24. Family

Hito stared at the crater, his jaw falling open. He had defeated the Lord of the Lost, the ruler of the Labyrinth—and his own master. Now he remembered how it had been under him: luring lost souls to feed his master’s hunger, ensnaring them in the depths of the Labyrinth as surely as if they were caught in a spider’s web. He remembered how the Lord had taken him hundreds of years ago, luring him beyond the safety of Edo, how he had trained Jack, Will and himself to become his most powerful apprentices.

A tremendous crack of thunder shattered his thoughts, and he whipped his gaze in its direction. At the other end of the roof, Ren stood doubled over in exhaustion, the monster that had once been her brother collapsed in front of her, crackling with electricity. Hito rushed to her side.

“What happened?” he asked.

“I … I fought him,” she said, choking for breath. “I called out to him so many times. I tried to get through to him. But there was nothing I could do. So I fought him … and I beat him.”

“Ren, I’m so sorry.”

Her eyes were dry, but looked like they should have been full of tears. “He’s still in there somewhere. I can see it in his eyes. He’s right here in front of me, but still so far away.”

Hito crouched next to the monster. Its black tentacle arms twitched, but it made no move to attack. Its chest rose slowly up and down as it breathed, emitting a hoarse rasp with every breath. Running one hand over the monster’s cracked porcelain mask, Hito traced the jagged edges with his fingers.

Some people had wandered for hundreds of years within the Labyrinth. They had lost their minds and become monsters, every trace of their identity fading until only madness remained. But Jake had only been lost for a year …

Settling his palm on the mask, Hito closed his eyes and sent power flowing gently into the beast. Once more, he sunk down into the deep pool of consciousness, the undercurrent beneath the Labyrinth. As he fell, he could see fragments of memory, floating bits of light leading him onward.

He caught a glimpse of the boy from his dream—Jake, he realized, but much younger. He walked down a street while holding his little sister’s hand—a tiny Ren, toddling beside him. Further down, Hito spotted Jake as an even younger child, sitting on the bank of a pond and fishing with his father.

More visions floated out there in the dim waters, fragments of identity like broken pictures. Finally, Hito settled down into a tiny forest clearing lit by the faint glow of a campfire, its dying embers glowing dim red in the night.

He sat cross-legged near the fire, and across from him, seated on a log, was Jake.

“Who are you?” asked the older boy quietly, as if afraid of waking a vicious animal in the forest.

“You already know me, don’t you?” Hito said.

Jake looked him over, eyes narrowed. “Yeah,” he said. “You’re the one who brought me here. You’re the one who lured me to the Labyrinth.”

Hito nodded. “That’s right. I called to you in your father’s voice. I led you into the woods. And when you fell into the most mind-bending depths of your confusion, I brought you to the Labyrinth.” He recalled what Will had said. “It’s in my nature.”

“What are you doing here? You got everything you wanted, right? Soon, these embers will die out, and the darkness will take me.”

“It doesn’t have to end like this. If you follow me, I can lead you out of here.”

“Because last time I followed you it worked out so well!” Jake snapped. He hugged himself, shivering in the cold as the embers dimmed. “Go away and leave me alone.”

“I don’t expect you to trust me,” Hito said. “And frankly, it wouldn’t be any of my business. But your sister … She’s become important to me. And I can’t bear to see her suffer. She needs you.”

“Ren?” Jake said. “Ren’s here?”

“If you follow me, I’ll lead you to her.”

Jake eyed him suspiciously for so long the embers dimmed further, leaving his face in shadow. “Alright,” he said. “Lead on.”

Closing his eyes, Hito allowed his physical body to fade, leaving only his core of flickering purple fire. He floated into the dark forest, and Jake followed. It had grown so dark even the trees were gone, and his flame cast only a small field of purple light.

A strong sense of déjà vu struck him; he had led Jake through the woods before, after all. But this time, he would undo that. This time, he would lead Jake home.

Soon, they emerged into the dark pool Hito had come through. As his purple flame floated upward, the fragments of memory grew brighter, more complete. Together, Hito and Jake rushed to the surface and broke through.

Hito found himself kneeling on the tower’s roof, his outstretched hand draped over Jake’s human face. Jake’s eyes popped open, and Hito gasped and tumbled back.

Jolted into a sitting position, Jake gasped for air like a swimmer barely saved from drowning. His eyes darted around in bewilderment, taking everything in.

“Jake!” Ren cried. Wrapping her arms around her brother, she buried her face in his chest and began to sob. “I thought I’d lost you! I thought you were gone, like Dad!”

Dazed, Jake hugged her back. “I’d never leave you behind. You’d get in way too much trouble.”

Ren laughed through her sobs. Withdrawing, she wiped her eyes and tried to recover. “I’m so glad,” she said. “I’m so relieved.” She turned toward Hito. “Thank you, Hito. Thank you so much.”

He couldn’t meet her eyes. He might have saved Jake, but it was his fault for bringing him here in the first place.

“Your hair and eyes,” Ren said, blinking. “They’re purple!”

“Oh? I didn’t even notice.”

She smiled. “Don’t worry. I think it’s neat.”

Laughing nervously, Hito looked away to hide his blush. “It’s nothing special.”

Climbing to their feet, the three of them surveyed the tower’s roof and the spectacle of the waterfalls beyond.

“Now what?” Ren asked. “We still haven’t found a way out of here, have we?”

“Actually,” Hito said, “we could have left here ages ago.”

“Huh?”

“The portals. They were working perfectly. When I told them to take me home, they did exactly that. The Labyrinth was my home.”

“So if I try it, it will work?” Ren asked. “Let’s give it a shot! I don’t know about you, but I’m sick of this place.”

Jake groaned. “I’ve been here more than long enough.”

Extending a finger into the air, Hito drew a circle of light. As soon as his circle was complete, it filled with the shimmering water of a portal.

“Go for it, Ren,” he urged. “Tell it where you want to go.”

She glanced at Hito uncertainly, then back to the portal, as if wondering exactly what to say. Finally, with a firm nod, she spoke. “Take us out of the Labyrinth. Take us home.”

The portal shimmered as an image took form inside it—an alley between tall buildings in a city. To Hito, this place looked huge, overwhelming, and incredibly busy. He had always thought Edo was impressive, but the Edo he knew had long since become a place called Tokyo. Giant cities like Ren’s were now the norm.

“Whoa!” Jake gasped, stepping toward the portal. “Is this thing safe?”

Hito nodded. “It leads outside of here, like Ren said.”

“Why don’t you go first?” Ren said to Jake. “I’ll be right behind you.”

“Are you sure?” he asked uncertainly.

“Yeah! We’ll be there in a second! I have something I want to take care of first.”

“A-alright …” Reluctantly, Jake stepped forward into the portal, and vanished.

Once he was gone, Ren turned to Hito, a strange, forlorn look on her face. She drew close and stared deeply into his eyes.

“So …” Hito mumbled, unable to meet her gaze. “What was it you needed to do?”

Closing her eyes, Ren caught him in a tight embrace. At first, he stood stiffly, but then he curled his own arms around her. He squeezed her tightly, feeling her warmth, and realized how desperately he didn’t want to let her go. His mind drifted back over the blur of centuries since he had become a Wisp, capturing lost souls alongside his brothers. Compared to this moment with Ren, it all seemed so insignificant.

After a time that seemed somehow forever and much too short, Ren withdrew. Once more, her sad blue eyes peered into his own.

“You didn’t think I’d be completely oblivious, did you?” she asked.

His gaze dropped to the floor. “No. But I hoped you would be. Everything would be easier that way.” Deep inside him, a black hole had opened, leaving him hollow.

“I understand,” she said, her voice shaking. “I won’t try to stop you. You’re one of them, after all. You have to go where you belong.”

“I’m sorry,” Hito said, and meant it with every flicker of his burning candle heart.

“Goodbye, Hito,” Ren said with one last glance, then stepped away from him and into the portal. Enveloped in the rippling light, her body glowed for an instant before she disappeared into the world beyond.

“Goodbye,” he whispered after her. He turned away, the glimmering surface of the portal too painful to look at. Gazing out over the tower roof, he took a deep breath.

“They’re gone,” he called. “You can come out, now.”

Jack and Will’s orange and green flames spun up from the edges of the roof in a spiraling dance, then drifted down in front of Hito. Once there, human forms phased in around their flaming cores.

Hito glanced from one to the other of his two brothers, from Jack with his yellow eyes and deep snarl of a grin, to Will’s innocent green eyes and gentle smile.

“You did it!” Jack exclaimed in his gravelly voice. “You beat that nasty old spider and set us free!”

“It’s incredible!” Will shouted, jumping up and down with so much excitement that his grassy cowlick bounced. “I can’t remember the last time I could think for myself!”

“Our master can’t control us anymore,” Hito said. “We’re free to do whatever we like. To live our own lives.”

“Who needs that stuffy old creep?” Jack snickered. “With him out of the way, this whole Labyrinth belongs to us!”

“We’ll keep making new friends,” Will said, his eyes shining. “We’ll bring even more people here to play with.”

“We’ll be the true masters of the Labyrinth,” said Jack and Will together.

“That’s right,” said Hito quietly, his eyes downcast. “With the three of us back together, we’ll … we’ll be even stronger than we were before.” He tried to sound excited for his brothers’ sake, but his heart wasn’t in it.

Jack and Will exchanged a glance, then stepped closer to him. Will placed a hand on his shoulder, and Hito looked wearily back at him.

“You’re going to miss her, aren’t you?”

Hito nodded, his purple eyes growing misty.

“Typical,” Jack snorted. “You spent too much time with that dumb girl.”

“She changed you,” Will said.

“She ruined you,” Jack agreed.

“I’m sorry,” Hito said, wiping his eyes. “But don’t worry. We’ve got centuries ahead of us. I’ll forget her eventually. She’ll be better off without me.” But secretly, he doubted he could ever forget Ren, no matter how many hundreds of years passed.

Jack let out an exaggerated groan. “What a joke! We can’t have crap like that slowing us down. We have to do something about this.”

Will nodded sagely. “There’s only one option.”

“We have to get rid of you,” the two of them said with one voice.

“Wh-what?!” Hito gasped, taking a step backwards.

“Get out of here, you idiot,” said Jack playfully as his human form faded back into the floating orange fire.

“Go on, Hito,” said Will, reverting to his green flame.

“You have to go where you belong.”

Where I belong, he repeated silently. Where was that? He had been human once, but after all these years, could he really go back? Everything he had known was gone now. It was like the Lord of the Lost had said. There was nothing in the world of humans for him. Nothing for him outside the Labyrinth—except her.

Drawing in a deep breath, Hito stood upright and smiled. As he slowly exhaled, he could feel his powers subsiding for now, the purple color draining from his hair and eyes until they faded back to their usual black and brown. “Thanks, guys,” he said. “You’re the greatest.”

“Don’t you dare forget us,” Jack grumbled.

“I’m sure we’ll meet again some day,” Will said.

Hito placed a hand over his chest, sensing the flame still burning within him. He was a Wisp, and he could never change his nature. But he knew with certainty that for now, there was somewhere else he was meant to be.

With Jack and Will floating in the air behind him, Hito stepped through the portal, to where his home and family waited for him.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s