“They’re here, sister,” said Seine, “like rabbits running to greet the wolves.”
“They’re here, brother,” said Loire, “with such lovely passion in their eyes.”
“Out of our way!” Hito demanded. “We’re going home!”
Loire shook her head. “You still don’t get it, do you, monster boy? Your old self from Japan? That boring little boy spending his worthless life painting stupid pictures? He’s dead.”
“The more time you spend in the Labyrinth,” Seine said, “the more you rely on its power, the more you forget. And the more special you become. Like us.”
“Doesn’t all that power feel good, Hito?”
He looked down at his fist, faintly glowing with purple energy. They were right, weren’t they? Without Tama, he was nothing. He longed to have the little spirit beside him, to make him feel more confident in telling the assassins off, but Tama remained quiet, locked somewhere inside him.
“Oh, can it!” Ren snapped. “You two can do your creepy shtick as much as you like. We’re still gonna beat you.”
“Our masters hand-picked us because we were strong,” Seine said. “Over hundreds of years, we became more than human, far stronger than you can imagine.
“The Wisps can’t be bothered with trash like you.”
“And that’s why we’ll take you out.”
“We can’t let you …”
“… leave here alive.”
Faster than the eye could see, Seine dashed left, Loire dashed right, and the battle began.
Seine closed in on Hito, Zephyr slashing, but Hito raised a power-coated hand and caught the blade, stopping it dead in the air. Before he could recover, Seine kicked up a burst of wind and sent him staggering backwards. As Hito struggled to regain his balance, Seine kicked him in the stomach, and he collapsed backwards with a grunt.
His body slammed into flesh. “Gah!” Ren cried as they collided and crumpled to the ground together. Loire had bested her, too, it seemed.
Hito and Ren sprung to their feet and stood with their backs to each other. Seine and Loire dashed in a circle around them, their dark forms blurring together as Hito struggled to pick them out. They’re perfectly opposite each other, he realized, circling in perfect unison. How could they synchronize so flawlessly?
“Ren,” he whispered.
“What, Hito? A little busy here!”
“They’re completely coordinated, just like Jack and Will were. It’s like they’re fighting with one mind. Even with two of us, there’s no way we can beat that.”
“Thanks for the morale boost!” Ren snapped.
“But what if we could use this?” he insisted. “What if we could fight like that, too?”
“I don’t know you that well,” Ren said, and he could see her rolling her eyes in his mind. “I assumed it was their ‘twin power.’ A special bond only close siblings have. Creepy-close siblings.”
Listening in amusement, Seine and Loire continued to circle, their disembodied smirks somehow sticking out of the blur of movement.
“What if it’s something about the Labyrinth?” Hito said. “They say it responds to our thoughts. What if there’s some way to connect through it and fight as one?”
Before Ren could answer, Loire rushed in on them, slashing with daggers held between her fingers like claws. Hito and Ren dodged in opposite directions, leaving her attack to slice through the air between them. Hito raised his fists to counterattack, Ren did the same, and—
He cried out as something struck him in the back—Seine, closing in while they were distracted. Pain quaking through his body, Hito tumbled to the ground, and Ren flopped to the stone beside him.
Loire’s attack had been a feint to give Seine an opening. The two assassins had coordinated their plan without a single word.
“This is what I mean!” Hito groaned, struggling to his feet. “We have to fight together! We have to tap into each other’s minds!”
Ren growled in frustration. “But how?”
“The Labyrinth,” Hito said. “There’s some sort of consciousness in it, connecting the people within it. The doppels, the dreams … It’s all part of this collective consciousness, this undercurrent of thought.”
“But how do you know that?”
“Just try it! Reach out with your mind. Focus down into the stone of the Labyrinth below us. Reach through it into the depths, and find me. I’ll be waiting somewhere down there to take your hand.”
“I’ll … I’ll try,” she said, still looking at him like he was crazy. Maybe he was.
Together, Seine and Loire let out a mischievous laugh. Their voices blended into one as they talked in unison. “Try all you want. You’ll fail. You care far too much for your own humanity to tap into the deepest flow of the Labyrinth.”
Hito took a deep breath, struggling to focus in spite of their danger. He tried to will away the huge tower, the abyss, and the circling assassins, to focus entirely on the Labyrinth below him, all around him, on Tama’s power flowing throughout his body, through the roots of his legs and down into the stone, like water seeping into dry, cracked dirt.
He slipped in all too easily, his mind submerging into a vast, dark pool in which his puny consciousness was like a drop of dye. But this cold subterranean lake of thought wasn’t motionless. Countless currents ran through it, churning and ripping every which way. If he wasn’t careful, they would sweep him into the depths, where he would lose himself forever.
Intuitively, he understood that this was the place where all the memories of the lost souls were drawn to. When Jack and Will’s victims forgot themselves and became monsters, their bits of identity went here, until the time when those drops of dye dispersed and assimilated into the whole, gone forever. Were his own memories of his family somewhere in here? He had no time to search for them; he had to find Ren.
The Labyrinth was vast and incomprehensible, and this, for all its terrifying depth, was merely the tiniest glimpse into its nature. Hito should have been horrified, yet he felt a strange comfort, as if he’d been here before. As if he knew this place.
He sought Ren, probing with his mind for something different within the murky water: not scattered fragments of peoples’ thoughts, nor a pocket of something more tangible, the materials dreams or whole regions of the Labyrinth were made of. No, he needed something even more substantial—a whole person.
At last, he found her, a shining star within the darkness. She was much too powerful for the currents to tear her apart in so short a time. But she was also unfocused, lost and adrift. He had to help her.
If this collective jumble of consciousness was a lake, then he was an expert swimmer. He reached out to Ren with his thoughts, shooting forward toward that bright star until he could touch it …
They opened their eyes. It seemed they had been gone for hours, but only a few seconds had passed, the literal blink of an eye. Somehow, they found it not at all surprising when Seine swooped in, slashing at Hito with Zephyr like a sword. Hito could sense Ren’s instinct to turn to help fight him off, but no, they agreed, she should stay on guard.
Cocking back his fist, Hito punched Zephyr to the side, deflecting the blade and striking Seine off-balance. At the same moment, Loire rushed forward from behind him to attack. But this time, they were ready. Ren swept up a cluster of rocks and pummeled the assassin girl, the stones piercing into her with the force of a hail storm.
Taken by surprise, Seine and Loire leaped backwards. Hito smiled. “See, Ren? We can do this!”
“Quiet, I have to focus.” His connection to Ren felt weak. She was sluggish, unpracticed. But maybe he could pull her weight enough for them to get through this.
Side-by-side, Hito and Ren dashed toward Loire, their attack plan unspoken, their movement synchronized.
Surprise flooded Loire’s face as she raised her hands to block. “Wh-what are you—?” Desperately, she shot a handful of daggers at Hito. But his hand shot forward, covered in purple energy. The daggers exploded against his energy shield, their bright flames flashing in Loire’s eyes.
Before the assassin could recover, Ren tore a huge stone from the ground below and hurled it into Loire’s stomach. Her breath whooshing out of her, the assassin collapsed backwards.
A sharp whistle pierced Hito’s ears: Seine’s Zephyr, right on time. Hito flashed to the side, the whole world blurring purple with his rapid movement. As the kite soared by him, he fired a single purple energy bomb, striking it off-course with a metallic clang.
“Got it!” cried Ren. Reacting instantaneously, she marked Zephyr’s trajectory and sent a razor sharp blade of wind into its exposed string. The string severed, freeing Zephyr from its leash and sending it spinning out of Seine’s control.
“Noooo!” Seine shrieked, his cry halfway between a choke and a scream as he dove to save Zephyr. But it was too late. As Seine drew within feet of it, the kite glided to the edge of the platform, curved up for a moment as if hesitating, then dove straight down into the chasm.
Seine collapsed to his knees, staring into the pit and burying his hands in his hair. “No,” he whimpered. “Zephyr, no! You … you can’t!”
Loire had regained her feet. “Seine!” she shouted, rushing to his side. “There’s no time!”
Seine’s grief turned quickly to wrath. Leaping to his feet, he twisted around and charged Hito, boiling lava behind his eyes. “You’ll pay for killing Zephyr!”
“Seine, no!” Loire shouted, and bolted after him.
As the Rivières approached, Hito stood his ground and focused energy in his arms. Once Seine was only a few feet away, with Loire trailing behind him, Hito hammered his power into them as an explosive wave of purple fire.
The assassins screamed and flew backwards from the blow, sparks of fire burning in their clothes. Their bodies tumbled and scraped against the stone, cutting their cries off into wounded grunts. Hito winced as they rolled perilously close to the edge of the cliff, but then they came to rest a few feet away from the drop.
Her eyes alight, Ren rushed toward the fallen assassins and stood braced above them. “You’ve lost,” she said. “Now, don’t force us to do something drastic. We don’t want to hurt you. Well, any more than we already have.”
“No,” Loire groaned, struggling to her hands and knees as if dragging herself out of a pit of tar. “Enough.”
“Please,” Seine moaned as he rose slowly to his knees. “Listen.”
Hito and Ren exchanged a glance. Something had changed in the assassins. Their fierceness had faded, their sadistic smiles and the gleam in their eyes erased, as if Hito had quite literally knocked some sense into them.
“We’re tired,” said Seine.
“So terribly exhausted,” said Loire.
The Rivières rose to their feet and stood side-by-side, their eyes lowered like mourners. “We’ve fought under the Wisps for hundreds of years,” Seine explained. “We gave up everything from our lives before.”
“We don’t even know who we are anymore,” Loire said.
“And this fog in our minds. This compulsion. It’s unbearable.”
“You’re being controlled,” Hito said, remembering Kumataka’s words. “The Wisps are forcing you to do their will.”
“No, said Loire. “Not the Wisps.”
“Something deeper, far more ancient, controlling all of us.”
“A power so great that even now, it’s almost impossible for us to speak to you like this.”
“I get it,” Ren said. “This ‘Master’ Jack and Will were babbling about.”
“Soon we’ll lose ourselves again,” Loire said. “We won’t have any choice but to fight you.”
“Please,” Seine pleaded, looking up at them with wounded, vulnerable eyes. Not killer’s eyes, but those of a hurt little kid. “Save us from this seething hatred.”
“Save us from this terrible blood lust,” Loire begged, her entire body shaking with effort.
“Defeat them, so we can return to who we truly are.”
“We’ll do it,” said Hito without hesitation. “Now get out of here, before you lose control and attack us again.”
With a slow, weary nod, the Rivières conjured a curtain of wind and deep red fire, obscuring them from view. When it dissipated a moment later, they had vanished.
With the assassins gone, Ren and Hito turned toward the massive dark gray tower standing in the core of the Labyrinth like a heart, the arches above it like arteries. Its rough, prickly surface seemed to gleam, even move. A narrow ledge connected this platform to the tower, just wide enough for two people, as if meant exclusively for them.
They looked at each other, their eyes determined and anxious about what lay ahead. Jack and Will? A way home? Answers? Together, they would find out.
Hito and Ren swallowed their fear, linked hands, and walked down the bridge to the tower.