The following contains spoilers for The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya (Including novels 10/11) as well as Umineko no Naku Koro Ni. Both franchises are the properties of Nagaru Tanigawa and Ryukishi07 respectively. This is my first foray into fanfiction, so I hope that you will find my attempt entertaining.
"Kyon… no, this can't be real… this isn't actually happening, is it?"
The scene displayed before us was unimaginable; truly, something dragged from the darkest depths of a nightmare. There was a design painted around the portrait of Beatrice in the entry hall: a 6 pointed star inside a circle. At each point of the star was a body, crucified to the wall with long iron spikes sticking from the hands and legs.
It was Krauss, George, Kyrie, Rudolf, Genji, and an old woman who must have been Kumasawa. Their faces seemed frozen in expressions of pain and anguish. Blood had leaked from their wrists and feet, dripping down over the portrait of Beatrice, giving the witch an even more chilling demeanor.
My stomach suddenly roiled, and my vision swam before my eyes. I couldn't focus properly, and the curtain rod slipped from my grasp. I could barely hear the wails of despair coming from the others nearby, but I was acutely aware of the iron death grip Haruhi currently had on my arm, as she leaned on me for support. It occurred to me I was leaning on her as well.
"Kyon… there's six of them… just like in the riddle. So Koizumi's story was… we're going to die, aren't we?"
"Haruhi, listen. Do you remember that thing I asked you to do earlier? Please, could you try to do it again?"
Could you try to wake up?
It was summer, in the middle of July.
Everything had been relatively normal up until now. After the incident back in April, I promptly resolved my time traveling ninja-gift dilemma, and nothing supernatural has bothered me since. The Sky Canopy Domain had yet to reappear, and I'm pretty sure I'll never have to see that sneering bastard "Fujiwara" again. I've even kept in touch with Sasaki, although mostly just through the occasional text message.
As for the SOS Brigade, we've kept up to the usual activities. There was the flower viewing festival, a few more "mystery hunts", which mostly seemed for nostalgia's sake than anything. And, to my considerable surprise, something actually productive. Haruhi organized and ran her very own SOS Brigade fund raiser, to help out with the Tsunami relief. We did alright, considering we were just five teenagers raising money from a relatively mediocre school.
Still, there is now an undeniable white spot on the record of the SOS Brigade, however tarnished it might be. Do this 100 more times and I might even put it on my resume!
And so, these few months of relative peace and quiet have led into summer break. Thanks to Haruhi's expert tutoring, I was able to score far beyond a passing grade, allowing me to spend my vacation lounging around with the SOS Brigade, instead of studying.
So why did I feel so uneasy?
"Kyon! Stop staring off into space! Just because we're not there yet doesn't mean you get to slack off like that!"
Wouldn't it make more sense that way? Say, if I take a nap now, then I'll have more energy once we actually get there, right?
"That's just the kind of thing I'd expect a slacker like you to say! I thought you'd learned your lesson about working hard and getting good grades! All of that stuff applies to the real world too y'know!"
Sorry, but the only one working hard was you, Haruhi. The only way I could've learned faster was if Nagato downloaded the information directly into my skull. And what real world are we talking about anyways?
"The SOS Brigade! You're still the lowest ranked member, after all. You need to work hard and apply yourself! Don't think one little gift is going to buy you a promotion! Your brigade leader is not so easily bought. You need to learn from Koizumi-kun, considering what he's arranged for us this time! There's a reason he's the vice-commander and you're still a lowly grunt."
Pass! I've said it before and I'll say it again. I have absolutely no desire for my rank in the SOS Brigade to improve, whether by promotion, or just a lateral transfer. And I don't think it's possible for me to be demoted.
Haruhi folded her arms and sniffed, but it was hard to take her seriously. Whatever face she had on now, she was boiling with excitement and anticipation. In a roundabout way, this was Haruhi's way of jumping around in the back seat screaming "Are we there yet! Are we there yet!" Sorry Haruhi, but there's no way I'd perform whatever kind of unholy contract is necessary for a normal human like me to have your boundless energy.
Of course, her reaction is pretty understandable, considering-
"Argh! C'mon Kyon, can't you at least pretend to be excited! I mean, this is the real deal! We're going to a real haunted island! None of that nonsense about spirits haunting dogs, this place has murders, and mysterious deaths out the wazoo! There's a legend about hidden gold that nobody's been able to find! Supposedly witches and demons and spirits have been haunting the place for ages! The locals in the area won't even go near the island because they're too scared! It's perfect! Gyah, Koizumi-kun, how much longer until we get there, I can't take this waiting!"
Man did I call it or what.
If you haven't figured it out already, I suppose I can fill you in. This is the second annual "SOS Brigade Summer Vacation". Unfortunately, this time Koizumi has decided to up the ante. We could've had a nice, warm, comfortable mansion with all the food and games you could ask for, and then a fake murder mystery to keep us entertained. But instead, we're headed off to stay in a tiny cabin on a deserted island, completely cut off from the rest of the world, just because a bunch of people had died mysteriously 25 years ago, and later people made up a bunch of stories on the Internet about it.
Yep. This is the kind of "genuine haunting" you can usually find at cheap, roadside attractions. Hell, I wouldn't be surprised if Koizumi made the whole thing up, maybe even had the Organization leak a bunch of stories to make it seem authentic.
Well, no, probably not. That's a little beyond even him. Maybe. Plus, I think I remember seeing a late night special about the "mystery" a few years back. The only part that caught my interest was the legend of the hidden gold, supposedly worth billions. Now if I could get a hold of that, maybe this 12 hour boat ride would actually be worth it.
What was the island supposed to be called again? Oh yeah, that's right.
"I've got a full house. Got anything to beat it?"
"I'm afraid not. Looks like you win again."
The two of us sat inside the boat, playing poker. It's generally not my game of choice, but board games don't tend to work well on a boat. Just as well we weren't playing for money, either. With the luck he's having, I could probably empty out his wallet entirely, and probably a significant chunk of the organization's budget as well. You'd think someone who keeps an eternal poker face would be a little bit better at the game.
"Kyaaaah! No, I'm gonna fallll!
That pathetic and lovely cry echoed across the deck, making me want to sprint away from the game and steady the feet of our poor, clumsy angel. It seemed like Haruhi was trying to get Asahina-san to pose at the bow of the ship, like in that one American blockbuster.
Nagato was of course, sitting in the corner of the room, reading a book. I could see out of the corner of my eye, that as the boat bobbed, swayed, and a few other synonyms for "moved around", her body and the book shifted constantly to stay level. All in all, you could call this a regular day for the SOS Brigade, if not for the change in scenery. Speaking of which…
"Koizumi. Just what is up with this island anyways?"
"Oh? I didn't think you were interested. Well, I'd be happy to share the whole story with you, but I was planning on sharing the grisly tale of Rokkenjima tonight at the cabin, when everyone can appreciate it. I hope you can wait until then; I'd rather not have to repeat myself.
Cut the crap. You know damn well exactly what I meant. What's really going on here?
With that insufferable grin of his, Koizumi glanced out the cabin door, presumably making sure Haruhi and Asahina-san were still fooling around outside, and out of earshot.
"I'll keep it brief then".
Like hell you will.
"The mystery of Rokkenjima is just that. A mystery. Despite extensive research by both myself and the Organization, there are so many different stories, conflicting accounts, lies, half-truths, and other misleading info to find out what really happened. After all, there was only one survivor, and she kept her mouth shut until she drew her last breath."
That still doesn't tell me what I want to know.
"Don't worry. The island is perfectly safe. It's been thoroughly investigated by the police in the past, as well as visited by numerous occult enthusiasts. As well, the Organization has gone over the island with a fine toothed comb. We shouldn't have to worry about sudden pitfalls, sinkholes, or unexploded landmines."
If they happened to find billions in gold bullion, I don't suppose you could share some of it with me?
"We couldn't even find a single coin. I'm afraid whatever trace is left of the fabled "Ushiromiya gold" has vanished along with the fate of the family itself. It's possible the gold never existed to begin with."
So you're saying that this place is normal, and we're not going to find gold, ghosts, zombies, monsters, or even dragons? How about that slider?
"Well, I can't be completely sure about that. I mean, people did die here after all, and under mysterious circumstances. We may come face to face with a poor and lonely spirit, who only wants the mystery to be solved so it can rest in peace.
Yeah right. If that's the case, than I volunteer you to take care of everything if Haruhi happens to see something like that. Let's try asking someone who actually knows the answer.
With a pause, she looked up from her book to stare at me, considering her answer a moment before replying.
"The island of Rokkenjima has several prominent locations with corrupted data space, evidence of data manipulation being performed on a small scale, and several other anomalies."
Great. So you're saying there is going to be a bunch of crazy weird ghosts waiting for us on the island?
"No. All anomalies are on a miniscule scale compared to the Integrated Data Thought Entity, and none can manifest on the level of anything resembling what you would call a ghost. I won't let anything interfere. "
Well I appreciate that Nagato, but it would be better if we didn't have to rely on you in the first place. If Nagato ends up bedridden or worse because of something as stupid as a field trip, I'll make sure you can't get out of bed either. Couldn't you have picked an island that didn't have data stuff going on?
With an exaggerated shrug of his shoulders and a mock bow, Koizumi plead his case.
"This actually is my fault, I apologize. Suzumiya-san caught me when I was doing preliminary research of the island, before I had checked with Nagato-san. As you can probably guess, she became extremely excited, and there was no option to back out once I found out the truth of the situation."
With a long sigh, I leaned back to stare at the ceiling, poker game forgotten. Both Nagato and Koizumi were positive that everything would be alright. However, the inexplicable feeling about this trip I'd had since this morning was now evolving into full blown dread, despite their reassurances. I'm reminded of that feeling when you watch a scary movie late at night, and it's difficult to get to sleep after. Not because the movie itself was particularly scary, but because you know your own nightmares have just gotten a bunch of new ideas and plan to incorporate them all into a terrifying experience individually crafted for your own psyche.
"Hey, you better not be spoiling everything in here!"
With a loud crash, Haruhi threw open the door to the cabin, dragging Asahina-san in tow. Wearing a smile that could power an EVA for an entire hour, she took a deep breath before loudly proclaiming-
You've been waiting to say that this entire trip, haven't you? Besides, there's no need to shout, we're indoors. Shouldn't a proclamation like that be delivered from a crow's nest anyways?
"It's not like this boat has a mast and sails Kyon! Although that would be totally awesome! Hey Koizumi-kun, do you think you could get us a ride on an antique warship sometime?"
He visibly blanched at that, and I swore I could almost see the sweat rolling down the back of his neck.
"Ah, well, Suzumiya-san. I'll be sure to look into it, but I don't think there are many ships like that in sailing condition. Even then, it might be a little out of our price range."
The budget of the SOS Brigade (Really the literature club), or the Organization's budget? Don't do it, next thing you know we'll be hijacking ocean liners with old cannons, and dying of scurvy. The last thing we need is a standoff between the SOS Brigade and the American Navy. Especially since I'm not sure who would win.
"Never mind all that! C'mon Kyon, there's already a great view of the island!
I immediately thought of quite a few smartass replies, and just as quickly discarded all of them. I'd end up going to look no matter what I did, and this really wasn't worth dragging my heels over. To her credit, Haruhi didn't drag me out of my chair, and instead waited impatiently for me to get up myself, put the chair away, and give the rest of the cards to Koizumi so he could clean up.
My first impression of Rokkenjima was a little underwhelming.
Even though we were already pretty close, the island was little more than a green blob. Maybe 5 miles across, it was overgrown in every sense of the world. It seems like we'd be more likely to find a holdout who doesn't know the war is over, than anything supernatural.
Maybe I'm getting worked up over nothing. I didn't sense anything ominous or unnatural about the island once I saw it. Even the clouds in the distance looked fairly weak, and at worst would give us a light shower, rather than a thunderous typhoon. Not that I would rule out another closed circle just yet.
"Wow, it's so big…. But where are we going to be staying? It doesn't look like there's a mansion there at all…"
The lovely Asahina-san was at my side near the rail, questioning the nature of the trip. Looks like she's been left in the dark again. Oh well. Haruhi, meanwhile, was leaning so far over the rail it looked like she was about to fall off, as if stretching her arms and torso out would make us reach the island faster.
"Don't be silly Mikuru-chan. The mansion isn't there anymore, remember? Apparently there's a one room cabin right near where we can land, that's where we'll be staying! It was built for use of travelers like us!"
Who actually travels here enough that building a cabin would be anything other than a waste of time? Wait, did she say one room?
"Aaaah, b-but Suzumiya –san… "
"What's the matter Mikuru-chan? Have you never slept in the same room as a boy before?"
Blushing furiously, Asahina-san made vague protests, denials and whimpering sounds as Haruhi continued to tease her. Having to sleep in the same, cramped cabin as her... Scared to death by all the ghost stories, she sneaks over to my sleeping bag in the middle of the night and—
"Get that perverted look off of your face Kyon! Yuki and I are going to be there too you know, and we'll know if you try anything funny! If I catch you looking like that again, you'll have to carry all our supplies to the cabin by yourself!"
How am I supposed to know what my face looks like?
"Because it reflects your perverted thoughts! Speaking of our supplies, we're almost there; I should go grab the stuff from the cargo-hold!"
With that, she ran off, leaving a bewildered Asahina-san behind. After an uncomfortable few moments, I tried to assure her that I was a perfect gentleman, and I'd keep Koizumi in line too. She stopped blushing, at least. Somewhat.
"So, Asahina-san. Does anything about this island strike you as odd? Any weird time pockets or enemy time travelers here?"
"Wuah? Time pockets? Oh, no, nothing like that at all. I don't know anything about this island… I'd never even heard of it until Suzumiya-san brought up the trip…"
How about your superiors? Maybe the future has already solved the mystery of this place, and we can leave earlier. Of course if they had, I suppose it would be classified, right?"
"Ah, well. I can check for you… Oh? It seems all of the information on Rokkenjima was lost after Classified Information. Ooops. I'm sorry Kyon-kun. There's nothing I can do to help you… Ah! You don't really think the island is haunted, do you?"
Ah well. I'm not really surprised.
I could hear the seagull's cry welcoming us to the island.
When we finally docked the boat in a small inlet of the island, the sun was beginning to set. Seems like the boat trip was as long as I'd thought. Fortunately, the cabin was only a short hike into the woods. Leading the way with machete in hand, Haruhi blazed a trail through a path that had become fairly overgrown since the last time any humans passed through here. Apparently my facial expressions hadn't betrayed me either, as I wasn't forced to carry everything. I was certainly carrying more than everyone else, but that was nothing new.
The cabin was pretty much just how I'd expected it to be. Small, made of logs, with a brick chimney sticking from the roof. There was a small sheet metal shed in the back, and what appeared to be an outhouse a little ways away. Great, no indoor plumbing.
"What are you complaining about, you're a guy! Besides, if this cabin wasn't here, we'd be setting up tents and camping, and then there wouldn't even be an outhouse to complain about!"
Eternally energetic, Haruhi immediately rushed through the cabin door, and began bouncing around the room, looking for places to put everything.
"Just who built a place like this in the middle of nowhere anyways?"
Letting the bags he was carrying fall to the ground, Koizumi leaned in close to whisper.
"Would you believe me if I told you the Organization built it specifically for this trip?"
Didn't we have this discussion before, the one about personal space and you invading it? And to answer your question, no, I wouldn't believe you. If you had said "The organization built this", I just might, but since you're asking it as a question, that means the answer is no."
"Ohohoh. I didn't realize I was getting that predictable. But you're right. The Cabin was originally built in the 80s after the incident, so the investigators had somewhere to stay. However, I had the Organization come in to repair and fix up the place, since it hasn't been used in so long. Speaking of which, I should go start up the generator. "
Well, at least we have electricity. Koizumi made his way back to the shed, and Asahina-san was already inside helping Haruhi set everything up, leaving Nagato and I standing outside.
"Say, there isn't one of those data anomalies or whatever at the cabin, is there?"
"Don't worry. All corrupted data spaces are located elsewhere on the island. Although we will likely run into several when we explore the island tomorrow, I will be there, and will deal with them appropriately."
That's wonderful, but I still think it would better if we didn't have to come to corrupted-data-island to begin with. Was thinking up another mystery really too hard, Koizumi?
"Kyon! Stop standing around like an idiot and help us unpack! You too Yuki!"
"Well everyone, if you're all ready, I'd like to begin."
Koizumi stood up and bowed theatrically, as if he was about to put on a one man play. Hell, I wouldn't be surprised if he really did rehearse all of this. All of us sat in a circle around the small cabin, listening to his every word. Some of us more eagerly than others.
"Thus begins the tale of the island Rokkenjima, and the terrible tragedy that befell the Ushiromiya family during October 5th, 1986".
Geez, what a ham. It was dark out, by now, and those clouds earlier had moved in, bathing the island in a light shower. At least the ambience was right for ghost stories. We even had a fire going in the fireplace, despite it being least 70° out.
"Of course, the story begins long before that, at the Ushiromiya family's rebirth, if you will."
Great, our exposition has exposition. The cabin really was pretty small, by the way. There was a single bed in the corner, a small table, a portable kerosene lamp, and a counter/cabinet combo on the other side of the room, presumably for preparing meals or storing stuff.
"Once a rich and powerful house, the Ushiromiya family was decimated in the great Kanto earthquake of 1923. Fractured, with many house leaders lost, the survivors came together with a plan. They found Kinzo Ushiromiya, a young member of a branch house, barely affiliated with the main members. They figured he would be easy to manipulate and control, as a puppet."
You know, decimate actually means to take 1/10th of something and… Ah, never mind. We were all able to fit our sleeping bags on the floor, although there wasn't much room to spare, especially with the rest of our supplies stacked up in a corner. Beats sleeping in a tent, I guess.
"Of course, they were wrong. Kinzo Ushiromiya turned out to be something of a mad genius. Not only was he able to cause the family's recovery; he manipulated his way into being the family head in earnest, and brought the Ushiromiya family to greater wealth and prosperity than before the earthquake."
Is this a ghost story or a "rags to riches" documentary? Thinking about our sleeping arrangements, I was suddenly struck with a suspicion that one of the five brigade members was bound to be a terrible snorer. Probably Haruhi or Koizumi. Either way, I'll be sure to "accidentally" trip over one of them on my way out to go to the bathroom or get a drink of water. Or maybe I could ask Nagato to keep them quiet.
"The real question is of course, how he pulled it off. They say Kinzo sold his soul in a dark ritual, and through this gained an unfathomable amount of wealth, from the great witch Beatrice. Such stories aren't too uncommon of course, but there's truth in the story as well. An unknown, unsupported man was able to gain great financial backing and investors seemingly out of the blue, and accounts say he showed only a single bar of gold."
Is that all it takes? Get me one bar of gold, and I can just pretend I have 20 tons of it hidden somewhere else. Haruhi was of course, beaming, nodding along with the story like she already knew it all. Asahina-san was listening with devout attention, though looks of confusion kept crossing her face. I'm not actually sure how much she knows about Japanese history. Even Nagato appeared to be listening intently. At the very least, she wasn't reading a book. Maybe she was just being polite.
"Kinzo Ushiromiya, was by all accounts, an strange man. After he obtained his wealth and business success, he purchased this very island, and had his own mansion constructed. It's hard to say why he chose this island in particular. It's possible that his hidden gold was here – after all, 20 tons of gold isn't the easiest thing to transport discreetly. Or maybe, it has to do with the islands history, already well known for its evil spirits and demons, and Kinzo needed a place like this in order to further his studies in black magic."
Just like that, a low rumbling thunder punctuated his final sentence, almost as if he had set it up beforehand. Grinning like an idiot, his story was punctuated with wide and exaggerated gestures, which he pulled off with, I'll admit, pretty good timing. Hey Koizumi, if you like acting so much why don't you join a theater club or something instead? And more importantly, why did you suck so much in our movie?
"Time passed, and Kinzo Ushiromiya became more of a recluse; he began to shut himself inside his study, and became obsessed with the Witch Beatrice, who had given him the gold so many years ago. Perhaps he feared she would come back to take his life as part of the contract. Or perhaps he had fallen madly in love with his mysterious benefactor, and devoted his twilight years towards attempting to contact her again. He even posted a mysterious riddle for all to see in the mansion's entry hall, underneath a great portrait of Beatrice herself. The riddle was proposed to be the location of the hidden gold, or a way to choose the succession of the family head. Or maybe even a dark ritual to allow the return of Beatrice"
What, we don't get to hear the riddle? Ah, forget it; it's probably long and complicated. Hey wait, am I actually paying attention to this?
"This all sets the stage for our tragedy. Now, Kinzo Ushiromiya fathered four children, and each of them had a child of their own. Thus, on October 4th, 1986, the entire family gathered at the mansion to begin the annual family conference, where the adults would discuss business, politics, and unpleasant things like the succession, while the grandchildren would enjoy the time spent on the island, and the chance to visit their cousins. A small number of servants and staff were also on the island that day."
"That was the last anyone ever saw of most of the Ushiromiya family. As the boat captain sailed away after dropping everyone off, the island was engulfed by a typhoon that evening. Two days later, when the storm passed, and people were able to return, all but one member of the Ushiromiya family was dead. Eva Ushiromiya, the second eldest daughter of Kinzo. The mansion was engulfed in a titanic explosion, leaving nobody alive, except for Eva, who survived due to being elsewhere on the island at the time. "
What, that's it? Everyone died in an explosion? So there was a gas leak that got out of control, mystery solved. Or this Eva planted a bomb and ran away. Why bother with all that black magic stuff?
"Eva was of course, questioned mercilessly by the police, but she refused to speak of it, and they were never able to pin any crimes with her. As the new head of the Ushiromiya family, she seemingly had a lot to gain, but her husband and only child died in the explosion as well. However, the story doesn't end there. Several years later, a bottle washed up on the shores of a nearby island, and was discovered by some fisherman. Inside were several pieces of paper that recounted The Legend of the Golden Witch."
A message in a bottle, huh? I didn't think those actually worked. Of course, just because someone writes a message like that doesn't mean they were actually on the island when it happened.
"The writer of the story claimed to be one Maria Ushiromiya, the youngest of the grandchildren there at 9 years old. Her story told of a relatively normal family conference, enjoying the time she spent with her older cousins. This all changed however: Of the 18 people on the island, 6 were found dead the next morning. Their corpses turned up in the shed, brutalized beyond almost all recognition. The bodies were found, because there happened to be an ominous magical circle painted on the door of the shed. The first twilight had begun."
Another perfectly timed clap of thunder. This time, Asahina-san yelped with a cute little "Ahhh!", and started clinging to the closest person to her for comfort, which happened to be me.
I wish. Actually it was Haruhi, who was so focused on the story she didn't even bother to tease her.
At this time, Koizumi walked over to a farther corner of the room, away from the light of the fire. When he turned back around, his face was obscured in just enough shadow to give him a sinister appearance. Lowering his voice, he began to chant something that sounded like an evil summoning spell.
"At the first twilight, you shall lift up as sacrifice the six chosen by the key.
At the second twilight, the surviving shall tear apart the two who are close.
At the third twilight, the surviving shall praise my honorable name on high.
At the fourth twilight, gouge the head and kill.
At the fifth twilight, gouge the chest and kill.
At the sixth twilight, gouge the stomach and kill.
At the seventh twilight, gouge the knee and kill.
At the eighth twilight, gouge the leg and kill.
At the ninth twilight, the Witch shall be revived and none shall be left alive.
At the tenth twilight, the journey shall end and you should reach the village of gold."
Let me guess, this means we fight the end boss, right? Sorry, but I think I need more time to level grind.
"That is just a part of the Witch's Epitaph, and the key to the resurrection of Beatrice. With six people dead already, the survivors were distraught with grief, confused, and unable to deal with the situation. They had lost parents, friends, and lovers alike, seemingly overnight. The killer had gone so far as to brutalize the bodies, and then mark the crime scene with an occult symbol, as if bragging about it. And of course, because of the typhoon, they were unable to contact the police, making it a closed circle in earnest. Not all together unlike our summer vacation last year."
Yeah, but that was all just a trick you set up. I somehow doubt six people can pull off a "we're just pretending to be dead" gambit all at once.
"Several hours later, the Witch's Epitaph had claimed its next set of victims. After retiring to their room to rest and recover from grief, the married couple Eva and Hideyoshi Ushiromiya were found dead in their room, with a strange, demonic looking stake driven through each of their heads. Further confounding this bizarre murder, the room where the bodies were discovered was sealed by a heavy chain at the time, another magic circle marking the room, and no evidence of anyone else being able to enter. Those who were close had been torn apart.
Wait, didn't you say earlier that Eva was the only person who survived? And this is awfully detailed for something written by a 9 year old girl.
"Truly terrified now that there was a serial killer in their midst, and not willing to accept that it could be the work of a witch or demon, the survivors became suspicious and distrustful of each other. Before any real accusations could come to light however, the survivors were assaulted by a terrible stench rising up from the basement. Investigation found the charred body of Kinzo Ushiromiya himself in the boiler, only identifiable by a peculiar birthmark that had survived incineration. As well, his corpse was marked with an identical demonic stake, sticking from his forehead. At the fourth twilight, gouge the head and kill."
At this point, Asahina-san was whimpering softly, her head buried behind Haruhi, barely peeking over her shoulder. How much I wished I could softly cup her hand and tell her that everything would be okay as long as I was here to protect her. Even Haruhi's expression had changed; from her tritium-powered smile saying she knew the story already, to the simple anticipation and fear you get from watching good horror film.
"Right after the gruesome discovery of the former family head, a young servant claimed he heard a noise coming from outside, when all the remaining survivors were gathered in the basement. Bravely, it is said he faced off with and challenged the murderer, but by the time the others arrived, there was already a stake through his lung. Still alive, but in critical condition, he soon passed away, despite the best efforts of the Ushiromiya family doctor. At the fifth twilight, gouge the chest and kill."
Uh, let's see, how many people are dead now? 6 at the first, 2 at the second… 18 people total on the island, so only 8 left. Pretty high body count.
"Determined to survive, the remaining eight holed themselves up in Kinzo's study, a well stocked room with only a single and sturdy door. However, during a heated discussion, a taunting letter from Beatrice herself seemingly appeared out of nowhere on a nearby table. Driven to protect her daughter and nephews, Natsuhi Ushiromiya drove the remaining 3 servants and little Maria out of the study, believing the letter could have only been placed by one of them when her back was turned."
Paranoia and suspicion can cause even more havoc than any murderer, magic or otherwise.
"Not too long after though, they received a call in the study. Apparently while the storm cut off outside communications, the internal ones still worked. The only voice that greeted them from the receiver was that of little Maria's, singing a children's lullaby from a distance, and not responding to anything said. The four rushed downstairs to find her. She was found facing the wall, still singing, while the phone was off the hook nearby. The corpses of the remaining three servants were scattered across the room, with stakes dug into stomach, knee, and leg. At the sixth twilight, gouge the stomach and kill. At the seventh twilight, gouge the knee and kill. At the eighth twilight, gouge the leg and kill.
It was time for the witch to revive"
"Little Maria claimed Beatrice told her to look away and keep singing, and didn't notice the carnage that went on behind her. Driven to desperation and rage, Natsuhi barreled into the hall, and screamed a final challenge for the golden witch to come and face her. She was armed with a gun. But it was no match for Beatrice. Her own bullets rebounded back into her skull, killing her instantly. The game was over. Beatrice had won. At the ninth twilight, the Witch shall be revived and none shall be left alive.
At the tenth twilight, the journey shall end and you should reach the village of gold."
Wait, I'm confused, are we treating this story as a fantasy or a mystery? Koizumi smiled, and gave a mock bow. I unconsciously let out a breath I didn't realize I was holding. Still, the story could use work, and there are a lot of plot holes.
"Of course, the story doesn't quite end there. As you may have noticed, there are some aspects of this story that don't match up with what I told you earlier."
Like the part where it was all done with magic?
"This was just however, the story written on that message in a bottle. But there was at least some truth to it. Although most of the evidence was destroyed in the explosion, investigators were able to determine that some were killed before the explosion itself, pointing to a possible murder."
That's pretty flimsy evidence that wouldn't hold up in court.
"Furthermore, that wasn't the only account of events on that faithful day. Other bottles began to show up, with similar, but differing tales. Other people died on different twilights, and certain events played out in different ways instead. All of them have had certain bits of evidence to support their validity."
Out of the corner my eye, I noticed what was perhaps a half-millimeter shift in Nagato's eyelid position. Something about that last bit she found interesting?
"Allow me to finish with the final text of little Maria's letter."
"By the time you have read this, I will probably be dead.
The only difference will be whether there is a body or not.
You who have read this
Please find out the truth.
That's my only wish."
With that, Koizumi took another bow, and the room was silent for a moment, until Haruhi leapt up, cheering and applauding wildly.
"Wow! Bravo Koizumi-kun! You earn an AAA+! You sure know how to tell a horror story! Hey, we should make a horror movie during the next cultural festival!"
As much as Asahina-san would be the perfect heroine in any slasher-flick, the only thing audiences would have to fear from a film you're directing again would be dying of laughter.
"Now then, allow me to announce the reason why the SOS Brigade came to the island of Rokkenjima!"
Haruhi stood up, triumphant, getting ready for her proclamation. I could see her hand twitching at her side unconsciously, probably wishing she had a pointer to wave around, or a whiteboard to write on.
"The SOS Brigade is here to:
1: Solve the mystery of what really happened!
2: Find the hidden gold!
3: Put the spirits of the Ushiromiya family to rest!"
Oh, that's all we're here to do? Yeah, we can do all that by tomorrow, and spend the rest of the vacation on the beach instead. I'm not sure which thought bothered me more. That Haruhi expected to be able to solve what police and occult fanatics couldn't over 25 years, just by poking around some ruins for a week; or the chance that she might actually pull it off.
"Well come on, let's start preparing! Look, I've got a map of the island…"
Haruhi began bouncing around excitedly, pulling out supplies, a map, snacks to eat while she was doing so, and mumbling something about a plan that she wouldn't write down and only existed in her head. Whatever. I took the chance to excuse myself outside, for some fresh air. It was still raining lightly, but luckily we remembered umbrellas. After just a few minutes of waiting-
"So, what did you think of my story?"
It had some definite pacing problems. And you didn't really introduce us to the characters; it was kind of hard to feel empathy when you only give half of them names. Flesh it out a bit and you might have a decent novel.
"Ah, well. What I told you really was what was contained in that bottled message; unfortunately giving names, faces, and personalities to everyone on the island would've taken ages, and misses the ultimate point of the story. Besides, Suzumiya-san and Asahina-san enjoyed it, and those are really the only two I can hope to impress."
Next time just try jingling your car keys or something. Koizumi had opted to join me outside, probably sensing that I had wanted a chance to talk with him.
"Koizumi. Don't you think you're going a little overboard?"
"Oh? Whatever do you mean?"
"That we'll see an incident like making the movie. If she gets too into the whole ghost or murder thing, don't you think we might actually find some?"
Koizumi turned and stared at me for awhile, an odd look on his face. I was about to turn and leave when he finally spoke.
"No, I don't think so at all."
"Suzumiya-san has been remarkably stable this whole year. Even with the hiccup in April, it's a far cry from anything we've seen from her before. In my personal opinion, as long as things stay the way they are, we'll probably never have to worry about an incident like the movie again."
What, she's lost her powers? Congratulations, you can have your weekends back. Go get a girlfriend or something; you could really use something to take the edge off.
"Perhaps you know some cute girls you'd like to introduce me too? But no, really. Suzumiya-san hasn't lost her powers, but she doesn't use them like she used to. I'm convinced that she doesn't really want to solve the mystery or find hidden gold, but she does want to spend the week with all of us searching for them."
I see. So to borrow a common cliché, she doesn't care about the destination anymore, just the journey? Sounds like a good way to walk straight off a cliff.
"That's a fairly apt way of putting it. In any case, there's no need to worry."
"Kyon, Koizumi, get back in here!"
After that, the night dragged on. Haruhi and Koizumi went over the map of the island, making plans and drawing red circles everywhere. Nagato pulled her book out and continued reading for the rest of the night. Something in English, Ender's Game? Our local manifestation of the divine Asahina-san brewed us all some tea, but as much as I'm loathe to criticize such a magnificent privilege, it wasn't really up to her usual standard. I think she wasn't used to the wood fire, or something.
Later, we entertained ourselves by telling ghosts stories. Traditional ones, this time. "Hook hand", "The guy was in the back seat the whole time", "Aren't you glad you didn't turn on the light", "Kuchisake-onna". Generic campfire stuff we've all heard a million times. Except Asahina-san, it seemed. Maybe in the future they told horror stories about time traveling aliens who can't resist messing with history. After that, we finally set up our sleeping bags, and bedded down, ready for the long day of hiking and "Mystery solving" ahead of us.
Even though I was on the other side of the room, I could pick out the soft breathing of Asahina-san. Truly a man could ask for no better lullaby.
Mmmph, don't worry; I'll keep the nightmares away for you…
"Kyon! Stop dreaming you idiot, wake up"
Haruhi's voice came from above in a harsh whisper, her finger jabbing me uncomfortably in the ribs.
"Kyon, where did you put the flashlight?"
What time is it? In the bag.
Can't you find it yourself? I really hate being woken up when I'm sleeping; the only one who can really get away with it is my little sister. It's in the bag with the uh… stuff.
"Urgh! Help me find it!"
With that, she roughly dragged me out of bed, shook me a few times until I had mental clarity, and we proceeded to tiptoe around the other sleeping brigade members (Who, with the amount of noise we were making, were likely just faking), and searched through the supplies until we finally found the flashlight.
"Just what do you need the flashlight for anyways?"
"I have to go to the bathroom."
It was really dark; I could barely see anything, but buried in shadow, Haruhi's face looked pretty angry, and… something else.
"Just come with me you jerk."
With that, she dragged me to the front door, and at least let me put my shoes on before taking me outside. Don't tell me all those stories actually got you scared?
Luckily it had stopped raining, although everything was still wet. The trip to the outhouse seemed a lot longer in the dark than I remember when it was bright out. You know, Koizumi or Nagato would've gone with too; you didn't have to wake me up.
"Just wait there, okay?"
With that she hurried into the outhouse with the flashlight, and shut the door, leaving me in darkness. It took me a minute for my eyes to adjust to the lack of light, but when they did, I realized there was still nothing to see. It was pitch black; thick clouds still covered the sky, and there wasn't a trace of moon or starlight to be found. I could barely see my hand in front of my face. As the wind blew the damp forest air through the trees, I realized just how isolated we were from the lights, sounds, and comforts of civilization, and suddenly I felt very alone.
After waiting for what seemed like far too long, light flooded back into my world as Haruhi returned.
"Ugh, you never know what could be living in country outhouses like this. Come on, let's go ba-"
Haruhi stopped mid-sentence as we both heard a strange sound. It was a tinkling of sorts, like that of a wind chime, or small bells, coming from the forest. I knew that nothing like was hanging from our cabin, and when my eyes snapped to the forest, I saw it before Haruhi brought the flashlight to bear.
"Kyon, what's that!"
It was a butterfly. A single, glowing, golden butterfly. It fluttered lazily right at the edge of the tree line. And that tinkling sounds was definitely coming from it, or at least something in the butterfly's direction.
"What that? I've never seen a bug like that in my life…"
I'm not a bug collector, and I really don't care about butterflies, but I'm pretty positive the "Glowing Golden Windchime Butterfly" doesn't exist. But if this is a new discovery, feel free to name it after me-
Haruhi flicked off the light for a second, I guess to see if it was still glowing (It was), then took a hold of my arm and started walking towards the butterfly slowly, dragging me behind her. Uh, Haruhi, are you sure this is a good idea?
"Kyon… this is amazing! I think it might be a new species of butterfly! Imagine, we can name it after the SOS Brigade! I have no idea what could make something glow like that, but I imagine that scientists would want to- Hey! "
The butterfly flitted behind a tree, out of sight. Haruhi immediately made a mad dash for the tree line with me in tow, rounding the trunk just to see the butterfly a surprising distance into the forest already. Since when could they move that fast?
"Haruhi, hold on! Just stop and think for a second before you- Gyah!"
Eyes glinting with a hungry fire, Haruhi sped into the trees after it as it maneuvered out of sight again. Flicking the flashlight on to at least illuminate the ground in front of us, I was barely able to keep my balance as we ran, her freakishly strong grip making escape impossible. Even if I was able to escape though, I couldn't exactly let her run into the forest on her own.
"C'mon Kyon, keep up! This is a valuable discovery for the SOS Brigade! We can't let it get away!"
This is dangerous! Like really dangerous! Stop before something stupid happens! Undeterred by my protests, she kept running. We weren't really gaining any ground – even if it had the advantage of flight, a butterfly shouldn't be able to outpace a human running like this, especially potential track champion Haruhi.
"Argh! This thing is fast! All the more reason to catch it, this is sure to set those nerdy scientists on fire with jealousy! "
As we kept catching glimpses of our golden foe, I couldn't help but notice that it didn't look remotely natural. Its glow wasn't something like phosphorous powder on its wings – The whole butterfly seemed to be made of solid light, or energy of some sort. I suddenly recalled an old legend about will o wisps; malevolent spirits who took the appearance of glowing balls of light in order to lure travelers off of cliffs or into quicksand or something. Unfortunately, Haruhi was the type of person who would fall for a trick like that every time.
The chase continued on for what seemed like forever, but was probably only a few minutes. Since I have nowhere near the physical stamina of Haruhi, my chest was burning, my legs were threatening to give out, and I could feel my side start to cramp up in pain. Haruhi though, her eyes set on the goal, was almost there, her hand reaching out as she ran, and then *THUMP*
A long hanging branch she had passed under caught me right in the neck, and I fell like a brick, taking her with me. I heard glass shatter as she fell and the world went dark while I clutched at my throat, choking and sputtering for air.
"Ow, my head! What the hell? Oh crap, I can't see; the flashlight… huh? Kyon, are you alright? What's going on?"
Haruhi made her way over to me in the dark, blindly feeling around.
"Kyon, come on, are you okay? Say something!"
I was of course, still too busy coughing and gasping for breath. Damn, that really hurt. Feeling around my neck, it doesn't' seem like anything is broken, but I'm going to have a really nasty bruise. Haruhi worriedly held on to me and waited for me to regain my breath, which took over a minute. When I finally felt like I could try speaking again, I cleared my throat a few more times, and then took a deep breath to scold her with.
"HARUHI YOU IDIOT! Were you trying to get both of us killed!"
Oops. I didn't mean for it to come out that harshly. The result was instantaneous. Her face was about 2 inches from mine and her expression shot from a worried apprehension to something more akin to a kid getting caught stealing from the cookie-. No that's not right. She looked like someone who just hurt a friend by accident, okay?
"Kyon, I… I didn't mean too… I mean, I was just trying and I didn't see the- what I mean to say is that I'm really, really—
"Stop right there. I'm fine, alright? No point in dealing with that now. Besides, look around you. I think we have a bigger problem on our hands."
There wasn't really anything to look around and see, and I guess that was the gist of the problem. Both of us were alone in the middle of the woods, with a broken flashlight, still wearing our pajamas. I doubt either of us could find our way back to the cabin even with a good light. Oh, and the butterfly was nowhere to be seen, in case you were wondering.
"Oh… well. Hmm. Oh, Kyon, your pocket!"
Huh? There was something hard in my pocket, jabbing me- Oh! It was my phone. That's right; I had played a quick game of phone-Tetris before going to sleep, and slipped it into my pocket out of habit. Talk about good luck.
I pulled the phone out and the display lit up the area. Well, not so much the area as maybe a 2 ft diameter around the phone, but the feeble display was better than absolute darkness. With the light I stood up to get a better idea of our surroundings, confirming that we really were totally and utterly lost.
It was probably also worth mentioned that there isn't a cell phone tower for probably a good 50 miles, and I certainly didn't get any service. We actually did pack a solar powered waterproof satellite phone (Courtesy of Koizumi), but it was back at the cabin.
"Come on Haruhi, let's go. We probably left quite a trail dashing through the woods like that; we might be able to follow it back."
"Yeah… okay. Let's go."
I took Haruhi's hand with my left, and held out my cell phone in my right, trying its hardest to lighten the path up for us. Too bad I never bought the "Flashlight mode" app. Still, with a little luck, my battery should be able to hold out until we get back, and even if it takes us all night, I wouldn't be surprised if Nagato already knew we were missing and was coming to find us now.
Yeah, everything was going to be alright.
A drop of water hit me on the face.
And then another.
I'm not sure exactly how long we wandered around. At least an hour. Following the path we took turned out to be a lot harder than I thought, and after lots of twisting turns, doubling back, and going in circles, we somehow lost the trail entirely. The two of us were utterly soaked to the bone, and the storm showed no signs of backing down from its onslaught again. And since there was no longer a dry spot on my body, my phone was suffering from water damage as well. The poor thing was already glitching and sputtering, and would likely die at any moment. Please, just a little bit longer.
Not that we really had a direction or destination at this point. Basic Survival strategies says you should stay put and wait for rescue, rather than trying to tough it out on your own. Still, I felt that no matter what, we had to keep moving. If we just kept going, we had to find something. A place to take shelter. Like a giant tree with a hollow cave inside it. A rock overhang that would at least keep some of the rain off. Or maybe even…
"Ah, what! Kyon, look at that!"
Yep. Unexpectedly, the trees around us disappeared as we walked into the middle of a clearing; a large open area filled with knee high grass. And in the distance, loomed the unmistakable shadow of a mansion. And, we could see again. There was a break in the clouds, and while there wasn't a moon tonight, the starlight was just enough for faint illumination.
As if on cue, my phone suddenly blinked off, gasping its last breath. Thanks, you have served us admirably. I'll be sure to give you a proper burial later on. With that, I took a few moments to get a better view of my surroundings, before looking down at Haruhi. She looked back up, worried, and tightened her grip on my hand.
"Kyon, didn't Koizumi say the mansion was destroyed in an explosion?"
"Yeah, he did. Maybe it's a totally different mansion that also happened to be on this island. Or this is a dream, and we're hallucinating from hypothermia. Or maybe Koizumi was just lying, or misinformed. Either way, if we stay out here any longer that hypothermia won't be just a theory. Let's take our chances."
I know, I know. Classic horror movie mistake, right? Still, I really, really wanted to be dry again.
"Alright. But be careful Kyon. I wanna get dry too, but something about this place feels really off to me. "
Woah, Haruhi emphasizing caution in the face of danger? Maybe she hit her head harder than I thought when we fell. That or the hypothermia excuse again.
"Shut up. I mean it, this place feels really wrong."
We approached slowly, finding a broken cobblestone path leading up to the main doors. As we got closer, I could see that the mansion was in a serious state of disrepair. The windows were broken, a tree had fallen on one side of the house, and vines grew up and down a significant portion of the walls. All in all, it looked like a building abandoned to the elements for 25 years.
When we reached the door, I paused for a moment, raised my hand to knock, and then, realizing how stupid that was, went for the doorknob instead. It fell off immediately, and the door slightly opened."
"Gee, guess I don't know my own strength."
Haruhi actually snickered at that, before she realized it and turned to glare it me.
"Be serious about this Kyon. There could be wild animals living in here or something."
Honestly wild animals would be a welcome danger compared to what I'm expecting. Oh well, the only way to go is forward. I grabbed the door and swung it open, expecting the worst.
It was just an ordinary entrance hall. I could see a large set of stairs, which probably would've looked pretty grand if the place wasn't a dump. The carpet was in tatters, one of the banisters was broken. Seeing no immediate threat to our persons, I stepped inside, moving far enough in so the rain could no longer reach me. Ah… much better.
Haruhi walked up beside me as I started to wring out my wet pajamas. (Which, by the way, are really terrible for midnight hikes.) It was pretty dark in here, but apparently the break in the clouds was still holding, and a bit of light was streaming in through the open door and a few windows.
Spinning around, I followed Haruhi's pointed finger until I could see exactly what she was talking about. The wall to the right of the door was almost completely covered by a massive portrait of a beautiful woman – She had blonde hair, tied up in a bun, an extravagant black and gold dress with frilly stuff on it, and an elegant expression with the tiniest hint of amusement.
"Ah, this has to be…"
Both of us uttered the name of the great witch at the same time. A cold shiver ran up my spine, as I noticed that the portrait was entirely untouched by the ravages of time.
"Hey Kyon, there's something else here too."
Haruhi ran up to the base of the portrait and I followed. There was a stone tablet of sorts, and engraved on it was a long series of characters. As I read through them, I realized this was the Witch's Epitaph, the riddle that Koizumi had told us about, including all the grisly bits about gouging heads and sacrifices. Apparently there was more to it he had left out.
"So this is the real thing, huh? I researched the mystery on my own too, you know? But I could never really find the whole riddle, everyone on the internet always focused on the parts about killing. Hmm. "
It was a pretty long riddle, and I didn't really care to think about it right now, but Haruhi already seemed to be in detective mode. Not that I wouldn't mind knowing the location the hidden gold, but don't you think we should do something about these wet clothes, maybe find some ratty old blankets or something?
I was about to say this, but I was stopped when I heard a tinkling sound, like wind chimes, or small bells.
We both spun around to see our golden friend flying lazily through the open door, along with that obnoxious and mysterious tinkling.
"Huh? Its back? Or maybe this is where it was headed in the first place..."
Haruhi took a few steps towards the butterfly, but I snatched her wrist and planted my feet. Let's not have a repeat of earlier, okay? She stopped, looked back at me, and nodded. Good thing too, because ready for it or not she could probably still drag me through the whole house chasing after the thing, and probably fall through rotting floorboards and—
The tinkling sounds suddenly magnified a hundredfold, coming from all around us, echoing from the walls. Slowly, more butterflies started to float into the room, coming from the ceiling, the windows, down the stairs, and all the numerous side doors and entrances. The room was filled with an unearthly golden glow, and before I could really tell what was happening, we were surrounded.
"What? Kyon, this is just their nest or something, right? We've disturbed them or something, but they're just butterflies… right?"
This is bad. Things are getting weird, and Haruhi isn't supposed to be here to see them. She was off balance, so I took the chance to pull her close, and position myself in front of her. Like any typical shonen protagonist is supposed to do, I guess, but it's probably a pretty futile gesture. There's no way I could stop demon butterflies of any sort. If someone wants to bust into this room to save us, now is the time!
"Haruhi, if something happens to me, I want to you run; just keep running and don't look back."
Man, where was I pulling these cheesy lines from? I've probably been reading too much manga recently.
"Huh? Kyon, don't say something like that. I'm not going to leave you behind; No self respecting commander would ever leave her subordinates behind to face danger while she escapes!"
With that, she turned to me and flashed her signature smile. If the room hadn't already been lit up by these glowing freaks of nature, that would've done the trick. Somehow, I felt just a tiny bit better.
"Besides, you're overreacting. Even if this is weird, it's just butterflies! Come on Kyon, its mother nature's least imposing bug, and—Hey!"
This whole time we had been slowly backing up, as the swarm of butterflies flitted about the room with no particular direction or intent. However, we backed up right into the portrait of Beatrice, and it rocked on its frame. With that, the air in the room turned malicious, and the tone of the tinkling changed, now sounding something like distorted laughter, cackling manically. The butterflies picked up speed, starting to whirl around the room in a flurry of gold.
And then they all shifted direction, diving straight for us.
I threw Haruhi to the ground and dived on top of her, covering my head with my hands. I knew that this was probably the last thing I'd ever do, so I closed my eyes and waited for the unique feeling of being torn apart by hundreds of tiny proboscises.
"Argh, Kyon, get off of me! And look, they didn't attack us!"
I quickly hopped off of Haruhi and she got to her feet, and I turned to see what she was talking about. Rather than going for us, it seems like they had dive-bombed the portrait instead. Beatrice was now covered from top to bottom in the things, and not a sliver of the portrait was visible, making it look almost like a giant golden portal.
"Kyon… this is so amazing… I wish we had a camera or something, why did your phone have to die? Huh, where did they go?"
Just like that, the butterflies all vanished in an instant, leaving behind only an afterimage in the darkened room. I took the chance to stand up, brush myself off, then waited a few moments to see if they'd come back. Nothing.
"Right, well. We should probably go, rain or not."
"Yeah, you're right."
Both of us turned to go, and started walking towards the open door. We didn't make it three steps however, before there was a loud *FWOOSH* from behind us.
To say Beatrice's portrait had caught fire wouldn't be entirely inaccurate. It wasn't real fire, but what was happening did sort of resemble a piece of paper burning. Rather than smoke and ash, the parts that were burned by the "fire" instead became bright, colorful and pristine, as if illuminated by a proper source of light and restored to the magnificence they once held.
The effect was really quite impressive. It started from the very center of the portrait and spread outwards in a circular fashion. It didn't stop at the edge of the portrait —the walls became bright and polished, the carpet a luxurious red, no longer in tatters. As the light approached us, I realized I was committing another grave horror movie sin: standing still while something weird happens.
It was too late though. I felt a sudden movement beside me, and realized Haruhi was falling. I managed to catch her, but she went limp in my arms. Hey, come on, now's not the time to be fainting, I don't think I can carry you out of here fast enough. Haruhi?
As the room continued to explode into the magnificent entry hall it had been in its prime, I suddenly felt weak, and my vision began to darken. The last thing I heard was the same laughter I had heard from the butterflies; cackling, maniacal, and cruel.
You know, this was really way too long for a prologue. Unfortunately, that's really all it was. I was about to be thrown in to a living nightmare, one far more terrifying and dangerous than anything I'd faced before. And this time, Haruhi was at my side through the thick of it all. The one person who isn't supposed to know that the supernatural exists.
I thought traveling through time, dealing with alternate realities, the mansion in the snow, kidnappings, car chases, weird divesting realities and the Anti-SOS Brigade had left me ready to deal with anything that the universe could throw at me.
I was wrong.