With Kumataka gone, Ren trotted up beside Hito. “Wow! What cooked his chicken?”
“I … I don’t know.” Kumataka’s eyes had held fear as he recovered from Hito’s fire, but there had been something more there, something difficult to pin down. Regret? Because he lost? No, that wasn’t quite right. The daitengu had been utterly mortified—but why?
“You keep getting stronger,” Ren said. “That fire storm was amazing!”
Hito blushed. “It was nothing special.”
“Nothing special? You blasted that jerk right out of the sky! It was awesome!”
“I’m still learning, really,” he mumbled, scratching in his hair absently as he looked off into the distance. He wished she wouldn’t make a big deal out of it.
Ren rolled her eyes. “So what now? We could always stay here if you like.”
Together, they surveyed the broken, burning remains of the tengu camp. “Let’s not.”
Ren sighed and started moving away. “We may as well start climbing, then.”
“Wait,” Hito said.
He took a deep breath, gathering his determination. “What if I try making a portal again?”
“No offense, Hito, but your last one wasn’t exactly a masterpiece. The portals are broken. Not even Jack and Will’s took us where we wanted to go.”
“Maybe we haven’t asked them to take us to the right place.”
“What do you mean?”
“Both times, I told the portals to take us home, but it didn’t work. What if there’s a reason? What if ‘home’ is off limits? Against the rules somehow.” His brow furrowed in thought. “I’m only guessing, but … What if the portals can only take us somewhere inside the Labyrinth?”
“Easy,” Ren said. “Just say to take us to the exit.”
He shook his head. “I’ve been thinking about that. What if the Labyrinth has no exit? Jack and Will didn’t say to find an exit. They said to find them. And there’s more than one type of maze, isn’t there? The goal isn’t always to make it out. Maybe we’ve been aiming for the wrong goal this entire time.”
Ren crossed her arms and tapped her foot. “Out with it already! What are you getting at?”
“We have to break out of the Labyrinth’s plan somehow. To leave the path it wants us to take. We have to go to the last place it expects.”
Hito used his fingers to draw a portal in the air. Soon, the shimmering silver light of its gateway glowed in front of them.
He glanced at Ren, who shrugged, then waved her hand for him to proceed.
“Take us to the center,” Hito said.
The difference was obvious immediately. Before, the portals had shown only blackness when he set a destination. But this time, the water settled into a clear, glowing image of another place. Hito peered into it, picking out gray stone walkways against a black void.
Without another word, the two of them walked into the portal and beyond, to the core of the Labyrinth.
Hito and Ren found themselves in the bottom of a wide, deep pit. Miles away, stone walls rose to an awe-inspiring height, forming a perfect circle like the walls of an ancient amphitheater. A maze of tiny trenches lined their faces—impossibly complex, twisting over every inch of the millions of square feet of stone. Four waterfalls poured down from the top of the walls at regular intervals, and water trickled throughout the maze, causing it to shimmer. Between the waterfalls, two giant stone arches crisscrossed at an apex high above, and a strange tower jutted from the center of the hollow to support them.
They stood on a small platform. A vast maze of stone walkways stretched ahead, each of them only a few feet wide. Between these walkways, absolutely nothing. A giant black pit yawned below, fathomless, perhaps even bottomless.
Hito stared at the tower in the center of the maze. Odd shapes protruded from its black surface like broken limbs. From a distance, it looked like the tower might be made of trash. Hito shuddered; something about the huge, shadowy structure intimidated him.
“Jack and Will,” he said. “They’re waiting for us there.”
Ren shot him a glance. “How could you know that?”
“I don’t know how. I have a strong feeling, like I can sense their presence.”
Ren looked skeptical.
“The Wisps. The way out of this place. Everything we’ve been looking for. All the answers are in the tower. I can feel it.”
“I’ll take your word for it, psychic boy. But if it’s true …” Rolling her eyes, she gestured toward the stone walkways ahead. “Maybe if we’re lucky, we’ll get there in a few days.”
More like weeks. Attempting to trace a path to the tower with his eyes, he quickly gave up. In some ways the tower looked so close, but with this massive maze of narrow ledges between them, they could lose their minds and become monsters well before they reached it.
“No,” Hito decided.
“No. I’ve had enough of playing by the Labyrinth’s rules. Wasn’t the whole point of the portal to escape its tricks? If we follow this maze, we’ll fall back into the same meaningless wandering as before.”
“What else can we do?”
“Well, um …” Hito felt the old, traitorous blush rising to his cheeks once again.
“Come on, spit it out!”
“You have to let me carry you.”
“Oh come on!” Ren snapped. “Like I’m some stupid princess or something?”
“Tama’s powers give me incredible strength,” Hito said. “I can jump high and far. I can control my falling, float down slowly … I’ve even frozen myself in the air. You can’t use your powers to jump from ledge to ledge, can you? And you can’t make a path because there’s too little stone here.”
She frowned. “I guess, but …”
“It’s the only way,” Hito said. “It’s no big deal. I promise I won’t tell anyone.”
“Fine!” Ren grumbled. “Just get it over with.”
Awkwardly, Hito moved over to Ren and curled his arms around her.
“No, not like that. I’ll slip right out. You gotta go the other way.”
“What other way? Like this?”
“No! The other other way! If I hold on up here, and you put your arm over there …”
“What do you mean?”
“You know, like if you’re carrying a bride across the threshold. Except not at all like that, obviously.”
“What if you put your legs up this way?”
“You can’t be serious.”
“This is hard, okay? Stop fussing and help me!”
After far longer than Hito had hoped, they finally worked things out. He held Ren in his arms, and she held onto his shoulders. Thanks to Tama’s power, she felt nearly weightless, but he peered down into the depths, thinking of what would happen if he lost his grip.
“Ready?” he asked.
“Go for it.”
Hito drew a deep breath, took a running start, and leaped out over the twisting stone pathways and the black chasm. Tama’s power propelled him high into the air, as if he were flying. The walkways blurred beneath him, and dizziness seized his mind, but he landed easily on a ledge ahead. His foot tapped softly against the ground, then he leaped again. Wind rushed around them, whipping through his clothes and hair.
They continued this way for half an hour, the tower ahead looming over them as they approached. With every leap, Hito marked his next target by instinct, then jumped with perfect precision. Any fear he felt subsided quickly, dissolving into the solid confidence of Tama’s power.
He thought back to when he had first entered the Labyrinth, how he had cowered in the face of monsters as prosaic as the Namahage and gashadokuro. He had come so far! And it was all because of Tama. The spirit’s strength was now his own, and he never wanted to be without it.
Almost there! They drew within half a mile of the tower. Up close, its size was awe-inspiring, like the thickest, tallest tree in the center of the world.
In mid-jump, his eyes caught the light of rose red fire, trailing behind three tiny knives like ribbons.
The Rivières had found them.
“Hold on!” he shouted to Ren, and dropped one of the hands supporting her. He thrust it toward the knives, and a dome-shaped barrier of purple energy formed in front of them. The daggers struck it and exploded into deep red flames that licked around Hito’s shield, nearly singeing his skin. As the fire dissipated, Hito darted his eyes around in panic. “Where’s the kite?”
“I got it!” Ren shouted. Clinging to his neck with one arm, she fired a wind blade with the other. It collided with Zephyr as it came whistling in from another direction, and the metal kite careened off-course. Quickly, Hito traced Zephyr’s string and found the two assassins, Seine and Loire, watching from a nearby platform with murderous eyes.
Hito and Ren spun in the air, thrown off-balance. Wincing, Hito tracked the ledge ahead and braced for impact.
This time, they landed hard, fumbling as they fought together for balance, the endless darkness of the pit spinning beneath them.
“You alright?” Hito asked once they righted themselves.
“Yeah,” Ren answered. “Let’s get ’em!”
They sprinted down the narrow path to the larger platform where Seine and Loire waited. The two assassins stared with their identical eyes shining, each wearing the same sadistic smile.