23. Master and Apprentice

From out in the darkness, Hito heard something whoosh through the air, but before he could react it hammered into the side of his head and knocked him to the ground.

“Hito!” Ren cried, and rushed toward him.

“Now, now,” the Lord of the Lost teased. “We can’t have you interfering, can we, my dear?” A curtain of darkness swept in front of Ren, and she skidded to a halt as something took shape within it. “Allow me to offer a gift to entertain you.”

A form condensed out of the darkness, and then its features faded into place. It looked vaguely human, wearing a white porcelain mask marked by hundreds of brutal cracks. “Perhaps you are fond of dolls? I have a rather fine one for you. If you look deep into its eyes, you may find it familiar …”

Scrunching her face up, Ren peered into the tiny, broken holes of the mask’s eyes. Hito could tell by the horror that flooded her face that the Lord of the Lost was right—she did recognize it. “Jake?” she said gingerly. “It’s you, isn’t it?”

The monster flexed its dark arms, and they each split down the middle to form two undulating tentacles. As Ren stared, the creature lashed forward and struck her with its tentacles like whips. She screamed as they tore into her, leaving gashes deep enough to draw blood.

“Ren!” Hito cried. He turned his face up into the void. “Leave her alone!”

“Oh, my dear boy,” the Lord of the Lost said. Hito heard a faint rustle and sensed something moving in the darkness—something huge. “You would do well to forget about the girl. After all, you and I have important business to attend to.”

As if his voice was the incantation of a spell, snowflakes appeared in the air. Instantly, Hito found himself in a fierce blizzard, cold, howling wind driving sheets of snow thicker than he had ever imagined was possible. He spun in place, searching for any landmarks: for Ren, Jack and Will, anything!

Where was he? Still atop the tower? Or had the Lord somehow transported him to a faraway region of the Labyrinth? He stumbled in circles, his mind reeling in confusion even stronger than the cold.

“To think you would dare to defy me! You were one of my most powerful servants, but look at you now. You are naught but a broken toy to me, boy. I should have disposed of you long ago.”

Something shot out of the blizzard. This time Hito tried to dodge, but the thing tore deep into the flesh of his shoulder. He cried out as pain flashed through him and his blood poured out. But he knew he’d gotten off easy; he could have been impaled.

Now he stood in a sandstorm, plodding through burning hot dunes, his feet plunging into the sand with every step. The wind pounded him with heat, and the sand battered his body and scoured his skin. Coughing bitterly, he squinted his eyes. Where am I? Who am I? The questions rose up in his mind, as urgent as the beating sands.

This can’t be real! he told himself. It’s all an illusion he’s created! But even if that were true, did it really matter? To his body and mind, it felt undeniably real.

“Can you feel the confusion creeping in? Settling into your brain, your bones, your deepest being? Give in to the panic, my boy. Let it consume you. Let it supplant all that you are.” The Lord’s incomprehensible attack slammed into Hito’s gut, sending him flying from his feet.

He struck the trunk of a tree, which knocked his breath out of him as he toppled to the earth. Now he sat in a forest, which shimmered under a thick sheet of silvery fog.

Gasping for breath, Hito collapsed onto his side. As exhaustion gripped him, his thoughts grew dim, overwhelmed by panic, confusion, and the more tangible feeling that he’d lost too much blood.

There’s nothing I can do, he realized. This thing, whatever it was, possessed power far greater than Jack and Will. Against the Lord of the Lost, Hito was helpless, a nobody with no family and no purpose. He allowed his eyes to fall closed, secure in the knowledge he would never open them again.

“Hito,” a voice whispered.

Light filtered through his closed eyelids. Wearily, he opened his eyes and found Tama, his purple glow incredibly dim.

“Hito,” Tama said quietly. “You can’t quit now.”

“But there’s nothing I can do,” Hito said. “The Lord of the Lost is too strong. And now, there’s no reason for me to beat him. My family? My home? What a joke. All the memories I had are hundreds of years old, totally empty. I don’t even know who I am now.”

“I won’t let you give up,” Tama said. “You promised you’d never leave me behind again, remember?”

“Again?” Hito repeated.

“We’re closer than friends, Hito. Closer than brothers. We’re two halves of the same whole.”

“I remember …” He closed his eyes, and a vision rose in his mind of his dream beneath the sakura tree. No, not a dream, but a memory.

He recalled the feeling of his rapidly-beating heart, of something deeply wrong inside him. He had reached into his chest, and with an agonizing sense of stretching, yanked something out from inside. But it hadn’t been his heart. Instead, he held the small purple ball of flame that had once represented his entire being—his core of fire, just like Jack and Will’s. Separated from him, the flames had died out, leaving only a small, glowing ball. After staring at it, resting in his palm like a small creature that had died, he had cast it with all his might off into the distance.

“Are you ready to accept me again?” Tama asked now. How had Hito never noticed how similar Tama’s voice was to his own? Something about the dry tone, the world-weary lack of interest, had never struck him as like himself. “Are you ready to reunite?”

“Reunite?”

“You are a Wisp. No matter what else has happened, that is the essence of your being. Throwing me away, denying your true nature … It made you weak. If we’re going to beat our master, we need to do it together. You need to remember who you are and regain your full powers. It’s the only way.”

Groaning with effort, Hito pushed himself into a sitting position. He stared at Tama as if into someone’s eyes, and the spirit’s glow lit up his face. Had separating from Tama been a mistake? Would he have been better off remaining the Lord’s slave?

But then, he would have never met Ren. He thought of her, lost out there in a struggle with her brother, the Lord of the Lost laughing as he tormented her. Without him, Ren would be killed, or banished to the darkest depths of the Labyrinth forever. He had to regain his powers, for Ren if nothing else.

“Let’s do it,” he said. “Let’s reunite.”

Tama’s light brightened. “First, you have to promise me.”

“Promise what?”

“This time, we’ll be together forever. You have to fully accept who you are. Who we are. Promise you won’t ever reject your Wisp powers again.”

The weight of his decision heavy in his mind, Hito swallowed, and a sense of dread gripped his heart. “I promise.”

In a flash, Tama rushed into the center of his chest and burst into flame. Power flooded through him, but it was different from the other times. Before, he had been a vessel, holding Tama and borrowing his strength. But now, he could feel Tama’s essence searing into him, merging with him. The heat of the power was no longer Tama’s, but his own. Knowledge rushed into his mind, and he felt his consciousness change, as if he were becoming someone else.

Purple fire washed over his body, healing his wounds. As he peered into the fog, his mind no longer swam in the deep confusion and despair from before.

“That’s enough!” Hito shouted, casting fire from his hands to either side.

The flames lingered in the air, then grew, spreading fire and light throughout the foggy forest. Holes appeared, through which he could see the sky, a stone floor … It was as if the Lord of the Lost’s illusion were paper, burning away in Hito’s flames. Soon, the entire scene dissipated, leaving him at the top of the tower once again. And—what was that?!

No more than twenty feet away stood a huge black tarantula, its hideous body as tall as a two story building. Each of its eight legs ended in claws like swords. Giant fang-like chelicerae gnashed open and closed, large enough to snap his body in half. It didn’t have eyes, but that made it all the more horrifying when he could sense it staring him down. This creature was the Lord of the Lost, the master of the Labyrinth. Was this its true form, or another illusion?

As it skittered toward Hito, the beast’s sword-legs stabbed into the stone. Staggering backwards, Hito thrust out a hand and shot a stream of fireballs.

To his surprise, the volley tore through one of the legs, singeing a hole in the spider’s “shoulder.” The leg flopped to the ground, and the beast stilted to the side, its pace slowing. But then the fallen limb poofed away in a burst of black smoke and reformed on the spider in an instant.

“You’ve regained your powers?” the Lord of the Lost said, its voice distorted from within its spider body. “Do you honestly think you can reclaim all you’ve lost? You delusional fool.”

The creature froze in place and stared at him with its non-existent eyes. What’s it doing? Hito wondered. But then he began to feel a strange pull within him. It rose from his heart, the flaming core that had once been Tama, and seeped out through the rest of his body like boiling water through cloth. What’s happening?

You forgot all about me, didn’t you? the Lord of the Lost’s voice echoed in his mind. I made you all that you are. I gave you those powers of flame as a gift, the mark of a contract. Did you really think you could use them against me?

Hito knelt on the ground and clasped his hands to his head. Whispering, commanding … The Lord’s voice bombarded him from every corner of his mind. Its influence hammered into his brain, compelling him to obey, smothering his independence until nothing else mattered.

But then, he pictured Ren’s face in his mind. Once again, he remembered the consequences of failure. Through their adventures together, he had become so much stronger, not only through Tama’s powers, but through his friendship with Ren. With her confidence and brash, unflinching nature, Ren would never allow herself to be controlled by something like this.

“No,” Hito said.

What?!

Clenching his teeth and fists, he rose slowly to his feet as he fought to drive the Lord’s influence from his mind. “I won’t do what you want anymore,” he said, staring into what he imagined was the beast’s face. “You have no power over me.” As soon as he said it, the voice in his mind subsided, and he knew it was true.

“You insolent little brat! I’ll tear you apart!” The Lord snarled, and clambered toward him in wrath.

It drew close, rearing up over him and slashing with its sharp legs. Hito shot another burst of fire, incinerating the closest legs and punching a hole in the monster’s head. But there was no cry of pain, only a whispering chuckle as gray energy bubbled out of the wounds like tar and repaired them.

Its distorted chuckle still echoing, the Lord crept away from Hito, toward the center of the tower. Once there, it mounted the pillar supporting the giant arches. Hito’s neck craned, following the beast as it crawled up to the apex where the arches crossed.

He saw what was about to happen a second too late. With a sinister laugh, the Lord of the Lost leaped for him. Hito’s eyes widened as it plummeted, its massive body ready to smash him.

As it fell, he spotted something on the beast’s underside—a wide, bright red, staring eye. That’s it! he thought. He would only have one chance at this before the beast fell on him, flattened him, and tore his remains apart with its claws.

He drew power from every inch of his body, from his consciousness, his entire being. Purple flames washed over him from head to toe, rippling through his clothes and hair but leaving every inch of him unharmed. Staring into the Lord of the Lost’s eye in determination, Hito fired into it with all the power he could muster.

Flame lanced out of his body, thick as a pillar, into the monster’s eye. The Lord of the Lost let out a tremendous shriek, which echoed off the stone, the distant waterfalls, and high into the sky. The fire tore through its body and out its back like a massive spear, and sent it flying in an arc across the roof. The whole world quaked as its body struck the stone. Twitching in agony, the beast flopped onto its back, thrashing its legs in the air.

“You fool!” the Lord screamed. “You wish to leave this Labyrinth?! The world out there holds nothing for you, boy! All you knew is gone, and everyone you loved is dead! I alone gave your worthless life purpose. Go then, you wretch. Go with my most venomous curse!”

Gray light gathered around the spider as it curled its legs up and let out a final scream before exploding in a bright burst of smoke and flame and light. A wave of force struck Hito, and chunks of spider flew through the air before bursting into gray ash. When the smoke cleared, all that remained of the Lord of the Lost was a smear of black soot within a broken crater in the stone.

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