6. The Wisp Boy

Hito stared in frustration at the wall of rubble blocking his way back. Would Ren be okay on her own? He had to get back to her, had to help her! But then he remembered how helpless he had been as the plant’s vines closed in on them. And it wasn’t only the plant he was powerless against; Ren was always protecting him, always fighting to keep him safe, while he hid behind her like a coward. She would be better off on her own.

With no other choice, Hito turned away and followed the tunnel. Maybe it was true that he couldn’t he couldn’t help, but it wouldn’t stop him from trying to find Ren. Maybe the tunnel would loop back somehow?

He hurried through the narrow hallway, pushing aside tall grass, bushes, and limp vines dangling from the ceiling. Glowing from within the plants, dim green light lit his way through the darkness. Bright blue, white, and purple flowers dotted the vines, shining in little spheres of light like fireflies.

After only a few minutes of plodding through the luminescent corridor, winding his way around standing pools of water, he reached a cross intersection. Hesitating for a moment, he turned left and continued down the corridor.

But not two minutes had passed before he reached another, identical branch. Thinking it through, he turned left a second time. Now he should be heading back toward Ren. If he kept going straight, maybe he could make it back …

A few minutes later, he reached another branch, and frowned.

This couldn’t be right, could it? He glanced down the branch to his left. Shouldn’t a third left turn connect back to where he had already been? But if that were true, he would have seen the branch from the other side, and he had seen nothing. Uneasily, he continued forward in the direction he knew must lead to Ren.

When he arrived at yet another intersection, he wasn’t at all surprised. He sighed, his eyes scanning the area. Keep heading straight! he told himself. This has to be the way back, it’s the only thing that makes sense! But if there was one thing he had learned in his time here, it was that the Labyrinth defied logic.

Pulling out the flame compass, he checked its needle in the dim light of the glowing plants. It was no help at all, spinning aimlessly in circles. Was it because its power was fading, or something strange about this part of the Labyrinth?

Nearby, he spotted a tall plant with a single stalk supporting a large purple flower. He walked over to it, knelt, and snapped the stem near the floor. With the flower stalk in hand, he crossed the room to the path opposite him, dropped the flower in the center, then headed down the tunnel.

Another few minutes passed. This time, when he reached an intersection, he found the flower lying at his feet.

Hito stomped on the flower, smearing it into the floor with his sandal. It wasn’t fair! What was he supposed to do when the Labyrinth didn’t even follow basic spacial rules?

If Ren were here, she would know what to do. Only with her gone did he realize how much he had relied on her, not just for protection, but for confidence in facing the Labyrinth’s strangeness. Was she still alive, or had the plant devoured her?

His head swam with confusion and despair, and he felt exhausted and a bit dizzy. He swept his eyes over the room, going through the motions.

And then he saw it—a small green flame on the other side of the intersection, bobbing silently in the air.

“It’s you!” he exclaimed, and stepped forward.

The flame bounced away as he approached. “Of course,” he said. “We’re playing this old game again.”

Hito trotted after the green flame as it led him onward. When they reached the intersection again, the flame swerved and led him down the path to the right. Next time, it was left. Right, left, left, straight … Then the flame lunged at him as if to engulf him, but at the last second it whipped around and back the way they had come. Shaking his head, Hito reversed direction to follow it.

Pitch darkness settled in, the light of the green flame illuminating a tiny emerald sphere of the tunnel ahead. Together, Hito and the flame journeyed through a perfectly straight corridor, with no intersections in sight.

Soon the hall opened into a wider room. The vegetation wasn’t as thick here: huge windows spanned the walls, and Hito squinted against the sudden brightness of sunlight filtering in. On the far side of the room, a stream trickled from a hole in the wall, forming a little spring that ran through a channel only a few inches deep. The channel formed a circle, creating a small island of stone in the floor.

The flame floated to the center of the island and stopped. Even when Hito drew closer, the fire remained still, except for its gentle up-and-down motion.

Hito stopped and gazed at the flame. “You’re Will, aren’t you?”

A musical, childish voice arose out of the light. “You remembered! I’m so happy!”

Gleaming in Hito’s eyes, the fire blazed brighter, swelling as large and fierce as a bonfire. He staggered back as the flames condensed, the density of light and heat like molten metal, before it all faded into the form of a boy.

He was about Hito’s age, and wore a deep green tunic. His eyes and hair were the same silvery green color, and a grass-like cowlick sprouted out over his forehead. Even in human form, Will still looked unnatural with his pale skin, odd hair, and … Hito couldn’t put his finger on it, something off about his bright smile and innocent eyes.

“Better?” Will asked. “It’s probably easier when you have a face to talk to.”

At last, Hito stood face to face with one of his captors. “You’re … a person!” he stammered.

Will shrugged. “I guess you could call me that, but most people call my kind the Wisps.”

“Wisps?” The word sounded somehow familiar.

“A spirit of fire,” Will explained. “Jack and I can take the form of humans, but we’re not human at all. We’re creatures of the woods, the swamps, the wilds. Our entire purpose is to lead travelers astray.”

Purpose? Hito wondered. What purpose was there in that?

“What do you want?” he asked. Horror flooded his mind as a terrible possibility occurred to him. “You’re here to finish me off, aren’t you?”

Will’s face went pale, and he shook his head slowly. “Oh gosh, no! I’m just here for the compass.”

“The compass?” Hito’s hand reached into his clothes and clasped it reflexively. “Why’d you give it to me in the first place if you were only going to take it back?”

“It turns out I made a little mistake,” Will said sheepishly. “When Jack heard I left the compass with you, he was furious. You see, the flame compasses are special gifts we Wisps carry to find things inside the Labyrinth. You having one made things way too easy.”

If the compasses were so important, why had Will given his away? Hito had to admit, if he were in Jack’s place, he would probably be mad, too.

“Usually, when people wander in the Labyrinth, they get lost and confused because of the illusions, and terrified of the monsters. But with the compass and that dumb girl’s protection, you couldn’t appreciate the Labyrinth at all. Don’t you think that’s boring?”

“Better boring than being lost and torn apart by beasts,” Hito grumbled.

Will frowned. “I don’t want to hurt you. Hand over the compass and forget about the girl, and I’ll leave you alone.”

Hito withdrew the compass and peered down at its purple metal gleaming in his hand. If the compass was Will’s to begin with, he had no right to keep it. But Will had no right to mislead his victims and spirit them away to the Labyrinth, either. If he gave it back, wouldn’t he just be helping the Wisps to hurt more people?

“I can’t,” he said. “This compass is all I have to find my way out of here. And there’s no way I’m leaving Ren behind, either.”

Will pouted. “Pleeeeease?”

In response, Hito glared at him.

“Look, I know you’ve been through a lot. The Labyrinth can be so cruel, especially to someone like you.” Will hugged himself, his gaze drifting into a corner. “To be honest, I hate violence. The sight of blood makes me sick. Sometimes, just thinking about all the monsters out there is enough to make me faint!”

“I don’t get it,” Hito said. “You don’t seem like a bad person. But you stole me away from my family. You even laughed about it. So, why? What do you get out of watching me suffer?”

Will hugged himself tighter, looking small and defenseless. “It’s in my nature. I can’t help it.”

“Your nature?” He remembered him saying something like that once before. “What do you mean?”

“I wasn’t always like this,” Will said. “Jack and I were normal kids, once, living normal lives. But that’s before our families threw us out. ” His body gradually faded away, revealing the flame burning in the center of his chest in place of a heart. The little fire orbited Hito, and he turned in place to follow him with his eyes.

“They called me a crybaby. A wimp. And as for Jack, he played pranks and got into fights. He was too much trouble, so nobody wanted him. He and I are the same, both abandoned to fend for ourselves. We have no home now except the Labyrinth, and no family except each other.

“We are Wisps. It’s who we are, and what we do.” In a flare of light, he turned into a boy again. “For hundreds of years, I’ve lurked in forests and swamps, inviting travelers in with my glow. Once they’re hopelessly lost, I bring them here, to the Labyrinth, where we can keep playing together forever.” He smiled, and the gentle innocence in his face made it all the more unsettling. “We get to have so much fun together!”

“Fun?” Hito snapped. “You ruin people’s lives! You take everything from them, Will. Don’t you get that?”

He looked like a toddler on the verge of tears. “Well, when you put it like that …”

How was it that Will could make him feel like the bad guy?

As if out of habit, Will faded into a flame again and drifted back and forth like pendulum. “At least we give them a chance. It’s not like we hurt them. If they managed to find us or escape on their own, we’d probably let them go.”

Probably? That’s not good enough. You know as well as I do that no one’s ever escaped. And now you want to take away the compass, the only advantage I have? Without it, there’s no way out at all, is there?”

Will formed back into a human. “The Labyrinth is a strange place. Not even we Wisps understand it completely. It’s a place of illusions, responding to the hearts and minds of the people within it. Even time is strange and inconsistent in here.” He tilted his head, deep in thought. “If the Labyrinth responds to your heart, then maybe all you need to escape is to understand yourself completely. Maybe the problem is you don’t understand yourself at all.”

Hito glanced away, ashamed for reasons he couldn’t understand. He’s hiding something, he realized. What was Will not telling him?

“You and Jack are the ones putting me through all this,” Hito said. “And you said if I found you, you would show me out of the Labyrinth. Well, here I am. Get me out of here. Now.”

“Hmmm …” Will considered carefully. “I’m sorry, but I can’t do that. You haven’t enjoyed the Labyrinth enough yet. Besides, letting you go now would be like saying goodbye to a dear friend!”

“But I hardly know you.”

“All the more reason to keep you here, so we can get to know each other better! Besides, Jack would never forgive me if I let you go free.” He held out one hand, and it burst aflame, green fire coating it like a glove. “Now, about that compass …”

Will thrust his hand forward, and a jet of green fire whooshed through the air toward Hito. Frozen in place, Hito trembled as the fire approached, his eyes shimmering in the green light.

At the last moment, he ducked under it. He could hear the fire’s roar in his ears, feel the heat on his face as it burned mere inches away. A moment later, the fire fizzled out.

“What are you doing?” Hito shouted. “I thought you hated violence!”

“Yeah,” Will said shakily. “It’s not like I want to do this. But there’s Jack to consider. It’s an obligation, you know? I feel really bad about it …”

With a wave of Will’s hand, a fireball the size of Hito’s head fumed through the air, leaving a blazing streak behind it. Hito dove to the side, and the fireball struck the stone behind him, splashed against it like a massive water balloon, and fizzled out.

“But why?” Hito cried. “What point is there in burning me?”

“We had a plan. You were supposed to wander on your own. To grow confused and miserable. To learn your lesson. But our spies told us everything. How that dumb girl found you. How you became friends. And your compass, always leading you onward.”

Spies? Hito wondered, thinking of the strange girl Ren had seen.

His body fading in an instant, Will changed back into his flame. Before Hito could blink, he blazed across the room, then burst into human form only a few feet away. Hito tried to run, but his feet wouldn’t budge. Looking down, he found his legs entwined in thick vines twisting up from the floor.

He can control the plants! Hito realized. The monster from before had been all Will’s work.

The fire coating Will’s fist gleamed in Hito’s terrified eyes. “Please,” Hito said, “don’t do this!”

“I’m sorry. It’s not up to me.” He cocked back his flaming fist and prepared to char Hito to a crisp.

Just before Will struck him down, a loud rumbling rose from the wall nearby. Will hesitated, and the two of them glanced up at the wall, puzzled. The floor beneath them began to shake, the mortar between the bricks to crumble.

“Wh-what’s going on?” Will stammered.

Then, an enormous boom ripped the air as the wall exploded.

Bricks flew from the force of the blast, and mortar dust hovered in the air like smoke. The vines holding Hito’s legs loosened, and he and Will flinched backwards, gaping at the massive hole in the stone. And there in the center, surfing through the air, was the small, dusty form of a girl.

Ren?” Hito gasped.

She soared, riding the explosion as if were the most natural thing in the world.

“Haaaa!” she shouted, her eyes dancing. As Will stared up at her in slack-jawed shock, she plummeted down on him, hammered her fist into his face, and plowed him into the ground with a reverberating crack. His body as he landed looked as limp as a noodle.

Landing hard in a crouch, Ren winced. “Wooo! That smarts!

“R-Ren!” Hito stammered. “You … you got him! H-he was about to—”

“Huh?” She glanced slowly back and forth between her fist and the boy on the floor, putting two and two together. “Oh, he’s a bad guy? That’s good.”

Hito shook his head, still reeling from her sudden entrance.

“It turns out my rock power can move the bricks in the wall,” she explained. “Once I figured that out, I made a huge avalanche that smashed that plant into submission! And if I focus, I can even make the walls explode! Pretty neat, huh?”

“You’re amazing,” Hito said.

She grinned. “I know!”

Behind her, Will struggled to his feet, wobbling and holding his face. “That hurt!” he whined. “You … you mean, horrible girl!”

“It sounds to me like you had it coming.”

A ripple of flame washed over Will, from his feet to the top of his head, whipping through his green hair. As it cleansed him of the bits of stone and mortar clinging to his clothes, he drew upright. The pain left his eyes, and the redness in his face vanished, as if Ren had never struck him at all.

“You’ll pay for that!” Will said, without a single scratch from Ren’s attack.

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