PROLOGUE: DETERMINATION

I walked along the sidewalk, passing by crowds of people too occupied with themselves to give any concern to me. The noises of the people managed to get through to me even with the songs blaring at max volume through my earphones. But the crowds all melded into one mass, each face blurring and reducing every single human being there into just another person.

I didn't try to concern myself with these people. My objective was not far from here — one last bout on the trains before my destination. I weaved through the streets and went about my business, my mind deadset on making it to the next train heading for Iwatodai. Uneasiness twisted and turned in my stomach, but I disregarded it and pressed on, realizing that I was now walking at quite the brisk pace.

Continuing this briskness, I ended up in the subway. I checked the time my mp3 player displayed — 7:00 PM. I nodded in approval, giving a small smile at my seemingly good fortune before patiently waiting for the next train to make its stop and let me aboard. If God were willing, I'd be at the city before midnight.

The train ride, though, seemed to test my luck. But I'd been prepared for this occurrence. My final stop was at the very end of a number of other stops. Yet I couldn't help but chastise myself for not heading over to the trains sooner. If only I hadn't spent so much time packing all my things, I mused, but then cast my concerns aside. There was nothing else I could do but wait for the final stop, and pray that I'd arrive before midnight.

My heart rate quickened and my mind was rushing like cars on a highway. I was close to my goal, my dream; so close I could taste it now. After ten long and excruciating years of nothing, I'd managed to make it. I'd earned that scholarship, I'd survived the rigorous entrance exam. Now, all I had to do was wait. In time, I would reach the city Iwatodai — my birthplace.

The city had been a lush place, to say the very least. As a child, I remembered believing that the buildings had been tall enough to reach the sky. The gleam and glow of each skyscraper and structure during mornings would give off the impression that the city had been composed of nothing but white monoliths. The air of the city had seemed so much more magical in the daytime; the sounds of cars weaving through traffic, the trains blasting through the subway, even the sounds of the waters swooshing about across the ocean — Iwatodai had managed to capture a certain atmosphere that even the most mundane things had ended up quite beautiful.

I then remembered, for the briefest of seconds, a winter day. There was a duo of tall figures taking me by my hands — one of them with a large and exaggerated smile, another with a small and seemingly imperceptible one. I was laughing, for some reason. Following the three of us would be a little girl, younger than I, who had red eyes and red hair and barrettes —

We were all in the car, on our way home. Safe and sound, where nothing terrible should have happened to us. Where I'd have slept the night away and I'd have to dream nothing but good days while waiting for the night to turn into day and I'd have to return to school. Driving us down the Moonlight Bridge – a large and magnificent bridge that was packed in traffic that night–my father nuzzling my hair as I would begin off to sleep, ready to be woken up when the time would come.

And then I would find myself in a hospital bed with several things stuck in my arm, bandages all over certain parts of my body which hurt really badly, and little to no feeling in my legs and my left shoulder.

I remembered crying. I remembered it hurting to cry because my eyes would hurt whenever tears would touch them. And I remembered asking the doctor what happened to my family only to get a sad look and a look at his back as he silently left the room. I remembered visiting my parents' and sister's graves and not being able to stomach my own presence. I remembered it being rather sunny that day and I remembered the heat beating against my neck. I remembered one of my uncles standing by me as I had begun weeping during the funeral.

Then, coffins. The skies a sickly emerald green, the kind you'd see on dying grass. The moon the demented yellow of rotted teeth. The dark clouds sweeping over the city and swirled around, dancing a perverted dance to a symphony of evil.

And suddenly, my chest tightened, turning cold.

To return to Iwatodai meant returning to the origin point of the horrors I'd seen. Who was to say I'd not encounter more horrors? Who was to say that I would be able to live with myself after finding everything out? That it wouldn't end up just some pyrrhic victory? Or that I'd even get victory of any sort? It was completely possible I'd fail this mission.

But…it was the closest thing I had. It was a chance. And I was not about to let it slip by.

"Due to a malfunction in the switching system, today's rail schedule has been greatly altered," the intercom suddenly blared, bringing me out of my dejected slump. "We apologize to any customers who are in a hurry. The next stop is Iwatodai."

I widened my eyes slightly — We've already come this far? — and then checked the time on my mp3 player. 11:50 PM.

It was near Funeral Time.

My chest grew even tighter, and my patience quickly began diminishing. I started becoming nervous again. What if the train wouldn't stop by midnight? What if there was to be another delay in the next ten minutes right before making the stop? Overwhelmingly, I hoped to God that the train would find its way to the city I'd worked so hard to return to — and then God answered my prayer before I knew it.

"Iwatodai. Iwatodai."

Hopping off the train, I got another glimpse at the time, wondering if I had skipped over minutes while daydreaming yet again. It was just at the right time.

11:59, and after approximately three seconds—my mp3 player stopped working.

The once navy blue peering through the skylight turned a deep and sickening shade of green. Iron forced itself into my nose. Iron. So much iron. My nose was stuffed with the smell. Blood was all over. Where the water–where any form of liquid should've been. I rushed out the door, almost slipping on a puddle of blood that had once been simply spilled water from a bottle. Everyone in and out of the station had become a gigantic black coffin, towering at least a few feet over me.

The incomplete moon hanging in the clouds was now a thick yellow color and ten times its usual size, like it had lurched forward from its place toward the planet. The dark, blackened clouds started swirling into a miserable and tormented spiral, looking almost like they were going to rain.

Escaping the station, I saw the green tint of the sky reflect on my skin, giving my body an emerald color. The ground resembled a massive checkerboard, with black and white tiles lined all across the streets. Sidewalks, pavements, roads–the checkerboard design had spread to all of them, blood occasionally showing up in little puddles and stains. The coffins, in all their looming glory, stood proudly in the chaotic environment, standing upright and shining from the light emitting from the creepily gigantic moon.

An ominous sensation settled deep within the recesses of my psyche. I hated it all so much.

The city was welcoming me back.

I stiffened, and marched forward.

You are here to find out, I told myself. Nothing more.


I felt pretty numb, all things considered, as I walked along the streets. It was the strangest thing; I had feared in the months prior to my actual arrival that I'd end up breaking down upon seeing Funeral Time take everything good and beautiful about this city and riddle it with despair. But it appeared that my flair for the dramatic wasn't clicking at this particular moment in time. Leisurely, I made my stride to the dormitory I had set myself up at, urging myself to try and make it there before time would return to normal.

Following the map on the brochure, I eventually arrived at the dorm. I'd say about fifty to fifty-six minutes had passed since getting off the train. Funeral Time was ending soon. But upon entering said dorm, my numbness to everything faded in favor of a crawling sensation climbing up my spine.

There was a child that must have been no older than ten sitting at the counter, staring at me intently with eyes deader than those of a corpse's. He wore striped pajamas, giving off the impression of a prisoner, and had a very, very unsettling grin smeared across his garishly pale face. The worst part about him was that his voice was whimsical in that disturbing, uncanny way. Like it was slightly off-kilter.

Uneasily, I shuffled forward, but he suddenly made introductions.

"Good evening. I've been waiting a long time for you. If you want to proceed, then please sign here. It's a contract." He pointed to a paper on the counter, which had the words "I chooseth this fate of mine own free will" written right above the signature line. "There's no need to be scared," he continued. "It only binds you to accepting full responsibility for your actions."

Oh, is that all?

He had to have been trying to scare me. But I then proceeded to sign the contract, because the child had this aura about him, something pure and vile, ready and willing to claw my eyes out with his bare fingernails while biting down my throat and ripping out my larynx with his teeth.

Not helping matters was the simple fact that he was a person still active in the middle of Funeral Time. To my knowledge, no one aside from myself could have possibly been able to have not been a coffin during this damnable time period. So, obviously there was something wrong here. And disobeying it would have probably landed me in a place I wouldn't have wanted to be in.

"Very well," he said after I'd finished writing my name down on the signature line. "Time is something no one can escape. It delivers us all to the same end. And so it begins…"

The kid vanished into the shadows, taking the contract along with him as the darkness enveloped his form. What caught me off guard was that his dead eyes had shone brighter as he disappeared, like they had some life to them instead of the frightening lifelessness they'd had earlier.

It both fascinated and disturbed me.

...I lifted my head up to the stairs and prepared to go up to my room, still a bit put-off by the boy – but all too-willing to make my way over to a nice, warm bed. Tomorrow was going to be the first day of the rest of my life, after all.

I smiled.

Time to get some rest.

"Who's there!?"