1. Candles in the Woods

Hito knew better than to follow strange lights in the woods. Through his father’s paintings, he had met all kinds of yōkai monsters, from the mischievous trickster foxes called kitsune, to the kappa, menacing water imps who would torment travelers. With all the weird beasts and spirits in the world, he knew if you were ever alone in the woods at night, the last thing you should do was chase mysterious lights.

But he didn’t know why he was here in the first place. Why had he left his home and wandered beyond the safety of Edo’s gates? It was something someone else would do, one of those reckless boys who always got into trouble, not someone smart and cautious like himself. Yet here he was, surrounded by an endless wilderness of skeletal gray trees, alone in the dark with no hope of finding his way home.

Except for the light.

Hidden behind a tree, he peered off into the distance, where a strange orange fire glowed in the night. Twigs and leaves crackled beneath his wooden sandals as he leaned out for a better view. A campfire? No, it was floating in the air, not settled on the ground. A torch? But nobody in their right mind would be out this late. So what was it?

“H-hello?” Creeping out of his hiding place, he squinted in vain for a dark human silhouette against the flame. The shimmering fire bobbed up and down, drifting slowly away from him.

He hesitated. If the light belonged to a traveler, wouldn’t he want to help him? Why would he run away? Absently chewing his lower lip, he fell back to gazing at the distant fire.

Fwoosh! Hito jumped as another flame poofed into existence only ten feet away. His heart pounding, he stared into it with wide eyes.

This flame was deep green, and didn’t belong to anyone. It floated in mid-air with no lantern, no one to hold it, and no fuel to burn, its eerie glow like something from another world.

“What is it?” Hito whispered. He inched forward, hand outstretched, but the flame bounced away in short arcs, like a stone skipping over a pond. With a frown, he stepped forward again, but for every move he made, the flame bounced further away.

Leave it alone, he said to himself, thinking again of malevolent spirits, hunting down and torturing helpless victims. But what choice did he have? A wave of despair washed over him as he swept his eyes through the forest for any sign of a way home. But there was nothing.

Nothing except the orange and green flames, glowing invitingly in the dark.

Hito broke into a sprint, the wind blowing through his wispy black hair as he dashed toward the green flame, which left behind a streak of light as it darted away. “Wait!” he shouted. “Please, I need help!”

A childish giggle emanated from the fire, soft and musical as it reverberated in the quiet forest. There was a person in there!

Another laugh rang out behind him, this one rough, mischievous and unpleasant. Glancing back, he saw that the orange flame was chasing him, directly opposite the green. Up close, its hue was much too deep for real fire, every bit as unnatural as the alien green.

Don’t take your eyes off of them, Hito thought. He tapered to a stop, his gaze whipping back and forth between the two flames. It took him a moment to realize why he felt so uneasy, but then it came to him — they had pinned him in from both sides, like hunters closing in on a wounded animal.

The flames began to circle him, slowly at first, but then faster, faster, faster than his eyes could see, leaving bright trails behind them. Orange, green, orange, green … Their light blazed across his vision, merging into one multi-colored, glowing ring. Hito spun in place, struggling to keep up with his eyes. Beyond the ring of light, the forest faded into nothingness. The world spun with the flames, the ground pitching up and down like the deck of a ship.

“Stop!” he cried, his stomach churning as dizziness invaded his head. “You’re making me … Ugh …”

Nothing else remained in the world, only him and those spinning fires. Losing his balance, he stumbled and fell into nowhere, helpless to prevent the black wave of unconsciousness from surging in and carrying him out into the sea of oblivion.

***

Hito awoke in a heap, his cheek mushed into something cold and hard. Probing with his fingers in the darkness, he traced a floor of smooth, square tiles. After a moment, he found a brick wall and leaned against it for support as he climbed to his feet.

Luminescent blue mortar glowed between the bricks and tiles, forming a grid pattern like a cage. Larger panels broke the pattern, black spaces dotted with pinpoints of light, like stars in the night sky.

Only a few feet away, the two flames bobbed side by side, burning without a trace of smoke. Their smooth, silent rippling recalled water more than fire.

“What are you starin’ at?” a harsh boy’s voice shouted from the orange flame.

“Wha-?!” Hito staggered backwards, tripped over his feet, and tumbled back to the floor. Pain jolted through his body, and he winced, rubbing gingerly at his backside.

“Oh, gosh!” the green flame cried. It swept close to him, its warm glow flooding his face. “Are you alright? Try to be more careful!”

They could talk? Each of the voices sounded like a boy his own age. The orange flame’s was rough and gravelly, as if he were retching with every word, but the green flame’s was smooth and gentle, almost musical.

“Who cares if he’s hurt, Will?” the orange flame snapped. It darted down to the green flame and shook intensely, and the other flame dimmed timidly in response.

“There’s no reason to be mean, Jack!” he protested.

So Jack’s orange, and Will’s green.

“Ah, shut up!” Jack said, blazing brighter every time he stressed a word. “I’ll be as mean as I want! Hito isn’t our guest, he’s our prisoner!

“Your prisoner?” A heavy weight of dread settled into his stomach. “Wh-what do you want with me?”

Will turned toward him. Well, he didn’t have a face, but Hito felt a clear sense of his attention pointing at him. “Isn’t it cute, Jack? He’s terrified. Lost, helpless, and so confused.”

“Heh heh heh.” Jack laughed, his rough voice more like a cough. “I never get tired of suckers like him. Watching him will be a riot!”

“Watching me?” Hito asked. “Watching me do what?

Suffer,” Jack sneered.

“This place is called the Labyrinth,” Will explained. “Think of it like a prison for lost souls. When we find poor travelers out on their own, we like to play with them. We lead them along with our light, drawing them away from the safe paths so they get even more lost.”

“Once those clumsy fools are completely beyond hope,” Jack said, “when the despair creeps in and they’re ready to cry and moan and give up, we bring ’em here. All those people who get lost in the woods, who disappear without a trace, it’s all because of us!”

“I want to go home,” Hito said. He was tired of the darkness, the wilderness, the cold and mysterious. Tired of these strange flame people and their mocking voices. “Can’t you let me out of here?”

“You want out?” Jack said with a nasty chuckle. “No one’s stopping you! All you have to do is find your own way.”

“I’m sure it won’t be that hard,” Will said. “Escaping the Labyrinth should be simple for someone like him, right?”

“Of course! I’m sure he’ll do so much better than all the others.”

Hito peered uneasily into Jack’s light. “The others?”

“Those other idiots we dragged here couldn’t find their way out of a maze of tissue paper! They wander for hours. Years. Maybe even hundreds of years.”

“It’s terribly sad,” Will said. “Not a single person has ever escaped from here.”

Hito’s eyes widened. “But if there’s no way out, then you brought me here to die!” He thought of his family and the home he had left behind. Running away had been a mistake. How warm and comforting home seemed now, compared to this cold and unwelcoming place.

Jack snickered. “Who knows? Maybe you’ll be the first to escape. Maybe you’re special.

“Still,” Will said. “It isn’t really fair. Maybe we should help him out a little. Give him something to strive for.”

Jack’s flame vibrated back and forth in anticipation. “You mean …?”

“Yeah! We’ll play our game with him.”

“Your game?” Hito asked.

“Hide and seek!” Will said. “Jack and I will hide somewhere in the Labyrinth, and you try to find us!”

“And if I win, you’ll set me free?” He couldn’t really trust them, could he? Strange spirits like these two lied all the time, and always had hidden motives.

“That’s what he said, isn’t it?” Jack spat, lunging so close to his face that Hito blinked in the bright orange light. “What an idiot! You’d better get walking if you want to see your precious ‘home’ again.”

“But why?” Hito cried. “Why are you doing this?”

Jack retched back in his non-existent throat. With a sound like a torch blowing out, he vanished. After a moment, he reappeared ten feet away, then vanished again, retreating further each time he popped in. “I’m looking forward to this. Watching you suffer. Watching you cry. Watching the monsters tear you apart.”

Monsters?” Hito squeaked. His mind leapt once more to his father’s paintings, and stories of yōkai who could eat people whole.

But Jack didn’t answer him. He poofed out one last time, his sinister laughter echoing through the cramped, glowing corridor.

Hito turned to Will, pleading. “Please! Don’t leave me here. Don’t do this to me!”

“Sorry,” Will said. “Don’t hate us for it. It’s in our nature.” He retreated as Jack had, his little green flame flashing in and out of view as he withdrew.

“No, please!” Hito cried. “I can’t do it!”

Will paused for a moment. His fire dimmed slightly, and a gentle sigh that was almost a whimper drifted out of him. “You sound like you’re about to cry. Why do you have to make this so hard?”

Hito stared. Was Will taking pity on him?

“Fine,” Will said wearily. “I shouldn’t be doing this, but … Have a look in the waistband of your pants.”

“Huh?” Hito reached into the band of fabric at his midsection, aware of the weight of an object there. Clasping it in his hand, he withdrew a round metal trinket. It couldn’t have been there before, could it? Had Will somehow put it there?

Will floated closer so Hito could see in the light. In his palm rested a compass, the glass chamber enclosing its needle framed by an intricate pattern of interweaving flames. There were no markings or measurements of any kind, just a gleaming silver needle spinning aimlessly.

“That’s a flame compass,” Will explained. “If you follow it, it will give you an edge none of the other lost souls in here ever had.”

“It will lead me out of here?” Hito asked.

Will laughed. “Oh, no! Jack would kill me if I let you go free. But you can use it to find other things. Tell it what you want to find, and its needle will point you toward it, no matter how warped and twisted the Labyrinth becomes.”

Hito peered down at the needle doubtfully. “Show me the way home,” he said. But it only continued to spin in circles, pointing at nothing at all.

“Didn’t I just tell you that wouldn’t work?”

Hito frowned. He had to at least try …

“Do I have to spell it out for you? We’re playing a game together, remember? Try pointing it at me.”

That’s right, Hito remembered. Hide and seek. “Take me to Will,” he said to the compass.

Instantly, its needle spun to point to the fire in front of him, sharp and straight as a dagger. As Will bounced back and forth in the air, the needle moved to follow.

“See?” he said musically. “It’s not so hard, is it?”

“I don’t understand,” Hito said. “Why are you helping me?”

Will didn’t answer, but his flame stood frozen in the air, and Hito could sense him gazing back at him, deep in thought.

“I have to go now,” he said at length. “Do your best, Hito. And try not to get hurt, okay?”

Before Hito could answer, Will blinked out, leaving him all alone in the dark corridors of the Labyrinth.

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