14. Ice and Ash

Hito sat shivering on the cold stone. Tama was right. They should have seen this coming. Jack and Will had deceived them from the moment they met. How had he been stupid enough to believe they would set him free?

Now they were more lost than ever, trapped in the darkness without even enough light to see a path forward. Even the flame compass, which had guided them since the beginning, was destroyed.

He heard sniffling from beside him as Ren began to cry. “It isn’t fair! What did we do to deserve this? Why are they doing this?”

Her tears tugged at his heart. “I’m sorry, Ren. It’s my fault for trusting them. For being too weak to fight them.”

“It’s not your fault. There’s no way for us to beat them when they fight together. We’re nothing but toys to them.”

Ren had always been the strong one. Cutting monsters apart, crushing walls, pounding down their foes with a smile on her face. How far had they fallen for even Ren to lose hope?

“Please don’t cry.” He reached gingerly for her in the darkness and curled his arm around her shoulders. The heat of his blush warmed his skin a little in spite of the frigid air. “It’s going to be okay. I don’t know how yet, but we’ll find a way out of here. We’ll figure everything out together.” To his own ears, it sounded like a lie, but he tried to believe it for Ren’s sake.

He couldn’t see her face. Was she angry? Disgusted? But then he felt her arm reach around his back.

“Thanks, Hito,” she said. “You’re the best.”

They sat for several minutes, with Tama floating nearby in silent judgment. Staying in the dark wasn’t so bad, after all. Here he could be with Ren, tucked away in this safe space away from all the monsters and horrors of the Labyrinth. But as soon as they began their journey again, anything could happen.

“It’s cold,” Ren said.

“Yeah.” Reluctantly, he pulled his arms back into his long sleeves and hugged himself. “We’d better get going.”

Tama’s voice drifted away from them as he led the way forward. “It’s times like these I feel lucky I lack such a worthless distraction as a body. It may be tiresome to be trapped as a ball of light. But when you think about it, is being human so different? You’re wrapped in blood and flesh instead of light, but for all the good it’s done you two, does it really matter?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Ren said. “Stop waxing philosophical and help us find a way out of here, you dumb ball.”

He drifted in one direction until his light illuminated a section of stone wall. As Hito and Ren drew close, he could see her cast purple in Tama’s glow, her breath steaming in the chilly air.

“I guess we follow the wall until we get somewhere,” he said.

Tama bobbed as a nod, then continued gliding along the wall. After only a few seconds, they reached a corner, and turned to move along the adjoining wall. A minute later, they turned along another wall, then again, mapping out a small, square room about ten feet in length—and completely enclosed, like a prison cell.

“We’re trapped?” Ren asked. “Is this really all there is?”

“But that doesn’t make sense!” Hito said. “Jack said we’d ‘wander until we go mad, like all the others’.” He and Ren both rolled their eyes as Jack’s gravelly voice emerged perfect and unwanted from Hito’s mouth. “So shouldn’t we actually be able to wander somewhere? There must be a way out.”

“Let’s look again,” Ren suggested. “Maybe there’s something we missed.”

What was there to miss? They had already made a circuit of the room, and there was nothing to see except the walls enclosing them. Still, it wasn’t like he had any better ideas.

Without much hope, he once more followed Tama along the wall, trailing his fingers absently over the stone. They turned one, two, three corners. Hito shook his head as they approached the final corner, which would turn them right back to where they started.

“Huh?” He felt something soft beneath his trailing fingers, covering them in a fine powder. Without thinking, he lifted his fingers to his nose and sniffed. The tiny particles drifted into his nostrils, tickling intensely.

“Ah-chow!” He sneezed violently from the depths of his lungs.

“Bless you!” Ren said, and Hito looked at her, puzzled. “You say it when someone sneezes!” she explained.

Hito shook the fuzziness away and turned back to the wall. Gingerly, he prodded at the stone with his index finger. Except it wasn’t stone at all. His finger slipped easily into a light, fluffy substance.

“What is it?” Ren asked.

“It’s ash,” he answered, beckoning Tama closer.

Tama floated into Hito’s fist. His light emanated from within, outlining bones, tendons and blood vessels through luminous skin. With a wave of his arm, Hito expelled a wave of force into the wall with a satisfying whoosh. The ash in the wall disintegrated, wafting up into the air in a thick cloud.

Hito and Ren backed away, coughing against the cloud of ash. Whoops, Hito thought. There had to be a better way.

Once the cloud settled, they found a large gap where the ash block had been before. With Tama floating ahead to guide the way, Hito and Ren crawled through the gap and into a new corridor.

Instead of a square room, they stood in a hall so narrow that Tama’s light reached both sides. Hito stretched his arms out, and his fingers barely made contact with each of the two walls. After awhile, the hallway made a sharp right.

“I think I see where this is going,” Hito said.

Sure enough, after a few minutes, they turned three more times until they arrived back where they started. “It forms a square around the center room,” Hito explained.

“Oh, I get it!” Ren said. “There’s another fake wall somewhere.”

“Yeah. If we keep our hands on the outer wall, there should be a way through.”

“If we don’t freeze to death first,” Ren added.

They began another circuit of the hall, this time probing the wall to their left for soft ash.

“Oh! Here it is!” Ren cried, crouching next to a crumbling section of ash wall. She drew back her hands, and he could see from her stance she was gathering power.

“Whoa, whoa, wait a second! Last time, I blew that stuff everywhere!”

“I know!” Ren said. “And it was awesome! You had your turn, so now let me have some fun!”

As he looked at her excited, purple-tinted face, he realized he couldn’t tell her no. “Fine. I’ll stay over here.”

Grinning, Ren thrust her hands forward and released a burst of air into the ash. Even though he had retreated, the cloud wafted back over Hito. He coughed bitterly as he breathed some of it in. Ren sat in the thick of it, choking. What did she think would happen?

In the next hallway, they didn’t waste their time making a full circuit. Searching the walls, they quickly found another section of ash wall. Hito held his breath and kicked it apart, wincing at the thought of it staining his clothes.

As they continued onward, they shivered constantly in the cold. Ren slipped once and nearly fell to the floor, and they realized a thin sheet of ice covered the tiles. Still, they made progress through the darkness, breaking through a dozen ash walls in increasingly large hallways.

Hito crawled through one last hidden tunnel, and the sound of running water reached his ears. Light filtered in from somewhere ahead, and even the air felt warmer.

“Ren, look!” he said. “We’re almost out!”

She followed behind him as he climbed a set of stone stairs, with a narrow channel of water flowing beside it. Tama drew back beside him, and Hito squinted ahead as he approached what seemed like impossibly bright light. The air carried a sweet, familiar scent. Where had he smelled something like it before? …

All at once, he found himself enveloped in the light. His eyes seared as they adjusted, and when he saw what lay around them he caught his breath, not in fear, but delight.

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