“You sure you want my answer, Ayla? Because I think you’re gonna be pretty disappointed.”
Kim’s tone was unsurprisingly harsh, even with the nature of the dreaded situation now upon them.
Aeris and Calvin kept quiet, more focused on their next move than throwing out one-liners.
Nevertheless, Ayla just laughed like a rabid hyena, while Kim could only grit her teeth in frustration. Her forearm still ached horribly despite her best efforts to ignore it.
Things had clearly gone from bad to worse. Michael was a literal statue, and because of that they were now faced with the threat of the most unlikely of opponents.
The Big YMCA, once a ridiculous notion of a Sentonal to Kim, now threatened to pulverize all of the Audio Knights under its gigantic gloved fists.
Caution hung in the air, as Michael Kay remained motionless and Ayla mentally commanded him to keep his Sentonal in its guarded stance.
Calvin gulped before he began to speak, hoping to quell the tension.
“Look, we don’t want anymore trouble…Ayla, was it? We’re just here for Kim. Just let her through, and we’ll sure as heck be on our way.”
Aeris narrowed her eyes furiously as lightning crackled within the grasp of her right hand.
“And Michael.” She added. “You touch a hair on his head, and we won’t be going so quietly.”
Ayla just snickered, shaking her head as she leaned on Michael’s stiff shoulder. “Will you? Newsflash, but you’re not really in a position to throw out threats, Dolly Parton.”
Tired of senseless banter, Kim stomped forward, her heart pounding in her chest as blood rushed to her face.
“I’ll give you a threat! You let him go, and I won’t come over there and break the rest of your face.” she yelled, clearly out of patience.
But Ayla just flashed a smile devoid of sanity, before raising a finger up into the air as a light bulb went off in her mind.
“Or better idea; let’s play a game!”
In the next second, Ayla sparked a forced mental command into Michael’s brain. In response, the Big YMCA moved, positioning one huge fist high in the air above its Music Master’s still helpless position.
Still adrift from his body and useless, Michael could only try to bite his see-through fingernails and hope he wasn’t about to die. As long as I Can’t Decide continued, he would remain in this unwanted out of body experience.
“I tell you what.” Ayla chimed. “If you can get to me before this Sentonal turns your little Jackson 5 wannabe to paste, then you’re all free to go. That sound fair?”
Pain continued to spike through Kim’s arm, but she forced herself to clench her right hand into a fist as she tried her best to ignore the pain.
She wanted to curse herself a thousand times.
All of this was her fault.
Had she not been so distracted with Michael’s sudden appearance, then she’d have knocked Ayla out cold by now and they would have been done with this whole fiasco.
She absorbed the situation before her. Calvin and Aeris were still cut off, with the Sentonal product of YMCA facing front, six arms splayed out and ready to strike.
If she made a run for it, it would take just enough time for it to turn for Kim to possibly have a shot at Ayla. There would also be a delay in Ayla giving Michael an order which would then have to be given to the Sentonal, so there was a chance, if a slim one.
But assuming she could make it, there was still the question of Ayla’s wireless headphones. Kim would have to get incredibly close in order to dig in there and break her control of Michael.
“So what’s it going to be, boys and girls?” Ayla asked, louder now as she reveled in her power.
Kim didn’t reply.
Instead, she made one last mental scan of the situation, before the decision was made up in her mind.
Biting down on her lower lip to help stifle the pain in her arm, Kim went into a mad dash.
Each step pounded loudly along the sand, her very being empowered by the sound of Desolation Row coursing through her veins.
Even still, her bleeding arm proved to be too much a of a handicap, and Kim was only running for a few seconds before she found herself snatched up in the grasp of one enormous gloved hand.
“Looks like we got a winner!” Ayla announced with glee. Kim could only slash and struggle with all her might as fingers the size of a hot dog stand began to slowly crush her.
As Kim began to feel the intense pressure bearing down on her teenage body, she could only look down and hope that her gambit paid off.
With such a unwieldy form, the Big YMCA had to turn entirely in order to stop Kim. Its slow and cumbersome nature is something she’d quickly learned from their multitude of Central Park sessions.
Fortunately, this left Ayla’s entire left side open, clearing a path for Calvin and Aeris.
Aeris realized the opportunity in an instant, practically barking to Calvin in the process. “This is it! Kim wants us to go in!”
“Okay! Where do you want me?” Calvin asked quickly, his body tightening up as he prepared for the worst.
Meanwhile, Ayla was far too distracted with her victory over Kim, forcing the Big YMCA to shake her as it slowly continued its death squeeze.
“I’m taking my sweet time with you, Kimmy. You’ve earned it.” Ayla assured, but Kim could respond with a strained groan as she fought to hold back this deadly embrace.
If not for the added strength provided by Desolation Row, she would have been dust by now, and yet it would still only be a matter of time before the pressure broke all her bones.
Thoughts rushed through Aeris’s mind as the situation unfolded.
It was when she saw Ayla motioning back towards them that she knew it was time to act.
“Go for Michael! I got Ayla!” she commanded, and Calvin was off in an instant, the neon squares of Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger buzzing behind him.
“I’m coming, Mike!” Calvin declared, but the sandy ground darkened as a huge shadow descended upon him.
He looked up, and then found himself jumping for dear life as he missed being flattened by inches.
Skidding on the sand as he stood back up, Calvin grabbed for the frozen and stiff Michael, only to yelp as Ayla dug her fingers into his shaggy blond hair and pulled hard.
Pushing her momentum into him, she had one foot on his back as she leaned to whisper in his ear.
“Oh, you’re practically begging to die next, aren’t you?”
Her voice was like poison, but Calvin knew he had to distract more than anything. The irony of having his hair used against him again still got to him though.
“Hey, I think I forgot to mention how much of a huge turn on those teeth are. I like a girl with a good bite radius.” he laughed, only to earn a hard face-first slam into the sand in response.
“Oh really? Well, let me oblige you. Let’s see how you taste!” she screeched, pulling him up now and exposing his bare neck. Ayla’s jaws opened wide, saliva dripping as she prepared to chomp right into his carotid artery.
“In fact, you can all die together!” Ayla further declared, the mental command snapping in Michael’s mind as the Big YMCA acted in concert with its various limbs.
Kim could feel the crushing sensation begin to rise, and her limbs shook violently as she was but seconds away from passing out. Her eyes glanced down, only to widen in fear as the shadow of a looming fist came down for the helpless statue that was Michael Kay.
Calvin closed his eyes as he felt Ayla’s breath on his neck, and prayed that Aeris’s plan wasn’t in vain.
Emotions swirled through Kim as her life seemed at its end, and just as her limbs buckled into exhaustion, Aeris had focused Ayla right into her sights.
She focused her vision, whispering to herself as she finally made her move.
“Take a bite of this.”
Fashioning her right hand into a finger gun, she focused one arc of lighting into a pinpoint shot.
It cracked loudly from her fingertip, with such recoil that it almost knocked Aeris off her feet.
Down on one knee, she felt elation as she watched the arcing spark from This Fragile Breath hit home.
As Kim found herself at death’s door, as Michael shivered in fright while he watched his physical body about to go, and as Calvin was on the verge of tears, Ayla Syntara shrieked like a banshee as the blade of lighting struck her left ear.
She let go of Calvin, convulsing and grabbing at her head as the volts of pain coursed back and forth from ear to ear.
What seemed like an eternity lasted only a few seconds longer, before both of Ayla’s wireless headphones burst, scarring the inside of her ears as her chest heaved.
Meanwhile, Calvin found his neck still intact, and he turned around to see Michael behind him.
The afro-headed teen blinked, realizing the shadow around him as he turned up to see the fist of his own Sentonal, which had been just inches away from killing him. Panicking, he tore off his headphones, ending its existence on this plane for the time being.
There came a loud thud as the song effect ended, as Kim was now free from its grip and dropped from a solid fifteen feet high.
Aeris let loose a heavy breath, but Michael, now back in his body and back to reality, was at Kim’s side in an instant.
“Kim…KIM! Oh man, I didn’t mean it! It wasn’t me!”
He rolled her over, and though she was breathing, her eyes were closed and she made no visible effort to acknowledge him.
“Oh come on, wake up! Wake up!” he continued, but she stayed silent.
Michael glanced down at her bare arms, which were now cut just a bit from the fall. He also noted the huge bite wound on her lower right arm, which had still continued to bleed all this time.
“Aeris! I need you over here now! She’s bleeding pretty bad!” he shouted, worry enveloping him like a oppressive octopus.
Michael Kay’s worst fear had come true.
He’d been useless in a fight, and it was about to cost Kim everything.
He put his hands on her shoulders, head down as he struggled to come up with some sort of solution.
A moment later, Michael’s pre-mourning was interrupted as a bright eldritch light burst into being below him.
He looked down, and Kim’s eyes were wide open, completely bathed in a familiar violet aura that signified the influence of Desolation Row.
“KIM!” he said loudly, only to be stifled as she sat up and then pushed him aside hard.
Hard enough that he went tumbling more than a few feet to the left, from nothing more than a light thrust of her hand.
Kim’s eyes narrowed with rage, focusing on the form of Ayla, who still laid on the ground, wincing from the previous pain.
Each step forward to her was slow, decisive and clearly angry.
“Okay guys.” Aeris said, as she helped Calvin back up. “Let’s split while we can. You good, Kim?”
Michael nodded, raring to go once again.
Kim, meanwhile, ignored her entirely.
“Kim?” she repeated, as Calvin dusted himself off next to her, counting his good luck at the same time.
Kim still said nothing. She stopped next to Ayla. Scanning her from top to bottom, and it was now that fear welled up in Aeris’s heart just as Desolation Row’s volume grew, and with it, so did the size of the wicked energy talons enshrouded around Kim’s hands.
They had no time to react as Kim reached forward, grabbing Ayla’s entire face with the width of her claw. She squeezed just hard enough to cause pain, but not to pop her like a balloon. With her free hand, Kim extended a single sharp fingernail just above Ayla’s cheek.
Suddenly, the burning pain in Ayla’s ears seemed light in comparison. She tried to say something through Kim’s fingers, but Kim cut Ayla off before she could take so much as a breath.
“I’m ending this.”
Her voice was coated in in dark reverb, familiar to both Michael and Aeris alike.
But it was Michael who stepped forward, stopping just behind Kim as his words came out jumbled and quick.
“Kim, we’re all good now. Let’s get out of here.”
She stopped her finger right at Ayla’s cheek. There was only a second of hesitation before she brought it down, drawing blood as she painfully carved into her skin.
Michael gulped at the sight, but he continued. “I’m okay, Kim. I’m totally fine. You can stop now.”
Michael’s hand reached for her shoulder. The minute he touched down, her voice responded, laced with fury.
“Get your hands off of me. I end her miserable life, and then we can go.”
Michael’s entire arm shook with fright, but he held fast, trying his best to sound confident.
“I…I can’t let you do that, Kim. Besides, you don’t have it in you.”
He laughed at the end, and that was his prime mistake. In an instant, Kim turned on him, grabbing him by his collar as she glared him down.
Violet intensity burned in her eyes, her voice becoming a roar under the song effect’s influence.
“Oh REALLY? And what makes you think I can’t KILL you and easily as I’d RIP her HEAD off?!”
A great many thoughts surged through Michael Kay’s mind. He could see Kim’s headphones within reach, and he knew he might be able to jerk them off if he was quick enough.
Of course, the claws only inches from his neck told him that he’d probably be dead before he could.
Michael narrowed his gaze, and steeled himself for the next moment.
This was her song effect. He’d seen it before.
Kim was in there somewhere; he just had to dig her out.
“You? Kill me? Man, you would have done that ages ago if you really wanted to.” he pointed out.
Kim was silent for a moment, but her grip still remained on Michael’s shirt.
“She deserves to die. She KILLED Seth. She took EVERYTHING from me.”
Michael sighed. He thought losing Rob for ten years was bad. He couldn’t even fathom losing him permanently.
Aeris and Calvin remained silent as he continued. They knew, at least, that an interruption could mean a death sentence for Michael.
“Yeah, I get it. She’s a bad person. But that doesn’t mean you are. And that doesn’t mean I’m going to let her turn you into one.”
Kim’s claw grip tightened like a bladed vice, slicing into the fabric of his tie dye shirt as she spoke in her corrupted tone. “But I NEED this. Everything has been leading up this. If I don’t do this, it’ll all have been for NOTHING.”
“Fine!” Michael shot back. “If you need it so much, then you’re gonna have to go through me first. If you really want to kill Ayla that bad, then you might as well off me too, because there’s no way I’m just lying down and letting this fly!”
Kim said nothing in response, instead raising up a clawed hand above Michael’s face. Her eyes focused on him, it was at this point that Calvin tried to rush forward, only to be held back by Aeris.
“Are you crazy? She’s going to kill him!” he declared, only to shushed in the next moment.
“No, she’s not.” she said quietly. “Just wait. Michael’s got this.”
Calvin’s expression was nothing less than flabbergasted, but he trusted Aeris enough at this point to hope she was right.
Kim’s hand remained suspended in the air. Contrary to what one might expect of this situation, it was her life that seemed to flash before her eyes.
She saw before her the once happy little girl, who wanted nothing more than to listen to music with her older brother forever.
She saw that same little girl, crying for hours, left alone in her room with the knowledge that Seth would never come home.
She then saw herself, having spent years in that same room, listening to harsh punk rock music.
She saw herself hurting people for mildly inconveniencing her.
She spat venom, practically radiated rage.
She wanted nothing more than for the entire world to leave her alone.
And now, she saw Michael Kay.
Held up by his shirt collar, he could only try to smile, even as she threatened to end his life any second.
She saw that stupid orb of hair, his idiotic expression, and an outfit that she still thought was lame to this day.
And that was all she needed to see.
Her claw slowly lowered.
Her face slowly softened.
Finally, the eldritch light in her eyes slowly began to dim.
She saw before her a vision of Seth. It was a coincidental remnant of her brother that she would never be able to kill, no matter how much she willed it.
And as her grip slackened, and she realized just how close she had come to taking Michael’s life, her expression finally broke.
Tears now flowed freely from Kim’s eyes, as she broke down and practically fell into Michael Kay’s arms.
Somewhat surprised, Michael lowered her headphones with a free hand as he patted her on the back. She didn’t react, instead continuing to cry as Michael tried to sound as reassuring as possible.
“See Kim? You’re totally okay.”
Finally, Kim retracted, wiping the tears from her eyes as she smiled back at Michael.
“No, Michael, I’m not.” she declared, before detatching herself from him and approaching the still downed Ayla.
Ripsaw’s leader was stirring, but seemingly had no strength to get up.
The scent of burnt skin hit Kim’s nose as she leaned down next to her.
Slowly but surely, Kim’s body and mind began to calm.
“But at least I’m not her.” she reassured Michael, shaking her head at the sight of Ayla Syntara before standing back up.
“Let’s go.” Kim said, much to Aeris and Calvin’s collective relief. “This carnival stuff is for the birds.”
“Tell me about it!” Calvin exclaimed, as Aeris and Michael followed suit towards the entrance of the big top tent.
With no idea of what time it was, all they knew was that the faster they were out of old Astroland, the better.
But the night air would greet them sooner than they thought.
Kim reacted quicker than anyone as the sound of shuffling, and familiar music entered the air behind them.
Ayla’s voice was pained this time, despite it all, she still managed to inject it with eagerness.
“Oh, this is so not the note we’re going to end on. I still have one last hurrah!” she announced, and Kim now realized that the low sound of music was coming from none other than her top hat, fitted with a tiny speaker just underneath the front rim.
Kim’s fingers were at her music player even as Michael, Calvin and Aeris were entranced by the sight of the now emerging song effect.
They had not yet seen the true form of Ayla Syntara’s Greatest Show Unearthed, and that’s because they had never been present to watch it truly unfold.
“No one’s leaving here. Nobody. You should of just killed me, Kim.”
The Audio Knights could only watch as a mass of chemical colors, vibrant purples, greens and reds, all formed into a huge pseudopod-armed being. Behind Ayla, it dwarfed her in size while screaming and contorting with various faces and horrors. It stretched the highest of heights, loudly ripping and tearing at the big top tent with its myriad of limbs, claws and other mismatched parts.
“Is there really no end to the secret music players with this psycho?” Calvin exclaimed through the noise of tearing fabric and whipping rope as the tent was dismantled all around them.
Never had Ayla Syntara unleashed it within her precious big top tent, but having lost this battle, she’d rather lose her throne than lose the possibility of taking Seth Ramone’s little sister and her friends straight to hell.
As the tent fell away, the night sky was revealed behind it, and with it, the decreipt, ancient form of the same ferris wheel that Kim and the others had seen when they had first entered this place.
Like a maestro, Ayla motioned for her monstrous Sentonal to stop mid-transformation, instead wrapping its massive bulk around the carnival attraction itself.
She grinned, her mouth bloodied and the cut on her cheek still fresh and dripping.
“Say hello to Seth for me.”
There was a horrible, grinding screech as the still-unformed carnival mass pushed its bulk towards the Audio Knights, and in the process, dangerously tilting the ferris wheel their way as well. Screws and plates violently flew off from the pressure, and rusted metal groaned as the entire superstructure began to collapse in their direction.
Ayla simply laughed with glee as death approached them all, and Michael, Aeris and Calvin all collectively seemed frozen in disbelief at the situation before them.
Kim simply stepped forward.
Fear had left her for quite some time, and it was clear in her voice.
“Yeah, not happening.”
The sound a familiar crooning singer, along with wild drums and rushing guitar, accompanied the form of the same massive skeletal Sentonal first shown to Michael and the others in Central Park.
Glowing with purple and crimson colors, and still armed with a titanic tank cannon in place of a left arm, Kim mentally willed her Sentonal to step forward just as the ferris wheel was in danger of crushing them.
The ground shook as it held onto the colossal weight in the grasp of one bony hand, before beginning to slowly push it back in the opposite direction.
Metal whined and twisted violently as it kept its ground, and Kim’s expression of confidence didn’t change for a moment.
It was only when Ayla caught her in her focus, jerking down and pulling off her headphones in the process, that Kim’s composure was broken.
“Ha! No Sentonal for you!” Ayla squealed, reverting to the mindset of a child.
She wasn’t letting this go. Not while Kim still breathed.
A shadow loomed over the group, and it was now that Kim finally shouted once her Sentonal was no longer present to stop the oncoming destruction.
“Idiots! RUN!” she commanded, and Aeris, Calvin and Michael followed suit. All four Audio Knights pushed themselves to bolt as fast as possible, as the shadow of the ferris wheel became larger and larger.
It was when it was so large that it almost completely enveloped the site of the former big top, that Ayla finally turned around.
She had only ten seconds to watch as over a thousand tons of decade-old carnival memories fell upon her like fire upon Soddom and Gommorah.
Ayla Syntara made one last small smile as words slipped from her lips.
The ferris wheel crashed into the ground hard, sending various compartments flying and billowing up huge clouds of sand in the process. Metal segments tumbled about, crashing into old sideshow stands and rotting boardwalk alike.
It was more rampant noise than even a hundred songs mashed together, and Michael could only stay flat on his stomach as he waited for everything to fall asunder and hope he didn’t get hit in the process.
He blinked for a moment, noting Aeris and Calvin taking refuge behind him an old water shooter stand.
Michael ducked back down as a huge piece of metal slammed into the sand just five feet from him, and he put his hands over his head as he waited for it to end.
Finally, after another thirty seconds, the last sounds of collapsing metal and plastic had subsided, and the dust and sand that had been kicked up soon followed suit.
Michael cautiously stood up from his prone position, calling out to Aeris and Calvin as they approached.
“Hey! You guys alright?”
Aeris sighed, hoping the worst was actually over now. “Just peachy.”
“No word on tomorrow though. I swear, this Audio Knights gig is going to be the death of me.” Calvin commented, only to be completely ignored as Michael swiveled back and forth.
“Kim! Where’s Kim!?”
He turned in an instant, only to stop himself as none other than Kim Ramone herself stood behind him.
Her arm was still bleeding, and she was still roughed up, but judging from the knowing smile on her face and the headphones around her neck, she was otherwise okay.
“Relax, Michael. I’m still alive.” she assured, craning her neck to spot Aeris and Calvin behind her.
“We all are, it seems.”
She eyed Calvin in particular now.
Calvin shot back in an instant. “Hey, we just saved your butt back there you ungratefu-“
He found himself cut off as Kim put her hand on his mouth. Unable to initially react, Calvin just raised an eyebrow as Kim began to laugh.
“I get it.”
She finally let go, but Calvin let her speak instead.
Rubbing his hands through his hair, he responded in a clearly unsure tone. “Uh…you’re welcome.”
Aeris warmly leaned on his shoulder a moment later, and that enough to calm his spirit for the time being. Her voice remained as angelic as always even as she whispered in his ear.
“Thank you. She’s not the only one this means a lot to.”
Calvin just about froze up, but he managed to catch himself as he laughed in response.
“Oh, of course. Always for a fellow Audio Knight.”
Aeris just shook her head and smiled. He could just barely control the heat on his face, and Aeris knew it.
Calvin just basked in the moment. For now, it seemed this entire Kim debacle might have actually been worth it, if only for this.
Up ahead, at the edge of the destroyed ferris wheel, Kim watched silently at the wreckage before them. Her hair swayed in the wind, and she seemed deep in thought even as Michael approached from behind.
Hands in his pockets, he still remained careful with his words.
“You okay?” he asked.
“Of course not.” Kim replied. Her eyes were busy scanning the wreckage. In all the confusion, she hadn’t seen Ayla come running after them.
After all, if she had, they’d probably still be fighting for their life right now.
“I’m not okay, Michael.” she admitted, though without any venom. “Probably never will be.
Michael looked out at the wreckage, noting that it spanned meters beyond this, having destroyed countless stands and old attractions.
He finally realized what Kim was looking for once he noticed that Greatest Show Unearthed could no longer be heard in the air.
“Oh snap, Ayla! You think she’s…?”
Kim narrowed her eyes as the thought settled in her head.
“I don’t know. But I’m not digging around for her, that’s for sure.”
Kim couldn’t help but wonder that somehow, if Ayla really did get pulverized, then it all seemed far too easy to the likes of her.
She brushed the thought away quickly though, lest she anger herself again.
Michael nodded. “Yeah, guess not. Hey, if it’s any consolation; I think you’re okay, Kim.”
He grinned, and Kim turned and smiled back.
“Do you? Well, with friends like you guys, maybe one day I really will be.”
She chuckled to herself, and Michael beamed at the sound of Kim’s simple words.
Aeris could see the glow on Kim’s face a mile away, and even Calvin couldn’t help but feel just a little camaraderie for once.
“Let’s hightail it out of here.” Kim declared, taking one last glance at the ancient carnival wreckage that had just nearly claimed their lives. “I’m starving, tired and bleeding. I think that’s enough of the circus for one lifetime.”
The night breeze blew unabated, and Ayla Syntara remained nowhere to be seen. The sound of her carnival death song seemed gone with the wind.
Kim could only hope that it would stay that way.
For everyone’s sake.