5. Flora and Fauna

Across the lake, they found themselves atop a cliff overlooking a vast sea of bright white clouds. Stars glimmered overhead in a midnight sky. Pouring from the side of the cliff, a stream sent a waterfall cascading downward, where it dissipated into mist as it approached the clouds below.

Hito dressed himself, carefully securing the straps on his trousers and undershirt. He brushed off his clothes, examining them for any sign of damage. They were a bit damp, but there wasn’t so much as a scratch anywhere. Frowning, he ran his fingers over the smooth front of his undershirt.

Ren’s voice interrupted his thoughts. “You’re fussy about your clothes, aren’t you?” She sat cross-legged on the ground, rocking back and forth as she waited.

“Don’t call me fussy!” he grumbled. “My clothes are expensive! And they were gifts from my father!”

“If they’re so expensive, why’d you wear them out in the woods?”

“H-huh?” He thought back to the night he had left. Even though it was only a short time ago, he strained to remember, like squinting at a picture across a vast distance. “I thought about running away lots of times, but I never meant to do it.”

“But you did. You must have had your reasons.”

He sat down beside Ren, but wouldn’t meet her eyes. “I wasn’t happy there,” he said quietly. “Ever since I was little, I was always trying to impress my father, but I don’t think I mattered to him at all. These clothes are one of the only things he ever gave me, and they weren’t even for me. Not really.”

“What’s that mean?”

“Where I’m from, clothes are like a status symbol, and expensive clothes are a sign of success. That’s all I was to him, a doll to dress up and show off his wealth. And so I imagined what it would be like to run away, to find a new home with someone who actually cared about me. But I never would have done it if it weren’t for the voice.”

“The voice?”

He furrowed his brow. Why was he only remembering this now? “Someone was whispering in my head. Calling me out of the city and into the woods. It sounds so stupid now, but at the time that voice was so convincing. I felt like I had no choice but to obey.” He paused, thinking. “Maybe it was one of Jack and Will’s tricks, like how they lured us into following them.”

“But I never heard any voice when they caught me,” Ren said.

Hito felt a wave of loneliness wash over him. “I shouldn’t have listened to that voice. I miss my father. Sometimes it feels like I can barely remember him, even though it’s only been a few days.”

“But what if you really can’t remember?” Ren asked. “What if you forget his face, or the sound of his voice? What if everything you think you remember is nothing but a character you made up?”

“Huh?”

“Oh, forget it,” Ren said. Her eyes were downcast, her usual energy gone. She’s not talking about me at all, Hito realized.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “We’ll get out of here, and you’ll see your family again. Both of us will.”

She didn’t answer, gazing out over the clouds.

Hito stood up, slipped on his haori jacket, and knotted its tie. Ren’s problems were none of his business. It was best if he didn’t press her. “Come on. We should get going.”

Ten minutes later, the rocky path they were following led into a deep forest, and finally to a temple nestled into the trees. Large, crumbling gray bricks composed its surface, so overgrown with moss and ivy the entire structure was deep green. As they approached the temple’s yawning mouth of an entrance, tall, thick grass stretched above their heads, obscuring their path.

Thrashing their way through the grass, Hito and Ren began to climb the stone slabs of the temple stairs. But they hadn’t gone far when Ren froze.

“Hito, look!” She pointed to a spot on the temple’s sloped gray roof.

His eyes darted up to where Ren was pointing. “Huh? I don’t see anything.”

“There was someone there!” Ren insisted. “Some weird girl, dressed all in red.”

Furrowing his brow, Hito stared up at where the girl had been. Who was she? Another victim stolen away to the Labyrinth? But why would she hide from them?

“There’s no use worrying about it now,” he said.

“You don’t believe me?”

“I just don’t see what the point of worrying is.”

“Well, maybe I’m worried,” Ren admitted. “Because she looked …”

“What?”

“Evil.”

Evil? Hito wondered. The girl had only been visible for a moment. How could Ren have drawn so much from just a single glance? He was still convinced she might be imagining the whole thing. But the way she talked, her total certainty … He couldn’t help but feel nervous.

He and Ren continued onward, passing through the temple’s huge arch of a door and inside.

The cloying scent of vegetation hung in their nostrils as they crossed a huge, square room with a high ceiling, like a dining room for giants. Waist-high grass sprouted from between the bricks in the floor, and ivy snaked down the walls from a tangled mesh of vines covering the ceiling. Here and there, tiny tree saplings poked up from cracks in the stone.

Three paths branched off of the giant room. Reminding the compass to point them to Will, Hito and Ren gave it a quick glance before heading toward the left path.

Soon they emerged into another large room and started across it, the thud of their footsteps echoing off the stone walls as they kicked grass and bushes aside.

Sensing movement, Hito glanced quickly into a dark corner of the room. There grew a large bush, about his own height, with giant leaves coated sparsely in a cotton-like substance. From the center of the plant sprouted a thick green vine, which attached to the belly of a nearby sheep like an umbilical cord. Hito blinked, taking it in. The sheep’s wool was faintly tinted green. Glancing up from nibbling the grass, it briefly met his eyes, then looked away, uninterested.

They reached another hallway and left the room behind.

“Okaaay …” said Ren. “That was weird, right? It’s not just me, right?”

“Nope,” Hito said. “Definitely weird.”

In the next room lay a whole flock of sheep, filling it from end to end, absently chewing their cud and bleating quietly. A few glanced lazily at Hito and Ren, but most ignored them. Vines tethered most of them to nearby plants, but a handful roamed free.

“I guess those ones are already ripe,” Ren said.

Hito nodded, as if this made perfect sense.

Crowding in among the sheep, they plodded across the room. Hito shoved one out of his way, his fingers sinking into its soft wool. The sheep let out a bleat in protest, then wandered off.

“Out of the way!” Ren yelled, “or I’ll use my magic to make lamb chops out of you!”

“Ren!” he scolded.

She smiled apologetically. “I was only joking.”

On the far side of the room lay a large tree, its branches stretching up to the high ceiling. Distracted by the sheep, Hito didn’t notice anything strange at first, but as they neared, a chorus of honking noises rang out. Startled, he shot his gaze into the leaves and saw dozens of geese suspended from the branches like fruit, their wings flapping and long necks craning from inside strange little pods. Their beaks snapped as they honked angrily at the two of them.

“If we see pigs growing from grape vines in the next room, I’m gonna freak out,” Ren said.

But when they reached the next chamber, all they found were a few more sheep: all large ones with no tether, having wandered in from the room before. They milled about restlessly as they grazed.

Movement flashed near the far wall as a vine whipped down from above like a tentacle and seized one of the sheep around its middle. The sheep bleated in terror as the tentacle lifted it. Hito’s eyes followed the sheep slowly up the wall, traced their way high along fat, pulsing vines, then widened in shock when he saw the thing.

“Wh-what the heck is that?” Ren cried.

A massive plant clung to the ceiling, its vines and roots woven into the stone. It had a giant, mouth-like pod like a Venus flytrap, surrounded by a nest of serrated leaves. Inside the pod jutted dozens of large green thorns, like sharp teeth. The monster’s vines squirmed in anticipation as it lifted the sheep up to its gaping maw, and the sheep let out one final, desperate cry as the pod snapped shut on it with a cringe-inducing crunch.

Hito and Ren stared frozen as the monster gulped the sheep down.

And then, like the grinning face of a beast, the pod turned to look at them. It doesn’t even have eyes! Hito thought. How can it be looking at us? But it looked at them all the same, and Hito could imagine the hunger in its non-existent eyes.

Vines wriggled down the walls, and Hito backed away, his eyes darting around in alarm. “Ren?” he called, his voice emerging in a squeak.

“Don’t worry, I got this!”

Ren swept her arm in an arc like a sword, and the air in front of her shimmered and condensed, forming a blade of wind about four feet long. Whooshing toward a vine, it chopped it in two and struck a deep gash into the wall behind it. The plant somehow let out a great, whistling squeal as the vine fell writhing to the floor, the severed ends spewing bright green fluid.

As Ren took aim and chopped away three more vines, the monster’s high-pitched cries cut into Hito’s ears. Vines thrashed and twisted like a bed of angry snakes. Roots ripped out from the stone, raining down fragments of rock. With a yelp, Hito dodged a brick as it soared past his head, struck the floor, then shattered into tiny pieces.

“You’re so selfish!” Ren shouted at the plant. “You need to think about how your actions affect other people!” She fired more blades and chopped down a handful of vines. “I know you have to eat somehow, so I can’t fault you for the sheep. But when you go after me, you make it my problem.” She slung two huge blades in opposite directions, felling masses of swarming vines as they tried to surround her. “You have to reevaluate your priorities. Think long and hard about the kind of plant you want to be.” She shot one up toward the pod, grazing it and slicing into the leaves next to its head.

“Don’t lecture it!” Hito shouted. “Kill it!”

Green slime rained down, and the whole room quaked with the monster’s fury. Scattering in terror, the remaining sheep dashed toward the tunnels leading away from the room.

Dust and rubble filled the air as the ceiling continued to crumble. Then one last bit of stone broke away, and the monster plunged to the floor with an enormous wet plop. Vines fell everywhere, twitching wildly.

Lifting itself up with its tentacles, the pod lurched toward them, its mouth hinged open in a victorious smile.

Ren stood dazed and blinking as she watched it approach. “Well! We really are in a pick—”

Run!” Hito screamed, seizing her hand and pulling her behind him toward a tunnel.

Before they could reach it, more vines wriggled in and blocked their escape. The monster’s tentacles swarmed all around them. They were surrounded.

Growling in frustration, Ren yanked her hand out of his and braced herself in a fighting stance, ready to fire.

Distracted by the chaos, Hito didn’t even notice when the vine curled around his leg. His gasp broke off into a choke as it yanked him from his feet. His head struck the floor, and the plant dragged him away, then lifted him off the ground.

“Ren!” he cried. “It’s got me!”

He dangled upside down, and dizziness overwhelmed him as the blood rushed to his head. The vine whipped him back and forth like a pendulum, the room spinning in a massive green blur. He caught sight of Ren’s shocked face gazing up at him, but then she turned away as a dozen vines dove at her from all directions. As he drew close to the pod, Hito remembered how the sheep had disappeared in an instant, the horrifying crunch when the pod snapped closed.

But the vine didn’t drop him into the pod. His stomach lurched as it swung him, then threw him. He soared through the air toward a tunnel on the far side of the room.

His body slammed against the floor as he landed, bouncing and rolling down the hallway. A sharp snap rang out, and agony quaked through him, the world flashing red. When his body settled, he lay there for several minutes, moaning as he struggled to recover. He could still hear Ren shouting, her wind blades whistling in the air.

With a groan, Hito dragged himself to his feet and looked his body over, prodding at his left arm with his fingers. Somehow, he hadn’t broken any bones.

He dashed back toward the room with the plant. But as he approached, vines curled over the entrance, blocking him out. Hito’s eyes narrowed. That didn’t make sense! Didn’t the plant want to eat them? This seemed more like it was trying to separate them …

With a powerful thrust, vines stabbed deep into the stone, yanking bricks downwards. Hito backed down the tunnel as the entrance to the room collapsed with a loud rumble. Dust rose in a cloud, and an avalanche of bricks poured down in front of him. Within a minute, a heap of stone and mortar blocked his path so completely he couldn’t even hear the sounds of the battle. With Ren and the plant closed firmly behind the barrier, he was all alone.

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