The narrow, gray brick walls pressing in, Hito and Ren sprinted down a hallway with a ceiling only about a foot above their heads. Torches hung at long intervals, and Tama floated lazily behind them as they passed ominous black tunnels branching to either side.
Soon, they emerged into a wide, square room. They glanced behind them down the long hall, but there was no sign of the shadowy monsters.
“Looks like they’re not following us,” Hito said.
“I am pretty intimidating,” Ren said. “I wouldn’t mess with me, either! See?” She sloppily slung a few wind blades at the wall.
“Let’s get moving before they change their minds.” Spotting a staircase descending from the middle of the room, he started toward it.
He had only gone a few steps when something shifted beneath his feet. With a gasp, he reflexively leaped backwards—and it was a good thing he did. The floor hinged open where he had been, revealing a large gap into yawning, bottomless darkness. He could have been killed! Or maybe he would have continued falling forever, with nothing but the void and the unending expanse of time. Nothing was impossible in the Labyrinth.
“Trap doors in the floor?!” he shouted, his heart pounding. “What’s wrong with this place?!”
Ren pointed at the floor. “You can spot them if you look closely. See those little seams there? There’s a couple more. We’ll have to be careful.”
They crept across the room to the staircase and descended. Their feet thudded on stone as the stairs corkscrewed down to a large room lit with torchlight and—Hito gasped when he saw a body of glowing, smoking black and orange liquid. An overpowering earthy scent rose to his nostrils. Lava?! He coughed against the smoke, feeling sick, and Ren looked at him in concern.
When they reached the bottom of the stairs, they found a stone floor stretching out to a series of deep trenches. The lava ran through the trenches, casting heat and dull red light into the room.
“What is this place?” Hito wondered, his eyes drifting up to the ceiling, hundreds of feet above. On the far side, the smooth stone shifted into rough rock, clustered with clots dirt. The floor, too, gave way to dirt, as if a builder had died halfway through its construction.
“This has gone far enough, hasn’t it?” Ren said from behind him, something strange in her voice.
“Huh? What’s the matter?”
She glared at him, her eyes like daggers. “You thought I wouldn’t notice, didn’t you? But I did.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Doppelgangers,” she said. “Those shadow monsters we saw. They imitate people to look exactly like them. But you already know that, don’t you?”
“I have no idea!” Why did she seem so angry? What was wrong with her?
“When I fell, Hito came to save me. All those doppels melted into that weird gunk. He went under, and I lost sight of him. That’s when you made the switch, isn’t it?”
His jaw dropped open. “You think I’m a doppelganger?!”
“You’ve been acting funny ever since then. Maybe no one else would notice. But I know Hito better than a monster like you could.”
Ren thought he was a monster? She seemed awfully sure of herself. What had he done to make her think he was a fake? “You’re being crazy! It’s me, Hito!” He turned to the purple sphere at his side. “Tama! Tell her it’s the real me!”
“Ahdunnuh.” Tama made a noise like a shrug. “I wasn’t paying attention.”
Hito narrowed his eyes. Something in Tama’s voice—was he hiding something?
“Well I was paying attention,” Ren said. “I’m certain. You replaced Hito, and you’ve been leading me on ever since. It’s time to ditch you and go back for the real thing!”
With a sweeping motion and brutal crunching sounds, Ren ripped chunks of rock from the floor. As Hito watched in disbelief, she launched the rocks at him.
Ducking at the last second, he felt the wind whoosh through his hair as they passed. They struck a stone wall behind him with a loud bang, shattering into tiny pieces and leaving cracks and pits in the wall.
“Stop it!” he shouted. “You’re confused. Let’s talk about this!”
But she crept toward him, a dangerous look in her blue eyes. That terrifying determination, aimed like a sword to slice through him. “The only talking you’ll be doing … is to my wind blade!” She slashed at him, and he leaped out of the blade’s way, flopping to the ground in desperation.
Tama groaned. “Really, Ren? If you’re intent on killing him, maybe less talking and more slicing?”
“No one asked you!” she snapped. “My one-liners are cool, and you know it!”
Hito dragged himself to his feet and faced her across the room, tensing for her next attack.
Tama floated slowly over to her. “I gotta say, you do seem awfully chipper for someone about to chop her friend apart. Obviously, it doesn’t bother me in the slightest, but humans tend to get upset over this sort of thing.”
“He’s right,” said Hito, thinking. “Even if you’re completely convinced I’m a fake, I still look like myself. Shouldn’t that bother you? Why aren’t you more … conflicted?”
Ren shrugged and brought her arms up for another attack.
His eyes widened in realization. “Unless … You’re the doppel!”
She dropped her arms, irritated. “Come on,” she groaned. “Don’t try to twist this back on me.”
“No,” he said, suddenly certain. “It’s like you said! I lost sight of you when the monsters caught you. They could have switched you in then! You’re an impostor, which means …” He winced. How could they be separated again? “The real Ren’s still back there somewhere.”
“You could both be doppels for all I know,” Tama said. “One Hito’s as good as any other to me. Guessing games have always bored me anyway.”
“No!” Ren shouted through clenched teeth. “No, no, no! You’re throwing out a bunch of bull to confuse me!” She crouched low to the ground, placing her hands on the stone beneath her, then hooked her fingers into tight claws. “I’ll blow you away once and for all!”
As she closed her eyes to gather power, her form rippled like water, tiny splotches of shadow goop bubbling up through her skin like pimples. When she opened her eyes, they glowed an eerie yellow for a few seconds before shifting back to blue. “Haaaa!” she shouted as she tore giant stone bricks from the floor and hurled them at Hito.
His heart leaped into his throat. He couldn’t possibly dodge that many! They were too big, and too fast, and—
The bricks flopped to the floor halfway between them. Hito stood there blinking.
“That was underwhelming,” said Tama. “I guess doppel power’s no match for the real thing.”
The thing that looked like Ren glanced at the pile of rubble, her eye twitching. She bared her teeth, and a crazed expression came over her face. “I’m tired, that’s all!This doesn’t mean anything!” She gazed into his eyes, imploring. “You believe me, right, Hito?”
He stared. Hadn’t she sworn he was a doppel a moment before? Didn’t she remember? He could see her mind falling apart through her eyes.
Hearing footsteps from the stairs, Hito looked up as a figure descended into view. His mouth dropped open.
It was him. Hito. Or at least, someone who looked so identical even he couldn’t see the difference. The new boy stepped down to the floor and froze, glancing between the Ren monster and Hito, as if he’d walked in on something he wasn’t supposed to see.
“Hito!” not-Ren shouted toward the newcomer. “Please! Tell them I’m the real Ren! Tell them I’m not a monster!”
But he only stood looking at her in silent confusion.
And then two more Hitos descended the stairs from behind him.
Hito backed away, staring at the three additional hims in disbelief. Feeling heat at his back, he glanced behind and found one of the trenches full of lava only ten feet away, bubbling with deep gloppy sounds as it flowed like a river of glowing orange syrup.
“No,” said not-Ren, darting her eyes between all four Hitos with that same crazed look on her face. She began to laugh, a high-pitched, unnatural sound that made Hito shudder. “I understand! Those three are the real Hitos, and you’re the fake!”
She sprinted toward him.
Hito dashed to flee, but she swerved to intercept him. That’s when he saw a small crease around a section of the floor nearby. He knew it was important, but it took a second for his mind to piece together what it meant, and by the time he remembered it was too late.
“Wait!” he cried. “Look out!”
When the Ren-monster’s feet landed on the section of stone, it fell from beneath her—directly into a vat of lava. She screamed as she fell, and Hito desperately reached for her, but there was nothing he could do.
Her features burned away, leaving a black shadow form with glowing yellow eyes, which then lost cohesion and became a shadowy liquid, hissing into black steam as it struck the magma. Hito would never forget the last look in her eyes as she gazed up at him in terrified resignation.
Up until her last moment, she had truly believed she was the real Ren.
Then, the other Hitos were upon him. They tackled him, and all four of them fought in a heap. He saw other Hito faces, other Hito arms and legs and clothes. He felt dizzy, his mind hazy, and it was hard to tell which parts were his own.
“I’m the real Hito!” shouted one of them.
“I’m the real Hito!” shouted another.
“I’m the real Hito!” shouted a third.
“I’m the real Hito!” he shouted right along with them.
One of them punched him in the gut, and he felt his stomach trying to empty itself. Furious, he seized someone’s arm and chomped into it with his teeth, a sense of satisfaction rising up when his victim cried out in pain. Another of them scratched at his face with his fingernails, but he caught him by the wrists and struggled to pin him down. Limbs, faces, shouts, screams … One of the Hitos started to cry. The Hito pile jostled and tumbled as the four boys rolled on the floor, each trying to prove himself the best, that he was the real Hito after all. He closed his eyes, trying to fight the haze in his mind. The world seemed to vanish, and he knew nothing outside of his brothers in the fight.
But then a blade of air rushed in and chopped one of them in half. With a scream, he burst into black shadow liquid and plopped down into a puddle. The remaining three froze, Hito with his hand cocked in the air to punch one of his duplicates in the face. What had happened? This wasn’t part of their fight. This was something outside. It wasn’t fair!
Another of them dropped, gasping as a wind blade cut him apart and reduced him to a splash.
One more blade cut into the boy he had pinned, and his body melted into liquid, leaving Hito crouching on his knees as the fluid seeped into his trousers.
Terrified, he looked up and found Ren watching him. He braced himself, waiting for one last blade to come and chop him apart like his duplicates. But she dropped her hands to her sides, smiling at him as if nothing had happened.
“R-Ren?” Hito stammered. He shook his head, trying to dispel the fog. “Wh-what? … Are you … you?”
“Ugh,” Tama groaned. “She’s back. I’d hoped we’d be rid of her for good.”
Slowly, Hito climbed to his feet, his eyes lingering on the puddles of black liquid nearby. “How did you know which one was me?” he asked.
“After I tripped, I saw you go off with that other me,” Ren explained. “I tried shouting for you, but the monsters drowned me out.” Her eyes dropped to the ground. “I’m sorry about that. One of them looked like my brother.”
Hito remembered when the monsters were chasing them, when Ren had called out her brother’s name. “It’s this stupid Labyrinth again. It’s toying with us. It knew it could get to you.”
“I had to fight hard to make it here,” she said. “And by the looks of it, you had your hands full, too. But …” She drew close and pressed her face mere inches from his. Hito blushed. “Just to be sure … You’re the real Hito, right?”
He thought of the doppels from before, all of them insisting that they were the real one. “Y-yeah,” he said, trying to sound confident. “Of course!” But then he recalled the Ren doppel’s expression as it had sunk into the lava, and he couldn’t meet her eyes.
Tama bounced back and forth, forming a tall arc in the air. “Wonderful,” he said. “You’re both yourselves. Can we move on already?”
He’s hiding something, Hito thought again. Something about that bouncing movement, a strange edge in his voice. But what?
Then it came to him. “Tama … When I went back to save Ren from the monsters, you led me to grab her hand.”
His bouncing grew more rapid. “Of course,” he said, his voice a little higher than normal. “I have no particular care for the girl, but it seemed like the fastest—”
“You led me to the doppel on purpose!”
Tama froze for a moment, then changed his pattern to move in three smaller bounces, back and forth. “Don’t be dull, Hito. Baseless accusations are such a drag.”
“No, he’s right!” Ren said. “You’ve wanted me gone all along. You saw the chance to get rid of me, and you took it! But you didn’t expect me to fight off the monsters and make it back, did you? Fess up, you stupid ball!”
“Ugh, fine,” Tama grumbled. “I did it. Can we go now?”
Hot blood pounded through Hito’s temples. “How could you? Do you really think this is something we can shrug off?”
“Stop being melodramatic. I did it for you, Hito. The girl is only holding you back, and the sooner you accept that, the better off you’ll be.”
“Her name is Ren!” Hito shouted. “And she’s more important to me than you could ever be.”
Tama froze, dead still in the air.
“Go away!” Hito said. “Go away and leave us alone. No one asked you to follow us in the first place, and no one wants you around. Get out of here, and we never want to see you again.”
“Hito,” Ren said softly. “It’s no biggie. I fought them off without—”
He shot her an angry glance, and she fell silent.
“You think you can throw me away like a piece of trash?” Tama said. “Well, you’re wrong. It doesn’t matter if you reject me a thousand times. You can’t get rid of me that easily.”
Hito grew dizzy with rage. Where had this come from? Tama had seemed so nonchalant before, but now … “I said go away!”
Tama said nothing.
Before Hito could press him further, the sound of laughter rose up over the bubbling of the lava. Startled, Hito and Ren whipped their gazes in its direction.
About twenty feet away, there floated a bright orange flame, and the nasty laughter emanated from within it.
“Wow!” said the boy’s voice from within the light, still fighting his laughter. “What a riot!”
Hito stared at the orange flame, a cocktail of anger, fear and anticipation shaking inside him.
They had found Jack at last.