His head swimming, Hito staggered through the maze, groping for the luminescent walls to guide him. The only sound was his sandals rapping against the stone. The low ceiling and narrow walls pressed in on him, and he imagined them squeezing tighter and tighter until they crushed him.
“Stupid flames,” he muttered. “How am I supposed to find anything in this mess?”
His ears, nose, and fingers were stinging before he even realized how cold it had become. With a shiver, he hugged himself, closing the gaps in the long, draped sleeves of his haori jacket. His teeth chattering, he looked ahead and saw a faint light.
With his next step, something crunched beneath his sandal. Snow? he wondered, glancing down at the carpet of white beneath him. It glittered blue in a silvery light, stretching ahead for as far as he could see. The walls had given way to ornate, black iron fences with shadowy sketches of leafless trees and smooth, snowy hills visible through their bars. Peeking out from behind luminous gray clouds, a large silver crescent moon hung in the sky.
This doesn’t make sense! Hito thought. Wasn’t I indoors? It was as if this whole world had appeared as he blinked.
He glanced back the way he had come and gasped. No trace remained of the narrow corridor with its glowing lines and constellations. Instead, he found the black fences and his own footprints in the snow, as if they had always been there.
What was happening? Had the Labyrinth transported him somewhere else, or had it simply changed around him?
His head still reeling, Hito pulled the flame compass out of his clothes and gazed down at it. Outside of Will’s green-tinted light, he saw the metal was unlike any he’d ever seen, gleaming like steel, but with an odd purple tinge. The needle pointed straight ahead, down the snowy path between the two fences. If what Will said was true, he only had to follow the needle to find him. He could play Jack and Will’s game exactly like they wanted him to.
Or he could escape on his own.
Tucking the compass back in his clothes, Hito approached one of the fences. Fractals of iron roses and thorns spiraled over its surface, separated by spans of twisted bars with short gaps between them. It would be tight, but he should be able to squeeze through. He reached toward one of the gaps.
With a sound like a scrape across a guitar string, metal thorns sprouted from the bars, twisting together in spiral patterns to block his way. He should have been shocked, but on some level he expected it. The Labyrinth wasn’t some common maze. Its form might change, but he remained trapped as surely as if he were in an iron cage.
With a sigh, he continued prodding at the gaps in the fence. But wherever he approached, metal thorns grew to stop him.
It was no use. His only choice was to follow the path the compass laid out for him.
He jerked upright as a low, sharp sound rang out in the night—a boom like a distant explosion, yet more … musical? Pom! Another rumbled somewhere out beyond the fence, like a single heartbeat magnified hundreds of times.
Stay calm, he told himself. It could be anything. But the thought did nothing to comfort him. Sure, it could be anything. What was it Jack had said about monsters?
Snow crunched beneath Hito’s feet as he hurried along the path, his eyes sweeping for signs of danger.
Pom! Pom! Pom! More sounds boomed beyond the fences on his left and right. He walked faster. Drums! he realized. They sounded just like the big taiko drums he’d heard at festivals!
But if there were drums, wouldn’t there be people? Didn’t he want people to find him? Maybe they would rescue him, and he could get out of here and go home!
No. Something about the drums struck him as ominous. He didn’t want to meet whoever was playing them.
Pom! Pom! Pom! Pom! Drum beats rang out all around him, their rhythm growing louder and faster. Hito’s heart hammered, a tiny drum drowned out by the growing power of the others. Still, they grew louder, rolling together into the thundering sound of a boulder crashing down a mountain.
Out of the clamor rose a deep, throaty roar like an animal. But in the dim light of the moon, Hito still couldn’t see anything. The drums pounded painfully in his ears. The drums of the hunt.
His draped sleeves flapping behind him, Hito sprinted through the world of snow. The cold burned in his lungs, and his heart beat like that of a rabbit fleeing a pack of wolves. Rising out of the storm of drum beats, inhuman snarls chased him as he ran. And somewhere within them, he made out two words.
Shadowy forms appeared in his periphery, dozens of them racing beside him. Bright stripes of fire blazed among them. The drums and fierce snarls had grown so loud he couldn’t hear himself think.
More words floated to his ears, lent power by the savagery of the voices speaking them.
“Such a bad kid!”
“Such a lazy kid!”
“Naughty kids have to be punished!”
“I didn’t do anything wrong!” he shouted. But he couldn’t hear his voice in his head, much less expect these things to listen.
Just ahead of him, a huge form appeared, draping Hito in its long shadow.
It was a savage troll standing over seven feet tall. Wild eyes glared wrathfully from a face as red as an apple, and a tangle of wiry black hair spilled down its shoulders. Above a gaping mouth full of huge, tusk-like teeth jutted a bulbous nose. The beast wore straw garments from its head to its giant, muscular legs. One hand held a large knife, like a meat-cleaver.
Hito screamed as it towered over him. His feet skidding in the snow, he tried to swerve away, and the monster leaped for him. Its hands brushed against him as he slipped by, leaving the beast to tumble to the snow.
I know what they are! Hito realized. He had heard stories, and even seen something like them before.
Soon the path widened into a small field speckled with barren trees. As Hito bolted across, countless beasts closed in on him, their red and blue faces blazing with fury. Some held knives, some carried torches, and still others held mallets, pounding giant drums strapped to their stomachs as they leapt to keep pace with the rest of their pack.
He was surrounded. He scoured the wall of giant forms for a gap, any path of escape, but there was nothing.
The monsters’ snarling voices were almost impossible to understand.
“Such an ungrateful child!”
“Disobeys his father!”
“Such a slob of a kid!”
“Leave me alone!” Hito shouted. “I haven’t done anything!”
“Such a liar …”
“Fights with his brothers!”
“I haven’t done anything wrong!” he insisted.
As the iron clamps of their hands seized him, he let out a scream. Torches illuminated the swarm of hideous faces—red and blue skin, burning eyes, jagged teeth. The beasts lifted him high into the air and stretched him so tight his joints popped. Tears streaked down his face as the pounding of the drums shook through his body.
“Such a crybaby!”
“An ungrateful, disobedient boy!”
“He has to be punished!”
The moon’s light caught the blades of knives, flashing like tiny stars in the night.
“I won’t do it again!” he cried. “I won’t be lazy! I won’t lie! I won’t do anything!”
A gnarled hand snatched the flame compass from within his clothes, and its violet metal gleamed in the torchlight. “No!” Hito shouted. Without his compass, he would be helpless to find his way. Had the monsters been after it all along?
But all other worries dissolved from his mind as the beasts lifted their glinting knives skyward, then swept them down to gouge into his belly.
A low whoosh rang out in the air, followed by an enormous thud and a burst of snow. One of the beasts dropped to the ground. With a collective growl of surprise, the others turned to look behind them.
Another whoosh in the air. The beast holding the compass retched as something pounded it in the stomach and knocked it from its feet, and the flame compass fell from its limp grasp.
The drums ceased in an instant. The hands released him, and Hito fell to the snow with a cry of surprise. Legs and feet bustled around him, and the monsters roared with a new note of rage as they rushed toward something—no, someone.
About thirty feet away stood a girl, wearing strange clothes and an even stranger grin. Her blue eyes danced with excitement as the monsters rushed her, and she spun her body like a dancer, her long brown hair fanning out behind her. Sweeping her arms in long, dramatic arcs, she drew the snow from the ground and formed snowballs the size of cannonballs in the air beside her.
“Come on, big guys!” she called, eyes shining. “I’ve got enough for everyone!” Thrusting her arms forward, she launched her snow cannonballs at the beasts.
The balls exploded into dusty snow as they struck two in the chest, another in the face. One struck a monster’s leg, and it doubled over, howling in pain. As she gathered more ammunition with her strange power, the girl laughed. Dozens of smaller balls formed in the air, and she rapid-fired them at the monsters. One by one, the beasts fell to the ground, and not a single one reached her.
Then, they ran the other way.
“No, no! Wait!” the girl shouted after them as they disappeared into the trees. “I wasn’t done being awesome!”
A moment later, the beasts had all fled, leaving only their tracks, skid marks and imprints in the snow to show they had been there at all.