Above them stretched a black sky. Not the deep blue of midnight, nor the vast darkness of space with dots of glimmering stars, but a solid sheet of black. Near the horizons, blood-red light like a dying fire seeped into the sky.
Hito and Ren sat on the rough ground, the white pebbles covering it poking at them through their clothes. A maze of white stone spread around them, and they leaned their backs against the sandy surface of one of the walls. Piles of bones and tiny, scrubby patches of yellow grass speckled the ground.
Before stopping to rest, they had stumbled across rusted weapons like swords and spears, so ancient they crumbled away when Ren tried to lift them. It was as if a battle had occurred within this wasteland hundreds of years ago, and the maze of the sandstone walls had appeared on top of its remnants.
Sweat glistening on his forehead, Hito pulled off his haori jacket and began to fold it neatly in his lap.
“Hey, wait!” Ren cried, pointing to the jacket’s inner lining. “What’s that?”
“Oh, that?” He turned the jacket inside-out to expose the picture more clearly—a blooming tree, its elegant white branches covered with soft, pink blossoms. The image gleamed with glossy, expensive silk, and Hito sighed as he peered at it, thinking of home.
“It’s beautiful,” Ren said. “But why would they put the design on the inside where no one can see it?”
Frowning, Hito stared at the image of the tree, trying to remember. “Only people from the samurai class wear stuff like this on the outside.” His face scrunched up as he worked to dredge up the details from his foggy mind. Why was this so hard? “My dad was an artist. He made the pictures for wood block prints. So you see, we were just a family of artisans.”
“Just artisans? But that’s incredible!”
Hito shifted uncomfortably. “There’s nothing special about artists. At least peasants can grow food so people can survive, but artists like father and me are … unnecessary.”
Ren shook her head in disbelief. “You’ve got some serious self-esteem issues.”
“It’s the truth. Artists are too low to wear fancy clothes like this, even if we make a bunch of money. So we have to keep any special pictures and expensive things hidden. The Tokugawa forbid us from wearing them openly.”
“Tokugawa?” Ren asked.
“The Shoguns,” Hito said. “The ones who make the laws.” Didn’t she know anything?
“It seems like a dumb law. What makes samurai better than artisans, anyway? Well, besides the cool swords, of course, that goes without saying. Besides, aren’t the samurai gone now? I thought they went extinct.”
“Extinct?” Hito gasped. “What? No! Why would they be gone?”
“Ever heard the phrase ‘bringing a knife to a gunfight?’ It doesn’t end well.”
With a grunt, he turned away and pulled on his jacket. What did she mean about a gunfight? Swords were much more practical. “We have to get moving,” he said.
Ren nodded as they both climbed to their feet. “If Will really is still around, we don’t want him catching up to us. What a jerk.”
Hito rolled his eyes. “What was with him? He was like, ‘I feel really bad about this, but I have to burn your face off!‘”
Their eyes met in twin expressions of surprise. “What was that?” Hito said, lifting his fingers to his lips in disbelief.
“It was amazing!” Ren said, eyes shining. “You sounded just like him! I didn’t know you do impressions!”
His head was spinning. “But I don’t! I wasn’t even trying!”
“Try someone else! Quick! Don’t think about it, just go!”
“Um …” His mind raced as he tried to settle on someone. Well, if he could do Will, then … “My name’s Jack,” he growled, “and I’m always angry! I’m gonna beat you up, torture you, and then laugh about it! Hahahaha!”
This time, the orange flame’s voice rose effortlessly from Hito’s throat, every bit as gravelly and unpleasant as the real thing. He’d only heard Jack’s voice a little bit, and he’d never done impressions before. So why did imitating him come so easily? Had he even heard Jack laugh? He couldn’t remember, but somehow it felt right.
Ren laughed. “It’s not just close. It’s exact! Now do another!”
He shook his head. “I’m tired. We need to get moving.”
“Come on!” she insisted. “One more!”
“But I can’t think of anyone else!”
“There must be someone. Just one more, and I promise I’ll drop it.”
As much as he rummaged through the depths of his mind, Hito couldn’t think of anybody. Even as he opened his mouth to speak, he had no one in mind at all, which made it all the more surprising when the voice of an older boy emerged, much deeper than his own. “Hey, Ren,” he said. “Mom’s been pretty down lately, but I know you’ll take good care of her while I’m gone. It’s only one weekend, right?”
The smile fell from Ren’s face as if he had slapped her. Her mouth dropped open, and her eyes flooded with growing outrage.
“What’s the matter, Ren?” he asked in the same voice, this strange character he had invented on the spot. “Why are you looking at me like that? Hey, wait a minute, don’t get mad! What are you—?!”
Her eyes alight with rage, Ren slammed her fist into Hito’s gut. He doubled over, the air whooshing out of him in a retch. Ren stormed off, leaving him collapsed on his side, fighting his stomach’s push to empty itself.
“Why?” Hito choked out as he twisted in pain on the ground. “What did I do?” She was the one who had pushed him into doing another impression!
“Don’t waste your energy thinking about it too much,” said a voice from beside him.
Propping himself up by his arms, Hito found a purple orb of light the size of a fist hovering in the air beside him. It bobbed slowly up and down, radiating a purple light so dim it might blink out at any moment. The creature’s voice was like a boy his own age, but full of a world-weary sense of detachment, like someone as old as the crumbling weapons in the wasteland.
“Her type gets so emotional over the slightest thing,” the orb said, “oblivious to how utterly insignificant every event in her short, mundane life is.”
Still coughing from Ren’s blow, Hito sat up and stared at the orb of light. “What are you? Are you an enemy?”
The orb drifted lazily closer to him. “Don’t bother getting excited about me. I’m totally insubstantial. Completely inconsequential. Without a body like yours, I couldn’t make an impact on the world even if I cared enough to put in the effort. And I don’t. You can call me Tama, I guess, though it makes little difference to me.”
So it couldn’t hurt him? Hito breathed a sigh of relief. “It’s good meeting you, Tama,” he said, “but I’m gonna go after Ren.”
“Why bother?” Tama floated up and down with excruciating slowness, his purple light pulsing like slow breathing. “Is someone who punches you in the gut over something so trivial worth your time? Seems to me you’d be better off forgetting her and all this tiresome escape business and coming with me, instead. But what do I know? I’m a floating ball.”
Ignoring him, Hito climbed to his feet, slung his jacket over his shoulder, and started down the white stone corridor. As he walked, an eerie rattling noise rang out from somewhere, sending a shiver up his spine. He glanced around nervously, but could find nothing amiss. He hurried onward, aware of Tama floating behind him.
“Figures you don’t recognize that sound,” Tama said flatly. “I guess you’re a little too young for this one.”
What did that mean? Hito didn’t like the sound of it. He quickened his pace, hoping he wouldn’t come to any branches before finding Ren. Just how far had she gone?
When he turned a corner, the narrow tunnel opened into a large courtyard with that same white, rocky ground covered in bones and yellow grass. Spotting Ren in the middle, he jogged to catch up to her.
“Ren!” he called as he approached. “I was worried! Why’d you hit me?”
She glared at him. “I’m still not over it. You can’t do that and pretend everything’s okay.”
“What are you talking about? What did I do?”
Ren ignored him. “Who’s your friend?” she asked, nodding toward the purple ball floating above Hito’s shoulder.
“Oh, that’s Tama,” he said. “I’m not sure what to make of him.”
“Seriously, Hito?” Tama groaned. “The girl is so indescribably dull it’s like a black hole of boredom sucking all the life out of the air. Is it her power that draws you to her? Because you don’t need it. Let’s ditch her.”
Hito gasped, glancing between Ren and Tama. “Why would you say such a thing? And stop talking as if you and I are a duo and Ren’s the odd one out. If anyone’s getting left behind, it’s you.”
“Fine, fine,” Tama grumbled. “There’s no reason to get so worked up over it.”
Ren cocked an eyebrow, looking from one to the other of them in puzzlement. She opened her mouth to say something, but then an eerie rattle rang through the air. It grew louder, seeming to fall down from the sky. Hito shuddered as he looked upwards into the void, revulsion washing over him.
“What is that?” Ren asked. “It sounds like … like …”
But before she could finish, the air behind her shimmered and something appeared. At first, Hito couldn’t make it out—only two giant white pillars, their surface rough and bumpy like a stretch of broken glass. But then he saw the skeletal feet attached to them, the huge pool of shadow covering them. Craning his neck, he traced the bony legs upwards to take in the full size of the titanic skeleton looming above them, at least twenty feet tall. A crooked spine branched out to form its massive rib cage, and inside lay a pulsing red light, tinting its bones in the color of blood. The eye sockets of its massive, grinning skull seemed somehow feral, like a snarling wolf, emanating a strong sense of hatred in spite of its lack of eyes.
Its hungry gaze was locked on Ren.