Jack’s flame swung back and forth like a pendulum as he giggled sadistically. “You two looked so dumb! It was great!”
“You!” Ren gasped.
The flame shook rapidly up and down, trembling with energy. “Look at how mad you are! You two are hilarious!”
The fire blazed brighter, then coalesced into the form of a boy. He wore an orange tunic, and his hair was orange, too, forming a bowl shape over his scalp that reminded Hito of the shells of the orange kabocha from earlier. His yellow eyes glinted with mean-spirited amusement, and the teeth in his grinning mouth resembled fangs. Emanating a sense of confidence, Jack stood casually with his arms crossed.
Hito stepped forward. Jack and Will had brought them here, so it stood to reason they could get them out. “Let us go,” he said. “You’ve had your fun!”
Jack’s eyes shined as he grinned even wider. “I haven’t begun to have fun yet! It would be a waste if you escaped now. There’s so much more to see. More to suffer to! More to die to!” His high-pitched giggle echoed throughout the large chamber.
Ren shook her head. “I don’t get it. Why do you want to see us suffer? What are you?”
“I am Jack-o-lantern, the Lord of the Orange Flame,” he replied. “I hover near crossroads, always leading travelers down the wrong path. Stupid fools, all of them, waiting for someone like me to mess up their day! Watching them panic as the confusion, then despair settle in … it’s delicious!”
“But why?” Hito asked. “What’s the point? What do you gain from getting people lost?”
“It’s fun!” Jack said, grinning.
“Those suckers are so ridiculous. Everyone thinks they’re so damn important. I give them a reality check, to bring their whole world crashing down. Once all their confidence gets stripped away, they’re so exposed and vulnerable they might as well be standing there in the buff!” He laughed boisterously.
“There’s no other reason?” Ren asked. “There must be something else!”
She’s right, Hito thought. Jack and Will weren’t telling them everything.
Ignoring her, Jack held out his hands, and an orange fireball ignited in each palm. He tossed them into the air, juggling them as he talked. “Their screams of pain, their shouts of madness, their looks of terror. It’s fantastic! And best of all, knowing that I did this to them. The feeling of being so powerful … It’s such a rush!”
Hito stared at him. “You’re a monster!”
Jack caught both of the fireballs, then squeezed to poof them out. “I may be a monster,” he said, “but it’s so much more fun than being human.”
He stepped forward, flame rippling over his arms. Hito staggered backwards. “Y-you’re here for the compass, right?”
“Oh, do you wanna give it to me?” Jack said with a grin. “That’s boring! I’ll just take it from your sizzling body after I’m done with you!”
“Hey!” Ren yelled. Jack and Hito turned, and found her braced in a combat stance, ready to invoke her magic. “Aren’t you forgetting someone?”
Jack snickered. “I didn’t forget. I was saving you for later. But if you’d rather go first …” He clenched his fists, causing the fire on his hands to flare up and gleam in his yellow eyes. With a growl, he lunged at Ren.
With a loud rumbling sound, Ren tore bricks from the floor and cast them up between her and Jack, forcing him to halt his advance. She dashed away, putting some space between them.
“Running away?” Jack sneered.
Ren punched in Jack’s direction, ripping bricks from the wall behind her and firing at him. Rolling his eyes, Jack became a flame, glided out of the way, and reformed into a boy in less than a second.
“That all you got?”
With a growl of frustration, Ren launched more bricks at him, but he went into his flame form and dodged again. She pumped both hands, rapidly firing bursts of rocks, but each time, he turned into a flame and dodged to the side. Each time, he burst back into human for only a moment before dodging the next shot. Once, he stuck out his tongue. Next time he pulled his eyelids down and made a retching noise. Next he stuck his fingers in his mouth and stretched it wide, going cross-eyed.
Ren’s hands dropped to her sides, her fists shaking in rage.
“My turn?” Jack asked. Two flames ignited in his palms, swelled larger, then formed into solid objects. He held two jack-o-lanterns, their glowing, sinister faces sporting carved smiles identical to his own. “Here, have a present!” he said as he hurled one of the pumpkins at Ren.
She leaped out of the way. The pumpkin smashed against the wall behind her—and exploded.
Fire erupted from the broken shell, gushing over the wall and floor as if the stone was covered in oil. Ren shielded her eyes, her face alight from the sheets of flame.
Hito watched it all unfold. Even though he knew what was coming, he was helpless to prevent it. “Look out!” he shouted. “He’s going to—”
But it was too late. Jack gave a shout of triumph as he tossed the other pumpkin bomb to cut off Ren’s escape. The bomb exploded in a blinding burst of fire. Flames burned all around Ren, from the wall behind her to both her sides. Only the way in front still lay open.
Jack turned into his flame form and streaked toward Ren. “No!” Hito cried, but before he could even blink, Jack reformed and slugged her in the gut.
Ren dropped to her knees, eyes bulging. Jack grinned as she toppled forward onto her face and fell limp. He left her lying there, surrounded by fire, and turned his gleaming eyes on Hito.
“Man, that was satisfying!” he said. “Ever since Will told me about the big, bad girl who hurt him, I’ve been looking forward to this.” His smile dropped away for the first time, and his face twisted into a snarl. “You doused him! You doused my little brother! Did you think I wouldn’t find out? Did you think I’d let that slide?”
Backing away from Jack, Hito felt that familiar sense of panic prickling at the back of his neck. If Jack had defeated Ren, who was so powerful, what hope did he have?
From beside Hito, Tama let out an enormous yawn. “He sure looks mad,” he said in Japanese. “You have a plan?”
“How could I? He’s gonna demolish me!”
Tama’s purple orb of a body floated up and down so slowly Hito wasn’t sure he was moving at all. “You remember what I’ve been saying, right? I can give you power, if you want it. Aren’t you tired of being weak, Hito? Always watching, scared, unable to do anything for yourself?”
“I told you I won’t give up Ren!” He looked back to Ren’s body on the floor, the ache of worry swelling up in his heart. “Especially not now.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Tama said. “I get it. That melodramatic scene earlier. The way you look at her. It’s obvious you’re a lost cause. But maybe you and I could come to another agreement.”
Hito’s eyes fixed on Jack. The Wisp crept forward, his face filled with an odd mix of rage and mild annoyance.
“I’m listening,” Hito said. “What do you want from me?”
Tama’s movement stopped completely. “Don’t leave me,” he said.
“I’ll lend you my power. In return, promise never to leave me behind again.”
An image leaped into Hito’s mind: walking the streets of Edo with his little purple pet bouncing behind him. Forever was a very long time, and Tama would attract all kinds of attention. He hated attention.
“Stop it!” Jack shouted, rage overflowing in his cracking voice. “Stop leaving me out of this, dammit! What is that dumb purple ball, anyway?”
Tama snorted. “You’ve always been the hotheaded type, haven’t you? Typical.”
Jack’s face turned so red Hito thought it might explode like one of his pumpkin bombs. “You’ll pay!” he screamed. He charged toward Hito, as if forgetting he could turn into a flame. Why’s he coming for me?! Tama’s the one who insulted him!
At the last second, Hito dove to the side, and Jack’s fist missed him by inches, cracking the stone wall behind him and sending chunks of rock flying. Hito tumbled to the floor, then struggled to climb to his feet.
“Fine!” he shouted at Tama. “I promise! You can stay with me as long as you like! Now help me!”
As Jack turned to swing at him again, Tama rushed toward and into Hito. His orb passed through Hito’s skin and clothes and disappeared inside his chest. Without thinking, Hito reached for Jack’s fiery fist.
A bang rang out, and a wave of tremendous force washed over the two boys as Hito caught Jack’s fist and halted it dead in its tracks. His hand glowed with purple light, and he felt no pain, even when faced with such an incredible impact. Even the heat of Jack’s flames didn’t affect him.
Jack’s jaw dropped. Now, Hito’s left arm began to glow. Instinctively, he hammered it into Jack’s chest.
A bright purple flash shone between them, hurling Jack through the air. He arced up, then down, then slammed against the floor, his cries cutting off in an abrupt grunt.
Before Jack could recover, Hito rushed toward him. Light swam across his vision, as if he were staring through a purple mist, and the world blurred as he moved faster than he had ever believed possible. It was less than a second before he reached Jack, who stared up at him in terror.
As Hito prepared to strike, Jack’s little fire darted out of the way and bounced across the room like a terrified rabbit.
“No you don’t!” Hito cried as Jack materialized. Somehow knowing he could, he pitched an orb of purple energy toward Jack, and the Wisp leaped to the side as it detonated in a bright explosion. His body was propelled through the air, then sent flopping to the floor.
“This is incredible!” Hito said, staring at his hands in wonder. “I had no idea you were so powerful, Tama!”
The spirit floated out of his chest and hovered in front of him. “Power’s basically all I am. Without someone to use me, I’m worthless, making for an unspeakably dull existence. Beating up pumpkin boy, on the other hand, makes for an effective enough diversion.”
Jack was panting and grunting as he struggled to his feet, wiping dirt from his face. “You were holding back on me, huh? I should’ve known you were playing me. There’s no way you could last this long if you were that weak.” He peered at Tama, his mouth twisted in distaste. “And what are you?”
“Very bored,” Tama replied.
Jack’s face looked as hot as a boiling teapot. “Stop mocking me!” he screamed, and dove toward Hito. Fire rippled over every inch of his body as he flashed like a burning meteor across the room, sending a roar of flame and a whoosh of air booming throughout the chamber.
Hito saw it all with perfect clarity. He timed his movements with pinpoint precision, ramming his glowing hand into Jack’s exposed chest the instant he drew within range.
Another explosion burst from his palm. Hito’s power blew Jack from his feet, orange embers trailing behind him as he choked and retched in the air. He slammed against a wall with a deafening bang, and a huge crack broke open with the impact. Dizzy-eyed, Jack dropped to the floor, landed on his hands and knees, and sat there moaning.
“Go, Hito,” said Tama, his calm voice floating up from within. “Time to snuff this annoying little candle out.”
A purple aura of power washed over him as he rushed toward the Wisp. It’s like I’ve become energy, he thought to himself, as if his body had lost connection to the physical world and knew nothing except speed.
But as he moved, he caught a flicker of light in the corner of his eye.
The instant Hito materialized and fired at Jack, Will appeared between them, blocking his shot with a massive surge of green fire. Their attacks collided in a storm of flame and light, purple and green swirling together with an enormous roar, before ultimately canceling each other out.
Hito and Will were left staring at each other with wide eyes, each waiting for the other to make a move.