Except for the gentle slosh of the water and the oar plunging into it, everything remained silent on the dark, silvery lake. As the fog closed in on them, cutting off any view of the shore, Hito got the impression there was no bank, nothing beyond this little sphere of existence at all.
They drifted for a time that could have been minutes or hours, long enough that Hito was certain they’d left the shore far behind. Maybe the lake went on forever. Within the Labyrinth, it was entirely possible.
Hito saw it first—a faint blue light in the water, flickering through the murk beneath the surface. “What is that?” he asked, pointing.
“I dunno,” Ren said, “but I don’t like it.”
They peered into the light together. It was like a candle burning below the lake’s surface, flickering in the rippling waves like a flame in the wind. Hito saw something silhouetted in the light, but then in a flash of movement, it vanished.
Another light floated up from the depths, this one closer to the boat. Then three more appeared, their glow flooding the silvery fog with ghostly blue light. Soon a dozen lights bubbled up, bobbing and shimmering through the murk.
“Don’t stop rowing,” Ren said.
Hito’s muscles tensed.. If even Ren was uneasy, what were they up against?
Gazing into the water, Hito spotted a shadowy form. Within the ghostly blue light, a man was treading water, his pale face shimmering as he stared up at Hito from beneath the surface. Hito couldn’t even see the man’s eyes, but something about that blurry face filled him with certainty—the man was dead. In the other pools of light, he could see more shadowy forms, each of them drawing rapidly closer to their craft.
“Ren!” he cried. “They’re—”
“I know, I know,” she muttered. She stood up and braced her legs apart for balance. Her face was grim, but her eyes were shining. “You keep doing your thing.”
His arms ached as he rowed, putting everything he had into pushing them onward. But the creatures in the water swam toward them with startling speed. “We’re not fast enough!” he cried.
One of the creatures reached the side of the boat. As it kept pace with them, its body lifted out of the water. Fish-like scales covered its pale skin. Within a bloated white face, wide, fishy eyes stared up at them, full of rage and hunger.
These things must have been men once, but had drowned down in the dark depths of the sea. The monster’s arms stretched up, reaching for them.
“They’re funayūrei!” he realized. “Ghosts of drowned fishermen and sailors! They’ll try to sink our boat! They want to take us down with them!”
“Neat!” Ren said with a grin. “Now that we’re on a first name basis …” She swept one of her arms toward the ghost. Along its path, the air seemed to distort and condense, forming a blade the size of a katana made purely out of air. It whooshed forward and struck the creature, which let out a gargling shriek before dropping away beneath the surface behind them.
“Whoa!” Hito cried as the boat whipped forcefully in a circle. Nearly falling into the water, he braced himself against the side of the boat. “Watch it!” he shouted at Ren. “You’ll get us killed!”
“Wow!” Ren said. “The wind magic has quite a kick!”
“Oh, no …” Ren’s attack had spun the boat, disrupting their forward momentum and breaking his rhythm. The glowing funayūrei closed in on them from all sides. “They’re coming for us!”
“Hmm …” Ren tilted her head and placed a finger on her temple to think, not remotely concerned. A second later, she jerked upright, eyes dancing. “I have a fantastic idea!”
The monsters had nearly reached them, their hands stretching upwards toward the boat. They cried out with wet, gargling noises from the backs of their throats, as if they were trying to speak.
Hito’s eyes darted between the monsters. “Whatever you’re doing, do it fast!”
Seating herself in the back of the boat, Ren dangled one arm over each side and placed her hands in the water. The funayūrei reached for her with their scaly, bloated hands. What was she doing?
Then the boat surged forward, the force throwing Hito backwards into the bottom. The oar flew from his hands and over the side, where monsters seized it and dragged it down. The sudden speed tore the creatures’ hands from the boat, leaving them behind in a torrent of white water.
Ren laughed. “I can use the wind magic to propel us! It was a shock when I first started, like my arms were going to break right off! But once we get going, it’s not so bad.”
Hito shook his head, his hair and clothes blowing in the wind. “Ren, you’re incredible!”
“Look! I can even steer by switching up how much air I release.” The boat curved gently to the right as she demonstrated. “It’s like riding a motorboat!”
He was about to ask what a motorboat was, but shook the thought away. Out beyond the rippling wake behind them, he could see the faint glow of the funayūrei growing more and more distant.
“Hito, what’s that?!”
He turned back to the front and spotted a large boat racing through the water. It was twice as big as their own, with not a soul inside it. Yet its broken wooden frame glowed with the same blue as the ghosts, and it raced through the water, a tattered sail flapping from a post on its deck.
It was headed right for them.
“We’ll be smashed to pieces!” Hito shouted.
Ren cried out and turned sharply. Their boat tipped sideways with the turn, and Hito clung to the rim to keep from being dumped into the water. The haunted boat sped by them, close enough to flood them in its unnatural light.
“We made it!” Ren said, panting as the haunted craft disappeared behind them.
“Barely,” Hito said. “We have to—” His voice cut off as an outcropping of rock took shape in the fog ahead, stretching out of the lake like a clawed finger. “Ren! It’s—”
“I see it!” she shouted. “Hold on!”
Hito cried out as the boat whipped the opposite way. Tumbling backwards, he grasped desperately for the side of the boat. When veering away from the phantom boat, he had thought they couldn’t possibly turn any faster or sharper. But now, he saw he was wrong. He stared down at the water as it rushed by, his heart pounding.
Ren straightened them out, and the bottom of the boat struck the surface with a resounding slap. Hito let out a sigh of relief. “That was—”
“There’s another one!” Ren shouted.
Groaning, Hito stared forward, where another glowing boat was charging straight for them.
“Hold on tight,” Ren said. “Here we go again!”
“No!” Hito yelled. His mind raced through the past few minutes, remembering the rock they had nearly struck after dodging the first boat. It did that on purpose! he realized. He recalled the tales he had heard of the funayūrei, how they deceived the living, setting devious traps to drown their victims and increase their number.
“Don’t steer away,” Hito said, his voice grim.
“I know it sounds crazy, but if we try to dodge that thing, we’ll crash.”
“We’ll crash for sure if we slam right into it!”
“There’s no time to argue!” he shouted. “Trust me!”
After a moment of uncertainty, Ren grinned, her eyes growing wild. With her long brown hair whipping in the wind, she looked absolutely crazy. “If we’re gonna do this, we’re gonna do it right!” Shouting with excitement, she braced herself and loosed all of her power into the water behind her.
Their speed exploded, and the air beat at Hito’s body, his hair and loose clothes whipping back in the force of the wind. Their boat skipped over the top of the water as they surged onward, the phantom boat rushing closer.
Hot sparks of panic tingled up his spine. Thirty feet. Twenty. Ten. Hito braced himself for the impact.
The instant the prow of their boat made contact, the phantom boat dissolved into silver, glowing mist. It swirled around them, particles of blue vapor shimmering in the air, its cold cutting through every layer of clothing and eliciting a shiver so deep it was almost a convulsion. Then the mist passed, and they were alone.
“Whoooo!” Ren shouted. “We made it! What a rush!”
Hito smiled. He didn’t expect to see any more phantom boats. Now that they’d figured out the puzzle, the ghosts had nothing left to throw at them.
That’s when he saw it—a wet, scaly hand curling over the back of the boat, between the jets of water from Ren’s hands. How long has that been there?! He tried to shout a warning, but it was too late. The ghost’s dead hands seized Ren by her neck and yanked her back into the water. Her eyes growing huge, she let out a scream that cut off into the sound of a giant splash.
The boat continued to coast, leaving her behind.
“No!” Hito shouted. In an instant, he tugged free the straps securing his clothes, tossed them to the bottom of the boat, and dove into the water.
The shock of the cold shook through him as he swam back toward where Ren had fallen, and the water felt oddly slimy against his skin. Ren splashed and struggled on the surface, but the monster’s arms wrapped securely around her neck and chest as it dragged her down.
“Hito!” Ren screamed. “Help m—” Her voice broke off in a wet choke as the ghost pulled her under.
Hito took a deep breath and dove beneath the surface, peering through the murky water. He caught sight of her blurry form, pulled ever deeper into the dark depths of the lake. I can’t let it take her! I don’t want to be all alone again!
More lights glowed in the murky world. Six more of the ghosts in a circle, closing in on him.
It was an ambush!
The creatures drew closer, and a terrible thought struck him—they weren’t after Ren at all. They wanted him.
There was only one hope of escape. He closed the distance to Ren in a burst of speed. Seizing her arm, he launched a fierce kick into her captor’s gut. Its fish-like eyes bulged in pain, and its grip on Ren loosened.
Twisting her body, Ren sent a blade of air slicing in front of her, a stream of bubbles behind it. The blade cut into the monster, and its scream echoed through the water as it fell away into the depths.
Ren thrashed her arms, and the water churned with so many bubbles it might have been boiling. Wind blades cut into the surrounding circle of monsters, and they, too, plunged down into the darkness.
Together, Hito and Ren rushed back to the surface. They broke through, each gulping air gratefully as they swam back to the boat. Panting, they hauled their bodies over the side and collapsed.
“Are you okay?” Hito asked, doing his best to wipe water from his skin and hair.
“Y-yeah,” Ren said, brushing her wet hair back from her face. “You saved me!”
“Guess I’m good for something after all.”
“Aw, man …” Ren groaned. “That was so not-awesome of me.” She leaned back, submerged her hands into the water, and propelled them gently forward with her magic.
Hito reclined into the boat’s prow, his eyes scanning for any sign of the funayūrei. But he found nothing. Still panting from their swim, the two of them faced each other across the boat’s length.
Watching her, he couldn’t help but notice the strange way her eyes moved. Within the space of several seconds, she would gaze somewhere off into the distance, then glance back at him for just a moment before looking away again.
“What is it?” he asked. “You’re acting funny.”
“Oh, it’s nothing,” she said unconvincingly.
“It doesn’t look like nothing. What’s the problem?”
“Well, it’s just … That’s some pretty weird underwear you got there.” She glanced downwards, as if pointing at the garment with her nose.
He blushed so deeply he felt every inch of his exposed skin turn red. “It’s not weird,” he said. “It’s fundoshi! It’s traditional!”
Ren snickered. “More like traditionally weird.”
“What do you know? All the men wear these. Don’t … don’t make fun of me!”
“Oh, no!” Ren assured him. “I’m not mocking you. I’m interested.”
“That’s even worse!” He leaned forward, seized the heap of his clothes, and used them to cover himself like a towel. It wasn’t fair for her to make him feel so … so ashamed. Getting his clothes soaked in that dirty water could have ruined them, and what was the problem with exposing a little skin, anyway? Men swam in fundoshi all the time! Say nothing of going naked in hot springs. It was perfectly normal. She was the weird one.
Only after several minutes of staring out at the water did the hot blood in his cheeks begin to subside.
“Next time, me and my weird underwear will just let you drown,” he mumbled to himself.
“What was that?”
The two fell into silence, leaving Hito to wonder about the monsters. He remembered the circle of ghosts closing in on him below the lake, as if they had set a trap just for him. But that was ridiculous, wasn’t it? Why would they care about him, when Ren was the one with the powers?
He fished the flame compass out of the heap of his clothes and stared at its aimlessly drifting needle. Could it really be all for this? But what use would the ghosts of the drowned have for a compass? And he had left it in the boat anyway, so what good would capturing him have done?
He clutched the compass tightly in his hand, his eyes fixed vigilantly on the foggy lake for the rest of the ride.