A sinister melody prevailed loudly in the night air, but Calvin’s question was still as clear as day.
“Uh, Aeris…I thought you said this place was abandoned?”
All three teenagers seemed thoroughly entranced with the view in front of them. Like a devilish gatekeeper, the clown-shaped entrance served as the only barrier between them and the still missing Kim Ramone.
“It was.” she replied, eyes still forward as she absorbed everything she could. “Unless they decided to build a new attraction overnight.”
Michael was the only one to chuckle at her attempt at a joke, all while he moved just a bit closer. In particular, he found that the dingy coin receptacle nearby had caught his interest.
“Or maybe this all just one big song effect.” he pointed out, in a moment of rare clarity.
They’d arrived in old Astroland less than fifteen minutes ago, and in following Kim’s assumed trail, it didn’t take long for the three Audio Knights to discover a lively and bright carnival waiting for them.
Just minutes before, the clown-shaped gate that stood in their way had almost taken off Calvin’s hand when he tried to cross through.
So since then, Michael and his companions had been understandably cautious about travelling further.
As Michael continued to debate the situation in his mind, Aeris leaned down on one knee. Her fingers touched the dirty asphalt, rolling particles between the tips as she noted a large bootprint.
“Song effect or not, Kim definitely came this way. We’re going to have find some way inside.” she pointed out.
In response, an idea popped into Michael’s mind. Of course, he was talking before he could even fully think it through.
“Oh snap, we could totally use the Big YMCA to get us over! The wall’s really not that big.”
Aeris shook her head as she smacked her hands clean. “No, it’ll attract too much attention. We don’t even know what’s waiting on the other side, so the more discreet we are, the better.”
Calvin smiled. “Good, cause I’ll have you know that discreet is my middle name.”
Aeris turned to him, offering her own pleasant smile in response.
“Of course it is.” she said. As he basked in his own cheesy one-liner, he suddenly felt her warm, comforting hand on his right shoulder.
For a brief moment, the continuous sound of Greatest Show Unearthed became silent in his ears, and all Calvin could hear was Aeris’s angelic voice.
“Thanks for doing this by the way. I know you and Kim have your issues, but this means a lot. To me, at least.”
It took everything in his power for Calvin to stop the most powerful red blush from overtaking his face.
Somehow though, he managed to keep his cool.
“Hey, it’s nothing. Just helping out a fellow Audio Knight. Truth be told, I was starting to miss the beatings a little…” he joked, laughing in spite of himself.
But his humor had zero effect on Michael, who was far too busy focusing on the coin receptacle that still seemed unresponsive no matter where he prodded and pressed.
“Oh come on, are we seriously just locked out?” Michael complained as he fiddled with it, leading him to finally kick the machine in frustration.
He crossed his arms, and a great many thoughts surged through his mind. He thought about what Kim was going through, how she was completely on her own, and about to face a Music Master who already seemed more powerful than any they’d face up to this point.
As Michael’s fingers touched the top of the coin machine, the slightest hint of fear cut through his mind. He could see an image of Kim, surrounded and beaten. His chest tightened as he imagined shadows closing in on her, and help nowhere in sight.
When he missed a breath at the thought of losing her, the machine finally responded, making a loud cling as a single coin dropped down into the receptacle below.
Aeris was over in a heartbeat, picking it up between her gloved fingers and inspecting is as best she could. Like with Kim before, it was marked with a design of Ayla’s visage and words “Admit One.”
“What did you do?” she asked, flipping the coin back and forth.
“Nothing! I just got sort of panicked. I’m really worried about Kim. I just want to find her.” he admitted in response.
Aeris didn’t hesitate as she pressed the coin into the gate slot. With a quick noise, the mechanical clown-gate opened back up, revealing the darkened place ahead.
“Looks like that did the trick.” Calvin stated, his muscles becoming tense as he began to acknowledge the danger before them.
“Everybody stay on high alert. We find Kim, and we get out of here.” Aeris warned as she pulled out her headphones, prompting Michael and Calvin to do the same.
With their headphones plugged in, the three teens stepped over the gateway and inside of Ayla’s nightmarish carnival.
Thankfully, no monsters were waiting to jump them just yet.
Instead they were greeted with the sight of a long, rickety midway, full of various booths and attractions on either side. Far away in the distance, the same ferris wheel from before remained, only this time no longer rusted and now bearing the colors bright green and violet.
As their song effects manifested, Aeris quickly realized that only the path ahead through the midway seemed clear. On either side behind the various booths, a dense, purple-black fog seemed to obscure the way.
She didn’t want to even begin to think about what surprises lay inside it.
“Did I ever mention how I’ve always hated the circus?” Calvin exclaimed, his attempt to calm the mood as they walked down the midway together.
Tiny fluorescent squares orbited nearby as he kept Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger on standby.
“You and me both.” Michael added, Canned Heat flaring in his right hand and just a hint of it on his heels in case he needed it at a moment’s notice.
As the two talked in an attempt to relieve their fears, Aeris kept her eyes watchful over any sign of movement. So far, each game booth and stand that they passed were as empty as old Astroland itself. In contrast though, they looked shiny, new and full of color, albeit clearly sinister hues of crimson, purple and toxic green.
Beyond the sound of the song effect clearly powering this place, there wasn’t a hint of life to speak of.
If anything, it made Aeris all the more jumpy, but she held it back lest she worry Michael any further.
As the trio kept their steady pace, it seemed at first that the midway went on without end. They continued to pass the same empty booths and stands, and Calvin, Aeris and Michael all began to wonder if they would wander through this veritable ghost town forever.
But much to their surprise, the carnival around them seemed to shift in response to the growing anxiety in each of their minds. After only ten minutes of walking, they found their path blocked by a large building bearing a huge, detailed logo of Ayla’s visage.
The sign over this so-called hall of mirrors stared down at them like some sort of hellish monstrosity, perfectly emulating the Music Master’s insanity through her shark-tooth grin and practically inhuman eyes.
Michael tried his best to hold back his fears at the sight of this unsettling structure, while Calvin hid his behind a usual one-liner.
“Quite the invitation, huh?”
He was obviously apprehensive, as the situation before them appeared more and more like a trap.
Aeris agreed, but she knew if they wanted to find Kim, then they didn’t have much of a choice in the matter. “Doesn’t look like there’s any other way through.”
Her fists tightened even as Michael slowly approached the door inside it. With a quick motion, he jerked it open, half-expecting something to leap out at them.
But Aeris and Calvin remained steadfast as they were greeted with nothing more than a light gust of wind and a strong glint of reflective glass.
Taking a deep breath, Calvin stepped past Aeris. The lack of danger was becoming apparent, and he was clearly feeling himself a bit now. Plus, this was the perfect time to impress.
“Stand back, I got this.” he declared, his song effect squares furiously responding to his own confidence. The blond made it two steps, only to feel Aeris’s grip on his arm as she pulled him back.
“Ah, ah, no way. I don’t need no bodyguard. And besides, we need to make sure we stick together.” she shot back.
Michael was quick to agree after taking one last peek inside the hall of mirrors to make sure it was clear.
“Lead the way then, Aeris.” the afro-headed teen told her, clenching his right hand and causing the heat aura to contract in response. He was only just a bit scared, but it meant finding Kim and making sure she was safe, he would manage.
As they followed Aeris single file inside the hall of mirrors, he could only wonder where Kim was and what she was doing at his very moment.
He gulped. A shiver came down his spine as he came to a realization.
It seemed the coin machine before had somehow sensed his inner fear.
Hopefully it remained nothing more than that; just a panicked thought.
Either way, once they were through this obstacle, they would know for sure.
Almost half a mile away, Kim found herself in a precarious situation, surrounded by a familiar face she really hadn’t expected to see in a million years.
Having made it through the same midway and hall of mirrors as her fellow Audio Knights, Kim now stood at the entrance to a fairgrounds that eventually would lead into Ayla Syntara’s big top.
Up until this point, the entire place had been empty and uninhabited.
Right now though, that was no longer the case.
A dozen beings formed a semi-circle around Kim, cutting her off from advancing any further.
Cackling and jeering like primates, clowns bearing a mockery of her deceased older brother seemed to contemplate whether or not to attack. They kept a five foot distance from her, somewhat hesitant to truly approach yet continuing to holler nonetheless.
Kim stood stone-faced, Walking Disaster channeled around her as she willed her hydra arms from grabbing and ripping at the targets before her.
Whatever kind of song effect this horrific carnival was, it clearly had some power over its occupants inner thoughts and personal weaknesses.
Upon encountering these clown doppelgangers, Kim had only allowed herself but a split-second of restraint before she realized that Ayla was trying to use the loss of her brother against her.
Finally, after another ten seconds of their Mexican standoff, one of the Seth clowns dashed forward, gloved hands outstretched and intent on crushing a vulnerable windpipe.
He didn’t even make it four steps before two clawed arms grabbed him and proceeded to tear him limb from limb. But there was no blood or gore, and no time for the clown Seth to scream as the particles making up his form were violently disintegrated, thus further proving that everything in Ayla’s carnival was far from real.
Watching their compatriot get eviscerated didn’t seem to phase the rest of the clowns, who proceeded to shriek and bound at Kim with equal ferocity. Their fear was gone, but unfortunately for them, so was Kim’s.
Purple eldritch light darted and slashed in the air as the hydra arms picked at them like someone might pluck apples from a tree. They teared, ripped and clawed at each clown with unrestrained strength.
Kim remained at their center, unmoving and hands in her pockets while her song effect did all the work for her.
As her song effect decimated them, all she could think of was Ayla.
All she could see was that grinning sharp-toothed visage, and all she could think of was how satisfying it would be to punch a clean hole right through her teeth.
It was almost enough to distract her as one of the Seth clowns made it through the canopy of destruction, his arms reaching for her as he dove right for her.
He was a touch away when her hand hit his throat and he straightened abruptly like a stop sign, and Kim held her grip as he remained suspended and struggling a foot above the ground.
She turned her green eyes to face him, absorbing his appearance fully.
Like Seth, their hair was fashioned into the style of a mohawk, though colored a dark red instead of blue. Their skin was pasted white like a circus clown, and they were clad in the same bare-chested Hawaiian shirt and torn blue jeans. Large, silly-looking clown shoes replaced Seth’s usual converse sneakers.
Kim knew she was only looking at a flawed, mocking recreation of her brother. The clown Sentonal could only struggle and sputter through painted lips, clearly lacking the strength to break her grip.
But as she contemplated choking it out of its misery, Kim began to understand where her anger was beginning to take her.
This thing was only a Sentonal, but Ayla, for as much of a monster as she was, lived and breathed.
Kim stared down into the clown Seth’s eyes, debating the thought in her mind again.
Would she really kill her, just like that? Did she truly have it in her?
It took a few seconds, but soon Kim found herself throwing the clown aside. Her hydra arms hungrily tore it apart a few moments later, ending its existence on this plane.
When the dust settled, Kim was left alone again, with only her song effect as company.
The big top was in view at least a football field away, and she had long since realized that this was clearly set up like some sort of twisted game.
Ayla Syntara was waiting for her to come, perhaps even eagerly.
But as Kim clicked to another song on her music player, she finally began to allow reason to take hold.
She wasn’t about to give the world the satisfaction of proving Kim Ramone to be as unstable and volatile as everyone thought.
No, perhaps today, even in all her anger, she would be the person that Michael thought she was.
Angry, infuriated, venomous and certainly displeased.
But not a killer. Anything but that.