10. Doppel Danger

Time felt funny in the Labyrinth. Sometimes Hito couldn’t tell whether their journey took minutes, hours, or even days. Sometimes his thoughts would wander, and he would come to his senses wondering how long he had been in a daze, how much time he had missed. But if Ren or Tama noticed this, they never said a word.

So he didn’t know how long had passed before the red tinge faded from the sky, giving way to a smoky blackness and an enormous orange harvest moon. Smooth cobblestones rapped beneath his sandals as he walked. To either side lay wooden fences of old brown planks.

From time to time, the three of them would reach an intersection, forcing them to choose between several identical paths. Sometimes, the fences were chain-link or waist-high picket fences, but they never once tried to climb or jump them. After all, they would only meet a barrier when the Labyrinth forced them to stay on track.

“What’s that?” Hito called, peering out into a field. Hanging from a post was the thin figure of a man, but in place of his head was a strange orange shell with sinister eyes and a grinning face lit from within. As Hito walked, the face lifted and followed him with its eyes.

“Oh, neat!” Ren said. “It’s a jack-o-lantern!”

“Jack-o-lantern?” How was she not worried about this?

“Yeah! You carve faces into pumpkins for Halloween.”

“Pumpkins? Halloween?” They were both speaking English, but she might as well have been speaking Dutch.

“You know, pumpkins! They’re a kind of squash. Round, sometimes a bit flat …” she moved her hands, shaping it out in the air in front of her.

“Oh!” Hito exclaimed. “Like kabocha!”

“Maybe? Don’t the Japanese know about pumpkins? I know you’re on the other side of the world, but with the way information gets around these days …”

Out in the field, Hito found more of the eerie kabocha demons, some floating without bodies and turning in the air as they stared at him. With a shudder, he looked away and tried to ignore them.

Soon Hito noticed humanoid shadows in his periphery, peeling away from the darkness and floating out to join them. A strange haze settled over his mind, and he didn’t think to question this or raise an alarm. This was perfectly normal, wasn’t it?

They reached a four-way intersection in the cobblestone road.

“We should go straight,” said Ren.

“We should go left,” said Tama.

“We should go right,” said the older boy from beside him.

“Right, definitely right!” said the little girl from behind him.

Ren sighed. “I guess I’m out-voted, then.”

His mind only now beginning to clear, Hito glanced between the two strangers with narrowed eyes. One was a teenage boy with dark hair and glasses, while the other was a girl a few years younger than himself, with blond hair and bright cyan eyes. The boy’s eyebrow was cocked analytically, while the girl smiled brightly up at him.

“Wait,” Ren said slowly. “Who are you?”

“We don’t remember our names,” the boy said, “so it’s no use worrying about it.”

“That’s right,” the girl said. “We are who we are … aren’t we?”

Out of the shadows, another girl appeared, identical to the first. “Yep!” she said. “Exactly like she said!”

“Oh look!” Ren said. “They’re twins! How adorable!”

A third girl and a second boy stepped forward out of the shadows.

“Um … Ren?” Hito said, panic creeping into his voice.

Beyond the new figures, Hito could see the dark forms of more people. An old man. A young boy. A beautiful woman with long, dark hair. And—was that Will? No, that didn’t make sense. Even further behind the forming crowd, he saw black forms that only barely resembled people: strange, blobby figures with glowing yellow eyes.

“Oh, don’t worry about them,” said the boy beside Hito.

“They’re our friends,” the three little girls said, their voices in-sync.

“And you can be our friends, too.”

Ren’s eyes widened, the mental haze broken. “This is not okay! Not okay!”

“Run!” Hito shouted.

As more people bubbled up from the darkness, Hito and Ren bolted through the intersection. People flooded in from the sides, their forms twisting out of the shadows: people of all kinds, young and old, every build Hito could imagine. He spotted another few exactly like Will, more duplicates of the boy and girl from before, and several others like no one he had ever met.

Fleeing in the only direction he could, Hito once more had that uncomfortable feeling of the Labyrinth leading them on. But with those things chasing them, he had no time to consult the compass.

Empty voices called from the gathering crowds as they chased Ren and Hito, their arms outstretched, reaching for them.

“Wait for us.”

“We only want to be friends!”

“Join us …”

“Don’t be afraid.”

Hito’s breath burned in his lungs as his heart began to race. Behind him, the figures ran like mad as they gave chase. Some looked fully human, while others had pitch black bodies, like animated shadows with burning yellow eyes.

“This way!” Ren cried, and Hito followed her. The cobblestone road gave way to short, deep green grass, and the gray shapes of stone monuments and statues appeared around them.

“A graveyard?! Why would you think coming here was a good idea?”

“I don’t know!” Ren said. “It looked … peaceful?”

More shadow creatures clambered out from behind tombstones, skin and clothes growing over their shadowy bodies like moss on a tree.

“Look!” Hito shouted, gesturing ahead to a short stone structure with a light glowing within. “If we can make it inside, maybe—”

Ren wasn’t even looking. Instead, she stared into the distance, where a crowd stood watching as their “friends” ran. “Jake?!” she whispered in disbelief.

Hito had no time to consider what this meant, because just then, Ren tripped and flopped to the ground, her body skidding in the dirt.

He stared in horror. The fastest among the monsters dove for Ren, and he lost sight of her as the bodies heaped on top of her. Bracing himself, he dashed back to help.

“She’s so clumsy,” Tama groaned, bobbing sleepily. “Now would be the perfect time to shed yourself of her burden and move on alone. But of course you won’t listen to reason.”

Hito dove into the fray and punched a boy who looked about four in the face. “Huh?!” he gasped as the face gave way to a goopy substance and sucked his fist inside. With a cry of revulsion, he yanked it back and heard a loud shlorp as the goop rushed in to fill the gap.

The bodies melted into a strange sticky substance, like semi-liquid shadow. Disembodied parts swam in the puddle of goop. A single arm. Someone’s torso. And there, nearly smothered in the stuff, he caught sight of Ren.

“Help me!” she cried, panic in her eyes.

Other monsters began to catch up, readying themselves to spring. There wasn’t enough time! Ren disappeared again, and Hito moaned in despair.

Nearby, Tama’s light glowed where a hand protruded from the mess of darkness. “Over here, Hito. Get your stupid girl so we can get out of here.”

Straining, he reached out and clasped Ren’s hand, struggling to pull her free.

To his surprise, the goop released her, and a second later, they staggered free of the pile, dripping shadow liquid. With the monsters closing in, they broke into a run. As Ren slung wind blades into them, the monsters’ bodies melted into puddles of darkness.

“Quick!” Hito cried, heading for the structure he had seen earlier. “In here!”

Approaching what looked like a small tomb, they leaped down the stone stairs into a dimly lit space, and onward into a long, claustrophobic tunnel like the throat of a monster leading deep into its stony bowels.

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