Hito dove and tackled Ren as the knife closed in. Her hair trailed behind her, and the blade sliced through it, scattering the severed locks into the wind.
Thudding to the ground, their bodies sent up a cloud of flower petals as the knife flew past them and plunged into a tree with a meaty thwack.
A boy’s voice floated out from the shadows, cold and disdainful. “This one is sharp, isn’t he, sister?”
Climbing to his feet, Hito made out a dark figure in the trees ahead, a large metal shield held at his side. A second figure appeared beside him, as if it materializing out of the night.
“Yeah!” a girl replied. “He’s quicker than I thought. Too bad .. This could have been so easy!”
“Fine with me,” said the boy as they stepped into view. “I like it when they struggle and squirm.”
Both the strangers had black hair and dark, empty eyes with a sharp glint like light on a blade. Made of sleek colored silk, their shirt and pants were strapped tight to their bodies, his green and hers crimson. His hair drooped over one of his eyes, while hers was drawn back into a tight bun. She carried three tiny knives between the fingers of one hand, while he held his large shield, shaped like a manta ray, at his side.
“Who are you?” Hito asked, watching them with unblinking eyes.
“I am Loire Rivière of the fiery Phlegethon,” said the girl. She raised her left hand, and the knives she held burst into red flames.
“I am Seine Rivière of the breezy Styx,” said the boy. An eerie wind burst into life as he raised his strange weapon—no, not a shield, but a large blade of some kind.
“We are the Rivières …”
“… Spies and assassins in service to the Wisps.”
They’re like shinobi, Hito thought, recalling stories of assassins from his country’s past—cold-blooded killers who could strike and vanish again without a sound.
Ren raised her eyebrows. “Wow! Not only are you carbon copies, but you finish each other’s sentences, too? That’s weird. You’re weird.”
Seine smirked. “Insult us all you like. None of it will matter when Zephyr slices you to pieces.”
“Zephyr?” Hito glanced at the large weapon Seine held, piecing it together. “You gave that thing a name?”
“Zephyr’s very precious to him,” Loire explained with a deceptively warm smile. “I’d be careful about insulting him.”
Loire seemed like the more reasonable one, so Hito turned to her. “You said you’re assassins? But Jack and Will said they wanted to watch us suffer, not kill us!”
“Things have changed,” Seine said, grinning sadistically. “I said we should eliminate you from the beginning, but the Wisps wanted to play with you a little longer. I’m so happy they finally saw things my way.”
“So you kept begging until your masters gave you a treat?” Ren said. “What a good boy!”
Seine’s hungry grin only widened, like that of a vampire.
“What do you mean?” Hito asked. “What’s changed?”
“Something about that ball of light really pissed them off,” Loire answered, pointing at Tama, where he hovered near Hito. “At first they seemed confused. But suddenly that all changed. I think they figured out what it was.”
Hito glanced at Tama.
“Don’t look at me,” his monotonous voice grumbled from the core of the light. “I have no idea what they’re talking about.”
“The compass you had is nothing compared to the power this ball offers,” Seine said. “You’ve grown far too powerful, Hito. So it’s like I said. We have to eliminate you.”
Hito furrowed his brow. Ren was already powerful before she met him. Why were the Wisps and these assassins so focused on him?
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “I don’t want to fight, but if we have to beat you, that’s what we’ll do. I’ll do whatever’s needed to return to my family.”
Seine rolled his eyes. “His family,” he said, his voice dripping with loathing. “The delusion is sickening, isn’t it, Loire?”
She nodded. “If his home and family were so important to him, you’d think he could at least remember them.”
Her words struck Hito like a blow. They knew! But how could they? He hadn’t even told Ren about his memory loss. But these assassins somehow knew, as if they had ripped one of his deepest secrets from the depths of his mind. Panic crackled in his head as he glanced from one to the other, like a tiny animal cornered by predators.
“Hito,” Ren asked, her eyes narrowed in concern. “What are they talking about?”
“You’re wrong!” Hito shouted, clasping his hands into his hair as if to hold his brains in. “I do remember! I lived in Edo. I … I had a dad! And …” What about his mother? His siblings?
“You’re pathetic,” Seine said. “You can’t come up with a single detail, can you? Your family. What they’re like. What you did every day. Who you are.”
The assassins stared in glee. Ren’s expression held accusation. He could feel the pressure of everyone’s eyes on him, crushing him. “Fine, it’s true!” he said. “I can’t remember anything! Except for a few little things, it’s like looking at a blurry old painting. None of it feels like stuff that actually happened to me. I don’t even know what I’m doing!”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Ren asked, exasperated.
“I’m sorry!” he cried. “I know I shouldn’t have kept it a secret. But I didn’t want you to worry, or to think I was a fool. I didn’t want to admit it, even to myself.”
“I could have helped you! This is all the Labyrinth’s fault, and we’re supposed to tackle the Labyrinth together.”
“The Labyrinth’s fault?” he murmured.
“Jack and Will said this would happen, remember? When people stay in the Labyrinth too long, they start to forget. They start to lose themselves. And then …”
The blood drained from Hito’s face. “They turn into monsters,” he said in a hushed tone. Was that what was happening to him? Was losing his memory the first step toward becoming a monster? “But you haven’t had any problems, right? Why’s it only me?”
“What’s so important about families, anyway?” Loire asked with a shrug. “Before coming here, Seine and I led boring, simple lives, like everyone else. But now, we’ve left everything behind and earned our powers of wind and flame. We’ve become more than human. We’ve become special.”
Ren snickered. “Flame power? Yeah, that’s special, alright. We’ve never seen that before.”
Loire’s green eyes glittered. “The Wisps hardly have a monopoly on fire. I bet even your boy could do it if he tried hard enough.”
“Fine, fine! I’m sorry!” Ren said.
Hito shook his head, still reeling from his shock. “All this talk about giving up your past and humanity for power. Can’t you see how wrong that is?”
“What a hypocrite,” said Seine. “Both of you are using the powers of the Labyrinth, just like we are.”
“Give up, Hito,” Loire urged. “Maybe if you beg, the Wisps will make you a special human, like us, and not a common, mindless monster, like …” She smiled sweetly, her eyes drifting to Ren.
Ren snorted. “What are you looking at me for?”
“You really do look like your brother. Before the Labyrinth transformed him, that is.”
Ren’s brother? How could the assassins know about Jake? She couldn’t mean … Horror flooded Hito’s mind as he turned to look at Ren.
She stared at Loire, her mouth slowly opening and closing as she struggled to find her voice. “You’re lying. You’re making up stories to mess with me.”
“Why would we lie,” Seine asked, “when the truth is so much more delicious?”
Ren’s words bubbled up in Hito’s memory. I dreamed my brother was alive, she had said, and here in the Labyrinth. ButJake had been lost in the woods, not captured by—
His thought cut off as he realized the truth. “Ren, they’re right! Jake’s here!”
Her eyes lashed at him, as if he had betrayed her. “But that doesn’t make sense!”
“You said he was lost in the woods, right? Jack and Will must have taken him, just like they did me.”
Her face went pale, and her mouth hung agape. She looked like he had slapped her.
“Aw,” said Loire, “You poor thing. I’d be upset too, if my dear brother turned into a horrible, wild monster.” She stepped toward Ren, who stood staring at the ground in shock.
“Leave her alone!” Hito shouted, but Loire shot him a smile that froze him dead in his tracks.
Loire reached out, placed her fingers beneath Ren’s chin, and lifted her head up until their eyes met. Ren peered back at her, unseeing.
“There’s no reason to suffer any longer,” Loire said. “Just hold still.” She lifted her other hand, knives clasped between her fingers. “I’ll make it all go away.”
Reacting without thinking, Hito summoned Tama into him and fired a wave of purple energy at Loire.
Without a hint of surprise, Loire shot into motion. Too fast! thought Hito, barely able to track her with his eyes. She leaped away from Ren and shot her knives at him like darts.
Hito dashed away, and the daggers whooshed by him and stabbed deep into the stone floor behind him.
Then they exploded.
Crimson fire bloomed bright in the night. Hito screamed as the explosion washed over him and hurled him through the air. His skin burned, his clothes singed, and his body left a trail of smoke behind it. With a harsh jolt of pain, he slammed down to the stone.
I’m hurt, he realized, but not hurt enough. Instead of brutal burns and bruises, he felt only a momentary burst of pain. In spite of what he had felt before, not even his clothes were damaged. Was this all because of Tama’s power?
Springing to his feet, he turned to face Loire, but movement flashed behind him. He had barely begun to turn his head when a massive burst of wind hammered into him with the force of a hurricane, yanking him from his feet and up into the air. That rat! he thought. Seine had sneaked up behind him!
His mind spun as he struggled to catch his bearings. The two assassins looked up at him in expectation, like dogs waiting to catch a scrap of meat.
I won’t let them do this! he thought. I won’t let them hurt Ren!
With an uncanny movement of his mind and body, he used Tama’s power to freeze in the air. Twisting upright, he rained down sparks of energy from his hands. Seine and Loire leaped away, and the energy balls burst into bright flashes of fire as they struck the stone. A moment later, Hito sunk to the ground and landed gently on his feet.
“Don’t you see?” Seine shouted. “Look how strong the powers of the Labyrinth have made you! Like us, you were a nobody before you came here!”
“You’re fighting for a family and life so worthless you can’t even remember them!” Loire cried. “This power is who you really are!”
Within a second, the assassins rushed him from both sides. Hito spun in a quick circle, and his power swirled cherry blossoms into a thick curtain. He leaped backwards, leaving the assassins dazed with petals fluttering in their faces, and shot another volley at each of them.
Purple energy flooding their faces, the assassins stared with wide eyes. The bombs exploded into them, throwing them backwards.
Perfect mirrors of each other, Seine and Loire each performed a back flip, landed on their feet in a crouch, then skidded back a few feet on the ground.
Hito glanced down at his hands incredulously, as if they belonged to someone else. He could control the petals? How had he known he could move in the air, or do any of that stuff? Yet he had known, the knowledge rising from somewhere deep inside him, as if he had used this power his entire life.
Seine swore under his breath, his disgust so thick he sounded about to puke. “You filthy beast! Zephyr will cut you limb from limb!”
“It was beautiful,” said Loire, her eyes shining. “Truly something to be admired. I want to keep you.”
A furious gale whipped up around Seine’s body, blowing his black hair wildly up from his face. He can control the wind! Hito remembered. Seine loosed his grip on his strange weapon, the thing he called Zephyr, and it began to float steadily away from him while he held—its string?
Just before Seine attacked, Hito recognized Zephyr for what it was. The assassin let loose more string, whipped the wind forward, and sent the razor-sharp kite diving toward Hito like an eagle swooping for prey.
Hito’s feet glided a few inches above the ground as he dashed away. But Seine seized Zephyr’s string, diverted his wind, and the kite swerved toward Hito in an arc.
That thing’s gonna keep chasing me unless I take Seine out! As soon as he landed, he dove for the assassin, hoping his foe was occupied with controlling the kite.
But then he saw another blur of movement, and Loire appeared in his path. With a bright smile, she spun her body and kicked him in the gut.
Hito staggered backwards and doubled over. Loire hopped back, and Seine swept in to take her place. Now he held his kite—Zephyr—in his right hand, and slashed it down.. Barely recovering from Loire’s kick in time, Hito leaned backwards, and Zephyr whistled through the air mere inches from his nose.
Seine leaped away, and Loire shot knives at Hito, flames trailing behind them like red ribbons.
How are they doing this? Hito wondered as he dodged. Their movements were eerily coordinated, as if the two were somehow moving with one mind. Was this what it meant to fully give in to the Labyrinth’s power?
The daggers exploded in domes of red, swirling flame. Bright black splotches obscured his vision as he scanned for any sign of the assassins.
Instead, he found Ren. She had fallen to her knees, her unfocused eyes staring down at the stone. Was she imagining how Jake had felt, wandering the Labyrinth in hopeless confusion, surrounded by monsters, as he slowly became one himself?
Hito rushed over to Ren and gripped her shoulders. “Ren, get up! I need your help!”
“What’s the point?” she said. “Even if we beat them, we’ll never make it out of here. We’ll only turn out like Jake did.”
“We’ll find a way!” he insisted. “I know things look grim. But we’ll find some way to break out, even without the flame compass.”
“We can’t,” Ren said. “I’ve done everything I can. It’s hopeless.”
“Please! I can’t beat these two on my own!”
Seine’s malicious voice drifted from the darkness. “You hear that, sister? He knows he can’t beat us.”
“What a waste,” said Loire. “He has so much potential. But now, we have to end things.”
The two faced him from opposite sides, penning him in.
Seine began sweeping his arms repeatedly in front of him. Wind surged into life, blowing the glowing pink petals in its current. As he continued, the force of the wind intensified.
Following the storm of petals with his eyes, Hito realized the wind was curving around him. Surrounding him.
Opposite Seine, Loire began an identical motion. Her red fire flared up, sending tendrils of flame into the gale.
By the time Hito realized what was happening, it was too late. Within the wind, fire blazed fiercely, the roar of flame and whoosh of wind singing a stunning duet of destruction. The fiery tornado enclosed Hito and Ren, trapping them in the eye of the storm with no escape.
And it was shrinking.
Ren’s head rocked back and forth on her limp neck as he shook her. “Snap out of it! We’re gonna die!”
Ren gazed out at the fire as if seeing it for the first time. She climbed to her feet, terror in her eyes as the crimson light flooded her face. “Wh-what do we do?”
“I don’t know!”
Tama’s voice emanated from within Hito’s body. “Watching all this has been the most thrilling of diversions. In the interest of keeping the Hito Show playing a little longer, I’m willing to help you out.”
“Fine!” Ren said. “Could you be less long-winded about it, though? Because fire?”
“Make a portal, Hito,” Tama said.
“A portal? Like Jack and Will’s? But how?”
“You already know how, just like you knew how to fight. If you think too long on it, those squishy bodies of yours will be incinerated.”
To his surprise, he discovered Tama was right—he did know. He extended his index finger and rapidly drew a circle in the air. Along the path of his finger, a trail of light lingered, and when the circle closed, its middle filled with the shimmering, watery surface of a portal.
“Better hurry,” said Tama. “Makes no difference to me, but I imagine little things like your lives are rather important to you two. Tell it where you want to go.”
Hito’s mind raced. The fiery walls drew so close the world glowed with bright red light. His clothing and hair stirred in the wind, and he could feel the heat from the fire. Where did he want to go? There must be some place, but he couldn’t seem to remember.
“Hurry!” Ren shouted.
“Home!” Hito screamed at the portal. “I said take us home!”
He didn’t have time to wait for the water’s color to change. He caught Ren’s wrist and yanked her through with him just as the flames swept in.