“Leave my brother alone!” Will shouted, his green eyes burning.
Hito braced himself for a wave of fire or a fierce punch, but instead Will dove forward and wrapped his arms tightly around his legs.
“Hey! What’re you doing?” Hito said, squirming. “Let go!”
“Jack, now!” Will shouted.
Jack chuckled as fire reignited and spread over his body. “You’ll pay for making a fool of me, Hito. I’ve got just enough strength left to char you to cinders!” As Hito stood there wriggling helplessly, Jack pulled back his fist to attack.
“Heeeyaaaa!” shouted Ren’s voice out of nowhere. Jack’s gaze whipped up into the air just as she drop-kicked him in the face and pounded him to the ground. “Here comes Ren the Great, back from the dead!”
“You were never dead to begin with,” Tama said, his voice echoing from within Hito’s chest. “How did you even get up there?”
Will was staring at Ren, slack-jawed. Now’s my chance, Hito realized.
He cast Tama’s power into one of his legs and jammed his knee into Will’s gut. The boy stumbled back in pain, his grip dropping from Hito’s legs.
“Nice!” Ren said. “I see you got yourself some power!”
Her hair was singed. Her face was scorched. Her clothes were smeared with soot. But her eyes shined with excitement as she smiled at him.
“You’re okay!” Hito said. “Ren, I was so worried!”
“I had to make a strategic withdrawal,” she said.
“That is absolutely nothing like what actually happened,” Tama said, moving out of Hito’s body to float beside him.
Behind Ren, Jack rose to his feet with a loud grunt. On his other side stood Will, pouting and holding his stomach as he watched from a distance.
“These two are feeling pretty good about themselves, Jack,” Will said.
“Oh yes, Will,” Jack replied. “The fools think they’re so powerful. Maybe even invincible.”
Together, the Wisps giggled sadistically.
Hito sighed and shook his head. “Why are we doing this? It’s all so pointless. If you’d only let us go home, we wouldn’t have to fight!”
Ren placed a hand on his shoulder. “You’re wasting your breath, Hito. There’s no reasoning with these two.”
“This girl is so irritating, isn’t she Jack?”
“She keeps messing everything up, Will, and now she’s acting all superior!”
“Even though she’s no better than we are.”
“Even though both of them are murderers, just like us.”
Ren snorted. “Are you really pulling the old ‘we’re not so different, you and I?’”
“What do you mean?” asked Hito. “Ren and I haven’t killed anybody!”
Jack’s yellow eyes glimmered in amusement. “Hito’s so forgetful, isn’t he, Will?”
Will dropped his eyes to the floor, like a toddler struggling not to cry. “It’s like he’s forgotten everyone he met in the Labyrinth.”
“Stop messing with us!” Hito shouted. “I’ve met no one except Ren, Tama and you two! There’s no way I killed anyone!”
Jack stepped slowly to the side. Opposite him, Will did the same, and the two circled Hito and Ren as they spoke.
“Those worthless fools who follow us into the wilderness, the obscure paths where none should walk… Death is too good for them.”
“Killing them wouldn’t be fair! That’s why we bring them here. We give them a chance to escape by playing our game!”
“But the idiots never make it. Instead, they meander these corridors, helpless against its illusions. The powers of the Labyrinth mess with their minds, physical sensations, their perceptions of time. They crawl like cockroaches for countless years, thinking it’s only a few days.”
“Every one of them forgets themselves, slowly losing all memory of who they used to be. They go completely mad, giving in to their most beast-like urges. They transform, body and mind, into monsters.”
The blood drained from Hito’s face, and he staggered backwards in disbelief. “You mean … all those monsters were actually people?” He thought of the gashadokuro, how he had ripped out its heart with his own hand. Of the funayūrei and doppelgangers Ren had struck down with her magic. Could it be true? Had every one of them once been human?
“So what?” Ren grumbled. “Those things might have been people once, but they aren’t anymore. Why should we feel guilty, when you’re the ones who brought them here in the first place?”
“That’s cold,” said Will. “I would think you, of all people, would care more about the souls of the lost.”
Ren’s eyes narrowed. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Simultaneously, Jack and Will transformed into their flames and began to drift in a circle. Hito and Ren stood back to back, their eyes tracking the two Wisps as they went around and around, faster and faster.
“That’s enough talking,” Will said. “There’s no use in explaining everything to people like them, Jack.”
“We’re done playing, Will. Let’s drive home how hopeless their situation is.”
With the hypnotic motion of the Wisps, Hito’s whole world began to spin, as if the two flames were completely still and the rest of the room was moving. Dizziness sank into his mind, and he wobbled on his feet, trying to keep his balance. The Wisps darted in front of his vision, streaking through the air to form a single colored stripe. Green, orange, green, orange … He lost sight of each of them, only aware of the blur of color. The room outside their little circle seemed to disappear.
“Let’s make them pay, Will.”
“Let’s make them pay for crossing us, Jack.”
“Let’s make Hito pay.”
“Let’s make Hito pay.”
Why me? he wondered. Ren did as much damage as I did!
His head heavy with the spinning, Hito fell to his knees. He shook his head vigorously, trying to regain his senses. But even with his eyes closed, he could see the storm of the Wisps circling, burned into his retinas.
“No,” he moaned. “Stop … I can’t—” With a burst of pain, his skull thunked against the ground as his arms gave out. Ren followed suit, her eyes fluttering as she collapsed to the floor.
All the while, Jack and Will giggled, their laughter mingling to sound like a single person.
Out of the blur of light, one of the Wisps darted toward him. A feeling that was nothing more than a rustling of wind whipped through his clothes.
At last, the spinning stopped, and the dizzying light faded. Jack and Will stepped forward together, their eyes glittering. And there in Jack’s hand, shining in the light, was the flame compass.
Hito and Ren lay motionless, too weak to even try to get up. “G-give that back!” Hito moaned.
“Oh, you want it?” Jack sneered. He dropped the compass in front of Hito, and it bounced once before clattering to a rest. Then he raised his foot, his yellow eyes like flickering candle flames above his gleeful smile.
“No, don’t!” Hito cried.
But Jack grinned wider, then stomped down and smashed the compass beneath his foot.
The compass shattered with a boom and a bright shower of purple sparks, like a firework exploding in the sky. Hito watched the embers float through the air before dissipating into nothingness, along with any hope he had of escaping. A deep emptiness opened in side of him, like a black hole sucking his heart and all of his feelings into the darkness.
“Aww, look at how sad he is,” said Will, the sympathy in his voice incredibly shallow.
“Enough to make you cry,” Jack snorted.
As if on cue, tears streaked down Hito’s cheeks. What Jack had smashed underfoot was more than just an object. It was his hope, his escape, his family. The only shred of optimism Hito had left. Was this his fate? To die in obscurity, tucked deep in Labyrinth’s depths where no one would ever find him? “I want to go home,” he whimpered. “I miss my father. I miss my siblings. All I want is to be with my family again.”
Jack and Will froze. They said nothing, but made no movement to attack. Hito drew in a deep breath, struggling to stop the tears. Could it be that he was actually getting through to them?
“Please,” he said. “Let us go home to our families.”
Jack and Will exchanged a glance. Will’s face held uncertainty, Jack’s disgust.
“You said if we found you, you’d set us free,” Ren said.
Will sighed. “We did say that, didn’t we, Jack?”
“It’s true,” Jack admitted. “We let ourselves be found, but we’re still right here in front of them.”
“It would be awful for us to lie about something so important,” Will said.
Hito managed to rise to his knees. Beside him, Ren did the same.
“You mean … you’ll let us go?” Hito asked, his eyes narrowed distrustfully.
Jack grunted. “That’s the only way you could see your precious family, right?”
Ren climbed to her feet and stood unsteadily in front of the Wisps. “I don’t get it. Why the change of heart?”
Will’s eyes drifted to a corner, and he hugged himself. “Maybe what he said got to us. We were part of a family too, once.”
“That’s right,” Hito said, remembering what Will had said in the overgrown temple. “You used to be human, didn’t you? Just like all the other monsters.”
“Shut up,” Jack snapped, his face twisting into a scowl so deep it made it hideous. “Don’t bother acting like you know how we feel. We said we’ll let you out, and that should be good enough for you.”
Jack and Will reverted to their flames. Together, they drew a vertical circle in the air, leaving a trail of colored light in their wake. Inside this circle, a shimmering light appeared, rippling like water within the shining border. Whatever it was, it hovered in place like a mirror in mid-air.
“You can use this portal to escape,” Will explained as he bobbed in place on one side of the mirror. “All you do is give it a destination, then walk through.”
“A destination?” Ren repeated.
Jack’s gravelly voice rose out of his orange flame. “You have to tell it where to take you. You could even think it if you wanted to.”
Hito gazed into the portal as it rippled like the surface of a pond. He glanced at Ren, and she nodded. The answer was obvious, wasn’t it?
“Home,” he said to the portal. “I want to go home.”
As soon as he said it, the portal’s watery face changed color, from blue to black, like dusk falling over a pond. Had it worked? There was only one way to be sure.
Once more, Hito glanced uncertainly at Ren. If the portal was set to take him home, it would lead to Japan. But what about Ren? If he left her here, could he trust Jack and Will to let her escape, too? He could live his whole life, always wondering whether she had made it out safely, or if he had left her to give into despair, confusion and madness.
“Ren, I …”
“It’s okay,” she said. “I’m coming with you. As long as we get out of the Labyrinth, I can hop a plane home or something.” She stepped forward and clasped his hand, and he could feel the heat of blush rising in his cheeks.
“Ugh,” Jack said. “Get it over with, before we change our minds!”
“Goodbye, Hito,” said Will. “I’ll miss you.”
With Tama floating between them, Hito and Ren stepped through the portal, the shimmering black light enveloping their bodies. Hito closed his eyes, as if to keep from being blinded. The bubbling of the lava and heat of the room abruptly vanished, and they emerged into someplace dark and cold, with nothing beneath their feet.
With a sharp cry, Hito fell, clinging to Ren’s hand as if it would save him somehow. His body thudded against a cold stone floor, sending a jolt of pain through him. He couldn’t see a thing.
“Ren! Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” she said with a wince.
High above them, Jack and Will’s giggles echoed, the two voices mingling to form a cacophony of sinister glee.
“They fell for it, Jack! I can’t believe how gullible they are.”
“Did they really think we’d send them home? These idiots deserve every bit of the suffering in store for them.”
Ren growled. “You lied to us!”
“Of course they did,” Tama said, his purple light glowing faintly in the darkness. “They’re creatures of deception. It doesn’t take a genius to figure them out.”
“He’s right,” Will said, his voice heavy. “Like I said before. It’s in our natures. We can’t help it.”
“Besides,” Jack said. “Our master would punish us severely if we let you escape.”
Their master? Hito wondered. Who could be powerful enough that even Jack and Will answered to him?
“You can’t do this!” Ren shouted. “Let us out, or I’ll make you regret it!”
“Look how mad she is, Will!”
“It’s scary, Jack.”
“Don’t be afraid. She has no real power.”
Will giggled. “What use are rocks and wind when you can’t even find your way?”
“You’ll never escape from here. We’ll never let you out.”
“You’ll both wander in the Labyrinth forever …”
“… Until you go mad, like all the others.”
They giggled for what felt like hours, their laughter weaving together as it faded very, very slowly, until Ren, Hito, and Tama were left alone in the silent darkness.