“Hito?” Ren asked, still unaware of the huge skeleal monster looming over her. “What’s wrong?”
As he watched in horror, the creature hunched down, opened its jaw wide …
There was no time to warn her. Clenching his teeth in resolve, Hito dove and tackled Ren to the ground. A split second later, a powerful crack rang out as the skeleton’s teeth snapped together where she had been.
Dazed, Ren stared up into the eyes of the giant skull. “Looks like he has a bone to pick with me!”
“Ren!” Hito shouted. “Not now!”
“Alright, alright …”
As if in reply, the beast’s teeth chattered in its dangling jaws, producing the unsettling rattle from before.
Hito and Ren scrambled to their feet and bolted. Out of the corner of his eye, Hito sensed one of the monster’s thick, bony arms swinging for them. “Do something!” he cried.
Ren swept sharp white pebbles from the ground, cutting apart the monster’s hand in a storm of stone bullets. The beast let out an enormous, breathy gasp of frustration, which rose not from its throat, but from the air all around them.
Bones? Hito wondered, looking at the yellow-white shards raining down. He stared again at the jagged surface of the skeleton’s frame, and realized it was formed of hundreds of smaller bones. Bones, made of bones. It might have been funny if it weren’t so horrifying.
The monster glowered down at them as if they were bugs it was about to crush. Bones from the nearby bodies floated up to its wounded hand, forming the fractured fingers anew.
“Quick! Over here!” Ren cried, heading for a narrow maze passageway with a low ceiling of stone.
Of course! Hito thought. The monster won’t fit in here! The two of them darted inside, then stopped to rest, panting as they leaned against one of the sandstone walls.
Tama floated slowly up and down as he trailed behind Hito, his purple light glowing dimmer than usual. “You’re painfully excitable, even when faced with a monster as mundane as the gashadokuro,” he said, his voice like one giant sigh. “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself for being so weak?”
“Shut up!” Hito shouted. He didn’t need Tama to tell him he was weak. Without Ren, he was completely worthless.
“This thing’s a pushover, but this useless girl can’t even beat it. The Labyrinth holds far more terrifying dangers than this old thing in its depths. As one helpless bystander to another, here’s a bit of advice: what you need is the power to handle things like this yourself.”
Power? Hito wondered. What was Tama talking about?
“Looks like we’re safe,” Ren said with a massive sigh of relief.
But then the sound of rattling bones rang out from the courtyard. When he turned to look, Hito spotted a huge skeletal hand floating toward them down the tunnel. It can disassemble itself! he realized. The same rattle echoed from the opposite direction, and in hovered a second hand, stretched wide like a trap about to spring closed.
Ren wiped sweat from her brow, then fired blades of wind into one of the hands. Once again, it shattered into tiny pieces, but then the smaller bones rose from the ground and clustered together, reforming it in seconds.
“We’re trapped!” Hito cried. “Can’t you hit it any harder?”
“What good would that do? It heals itself no matter how hard I hit it!”
“How melodramatic,” Tama said. “Why, if I let you use my power, I bet you could blast these things to powder.”
“What?!” Hito gasped.
“Exactly as I said. I can give you the power to beat any monster. I could even restore that silly compass of yours—if you’ll only give me what I want.”
The hands drew closer, their bony fingers twitching in anticipation.
“What do you want?”
Tama glowed invitingly. “You have to abandon the girl.”
Hito gaped at him. “Abandon Ren? But why?”
“She’s none of your business. If you leave her, it would be just you and me. With my power, you could protect yourself, and all these monsters would become a bore. With your nice, shiny compass, you could escape the Labyrinth without her help.” His light pulsed slowly brighter and dimmer as he talked. “You don’t need her, Hito.”
Ever since he had watched Ren drive off the Namahage while he lay crying and cowering in the snow, Hito had yearned for the power to fight. Every time she protected him, he felt an overwhelming sense of shame. With the flame compass restored and the strength to defend himself, he would have everything he needed. Could Tama really give him that? And was leaving Ren worth it?
“Um … uh …” There was no time! A skeletal hand swooped in, and its fingers snapped closed around him. Poking into his skin, the smaller bones sent jolts of pain stabbing through him. The hand squeezed him as tight as a boa constrictor, and his bones creaked as he struggled to breathe.
“Hito!” Ren cried. She turned to help him, but then the other hand swiped at her, and she barely dove out of the way of its snapping fingers.
The hand dragged him out of the tunnel and back to the giant skeleton waiting outside. Moaning, Hito gazed into the empty black sockets of its eyes, at the slabs of its teeth as it grinned in sadistic hunger.
A snap rang out as the monster’s hand reattached to its arm. It carried Hito up past its chest, then seized him by one foot, leaving him to dangle high above its head.
His ankle clasped between the monster’s fingers, Hito swung nauseatingly through the air as the wind whooshed around him. The whole world spread out beneath him, white sandstone tunnels and bone-strewn wasteland stretching all the way to the dark red horizons. Gravity tugged at his clothes and hair as the blood rushed to his head.
Directly below, the gashadokuro’s jaw yawned wide open. Any moment now, the beast would drop him into its maw and gnash into him with its huge, dull teeth.
Tama floated up to him, as lazy as ever. “What a shame. I had hoped for more than a tiny drop of amusement, but alas, like a withered old kabuki play, the Hito Show must come to an end.”
The bony fingers released their grip, and Hito fell screaming toward the open mouth.
In the same instant, he heard Ren’s shout from the ground below, and countless blades of wind whistling in the air. They struck the monster, and it staggered backwards with a raspy gasp of surprise. With the beast off-balance, Hito missed its mouth and slammed against its chest. Desperately, he clasped the small bones like handles and clung to them for dear life.
Through a gap in the monster’s ribs, he glimpsed a large, glowing orb, swirling with black and red energy. What is that? he wondered as the malevolent light played over his face.
With an echoing snarl of fury, the gashadokuro stomped its huge, bony feet, trying to crush Ren in the courtyard below. Hito clung to the bones as he swung every which way. Crying out, he scrambled inside the monster’s chest just as the beast reached for him. Its fingers clattered, searching for him, but he remained safely hidden inside the cage of its chest.
Only a few yards away, the core of black and red energy bathed him in its light, radiating waves of malice and hatred so thick his stomach churned.
“Did you forget about me, big guy?” Ren shouted, slamming a sheet of pebbles into the gashadokuro’s legs. “Look at me! I bet I’m tasty! Not like Hito. He’s all gross and tough and gristly.”
“Hey!” he protested. But the thought vanished as the creature turned to Ren with a breathy snarl, jostling Hito with its movement. It clasped its bony hands together and hammered them down.
Ren screamed as she leapt out of the way and flopped to the ground. A laugh shook through the bones, washing over Hito like a hot wind. The beast raised a hand, ready to smash Ren flat.
He had to stop it! He had to save her! But without powers, what could he do?
That’s when his eyes settled on the swirling core of light nearby. Could it be? …
He climbed to the core and leaned toward it. Unsure what to do, he swallowed, braced himself, and stretched one hand out into the light.
Agony jolted through his arm, the inside of the core like the embers of a fire. He could feel his skin burning and blistering, as if a swarm of filthy, red hot beetles were crawling all over his arm. Screaming with the pain, he shoved his hand even deeper inside.
The gashadokuro let out a surprised shriek and began to claw at its chest in panic. I’ve got it! Hito thought. He clasped his hand around something solid in the center of the light and gave a great yank.
The monster’s shriek cut off as the light inside it fizzled out. Hito stared down at the object he held and choked. It was a human heart, burning bright red and still beating. Black sludge seeped out of it and ran cold over his skin. With a gasp, he dropped it, then tried to catch it again, juggling it between his hands like a hot potato. But then it froze in the air, turned black, and crumbled away into ash.
The bones lost their cohesion, and the giant form of the skeleton disintegrated. Bones poured over him as he fell, burying him, and he desperately pushed them aside and fought to climb free.
It took him several minutes to untangle himself from the heap of bones, and when he finally did, his body felt light and rubbery with exhaustion. He tottered over to Ren, where she lay on the ground, and collapsed next to her. The two of them stared up at the red-tinged black sky.
“Y’okay?” Ren muttered.
Hito remembered how she had slugged him and stormed off after his last imitation. “Ren, about earlier … I’m sorry. I never meant to upset you. I still don’t know what I did, but I’d never do it on purpose. No more impressions from me, I swear.”
The weight of a long silence settled in. Hito could feel each second passing, as if he were listening anxiously to the ticking of a clock. What was going through her head? What had he done to hurt her? And could she forgive him?
“It was my brother,” she said softly.
“Your brother? Huh?”
“My dad died when I was little,” Ren said. “I don’t even remember him. But I remember my mom, always alone and sad as she tried to take care of me. And my big brother, Jake, always looking out for me.” She gave a long pause, and Hito could feel her gathering her thoughts. “About a year ago, Jake went on a camping trip with some of his buddies. That was the last time I ever saw him. He got lost out in the woods. There was this big search and everything, but he was just gone.”
“I’m sorry,” Hito said, feeling inadequate. He thought of his own family back in Japan. Did he have siblings? He couldn’t remember for sure, but he felt like he did, and his heart ached at the thought of losing someone like Ren had. “I had no idea. You always seem so cheerful.”
“I try not to think about it. But when you did his voice, it brought everything back.”
“But I’ve never even met your brother! How could I know what he sounds like?”
She paused to think. “What if it’s the Labyrinth? It’s toyed with us using illusions before. What if this was just another of its tricks, but messing with our ears instead of our eyes?”
“You’re right!” Hito said. “I could never do impressions before. And those voices were too good. It was like other peoples’ voices came flying out of my mouth!”
Ren took a deep breath. “I forgive you,” she said, smiling wearily at him. He felt her hand grasp his, and he clasped hers reflexively in return. “I’m sorry for hitting you. It wasn’t your fault.”
Hito lay there in silence, blushing.
“Oh, I see,” said Tama from beside him, his voice touched with loathing. “No wonder you’re so reluctant to leave her behind, even though it means a reward of fantastic powers. Still, this only serves to prove my point. She’s bad news, and is only holding you back.”
“Shut up!” Hito snapped. “It’s not like that!”
“Ugh,” Tama groaned. “This level of delusion is typical of you. How long are you going to keep lying to yourself before you accept me as—”
“Would you two stop it?” Ren shouted, throwing Hito’s hand aside as she sat up. “You know I can’t understand Japanese!”
“Japanese?” Hito repeated, confused as he propped himself up. “But wait … If Tama and I are speaking Japanese, what are you and I speaking?”
“English! What else?”
“But Ren,” Hito said, “I don’t speak English.”
“That’s ridiculous! You’re speaking it right now!”
“How could I even learn? Foreigners were forbidden in Japan. So where could I learn English?” But now that he was thinking about it, tasting the words in his mouth … “It’s true!”
He wasn’t just speaking English. He was speaking it fluently, with so little effort it had never occurred to him he was doing anything special.
“Maybe it’s like the impressions?” Ren suggested. “If the Labyrinth can mess with our ears and speech, maybe this is more of the same tricks. Maybe it’s part of the Labyrinth’s plan.”
“Hmmm …” Tama said, his slow-bobbing ball betraying not a touch of investment. “I can’t speak to sentient labyrinths, but the dull girl does have a point. I’ve seen stranger things happen in here than mixed up languages.”
Ren snorted. “Who you calling dull? You … you ball!”
“Absolutely scathing retort,” Tama muttered. “But then, you’ve always been more about beating things down than thinking, haven’t you?”
“And what have you done, other than float there like a little floaty thingy?!”
Hito ignored them. The Labyrinth’s plan? Could the Labyrinth truly be sentient, guided by some sort of malevolent mind?
He remembered what Ren had said about going the way the Labyrinth wanted them to. Had they ever once deviated from the obvious path that lay before them? What if this entire time, they had only been following the Labyrinth’s plan? If it was true, every step they took made no difference in the end.
The only thing that gave him hope was the flame compass. Only the compass let them find their own path. But with its power weakening, they could soon be every bit as helpless as Jack and Will’s other victims, who had wandered aimlessly until they perished. They would be powerless to do anything but what the Labyrinth wanted, and they would never escape.
Without the compass’s power, they were doomed.
And they were running out of time.