question.”

 

Hizashi gives him a winning smile. “What’s your name, listener?”

 

The Sphinx’s eyes widen, then narrow, but he quickly covers it with an intimidating grin, showing off his fangs.

 

“That’s seriously the question you choose to ask?”

 

“I like to get to know people!” Hizashi spreads his hands. “What’s so wrong with that?”

 

“If you were anyone else, I’d have already eaten you, but something about you is intriguing.”

 

Hizashi taps his lip. “You’re stalling. Tell me who you are -- besides a Sphinx.”

 

“Names have power. They are used to summon and to banish, curse and hex. Why should I trust you with mine?”

 

Hizashi shrugs. “People always end up trusting me one way or the other. I’m told I’m very persuasive. Besides, I’m no warlock.”

 

Hizashi can feel the grumble from the Sphinx, see his sharp red eyes follow his every movement. A shiver goes down his spine. “If you won’t give me your name, I’ll just have to give you one!” His finger came forward, nearly smacking the other as he points.

“I’m gonna call you -- Eraserhead!” The bard is all grins and large movements, green eyes never leaving the creature. It feels familiar… A song he hasn't heard in ages and he can’t quite remember the words, only a bit of the melody.

 

“Eraser…head?” The Sphinx tilts his head in curiosity. Hizashi keeps grinning.

 

“Yeah! I mean, I could tell you why it fits, or do you want to give guessing a go?”

 

“Ah, is it like a riddle, then? Hm. Boring.”

 

“Wh-what!? Boring? How is it boring! You were telling me riddles and threatening me!” Hizashi’s fear is fading now as they bicker, his indignation overriding everything else.

 

The Sphinx, now dubbed ‘Eraserhead’, lies down and yawns, exposing the sharp teeth in his otherwise human mouth.

 

“I may be compelled to tell riddles and eat my enemies, but that doesn’t mean I have to enjoy it. I don't enjoy being hungry. I still have to deal with it. That sort of thing. It’s just simple logic.”

 

“You’re no fun.” Hizashi jokingly pouts. “Why do you have to eat your enemies anyway? Couldn’t you eat a cow or something?”

 

The Sphinx gives Hizashi a pointed glare. “I only agreed to one question, and I never agreed to answer it.” Eraserhead sits up, licking his lips in a way that makes Hizashi nervous. Why did he bring eating up after trying this hard to make sure he doesn’t get eaten? Think, Hizashi!

 

“What is hard, alive, ages but never grows too old and dies?”

 

Hizashi blinks. “I’d say Zeus, but I know that’s not right.” He shakes his head. When he was younger, he’d entertain the town’s kids by giving them riddles and challenges to solve. Thankfully, this was one he’d already heard. “A tree. The answer is a tree.”

 

Eraserhead deflates. “That’s right,” his voice hollows and shoulders hunch.

 

“It’s right, but is it correct?” Hizashi wonders out loud. “Trees can die, you know.”

 

“Not of old age.” Eraserhead digs his heels into the ground. “Are you questioning my answers?”

 

“Cause you keep answering my questions!” He glances back at the children, giving them a wave before looking at Eraser.

“So, is it possible to have a conversation with you that doesn't revolve around riddles? Answering your first riddle guaranteed my safety but it didn't guarantee my silence. Maybe we should take a seat somewhere?”

 

“A conversation without riddles?”

 

“Yeah! Look, clearly there’s a lot going on here I’m not aware of, but I’m not here to cause trouble. I’m a wandering entertainer! Hizashi, the bard known as Present Mic! Maybe you’ve heard of-”

 

“No. Can’t say I have.”

 

“You didn't even let me finish speaking!”

 

“I don't think you ever finish speaking.” Eraserhead sighs. Hizashi laughs, feeling a wave of fondness wash through him at the joke. The back and forth is fun- much more so now that he doesn’t feel like he’s going to be eaten.

 

“Harsh, but you’re right. I don’t! Say, I don’t suppose you’d have a place for me to stay? There’s only so many nights I can spend in a tent praying the bugs don’t find me. I can pay, of course, or earn my keep.”

 

Eraserhead’s eyes are filled with curiosity. Hizashi wishes he could read his thoughts, if only to know what he’s thinking. Does Eraserhead believe him? Hizashi isn’t lying, but he’s been accused of it many times. Eraserhead just stands with a sigh. “Fine. Follow me.”

 

The Sphinx turns away from the children, leading Hizashi down the road to one of the abandoned houses. Its a two-storey, overgrown with vines and trees scratching at the outer walls. Instead of entering through the front door, the Sphinx jumps and flies to the second story, entering through an open window. He looks at Hizashi, a shit-eating grin on his face.

 

“I don’t eat cows because they’re less foolish than humans.” With that, Eraserhead goes further into the house, disappearing from view and leaving Hizashi outside.

 

“...Damn Sphinx.” Hizashi mumbles. What is he supposed to do now? He approaches the door, but its locked, and not at all rotted enough for him to bust open. Besides, that would be rude and make a draft. He steps away to look up at the window again.

 

“What exactly are you expecting of me?” he calls, voice loud and clear. Eraserhead pokes his head out the window.

 

“If you want to stay so bad, prove it. If you can get in here without my help you can stay the night. You said you’d earn your keep.”

 

One of the children chuckles behind him. Hizashi turns to see the purple-eyed child from before.

 

“What?” Hizashi huffs. “What’s so funny?”

 

“Looks like you’re stuck out here.” The kid laughs.

 

“No, I’m not!” Hizashi throws his hands up. There has to be a way for him to follow Eraserhead up. Picking the lock on the front door would be the easy option, but something about entering that way was like admitting defeat. “It’s like….it’s like a physical riddle. Find a way in without using the front door.”

 

He takes a closer look. The abandoned-looking building has definitely seen its fair share of wear and tear. The corners of the wall are cracked. Some of the windows are shattered. Columns rise up the side of the wall in even increments, decorations that look like they belong in a haunted mansion. An aged tree bends over the roof.

 

Hizashi is a puzzle-solver and creative thinker. If Eraserhead thinks he has fooled HIzashi, he has another thing coming. Hizashi lets out a huff as he moves towards the tree. He is just a little too short to reach the nearest branch. He doesn't bother looking at anyone, choosing to ignore their judging looks. Hizashi tugs his belt off, flinging it over the branch and cheering loudly as it adds just enough length for him to reach, grab on, and swing forward to catch his feet on uneven parts of the trunk.

 

He’s panting by the time he gets up, vaulting himself to the crumbling column then to the roof, scrambling on the lip before tugging himself through the same window Eraserhead had entered. Eraserhead is sitting on a large pile of comfortable looking pillows and blankets on the floor next to a stripped mattress. Hizashi catches his breath as he looks around. The interior doesn't look as decrepit as the outside, which is a relief. The mattress has stains, but everything inside looks dry despite the broken window.

 

“Well, I made it! Uhm, is this where I'm supposed to stay?”

 

Eraserhead yawns and rests his head on his forepaws, his gaze steady despite his sleepy appreance.

 

“The mattress is free. You humans like to sleep on those, don’t you? And no, I am not sharing my pillows.”

 

Hizashi laughs. “Wouldn’t dream of it.”

 

He steps around the Sphinx’s nest and flops onto the bare mattress, the squeak of the springs much louder than he expected. He dumps his bag and pulls out his bedroll and blanket, making the bed groan as he sets it all up and takes off his boots. Eraserhead glares at him before closing his eyes and settling down.

 

“Just be quiet.” Eraserhead grumbles.

 

Hizashi chuckles softly before laying down. There’s still a little daylight out, but Hizashi finds himself drifting off surprisingly quickly, especially considering his deadly host. He never feels the effects of travel until he stands still, and he did travel a lot today. A thousand thoughts race through his mind, some questioning whether Eraserhead is trustworthy- he can feel himself being watched, but that makes sense. With this arrangement he can watch Hizashi all night. Other thoughts make him wonder how this adventure is going to end. One thought yanks him back from the edge of sleep.

 

“Eraserhead,” Hizashi hisses. “Hey, Eraserhead.” A little louder this time.

 

“I told you to be quiet.”

 

“Yeah, yeah. But you know, you never told me your actual name.”

 

“Are you waking me to ask about a subject we’ve already discussed?”

 

“You didn’t answer my question! I’m a curious person. If you don’t respond, I’ll never shut up.” Yeah. Hizashi has been told he’s a loudmouth, annoying, that he gets on peoples nerves. Over the years, he’s learned how to leverage it to his advantage. If he can’t beat them, he might as well join them.

 

“You didn’t tell me your full name.” The Sphinx says, one eye open and watching the other lazily. “I have no reason to trust you. All you’ve done is harass the children, answer riddles and climb a tree.” A long yawn leaves the creature, his brows furrowing in frustration. “And annoy me.”

Hizashi grins. “You haven't given me much to trust in either. I earned this bed by solving a riddle, not out of the goodness of your heart.”

 

Eraserhead snorts, eyes glowing a tad brighter. “Assuming I have one.”

 

“I think you do.” The blonde pulls his legs to his chest, resting his chin on his knees. “Why waste your time protecting those kids? They knew not to talk to me, but they weren’t scared of me. They knew you were watching over them.” It certainly is a mystery. It’s interesting enough to fight off sleep for awhile longer.

 

Eraserhead flicks his tail but shows no change in expression. A nervous tic? Unconscious response?  Maybe even a trick. Or maybe Hizashi is reading into things too much.

 

“I have my reasons. And they are not something I’m going to tell a stranger.”

 

“Oh-kay. Well, let me start again? I’m Hizashi--”

 

“You said that.”

 

“Also known as Present Mic--”

 

“You also said that.”

 

“I like music, singing, taking long baths and walks through the forest, and my favorite food is curry! There! Am I such a stranger now?”

 

“Yes.” Eraserhead says, voice flat.

 

“Oh come on.” Hizashi whines. Eraserhead rolls his eyes. Maybe Hizashi should change his tactics.

 

“Ok, Mr. Grouch, what would you say makes a person less of a stranger?”

 

The Sphinx shoots him an annoyed glare. “It hasn’t even been more than an hour since we’ve met.”

 

“Can I say we’re acquaintances?”

 

“Will you shut up if I say yes?”

 

“Debatable,” Hizashi shrugs. “I never shut up. Just like, as a general rule.”

 

“Not even in your sleep?”

 

“I’m a sleep-talker.” Hizashi folds his arms. That particular fact is a sore spot for him. Not only do people make fun of it, but they love to use it to their advantage and prank him. Sometimes he would wake up talking about giant plants and hurricanes, only to have someone say he’s about to be eaten or sucked away, making his dream-addled brain go into overdrive.

 

“Wonderful. Do you plan on doing that tonight?” Eraserhead gives Hizashi a doubtful look, clearly wondering if it was better to eat him after all.

 

“I don’t plan to do it… But, I have so many things on my mind! I’m probably going to dream about learning your real name… Imagine; me saying names all night, awkward pauses and everything!” He flings his arms in the air as he laughs. “Kidding… I mean, not about the sleep talking part, just the dreaming about you.” He runs his fingers through his hair, combing out knots and tangles.

 

“For someone who enjoys asking riddles and getting answers, you’re very anti-social. How many people manage to solve your twisters? Do they lack creativity?”  

 

“Well, it's not always the riddles that get them, but the fear.” Eraserhead says in a matter-of-fact tone. “Some people can't think when faced with a beast… faced with me.”

 

“Ah, I'm not scared! I think you're interesting. And you're not that beastly!” Now that his fear is mostly gone, it’s the truth. He wants to learn more about this strange Sphinx and his gaggle of children.

 

Eraserhead raises an eyebrow and yawns, making sure to expose all his long, sharp teeth. Hizashi laughs nervously, heart thumping. Ok, still dangerous! “Hah. Heh. Uh. Ok, you've made your point. But I have to say, if you're going to call anything beastly, it would have to be your personality! Wha- hey, it's a joke!”

 

Eraserhead lifts a judgemental eyebrow, his expression unreadable, before snorting in amusement. “If you're going to ignore my literal body, then don't ignore your horrifyingly big mouth.” Eraserhead lays his head back onto his paws. “If you keep talking, I'll eat you. Goodnight.”

 

“Night.” Hizashi hums in response, laying down and staring up at the ceiling. He tries to clear his mind, but he can't stop thinking about the village and Eraserhead’s victims. He doesn't seem like he wants to eat people, but like it was something he accepts he has to do. Maybe Eraserhead accidentally wandered into the village and outriddled the adults, his nature compelling him to eat them all like some twisted storybook tale.

 

Hizashi frowns. If Eraserhead ate those kids’ parents, they wouldn't be nearly as comfortable with him, would they? He knew there was something he was missing, a lost piece of the puzzle. Come to think of it, Hizashi hadn’t seen any adults for miles. Not in the village, not with the kids, not anywhere nearby. Just Eraserhead. He’s heard stories about places like this. Some call it Neverland, the place where kids never grow old, where fairies make you fly and pirates with hooks and eye patches fight for control of the land. Others called it Hamelin, where a man with a flute took the children away; never to be seen from again. Eraserhead didn’t strike Hizashi as a Pied Piper or Peter Pan.

 

He’s more of a gatekeeper than a kidnapper.

 

What made him decide who came through? The questions surmount in his mind, but he can’t ask them...not tonight. Hizashi’s never been good at silence, but he isn't good with being eaten either. He can wait.

 

He decides to settle down for the night and get some rest. He closes his eyes, his exhaustion from travel finally kicking in. As he drifts off he can feel eyes on him, but he ignores the feeling and allows himself to sleep.

 


 

The silence filling the room is broken bright and early; and not by himself. Whispers float softly, quiet and excited little sounds. Hizashi keeps his eyes closed, listening.

“He seems nice!” A grumble follows it- from the Sphinx.


“You don't let anyone stay this long. Or ever.” Another grunt in response.


“Is he your friend? Can he come play?”

Hizashi jumps a little at the loud sound that follows, Eraserhead’s voice a low growl. “I was trying to sleep…


Only laughter greets his ears. When the bard opens his eyes, he spies two children sitting by the Sphinx, one with wild purple hair, the other with long silver locks. The purple haired boy watches Hizashi, his eyes moving between Hizashi and the younger girl.

 

Hizashi sits up with an exaggerated yawn, already putting on his performance for his new audience. His smile can’t hide his messy hair or drooping eyes, though.

 

“Good morning!”

 

“Good morning!” The young girl chirps back, emboldened as she is by hiding behind her friend. The boy blinks at him. Okay, still suspicious then.

 

“I know two of you from yesterday, but who’s this little listener?”

 

“I’m Eri!”

 

“Hello, Eri. And hello, Bedhead and Eraserhead.”

 

“Bedhead?”

 

“You won’t give me a name! So I gave you one! It matches your guardian’s!”

 

Eraserhead and “Bedhead” roll their eyes scarily in-sync.

 

“Bedhead, that’s silly! His name is Hitoshi!” Eri giggles.

 

“Call me Shinsou. Only friends can call me Hitoshi.”

 

“Funny! A certain someone won't even give me their family name!” Hizashi shoots Eraserhead an exaggerated glare, receiving a huff in response. He can't help but notice that Eraser looks more exhausted than yesterday, the bags beneath his eyes darker than before.

 

“Don't worry!” Eri chirps, “Sensei won't give us his name either!”

 

“Sensei?” Hizashi’s grin widens. “Eraserhead! You never told me you were a teacher!”

 

The Sphinx grumbles something incomprehensible.

 

“I'm sorry, could you repeat that?”

 

“I said, someone had to teach these kids to read.”

 

“What about their parents?” Hizashi laughs. The room goes silent -- stony silent.

 

“Someone had to do it,” Eraserhead repeats himself.

 

Oh. Ohhhhh. Hizashi realizes his mistake too late. Him and his big mouth.

 

“That reminds me. Eri, did you finish your work from yesterday?”

 

“Yes!” The girl beams up at him, eyes wide and smile large. She certainly bounces back quick.

 

“Show it to me.”

 

The smile vanishes. Eri shifts her weight from foot to foot. “Well, the thing is….Hitoshi ate it!”

 

Eraserhead remains stock still, never blinking. His mane flares up as his eyes burn brighter. “Do your work now , or you don't get to play with the others.”

 

Shinsou smirks, holding his hand out. “C’mon, Eri. I’ll help. “

 

Hizashi bursts into giggles as Eri sticks her tongue out. “You aren't scary like that-”



“Go.”



“She’s right. You just look like a big ol’ kitten-”

 

A growl cuts Hizashi off as the Sphinx bares his teeth.

 

Hizashi sits on the mattress, watching quietly with wide eyes as Eraserhead banters with the children until they leave. Eraserhead lies back down once the door is closed as if intending to fall back asleep, but Hizashi isn’t going to let that happen.

 

“So, sensei-”

 

“Don’t call me that. Unless you want me to call you ‘kitten.’”

 

Hizashi snorts and bursts into laughter, shooting Eraserhead an incredulous look. Eraserhead just looks confused.

 

“Kitten? Eraser, please, that’s funny! That’s- okay, you do know when humans call each other that it's sort of… well, how to put it? Usually between sweethearts. Are you smitten with me already, Sensei?”

 

Eraserhead blinks, and Hizashi is treated with a sight he thought he’d never see: a blushing Sphinx.

 

Hizashi’s having trouble holding back his giggles. “So are you sure you wanna call me that?”

 

“People are weird.” Eraserhead mutters, face still cherry red. Hizashi chokes on his laughter, and Eraserhead glares at him, although the effect is lost due to his blush. If anything, it makes Hizashi laugh harder.

 

Eventually, Hizashi settles down enough to let out a sound of agreement. People are quite weird after all.

 

“So,” Hizashi leans back on his elbows. “You don’t know modern slang.”

 

“I suppose we’re frozen in time here.”

 

Something crosses his mind. “You don’t know about pet names. Do you know much about what's happening outside this orphan town of yours? How long has it been since you’ve had non-riddle-esque contact with people?”

 

“I talk.” Eraserhead protests.

 

“With people besides your kids or victims?” Hizashi raises an eyebrow.

 

A growl comes from Eraser’s throat and his eyes narrow. “Talking to prey is useless to me. Idle banter isn't entertaining- it’s a waste of my time.”

 

The bard whistles softly, leaning back. “Alright, touchy subject. “

The Sphinx almost looks surprised, hunching in on himself. “I don't like talking about me . It’s a pointless topic that won't ever reach a goal.”

“No person can’t be pointless…” Hizashi hums, falling silent as he mulls it all over. He doesn't have much to go on, but one thing is clear. Eraserhead isn't some evil beast like the stories would suggest. Perhaps Hizashi would go so far as to think Eraserhead has a soft side under the growling and shield of disinterest. Were his storybooks wrong? Or is something more going on here?

 

He looks up to find Eraserhead staring at him from his nest, making Hizashi wonder how dishevelled he looks. Hizashi flips back his messy hair and winks at Eraserhead on instinct like he always does when he catches someone staring. Eraserhead ducks his head with a blush. Well then. Can Sphinxes catch feelings for someone?

 

Instead of waiting around to think about that question, Hizashi hops out of bed and grabs his travel bag, pointing to the door.

 

“I'm gonna go wash up. And eat. And uh, do stuff! Bye!”

 

Hizashi stumbles out of the room to escape the awkward silence, hoping his sudden exit wasn’t insulting. The last thing he needed was to get on Eraserhead’s bad side.

 

He looks down the hall, only finding an empty room and stairs leading downward. The wooden steps are creaky and well worn, but Hizashi doesn’t focus on that. Instead, his eyes are drawn to the long jagged gashes in the wall, starting halfway down and becoming smaller as he descends, wavy and varying in depth, but always parallel. Are these claw marks? The marks end at the base of the steps, their width barely wider than Hizashi’s nails. The bard reaches out and aligns his fingertips with the end of the marks, a little startled when he realizes they almost line up perfectly. The gashes here seem deeper and straighter, the beginning being a lot more uncontrolled... or maybe the gashes at the top aren’t the beginning. Hizashi has it backwards. He’s looking at the beginning of the gash here at the bottom. Hizashi glances back at his hand, at his nails, before his mind wanders to his gracious host. He can’t help but wonder how large the Sphinx’s claws are, not really thinking about why he would see them up close.

 

The marks -- if they are from a human -- would be from somebody close to Hizashi’s height. Hizashi’s tall, though he wears clunky boots to make himself taller.

 

Interesting. Hizashi knows the lore of every creature he’s encountered. He loves to learn, maybe even more than he loves to talk; but not even he can recall the process of becoming a sphinx. Did his books even mention their creation? Were they born? Transformed?

 

That sounds closer to correct.

 

He reaches the bottom of the stairwell and the hall splits in two. The left leads towards laughter and the sound of children’s voices, various doors hiding rooms from sight. The right vanishes into darkness, cut off by a large, bolted door that catches Hizashi’s interest.

 

Hizashi has always been good at lockpicking.

 

His curiosity gets the better of him as he walks towards the darkened door. Looking at the way the house is set up, he can guess it leads to a closet or perhaps the basement. He drops his bag on the floor so he can lean in and examine the lock, noticing some fine runes scratched onto the surface of the metal. The wall to the side has some of the same strange scratches from before.

 

Curious.

 

The urge to open it almost gets the better of him, but his common sense wins out. He shouldn’t be trespassing, especially not through a magicked door. He sighs and turns back around, squeaking when he sees Shinsou standing a few feet away. When did he get there?

 

“Don’t bother, it won’t open.” Shinsou says, regarding Hizashi with a suspicious look. “I’ve tried every trick I know.”

 

“Oh? You know how to lockpick?”

 

“Sensei can’t open most doors. If I wanted anything from these houses I had to get it myself.”

 

“Oh.” Not the response he was expecting.

 

“If you try to lockpick the door you’ll pass out and wake up squawking like a chicken.” Shinsou mutters, blushing in embarrassment. “Actually, you should try it.” He says, grinning evilly at him. Hizashi can’t help but compare him to the Sphinx. They look eerily similar.

 

“With my luck, I’d be squawking while still passed out.” Hizashi mumbles.

 

“I’d pay to see that.” Shinsou brightens. “Anyway, none of us have been able to get through that door. Not even with our powers--.” Shinsou stops himself, then shakes his head, clearly not wanting to divulge that information.

 

Hizashi sighs. Perhaps it needs a master riddle-solver to beat it. But before he takes on that challenge, something about Shinsou still bothers him.“Are you related to Eraserhead?”

 

“Eraserhead?” Shinsou wrinkles his nose. “Must you call Sensei that?”

 

“Well, he’s not my teacher.”

 

“Fine. And no. We’re not related..”

 

Hizashi spares one last glance at the door before picking up his pack and walking away, mind whirring as he stops in front of Shinsou. He can’t help but assume Shinsou’s aborted sentence was referring to magic, which if true, is surprising. Magic isn’t common, usually only gifted to a rare few, venerated or feared by their peers for their talents.

 

“Er, wait. Powers? You said ‘our powers’? You have magic-blessed people here?”

 

Shinsou looks wary at first, but Hizashi is smiling excitedly, looking a bit manic with his unbrushed hair and rumpled clothes. He isn’t one to fear magic, especially not when he has magic of his own. He keeps his expression friendly, and Shinsou’s doubt eases away at his genuine enthusiasm.

 

“Yeah. Everyone here, actually. It’s… why we’re here.”

 

Hizashi frowns. Everyone? “What do you mean?”

 

Shinsou glares at him, closing himself off again. “Nevermind. Just… come with me.”

 

Hizashi decides not to pry and lets Shinsou lead him to the other room. Eri sits at a table near the wall, writing and drawing. Eraserhead has somehow gotten down here too, but he doesn’t greet them, watching Eri work. Hizashi suspects the large broken window he used the previous day has something to do with it.

 

“So, is this what a normal day is like for you?” He can’t tell if it’s the usual scene. Based on the amount of kids he’d seen the other day, there must be more around.

 

“Most of the other kids are working.”

 

“Working?”

 

“We have to pull our weight here.” Shinsou says. “Speaking of, you should help out too, since you’re an uninvited guest.”

 

“Chores? You’ve got to be kidding. I’m a guest!” Hizashi raises an eyebrow. Shinsou doesn’t budge.

 

“Uninvited. You can do the work that can’t be done by us. Repair, maintenance…” Shinsou grabs a tattered book from a shelf, looking it over. He holds it out to the bard.



“This is an ongoing list of things that need fixing. You may want to start with the well- it’s our only water source nearby, and using the river is risky. Some supports in the garden broke, and some of the houses are getting leaks. If you go around and ask, they’ll bring you to anything that needs your attention.” The purple haired boy gives him a wicked grin.



Hizashi stares down the list with wide eyes.



“You wanted into the village- here’s your chance to meet everyone.” Shinsou turns his back to him, glancing over Eri’s work. His next thought is mumbled. “Maybe you’ll find answers to your questions. Just don’t anger Sensei and you’ll live.”

 

Hizashi sighs, but doesn't protest any further. This is what his curiosity gets him, then. He puts the book down and finds the small bathroom, emerging many minutes later with a bandanna tied around his head to keep his hair from getting mussed or dirty. He accepts breakfast with his best manners and offers some provisions of his own, smiling when Eri squeals over his jar of fruit preserves. This stop may not be going like he planned, but it's certainly interesting, and more fun than the same old thing. He's used to being treated like something special. But here?

 

He feels like a normal person again.

 

Hizashi makes his way to the well. He saw it yesterday, but he didn’t really think about it. It’s torn straight from a children’s book. The old stone well has a bucket pulley system, except there is no bucket. Hizashi leans over the side and looks down. He can’t see the bottom.

 

Hizashi has three options. He could go into the well, search around for the bucket, and climb back up. He could just as easily make a new bucket and pray it has no leaks. Or he could use magic to retrieve it, saving him time. The final option is the most logical, but it’s also the scariest.

 

He’s not sure he’s ready to use magic here. Not in a strange place, with strange people, where anyone can see. Shinsou said they all had magic here, but that doesn’t mean they approve of using it. He hasn’t seen them using it yet. What if they’re here as a punishment for magic? He really can’t assume these things, but he doesn’t know. And not knowing is dangerous.

 

He’d much rather face a physical challenge than a mental, especially after yesterday. Hizashi opts to climb down the well. Is it what Shinsou expects from him? No. Is he doing it anyway? Yes.

 

Hizashi makes his way down- there’s only a little bit of water at the bottom. IS the bucket really the well’s problem? Or is it something more?

 

Like he suspected, the bucket sits on the ground, undamaged. It seems it had just unhooked from the rope. He picks it up, and an odd shape catches his eye.

 

Something else at the bottom of the well.

 

Scratches similar to what he found in the stairway trail down the stone. Before him, waist high is an old sigil, carved in messily. Not with a knife, but claws. Water purification marks. Aizawa is the reason they have clean water. Moss is growing over the markings, so he gently scrapes it away.

No protection to keep the sigil intact. He feels sad, staring at the faded markings, doing their best even as they chip and fade.

 

He fumbles through his pockets- it won't be much, but enough to keep the sigil safe. Just a small spell. He draws a blade, gently carving the markings deeper, humming as he did. He doesn’t need to see himself to know his magic is working. His hair rustles, almost floating around him as his eyes burn bright. After touching up the sigil, he carves a few markings of his own around it before pressing his palm to it.

 

He sings softly, almost a whisper to the stone.

 

The spell settles in anticlimactically as the magic fades, but Hizashi can feel the power. He looks at the bucket and fills it from the deeper pool in the middle. It tastes cool and fresh, though the mineral aftertaste makes him grimace. Ew. He’ll have to get used to it if he plans to stay here for more than another night. For now, his wanderlust is sedated by his curiosity of this strange little village. Maybe he can have a proper rest here before deciding what to do next.

 

He reattaches the bucket to the rope- more secure this time- before climbing out and pulling it up. His muscles are sore from the difficult climb, but he feels happy. Accomplished. He hasn’t used his magic like this in a while. And no one saw him!

 

A familiar voice clears their throat behind him. Hizashi startles, turning to see Eraserhead standing there, staring at the ground.

 

“Eraser! I fixed the well!”

 

The sphinx looks up. “Did you,” Eraserhead pauses, shifting his paws, “Were you able to repair the sigil?”

 

Hizashi pauses, unsure of how to answer. Should he reveal his magic? It takes him a moment to realize he wouldn’t have asked if he didn’t already suspect Hizashi of having magic. Can a magical beast like him sense it? Is that why he asked Hizashi to check the well first? Hizashi nods slowly, and Eraserhead looks both relieved and wary at the same time.

 

“I thought you said you weren't a warlock.”

 

“I know enough to get by,” Hizashi says. “But don’t come to me asking to revive the dead.” Hizashi supposes part of his magic is the ability to talk his way out of every situation. He’s perfected the art of misdirection and distraction.

 

“I wouldn’t trust you with a pair of rusty scissors, much less a human life.”

 

“Yet you trust me to fix your well.”

 

“Because I had no other option.” Eraserhead sniffs.

 

“What else am I supposed to do?” Hizashi rolls up his sleeves as best he can. “Hit me with another task!”

 

Aizawa gives him a dull look. “The kids won't mention it, but the leaking roofs… the task is too delicate for me to attempt…” He grimaces, and Hizashi can feel how tense Eraserhead is with his magic senses. He’s always been more in-tune with other’s emotions, and using magic always makes the feeling sharper, more apparent. The blonde smiles softly, tilting his head as he reaches out and musses the Sphinx’s hair.

 

“I'll get them. “

 

Eraserhead huffs and steps back but doesn't retaliate. Hizashi takes that as a good sign. He has Eraserhead lead him to the houses with the leaks before he gets to work, stuffing holes with straw and covering them with a special mud-and-clay mixture that hardens with a few careful words. The children that come to watch are all impressed, boosting his confidence, but he notices that not many of the older ones are around.

 

“Oh, most of them are foraging or out in the farm fields.” Shinsou later tells him when he asks. He’s back at Eraserhead’s house getting a small lunch and hiding from the afternoon sun.

 

“You guys have a farm? I didn't see it while walking up!”

 

Shinsou rolls his eyes. “Invisibility spells exist.”

 

Hizashi laughs. “You do know how uncommon it is for people to have magic, right? You can't blame a guy for forgetting.”

 

Shinsou stays quiet for a moment, seemingly lost in thought. Hizashi doesn’t prefer the silence, but he knows others do, so he tries to keep his mouth shut when others seem comfortable with it. Luckily for him, it didn’t take long for the conversation to continue.

 

“Hey Mic,” Shinsou pauses, waiting for Hizashi’s eyes to meet his, “Has society changed in the past ten years?”

 

Hizashi considers it. “Everything changes. Time wears on everyone, even if they don’t show it. It’s more of a question of if the change is good, or bad.”

 

“Which way has society changed?”

 

“It’s a bit of both,” Hizashi decides, rubbing the back of his neck. “I travel a lot -- some places are better than others. Food’s definitely improved- spices are more popular now. Politics are still a mess though; always have been, always will be.”

 

“What about magic?” Shinsou squeezes his eyes shut when he asks, like he’s afraid to hear the answer.

 

Mic breaths out. “It depends on where you are. For everyone who stands with magic users, there are just as many common folk in anger… Dark magic is making a comeback and templars are still trying to “purify" us…”

 

“It's better now though… Because of how many are realizing we’re people, the same as them. There are even famous magic users that people look up to!”

 

“Famous like you?”

 

“Ah. Well, I'm more famous for my music, but there are some people who know I can use magic. I try not to use it much, especially in towns where people are wary of it unless I really, really have to.”

 

“So, you’ve been trained?”

 

“A bit. The rest I taught myself. Every person’s magic has a personality to it, like the person who wields it. So it's not always the same. You have to play to your strengths. Mine doesn't work unless I'm making a sound, but the sound itself doesn't matter.”

 

Hizashi knows he's rambling, but Shinsou still looks interested.

 

“So sometimes, to make it more powerful, I'll be louder! Or to make it more subtle, I'll hum. Or maybe I want it to last a long time, so I'll sing a whole song or hold a long note.”

 

Hizashi turns his focus back to Shinsou. “What’s your magic like?”

 

Shinsou flushes red across his cheeks. “It’s nothing special.” He mumbles, “It works better when I speak around others.” As he says it, the table grows a small bud. “But it’s most effective against other people.”

 

Hizashi grins. “Hey, that’s nothing to be ashamed of! It just means the protective aspect of your personality comes through!”

 

“Protective…?”

 

“Yeah!” Hizashi laughs, “I’ve seen how you act around the other kids!”

 

“I grew up an only child,” Shinsou admits, “but somebody has to teach them what a family can be like.”

 

“What happened to your parents?” Hizashi’s prying, but it’s bugged him since he first showed up. Sphinxes don’t run orphanages — Eraserhead is an exception.

 

“It’s more a question of what happened to me . Magic.” Shinsou sways like he’s about to lose his footing. His eyes flutter shut, and for a second, Hizashi thinks he’s going to pass out. Instead, Shinsou rightens himself and shakes out his hands, like he’s brushing away a bad memory. “After that… bad things.”

 

Hizashi frowns, rubbing his eyes  “How many of you have similar stories? And Eraser?”

 

Shinsou hangs his head. “We all have some special ability that keeps us from fitting in. Sensei… he doesn't talk about himself… who knows what kind of past a Sphinx can have.”

 

For once, Hizashi isn't sure what to stay. He pats Shinsou’s shoulder, trying to comfort him. Shinsou manages a soft smile.

 

“Well, I think you guys are great so far!”

 

“You haven't even met everyone yet.” Shinsou says in an amused tone.

 

“That's fine! I love meeting new people.”

 

Shinsou stands. “You can meet them while doing chores.” He says, a wide grin on his face.

 

Hizashi grumbles good-naturedly but follows him nonetheless.

 

Shinsou leads him out to the front of the town, where open fields border the little dirt road. Hizashi isn’t paying any attention to his leader, leading to him bumping into the purple haired boy when he stops. Shinsou shoots him a glare but quickly recovers.

 

“I suppose you still can’t see the gardens- or can you?”

 

Hizashi shakes his head. Shinsou turns to look at the seemingly-empty fields for a moment, clearly seeing something Hizashi can’t.

 

“Give me the rundown of this place,” Hizashi says. “Who’s who?”

 

Shinsou taps his chin. “Well, you’ve already met Sensei. There’s Eri and me, and a kid named Shouto. He’s been here longer than anyone. Sensei practically dragged him here. Unlike most of us, his family didn’t hate him for his magic. They wanted to use it -- use him.”

 

“Awful,” Hizashi shudders. He knows what it’s like to be forced into magical whims. “What else should I know?”

 

“Eri has to stay with Sensei or I. There are others she likes to spend time with, but she's still lacking control. She needs to be watched closely. I suppose I'm the next in charge, besides Sensei. He's taught me how to protect anyone in case anything happens to him, but Shouto is our strongest. All the others are just… kids.“

 

On that note, little voices carry over, wide eyes finding Hizashi’s. A child holding weeds and flowers stares at the blonde, seeming to appear out of thin air.

 

Hizashi waves. “Hi there-”

 

The child runs to a looming Eraserhead. The Sphinx has been watching them from the shadows. The child whispers to the creature before returning and holding out her bouquet. “Sensei says you aren't bad.”

 

The blonde beams, carefully taking the flowers and holding them close, reaching a hand out. “I'm Present Mic-”

 

His introduction is cut short as the flowers in his hand start struggling for freedom. He yelps and drops them, watching as the girl giggles and grabs them back, putting them in her hair. He watches in amazement as the flowers grow into her green hair, happily waving in the slight breeze.

 

“Oh, wow!” He smiles in awe this time. The girl blushes before running to find more plants. He looks up to find a lot of teenagers he hasn't seen before looking at him. Plants of all kinds are now visible on both sides of the road that weren't there before- or at least, he couldn't see them. He didn’t even notice anyone lifting the spell. Gardens and farms are spread out over the fields that had looked so empty just moments ago. It looks so vibrant, so alive, he can barely believe it was all hidden under a simple invisibility spell.

 

“Wow!”

 

“This is your garden?” Hizashi can barely walk in a straight line. Every way he turns his head, there’s a new flower screaming for his attention. Vibrant colors blind him.

 

“A lot of kids here have plant or animal based magic. Sensei trains us to control them so that we can create.” Shinsou smiles. Hizashi sees the appeal of a place like this.

 

“What else do you have to show me?”

 

“It’s more about what you want to see. You’ve helped today, but if you stay another night, you’ll be expected to help again tomorrow. If you want, Sensei will be gathering food for tonight's dinner. He could probably use a hand.”



Hizashi glances over at the Sphinx, who is lounging in the sun. Some of the local children are sitting close to him. He has one eye open, lazily watching the bard while his tail swishes slowly. Hizashi approaches him, his eyebrow rising as Eraser turns away.

 

“Eraser,” Hizashi says. When Eraser doesn’t immediately respond, he tries again, louder this time. “Eraser!”

 

Still no response. Hizashi bites back a huff and folds his arms. “Eraser, I know you can hear me. I’m not the quiet type.”

 

“Shh.” Eraser thwaps Hizashi on the side with a wing. “Silence. I’m trying to listen.”

 

“Listen?” Hizashi lowers his voice, but getting him to shut up is a different task altogether. If he strains, he can make out faint noises on the hill below, but he has no idea what’s being said.

 

Eraser tenses, his paws dig into the dirt and his wings fold into his back. “The kids,” is all he says. Hizashi wonders if he should pull out his weapons, but before he can decide, Eri crests the top of the hill. Her long silver hair is a rat’s nest on top of her head. Her knee and shin are red and raw, scraped up and bloody.

 

“Eri?” Eraserhead asks. “What happened?”

 

“I fell on a rock.” She sniffs as she speaks, trying to hold back the tears pooling in her eyes. “It hurts!”

 

“The cuts aren’t deep. We’ll get it washed up when we get back to the house. You’ll be fine.” Eraser says stiffly. Eri only sobs louder in response and hold her arms out, as if she wants to be picked up. Eraser hesitates, shifting his weight from paw to paw, before awkwardly extending his wings.

 

“Here,” Hizashi says. “I’ll carry you.”

 

Eraser tenses at the suggestion and a growl forms in the back of his throat. His paws dig into the ground, ready to pounce, but before he can move, Eri locks her arms around Hizashi’s neck. He picks her up and adjusts her over his hip. Her sobs fade away as she tucks her face against Hizashi’s shoulder.

 

“See?” Hizashi asks Eraser. “Simple as that.”

 

The growls softens. Something shifts behind Eraser’s eyes and Hizashi can practically see a switch flipping in his mind. Before Hizashi can determine why, Eraser spins on a heel and marches back towards the house. “Come on you two. Let’s get Eri patched up.”

 


 

Patching Eri up is the work of moments, and it isn’t long before her pain is forgotten in favor of running back out to play. Eraserhead follows her, leaving Hizashi behind to catch up. He ends up lingering and admiring the gardens as he approaches the hill again, and when he returns Eri is gently combing Eraserhead’s hair, huffing whenever it gets stuck.

 

“Well, I suppose I'll go offer my services! And I'd like to sing for everyone later too, if that's cool?”

 

“That’ll be up to Sensei, but I don't see why not. It sounds nice, actually.”

 

“Then it's settled!” Hizashi nods and heads up to Eraserhead and his entourage.

 

“Shinsou says we’re getting dinner!” Hizashi announces. Eraserhead huffs.

 

“Sure, but we don't need to leave until later.”

 

“I need to finish his hair first!” Eri says.

 

“What are you trying to do to it?” Hizashi tilts his head. She’s been brushing it for a while, but each time she set down the brush and plays with it, it ends up in more knots.

 

“I want to braid it!” She announces, holding up three sections of Eraser’s hair. “But I’m not very good.”

 

Hizashi watches her struggle to pull the sections over. “I see what the problem is.” Hizashi’s never braided anyone else’s hair, but he’s seen others do it before. “You only cross into the middle section. You don't take the same strand all the way across.”

 

Eri stares at the half-finished braid. “I guess I have to start again,” she says glumly.

 

Hizashi reaches forward, gently working his fingers through the thick black hair. “It’s alright, you hold the two sides, and I’ll hold the middle.” Eraserhead gives a warning growl, but Hizashi only sticks his tongue out with a wink.


“You told me to help people- she wants to learn how to braid!” He hums and sings as Eri weaves the strands, helping her gather more and comb it out. “If you start at the end and brush up, you won't break the hair and the knots will come out easier.”

 

Eri moves to sit in Mic’s lap as she works, focused on her important task. “If I get better at doing your hair, I might be able to braid my own.”

 

Mic glances at her. “How long have you been trying?”


“Um… Awhile now.”

 

“Well, not to worry! Once you're done with him, why don't you do mine?”

 

Eri turns around with stars in her eyes.

 

“Really?”

 

“Yeah! So let's make sure you get it right. We can practice until Eraser says we should leave, right?”

 

Eraserhead just growls again, too weak to be a real threat, which makes Eri laugh.

 

Hizashi guides Eri through the process, stopping her every once and a while to work out tangles. “See? Easy!”

 

Eri claps her hands. “Your turn!”

 

Hizashi hates to admit it, but he’s nervous to put his hair in her hands. He helped her braid Eraserhead’s, but who would help her braid his? Eri yanks on a handful of his hair and he winces.

 

“You have to be gentle,” Eraserhead rumbles. “Like you were with me.”

 

Hizashi closes his eyes, leaning back.

 

“Comb from the bottom up… no pulling hair apart.”

 

Hizashi gives the Sphinx a wink, mouthing out 'thank you’.  Eraserhead nods, the slightest hint of a smile gracing his lips.

 

“You look really good with braids, Eraser.”

 

It makes him look gentle, less angry. Hizashi finds himself looking Eraserhead over, taking in the little details of the Sphinx. The way his hair shines in the light of the afternoon sun. His sharp eyes and sharper claws. The long, sleek feathers on his wings and his glossy black fur. His handsome face and dangerous eyes. It's quite the picture. Hizashi briefly wishes he could paint.

 

Maybe he’ll write a song, once he leaves. Beauty deserves to be commemorated.

 

Eraserhead cocks an eyebrow and flicks his tail and Hizashi realizes he’s been staring. He blushes and looks up at the sparse clouds, wringing his bandanna between his hands. He slowly relaxes as Eri’s small hands work through his hair. He hopes the braid looks good, not only for his sake but for hers as well. He could tell the little girl was unsure of herself, and success, no matter how small, was the best way to combat that.

 

“Remember what Mr. Yamada showed you.” The Sphinx says. “Try to keep the hair flat and smooth as you braid.” He feels Eri adjust accordingly, untangling his hair as she braids.

 

Eri finishes eventually, patting the braid gently before removing her hands from Hizashi’s hair.

 

“Done!”

 

Hizashi turns to see a small, proud smile on her face. The bard turns to the Sphinx next, beaming. “Well? Did Eri make me beautiful? “ He reaches up, arms stretching as he pats it, feeling how neat they were- no stray hairs sticking out. “Thank you, Eri. I can't wait to see it.”

The little girl smiles bright. “Want to help with mine?”

 

“Sure! Turn around and keep your head straight.” He twirls his finger to illustrate. Eri nods and comes around to sit in front of him. Hizashi makes sure to brush her hair out first before starting a complex braid he learned as a child from some milkmaids. Eraserhead watches them when he isn't looking across the fields, noting where everyone is. Hizashi braids on, blissfully unaware of all the attention he's getting as a stranger in their midst. Only Eraserhead’s calm acceptance keeps everyone from worry or panic.

 

“Aaand we’re done!” Hizashi exclaims as he picks a wildflower and tucks it into the back of her braid. Eri moves the braid to her shoulder to look at it. “Do you like it, Eri?”

 

Eri nods enthusiastically. “Can you teach me how to do this one too?”

 

“He can teach you later.” Eraserhead says as he stands, stretching like a house cat. “Mr. Yamada and I need to hunt in order to prepare dinner.”

 

He approaches them, nudging Eri with his paw. “Why don’t you go show everyone your hair?”

 

Eri nods, practically bouncing as she goes to find someone. The blonde gives the creature a small smile. “You’ll hunt, I’ll gather?”

Eraserhead sighs. “Lets go to the fields to start with.”

Hizashi nods, following closely. “Y’know, I've never seen a place like this before… It’s nice. Magic users don't usually have a place of refuge… Did you seek them out yourself? Or did they find you?”

 

Eraserhead looks over his shoulder at Hizashi for a moment, considering his answer.

 

“A bit of both. Though some were offered to me as sacrifices once. I took them here to be safe, but I suppose their parents think I ate them. Their loss. They could have offered themselves...”

 

Hizashi shakes his head, walking quickly to keep up with Eraserhead’s long gait.

 

“You know, despite the fact that you eat people, you're a pretty nice guy!”

 

Eraserhead lets out an amused huff. “Am I?”

 

“I'd say so! I mean you didn't have to let me stay the night.” Hizashi laughs.

 

“I'd say you're the nice one.” Eraserhead comments. “Strangers usually don't treat me like a person.” Eraserhead turns his head away, looking out across the plains at the tree line.

 

That leaves a bad taste in Hizashi’s mouth. “Do a lot of people pass through here?”

 

Eraserhead clucks his tongue. “People try. How many make it is another question.”

 

“If you’re the gatekeeper of this place, why do you ask people riddles? Don’t you think it would be more poignant to ask how they felt about magic?”

 

Eraserhead snorts. “Then I would hardly eat.”

 

“But what if you eat the people who could help you? What if you ate me?”

 

The Sphinx pauses, regarding him carefully.

 

“I have an eye for the good and the bad. The only people who could help me are the ones who can do more than solve the riddles.” He huffs lightly, his bangs blowing out of his eyes. “I eat bad people because I can, not because they fail to solve my riddle. Those who fail I turn back to where they came from. Usually with no memory of coming here.”

 

“Oh.” Well, that's sort of anticlimactic. But it makes sense. “Does that mean I can help you?”

 

“Maybe.”

 

“Help you with what, exactly? Whatever is behind that magic door?”

 

“You saw that?”

 

“I mean, it was just down the stairs…”

 

“It’s enchanted so only those with magic can see it.”

 

Hizashi scoffs in mock offense. “Did you already forget I have magic?”

 

“No, although you’re so plain it would be easy to forget.” Eraserhead says with a grin.

 

“I’m not that plain! Just because my hair isn’t bright purple doesn’t mean I’m plain!”

 

Eraserhead chuckles. “I’m joking, you’re one of the furthest things from plain on this Earth. I figured you didn’t have the time to go exploring already.”

 

“The door is time-sensitive?”

 

Eraserhead hesitates. “No.”

 

“Then what?”

 

“In order to see, you must gain the trust of those around you — us.”

 

“And in order to open it?”

 

Eraserhead scoffs again. “Don’t get ahead of yourself.”

 

He gives the creature a big grin and two thumbs up. “I've lived my whole life getting ahead of myself! “ He leans in, mock whispering as he holds a hand up to cover his words. “If you get far enough ahead, the demons can't catch you- and boy have I managed to piss off too many of those.”

 

He leans back, hands on his hips. “So, what is behind the door? Do I need to solve more riddles? Cut off an ear? Arrange a virgin sacrifice? I may not be a virgin, but I can guarantee I'm a better sacrifice than most-”

 

His monologue is cut off as Eraserhead laughs, all his teeth on display. Hizashi stands with his hands on his hips until Eraserhead finally stops laughing and gets back on his feet. He wants to act indignant but he can't wipe the wide smile off his own face.

 

“It’s nothing like that.” The sphinx reassures, “It’s difficult to open, but not violent.”

 

“Ok, new question. Does the door or anything else forbid you from telling me how to open it?”

 

Eraserhead sighs. “Yes. But before you ask; yes I do know what opens it.” He seems frustrated, like he wants to tell but is unsure, instead of being spelled to keep his silence.

 

“Then you can’t tell me?”

 

“No, and there’s no reason for you to know.” Eraserhead says.

 

“Awww, come on!” Hizashi protests. “What could it hurt to try?”

 

“Better a question of who it could hurt.” Eraserhead shakes his head. Why did it sound like he was talking about himself?

 

Hizashi makes a face at him.

 

“Who’s gonna stop me?”

 

Eraserhead gives him a hard look. “If you’re at risk to harm anyone here, I will stop you.”

 

“But not from opening the door.”

 

“I won't stop you from whatever you're trying to accomplish.”

 

The blonde smiles warmly.

 

“Then I'm gonna get the door open, no matter what. I promise.” He reaches out, then stops, realizing he can't shake his hand. Instead, he places his hand over his heart, standing proudly. “I'll break it wide open!”

 

Eraserhead looks touched for a moment before his apathetic facade is back. But now Hizashi knows for sure its a mask of indifference. He wonders what is behind that door as Eraserhead tosses his hair and starts walking again.

 

“Well, curse or not, dinner still needs to happen. You're going to run into those bushes over there and scare the animals out so I can get them. You've proven you’re good at being loud.”

 

“Hmm. I suppose I can't argue with something that’s true.”

 

With that, Hizashi runs towards the large bushes, belting a battle-song.

 

“For the glory of the golden king we fight, for the broken and battered and cursed we would die, but do not fear for we will survive!”

 

“What is that?” Eraserhead makes a concerned face.

 

Instead of answering, he continues onto the next line. A group of quail fly out from the bushes, spewing into the open. Eraserhead pounces.

 

Hizashi looks away. He can’t watch this part. He isn’t a vegetarian, and he’s killed his own food before, but watching Eraserhead do it… is unsettling. Normally, people only get to watch a sphinx's attacks because they’re on the receiving end of them.

 

It is over quickly, Hizashi peeking with one eye to see Eraserhead licking his claws clean. The kills were quick, precise. The least amount of suffering. He bows his head, showing a rope loosely hanging from his neck. “Tie them with this, then let’s collect some things from the garden.”

 

The bard nods fast, reaching to carefully unravel the rope- no, it was more like a bandage?

“What do you eat? Is your diet restricted? Do you have any favorites? If you don't, I have so many ideas, and maybe I could teach the kids some recipes! I've been on the road, so I learned from the best-”

 

“Hm. Then prove it.” Eraserhead says. Hizashi stops talking for one blissful moment.

 

“What-? I mean, sure! Yes! I will show you! Let’s see, with what we have here, maybe a nice stew and some kebabs, maybe some fried rice… oh, so many good ideas to choose from!”

 

“Well you better decide by the time we get back. We will have forty-three hungry mouths to feed.”

 

“F-forty-three?”

 

“Yeah. That includes you. Used to be forty-two.”

 

“I didn't realize there were so many kids! I assume you're not counting yourself?”

 

Eraserhead couldn't stop the small, amused huff that escapes his lips.

 

“I'm not counting myself.” Eraserhead confirms.

 

“I gotta ask-”

 

“Isn’t that the only thing you do?” Eraserhead interrupts, shooting him a wide smile.

 

The bard huffs. “On the contrary! I hardly ask -- I usually just speak.”

 

“I’ve noticed,” Eraserhead’s braid tangles in a loose tree branch. He shakes it free.

 

“How do you find these kids? How do they end up here? I assume you don’t go and get them yourself?”

 

Eraserhead tenses. Is this it? Is this what the bard is here for?

 

Hizashi pauses, reaching forward. “Careful-” He gently removes the twigs and leaves remaining in the creature’s hair. Eraserhead stands still as a statue, eyes wide as he keeps himself from jerking away.

“Some of them find us, some of them were abandoned near here…. In extreme situations, I find ways of getting them here.”

 

Hizashi pouts as he thinks. “It would be better to have multiple locations then, would it not? Traveling groups to help? Why just you? Why stay in one spot-”

 

Hizashi froze, eyes wide, a realization striking him.

 

Because he can't.

 

“That door stops you, doesn't it.”

 

Eraserhead glares, shaking his hair out of Hizashi's grasp.

 

“Pick up the meat and start walking. Dinner needs to be made.”

 

“Wait, am I right? Does it have to do with that door?”

 

Eraserhead jumps ahead, using his powerful body to put distance between them.

 

“Enough talking,” is all Hizashi hears before Eraserhead runs out of sight.

 

Hizashi sighs. He wants to help him, especially since he can’t help but admire what he’s done for the kids. Hizashi wishes he could have done something before- whatever it is that happened. A curse is the most feasible reason.

 

Hizashi shakes the thought from his head. Now isn’t the time to dwell on the past. He runs to catch up with Eraserhead, silently falling in line with the sphinx’s quick pace. Eraserhead’s gait quickens to one he can’t match, so Hizashi lets the sphinx run ahead. Eraserhead probably needs the alone time.

 

So, is the door hiding a curse, or containing it? Is Eraser cursed? Hizashi’s slows. If he’s cursed, then who cursed him? And why?

 

Most curses have a story behind them.

 

What isn’t Eraserhead telling him? What isn’t he telling the kids ?

 

Hizashi wanders off the trail, picking fruit as he thinks. Eraserhead wouldn’t do anything to put the kids at risk. So the only person the curse affected, it would seem, is him. He would have to ask Eri or Shinsou if it was possible for themselves to leave the village. Or if they saw Eraserhead leave.

 

If Eraserhead was bound here, it would explain why there were no tales of a giant sphinx rescuing children far and wide.

 

The idea that it's a curse cannot be substantiated by his wondering. He needs information. SO what does he know? Eraserhead is kind, and he took in the children instead of eating them the way beasts of old used to do. Plus, the way he refers to himself and the way he treats Hizashi. So many little things, adding up. But what do they add up to?

 

He leaves the underbrush behind, laden down with a bag of berries on top of his haul of meat.

 

Eraserhead is by the garden, picking up a large basket of vegetables from a few of the kids. Hizashi decides not to approach him, walking over to Shinsou to ask about where to take the food.

 

“Todoroki Shouto is on the other end of the village starting a fire. Take your food over to him.” Hizashi can’t help but notice how Shinsou acts colder to him than before. It’s probably because Eraserhead is angry with him.

 

“Okay,” Hizashi adjusts his grip on the food. Todoroki... didn’t Shinsou say he’s the most powerful?

 

He makes his way over, taking in as much of the surrounding village as possible. He catches kids staring at him from across the fields or from behind half-closed doors.

 

What if he can’t find Shouto?

 

The fear is quickly washed away.  A few feet away, sparks dance off of a teenage boy’s palm. His hair is split down the middle, two different colors. “I was told you would be coming around,” Shouto says.

 

“I brought food,” Hizashi dumps it into a nearby basket. “I’m going to help make a stew.”

 

Shouto turns around and Hizashi does a double take. One eye is marred from the eyebrow to the cheek by an angry red scar. The boy keeps to himself as he preps, slicing and skewering the meat as needed. Kids come by dropping handfuls or baskets of food. Shouto doesn't talk much to any of them, working away.

 

“How long have you lived here in the village?”

 

“A few years.” Is Shouto’s quiet reply. Wow, so informative. Well, this is what he gets for prying.

 

“Do you like it here? Oh, cut the pieces like this for the stew, so they can be thick and juicy.”

 

Shouto watches the demonstration as he considers the question.

 

“Yes, I like it here.”

 

“That's great! It seems like an amazing place. Do you enjoy cooking?”

 

“It's alright.”

 

Hizashi stops asking questions and stays quiet for a moment, focusing on the stew. He hadn’t realized how tired he was until now. Hizashi had forgotten how tiring magic is. It’s a nice sort of tired, but a scary one too. Hizashi can’t afford to use any more magic for the day.

 

Shouto taps his shoulder, drawing him out of his thoughts.

 

“Why are you here?”

 

“Me?”

 

Shouto nods, his mismatched eyes boring into him.

 

“Nowhere else to go, I guess.” Hizashi shrugs. “I don’t call anywhere home. I travel around as I please. Stumbling across this place was just a mishap, but now that I’m here, I don’t see a reason to leave immediately.”

 

“Nowhere else to go.” Shouto repeats. “I get that. Sensei’s done a lot to keep us safe. Protect us. Teach us. But even a prison built with porcelain walls is a prison.”

 

Hizashi freezes, halting his prep.

 

“He doesn't force you to stay, right? Eraserhead can't leave, but you can go whenever you want, right…? None of you are trapped here?”

 

No, he wouldn't. The sphinx wouldn't trap them here in hope of protecting them…

 

“No. I'm not trapped. Not by magic. But by- myself?” Shouto ends his sentence in a questioning tone.

 

Hizashi tilts his head. He stirs the large pot of stew so Shouto can focus on something else.

 

“By yourself? Do you mean you don't feel like you can make it on your own? That you're limited by what you can do for yourself?”

 

Shouto nods.

 

“You're good with words. Sensei taught me so much. He worries about me. But I want to see new things. I promise to come back, but he won't allow it yet.”

 

Shouto’s eyes sparkle as he sets down the last kebab, staring at Hizashi straight on.

 

“But maybe if I went with you he’d allow it. You'd want to come back here anyways, right? It’s nice.”

 

“I would,” Hizashi admits, “but I probably wouldn't be welcomed back with open arms. I mean, I'm just some stranger who wandered upon this place, and I've been told you're the strongest, aside from Eraserhead.”

 

Shouto nods, his eyes far away as he regards Hizashi’s words. “Could you afford to stay here for a while? Or at least long enough so that Sensei will be convinced you’re not just taking an open opportunity?”

 

Hizashi stretches out his arms and looks up at the sky. “I don’t have anywhere to go in a hurry.”

 

“Then…” Shouto hesitates, stirring the pot of stew.

 

“Then what?”

 

“Then, when it comes time for you to leave, will you take me with you?”

 

Hizashi bites his lip, frowning.

 

“No. I think I should talk with Eraserhead beforehand…” Who knows- maybe the kid is being hunted. He’s protecting Shouto. Or maybe their small village is at risk, and he needs more manpower to keep everyone safe.

“I’m surprised you’re so willing to trust a stranger…”

Shouto smirks. “I trusted Sensei.”

 

Ah. “Look, I’ll have a chat with him, but he might be a little mad at me... I’ll let you know how it goes.”

 

Shouto nods and offers to watch the food. Hizashi can see a few others coming to help, so he gives them a wave and leaves them all to it. He can come back and check in with them after he finds Eraserhead.