22. The Final Maze

The gray stone of the tower’s outer walls twisted up in a jumble of arrows, maze-like trenches, spiderwebs, trees, tunnels, waves, dunes, and so many other designs it made Hito’s head spin. There were etchings of paved roads and flowing rivers, of winding trails and lost caverns, curling over and into each other as if a sculptor had gone mad and changed his theme hundreds of times. The limb-like protrusions they had seen from afar were things like jutting arrows and diamond and octagonal signs like nothing Hito had ever seen.

“Whoa-ho! Ominous!” Ren exclaimed.

They approached a pair of large, ornate black doors that stood cracked open, then stepped inside.

Within lay a richly furnished lobby of black stone, with four elegant staircases twisting up high above them. An ornate rug covered the floor, depicting a ship at sea in a furious storm.

Big, colorful Tapestries lined the walls. One showed a maze against a backdrop of stars; another a swamp draped in thick fog. Each of them, Hito realized, were different scenes with the same theme—confusion, losing one’s way. As he spotted one of a tiny, indiscernible form standing in this very room, his heart sank.

His eyes tracing the stairs upwards, Hito found a tangle of stairs and platforms, looping around each other, intersecting. Some led to doors in the round walls, while others terminated in dead ends.

“Ugh! I’m so tired of this!” Ren said. “It’s more of the same! More mazes!”

Hito closed his eyes, hearing Tama’s voice whispering inside him. It had been awhile since the little spirit had shown himself, but Hito could understand even without him speaking aloud.

His eyes popped open. “That one,” he said, pointing to one of the staircases. Ren looked at him quizzically, but followed as he led the way.

They passed several doors as the stairs curved along the wall. Hito took the third branch, which stretched up to a platform with three narrow stone planks leading in different directions. Without a word, he balanced along one of the planks, opened a door in the wall, and stepped through.

The door should have opened outside the tower, but Hito wasn’t at all surprised when it led into another cylindrical room, with even more twisting stairs.

“Huh? Wait a second.”

As Hito watched in annoyance, Ren walked back through the door behind them. Her back toward him, she gasped. “Hito!” she shouted.

“Would you stop yelling? I’m right next to …” He trailed off as he realized Ren’s voice wasn’t coming from beside him. Confused, he looked below the platform in the new room, and found Ren peering up at him from several floors below.

It’s the same room! he realized. The door had taken them out through one wall, and in through another, defying the laws of space to loop through the tower.

“This is cool!” Ren said, looking up at him. “Quick, say something! Yell nice and loud.”

“Don’t be so excitable,” Hito said. “Distractions like this only get in the way of our goal.”

Ren snorted. “Killjoy.”

They continued their ascent, choosing countless stairs, entering countless doors. At every turn, Hito led them down what he knew was the correct path, Tama’s voice whispering from inside, not with words, exactly, but a raw sense of meaning Hito could perfectly understand.

Finally, they followed a flight of stairs up through a hole in the ceiling.

They emerged onto the roof of the tower, where a cold wind blew. Covered in ominous clouds, the sky was divided into four by the huge arches overhead.

In the center of the roof, the green and orange flames of Jack and Will spun together in a tight circle. Hito and Ren approached them, braced for an attack.

“Oh, look, Jack!” Will’s gentle voice emerged from the green flame. “He made it!”

“He must have beaten Seine and Loire. Figures. Guess those two weren’t so special after all.”

“I’m here too, you know,” Ren said, irritated.

“Shut up,” Jack grumbled. “You’ve never mattered to us, not one bit!”

Ren’s eyes narrowed.

“Stop wasting our time,” Hito said. “All we want is to get out of here. You have Ren’s brother, don’t you?”

“You know all about that?” Will said. “Guess the assassins delivered the message, after all. Maybe they were good for something.”

“Give my brother back, now!” Ren shouted, her eyes burning.

“And then get us out of here,” Hito said. “Give us back to our families, now!”

Will sighed. Jack growled. Their flames moved a few feet apart, then their human forms materialized, the little fires glowing in place of their hearts.

“He wants to go back,” Will said, looking hurt.

“Back to his family,” Jack snarled. “Doesn’t he remember anything? It’s infuriating!

“Yeah, yeah,” Ren grumbled. “We know. He’s losing his memories, becoming a monster, and all that junk.”

“Once I get out of here,” Hito said, “I’ll get all my memories back. Everything will go back to how it was before.” His gaze drifted away from the Wisps, off into the distance. “I’ll be happy again.”

“You fool,” Jack said, his yellow eyes full of rage. “Don’t you get it? There’s no family for you to go back to!”

“They’re gone!” Will said. “You forgot about them a long time ago.”

“Wh-what?!” He felt dizzy as the blood drained from his head, and he took a few steps back. “What are you talking about?”

“You’d forgotten your old family even before we brought you back to the Labyrinth,” Will said. “This place hasn’t messed with your memory. It’s been so long you simply forgot.”

“Wait,” Ren said, confused. “Back to the Labyrinth? Hito, you’ve been here before?”

Jack’s gaze locked into his own. “You are Hitodama, the Lord of the Violet Flame, who calls in the voices of the dead to lure mourners astray.”

“You’re our brother, Hito,” said Will. “You’re a Wisp, just like us!”

Hito shook his head, staring at them in disbelief. “No!” he cried. “That doesn’t make sense! You’re lying! You always lie!” He scoured his mind, searching for some detail of his former life to prove them wrong, but there was nothing. He turned to Ren for help, but she was staring at him with uncomprehending eyes.

“Our Master took our lost souls hundreds of years ago,” Will explained. “First us three Wisps, then Seine and Loire.”

“We’ve served him ever since, his most powerful and trusted servants.”

“But then you betrayed us, and ruined everything!” said Will, on the verge of tears.

“You rejected master’s power,” Jack said. “You ripped it out of you and threw it away, breaking his control and destroying everything you were.”

“I’ve never seen Jack so furious!”

“And you made Will cry!”

Hito swallowed, looking down at his own body as if seeing it for the first time. “Tore it out of me?” He remembered his dream of ripping his heart out of his chest.

It was true. It was all true. He wasn’t a normal boy at all. He was a Wisp, like Jack and Will.

“Ren,” he implored, stepping toward her. “I didn’t know! I never meant to trick you!”

But she backed away from him, her eyes swimming with countless emotions—confusion, pain, fear. “Hito, I … I don’t—”

“We can never forgive you,” Jack growled, the rage in his eyes brighter than his flame at its brightest.

Tears swam in Will’s eyes. “If we destroy you, maybe it will finally stop hurting.”

“It’s time for you to pay!” they said together, their colored fires flaring up.

Enough!

The voice echoed in the vast sky, as if the air itself were speaking. Low and dangerous, a voice of command and power.

“Master?!” Jack and Will gasped together.

The sky grew darker, as if all the color were fading from the world.

Jack and Will’s eyes darted around them in fear. “Master, please,” Will said. “There’s no need for you to get involved!”

“W-we can handle it!” Jack said, and the tremor in his voice made Hito shiver.

But not as much as the cold, echoing voice, arising out of the growing force of darkness. “You could have crushed him when he was weak, but your emotions, your lingering sense of attachment held you back. No, my servants. Stand aside. I shall deal with him.”

“Yes, Master,” said Jack and Will. They faded into their flame forms and parted, disappearing into the smoky darkness as the last of the light faded, leaving Hito and Ren standing in an empty black void.

Hito’s head reeled from all he had learned. A deep sense of confusion settled into his mind as it raced to keep up, and his voice felt tiny as he called up into the darkness.

“Who are you?”

It laughed in a dry whisper, reverberating as if it were the entire world. “When you wander through the forest, hopeless and suffering to the elements, I am there, whispering deception in your ears. When you stagger through the swamp, sinking in the mire, I am there, singing of despair. For thousands of years, as countless souls lost their way and fell into madness, I lay beneath it, watching … laughing … feeding.

“I am the obscuring darkness. I am the blinding light. I am the shimmering fog. I am the branching path.

“I am the Lord of the Lost, and it’s time you remembered your place!”

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