Hito frantically sifted through the snow with his hands. Where was it? Was it gone? But then he sighed in relief as his fingers found the smooth metal of the flame compass, searing cold from the snow. He quickly tucked it back into his waistband.
Even though they were long gone, the girl was still shouting after the monsters, her eyes alight. “Come back any time! The butt-kick express runs at all hours!” At last, she turned to Hito as if seeing him for the first time. “Hi!”
“Um … hello,” Hito mumbled.
“Those guys looked like they were gonna butcher you. You alright?”
Hito winced, remembering the glinting knives of the beasts as they swept down on him. Gingerly, he patted at his stomach. A narrow gash had been torn into his undershirt, exposing a strip of pale skin beneath. Talk about cutting it close! He imagined the feeling of sharp metal tearing into his flesh, the sensation as vivid as a memory. “It looks like I’m okay.”
“That’s good.” The girl extended her hand, and Hito peered at it distrustfully. How did he know she wasn’t an enemy, like Jack and Will? “Relax. You’re safe now. The name’s Ren.”
He sized her up for a moment longer, then clasped her hand and let her pull him to his feet. “I’m called Hito.”
“You’re Japanese, aren’t you?” Ren asked.
“Ha! I knew it! I could tell because of your funny clothes.”
Sniffling, Hito wiped the lingering tears from his face and brushed off his clothes. “Funny?” he grumbled. “Yours are the funny ones. What’s that blue stuff your pants are made of? And that purple shirt? It’s way too flashy.”
“But you’ve got those big sleeves and those poofy pants, all fancy Japan-cy! Aren’t you uncomfortable?”
“Of course not! All the men wear stuff like this! But you … You’re a girl. You shouldn’t be wearing pants like that at all!”
Ren crossed her arms. “Excuse me?”
“Never mind,” Hito said, flustered. He wasn’t sure he liked this strange girl and her blunt way of speaking. But he was still grateful to meet another person within the Labyrinth, and she had saved him, after all. His eyes drifted back to the marks where the monsters had fallen and skidded in the snow. “We need to get out of here before the Namahage return.”
The moonlight glistened like stars on the snow as the two hurried away. “Namahage?” Ren asked.
“A type of mountain troll,” Hito explained. “They come down at the start of the new year to punish children who’ve been bad.”
Ren grinned mischievously. “So what did you do?”
“Nothing!” Blushing, he dropped his gaze to the snow.
“It must have been something really bad,” Ren said. “They ran right past me and went straight for you.”
“Well, maybe there was one thing …”
He could feel Ren watching him expectantly.
“I ran away from home.”
“Why?” she asked.
“I don’t want to get into it.” Did his parents miss him? Had they even noticed he was gone? He struggled to picture their faces, but they swam in and out of his mental view, like something from a long time ago. “Look, it doesn’t matter what I did. I’ve never heard of the Namahage being so vicious. Usually they only scare kids!”
“They did a good job,” Ren said with a shrug.
Hito glared at her. “I’m saying there was something wrong with them. Maybe it’s because they’re here in the Labyrinth, and they’re different from the others. Namahage are supposed to be friendly, and even bring good luck!”
“Hmmm …” Ren tilted her head in an exaggerated thinking pose. “The Labyrinth. It’s a good name. Very Greek. But if you know what it’s called, that must mean those two flames brought you here, too.”
“Their names are Jack and Will.”
“So how’d they nab you?”
He told Ren about how he had lost his way in the woods and followed the flames. How they had spun hypnotically, and how he had lost consciousness and woke in the Labyrinth.
“What were you doing in the woods so late in the first place?” she asked. “Isn’t that kind of … dumb?”
Hito frowned. Was that really the best word she could come up with? And yet … “I don’t know,” he said.
The look Ren gave him mirrored his own puzzlement. Why had he been out so late? He couldn’t seem to remember …
“W-well, what about you?” he asked, changing the subject. “You said Jack and Will trapped you, too, right?”
Ren nodded. “It was when I was walking home from school. I got lost in the back alleys between buildings, even though I’d taken that way lots of times before. It was like a maze back there, like nothing I’d ever seen. The buildings were huge, like skyscrapers, so tall they blotted out the sun. I couldn’t even hear cars and people. It was just me, all alone.”
Hito nodded, pretending to follow. Cars? Skyscrapers? So much of what she said didn’t make sense to him. But in spite of the details, Ren’s story was a lot like his own.
“When I first saw the flames, I thought I was going crazy. They’d be floating down some of the paths, like they wanted to guide me.” She shook her head. “But then they led me down into a completely dark place, and suddenly I was here. One second, I was walking through alleys in the city, and the next, I was in the Labyrinth.”
She clenched her fists and growled in frustration. “Then of course they laughed at me. Really rubbing my nose in it. The little twerps.”
He and Ren were the same, victims taken in by Jack and Will’s tricks. How many people had those two led astray, and why? What did they have to gain from hurting people?
Hito said nothing for a long time, thinking. “If we’re both looking for a way out, we should stick together.” With her powers, Ren could probably escape on her own. But what about himself?
“You’re only interested in my powers!” Ren teased. “Admit it! You want me around so I can protect you!”
“N-no!” he stammered. “It’s not like that!” He looked away, ashamed. “But I’m helpless on my own. If it weren’t for you, the Namahage would have cut me to ribbons. What’s with those powers, anyway?”
“Aren’t they cool?” She hopped up and down like a little kid, overflowing with energy. “Here, let me show you!” As she extended her hand, the air in front of her whistled, and an object appeared floating above her palm. It looked like a soap bubble. Enclosed inside of it, Hito could see …
“What is that?” Tiny shards of ice swirled within the bubble, as if carried on gusts of wind. “It looks like a blizzard!”
“Only a piece of one,” Ren said, as if that explained everything. “Look, I have a few more.”
She clenched her hand into a fist, and the bubble vanished. When she opened it again, a new bubble appeared with that same whistle. Inside this one, a cluster of small rocks spun in a pattern, the smallest orbiting a large stone in the center. “And finally …” Within a new bubble, Hito could at first see nothing at all, but when he squinted, he saw the air inside shimmering and distorting into sharp, solid blades.
Hito stared, entranced. “These give you your powers?”
“Yep!” Ren said, dismissing the last bubble. “I found the rock bubble first, and it’s a good thing I did. There were zombies! I mowed those suckers down with rocks like a machine gun! Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch!” She swept her arm in an arc to demonstrate. “Then, when I found the wind bubble, there were these giant snakes.” She laughed so loudly her voice echoed off into the distance. “Oh, man, that was a wild ride!”
Her laughter cut off, and she whipped her gaze to Hito, dead serious. “No, really. I rode one of them.”
Hito blinked, unsure how to respond.
“With these spells, I’m a match for any monster. So you don’t need to worry. Just stick with me, and I’ll protect you.”
“O-okay,” he mumbled. He hated relying on her, but he didn’t have much choice. He didn’t have magic like hers. He didn’t have the strength to fight monsters. He had nothing at all. Except …
Suddenly remembering, he pulled the flame compass out of his clothes and peered down at its needle.
“Ohhh!” Ren pushed close to him, and he shifted uncomfortably as they huddled together over the compass. “What’s that?”
“I got it from Will,” Hito said. “If we follow it, it should lead us right to him.”
“Doesn’t seem to be working, though.”
Sure enough, Hito found the gleaming needle spinning in lazy circles, pointing nowhere at all.
“Maybe it forgot what it was looking for,” Hito said. “I’ll just ask it again.”
Ren cocked an eyebrow, skeptical.
Ignoring her, Hito turned his attention back to the compass. “Show me the way to Will,” he said.
Back in the dark, tiled chamber with Will, the needle had responded instantly to his command, whipping in Will’s direction before the words had properly left his lips. But this time, at least two seconds passed before the needle slowly drifted to point down one of several snowy paths nearby.
“I guess it’s that way,” he said.
Eyebrow still cocked, Ren turned to walk toward the path.
Hito stowed the compass away and followed, trying to dismiss the uneasiness growing in his mind. Why had the compass reacted so much more sluggishly than before? Maybe it was because Will was farther away? Yeah, that must be it. There was no use dwelling on the other possibility, the one that could leave them lost and doomed, just like all the other helpless souls in the Labyrinth.
What if the compass’s power was weakening?
Together, Hito and Ren navigated countless branches in the snowy paths. Gaps broke the ornate fence. Iron gates swung open on their own as the two approached. Bars shifted, the metal bending unnaturally to open large holes. All the while, Ren talked and laughed and skipped along beside him, but Hito could feel the journey wearing on him. His feet grew sore from walking, and a deep, smothering weariness set in.
Cold, damp silver mist drifted in, condensing on their skin and clothes. A thick forest smell pervaded the air, but something about it seemed off, like a man-made imitation that wasn’t quite perfect.
With Hito’s next step, the crunch of the snow vanished, replaced by a thud against dirt. Surrounded by the sheets of silvery white fog, he lost sight of the fences completely.
“Where are we?” he asked.
“Who knows?” Ren said. “It always changes suddenly like this. Before finding you, I was in a desert.”
“Right next to all that snow?”
Ren kicked a small stone and sent it skittering away over the ground. “The Labyrinth doesn’t care about things like weather or temperature. It plays by its own rules.”
Within the fog stood the fat trunks of trees, covered in furry, deep green moss. Branches of low bushes swished and swatted at his legs, and twigs snapped beneath his feet. Without insects chirping or animals rustling in the brush, the forest felt eerie and unnatural, a place of the dead.
Before long, the soft slosh of water floated to Hito’s ears. A moment later, he glimpsed a body of still gray water in the fog ahead.
They found themselves on the shore of a misty gray lake, its gentle waves lapping against the slope of its rocky bank. Hito peered across for any sign of land on the other side, but the water stretched as far as he could see into the void of mist.
Uneasily, he checked the compass, but he already knew what he would find. After several seconds of aimless spinning, the needle settled to point out over the lake.
“I guess we go around,” he said heavily. He turned to walk along the shore, and Ren followed.
As they walked, Hito struggled to keep himself from stealing quick, guarded glances at her. After some time, he gathered the courage to ask.
“About those spell bubbles …”
“Amazing, aren’t they?” Ren said.
Hito swallowed. “Do you think I could borrow one?”
“Oh … okay.” He should have known better than to ask. But she had three of them! Couldn’t she spare at least one?
Ren narrowed her eyes, thinking. “Sorry, I’d share them if I could. But they’re not things I can just give away. It’s like they’ve merged with me. They’re not just objects, but knowledge. Not something I’m carrying, just something I know.”
Of course it couldn’t be easy for him.
Soon, a thick cluster of trees blocked their way. Intertwined with thick vines, their trunks and branches formed an impenetrable wall of wood and vegetation. Unable to spot a hole large enough to peek through, Hito curled his fingers into the vines and yanked, but they wouldn’t give.
“Can your magic break through here?” he asked Ren.
She shook her head. “The Labyrinth doesn’t want us going that way.”
“It doesn’t want us to? You talk about it like it’s a living thing.”
“Maybe it is,” she said with a shrug. “’I’ve passed through lots of different places in here, and I always had this strange feeling, like it knew what I was thinking. Or someone was watching me. Once, these hedges blocked me in on each side, but they were only about waist-high. I jumped over, and landed right back where I started.”
“You mean you twisted around in the air?”
“Nope. It wrapped around. I jumped over one hedge, and came back in over the other.
Hito’s mind raced. What did that mean? The Labyrinth could bend space?
“Another time, there was a maze of paths running through burning coals. So I tried my ice magic. But the ice made them burst into giant flames, as if I’d poured gasoline on them.”
Gasoline? Hito wondered. But it didn’t matter; he got the picture.
“The point is …” She raised a finger for emphasis. “It’s no use arguing with the Labyrinth once it’s made up its mind. For better or worse, we have to go where it wants us to.”
But if we only go where it wants, how can we escape? Hito wondered. Didn’t that mean they could only escape if the Labyrinth let them?
“Come on, Hito. Let’s try the other way.”
He followed her back the way they had come across the wet, rocky bank. But they hadn’t gone far when Ren gave a shout. “Look! What’s that?” she asked, gesturing out onto the lake.
A few feet from the bank, a small, rickety boat of old gray wood bobbed in the water.
“That wasn’t here a few minutes ago,” Hito said uneasily. Looking closer, he spotted a single oar propped across the top of the boat.
“There’s just enough space for two people!” Ren exclaimed.
“Of course there is. It makes it easy to do what the Labyrinth wants.”
“Don’t be like that. It’ll be fun!” She marched into the knee-deep water, soaking her pants, and hopped into the boat.
Hito paused on the bank, removing his sandals and socks. Carefully, he pulled up the bottoms of his loose trousers and stepped into the water. Deathly cold stabbed into his legs. Why hadn’t she warned him?
Ren’s eyes tracked him as he crossed and hauled himself over the side of the boat. “Took you long enough.”
Hito frowned. He wasn’t about to dirty his clothes over a minute of saved time. As if to apologize, he picked up the large oar, lowered it into the water, and gave a firm stroke.
After a few minutes of spinning the boat awkwardly in place, he finally got the hang of it. The fragile little craft cut through the murky water, spreading a wedge of ripples as it glided deep into the silent, misty world of the lake.