17. A Murder of Crows

The portal hadn’t taken them home; that much was clear.

Hito and Ren landed hard on their hands and knees. Beneath them lay red stone, covered in a thin layer of coarse red dust. Hot, dry air grated in Hito’s nose and mouth as he breathed. On each side of them lay steep, rocky cliffs, and far above, a stripe of hazy blue sky. They had arrived in a narrow canyon—and a desert, Hito guessed from the relentless heat.

After climbing to his feet, Hito offered a hand to Ren and helped her up.

“I don’t understand,” he said, craning his neck to gaze up at the gap at the top of the canyon. “Why aren’t the portals taking us where I say?” Even if Jack and Will’s portal had been a trick, shouldn’t his own have obeyed his command? But they were still in the Labyrinth, as lost and trapped as ever.

“The Labyrinth would never let us out so easily.” Ren’s body sagged, as if she couldn’t support her own weight. “No one has ever escaped. Just like Jake, we’ll be trapped here forever.”

“I know it looks hopeless,” Hito admitted. “Since the beginning, the Labyrinth has always pushed us right where it wanted. Even when we choose our own path, it never seems to matter. But what choice do we have? Sit here and wait for the monsters to find us? We might not have any leads, but we have to do something to escape!”

“Escape to what?” Ren snapped. “You don’t even remember what’s waiting for you. And as for me … Dad’s gone. Jake’s gone. And mom … she’s so broken up I don’t know how to help her. I don’t know if I can help her.”

Hito dropped his eyes. Jack and Will had ruined so many lives, even beyond Ren and himself. How many people had they abducted? How many families had they destroyed? It couldn’t go unchallenged.

Someone had to stop them.

“I’ll find him,” Hito said, looking into Ren’s eyes.

“Huh?”

“Your brother. I’ll find him. And I’ll find a way to reverse whatever the Labyrinth did to him so the two of you can go home together.”

He saw the instant the spark of hope reignited in the depths of her eyes. “But how? We don’t even know where he is. We can’t find our own way out, much less find someone else!”

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “You’re not leaving without Jake. I promise.”

She smirked. “What do you suppose the odds are he’s right down this path?”

“There’s no way to be sure unless we try.”

“That’s right!” she shouted, pumping her fist in the air. “Together, you and I can take anything this dumb Labyrinth can throw at us! Monsters? Assassins? Wisps? They’re no match for the awesomeness that is the Ren-Hito team!”

That was quick, Hito thought, but he wasn’t complaining.

Together, they walked down the narrow corridor within the canyon. Draped in shade from the high cliffs, their path nonetheless felt like the inside of an oven. Hito stripped off his heavy haori jacket and tossed it over his shoulder, wiping sweat from his face. Ren panted loudly, hunched over as she walked.

“This is awful!” she said. “We’ll end up like those guys in the movies, wandering through the desert until we die of thirst!”

“Water would be nice,” Hito agreed. Now that he thought about it, they hadn’t eaten or drank anything since entering the Labyrinth. He felt no thirst even now, only a recognition that water would make him feel better.

Soon, they emerged from the canyon into a much wider space. The ground dropped down to cliffs in all directions, and a blinding yellow sun blazed. Canyons snaked below them, and mountain peaks spiked up in the distance, a jagged heap of broken terrain.

Ren’s expression of disappointment mirrored his own. Mountains stretched as far as his eyes could see. Even if they could find a path forward without falling and breaking their necks, it could take them days, even weeks to work their way out of this place.

“Any big ideas?” Ren asked, crestfallen. “Can’t we do anything other than keep walking?”

“What difference does it make?” said Tama. “Without that compass, every minute you’ve spent in the Labyrinth has been like these mountains, walking hopelessly from nowhere to nowhere. This place is more direct about it than the others.”

“I could make another portal,” Hito suggested. “Maybe it would work this time?”

Ren shook her head. “Something’s fishy with the portals. It’s like they’re taking us to random places in the Labyrinth.”

“Maybe I’m bad at controlling them.” Was there something wrong with the way he set the destination? Jack said you only had to say it in your head. Maybe the place he thought and the place he said aloud were different somehow?

“Either way,” Tama said, “there’s no harm in rolling the dice again. You might at least land some place cooler.”

Hito considered, then slipped his jacket back on to prepare. “Okay, let’s give this another—”

Before he could finish, a cry pierced the air: the call of some kind of bird. It sounds filthy, Hito thought, a shiver of revulsion shaking through him. He cast his eyes around, scanning for the source.

Another cry rang out, then several more, combining into a jarring cacophony of vicious, bird-like screams.

A storm of black feathers surged up from below the cliffs, surrounding them like a curtain of darkness. At first, the darting forms within it moved so quickly Hito couldn’t identify them, but then he picked out giant black birds the size of men. Large, hooked beaks protruded beneath beady black eyes full of murder. They swarmed overhead in a dome, the thick beat of their wings and their wild caws like howling wind and thunder.

“What do they want?” Hito shouted over the noise.

“I dunno,” Ren said, a grin in her voice. “But I wanna beat them up!”

Four black-feathered monsters dove toward them from out of the swarm. No, Hito realized, spotting human legs and arms—not birds, but strange bird-man hybrids. Recognition flooded his mind.

Tama plunged into Hito’s chest, and Hito fired a burst of energy bombs toward the attackers. From behind him, Ren hurled chunks of rock.

The bird men’s beady eyes bulged open, and they floundered in the air, their wings fluttering as they dodged.

“Caw!” shouted one of them in a crow’s voice. “Trespassers! Caw!”

“They can talk?” Ren said. “Neat!”

“Trespassers! Caw! Trespassers must pay! Caw! Trespassers must die!”

Ren whistled. “Harsh!”

“They’re bird demons called tengu,” Hito explained, recalling the many stories he’d heard, the wood block prints he had seen.

Five more of the creatures dove in on them. Ren swiped her hands through the air and cast transparent scythes of wind toward the tengu. The monsters darted to the side, but trembled in the blades’ wake. As Hito rapid-fired his purple shots to scatter the attackers, one evaded and shot for him like a bullet, its black eyes gleaming with victory.

Hito’s body reacted automatically in spite of his fear. He lifted his hand, gloved in purple power, and backhanded the tengu in the face as it reached him. Its neck rocked to the side, then it careened off course and scraped into the ground. Letting out one final squawk, the monster fell limp.

“It’s a good thing we got the stupid ones,” he said, withdrawing his glowing hand with a flash. Some stories told of tengu with terrifying power and intelligence, and he shuddered to think of meeting one of them.

Another tengu drew forward from the crowd, its dark wings beating slowly as it hovered a few feet above the ground. Its human hands were stretched in front of it, something glowing brightly above its palms—a golden feather, shining in contrast to the tengu’s gnarled, grubby hands. It was about two feet long, like the feather of an eagle. A series of dark bands striped its top. Hito stared, transfixed, as the tengu approached.

“It’s beautiful!” Ren said. “We should probably blast it.”

“What?!”

“It’s obviously a trick. Here, let me chop it up.” Before Hito could object, Ren carved a blade from the air and slung it toward the tengu. He winced, bracing himself for the creature to be sliced clean in half. But the tengu’s black eyes glittered with glee, and even though its rigid beak was incapable of it, Hito sensed it grinning.

Before Ren’s blade reached it, the feather’s gold light flared up, and it exploded into a pounding, furious gale. With the force of a cannonball, wind hammered into Hito and flung him through the air. As he struggled to orient himself, he could feel the wind blowing not into him, but through him, as if his body were full of holes.

That’s when he realized the purple light had dimmed from his hands. The sense of strength and power, the sharp reflexes and intuitive motion, all gone. Panicking, he squinted into the wind and spotted Tama as a tiny, dim spark blowing away into the distance.

Helpless without his powers, Hito crashed into the ground. He heard a sickening snap—but he didn’t need to hear it, because he felt it. Pain seeped in, burning like red embers buried deep in his broken leg. He began to scream. The world seemed very far away.

The shadowy forms of the crow tengu dove in on him. Cawing jubilantly, they seized him with their strong hands.

“Trespasser! Caw! Trespasser will pay! Trespasser will die! Caw!”

His broken leg jostled over the rough stone as the creatures lifted him. Wings beat in a storm, and the monsters took flight, carrying him high into the air. Jagged crags and peaks of the red mountains fell away below him. The pain settling into his stomach, Hito struggled to keep from puking as he spotted Ren’s body, lying all alone on the plateau.

Why were they taking him, but leaving Ren? Could she be … dead? Fighting back tears, he looked away and closed his eyes.

What about Tama? Would he be alright? All this time, Hito had believed Tama was insubstantial, impervious to all damage. How had the wind blown him away? Hito had grown so used to the little spirit’s presence that he felt empty without him.

His eyes ached in the blazing light of the sun. Ahead of them, he caught sight of a tall mountain peak, the highest of all the mountains, capped by a wide plateau. Four wooden lookout towers formed a square around a taller tower in the center, and cone-shaped straw tents dotted the encampment. Swooping down to the plateau, the tengu dropped him ten feet to the hard ground.

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